Alfred Hitchcock. Martin Scorsese. Steven Spielberg. Christopher Nolan. Duncan Jones?
The average moviegoer can be forgiven for not knowing director Duncan Jones, whose second feature film, “Source Code,” opened in theaters this weekend. His first feature film, Moon, was a sci-fi indie with a budget of $5 million that earned $9 million worldwide. Although the film wasn’t a big box office success, Jones’ knack for storytelling and his compelling vision generated a cult following for Moon and grabbed the attention of some of Hollywood’s biggest names. “Source Code” is a solid sophomore effort, one that seems to foreshadow a brilliant future for this up-and-coming director. So who is Duncan Jones?
During his recent “Source Code” publicity tour, Jones proved that he’s just as friendly and likable in person as his fans would hope. When we enter the small conference room for the press interview on a Tuesday morning in Boston, he shakes each person’s hand and greets us with as much enthusiasm as if we are the first press he’s ever met with. He’s just getting over a cold, but it doesn’t seem like the recent illness has taken a single ounce of enthusiasm out of him. When we ask him our questions, many of which he must be hearing for the 100th time, he answers earnestly and excitedly. It’s clear that this whirlwind press tour (he’s due in New York by the afternoon for yet another screening that night) has done nothing to quell his passion for “Source Code.” And though he would have every right to have a Hollywood ego after working with the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal, Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga, Jones remains humble and even self-deprecating at times.
Directing “Source Code” was a major step up for Jones on many levels. First, the film’s budget of $35 million was seven times the budget for Moon. In addition, after working with the talented but lesser known Sam Rockwell, Duncan would be working with a higher-profile star in Jake Gyllenhaal as well as a cast of veteran known actors that include Vera Farmiga (“The Departed,” “Up in the Air”), Jeffrey Wright (“Casino Royale,” “Quantum of Solace”), and Michelle Monaghan (“Gone Baby Gone,” “Mission Imposible III”). Finally, in Source Code Jones would be using predominantly CGI special effects as opposed to the models and skilled camerawork that Moon relied on. It’s clear that in just about every sense, Source Code was a giant leap from Jones’ humble beginnings.
We asked Jones if he felt an enormous amount of pressure heading into the production of “Source Code.”
“I felt a real responsibility to hopefully deliver something that [fans of "Moon"] could enjoy,” Jones said, “Now I was very, very apprehensive because, although there are similarities between the two films, they’re very different. Pace wise, they are exceedingly different. But fortunately people who loved Moon seem to enjoy this. And I think that they do see that they’re very different kinds of films. But yeah, that was very nerve-wracking. As far as working on a bigger budget, I wasn’t nervous about that. That was one of the reasons I wanted to do this film, I wanted to prove that I could do that and work with name actors.”
So how exactly did he prove that he was ready to work with the likes of Gyllenhaal and Farmiga, especially after having directed only one feature film? As the son of music icon David Bowie, Jones was exposed to film and the arts early in life. He was introduced to movie-making when he was just six years old. Says Jones, in an interview with The Telegraph, “We would do silly things like pretend to levitate around the room, by standing in one place, jumping, taking a picture, taking a step forward, jumping, taking a picture, so it would look like we were floating around the house.” In addition to these experiences, his father’s career gave Jones plenty of chances to be on set and experience the world of film-making. Little did Bowie know that these experiences would ultimately inspire his son’s future career.
Jones didn’t originally set his sights on a career in film. In 1985, fresh off a philosophy degree, Jones decided to pursue a PhD at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. However, before completing his degree he changed course, leaving Vanderbilt for the London Film School. After graduating from film school, Jones began his career shooting commercials.
Three years ago, Jones was still directing commercials. Though he had his sights set on feature films, he was satisfied with honing his skills both as a director and as a special effects guru. The lessons and techniques he learned on those sets would become very important when it came to launching his film career.
For his first full-length movie, Jones was certain of two things — it would be a science fiction film and it would have to star Sam Rockwell, one of his favorite actors. After writing his first science fiction screenplay, he approached Rockwell with the script. The two quickly realized how well they got along and worked together, but they soon hit a bump in the road. Jones envisioned Rockwell in one role while Rockwell saw himself in another. At an impasse, the two discussed the possibility of working together on a different film. Rockwell explained the type of role he was looking to play and Duncan told him that he would get back to him with a different, new script written just for him. Months later, he returned to Rockwell with the screenplay for “Moon,” with the main character named after Rockwell himself. Sam immediately took a liking to the project and soon pre-production on Jones’ first feature film began.
“Moon” debuted on July 17, 2009 at the South By Southwest Festival in Texas. The film opened to a crowd of enthusiastic science fiction fans who were eager to see what the new director had to offer. The film’s gripping story and Rockwell’s impressive performance did not disappoint.
When “Moon” went on to a worldwide release, it received plenty of accolades. Roger Ebert raved, “Moon is a superior example of that threatened genre, hard science-fiction,” The Hollywood Reporter called it “a well-assembled sci-fi thriller,” and Peter Travers of Rolling Stone praised the film, saying “This mesmerizing mind-bender sneaks up and hits you hard…. Moon is a potent provocation that relies on ideas instead of computer tricks to stir up excitement.” In addition to admiration from top critics, Moon received a 90 percent rating from the popular site Rotten Tomatoes — a sign that the common man was just as fond of the film.
Despite its triumph with critics, “Moon” failed to convert that success to box office dollars. At the end of its run in theaters, the film had grossed $5 million domestically and $4 million in foreign markets. Still, Jones had made an impression on sci-fi fans and movie buffs alike. As a bonus, Moon had caught the attention of some well known Hollywood movie makers.
In an interview that Jones did before the release of “Moon,” he was asked what his reaction would be if the film did really well. He responded, “It would be wonderful if the actors that I admire all of a sudden were like, ‘You know, I wouldn’t mind doing a film with that guy.’”
And from his lips to Hollywood’s ears, that’s exactly what happened. As Duncan began thinking about his second project, Jake Gyllenhaal was looking for a director for his next project – a movie called Source Code. Impressed by Jones’ feature film debut, Jake insisted on screening the movie for the producers of Source Code. They loved it and invited Jones to discuss the possibly of him directing the new film. Jones, already a big fan of Gyllenhaal, read Ben Ripley’s screenplay and realized he had found his next project.
Source Code seems poised to prove Jones’ worthiness of working with pricier productions and bigger Hollywood stars. On opening day, the film was doing well critically, getting a 74 percent positive rating on Metacritic.com and an 87 percent positive rating on the popular RottenTomatoes.com. The sci-fi thriller should easily take top prize at the box office this weekend, going up against Insidious and the widely-panned Hop. With the impending success of Source Code, we are left to imagine what promises lie ahead for Duncan Jones’ career.
When talking about his own future, Jones makes an interesting connection between himself and one of today’s biggest directors.
“I don’t know if I’m going to have the same career path as Chris Nolan, but I did kind of look at his career,” Jones said. “You see a film like Memento and then you see a film like Insomnia. He starts off with a little independent film that he did with a lesser known actor at the time – Guy Pierce. And then he does Insomnia where he’s working on a bigger budget with a studio, with well known actors – Robin Williams and Al Pacino. And then you kind of see how he’s showing what he’s capable of. And I wanted to try to do the same, so – “Source Code:” bigger budget, working with the studio, bigger name actors, same kind of deal.”
With his recent success, Jones may be on track to becoming Hollywood’s next in-demand director. With the critical success of “Source Code,” expectations are sure to be high for Jones’s third outing and fans will be anxiously awaiting any news of his next project. And you can bet that Hollywood will be too.
For a full transcript of the (spoilers included) press interview with Duncan Jones, head over to Bill Peloquin’s blog.