Finding the Source Code
Duncan Jones Returns with a Second Sci-Fi Brainteaser
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 in a dual roll as clones stranded on the moon picked up accolades and awards everywhere it went becoming something of a cult favorite in the process.
Jake Gyllenhaal, Duncan Jones and Michelle Monaghan in Source Code
© Summit Entertainment
After picking up a BAFTA for Outstanding Debut by a Writer, Director or Producer, the talented filmmaker (and the son of rock star David Bowie) returns to Seattle to talk about his latest success Source Code. A time travel thriller about an Afghan war veteran, played by 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 and thus thwart another upcoming attack, the movie is a full throttle Groundhog Day meets Speed exercise in intelligent action filmmaking that recalls “The Twilight Zone” during its celebrated heyday.
“It feels good right now,” sighs Jones as we begin 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 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 explains 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 for me it was just a wonderful experience as a director. I had that with Sam [on 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.”
Jake Gyllenhaal in Source Code © Summit Entertainment
“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 onboard 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 which sounds great in theory, but trying execute a plot as complex and as intricately layered as the one inside of Source Code is couldn’t have been as simple as it sounds, especially when you’re trying to interject a bit of fun and playfulness into the middle of all the suspense. While someone like Hitchcock seemingly 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 had to have worried the director however minutely.
“Not really,” Jones says with a shrug. “You just have to go for it and hope for the best. There are a lot 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, 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’ reveal 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.”
Michelle Monaghan and Jake Gyllenhaal in Source Code
© Summit Entertainment
“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.”
The film feels fresh and invigorating even though structurally it is in fact presenting the same eight minute sequence several times over. It’s a Groundhog Day scenario, but somehow like that Bill Murray comedy classic I never got bored and was constantly interested to see how things would change and evolve even though I was essentially watching the same stuff over and over.
“While reading the script that was one of the real fears,” Jones candidly admits. “Maybe not fears. Exciting challenges, that’s what it was, an exciting challenge as to how you present the same material over and over without the audience getting bored. I don’t want them to see the same event and have it feel like they’re having to watch it again and again.”
“I approached those sequences like crafting them were some sort of military strategy. We mapped out what was happening in each eight minute segment. We broke up the interior of the train into different sections. We tried to make it so you did feel like you were in a different environment each time even though you’re still on the train. We zoned it out so visually we were always visiting different places, introducing different characters and narratively there is a development each time as well. We tried to create a scenario of multiple events even though it is the same eight minutes; we wanted to make sure we had completely different things going on.”
Now that he’s finished with Source Code, I ask 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?
Director Duncan Jones on the set of Source Code © Summit Entertainment
“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 for it to keep its secrets as long as possible. But I’m really excited about it. I can’t wait to get started.”
- Feature reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle