Last year, 39-year-old Duncan Jones presented his debut film Moon at the Berlinale, stepping out of the shadow of his famous dad. (Take a wild guess: his 1969 breakthrough song “Space Oddity” coincided with the moon landing and was about an astronaut lost in space – and little Duncan’s name used to be “Zowie”.)
Jones finds humor in the fact that his Moon will be released in German theaters on the same day as Eclipse, the next installment of the Twilight saga, but Moon won’t be outshone. It’s a small movie that has already made a big splash, earning a reputation as both a fan favorite and critics’ darling in that most nerdy and pompous of all genres: science fiction.
Moon is a bit challenging to write about if you want to avoid spoilers. Have you taken any heat from journalists for making it so hard for them?
[Laughs] Yes, I have. Actually, a few friends who are journalists kept saying, “Well, you tell me what to ask! You tell me what to write!”
The movie lives and dies with Sam Rockwell’s performance. How did you get him on board?
I’ve seen him in all sorts of films, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Lawn Dogs as well as sillier things like Galaxy Quest and Charlie’s Angels. I always thought he was just amazing – even if he’s only doing a cameo, he steals the scene. He should be a leading man, but rarely gets the opportunity. I approached him for another film I was working on, Mute, but he didn’t want to play the part of the villain I had in mind for him. I think Sam had had enough of playing villains… But I felt very comfortable with him and for your first film, you are very reliant upon the people you work with. I wanted actors that I knew would work with me and not be prima donnas. So we wrote Moon specifically for Sam.
You also managed to get Kevin Spacey, who does the voice of Gerty, Sam’s only friend and assistant – a computer. It took a long time to woo him.
He liked the script and became even more interested when he heard that Sam was in it. But he knew about our limited budget [$5 million] and was nervous about it. He said: “All you need is my voice. Why don’t you go ahead and make the film, then show it to me, and then I’ll tell you whether I’m gonna do it.” And that’s what we did. During filming, I did the voice of Gerty.
We finished the film and showed Kevin an assembly edit. He loved it and said he’d do it. We only had him for a single four-hour recording session.
Can you tell me more about Gerty? His character remains ambiguous throughout the movie.
I come from a philosophy background. One of my favorite professors, Daniel Dennett, has this philosophical outlook called “functional equivalence”. Basically, if something behaves a certain way, you are morally abetted to treat it that way. So if a machine acts like a human being, you will treat it like one. That was in the back of my mind when I was working out Gerty. He is designed to look after Sam, and all of his different decisions are informed by one core rule: “Is this the best way that I can look after Sam?” It’s fascinating to hear audience reactions to Gerty, though. Some people think he is programmed, some think he has his own moral compass. But you could make the argument that he is just following some very simple rules.
The film has that great retro-futuristic aesthetics… Was that a matter of budget?
I’m a big fan of sci-fi films of the 1960s, 1970s, up to the 1980s: those big concrete blocks and square shapes that you see in films like Alien and Outland: I love that look! We found out that a lot of the old timers who worked on those films were still available and we were able to get one of the masters of that era, Bill Pearson, to recreate the same aesthetic. Much of it was just getting old bits of equipment, anything that looks mechanical and angular, and then just spray-painting it all one color and putting stencils on it. Back then, they didn’t have $20 million to spend on the sets. So they came up with that solution and it just looks great!
So you actually recycled original set pieces that were still lying around?
Yeah, lots of things. In fact, when you watch the film frame by frame and take a close look at the set, you can see the knife and fork imprints on the trays that we stuck on the walls, and things like that. But I don’t want to ruin the illusion for anyone…
Are you going to do more science fiction or are you moving on to different things now?
Well, we just finished this film called Source Code with Jake Gyllenhaal, which is more of a contemporary thriller with a Hitchcock feel to it. So that’s a slightly different genre. Eventually I want to come back to doing this film Mute, a science-fiction film based in Berlin – hopefully in a year I’ll be able to come back to Berlin and shoot that.
Moon opens in Berlin cinemas on July 15.