Monday, July 6, 2009

Lunatic fringe: Duncan Jones talks about sending Sam Rockwell straight to the Moon

We first catch sight of Sam Bell working the treadmill, pale and beardy as a muskrat, sporting a T-shirt that reads “Wake me when it’s quitting time.” Sam’s the sole human inhabitant on the lunar landscape, an on-site foreman and crew combo for a project that’s single-handedly rescuing Earth from its energy crisis by mining the local geology for deposits of solar power. (A clever gag has him grooving at one point to ‘Walkin’ on Sunshine.’) He’s on a three-year stint that’s nearly reached its terminus. The station is modern, at once buzzingly bright and cocoon-like, but also grimy with isolation, a disheveled bachelor pad more remote than the Unabomber’s. Other than occasional prerecorded messages beamed to him from his wife and toddler back home, the closest approximation to company is a boxy robot named GERTY, whose little screen offers a series of emoticons in lieu of facial expressions and converses with Sam in the not especially comforting tones of Kevin Spacey.

The loneliness is thick, the food all comes in baggies, and the night never ends.
Moon is the antidote to space opera explosion movie. The frontiers it traipses upon are internal as much as extraterrestrial. Sam’s ostensibly gleeful last days on the moon are thwarted by an accident he has while driving his lunar land rover. He already seems to have been suffering from hallucinations before the crack-up, and now in his weakened, perhaps paranoid state things become only more confusing. Sam overhears potentially conspiratorial murmurings between GERTY and ground control, and he starts to see double—as in another Sam. Embodied by the wonderful, still underused Sam Rockwell in what is essentially a one-man show, Sam Bell begins to question all his assumptions about his life on the moon, his purpose there, and the very fabric of his perceived reality. If there was someone to form a union with, maybe he could go on strike. Then again, maybe there is someone…

Director and co-scenarist Duncan Jones cut his teeth making commercials, but it’s probably more pertinent that he studied philosophy before graduating from London Film School. Extrapolating on the work of Daniel Bennett and Peter Singer in applied ethics, Jones wrote an independent study thesis titled How to Kill Your Computer Friend: An Investigation of the Mind/Body Problem and How It Relates to the Hypothetical Creation of a Thinking Machine, which sounds very much like a dry-run for some of the ideas percolating in his feature debut. To be sure, it is ideas, and the emotional prompts they house, that imbue Moon with its richest features. The story itself may not seem fully propelled or resolved in any conventional sense, but the way revelations unfold—and, strangely enough, the way certain relationships develop—are what make this trip highly rewarding.

Moon director Duncan Jones

When I spoke with Jones he seemed energized, full of praise for Rockwell, and very friendly and easy to engage in discussion about all the notions and emotions lovingly poured into Moon. If he was slightly less enthused about discussing the fact that he’s the son of David Bowie, that’s pretty understandable, but I couldn’t resist asking one question. I think you’ll see why.

JB: For such an intimate film,
Moon addresses an impressive number of contemporary anxieties. I’m thinking not only about environmental and genetic science concerns, but also about our dependency on telecommunications to verify our sense of what’s real and what isn’t. Did you set out to tap into these anxieties or did things just kind of turn out that way once you started fleshing out the premise?

Duncan Jones: The idea of long-distance relationships was very much a conscious one. My personal life at the time was burdened with a long-distance relationship and I wanted to channel that emotional material into the film. But the idea of social networking and using technology to communicate with people in a way that’s less direct that actually meeting them, that was more subconscious—though it’s something people seem to feel a real connection with.

JB: Your film caused me to reflect on how nostalgia-generative technology has become. We now have so many ways of archiving virtually every form of communication available to us. It’s as though we don’t necessarily have to nourish our relationships if we can get some morbid emotional fix by replaying their greatest hits.

DJ: Absolutely. I must admit that when I look through my own archive of emails I see an awful lot of old message from ex-girlfriends. We’re able now to sort of carry so much of our history around with us this way.

JB: I do the same thing. Makes me think of that Smog song where Bill Callahan sings about “getting off on the pornography of my past.”

DJ: [Laughs] That’s a great line!

JB: Another critical motif in
Moon addresses the ways in which the culture is geared toward making absolutely everything disposable, including individuals.

DJ: Planned obsolescence, sure. That’s definitely there in the subtext. But in contrast to that, we also wanted to get across the value of humanity, how every individual counts—no matter how these individuals are brought into the world.

JB: Well, as I was watching
Moon there was this knee-jerk part of me that was wondering who I was rooting for, only to realize that I didn’t want to see anything bad happen to any of the strange individuals who crop up.

DJ: And I think that’s how the characters end up feeling. They become like brothers, antagonistic but finally wanting to help each other.

JB: There’s a clever series of red herrings for sci-fi aficionados in
Moon’s early scenes. You set a tone of comfortable familiarity by openly invoking such influential films as 2001 and Solaris, only to go in quite a different direction, particularly with the way you develop GERTY, the robot that so immediately recalls 2001’s HAL 9000 but whose own trajectory proves quite distinct. I wonder how you felt about the ostensible burden of influence one assumes when trying to make a thoughtful science fiction film.

DJ: Because I was so in love with those films the only burden I felt was to get it right. If I was going to pay homage I wanted it to be clear that I’d truly appreciated and absorbed the source material. We wanted to utilize these references to films we love, yet it was integral that we create something original, that we give the audience a new experience. What makes it work, I hope, is the personal stuff we brought into it, again, the long-distance relationship that I was going through, or the idea of meeting yourself and how would you get along. I’ve always been deeply intrigued by this thought experiment, by the question of whether or not I would like myself. If I met myself as a younger age, for example, I know that my younger self would have problems with me now, and I’m almost certain that me now would be frustrated by the younger me.

JB: I think this is also where science fiction can lead us back to older narrative archetypes, those involving doubles, this notion that a double is inherently suspicious, that there isn’t room enough for the two of us. Philip K. Dick was especially visionary in this regard. Were his books important to you either growing up or as you were developing

DJ: I was a huge Philip K. Dick fan growing up. I was also a big J.G. Ballard fan. His approach to taking what’s almost a contemporary setting and then adding a single little twist that turns it into science fiction is something I’ve always admired.

JB: And he had such a talent for crafting these utterly unsentimental tales that nevertheless provoke an intense emotional response.

DJ: It just breaks my heart that so many of his best works have already been optioned for films, because I’d love to do one!

JB: Before we run out of time I did have one inevitable dad question to ask.

DJ: Ah well, go on. You can have one.

JB: When we look back on your father’s breakthrough single from 40 years ago and compare it to
Moon, there’s an intriguing symmetry of motifs: the lone man isolated in space, missing his wife, dependent on tenuous communication with the distant earth. Were you thinking about ‘Space Oddity’ at any point during the conception of Moon?

DJ: I totally understand the question and I know it might be impossible for people to believe, but I really wasn’t. It’s just a very strange piece of synchronicity. I was brought up by my dad, my parents having gotten divorced when I was very young, and I was probably surrounded by an awful lot of the same things that were interesting him when he was still roughly in that same creative period, so I’m sure it had a massive effect on me. But when I was writing
Moon none of my dad’s work was what I was thinking about. It was my own personal situation, my wanting to work with Sam Rockwell, and talking about all these great science-fiction films from the 70s and 80s. That was really the root of it all. The rest just has to do with what planets you tend to orbit, I guess.

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