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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, April 8, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 14
SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW Source Code director Duncan Jones
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SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW Source Code director Duncan Jones

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

The last time Duncan Jones was in the Emerald City, it was during the Seattle International Film Festival to talk about his 2009 debut Moon. While only making a minor dent at the domestic box office, the Kubrickian science fiction spectacular starring Sam Rockwell picked up accolades and awards everywhere it went, and became something of a cult favorite in the process.

After picking up a BAFTA for Outstanding Debut by a Writer, Director or Producer, the talented filmmaker (and son of rock star David Bowie) returned to Seattle to talk about his latest success, Source Code. A time-travel thriller about an Afghan war veteran (Jake Gyllenhaal) who must endure repeating eight-minute intervals inside the body of a commuter train bomb victim in order to discover the identity of the terrorist responsible, the movie is a full-throttle exercise in intelligent action filmmaking that recalls The Twilight Zone during its heyday.

'It feels good right now,' sighed Jones as we began our chat in a suite at the downtown Fairmont Olympic. 'One day, I feel like I'm going to have the same position as the Tarantinos or the Coens [of the world] have where they write their own material, do it on a reasonable budget, and make the films they want to make. With all the excitement surrounding Source Code, it's easy to get excited looking ahead to the future. Hopefully more films like this and Moon mean I'm on course to do just that.'

In regards to this movie, Jones decided to forgo writing an original script for his sophomore outing the moment Ben Ripley's screenplay came into his hands.

'It was actor-first,' he explained, regarding his decision to take on the project. 'I am a huge fan of Jake's; I think he's really talented. He's incredibly good-looking, obvious leading-man material, but he's also really brave, and that's the thing I didn't know about. I knew his choices were brave, that goes without saying, but when I got to meet him and when I got to work with him, I discovered that he's really willing to let me push him as far as possible.'

'He'll have a take as to what he wants to do, and I'm happy to create an environment where he can do that, but he also [accepts] what I suggest and I'm kind of blunt on set. If I don't like something I'll say it, and if I do like something I'll let people know, and he responded well to that. If I made a suggestion that was a little strange or a bit different he'd just do it, just go for it, and we got some really great results that way, and it was just a wonderful experience as a director. I had that with Sam [Rockwell, from Moon] as well, and now I've had two leading men in a row who've been just great fun to work with. I feel lucky in that respect.'

And as for Ripley's script itself? Did he know immediately this was material he could do something interesting with?

'I did,' Jones answers immediately. 'It's got a great pace to it, and I love that aspect. It's got a really interesting conceit; the idea behind it is cool.'

'I wasn't so sure about the tone. It was originally quite serious, and my response was that we needed to lighten the tone and inject some humor into it. I didn't want to get bogged down in the technology; I felt we should buy the audience's affection with some humor and get them to leap on board and go for the ride. That was my original take, and Ben was quite responsive to my thoughts and opinions. Once Jake and Ben agreed with me on that, it was a no-brainer as far as I was concerned to direct.'

All of this sounds great in theory, but trying to execute a plot as complex and as intricately layered as Source Code's couldn't have been simple, especially when you're trying to interject a bit of fun and playfulness into the middle of all the suspense. While someone like Hitchcock had the ability to do this sort of thing in his sleep, modern filmmakers typically drop the ball trying to emulate that sort of style - a fact that might have had Jones worried.

'Not really,' Jones says with a shrug. 'You just have to go for it and hope for the best. There are a lot of talented people at work here, and I trusted them to realize my vision. As you may know, I was working with one of the best in the business as far as editors are concerned. Paul Hirsch is a legend. He edited The Empire Strikes Back and Ferris Beuller's Day Off, won an Oscar for the original Star Wars and was nominated again for Ray. He's an extraordinary man, and having him on my side obviously made things a heck of a lot easier. It was like going back to film school working with him, and I think the main reason we were able to succeed in regards to execution of tone is thanks in large part to Paul.'

One of the intriguing aspects of both Moon and Source Code is that both, in some ways, could be construed as 'twist' or 'trick' films much like The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense. Yet unlike those pictures, Jones reveals their secrets relatively early on, using the shock and awe of the revelation to fuel the drama, suspense, and emotion throughout the rest of their respective narratives.

'Holding revelations or revealing twists at the end wasn't what I was trying to do in either picture,' he admits. 'It's a spectacular device when it's done well, doing that. The Sixth Sense is extraordinary and it has a great payoff. The Usual Suspects, fantastic payoff. But that's really hard to do, and you have to have a really amazing script and a really amazing way of telling your story and revealing clues at precisely the moment when the audience is going to be most impacted by them. You also have to find a way to stop people from talking about it, and I think in the world that we live in today I don't know if you could make The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense. I don't know that if by the time they came out everyone would already know what the secrets behind them were. If that's true, that's kind of sad, because I do want people to still be able to make those kinds of films.'

'Our secrets in Source Code are less specific and more on-the-nose than those other films we've been talking about. I didn't need to keep them concealed very long because I think it actually improves the enjoyment factor for the audience if they're not left entirely in the dark. The reveal we make moves the plot and the characters forward, and while I'd love it if people don't talk about it, if you know going in what our secrets are, I don't think it will dilute enjoyment in any substantial way.'

Now that he's finished with Source Code, I asked Jones where he intends to go from here. More science fiction? Something completely different? Or is he still searching for that next great idea or perfect project?

'I know exactly what I'm going to be doing next,' he says with a wry, animated smile. 'It will be sci-fi, so it will be in the same genre as my first two films, but it will definitely be a change of gears. I'm very excited about it. I'm hoping it will be my opportunity to blow people's minds a little bit. I can't say too much, because this one I really do want to keep its secrets as long as possible. But I'm really excited about it. I can't wait to get started.'

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