Why Mute Took 16 Years to Make

Duncan Jones, the director of Moon, Source Code, and Warcraft finally sees his most personal project come to life.

Mute tells the story of Leo (Alexander Skarsgard), a kind if short-tempered bartender who works in a Berlin nightclub circa 2050 and who cannot speak because of a childhood accident (his Amish mother refused surgery for him). Although he lives in a world where everyone seems to embrace technology to some degree, Leo keeps his life simple and prefers making woodcarvings over surfing the Web.

When the love of Leo’s life disappears under enigmatic circumstances, Leo goes in search of her — a mission that eventually puts him on a direct collision course with dangerous AWOL American soldiers Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and Duck (Justin Theroux) in the seedy environs of Berlin’s criminal underworld.

A blend of noir and sci-fi infused with elements of Blade Runner, M*A*S*H, and other films, Mute is the most personal project yet from director and writer Duncan Jones. Part of the reason it’s so personal is that it took so long to make: although he wrote the first version of Mute 16 years ago, Jones toiled on his indie debut, the modern sci-fi classic Moon (2009), the larger but still cerebral Source Code (2011) and the behemoth Warcraft (2016) in the intervening years, while still working to get Mute made and seeing its meaning for him change during that time.

Now that Mute is finally a reality — thanks not to any Hollywood studio but the ever-expanding content generator Netflix — Jones got on the phone with Den of Geek to talk about the movie’s long road to the screen, why he never let it go, its connection to Moon and the film’s poignant dedication.

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Den of Geek: Making this movie has been a 16-year journey for you.

Duncan Jones: Absolutely. As you said, the first draft of the script was finished 16 years ago. It’s been a weird one. It was obviously very different back then, and over the 16 years, it’s evolved quite a lot. There were a few kind of fundamental aspects of it that I just couldn’t really let go of, that I really kind of loved.

I think the character of Leo, this guy who’s unable to talk, finding himself up against these two incredibly chatty, witty guys in Cactus and Duck, was something that just felt really worth pursuing. Over the years, it’s evolved. It’s actually moved cities. Originally, it was in London, and then it moved to Berlin. I’m thrilled that with Netflix’s help, I was able to finally make it.

I understand that you envisioned it at first as sort of just a straight drama, and then it eventually evolved into sci-fi.

The original intention was that it was going to be my first feature film. Obviously, we didn’t have any access to any real budget. We were trying to work it out. I was living in London at the time, and we were thinking it could be sort of a London gangster film, back when films like Sexy Beast and Layer Cake were coming out. It was quite a long time ago.

Over the years, I had the chance to write and make Moon, and that kind of gave me a new insight into, “There’s a way of telling this story, which uses science fiction to maybe turn it into something a little bit different.” I got very excited about that, and kind of ran with it. That’s where the sort of science fiction element came into it.

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One of the main elements is that your protagonist, Leo, dismisses technology and doesn’t have a phone until his girlfriend gives him one. Yet he’s right in the middle of this very high-tech world, where everybody’s kind of wired up.

I think that’s something that a lot of people can probably understand. I don’t know about you, but I get flustered and frustrated with technology all the time. I’m very fortunate that I have an incredibly tech savvy wife, who’s able to sort of dig me out of most of my tech problems. I feel like a Luddite half the time, and Leo, obviously is someone who can understand that.

I would imagine it’s almost analogous in some ways to being a filmmaker as well. Obviously, you start out with a camera and reels of film, and now we’re moving into people making movies on their phones.

I suppose there is something to that. I think the patience you need is something that is probably the biggest priority for filmmakers. Like I said, it took me 16 years to make this, but maybe if I had a camera phone 16 years ago, I would have been able to just shoot it like that.

In an overall sense, why did this one stay with you? Obviously filmmakers start projects, they don’t work out, and they let them go. But you never totally abandoned this.

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Like I said, I thought the dynamic between the main characters was something that was really unique. I think original ideas, or things that feel original, are really valuable. Most of the time, you’re riffing on something that you’ve seen before, or that feels kind of familiar. This didn’t feel familiar, and that’s why I kind of felt a love for it.

As a project, one of the subtexts of the movie is parenting and just how parenting can affect you, both as a child and also as a parent. Being that I have started having kids of my own, it’s definitely something that I reflect on quite a lot.

Why did the setting change from London to Berlin, and what made Berlin work for you in the end?

I guess Berlin is in some ways a more interesting opportunity for me, especially because I wanted to put Cactus and Duck in particular, in an environment that felt really oppressive and alien to them. Somewhere where English was not the first language, where they kind of felt like they needed to get away from there, especially Cactus, who’s really unhappy being in Germany, being in Berlin. It also kind of made sense with the kind of future that I was sort of trying to concoct, this idea that American troops would still be based in American bases throughout Germany, even in the future. It all kind of worked together to fit to Berlin.

I have my own kind of relationship with Berlin, and find it to be an incredibly interesting and dynamic city, just over the decades that I’ve sort of gone there and visited it. Having been there back in the 70s, when the wall was still up, and then having been back every decade since, and just seeing how quickly it’s changed, it really does seem like a city. If any city’s going to change dynamically and quickly and embrace the future, it’ll be Berlin.

In the past you’ve said that Mute is sort of a homage to Blade Runner. Was it challenging to find a look that was unique to your movie, but also pay tribute to what you wanted to pay tribute to?

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Sure. I mean, the Blade Runner thing is really only on the most sort of superficial aesthetic level. The nature of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner was so prescient, as far as what future cities would probably end up looking like, that I would say almost any science fiction film which portrays a future city is going to probably feel a little bit like Blade Runner, just on the pure aesthetics of it. He got so much right when he did the original Blade Runner. What I would say is that in that respect, it’s a future city, so of course it feels a little bit like Blade Runner.

What we tried to do is maintain the character of Berlin itself, and make it still feel like a recognizable Berlin. That was really the juggling act for us, was what should we keep and what should we add or change, to give it a sense of being in the future, but at the same time feeling like a living, breathing city? One of the hugest boons to our production is that we were actually in Berlin, shooting at Studio Babelsberg, and then shooting on location around the city itself.

There’s a number of homages and Easter eggs all over the film. There’s a lot of them actually. There’s obviously Cactus and Duck themselves, who are Trapper John and Hawkeye Pierce from Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H. There’s a lot of those things all over the place.

This movie sort of establishes the Duncanverse to some degree, doesn’t it?

(Laughs) Well, I guess so. There are a couple of things that connect Moon, my first film, with this film, and I very much hope that we’ll get the chance to make a third film, which will kind of complete the triangle. These will be parallel stories about characters with some kind of tonal similarities, but they are not stories which rely upon each other. (Note: more on the connection to Moon later)

Do you have a third film in mind? Do you know what that would be?

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Yeah, absolutely. We actually wrote the script and were really happy with it after Source Code. We struggled to get it made. It stars two women. At that time, when we were trying to make it, it was very difficult to finance a film at that size with two leading ladies. Hopefully, with the amazing developments over the last few years, and the success of Wonder Woman and things like that, maybe we’ll get the chance now. We’re going to certainly give it another shot.

That would be terrific. Can you talk for a second about the dedication at the end? (The film is dedicated to Jones’ late father David Jones, a.k.a. David Bowie, and Marion Skene, his late nanny who raised Duncan after his parents split.)

Yeah, off the back of Warcraft, which was a three-and-a-half year flog, with a lot of different voices, I was fortunate to have Netflix come to the rescue and allow me to make this film, which was a very personal project. My dad had just died when we were starting the movie. That kind of put me in a certain mindset, as far as what I wanted the film to be and how many personal things I wanted to put into it. Then unfortunately, the woman who raised me died just at the end of production.

They were somber circumstances in the making of the movie, but we tried to balance that aspect of it with the fun that we were able to find in the movie as well. It’s dark, but there are comic elements to it. It’s an old-fashioned sort of 70s thriller in some ways. Almost like Paul Schrader’s Hardcore or Lee Marvin in Point Blank. Then there’s also the humor, which is kind of like in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H. It’s kind of a blend of those things.

Are you comfortable now, working in the sci-fi genre? You envision staying with it for a while?

I don’t know. It’s not something which I’m sort of consciously looking to do. It feels like an escapism that works for me right now, because I am troubled by a lot of things in the world right now. I think science fiction is a genre which allows me to engage with those, without lecturing too overtly.

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Mute is streaming on Netflix now.