By Marty Mulrooney
I had the immense satisfaction earlier this year to see a film that not only instantly became one of my favourite science fiction films of all time, but one of my favourite films ever, period. Moon, the debut film of director Duncan Jones, is a small low-budget sci-fi film with a big heart.
Boasting a phenomenal central performance from Sam Rockwell as a lonely lunar-miner, as well as voice support from Kevin Spacey as his robotic companion, it now rivals Blade Runner (at least for me personally) as an enduring cinema classic that I will rewatch again and again for many years to come.
They don’t make sci-fi films like they used to, but Moon looks set to change that. Miniature work, a focus on smart plot development, and some very deep questions about the human condition… Moon truly is a blast from the past.
Finally, I was able to speak to director Duncan Jones over the phone for a good 20 minutes on the 21st September 2009. What follows is a recording of our full conversation, as well as a transcript to make all of the little details easier to pour over and enjoy…
You can also download the audio to listen to on your MP3 player etc here. (Right click and ‘Save Link As…’ to download)
The following transcript has remained 99% faithful to the original audio recording provided above, although some small edits have been made to provide easier reading and to ensure complete grammatical sense. Enjoy!
Martin: Oh hi Duncan, it’s Martin Mulrooney from Alternative Magazine Online.
Hello mate, how are you doing?
Not bad, yourself?
Yeah, not bad at all!
Are we still okay to ask a few questions and stuff?
Absolutely mate! Now is the best time.
Brilliant! Yeah, I just wanted to ask you a few questions about Moon and maybe a bit about yourself as well if that’s okay?
So first of all, could you just tell me a bit about yourself, and your background?
Erm *laughs* I guess so yeah! I am a director who… well I guess I went to film school about ten years ago. I got involved in doing very low budget music videos and little test commercials, as I was at film school. I built up a show reel and started getting work doing proper commercials. I was in the commercials industry for about five or six years, worked at an agency for about a year and a half, and ended up, you know, sort of all the time working towards the opportunity to do my first feature film, and Moon is my first feature!
Oh brilliant, so Moon was definitely something that you always had in mind working towards?
Absolutely yeah, doing feature films was always something I had in mind, but doing Moon itself was a little more spontaneous. We kind of had a project we wanted to do, and I sent the script out to Sam Rockwell, and it was a film where I wanted him to play one role but he wanted to play a different one. We met up to discuss it and we weren’t able to agree but we got on very well so we actually decided we would work on something else together instead, and that’s what Moon was.
So would you say your background in advertisements helped you bring Moon in on budget and on time?
Err yeah definitely! I mean I think, you know any opportunity to work professionally making films, whether they’re commercials, which are basically really short films, or doing short films yourself… anything like that sort of gives you a better appreciation of where you are gonna start to accrue costs and where things are gonna get expensive and where things are gonna take time and where you are gonna need different equipment. I think any opportunity to shoot is an education and gets you ready in some ways for doing feature films.
Yeah definitely! I will just get it out the way really quick because I know you must get…
*laughs* (Editors note: he knew this was coming!)
… every journalist asking you about it, but I was just going to ask you really quickly about your father. Obviously David Bowie, big musician and he has done some film and stuff as well, did he offer you any advice, or any guidance?
Nope no, he was completely hands off, he always has been. He’s a lovely man and he is… I get on very well with him, but I think he has been more than happy to let me to find my own path, so no, no advice from him!
As well I noticed that you shared a writing credit with Nathan Parker on Moon, I was just wondering how much input you had yourself into the screenplay and how much the film evolved from the initial concept?
Sure, well basically like I said that very first meeting I had with Sam Rockwell where we decided not to do this other project. We basically, we both loved science fiction films from the sort of late 70’s and early 80’s, films like Outland and Silent Running and Ridley Scott’s Alien, and we were both sort of big fans of those, of the fact that in that period of science fiction you’ve got these sort of really interesting and gritty blue-collar working people in space, and you really didn’t get that any more in science fiction.
We wanted to do a film like that, so I said I would go away and write something, and what I did was I wrote a story and I wrote a thirty, thirty-five page treatment, which was a very thorough breaking down of what the script was gonna become. I was doing a commercial at that time so I didn’t have time to write the script myself and my regular collaborator, a guy called Mike Johnson, was doing the Sherlock Holmes film that Guy Ritchie just did, he was writing that, so I wasn’t able to work with Mike.
So I had to find a new writer and Nathan… we met a number of different writers, but Nathan was the one I clicked with. Nathan delivered a terrific sort of first draft of the script based on that treatment I gave him, and then we gave him, my producer and I gave him some notes and he did a great second draft. And then basically I took over and I did the drafts after that, so it was very collaborative, based very specifically on my idea, and you know… I am very happy with the result!
I noticed you mention Alien as well. Am I correct in saying that Bill Pearson who did the supervising… he was the supervising model maker on Alien, was he involved with Moon, is that right?
Absolutely! That is completely correct, Bill Pearson has got a little workshop at Shepperton Studios which is where we shot our film, and Bill and his team basically came onboard, and I think for them it was really exciting because, model miniatures have been sort of seriously out of fashion for a while.
The kind of work that he normally gets these days is just the odd bit of, you know, making a prop here or doing a Red Dwarf episode there, so for him it was really a great opportunity to go back to the old days and sort of do a whole feature film with lots of model work, model miniature work.
So yeah, Bill and his team came onboard and they did some absolutely beautiful work for us.
Yeah, it seems a real shame that miniature work isn’t really used any more. I noticed in Moon… I assume there was some CGI used, but it seemed very subtle…
Yeah, absolutely, we got this… I mean when I was doing commercials I did a couple of jobs where we did this sort of… we developed this hybrid look, where we shot an awful lot of stuff in camera, and then sort of accentuated and added bits and pieces here with CG. And that is kind of the approach we took with this, where we shot all of our exteriors with model miniatures with this nice piece of lunar landscape that we built, you know, with our hands!
But then we enhanced it and we digitally set-extended little mountains off into the distance, and little effects of dust and light, all of those were done is post production. So, I think having that blend of live action and CG on top, really gives you something special.
Yeah, definitely. As well, I was going to say… the film was only $5 million, which is quite a low budget. Did you have to compromise on anything you did with the film, or was that your vision, 100% there on the screen?
On no it was massive, I mean there were massive compromises that we were making all the time. But I mean I think that’s part and parcel of doing an independent film anyway. And I think because it was science fiction and we were really sort of trying so hard to do so many ambitious things, you know every day we were having to make really heart-breaking choices about what aspects that we knew that we wanted and we could afford and then decide on the things that we were gonna have to lose. So there were an awful lot of compromises and lots of decisions that were being made on the day, but I think we made the right choices.
Definitely. As well, I was going to ask about the limited release. Originally when I went to see the film I had to travel quite far to see it, and then just my luck a few weeks later it got a wider release…
… I couldn’t believe it! The anniversary of moon landings came about the time I went to see the film and I was quite surprised that the film studio wasn’t pushing the film like mad! I was just wondering what the reasons were for that, and were you glad when it got a wider release?
Well you know, the thing is, it is fundamentally still a small, British independent film, so the fact that we got released the way we did was really them, I think Sony Classics in the United States and Sony over here in the UK, really sort of not being absolutely sure how to play us, and you know when we came out District 9 hadn’t come out yet so there wasn’t that huge confidence in how to release a smaller science fiction film.
And I think they kinda learnt an awful lot doing our film, which held them in good stead when they did District 9. But you know I think they did a good job, and I think we are an unusual film, so it’s not surprising that we didn’t get, you know, blasted all over the place like Transformers 2 style!
Well it’s funny you mentioned District 9 because I actually went to see that recently, and I am reviewing it on the site soon. I really enjoyed it, the one thing I’d say is that it probably is more mainstream because it went more the action route towards the end obviously…
…did you ever consider that yourself? I mean the thing I really enjoyed about Moon is, obviously at the end you think there could be some kind of confrontation (without spoiling anything for people who haven’t seen the film)…
… but it goes the other way, and it is very much a story driven film. Did you ever have any pressure from the studio or anything like that to make it more mainstream, or did you have complete creative control?
I had complete creative control, I think one of the reasons for that is because our budget was so small, I mean like you said we were $5 million, District 9 was about $30 million and had Peter Jackson behind it, so it kinda had a… it was a very different type of project.
For us, I think at our budget, Sony were really just so amazed that we could make a film, like our film, at that budget. They were really were very hands off, because I think I don’t think they would have known how to change it, because anything they would have suggested would have probably added millions of dollars to the cost.
But I think they were happy to just let us just get on with it, and they had a lot of faith in what we wanted to do, so we were very fortunate that way. I certainly would do more action orientated stuff in the future, but I think I will always try to maintain a little bit of, you know, of intelligence to the storytelling and hopefully keep the characters deep and interesting.
What I really enjoyed, and what I kinda noticed with District 9… I mean I know that the Discrict 9 main lead, I don’t think he’d ever acted before, so he was a complete unknown…
…that’s right, yeah…
…I’d heard of Sam Rockwell before, but by no means is he considered… I mean he’s not like Tom Cruise for example or someone like that, but he is a very good actor. Was him being involved, and especially with the part where you have to play yourself as different versions of yourself… was that really integral having him involved for getting the film to be… because it’s basically a one man show isn’t it…
Absolutely, I mean it was certainly integral as far as the film I wanted to make. I don’t feel confident that I could have made that film with any other actor. I mean Sam Rockwell, you’re right he’s not a big name, but acting wise he’s far better than most other actors out there. He’s an incredibly talented guy and I wouldn’t have felt confident with many other big-name actors. I don’t think acting-wise they are as talented as Sam is. Sam’s very special.
You know, the fact that he isn’t generally considered as a leading man is, to me, totally unfair and irrational. I think the industry has had a chance to see what he can do with this film, and hopefully he’ll get the opportunities in the future to do more leading man work, because he certainly deserves it. He’s got the charisma. I think he could definitely do it. So yeah *laughs* Sam’s brilliant!
Well my review is going up soon on the site for the film, I really though he was one of the best… well, I know he is the main character in the film anyway, but I really did think he brought something to it that a lot of other actors wouldn’t have been able to pull off.
I totally agree.
He was so good that I actually at some points wasn’t sure whether he was playing both parts because they both seem so different, the older and the younger version…
Absolutely, I think… I mean the performance alone is enough to show you how good he is, but if you actually sort of were on the set to see what he had to deal with as far as the technical side of filmmaking… Actors, you know, they are quite a delicate breed and you really need to give them a lot of confidence and support so they can do their performance. I mean I am sure you have heard about actors, how difficult they can be on set, if they feel like they’re not being given the opportunity to do their job properly.
But you know, Sam was really given so many obstacles to his performance, so yeah he was able to pull it off, and I will be forever be grateful to him for first having the confidence to do the film with me, and secondly to be able to deliver such an amazing performance when I was getting him to deal with so many difficult technical requirements.
What I was going to ask about that as well, with that role of Sam Bell… how much of that was in the script, and how much of that did Sam Rockwell bring to the different versions of the character?
It was a good balance of the two, I mean I was very fortunate, my producer Stuart Fenegan was able to give us a week of rehearsal time before we shot the film, and during that week of rehearsals, Sam and I were really able to work over the script quite thoroughly. And there were quite a lot of things that came out of this, from improvisations that we did with him and his acting friend Yul Vazquez who was kind of working with us as we were doing the rehearsals.
And those improvs, I incorporated into a sort of subsequent draft of the script. So we got an awful lot of work done then, so that when it came to the actual film shoot we were able to concentrate more on the technical side of getting it on camera. But even during the shoot itself, there were some nice little ideas and moments and things that Sam came up with that we incorporated into the film.
But one of the things Sam definitely did bring was this kind of lightness of touch, this kind of, his sense of humour. Where maybe the script was slightly darker in a lot of places Sam was able to sort of bring some humour to it, and certainly educated me as to how important that was, so we added a lot of the humour in the film because of things that Sam was suggesting.
Brilliant! One strange question that I’ve got, that’s not… it’s kinda to do with Sam Rockwell but it’s more of a technical aspect… the ping-pong scene drove me mad! I couldn’t figure out how you did it!
Do you have a dumbed down version of how you did it, or..?
*Pauses* One of the great mysteries of filmmaking I’m afraid! *Laughs* No we do actually have some making-of of that on the DVD, where you will actually be able to see how we did some of that. But, it was obviously, you know, Sam was performing both sides of it. We did it in very few takes. And you know, we’re very happy with it, so I won’t tell you too much about that!
Yeah! I mean to be honest, the effects… it’s strange because you forget throughout the film… I think you think of the effects as the actual moon and stuff like that. But it’s actually an effects-driven film. Of course every time he (Sam) is interacting with himself, that’s an effect..
Absolutely! I mean it is still a little British independent film, but we have over… I think it was over 420 special-effects shots in it, which is a HUGE amount for a little film.
As well, because the last film I’ve seen where they did something similar to that was erm… I think it was Back to the Future 2!
Oh right yeah! *Laughs*
Yeah! But I always noticed that they’d kind of have… if you were interacting with yourself, they’d have the table very… you’d be very far apart. What I liked in Moon is, you kind of went that extra step, with like the ping-pong and stuff like that. Was that something that was done on purpose to kind of make the effect less obvious…
Absolutely, I mean basically, because of my commercials work, I kind of knew what we could do with that effect, but I also knew that there were certain things, like you were saying in the Back to the Future films, and also in… Jeremy Irons did a film called Dead Ringers…
… that Cronenberg did, and also in Spike Jonzes’ Adaptation with Nicholas Cage. None of those guys actually ever physically reached out and touched the other one, in like a two-shot where you can actually see both of them at the same time. And I think that’s really, that’s the pivotal shot. If you can get that shot, then all of a sudden the audience, if it looks good… the audience can’t argue with you anymore. They basically are sold on the idea that there are two different people there. So we did that a couple of times in the film, and I think subconsciously that really affects the audience, and that makes them think: that’s two different people.
So yeah we knew that we could really push the envelope and actually do something with that effect. Even though it was a small film, we could do that effect better than anyone else had done it before.
Another thing I really liked, to do with that idea of the same actor playing two different parts… I noticed at a certain point in the film when they (the Sam’s) come face to face, the original Sam keeps on trying to shake the new Sam’s hand…
… and he keeps on not doing it! Was that your way of playing with the audience, to maybe suggest: is he going mad? Is it an actual person who is there with him?
Absolutely! It was a little bit of that, and also, for sort of within the effects industry, it was kind of fun for us because we sort of wanted to let the audience think: ‘ah they can’t afford to do that’ or ‘they’re staying away from those kind of effects’, and then as the film progresses we do more and more impressive special effects, and I think that was kind of just a little industry thing for us as well, which is kinda fun to do.
Kevin Spacey was also involved, I guess he was like the next character with the robot of GERTY. How did that collaboration come about, because Kevin Spacey brings so much to the robot with just a voice… I guess he is one of these actors who has got a very distinctive voice. How did that come about, how did you get to work with him?
Well, we had a producer who came onboard to the film by the same of Trudie Styler, who is Sting’s wife and is very well connected in the film industry here. She sort of was the one who gave Guy Ritchie his break doing Lock Stock, and she has helped out a lot of first time directors. She came onboard the film towards the end of… just about before we were going to shoot it really, and was able to help us find some final financing, financing for some of the effects, and was also really really helpful, in that because of her connections she was able to get the script to Kevin Spacey.
I’d always wanted Kevin Spacey, because I had this sort of… there are so many homages in Moon to different science-fiction films. The most obvious one is GERTY to HAL from 2001, and I wanted GERTY to sort of… I wanted to lure the audience into thinking that they knew exactly what GERTY was going to be. And part of that trick, was to use a voice that kind of had the same feeling, sort of similarities to Hals’ voice, and that’s what Kevin Spacey was able to do.
And he was kind of in on the gag, and we had this really fun way of playing with the audience’s expectations, and luring the audience into thinking one thing, and then obviously over the course of the film, GERTY turns out to be something very different.
Definately. Did he record his lines before the film was shot, or did he have the visuals to work off?
No! He had the visuals to work off because… basically Kevin Spacey’s entire performance took place over basically half a day at a sound recording studio after the film was finished. And the way it worked is that we pitched… we showed Kevin Spacey the script, and told him that we wanted him on the film, and he loved the script, and he loved the idea that Sam Rockwell was gonna do it… but he was very very concerned upfront about the budget for the film, and said that he was a bit nervous that it would look a bit crap, at that budget.
So he said, why don’t you go away and make the film without me and come back and see me when you’ve finished. And that’s what we did, we went away and made the film without him, and when it was finished we showed him the rough cut of the film, and he was so impressed with what we’d done, and in particular with Sam Rockwell’s performance, he said absolutely, I wanna be involved, and about a month later we got him in and did the sound recording and that’s how it all ended up!
Another question I had was, how solid is the science in Moon?
Erm, it’s… I’m sorry mate this will probably have to be the last question, because I’ve got a bunch of other people coming in!
I’ll just quickly answer that one for you. There was a book that I read called ‘Entering Space’ by an author called Robert Zubrin, and he used to work with NASA and had written up a number of ideas on how you could go about colonising the solar system. Because basically, he is of the opinion that if you are gonna do it, it is gonna have to be paid by private finance because governments can’t afford to keep sticking money into this unless it’s gonna start paying for itself.
One of the things he suggested is that you could actually go to the moon and set up a lunar mining facility, for this resource Helium-3, that might be used as a fuel for fusion power. So all of that, the idea of the mining base, and the fact that it would be there for mining Helium-3, that’s all based on pretty solid science, which a lot of groups like NASA and other space research facilities around the world are looking into.
And then obviously the cloning angle, and how GERTY would work, are all sort of more imaginative. But there is a certain grounding in their various different scientific disciplines for how cloning would work, how robotics might evolve. So you know, I would say that on the whole, it’s fairly hard science fiction, but there are little elements that are soft science fiction… bit I think it is more hard than most science fiction films.
Well, brilliant, thank you for your time, and I’ve only got one more very very quick question…
Yeah sure, of course mate!
I was just going to ask you about… I’ve heard some rumours about Mute?
Yeah, well that’s another science fiction film, very very different in tone and look. It’s going to be my love letter to Blade Runner, which is one of my favourite science fiction films ever. It takes place in a future Berlin, and we are trying to see if we can get that film put together, and hopefully it will do, and it will be fantastic if we can!
Well thanks a lot for your time, and hopefully the next time I speak to you, I will be interviewing you about that film, so *laughs*…
*Laughs* Alright mate, that sounds brilliant!
Brilliant, I’ll give you an email anyway!
We hope you enjoyed this exclusive interview. Please stay tuned, as we have a full review of the film coming to Alternative Magazine Online soon as well!
UPDATE: We have now reviewed Moon (and the Blu-ray’s special features) here!