Duncan Jones interview: the man who made Moon

Moon is, in many people's eyes, one of the best science fiction films in a long, long time. We've been chatting to the man who made it...

It’s a one word answer to the question ‘why don’t they make good, old-fashioned science fiction films any more’. Duncan Jones’ Moon (er, that’s three words to be fair, but take ‘Duncan’ and ‘Jones’ off and it works) is slowly, rightly, building up Oscar buzz, and its ultra-low budget model work shows up special effects far more expensive.

But key to it all is that Moon is a fantastic film, anchored by a stunning Sam Rockwell performance. We got to spend some time with its creator, Mr Duncan Jones, who talked to us about what’s most certainly one of the finest films of the year…



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Let’s start with the most important question of all: how is the campaign coming along to get Sam Rockwell his Best Actor Oscar nomination for Moon?

Not bad! You know, it’s a weird one. You know a bit of the background behind it, that we thought he deserved it, then started up this very informal Twitter campaign? And then it got picked up by quite a few sites on the Internet, and now we’re starting to see little mentions of it in magazines and a lot of the press that do Oscar predictions. We are getting the odd call here and there that Sam might be one of those people up there with Jeremy Renner from Hurt Locker as possibly filling in that last space.

Do you think that there’s a good shot now?

I think that we’ve still got some work to do, and there are a couple of things we’re going to try and do in the next weeks which maybe will get a little bit more profile to it. But you know, all we can do is cross our fingers and hope that people will appreciate what we were able to achieve and what Sam did.

Appreciating you’ve been over this before, just quickly, I have to put to you the question that many of us were asking when we walked out of a cinema over the summer: where the hell did Moon come from?

It came from me desperately wanting to work with Sam Rockwell!

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I’m sure you’ve heard a little bit about Mute, and the fact that I really wanted to make that film. I wanted him to be in that film and he loved the script. But he wanted to play a different person to the one that I had in mind. And when we met up to discuss it, it kind of became obvious that maybe that wasn’t the project that we would be able to do together immediately. But we really got on very well, and as a director who had come out of the world of commercials, it was really important to me that whatever actor I ended up working with was someone that I could get on with.

I didn’t want to deal with big egos, or someone who was going to try and take over the shoot. And I’d heard some horror stories about that happening to commercials directors in the past. And I got on incredibly well with Sam.

So we just started talking about what kind of roles as an actor did he want to do, and what films did we both enjoy. He basically mentioned that there were a lot of these blue collar characters that he would love to take a crack at, a regular working guy. And we started talking about the science fiction films in the late 70s and 80s, films like Outland, Silent Running and Ridley Scott’s Alien, where you’d have these science fiction films but with blue collar sensibilities, that were much more character driven. And I said at the end of that meeting that I’m going to go away and write something for you, will you read it when I’m done?

And I’m sure he was a little bit cynical but he said yes, and nine months later I gave him the script for Moon!

The thing that really struck me about the film is the silence. I always think that silence on film is really hard, that you have such a balancing act, to temper the monotony…

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How do you tackle that? Do you do that on set, or is it something that comes together in the editing room?

Actually, there was an awful lot of time in writing the script, and even before that. Just pacing out the story when I was at the treatment phase. Working out just how much silence is there at any given point, and also how can I make sure that there’s enough variety in the visuals to keep the audience engaged and interested.

Because you can’t just stick a guy in a box and expect him to entertain everyone, no matter how good an actor he is. It was really coming up with enough new moments and feelings and emotions, and keeping the story moving forward. And at the same time, make the audience buy into the idea that this guy’s been on his own for such a long time.

Did you edit the film as you went along, or did you tackle it in one block?

No, no. We were editing as were shooting. So we had Nick Gaster, who was the initial editor on the film. He was basically working at Shepperton Studios with us, taking the rushes every day and starting to put an assembly edit together. And then he worked with me, we worked together in Soho in London for a couple of months, just working on the edit. And then there was some tweaks that we did after Nick had to move on to the next film he was doing, and I did that with Sam Bassett, who was the VFX editor on the film, but he did some tweaks with me.

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Did you find that the beats of silence that you put in the script were on the mark? Was there a lot of tuning?

There was a fair amount. We tried to work out as much as we could ahead of time, but, obviously, as a low budget feature film, there were an awful lot of compromises, and things not being done the way that we expected. Just out of necessity. I really had to think on my feet an awful lot.


The title sequence hasn’t been talked about a lot, and I’d been watching David Fincher’s Panic Room about a week before I saw Moon

Ah, yeah!

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I loved the title sequence in Panic Room, and I love what you did with Moon

Panic Room was definitely a part-inspiration for those opening titles. We had this opening sequence to the film, and we knew that we had to put a title sequence together. And I didn’t want that opening routine to be the opening. Because I think that would have been asking too much of the audience to sit through that as part of the film. It worked as a title sequence. The idea was really how do we make it visually interesting, as opposed to just slapping titles on top of it.

And so I was looking at Panic Room and thinking that’s a great starting place, and wouldn’t it be great if there was a secondary version of the title in the background of every shot in the same way that there is this doppelganger type thing going on in the film.

You talked fairly openly about what many call the twist in the film. For m, though, what was the major surprise was Gerty at the end, that you knocked the idea of what to expect. You seemed to be having a lot of fun playing with the old conventions of the genre?

Absolutely. The more of them we could come up with, the more fun that it was. Gerty and HAL were obviously one reference. Then the idea of Sam and his clone. The fact that they end up being more like brothers, as opposed to good and evil, which is what you’d kind of expect. All these things that we were trying to do to make people really expect a certain thing and then go in a different direction with it. We tried to do that in a number of different places.

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In the film itself, why did Sam hallucinate seeing his teenage daughter near the start of the film? Was this ever intended to be picked up on more explicitly?

Okay, I’ve answered this a couple of times before. This is my story and I’m sticking with it! Basically, Moon is intended to be a hard science fiction film, which means we try to build and extrapolate on present day science. Occasionally, and that is one of the moments, we start to touch into soft science fiction, which is more fantastical. But, I still argue that there is a roughly scientific idea behind it.

You hear stories of identical twins when they’re separated, sensing or having a feeling or awareness of anything major or traumatic that happens to their identical twin, even if they’re not in contact. So, the idea is that Sam on the base is able to sense and feel that there exists a daughter, a girl, which is the daughter of the original Sam back on Earth. That’s how they’re all connected and that’s why Sam’s having these visions. Because, basically, this girl means so much to the original Sam.


The other thing that harks backs to older science fiction is that you took the time to put a proper score on it as well, something that’s almost becoming a lost art in some places…

I suppose you’re right, actually! When we were doing the offline edit of the film, we were using bits of Clint Mansell’s Requiem For A Dream as one of our placeholders. With music that good it became really depressing to think we’re going to have to find someone good enough to match this beautiful music. And, obviously, what we decided to do is just see if Clint would do it, as his was the music we were using as a placeholder anyway.

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When you were making the film, had you, hypothetically, suddenly found yourself with four times the budget, would you have done the effects any differently?

If there was a smaller amount of [extra] money, I would have been able to tweak and improve the effects to my satisfaction. But I would never have made this film if I had more money. Because this film was designed to be done at the budget we had. If I had $20m I would have written a very different film to get the most out of $20m. This was a film that was made to get the most out of $5m.

When it came to working with the model work, that must have been a bit of a gamble when going up against lots of effects-heavy movies. Yet many have noted that Moon looks better than lots of its more expensive contemporaries. Do you feel vindicated for going down the model route?

Credit is certainly due to the post production houses as well, because we went with a hybrid look. Although it was a high-wire act to go with model images, we had the safety net of knowing that the post-production was there to get us out of any serious problems that we might encounter.

What we ended up with was beautiful-looking model miniature photography that we were able to polish and beautify with our post-production. This hybrid technique is something that is really flexible, and you can do an awful lot with it. And it does lend us that element of authenticity to the visuals.

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It’s been quite a year for that. There’s Wes Anderson adopting old-fashioned techniques with Fantastic Mr Fox, Henry Selick with Coraline

Yeah, that’s true, actually. In its own way, you’ve got Spike Jonze Where The Wild Things Are as well.

Did you think this is a little trend that will continue, now that films such as Moon have shown what can be achieved?

I think we’re certainly getting to the point where, 2012 aside, you can’t really just sell a film purely based on the special effects, because you pretty much can do anything now. If you throw enough money at it, and I’m very interested to see what Avatar looks like, you can pretty much do whatever is in your head.

It becomes more about what is in your head. What have you got to say, and what kind of stories are you going to tell, and what kind of acting can you get. Because visually, everything’s possible now.

We went through the Blu-ray of Moon. You don’t seem to have held too much back for the 25th anniversary edition?

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[Laughs] To be honest, again, even though we’ve had a great run, because of the limited budget that we’ve had, there are certain things that I would have loved to have been able to put on the disc. Like a nice library of the concept artwork and things like that. Which we’ll have to wait for the 10th or 25th anniversary if people still want to buy the film then.

I think the transfer’s fantastic, I’m very happy with the transfer on the Blu-ray. I think the film looks great. I do think we’ve done as much as we can, and that we’ve given as much as we could with extras.

There’s Whistle which is a short film I did years ago, and there are commentaries and Q&As. And there’s an Easter Egg. Did you get the Easter Egg to play?

Did I, heck!

[Laughs] I finally got it working!

I saw on your Twitter feed that you finally got it going. But I thought if you can’t do it, I stand no bloody chance!

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[Laughs] I’ve got it now! You just have to go up to the mute button and push right, and then a little smiley face comes up, and if you click that you can watch Gerty play table tennis with himself.

Hollywood loves people who can make expensive films for not very much money. I’d imagine that you’re inbox has been flooded of late. Have you been offered Transformers 3 or anything of that ilk?

I’ve been offered some things that I thought would probably not be where I wanted to go. Not that one, though! But I’ve been offered a couple of other major franchises that I’ve decided weren’t for me. But what I’m doing now I’m very happy with. I’m working with Jake Gyllenhaal doing Source Code, which should be a lot of fun.

Can you tell us any of the franchises you were offered?

I don’t know. I don’t know if I can. But it would certainly fit within the same terminology of Moon, if that makes any sense at all?

We’ll try and decrypt that later…!

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It would have pointy teeth! [laughs]

Ah, ok!

You mentioned that Mute is pretty much on the back burner, and you’re pressing ahead with Source Code now. I understand that your slate also has more films in the Moon universe as well?

Yeah. It’s interesting. Mute is something… there was a script leak of it recently which kind of upset me a little bit, and it’s kind of taken the wind out of my sails a bit on that project. I still believe in it whole heartedly, but I’m going to try and find a way to convince people that it’s a project that they would really want to see.

It is incredibly difficult right now to get financing for films, and in particular for independent films of a certain budget. It’s been taking a very long time to put Mute together, and I kind of decided that Source Code was such an amazing opportunity for me, a step up in budget. I get to work with very talented and experienced people – beyond Jake, of course, there’s other people as well. And, hopefully, it’ll put me in a position where I can really make the film I want to make after Source Code.

One more incredibly sad question. Some of us of a certain age in our childhood who would have killed to have been on the set of Labyrinth. You had that…

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…. I did!

We’re insanely jealous. For those of us who dreamed of being a kid on a set like that, just what was it like?

It was absolutely fantastic. There’s no bones about it. Jim Henson and all of those guys back then lived and breathed their creations and would literally be in character walking around with the puppets. Talking like the puppets. Even when the cameras weren’t rolling. It was just a phenomenal place.

And the amount of detail and artisanship that went into making those movies and creating the world and building the villages and sets was extraordinary. It was like if they made Being Terry Gilliam, instead of going into John Malkovich’s brain you went into Terry Gilliam’s, it was kind of like that!

Aside from Moon, what are your film recommendations of the year.

I very much enjoyed Hurt Locker and, obviously, District 9 was good fun. Coraline was a good film – I saw that in 3D. I’ve only seen a couple of films in 3D and that was one of the ones I saw that I really enjoyed. And Up as well, I really enjoyed that.

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Are you going to making films in 3D?

Again, I’m really, really interested to see what James Cameron’s done with Avatar, because he’s been evangelising about 3D so much that if he’s got something different from what I’ve seen so far, I’d be very interested to know.

Because I can’t help but think that there’s a little bit of a gimmick there. It is enjoyable, it is immersive, but I don’t think it’s the chance in cinema that he’s been talking about. Unless he’s done something that I’m not aware of yet…!

Duncan Jones, thank you very much…

Moon is out on DVD and Blu-ray now