Though it will come as no surprise to followers of Duncan Jones’ Twitter account, the director’s personality may surprise anyone who knows him only through his first film, Moon. The sharply stylized science fiction could easily evoke the image of a graven Stanley Kubrick type and not the young, excited smile that recently greeted a small group of visitors to his Santa Monica edit bay.
Though he’s putting the finishing effects touches on Source Code, plot details are still being kept at a minimum. The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal as soldier who finds himself reliving a deadly train disaster over and over and it’s something that Jones jumps right into with the film’s first frames.
The scene opens with a sweeping shot of Chicago, moving in on a train passing through the city. Inside the passenger car, Gyllenhaal wakes with a start. Across from him sits Michelle Monaghan. She calls him Sean and asks if everything is alright. It’s clearly not. He’s confused and he tells her so, saying that he doesn’t know who she is and his name isn’t Sean, it’s Captain Colter Stevens.
There’s a lot going on all around the train car with strangers and conversations, but it’s hard to know what could be a clue. Somebody asks the conductor, “What was the delay back there?” but he responds with, “I only punch the tickets.”
Colter gets up and heads to the bathroom, but things only get stranger. In the mirror is a different face and, panicking, he pulls out his wallet to reveal a completely different identity. Trying to get answers, he goes back to Monaghan’s character.
“Everything’s going to be fine,” she says, but as soon as the words leave her lips there’s a crash and the whole train erupts in a fiery explosion.
Hitting pause on the edit deck just at the cliffhanger, Jones’ grin is a pretty big giveaway that he’s proud of this one and is anxious to show off the rest as soon as it’s done. Instead, he offered a lengthy talk about the film’s production and some of the themes that carry over from Moon. He also dropped a number of hints about potential future projects and shared his thoughts on having made the short list for Superman last year.
ComingSoon.net: When you’re working on a film like this where the plot itself is sort of a mystery, how much of that plot do you feel you’re obligated to reveal to an audience before they walk into the theater?
Jones: Well, I had what I thought was a horrible experience on “Moon” in that what I thought was a really fundamental reveal was given away in the trailer. But there seems to be something really weird about trailers these days and what they’re able to do. I, for one, tend to avoid trailers as much as I can. They seem to reveal a lot more than I would want them to. But with this film, there’s a lot that is not revealed in the trailer. You may think there’s more revealed in the trailer than there is, actually. It’s tricky. Trailers have a job to do. You have to excite an audience and get them to want to come see a film. At the same time, you want to hold back as much as you can for the actual film. You want to give them a new experience rather than just an elongated version of the trailer. So you just have to find that balance.
CS: You seem to specialize in movies that can use that tease.
Jones: Well, this is film number two for me, but I will say that there’s more depth to the film than any trailer could give you. I think that would also be fair to say about “Moon.” “Moon” had a depth on a character level and in the relationship between the characters that you could never really capture in a trailer or in a selection of key scenes.
CS: You seem to be interested in the notion of the lead character being unsure of who they are. Can you talk about the relation there between “Moon” and “Source Code”?
Jones: I don’t know. I was definitely drawn to the project when I was first [brought up]. It wasn’t something I wrote myself. In this case, I had a meeting with Jake [Gyllenhaal] about six months to a year before all this started. He had loved “Moon” and was interested in working with me and brought “Source Code” to me. He had it sent to me and I found it really fascinating. I loved the idea of working with him and it kind of just took off from there. As far as that as a theme, it’s certainly nothing conscious. It’s just something that I think, deep down, intrigues me and was there when I started making the film. But I guess there is a return to the unreliability of who people think they are.
CS: On the broader side of that same question, can you talk about science fiction as a genre that you are intrigued to work with?
Jones: I think there’s a real openness to science fiction. With science fiction, people kind of open themselves up a lot more. They let you, as a storyteller, bend the rules and try ideas out on them that, in the real world, might seem too manipulative or something that you’re trying to force on them and make them look at the world in a way that doesn’t mesh with the way they see it. But in science fiction, there’s much more of an openness that science fiction has. I think, for me, it lets you be creative in ways that other genres might not allow you to be.
CS: You have some great collaborators on this — editor Paul Hirsch and cinematographer Don Burgess. Was this a big step up for you in terms of logistical responsibilities?
Jones: It’s funny. Although this was a step up in terms of scale for projects, the same problems still existed. Never enough time. Never enough money. The ambition for the film just seems to swell beyond the capacity for the project. But we managed to make the film work despite the limitations as opposed to having so much money that we didn’t know what to do with it. Or too much time. But, like you said, I had amazing people to work with. Paul Hirsch is an institution. And, as far as the cast goes, Vera Farmiga is truly the most talented actress I’ve ever worked with outside Michelle Monaghan. But Vera’s really special and Michelle is just a pleasure to work with. There’s a real chemistry. And, of course, Jeffrey Wright.
CS: I know you have to be mindful of spoilers, but can you fill us in a little more on the story and what happens moving forward? Is a sort of “Groundhog Day” element at play?
Jones: There is. Some of that has been talked about by people involved in the project. These days, scripts get around and it’s impossible to avoid. But yes, there is a repetition of events surrounding this explosion on a train and this character, Stevens, the guy that Jake plays, has to figure out why this is happening and if there’s a way he can stop it from happening. That’s the nature of it. Who it is he interacts with that’s sending him on this mission, I think that’s better to wait and see. But there is an interesting logic to it… It starts off Tabula rasa with Stevens not knowing anything. Over the course of events, he discovers more and more each time. It’s by learning more and more each time that he acquires the information he needs to do something about it… It’s like getting puzzle pieces and then each time getting more and more puzzle pieces.
CS: Is this something where we’re left wondering what’s going on until the last frame and it all clicks or, 30 minutes in, do we sort of get the rules and move from there?
Jones: That’s for you guys to tell me. I’m hoping that it will click early enough. It’s a fast-paced movie and it should click at the right moment.
CS: Was there a limit you set yourself for how many times you would go back to avoid too much repetition trying the patience of the audience?
Jones: That’s a real issue, to get that balance right and also to keep enough variety. Not just of visuals, but of characters and events. So that when you do see the same things and the same events, it doesn’t feel like you’re being beaten over the head with it. That’s a juggling act in a project like this. I think we got it right, but we’ll have to see.
CS: Is this something that’s very clearly a single movie or is there the potential for this to become a series?
Jones: Well, one thing that I will say is that the ending of the film that’s in any of the scripts that have leaked out is not the ending that we have and I pulled very hard for the ending we’ve got. It certainly would allow us to have sequels. Whether or not that happens… I know Jake would be thrilled to do sequels. But I think it works very well as a single film. Whether we go off and do something else, that’s the future.
CS: Can you comment a little on the editing? It seems like a time jumping plot like this lends itself specifically to filmmaking which is literally that.
Jones: Well, as I mentioned, Paul Hirsch is the editor on the film and Paul Hirsch — who I keep calling Paul Hirsch every time, even though it’s so informal. I call him Paul — was with us on the shoot. So while we’re there, he might say, “Can you grab this, because it’s going to be really useful later on.” There a lot of little details that, I have no problem saying, his experience is just so vast that any advice on coverage or on what things could be really useful to him, we went with. He was downstairs in the studio all the time. We were at the big studio in Montreal and he was putting an assembly together while we were shooting. There was a constant loop of feedback from him as I was shooting.
CS: There’s a common theme in science fiction of perspective and of returning to an event time and again. What films jump to your mind as having inspired you in the making of “Source Code”?
Jones: It’s strange because they’re not really obvious ones. Certainly not ones that directly reference that sort of mechanic. There’s a lot of Hitchcock and De Palma. We were trying to have the sensibilities of old Hitchcock movies.
CS: Hirsch has a very classic editing style. Is that something you went after very consciously?
Jones: You know, one of the things that people loved about the making of “Moon” was that we went with model miniatures and what’s not known is that we actually went with a good split of models and CG work. I had a background in both doing commercials. In this film, there are definitely a few moments of showy CG work. For me more than anyone else. Hopefully we kept it very light where we could because, otherwise, it could get quite grim with the train explosion. I think we’ve got the mood right that allowed me to get a little surreal at moments. I think it’s really good fun and I hope that people will feel that way. But yes, Paul has a real simplistic elegance to the way he works. But for him as well, he also has a huge amount of experience on effects. He knew that I wanted to have these little beats where it got a little bit surreal and a little bit weirder. I think we got that.
CS: You mentioned Brian De Palma, who also has, while it’s not science fiction, a lot of characters unsure of their identities.
Jones: In this case, it wasn’t really about films I had seen in the past that made me want to see this film. I think it was about the opportunity to be a bit surreal. To do something where some of my influences were Lucien Freud and a certain period of Picasso cubist paintings. I wanted to create visuals of things that I hadn’t seen in film before. I wish I could show you some of the stuff later on because it does get really weird. It was more visual things that I wanted to do. When I was reading the script, I guess I did sense that there were certain scenes reflective of “Moon,” but it was really about getting an opportunity to do something visually where I otherwise may never have the chance to do that. So I think, for me, that was the really fun bit.
CS: There are certainly, though, with a lot of filmmakers themes that directors tend to revisit.
Jones: It’s weird. Hearing you ask me questions about that and knowing what I’m going to do next, you’re right. There is something there. I don’t know why… I haven’t analyzed myself well enough to know that.
CS: Is the next thing something else that was brought to you?
Jones: No, the next one is something I originated.
CS: Are you going to go back and forth? Are you more interested in doing scripts from others?
Jones: No. This was an opportunity to work with Jake. Like I said, to have a project which gave me some real scope to try things visually. Also, the other cast members, although they came onto it afterwards. I was thrilled when I was able to get Vera and Jeffrey and Michelle involved. For me, it’s been win-win. I got to work on a bigger project and take a step up and have a lot of fun working with people and FX houses and things that I hadn’t previously been able to do.
CS: How much fun does the movie get to be? Is there much room for levity?
Jones: That was one of the things that Jake and I were talking about right from the beginning. This could either go very dark or we could try to elevate it and bring some humor into it as much as possible. Jake’s performance throughout this is very interesting. When we sort of realized that there was a humor to this whole event that we could bring into it. I get it. Some people don’t really think of “Moon” as being that humorous, but I do. I actually find quite a lot of humor in that film. I think in this one as well, there’s a lot of humor that comes out, sometimes at inappropriate times. That makes it even funnier to me.
CS: Can you talk about some of the frustrations of time and money? Don Burgess is a guy who can work quickly. Was that important to you?
Jones: Massively. When we were choosing cinematographers, we went through a short list of guys, all of whom I’d have been thrilled to work with. That’s why they were on the short list. When we started breaking it down and knew what we really had to do, we knew we needed a guy experienced on the effects side of things because there’s a lot of effects coming up. I had the chance to meet Don here in LA and he was a practical, no-nonsense guy. He knew exactly how we should approach it and was flexible enough to let me go off on a crazy little idea if I needed to. But he was very practical and I think, for this particular film, it was definitely the right choice.
CS: You talked a bit about CG. What are your thoughts on this new wave of motion capture and what it could mean for the future of filmmaking?
Jones: I was just having a meeting and we talked about this, possibly in connection to my next film. One of the things that came up is that we are getting close. I don’t know if it’s going to be ten years or more or less, but we’re going to get to point where people won’t go to films for the effects anymore. Because it’ll be too easy. It will really become a matter of coming up with something that is so imaginative or a dynamic that is so interesting. Look at a film like “Inception.” That’s a film that has a lot of effects in it and, for a lot of people, that’s what drew them into the film. But I think that what made that film particularly successful was that it’s a really engaging, interesting idea and people just weren’t used to seeing films like that. I hope that really strong ideas like that are what make people actually spend their money and go out to the cinema. Because it’s so easy to get media at home and effects are going to become so much cheaper over the next decade or so. There’s a guy online that I’ve been looking at who does, once a week, him and buddy put together a little film. A one-minute or 30 second film. He does all the effects himself in Maya. They’re incredible. They’re as good as a lot of things that you see in cinema. We really are getting to the point where there’s squadron of geeks out there who are willing to collaborate or do things on their own and it’s going to match what you get in Hollywood. You can’t rely on that anymore to drive audiences to come and see films. We’re going to get to the point where that’s not enough. You’re always going to need good stories and good actors, but we’re going to get to a point with effects where it’s not going to be about that anymore.
CS: You keep teasing us about this next project. Can you tell us anything more? Is it science fiction again, at least?
Jones: Yeah, it is.
CS: Could you see yourself doing a fully mo-cap film?
Jones: I mean, on a technical side, “Avatar” was a huge game-changer. Just in terms of the level of detail and what you can do without any reliance on live action. Obviously, there were live-action shots, but you could see what was possible. You could really get your extreme close-ups and level of detail. Human nuances. All of that could be captured in a purely CG environment. I think that, knowing that, somebody in this this town is bound to try and resurrect James Dean or Marilyn Monroe and stick them in a movie soon. I know that’s kind of trite, but I think that’s on the horizon. Someone is going to try and do it and I think that does kind of open up a whole world of possibilities as to the kind of films you can do. It’s almost like when you talk about what your favorite sports teams from different eras would be like if they could play one another. What would it be like if your favorite actors from different eras and different film styles were just mashed together? There’s this whole thing in music of doing mashups where you take two different tracks and put them together. I think effects are really now becoming about coming up with new ideas. Maybe a lot of them won’t be good ideas, but a lot of stuff becomes possible.
CS: And sci-fi in particular opens up a lot of doors to new interpretations, even of stories technically set in the past.
Jones: I think it was Ridley Scott who just got the rights to “The Man in the High Castle,” which I’m a massive fan of. I always wanted to do that. Alternative history. I love that. That would be an amazing film.
CS: Your name came up in connection with “Superman.” Can you talk a little about that experience?
[The phone rings by the desk]
Jones: That’s probably Chris Nolan telling me to shut up. (laughs) I was thrilled to be on that short list. For me, that was enough. I don’t know if I would be ready for that leap yet. I did have a meeting with Chris and he’s a fantastic guy and seemed to have really enjoyed “Moon,” so there was some legitimate interest in me. I think, maybe, I’m not quite ready for that scale of project and that scale of expectation from an audience that is already existing and is waiting to see the next generation of Superman film. I don’t know. It’s a hard one. I’m a huge Superman fan and Bizarro Superman fan. And also a big Judge Dredd fan, which was another one that came my way. Those are two very different scales of projects. Superman was so big that I think I was a little intimidated by it and sort of backed out. Judge Dredd I really thought about and it ended up not being right for me because I had such strong feelings and opinions on what I wanted that film to be. Although I really like what they’re going to do with it, it’s not the film that I was going to make. So that one wasn’t going to work out.
CS: There are so many comic book properties out there. Is there interest from you in doing anything in particular.
Jones: I just love it all. Darren Aronofsky is doing the new “Wolverine.” It’s just great. I think that could be as big a game changer as when Chris Nolan did the Batman film.
Q: What about the other way around? Are there ever any stories that come to you that you think wouldn’t make a great film but might make a great comic project?
Jones: I have this old project, “Mute” that I was working on for years and years and it almost feels like everything I’ve done is starting to catch up and maybe pass that by. So that might be a project that, if I don’t get myself back into the mindset where I really want to make that film, I might try to do that as a graphic novel and see if that’s a way to re-excite myself for that project. I know it was good and I know what I wanted to do with it. It was something that really hadn’t been seen since “Blade Runner.” It was that kind of world. But there’s just so much going on right now and so much that I really want to do. I don’t know if I’ll get a chance to do that anytime soon. So I might do that as a graphic novel, read it and see if I like it as much and then go back to it.
CS: There has been talk that 2011 is jam-packed with blockbusters from weekend to weekend it’s been theorized that puts the moderately-budgeted, creator-driven film in danger. Do you sense that making truly original film is getting harder or do you feel pressure to move into blockbuster territory?
Jones: I think there is room for creative new ideas and not necessarily licensing up and taking preexisting properties or getting on the sequel bandwagon. I think there is a way to do it. The scale for budgets is definitely separating. It’s 30 or 80 [million] and there’s less of a middle ground. I think as long as you can bring your price low enough or you’re so successful, like Chris Nolan, that you can just say, “I’m making this. Give me the money.” Those are basically the two camps that exist. So that does set a certain limit to the scale of what a new, imaginative, completely fresh project can be. But I don’t think that effects are getting cheaper and will continue to get cheaper. So that area of 30 million dollar projects is changing. What you’re able to do with that money is going to grow.
CS: Does it all become about time then and giving your team what they need to be able to do the work?
Jones: Well, it certainly helps. But time is a cheat, too, because the more time you have, you’re giving your smaller amount of resources the opportunity to do more work. That’s almost the same as just having a big budget. What you can do is design your budget to maximize the resources that you already have. As opposed to building Future Tokyo, you can actually shoot in Tokyo and then digitally extend it. There’s a very clear example of spending a stupid amount of money on something to spending a very little amount of money and getting the same effect. The problem with taking more time is that people forget about you or they no longer think that what you’re doing in relevant. You have to make sure you’re still within that window of interest.
CS: You mention Nolan and I’m curious if there’s other relatively new directors that you’re looking to as the next generation of genre filmmakers.
Jones: Well, I’m sure that everyone who is interested in sci-fi films is interested in seeing what Neill Blomkamp does next. “District 9” was phenomenal to look at with a strong script and really good performances. I think everyone who liked that film will be excited to see what Neill does next. I can’t wait to see — and he’s not really a new guy — but what Terry Gilliam does. He’s not really a new guy, but I will always be interested in seeing his films. I don’t care if they don’t work if they have horrible critical flaws in them. But I don’t think it’s necessarily about age. Who’s out there who has strength of character and ideas and personality to be able to get investors to give them money to be able to make films.
CS: What about other mediums? Do video games interest you?
Jones: I’ve been a games junkie for a long time. I started off on the Atari and got a Commodore 64. I went through a couple of Amigas. 386, 486. I’m a games nut. Before I worked in films, I worked at a computer game company in London, in Camden, Elixir Studios. I was actually brought in as one of the in-game cinematics director and ended up working as one of the designers there. It was an incredible learning experience for me, especially at that point because it was a real heyday. It was back when “Daikatana” was coming out and there were companies down in Austin, Texas getting 10 or 20 million dollars to develop games that no one bought. They were investing huge amounts of money in guys like John Romero and my old boss, Dennis Hassabis, who was given the equivalent of 15 million to make an Eastern European political simulator. There was just no idea of what was going to be successful or how to invest it in games. So yeah, I would love to get involved with something in games.
CS: It feels like idea games are really beginning to enter our language and traces can be seen in films.
Jones: Absolutely. There’s one in “Source Code.” There’s a shot in “Source Code” where I wanted to get a “Grand Theft Auto” shot. It was appropriate for the moment. I thought it was funny. It’s visceral and exciting. It’s Jake jumping out of a train and tumbling down a platform. It’s something that you could shoot in a really traditional way and that you could cut into a way from to get the coverage. Or you could shoot it “Grand Theft Auto” style and actually see him tumbling down the platform all the way. I wanted to do that shot and it was definitely games influencing my sensibilities.
Q: There’s a number of directors who I would list as sort of your contemporaries — Marc Webb and Rian Johnson — who have done TV shows. Is that something that influences you?
Jones: Absolutely. My biggest limitation on my ability to do stuff right now is time. I just walked “The Walking Dead” the other day and I’ve been a big fan of HBO and their series. AMC, too. Whether it’s “The Sopranos” or “Mad Men,” there’s so much opportunity to tell extensive, really deeply interlocked stories that you just can’t tell in a feature film. I’d love the opportunity. It’s more about finding the time to write. Especially now that I’m concentrating on finishing this and also writing what I hope I going to be doing next… But I’d love to take a shot at it. Being forced to shoot under those time constraints is not something that scares me. I would find that exciting.
CS: Did you have a particular sequence that you were most pleased to realize?
Jones: There were a couple of moments, again because of the speed of putting this together, where there were a couple of little gems for me. I didn’t mind doing this on a tighter, more restrictive timeframe than I was used to, but please, let me do this. Because this is going to pay off and be fun and the audience is going to laugh or cheer. There was that one. There was the roll off the train. There’s a design for, again, without getting into spoilers, the place that Colter finds himself when he’s not on the train. That’s where I was talking about Lucien Freud and Picasso and this weird cubist look. That was something I felt very strongly about. It has to look like this and it has to open like a strange puzzle. There were some concerns that it was too abstract and that maybe the audience wouldn’t get it, but we went with it and I think it has paid off. There’s a few things like that. But it’s the same in every film. You always have these this things that are so coherent in the way that you plan them. And you fight for those. That’s what we did on this one.
CS: On the flipside of that, was there anything you really wanted that just couldn’t be?
Jones: There’s a very simple practical one. Originally, I was hoping that we might be able to shoot this on a real train. But it just wasn’t practical for all sorts of reasons. So what we actually did was build the whole train carriage in a studio in Montreal and had the whole thing up on hydraulics and rockets and green-screened in the windows. That was a very practical choice and I don’t think it’s to the detriment of the film in any way. It looks great. If you look at the new “Unstoppable,” those look like real trains and ours look like real trains, too. But they’re very different stuff. I believe that Tony [Scott]’s stuff was all done as much as possible practically. It’s a different way of getting there, but you arrive in the same place.
CS: You’re very involved with Twitter. Can you talk about how that’s affected you as a creative force?
Jones: I know it frustrates my girlfriend. (Laughs) I used it originally to promote “Moon” back when we really didn’t know if “Moon” was even going to get a theatrical release. It was my attempt and I was on there four hours a day for months and months, running competitions and giving out prizes. Just to get people to be aware of the film. It’s weird. You make an investment like that and you actually get to know people to a certain level online. I think you guys actually know that more than most. You do develop a bit of community. Once you’ve developed that, it’s hard to leave it. It’s a part of you in some ways. They are my friends to a certain extent. It’s something that has grown. We’re up around 25 to 30 thousand people right now on my Twitter feed. It’s been strange because on this one, there’s all these other companies involved and I have a different relationship with the film. With “Moon,” if I wanted to send out pictures from the film, I would just do it. With this, I have to be a lot more grown up about it and check with people.
Q: Some directors are very open about their films and others are very secretive. Do you personally have a preference?
Jones: I tend to, myself, be open just because I have a lot of confidence in the stuff that the people I’m working with are making and I would hope that people would be interested. If not, maybe it’s time to reappraise it but as far as I’m concerned, this is something to be excited about. I think that’s what our community is like. I was brought up playing games and being on the internet. For our generation, it’s all about sharing information and being the first to let people know about cool stuff. That’s the game we all play.
Source Code hits theaters on April 1st. You can watch the trailer below!