Sundance EXL: Duncan Jones & Sam Rockwell on Moon


One of the movies that has generated a lot of early interest at this year’s Sundance Film Festival is director Duncan Jones’ Moon, a character-driven piece set on the lunar land mass in a future where it’s being mined for resources to provide energy back to Earth. The movie stars Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell, the lone astronaut living on the moon, maintaining a mining camp with the help of a sentient computer named Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey). With only a few more days left in his three-year contract, Sam gets into an accident and suddenly discovers he’s no longer alone on the moon, leading to him having to find out exactly what is going on as a rescue ship approaches.

It’s a fairly brilliant piece of sci-fi, one that gives Rockwell a chance to shine as an actor, but also showing off the amazing special FX and production design work by the first-time director Duncan Jones and his team. (It’s interesting to note that Jones is also the son of rocker David Bowie, who has had his own brush with space travel over the course of his career.) sat down with Jones last weekend to talk about the movie. So I’m sure you know the movie has a lot of buzz going into it, both before and after people see it, which is always good. So what’s it been like the last 24 hours?
Duncan Jones: So terrifying. I can’t tell you, I mean, I’ve never been to Sundance, but I’ve never been to any film festival before. I always wanted to wait until I had my own feature film before I went.

CS: Oh, really? Wow, but that makes sense.
Jones: So, yeah, it’s quite a trip. (laughs)

CS: I know you did a short film before this. What’s been the evolution of this project? Is it something that you’ve been developing for a long time or something that came to you which you’ve been able to get produced fairly quickly?
Jones: “Moon” is an actual project. It’s been written specifically for Sam. I was working on another project because I was wanting to do my first feature film. I knew I wanted to work with Sam Rockwell. He had read the script for this project and we met up to discuss it, and he was very keen on playing the lead role and I was very keen on him playing a different role. So we were trying to sort of convince each other that, you know, he wanted to play the lead, I wanted him to play this other role, and we just knew that it wasn’t going to work out, but we got on very well and he loved the script. And we were just talking about projects, and he said that he really wanted to do science fiction, and I said, “I’m going to write you a science fiction film.” (laughs) So I wrote “Moon” for Sam.

CS: So you gave him all the roles basically.
Jones: I gave him all the roles. I said, “Listen. I’m going to make you a project that’s just for you.” (laughs)

CS: That’s great. It’s good that he was already on board because it’s not always the case when you’re writing a script for a certain actor; you have to hope that they’re flattered enough to do it.
Jones: Well, I mean, obviously it was very nerve-racking because even though I’d said that, and even though he was interested, I didn’t know for sure that he was going to do it until he read it.

CS: Knowing you wanted to do a project for him, what was the first idea that came to you – just him on a mining station on the moon?
Jones: As you know, I mean, this is an indie budget film, and it’s science fiction which is pretty unusual because the production values, it’s difficult to do at an indie budget. So we very much came up with a list of almost rules as to what we wanted the project to be and how it was going to work. And we knew that we needed to keep the cast down to a minimum, we knew that we wanted to keep it – have a completely controlled shooting environment, so I wanted to shoot it in studio. And sort of by creating this list of rules, it gave me a focus on what I needed to write as a story. So the idea of it being on the moon, in the moon base, and using model miniatures, and using my effects background for commercials, and very specific effects, ones that I knew we could achieve at the budget. It just kind of gave me a set of commandments.

CS: So shooting on the moon was never an option?
Jones: (laughs) On the moon, no. Not on this budget… or any budget.

CS: I don’t even know what would be involved with getting permits to shoot on the moon.
Jones: It’s funny actually, I was doing this commercial I was going to do a year or two ago where we were going to shoot – you know the Vomit Comet? It’s that plane that flies, it does these big ups and downs. It simulates zero gravity. Yeah, we were going to shoot a commercial in there with the money that they throw at commercials and we could afford to do it, but no, we didn’t have any of those kinds of luxuries. I’ve always wanted to do feature films and the reason I did commercials was because I was a big admirer of Tony Scott and Ridley Scott as well. But I worked briefly with Tony Scott as a wildcam operator on something. He was very generous with his time, and we had a lot of time to talk, and he was telling me that his route into doing feature films was doing commercials because it’s kind of like a film school and you get to learn, and you get to meet people, and you get to use all of the latest equipment. So, that’s very much what I wanted to do and I went into commercials for the same reason.

CS: And you also don’t spend a year having to work on a single commercial.
Jones: Exactly, yeah. At the most maybe six weeks.

CS: Once you figured out the script and what you were going to do, did you do a lot of storyboarding, a lot of animatics and things like that just to figure out exactly how you were pull it off?
Jones: Yeah, quite a few animatics. I mean, I have a kind of eclectic background. I worked in the computer games industry for a while and a really excellent computer graphics artist who I used to work with in the games industry left the games industry at the same time as me and we’d worked on commercials together. We’d been buddies for years – a guy called Gavin Rothery. He became my concept artist on this film, and between the two of us, we created animatics for a lot of the more special effects heavy scenes and we built the entire interior of the base as a 3D model.

CS: Beforehand?
Jones: Yeah, beforehand, and then we built it and it looks very, very similar to what the 3D model looked like.

CS: How big was the actual finished interior when you built it on the stage?
Jones: I think the length of the base – because it was a full 360 (degree) set. The crew went in there in the morning, got locked in, and then they were there the rest of the day, and then we let them out at the end. (laughs) It was a proper intense environment, but I think it was probably about 85 – 90 foot long and then maybe 70 foot wide. So it was, you know, a big space. It felt real, it worked.

CS: Did you have removable walls so you could shoot from various angles?
Jones: No, we had a couple of camera tracks, but on the whole we were kind of restricted by the shape of the environment we created for ourselves. But that was a sacrifice that we kind of knew we were going to have to make because moving walls, although it’s incredibly useful, it is time consuming. And because we had a 33 day shoot, we knew that we were going to have to pick and choose our moments when we were going to spend some extra time on shots, we just had to keep moving through it.

CS: You talked a little bit about the design, as far as technology, there are things in the movie like the computer Gerty that could very well be real technology. How much research did you do to figure out exactly what’s possible and can you talk about the design of the technology and how to accomplish it?
Jones: On the design side, it was basically me and Gavin just came up with ideas of things that we thought would be cool or interesting. We knew that we wanted a robot which was gonna be physically stuck in the base because storywise that was important. So the fact that Gerty runs on a rail was an immediate solution to that problem. But also, on a design point, I just thought it was kind of interesting that the arms could move around independently so that there would be only certain points in the film where you see the body and the arms at the same time. And then all of a sudden it takes on a more anthropomorphic, you know, it has a human quality. Otherwise it’s kind of all these different pieces of machinery and it’s more like a construction robot at a car plant or something like that.

CS: It’s a really interesting concept. I don’t even think I realized that the computer was on rails.
Jones: No, we built a rail and there was a prop version of the railroad that we used for a lot of the close-ups and mid-shots and things – basically when it wasn’t moving. And then there was occasional scenes where we needed to go to to do other things, we would have a CG version. So again, it was this idea of having a hybrid of live action shooting, and then CG when you need it, and then kind of on top of the live action.

CS: There was a lot of CG involved. Did you do a lot of green screens and stuff like that?
Jones: Less CG than you’d probably think, but yes, there is CG involved.

CS: You’d think all the stuff outside would be CG pretty much.
Jones: No, no, model miniatures and old-fashioned technology. We really went for it. We wanted to do it the same way they did the old films. So the rover he’s driving around on the surface of the moon, that’s all model miniatures. There’s some set extension, yeah, we put some extra mountains in the background just to make the landscape a little bigger. But yeah, that’s old fashioned techniques.

CS: Of course, I don’t know if you remember the show “Space: 1999,” but the look kinda reminded me of that.
Jones: Oh yes. (laughs)

CS: It was cool, because it made everything seem more physical and tactile, and I couldn’t figure out how you did that with CG.
Jones: One day we’ll bring out all the props and all the miniatures somewhere and show them all off ’cause they look fantastic. The Harvester’s like this huge thing, this big beast of a machine.

CS: Did you do it in the same kind of stages?
Jones: No, we did all the interior in one soundstage, and while we were finishing off the shooting with that, they started building the lunar landscape and the soundstage next door. So yeah, we were all at Shepperton.

CS: One of the things obviously is the influence of “2001” and “Alien” on this film and you even shot on the same soundstages. When you have similar elements such as the sentient computer, do you have to say, “Okay, we’ve got to go a completely different direction now.”?
Jones: Yeah, I mean, there was certainly a conscious decision there that it would nice to go against people’s expectations at times. For instance, the evil corporate robot, which I imagine in any science fiction is a stereotype, but we thought it would be nice to, you know, play with people’s expectations. Gerty – as you know – is not like that. He’s got a very different character.

CS: And of course, there’s a huge plot twist involved halfway through the movie which makes it very hard to even talk about the movie, but it’s obvious something very big which has Sam playing…
Jones: Lots of roles.

CS: Lots of roles. Exactly, yeah. How did you work out with Sam exactly how you were going to do that?
Jones: Again, it was very technical. Sam’s an incredible actor and I knew he was beforehand, but getting the opportunity to work with him, I really got to see a side of him – he’s phenomenal, very talented, very technical. There was an awful lot of rehearsals that he would have to do on the fly where we would record one side of any given conversation and he would basically be rehearsing to a playback of our chosen take. So we’d have to choose our take on the day of the shoot in order to record the other side of the conversation.

CS: Was he able to at least stay in one role for a good amount of time? I actually talked to an actress who was doing a dual role in the movie and she had to keep running back and forth, changing, in order to make it work.
Jones: We tried everything we could, again on our short schedule, we tried everything we could to make it as easy as possible on Sam, but, you know, it didn’t always work out like that. So just about any of the days where we were doing the two Sam work, there would be a makeup change at least once during the day.

CS: You do see this as a science fiction movie. I thought it was interesting that you could take this movie off the moon and put it in another setting, so why was it important to set this story on the moon?
Jones: Well, my generation of geek (laughs) was a big fan of films like “Outland” and “Silent Running” and the original “Alien.” Those kinds of science fiction movies were more about the character and sort of human qualities than about the technology. I love those films and I miss those films in some ways, and we wanted to create something which felt comfortable within that canon of those science fiction films from the sort of late seventies to early eighties.

CS: “Outland” is a great example. That’s almost become a forgotten movie compared to some of the others.
Jones: Yeah, it really has.

CS: “Alien,” they kind of kept it going because they already have these new movies coming out, but this reminds me more of something like “Outland.” Now that you’ve done your first movie, are you going to continue with commercial work?
Jones: No, we’ve got another project in the works, and there’s lots of other things bubbling up, so we’re kind of seeing what our options are. I’ll probably keep my hand in commercials anyway just ’cause it interests me, and like you were mentioning, the turn over of being able to work on something for a short period of time and then get away from it – with “Moon” obviously we’ve been on it for a year and a half, nearly two years. It’s a big investment of time and thoughts and it’s nice to take those little breaks and do other things once in a while.

CS: What do you want people to get out of this movie, especially younger people, who might not expect a science fiction movie to be a slower character thing? This doesn’t seem like a Friday night popcorn movie as such.
Jones: (laughs) I don’t know, you know, it’s pretty funny, there’s some action in it.

CS: Would you hope they’d see this and go, “Oh this is pretty cool, maybe I’ll go look at some older science fiction movies”?
Jones: Oh, that would be fantastic. There’s two crowds out there, there’s the guys and ladies who could understand the references where it’s coming from, and then there’s people like you say who are younger. It would be great if they saw our film and they wanted to look at “Outland” and “Silent Running” and “Alien” ’cause those films are wonderful and they still stand up. At the same time, I think there’s enough in this film as it is that you can appreciate. There’s some very human questions in it like, “What would it be like to meet yourself? Would you necessarily like you if you met you in person or would you only see the faults?” I think that was an original idea for when I was writing the story.

CS: That’s certainly one of the aspects of the movie that people are going to want to talk about. Do you think when they market it, they’ll want to incorporate that as part of the trailers and commercials, or do you think they’ll try to avoid that and surprise people?
Jones: (laughs) I don’t know how they’re going to market the film. It’s the first feature film for me, so I don’t know how that works as far as how they decide what to market it on. I think there’s a lot of options – a lot of directions they can take, but I hope they do choose something as universal as the human quality of the film, the human aspects of the story.

CS: I think Sam Rockwell fans, they should really see it.
Jones: This is a bible for Sam Rockwell fans. (laughs)

CS: Do you think you’ll continue in sci-fi after this?
Jones: Yeah, definitely. There’s some more science fiction to come and hopefully there’s some more working with Sam to come.

Speaking of Sam Rockwell, here’s a brief interview we did with the actor a few minutes later: At this point, I think Sundance is your festival and they should have some sort of retrospective of your movies in 20 years. When I spoke to Duncan, he said you guys were working on another project but knowing you wanted to do sci-fi, he wrote something specific for you. Did you have conversations about what kind of sci-fi movie or what you were interested in doing?
Sam Rockwell: I think we talked about a lot of different sci-fi movies that we liked: “Blade Runner,” “Outland” and “2001” and “Alien,” so there was a lot of stuff that we had in common, we really liked a lot of these films. Those were sort of the prototypes and we just talked about that at a meeting. We both liked sci-fi and then he wrote this sci-fi movie, and the character’s name was Sam and he sent it to me, so I jumped on board.

CS: Were you at all worried about the challenges of doing so many scenes by yourself and playing multiple characters at the same time?
Rockwell: Yeah, that was all sort of there in the script. It seemed pretty daunting to take on that task, but we talked about “what would it be like to meet yourself and would you like yourself if you met yourself?” That was an interesting theme to explore and then the loneliness of being isolated like that. That was kind of the story we were interested in telling, then we added humor to it and our homage to sci-fi movies.

CS: At this point, do you get involved in the development of the script?
Rockwell: Well, we improvised and then Duncan would incorporate the improvisations and my friend Yul Vazquez and I got together and we read scenes, and we would switch parts. There was a guy named Gary in London who read stuff, and then Duncan would watch the rehearsals and he would take some of the improvisations and incorporate them into the scene.

CS: It was pretty cool that he built that entire set and that you were able to do all your stuff there. Most of the time, they’d just do green screen and add it via CG. What was it like being in that environment by yourself, basically in the same situation as your character? Did you feel a similar amount of isolation or was there enough crew around?
Rockwell: Well, yeah. What was kind of lonely was not having other actors on board, because usually, even when there’s a lot of crew around on a film set, you tend to hang out with the other actors, because you have a lot more in common with them. You do bond with them. Not having another actor was kind of a lonely experience. I had Robin Chaulk, who was a young British actor, but he didn’t have a lot of experience. He was also a body double, so I really had to kind of do it on my own a lot. Robin was very helpful, but at a certain point, I’m the one who’s going to get in front of the camera and I’ve gotta make it my own. That was lonely and that, in addition to the way the set looked, added to the loneliness of the character I think.

CS: Besides that, how was this experience different from your last sci-fi movie, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”? Could you enjoy this as much as that?
Rockwell: Yeah, it was different. “Hitchhiker’s” there was a lot of technical challenges on that too, prosthetics and CGI stuff, but this was more emotionally draining.

CS: What about interacting with the computer because you don’t have Kevin Spacey doing the voice on set? Did Duncan just have someone else reading his lines?
Rockwell: Yeah, script supervisor for the lines and I interacted like I would with an actor.

CS: And others would play the other roles you play?
Rockwell: Well, Robin would play the other part, depending on which (role) I was playing at that particular moment, but it was a lot of reading with the script supervisor and stuff.

CS: Having talked to you a lot over the years, you seem like a very collaborative actor and tend to work with filmmakers who allow that collaboration. What is it like working with newer directors and figuring out whether you can work with them?
Rockwell: Yeah, yeah. You don’t really know if it’s a first-time person, you’re taking a chance, and you do the best you can. Sometimes, it’s hard.

CS: But you’ve done that a lot.
Rockwell: I have. Sometimes it’s tricky.

CS: I’m sure a lot of people have been asking you about being in the “Iron Man” sequel. Last time we talked, it was you and Clark and we had this funny riff on you possibly being in it.
Rockwell: Is Clark in it, too?

CS: I don’t know. I think you’ll know before I do. Have they handed you the big stack of comics to read to prepare the character?
Rockwell: No, you know I wish they would actually. I need to check up on this character, yeah.

CS: For one thing, the character is British.
Rockwell: That character is British, really?

CS: Sure, in the comics and I think in the cartoons he had a British accent.
Rockwell: Is that right? I didn’t know that, I didn’t know that. Wow.

CS: So you’ve just signed on and you haven’t actually read a script and they’re going to work these things out like they did the last movie.
Rockwell: Yeah, yeah. Wow, I didn’t know he was British. They’re developing it, so we’re just going to kind of do whatever we do.

CS: Is there anything you’re really excited about in doing a movie like this? You’ve done big movies before but is there anything specifically about playing a bad guy in this kind of comic book mythos?
Rockwell: I did “Charlie’s Angels” and yeah, that was practice for this. It should be interesting, it should be fun.

CS: Have you ever worked with Robert Downey Jr. before?
Rockwell: I just had dinner with him, he was a really nice guy. Obviously, a very talented guy, it’ll be fun.

CS: Do you have any idea what’s going on with George Ratliff’s movie “End Zone”? Do you know if that’s still going to happen?
Rockwell: Oh, I don’t know if that’s happening or not. I’m not sure about that one.

Moon premieres tonight, February 23, at the Eccles Theater as part of the Sundance Film Festival. It will be released by Sony Pictures Classics in June.