Duncan Jones is the son of David Bowie, but he’s making his own way in the entertainment world, first as a director of commercials and now as a filmmaker. “Moon,” a cerebral sci-fi tale about a lonely worker on a lunar mining base who encounters his own doppelganger, is based on his own story idea, and he directs it as well.
During an interview in Dallas, Jones explained, “The question that I thought was worth addressing was whether if you met yourself in person, you would actually like yourself. Would you only see the faults, or would you see positive things in your own personality? And I think that’s not so much a science fiction question as a very human question: can you get past your own faults and just love yourself?”
But Jones was clearly influenced by science fiction growing up. “In particular the films that I grew up with,” he said. “Films like ‘Outland’ and ‘Silenr Running.’ There was a period of science fiction in film which I think was a lot more mature than the science fiction that’s being made today in film.
“In literature, there was always guys like Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard, all sorts of writers who were writing for an adult audience, a thinking audience. In film I think it’s been more sporadic. There’s been phases where people have tried to address interesting and important questions, and then others that are about the lasers and spaceships and things like that.”
Protagonist Sam Bell, as well as his double, are played by Sam Rockwell, for whom Jones fashioned the roles. “We’d actually met a couple of years ago, because I had another script that I was really interested in having him be involved with, which was going to be my first feature, and we met in New York for a long chat,” he said. “He was trying to convince me that he should play the lead, and I’d given him the script to play a different role. And we were both kind of pig-headed and couldn’t convince each other, but we got on very well and started talking about other films that we liked—science fiction. And I said, ‘Look, Sam, I really want you to do my first feature film. If this one’s not going to work, I would like to write something for you.’ So I wrote ‘Moon’ for Sam Rockwell, with him completely in mind.”
Making the picture, with all the scenes of Rockwell doubled, was, Jones admitted, “technically, incredibly difficult. There were challenges around every department in the film. For me as a director it was very difficult to be able, for the first couple of weeks, to give Sam the confidence that it was going to work. But it was really interesting, because Sam’s trained in something called the Meisner technique in acting, which is very much a reactionary form of acting, in which you play emotionally off of what the other actor throws at you, which obviously makes it incredibly difficult in this context, where he’s acting basically against nothing, or a stand-in.
“But we came up with some techniques that seemed to work, and we did a lot of rehearsals, and we broke down the script into scenes. And when we were about to shoot a scene, we’d choose which of the characters was actually driving the scene, and we would film that one first, and give him the opportunity to kind of improv and come up with any kind of little idiosyncrasies, things that he wanted to do in the scene. And then we would rehearse the other side of it, so that he sort of knew what he would do as a reaction. So we would film it, get that first side of the conversation recorded, and then he’d go up to makeup, because he’d have to do a makeup change to turn into the other Sam. And while he was doing that, he’d be rehearsing to one of these little Ipods with the video on it while he was getting made up. We’d be setting up downstairs, and when he came downstairs, we’d give him something called an earwig, basically like a hearing aid, that would play back the audio from the recording that we’d done before. Then he would perform the other side of the conversation, using that audio to get the timing right and react to it. But it was incredibly tricky.
“The Ping-Pong scene [in which the two Sam Bells play one another] was incredibly difficult. There was a slight screw-up that happened, which actually worked in our favor. We decided which of the Sams was going to drive the scene, and we filmed that side first. But because of the way the scene was shot technically, we couldn’t move the ping pong table—it was imperative that it didn’t get moved. And Sam, being the improvisational kind of guy he is, decided on the second half of the conversation he would dive onto the table, meaning that we could only use that one take. Fortunately, he gave a great performance. We had to use the first take, but it was a great first take.”
The movement of the ball also caused some problems. “A little bit of CG there, that’s a CG ball,” Jones said. “Getting the timing on that was hard. It’s ridiculous, the things that you actually wind up spending the most time in post-production, you would never be able to predict beforehand. And the Ping-Pong ball was one of them. We spent I think a couple of weeks, which on an indie budget is ridiculous, just getting the Ping-Pong ball right. Because it just didn’t look right. It was doing all these weird things, staying in the air. It was all wrong. We spent a lot of time getting that right.”
But Jones wasn’t concerned with getting absolutely every detail correct. He said, “We made a decision early on—I think the audience will forgive us on that—‘let’s tell a really good human story and small elements of science which we don’t stick to, I think the audience will just accept it.’ We’ve set up the rules at the beginning of the film, and we stick by them for the rest of the film. And if it’s not scientifically accurate in some areas, at least we’ve tried to be accurate in the more important areas, or at least the more relevant areas.”
Apart from Rockwell, the only other actor with a major role in “Moon” is Kevin Spacey, but he’s not visible. He appears as the voice of the base computer Gerty, a machine with motives that will keep the audience guessing. How did he get involved in the project?
“One of our producers, Trudie Styler…is a very well connected Englishwoman, who was able to get us in touch with Kevin Spacey, who runs the Old Vic Theatre in the UK,” Jones said. We basically showed him the script before we made the film, and he loved the script but thought it was incredibly ambitious. And he said, ‘I love the idea of this, but I don’t know how you’re going to do it for the money,’ because we had less than five million dollars, which is not a lot for any kind of film, let alone science fiction. So he said, ‘Why don’t you get back to me when you’ve made it?’
“So we made it, and he saw a rough cut of the film, with very, very basic special effects in it. But he was so blown away by Sam Rockwell’s performance that he said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it.’” Jones admitted that there was a temporary Gerty voice on the soundtrack—his own.
“That will not be on the DVD,” Jones emphasized.