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No one can accuse British-born writer/director Duncan Jones (yes, he's the son of David Bowie; let's get that out of the way and move on) of playing it safe with his first feature film, Moon (TFF ’09). His futuristic story, set on the lunar surface, is a gutsy throwback to classic sci-fi of the 70s and 80s. An “indie” counterpoint to today’s big-budget sci-fi (mostly preferring models to CG and focusing on character and human issues), Moon is both original and arresting.
Astronaut Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), with only GERTY the computer (voiced by Kevin Spacey) to keep him company, is at the end of an uneventful, lonely, three-year mission on a lunar mining base. Sam only needs to maintain for two weeks before returning to Earth and reuniting with his wife and daughter. Easier said than done: Sam begins to hallucinate, he meets a seemingly flesh-and-blood version of himself, systems malfunction, a great conspiracy is uncovered, and our hero has to rebel if he’s ever getting back to Earth.
Moon is Rockwell’s film. He charmed us before as Zaphod Beeblebrox in A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and mad genius Eric Knox in Charlie’s Angels (check out his hot, hot dance moves for a reminder). And while Choke was sometimes-funny-but-problematic, we finally get the complete Rockwellian experience in Moon. Comical but troubled and passive-aggressive, Sam is confrontational when pushed over the edge.
During the recent Tribeca Film Festival, where Moon made its New York debut, Tribeca sat down with Jones to discuss Moon, Rockwell, and the future of sci-fi.
Tribeca: What drew you to this story?
Duncan Jones: I wrote the story because I wanted to work with Sam Rockwell. We’re similar guys. Same age, same kind of background. He’s a lovely guy, an incredibly talented actor. So I said that I’d write a script for him.
Tribeca: Rockwell is great at freaking out. There’s something very funny about the way he panics. How did that evolve?
DJ: Sam brought [that] to the role. There was a little bit of humor in the script when we wrote it, but [through rehearsals and improv, we found] this humor that Sam wanted to bring. At first I was a little unsure, but Sam showed me you need to cut the dark moments with humor to show a contrast and help the audience through it all. That’s probably a career-long lesson for me: you really need to give the audience a break once in a while.
Tribeca: In Moon, Sam actually meets himself, but they really don’t like hanging out together. Wouldn’t this be a great new approach to therapy—just sitting down and talking to yourself?
DJ: Hey, I think it would do some people a lot of good, maybe scare the hell out them. Well, that’s one of the fundamental questions that the film tries to address: what would it be like to meet yourself in person? I think that’s a question everyone should ask, because everyone else has to deal with you day-to-day.
Tribeca: Kevin Spacey signed on to play the voice of onboard computer GERTY after he had seen a rough cut of the film. Did you always have him in mind?
DJ: Absolutely. We sent him the script before we shot the film, [but] he was concerned with the budget. He said, “I love the idea; why don’t you come back to me when you’ve finished it.” So that’s what we did. We had basically cut the film at that point, [so] it took one day. It was fantastic, and I obviously managed to get him to do some Christopher Walken impressions. (I didn’t have to ask too hard.)
Tribeca: The setting and technology in Moon are within our reach, if not now, then within our lifetime. Do you think technology will bring us to a better place, let’s say, 50 years from now?
DJ: I don’t think it’s going to change human nature. I think it will change the scope of what humans are capable of, but I think human beings will always be kind of selfish and occasionally stupid, but [will] generally have the best [intentions] at heart.
Tribeca: While most sci-fi films these days are immersed in the fantastic, Moon is refreshingly realistic. How do you regard Moon with respect to other contemporary sci-fi films?
DJ: There is a division right now between films and TV. A lot of sci-fi TV—such as Battlestar Galactica—is much more like what we did with Moon. It addresses human issues instead of concentrating on “technoporn.” [In film], there’s always going to be room for exciting, blockbuster, popcorn movies, but—like superhero movies lately—there’s an appetite to try and push the boundaries and get into the psychology and do things that are a bit more interesting, like Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight and John Favreau’s Iron Man. I’m hoping that sci-fi films will want to start doing that a little bit as well.
Tribeca: Moon was shot using models along with a conservative use of CG. How did the use of models impact the style of Moon?
DJ: Initially, it was a budgetary consideration, but as soon as we started thinking about it and how films had been done in the late 70s and 80s—Ridley Scott’s Alien, Jim Cameron’s Aliens, Silent Running, Outland—those films actually did use model miniatures. I think pure CG is moving at leaps and bounds, and there are amazing things you can do with it, but if you use models or live action photography and try and build as much as you can in real life, and then apply the technologies that we have today, you can get something really interesting because you have real depth and texture and it looks real.
Tribeca: Have you had any interesting feedback from sci-fi fanboys? They can be very opinionated.
DJ: There seems to be a real excitement about the film among the sci-fi fans because they know that I am one too, and they know that I’m referencing this particular period of sci-fi that’s been out of vogue for a while. [They want] to see if I manage to capture films like Outland and Silent Running, something that would fit into that canon. Also, for anyone who’s into the aesthetic side of things—fans of Douglas Trumble, Syd Mead, and Ron Cobb—they can see that we are legitimately recreating the look of those old films. I am very fortunate thus far. There haven’t been any gripes that I’m aware of.
Tribeca: What's your favorite science fiction film?
DJ: There’s a huge spectrum of films that I really love, but Blade Runner really sticks out for me. It’s so beautiful and unique. Again, it’s that thing about telling a human story. The science fiction is there—it’s a complete, overwhelming world—but it’s still about the characters and the human questions.
Tribeca: What’s next for you?
DJ: I really want to address two sides of sci-fi: there’s the one in Moon, the space side, and the other one is future city life. So if I get my way, it’s going to be a future Berlin film. It takes place in roughly the same timeline as Moon. So hopefully Sam’s going to do a little cameo in the next film, which will be an epilogue for what happens after Moon. [Editor’s note: It turns out Jones will direct an adaptation of Alex Kershaw’s novel Escape from the Deep next. Hopefully, he will follow up with his Berlin film.]
Tribeca: What was the highlight of your Tribeca experience?
DJ: [The first] screening of my film... was very exciting. We were in a beautiful theater, and the audience reaction was great. So that, to me, is the thing I’ll take away from it. I just want to thank Tribeca so much for showing Moon. It’s been an amazing experience.