Out on DVD this week, Moon is the debut feature from Zowie Bowie, now known as Duncan
Now that his first feature has been released to critical acclaim, an enthusiastic fan following and the prestigious Michael Powell Award at last month’s Edinburgh Film Festival, it may be time for journalists to stop mentioning Duncan Jones’s famous father*. ‘Moon’, the movie in question, is certainly worth the attention in its own right, an entirely unexpected return to the ace design work and thoughtful storytelling of classic ’70s sci-fi, with a skilled central turn from Sam Rockwell as the loneliest man in space. He’s the sole human caretaker on a lunar mining plant shipping mineral-rich moon dust back to Earth to solve the world’s energy problems, but towards the end of a three-year contract he’s starting to get a bit frayed with only in-house robot Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey, with more than a touch of ‘2001’s HAL 9000) to talk to. Just when he thinks he’s lost it however, he finds he has company… another Sam Rockwell.
Don’t worry, we’re not giving away anything that isn’t hinted at in the trailer, and Jones himself is absolutely fine explaining how the notion of turning a single actor into a startling duo was at the core of writing the film (co-scripted by Alan Parker’s son Nathan, incidentally). Having worked his way to prominence in the commercials field (with campaigns including French Connection’s bruising ‘Fashion v Style’ promo), Jones was looking for that elusive first feature, knew he wanted to work with Rockwell and was also pretty certain there’d be a tight budget involved.
‘We’d been talking about sci-fi films from the era of “Silent Running”, “Outland” and Ridley Scott’s “Alien”, which were all about blue-collar, ordinary people surviving the difficulties of life in space, so it really made sense that I write something like that for Sam,’ reflects Jones, speaking in Edinburgh a few days before he learned he’d have a new prize for his mantelpiece. ‘I knew I had to give him a challenge he couldn’t turn down, so I started thinking about having him play multiple parts. On a purely philosophical level that prompted the notion of what it would be like to meet yourself and work out what you’re like as a person. So the financial questions made me think of a creative idea, which made me think of a plot idea. It all just bounced around.’
That said, it’s easy enough to write characters called ‘Sam 1’ and ‘Sam 2’, but how was that achieved given that there was a mere $5 million dollars to play with, which had to include creating the moonbase and all its associated hardware? ‘Well, in terms of the actual shooting, Sam still wanted to be what he terms “loosey goosey”, so we needed to find an element of freedom within the technical constraints,’ Jones explains. ‘We had a week of rehearsal, so we were able to find which one of the characters was driving each particular scene, and during the take Sam could be anywhere in the room and set his own timings. We’d then choose the take we’d like best and that was an editing lock. It would go on an iPod, and when Sam was in make-up to do the other character in the scene, he’d be listening to it and getting the rhythm, learning where he could come in and out. As long as he hit that timing, he could be fluid with it, and he had an earpiece in so he could always hear the sound from that master take. To be honest, the first week was tough, because here he was with a first-time director, acting to nothing, and it was all a bit stressful until one of our effects guys did us a rough cut which had the two characters cut together and he could see it working. That was really the turning point.’
While some shots using body doubles and clever editing kept the costs down overall, the sequences which have what Jones terms ‘full-body interaction’ between the two Sams push the envelope even further than Cronenberg’s ‘Dead Ringers’ or Spike Jonze’s ‘Adaptation’. Even so, what’s been attracting most attention is the way the film incorporates extensive model work, which somehow ties it in even more with the movies of the ’70s from which ‘Moon’ draws its inspiration. ‘There’s a depth to the look that you get with models that you just can’t get with CGI,’ says Jones. ‘It’s about the detail that you just wouldn’t think to put in. We put together a team of old-timers at Shepperton, including one lovely old feller who’d worked on the original R2-D2. And, although the film’s a hybrid look with a contemporary post-production layer on top of the stuff we shot in-camera, the model work is a form of craftsmanship which isn’t being passed on. These old chaps don’t get much opportunity to work any more, and their knowledge isn’t being transmitted. If we ever want to do this again in the future, we’re going to have to relearn a lot of these techniques.’
While the model moon-rovers and the like will undoubtedly leave certain viewers with a nostalgic grin etched across their faces, it’s all in the context of a lunar environment which convinces as an everyday workspace, right down to the scuffed surfaces and Post-It notes. Jones’s list of visual sources is pretty much what you’d expect, referring to design gurus like Ron Cobb (who did many of the conceptual drawings for ‘Alien’) and Syd Mead (who worked on the look of ‘Blade Runner’), as well as the usual suspects in ‘2001’ and both versions of ‘Solaris’.
Isn’t there a danger, though, that by replicating the films of the past, you end up with something which lacks an identity in its own right? Jones gets animated, as if this is something of a sore point with him. ‘Yes, it’s a danger route when films depend on paying hommage to a genre or a period. But if I can defend ‘Moon’ here, we had a very specific human story which was unique and personal. Everything else is surface, just superficial dynamics. So, yes, there’s a guy on his own with a speaking robot, but the actual story is about a long-distance relationship – my long-distance relationship – and it’s about being face to face with different versions of yourself. A younger version which is lost and doesn’t know its place in life, and an older version that’s had more time to work out where they fit in the world. Again, that’s a personal experience. I understand what you’re saying here, but I do think that if you take that retro approach but are able to suffuse it with something that’s very much your own, it does make the result an entity in itself.’
All of which goes some way towards explaining ‘Moon’s particular combination of classic sci-fi looks, thematic substance and emotional vulnerability, which certainly lifts it out of the norm in terms of the usual slew of summer blockbusters. How many moviemakers have a PhD, after all? When he says ‘philosophical’, Doctor Jones knows whereof he speaks, since he has a doctorate from Vanderbilt in Nashville, specialising in questions of artificial intelligence and sentient machines. In a curious way, though, his experiences there also fed into ‘Moon’s distinctive interior landscape, a portrait of a man slowly crushed by isolation and a home life painfully distant back on Earth. Part of that comes from a subsequent long-distance relationship with a girlfriend in Korea, but his time studying in Texas provided its own slice of character-building pain.
Jones takes up the story. ‘I’d done a bachelor’s degree which I’d enjoyed, but I didn’t know what to do with my life at the time. I was conflicted, and, being a hopeless romantic, I followed my girlfriend at the time to Vanderbilt, where, obviously, we broke up a couple of months later. I still finished my three years, even though I was pretty miserable and felt very isolated. Of course, I’d also moved around a lot when I was growing up, so the idea of having a connection or roots anywhere was something I was grasping for. Funnily enough, my dad gave me this ancient Celtic chain I’m wearing just now, which has always meant a lot to me. It makes me feel a bit more settled and less like I’m afloat on the sea…’
Throughout the conversation, you get the sense that Jones senior and junior have a pretty strong bond. They made little stop-frame movies on Super-8 together when Duncan was still a nipper called Zowie (since thankfully amended), and the fact that dad had a pirated U-Matic copy of ‘Star Wars’ which little Duncan could show off before the film had reached cinemas in Switzerland definitely made him ‘King of the Geeks’ among his primary-school classmates. Later, visiting the huge sets for Jim Henson’s ‘Labyrinth’ planted a seed for the excitement of creating fully realised worlds for the screen. Now that he’s made his mark as a director in his own right, Jones is also pretty open about the attitudes he’s faced along the way. ‘You get access, sure,’ he says, ‘but people are very harsh judges. Expectations are so much higher. You don’t have to measure up, you have to measure beyond…
‘That’s really why I’ve been cautious. I turned 38 last month, so it’s taken quite a while for me to place myself in a more public arena. I wanted to earn it as much as possible. People like to have a go simply because of who I am, but I’m a middle-aged man now, so I’m not going to take offence in the same way that a 20 year old might. I know my dad’s proud that I’ve done it on my own, and I’m happy with that.’