Duncan Jones on His Sci-Fi Tribute to Dad David Bowie
The acclaimed filmmaker formerly known as Zowie Bowie opens up about his new Netflix film ‘Mute,’ a futuristic neo-noir and ‘spiritual sequel’ to his cult classic ‘Moon.’
Duncan Jones has had a tumultuous past few years.
Coming off the twin successes of 2009’s Moon (headlined by Sam Rockwell) and 2011’s Source Code (led by Jake Gyllenhaal), the 46-year-old director—and son of rock legend David Bowie—moved up to the studio realm, taking the reigns of Warcraft, an adaptation of Blizzard Entertainment’s immensely popular online role-playing game. Alas, after years of navigating various creative and political struggles in an effort to shepherd the project to the screen, the finished product was met with critical and commercial apathy here in the U.S. upon its release. And then, to compound that disappointment, Jones lost to cancer both his father in 2016, and his cherished nanny Marion Skene in 2017.
Both of those beloved figures receive post-credits dedications in Jones’ Mute, the director’s return to the mid-level sci-fi that first gained him a reputation as one of his generation’s brightest cinematic artists.
An off-kilter affair that melds mystery, action, comedy and noir in unique ways—at its core, think of it as Ridley Scott by way of Robert Altman—the film tells the story of a vocally impaired bartender (Alexander Skarsgård) in Berlin circa 2058 who embarks on a quest to find his lost love Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), whose disappearance has something to do with a couple of shady AWOL American surgeons played by Justin Theroux and a gorgeously mustached Paul Rudd. At once goofy, grim and optimistic, Jones’ latest is the type of daring genre work that rarely gets made by studios these days—which, naturally, is why it premiered Feb. 23 exclusively on Netflix.
Ahead of that bow, I spoke with him about the trials and tribulations of Warcraft, the way parenthood and the loss of his loved ones inspired the 16-years-in-the-making Mute, and whether he’d ever take a stab at TV.
After your experiences with Warcraft, was it something of a relief to get back to making an original project on your own terms with Mute?
Yeah. I think Warcraft ended up being about three-and-a-half years of work. A lot of that work was more on the political side than the creative/artistic side, just because of the number of different voices that needed to be brought together to make that film happen. So yes, going from that to a project which came together really very fast when it did – you know, after sixteen years of trying to get it made, suddenly we were able to make Mute. And because of Netflix’s incredible support, and willingness to let me have final cut and just go ahead and make the movie, it was really kind of the polar extremes of moviemaking.
How difficult was the Warcraft process, and have you been turned off in any way from that sort of big-budget filmmaking?
With Warcraft, I went into it with my eyes as open as I could. I had done Source Code, which was sort of a half-way house, working with Mark Gordon’s company and Vendome, which is a French-based studio. So I got a sense of the collaborative political process of making a smaller studio film. But Warcraft really was the extreme in terms of politics. When we began the film, Legendary Pictures was under the umbrella of Warner Bros., and then they disassociated themselves from Warner Bros to join Universal. At the same time, during the process of making the film, they were sold to a Chinese company. A number of staff and producers changed over the course of the production as well.
Blizzard, who were hugely involved in what the film was going to be, obviously had very specific ideas about what was important to them, which didn’t always gel with what Legendary and Universal wanted the film to be. And they had every right to feel that way. For Blizzard, Warcraft was a video game that was making them a billion dollars a year—the movie was small potatoes for them compared to what their main focus was, which was the game itself. So it was a hugely political process, and very exhausting.
What was it about Mute’s story that had such a strong pull on you, and made you feel—especially after Warcraft—that you had to make it?
I think beyond any experiences I might have had with Warcraft, Mute was already a very personal film to me. When you try to create things, for me at least, it feels like it’s a very rare and special event when you find something that, to you, feels truly original. I think one of the things I loved about Mute, and the reason I couldn’t let it go for a decade and a half, is I felt like that dynamic between this character Leo [Alexander Skarsgård], who couldn’t talk, and these two incredibly chatty, witty, funny guys in Cactus [Paul Rudd] and Duck [Justin Theroux], was unique, and different, and something I hadn’t ever seen before. The relationship between these two opposing forces, structurally and just as a storytelling device, was one of the reasons I couldn’t let it go.
Because I worked on it for such a long time, my ability as a filmmaker, and my personal experiences, and things that were going on in my own life—whether it was people who I cared about passing away, or the birth of my own son—it really made the film a very personal thing. There were themes that were maybe not originally there as strongly, which over the course of those sixteen years really came to prominence. Like the idea of parenthood.
The film is dedicated to both your father, David Bowie, as well as your nanny, Marion Skene, which reinforced my feeling that the film is ultimately about parents and kids. Do you see the film as about the roles adults play in protecting/caring for children?
I think it really is just about perspective. As a filmmaker, a lot of it was already there, in terms of just the basic make-up: Leo being the product of his mother—who was very religious, and wouldn’t allow him to have the surgery needed for him to be able to speak again—and Cactus being in a situation where he was dragging his daughter through a life that was totally not appropriate, but he was still a good dad; that was just the only option he felt he had. So parenthood, in those two examples, was already there. But becoming a parent myself really refocused my gaze on that subtext, and brought it out more than it was originally there.
The film feels like a noir smashed up with a war comedy and a sci-fi mystery. Did any particular movies inspire you?
The most obvious one for cinephiles would probably be Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, and that had a twofold reflection on the film. The characters of Cactus and Duck are very much a riff on Trapper John and Hawkeye Pierce, so that’s part of it. But also, that film is a really interesting blend of very dark subject matter of the Korean War, and also the humor of getting by in that situation—and just the goofiness of the day-to-day living in really turbulent times. I thought that was definitely an inspiration for Mute. Then there were grim ‘70s thrillers like Paul Schrader’s Hardcore, with George C. Scott as a very religious man looking for his daughter through the seedy sides of the city. That was another inspiration.
Was M*A*S*H then, I assume, the inspiration for Paul Rudd’s glorious mustache?
Oh yeah, one-hundred percent. If you get the chance to go back and watch Robert Altman’s film, the number of similarities is going to be fun for you. Whether it’s the Hawaiian shirt or the big mustache or even some of the lines he says.
The film is debuting exclusively on Netflix, which has become a home to artists interested in making passion projects free of creative interference. How did you get to Netflix, and what was your experience with them like?
I really do see them as a bit of a savior for independent original films. The studios have made a very conscious, and understandable, decision on a business level to do away with what they used to have—they used to have independent arms that would focus on making original films, and creating what would hopefully be the next wave of franchises and things like that. They’ve kind of done away with that, and they’re focused on existing franchises, sequels, and reboots of previously successful films, and hoping that if they throw enough money into those projects, they’ll get their opening weekend, and they’ll be able to get in and out of the money they’ve invested before the one-week—or, if they’re very lucky, two-week—windows end, before the next big studio film has come out. That’s how theatrical works in studio-land now, and it really doesn’t leave a lot of room for original content.
Because of that, there has been a dearth of original movies getting made until the arrival of the streaming sites—the Netflixes and Amazons and Apples—who started to make movies in that $20-$40 million range, and allowed filmmakers to just go crazy and be experimental and try stuff out. It’s amazing that that now exists. And I think you’ll see, if films like mine and the other ones that are being made right now—which are also original—are successful, you’re going to see that really bloom.
Could a film like Mute get made at a studio today?
I do not believe Mute could get made. I truly don’t. I think that its subject matter, and its structure—there’s just too much that’s different about it to let it fit, in any conceivable way, with the way studios choose to make films these days.
It’s obviously great that Netflix affords this opportunity, but that means the film may only be seen on someone’s phone. Do you feel conflicted about that situation, and did you do anything—creatively speaking—to tailor the finished product to that at-home (or handheld) viewing experience?
For me, no. On the technical side of how I made the movie and how I choose to frame up shots, no, it makes absolutely no difference. I would be surprised if many filmmakers thought they needed to shoot things differently. One of the things that's been difficult for the theatrical experience has been how successful, quality-wise, home-entertainment systems have become. Whether it’s the TV or the sound system, you can have an incredibly good theatrical experience at home now. The only thing you’re missing is the crowds, so invite your friends around [laughs].
Other than that, on a big-screen TV with a surround-sound system, you’re going to have a great time. So I’m not worried about that, and I would absolutely never shoot it to have someone watch it on their iPhone. I would shoot it for them to watch it on their 40-inch TV screen, but that doesn’t actually require me to change anything from what I would do in the theater.
Given all these paradigm shifts, have you thought about venturing into TV, where so many other original artists have drifted?
As an audience member, I’m absolutely a fan of what’s happening in TV these days. I’m hoping that I’ll pitch something when the Mute press is done, to try and do something on TV. I think it would be really exciting to try and do that. Also, my wife is expecting our next baby, and I’m hoping to stay in Los Angeles for the next year or so. So if I can come up with a project that allows me to stay close to home for the next year, that would be ideal.
Mute is itself part of a connected universe, so to speak, given its nods to Moon. Was that always the plan, and have you thought about continuing to make films in this Moon-inverse?
Because Mute was going to be the first film I was going to make, it was, originally, a very different film. I think that off of the back of the experience I had making Moon, when I went back to look back at Mute to decide if this was the film I was going to do next, I had already had a new experience, and I started to see things about Mute which could actually benefit from being in a similar science-fiction setting. That’s where the first wave of changes happened to the Mute script. And over the years, I felt like I could start to see how these worlds fit together, and what’s going on with Sam Bell [Sam Rockwell], and where he goes at the end of Moon, and how everyone in Mute would be aware of what’s going on with him. So they kind of organically grew together. Plus, there is one more movie. I’ve already written it, and it would be the third and final piece of this anthology of three movies…