Translating Source Code With Director Duncan Jones

Moon, the feature film debut from co-writer and director Duncan Jones, has received universal praise and several awards. With that auspicious of a debut any follow up is sure to be scrutinized rather closely. With his second film, Source Code, Jones has been following the film around the country, doing Q & A sessions following advanced screenings in select cities in the US. The day after the Seattle screening I met with the director at a hotel in downtown where we sat down and discussed the film in-depth. WARNING: Here be spoilers!. We do discuss plot details and some of the twists at length, so if you’d rather see the film unspoiled, please bookmark this page and return after you’ve watched Source Code.

POP CULTURE ZOO: To begin with, I just wanted to say that I appreciated that there is a noticeable lack of cynicism in Source Code.

DUNCAN JONES: Yes.

PCZ: The reason I say that is there were many moments where I expected something bad to happen and it didn’t. That was refreshing. You spoke at the screening how the script was a bit darker when you got it, so was this a conscience decision on your part?

DJ: I can’t take an credit for what happens narratively in the film. I think Ben Ripley’s script was always crafted that way. I think there’s a closet optimist struggling to get out of Ben Ripley. The script I read was more darker, it was more serious. I think that was something I brought to the film, lightening the tone and trying to find ways to inject some humor into it.

PCZ: Before we jump into too many questions about the movie, I wondered if I was being too much of a geek in noticing several nods to Quantum Leap.

DJ: Oh no, those were there for you! Seriously, those were there for the people who would pick up on them. There’s a few things in there. Scott Bakula, obviously, plays the voice of the Dad and he even says “Oh boy.” So that was that. Also, for people who enjoyed Moon there’s Chesney Hawkes, who does the ringtone for Christina’s phone. Yes, there’s a few little things snuck in there.

PCZ: Being a fan of subtleties in movies, I greatly enjoyed the juxtaposition of the scenes where the flames would slowly go through the train cabin and then towards the end where there is the slow pullback of everyone frozen and laughing. The latter shot, how difficult was it compositing that?

DJ: It’s really funny. There are so many heavy special effects shots in the movie and that’s actually one of the simpler ones. We did a test on it with our crew before we shot the film and we basically just laid out a series of chairs in a sound stage roughly in the shape of the train. We got a piece of track and got a camera running about 50 frames per second and just pulled it back asking everyone to be still. We played it back and it was pretty cool. There was some work that had to be done on top of the final one, there were some people who moved a little bit. There were things like little bits of dust in the air that were added and some rays of light. But the actors themselves, that’s just people staying still.

PCZ: Y’know, this is your second film and I find it difficult to believe it’s only your second film. Moon was like that for me as well, that was not a film director’s first movie. I don’t see you doing in either film the “standard director thing.”

DJ: Thank you. All I can say to that is I’m kind of older than a lot of first time directors. Also, my style when I came out of commercials is not the same kind of whiz-bang style. A lot of commercials directors get pulled into the film industry because they have a kind of amazing visual sense to make things crazy or they use a particular technique or style which is kind of signature to them. I wasn’t, I was always hired on commercials on a more narrative level and because I had a familiarity and comfort with special effects. Those are kind of the reasons I got hired. It wasn’t specifically about a style and I think maybe that kind of translates. Now that I’m doing features, my focus is again narrative and the familiarity with special effects.

PCZ: And you use the camera to tell the story as opposed to just showing what’s happening. I noticed with Source Code that you start off things with close, almost claustrophobic shots and you widen things as the story progresses.

DJ: There was a challenge inherent to the script in that because we’re in a limited number of locations and because we’re going to be revisiting a specific event, I had to do everything I could to find ways to visually break things up and give the audience new stimuli, new things to see, new parts of the story, new characters to meet. Also, there was a great piece of advice I saw Ridley Scott give in an interview a long time ago about starting in closer then sort of working your way up and revealing the environment.

PCZ: You certainly did that and I think that in itself added the suspense to the movie instead of just shock and surprise. Like I said, I expected those and it was nice not to have them. At the screening you mentioned Philip K. Dick as an influence and Source Code certainly had that feel and vibe to it.

DJ: Him and J. G. Ballard I think had a great sense of being able to not make a science-fiction conceit feel like that was the focus of the story. Both Dick and Ballard were much more concerned about how did this thing, possibly a MacGuffin even, affect people. Let’s concentrate on the characters and how it affected them and not just talk about this piece of science-fiction. I love those kinds of films as well, but whether it’s a Battle: Los Angeles or an Independence Day where the film is all about the big science-fiction event, I appreciate those for what they are, but I kind of like focusing on the characters and letting the sci-fi be in the background a little bit.

PCZ: I did appreciate the explanation of what was going on, but it wasn’t so scientific that it ground the narrative to a halt. It was enough to get across the idea of what’s going on and you even brought in some very good emotional elements in that.

DJ: Well, thank you. I think Ben Ripley did a really great job on the script in that respect, he was the one who really had spent a lot of time thinking about the science and how it would work and then stripping it out. He stripped that out of the script and kept it honed down and kept it to the essential pace. And the pace was always the thing that came across when reading the script, how great that was. It literally starts with a bang and then it just keeps on going. I love that about it.

PCZ: The pod that Colter Stevens is in seemed to start out as a cross between a helicopter and what we find out is the chamber he is actually in. Was that a conscious decision?

DJ: Absolutely. Again, that’s one of the things I kind of feel like I didn’t quite get right and I would love to revisit that, but there is at the end of the film where you see the case he exists and there is this strange shaped window above him. That window is obviously replicated in the strange pod environment where he is. It sort of starts off like, as you say, the window of a cockpit in front of him and then over the course of the film as his brain has this manifestation of where he is that environment morphs and changes and grows around him until it ends up like a prison cell. Then it’s like an old medieval dungeon where you’re in this prison cell and there’s this skylight in the distance that you can’t get to. I would have loved to have found ways to make more of that and really solidify that metaphor about the fact that that window is the same window at the end of the movie. I kind of feel that I didn’t quite get there, I didn’t quite nail that the way I would have liked to.

PCZ: I thought it worked really well because you’re wondering is it a spaceship, what is he in? And then I think later looking in at him through that same window brings that point across, maybe not as pronounced as you might have wanted, but definitely in a nice, subtle way.

DJ: Well, it’s great that you picked up on it, so at least it wasn’t a complete failure.

(laughter)

PCZ: I also appreciated that the characters in the train car sort of start off as in their own little universes and it was nice that it turned out that none of them was the villain of the piece. I wondered if the part at the end where Stevens basically pays the comedian to make everyone laugh was his thank you for their help in solving the mystery, even though they didn’t know it.

DJ: That’s interesting. I don’t know if I ever saw it exactly like that, but that’s a very valid interpretation of it. I think it really was finding an opportunity to let all these people enjoy life. I guess the idea being you never know how much longer you’ve got, so enjoy the time you have.

PCZ: You also revealed at the screening that you shot this in Montreal. Where any of the opening overhead shots actually of Chicago?

DJ: Yes, those were all Chicago. All of the helicopter footage and the train going through the countryside and the cityscape in the opening credits were all Chicago. The big set builds that we had, that was all up in Montreal. The train car, the pod environment and the lab where Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright are, all of those were in Montreal. It would have been cruel not to shoot all the exteriors in Chicago! The only exterior that we did that was not in Chicago was the train station. That was a set build in a parking lot in Montreal. Cloud Gate, “the bean,” at Millennium Park was the actual location.

PCZ: Did you get to ride along on any of the helicopter shots?

DJ: I did the recce, but I’m not good with heights. Louis Morin, the VFX supervisor, actually went up and shot the footage. We did a number of passes, I had a little hand-cam so I could say I thought this or that sequence would be great and then Louis picked up a bunch of great bonus stuff as well. Between the two of us we, I love the coverage we got.

PCZ: I liked that opening sequence because it jumps from the overhead shots, nature scenes and the city and it puts you in the frame of mind to be kind of unsettled when the story starts.

DJ: Yeah, these are the stakes.

PCZ: You’ve mentioned that Jake Gyllenhaal was the one who brought you this script. You have ideas of your own, obviously, so what about this script made you say “I have to make this movie”?

DJ: I actually met up with Jake in the first place because I wanted to work with him and I was obviously trying to pitch him something hoping he would be interested. I think he will be one day, but in the meantime he said he had this project, which he was interested in and trying to find the right person to work with and he thought I might be it. That was really how I was introduced to it. My excitement for it really came out of, first of all ,the pace. I loved the fact that it was so fast moving and unrelenting, plus the opportunity of working with an ensemble of actors and the chance to work with Jake. Those were the three things. My one concern was the tone of the film, but after having talked to Jake and telling him my suggestion about trying to lighten the tone and knowing he was on board with that, I felt really comfortable and confident that we could have some fun with it. The budget level fell about right, I felt we could do it for the money. I was able to bring my old producer, Stuart Fenegan, who did Moon with me, I knew I would have him with me and that made a big difference. It was important that I at least had someone familiar with me who was on my side right from the start. I knew I had Jake, I knew he would be on my side and having Stuart made a big difference. When I finally got to meet Paul Hirsch he was the one who said upfront, “I don’t work for the producers, I don’t work for the actors, I work for you.” And he was man of his word, he was always on my side. That made a huge difference.

PCZ: Were there moments where notes came down where you were told, “Make this more…”

DJ: More at the start when I was kind of feeling my way. I mean, I had done one British independent film and now I was responsible for millions of dollars of somebody else’s money. There was always going to be a period where they wanted to know that they had made the right decision. I get that. It was like putting a saddle on a horse for the first time, you know? It was a little uncomfortable for a while, but then they got comfortable with me and I got comfortable with them. I think as things developed and they started to see what I was doing and saw the performances I was getting and the footage, they kind of relented and felt much more comfortable. Totally understandable. It wasn’t unexpected. It was hazing. (laughter) You have to go through it once.

PCZ: Right, right. I think that goes back to me saying that I’m astounded that this is only your second film. It just feels like a seasoned director doing a film, you don’t fall into the usual tropes and it was very much appreciated.

DJ: Thank you. I’m saving my artistic fuck-ups for when I’m in my seventies.

(laughter)

PCZ: Another question that you were asked last night was about the characters exploring what it means to be human. To me, it seems easy to just label every science-fiction film as that or only see that part of it. To me, this film seemed more to ask what is reality and explore the ways we perceive and make our own reality.

DJ: Obviously, I’m a science-fiction fan so I feel very comfortable with those conceits. For me, the things that are most interesting are on a very human level. It’s not political, it’s not necessarily great philosophical ideas, it’s about people asking am I who I think I am, why do people think I’m someone else and how do you sort of make those two things meet. Why is it there are two versions of me, the one that I see and the one that other people see? What does that mean and which one am I actually? I think that as an idea is something I find interesting. It doesn’t mean that all of my films are going to be about that, but it was definitely part of Moon and I think that maybe on a subconscious level it is a part of Source Code as well.

PCZ: That definitely comes through with the character of Goodwin, where she has to decide if she is just a soldier or a real person. There are moments where you have her show emotion and kindness and then there is the big reveal where we see that she is just reacting to text on a screen.

DJ: Yeah, that was one of those me-isms that I pushed through that wasn’t in the script. I liked having that extra level of separation between what it was that Goodwin sees and what we think she’s seeing. That’s funny, now that I think about it, because no one’s really asked me about that before. That was a real battle I had to win with some of the people behind the film, the fact that I was never going to show Jake from Goodwin’s perspective. That seemed fairly obvious now that you’ve seen the film, but when we were making it they were like, but you have to be able to see what see’s seeing and I was like, no you don’t, you can hold that off right until the end of the film. I was happy that I managed to win that one because I think it was important. And then the payoff is, obviously, that she’s not even seeing a face on a screen, it’s literally just like being on IRC.

PCZ: Yeah, it’s kind of interesting because a lot of communication nowadays is through Twitter and Facebook.

DJ: Yeah, it’s like getting Tweets!

PCZ: And then the emotion that she’s giving to the camera in that moment, it was just astounding to me that we pull back and it’s just text flowing by. Wow. Another nice subtly was with Jeffrey Wright’s character, making him appear older than he is which, again, goes back to the moments I expected, I expected him to be tied a person on the train or something like that. Again, you surprised me and avoided that.

DJ: Jeffrey Wright is a fantastic actor, but his character was a tricky one because some people have interpreted him as being an over the top villain. I really don’t see that. I think he’s absolutely unique and big about his performance, but I like it and I don’t see him as necessarily a villain in any way. He has a very specific point of view and that is that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of Colter Stevens and that’s a completely legitimate argument to make, especially if you work for the government and the guy works for the military. We make those decisions all the time. So I don’t see him as being a villain, I see him as being a little bit of a crazy scientist and he has a point of view. That’s an interesting one, I think sometimes people kind of immediately make an assumption about what it is they are seeing and then they find it difficult to actually realize that it doesn’t actually follow what they think it does.

PCZ: You almost make him look like he’s going to be the big bad guy because he’s in the background at first, but then you realize he’s discovered a tool to use in the fight against terrorism and he doesn’t see why we shouldn’t exploit it. He doesn’t really come across to me as cold.

DJ: He’s practical, he’s very practical and he has the opportunity to do a massive good from his point of view or from everyone’s point of view, other than Colter Stevens’.

PCZ: You even injected a little bit of humanity with the actual villain, the bomber.

DJ: He’s a funny one. In the script it was always interesting that we were building up this whole mystery as to who the bomber is and then we get there and we actually have story to continue. That’s not what the goal of the film is. I saw this fantastic documentary, if you get the chance to see it, you should, called The Nuclear Boy Scout. It’s about this kid in the Midwest who fifteen years ago went after an Atomic Energy merit badge. He decided he would qualify for that by creating a breeder nuclear reactor, which he did in his mom’s backyard and he irradiated the neighborhood and the government had to come in and clean it up. He’s obviously ridiculously smart and he was able to go to antique stores and find these old alarm clocks that had the green glowing panels on them, which are actually radioactive and if you can isolate that stuff and get enough of it, all of a sudden you have radioactive material. He went around getting all of this clocks and certain fire alarms that had radioactive material and he built this breeder reactor. People asked him afterwards why he did it and with absolutely no thought about the implications of it, he was like well, I could, I knew how to do it. That documentary, for me, was really a touchstone about those people who do horrific acts, but don’t really think about the consequences. People who are smart enough to do those things, but don’t think about why they shouldn’t do it. When I was talking to Michael (Arden), who played that part, I showed him that documentary and we got into that a lot, about what that psychology is and why there are people out there who have that split personality, that sociopathic character.

PCZ: That’s pretty amazing. Well, that is all the questions I have for you.

DJ: Fantastic, it was really nice talking to you. Thank you so much.

PCZ: Thank you and thank you for a tremendous film.

Thank you very much to Duncan Jones for taking the time to speak to me. Source Code is in theaters April 1 and stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright.

About Joseph Dilworth Jr.

Joseph Dilworth Jr. has been writing since he could hold a pencil (back then it was one of those big, fat red pencils, the Faber-Castell GOLIATH. Remember those? Now that was a pencil!). As editor-in-chief and instigator of this here website he takes full responsibility for any wacky hi-jinks that ensue. He appreciates you taking the time to read his articles and asks that you direct any feedback, criticisms, questions about life directly to him by clicking here.