‘Source Code’ director Duncan Jones on science fiction and his famous father

March 30, 2011 | 5:12 p.m.
duncanj times lifbghnc Source Code director Duncan Jones on science fiction and his famous father

Duncan Jones (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

Duncan Jones had entrée into the world of celebrities, movies and pop culture from the moment he was born.  As the son of British rock legend David Bowie, his friends were the children of other musicians, actors and artists. He grew up the musical equivalent of a military brat, calling, at times, London, Berlin, Tokyo and New York home. His introduction to professional filmmaking came from observing his father on the sets of films, including the 1986 fantasy “Labyrinth.”

But his 2009 low-budget science-fiction drama, “Moon,” and this Friday’s science-fiction thriller “Source Code” reflect a very different Duncan Jones. Whereas his celebu-spawn contemporary Sofia Coppola makes movies like “Somewhere” and “Lost in Translation” — films ensconced in show business culture — Jones crafts mind-bending science-fiction narratives in which isolated men in desperate situations search for answers.

To find the roots of the 39-year-old director’s aesthetic, one has to look to Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, where Jones spent 2 1/2 years in a doctoral program in philosophy. “I studied mind-body philosophy and how one might apply ethics to potential thinking machines in the future, and my approach is still massively influenced by those years,” Jones says, reflecting on a time that shaped his thinking and his approach to storytelling.

“I was truly miserable at grad school and lonely, and I explored my feelings in an almost monastic way,” he adds. “I think that has informed how I work with actors and tell them what their characters might be going through.”

Speaking in Beverly Hills at the end of a long weekend promoting his new movie, the bearded, shaggy-haired Jones references philosophical ideas like Schrödinger’s Cat (a thought experiment in which a feline can be simultaneously alive and dead) when describing “Source Code.” In the film, Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Army Capt. Colter Stevens, a man who loses consciousness and wakes to find himself forced to take part in a secret military program through which he relives, over and over, the last eight minutes of a dead man’s life.  Stevens’ mission is to identify the bomber on the Chicago commuter train where his alter ego died, but he quickly determines that he actually must reconnect with his own life while also attempting to change reality by altering the past.

When describing how he directs, Jones frequently uses the phrase “problem solving,” and “Source Code” presented plenty of opportunities to do just that. The most obvious was presenting the same eight minutes of time in new and interesting ways, always starting with Gyllenhaal opening his eyes in the midst of a conversation with commuting buddy Michelle Monaghan.

Gyllenhaal says in a phone interview that Jones reminded him of his “Brokeback Mountain” director, Ang Lee — a far-from-obvious analogy given that Lee is known for lush emotional tales, not outer space and time travel. But the actor says their on-set styles are remarkably similar. “Duncan is quiet and stoic when he gives you a direction,” he says. “First he trusts the actor wholeheartedly and practically begs us to lead him.”

sourcecode jake Source Code director Duncan Jones on science fiction and his famous father

Jake Gyllenhaa and Michelle Monaghan in "Source Code" (Summit Entertainment/MCT)

Despite his childhood proximity to the limelight, Jones never expected to find himself working in Hollywood. He says he was uncomfortable in the world of rock concerts and movie sets and wasn’t even a fan of his father’s work. “I always see him as my dad and was unable to see beyond that,” he explains. However, he and Bowie, who won custody of his son after a divorce, bonded by shooting 8-millimeter stop-motion animated movies together.

After concluding in his late 20s that he didn’t want to become a professor, Jones left graduate school and visited his father on the set of the television series “The Hunger” in Montreal. While there he assisted director Tony Scott, whom he credits with inspiring him to abandon the unhappy path he was on and turn to moviemaking. “He didn’t know that he was helping me to change my life, but he was,” says Jones.

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Sam Rockwell in "Moon" (Sony Pictures Classics)

After graduating from film school in London, Jones pursued a career in advertising — the same field in which Scott started. He gained attention with ads for brands such as French Connection and then made his move into films with the 2009 Sundance Film Festival entry “Moon,” which he also co-wrote. It starred Sam Rockwell as a solitary man running a mining operation on Earth’s satellite.

“The thing about Duncan is he’s both emotional and cerebral,” Rockwell says over the phone of his decision to work with the then-first-time filmmaker. “He understands that you have to track emotional logic, not just the logic of the story.”

Though it generated only $5 million at the domestic box office, “Moon” proved to be the calling card Jones needed. It earned him fans throughout Hollywood, including Gyllenhaal, who already was attached to writer Ben Ripley’s “Source Code” script and championed Jones to direct it after the two met.

The $32-million production — after tax credits in Montreal, where it was shot — represented a big step up from the $5-million-budgeted “Moon.” But Jones already is getting even bigger opportunities. He was a finalist to direct Warner Bros.’ upcoming reboot of Superman and passed on a new movie based on the British comic-book superhero Judge Dredd. Instead, he’s working on an original script for his next movie and, as his nearly 16,000 Twitter followers can attest, frequently playing video games. Jones says he plans to make one more science-fiction movie, after which he hopes to move on to other genres.

But whatever he does, it seems unlikely that he’ll be able to resist playing with big ideas. Jones acknowledges he obsessed over crafting the end of “Source Code” to make sure that every loose end came together in a way that even a philosophy professor couldn’t question. “I wanted to make a film that’s accessible but resolves all of the logical implications and paradoxes,” he says. “I understand that not everyone leaving the film is necessarily going to get all that, but I needed it there for my own satisfaction.”

— Ben Fritz


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11 Responses to ‘Source Code’ director Duncan Jones on science fiction and his famous father

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  2. ChrisCraddock says:

    As a huge fan of David Bowie, I remember hearing about Duncan Jones a long time ago. Angie and David thought it would be cute to name their spawn Zoey Bowie, but he rebelled and went by Joe and now he is Duncan Jones (Joe Jones was perhaps a bit too drab). I kind of thought that was a bit cruel to name him Zoey, on top of his father's controversial stage persona, imagine the teasing in school. Glad to hear that he has adjusted well, has a good relationship with dad, even if he is not a fan of his music, and is making his own way in the world.

    I like it that Duncan not only references Schrödinger’s Cat, but is concerned that "every loose end came together in a way that even a philosophy professor couldn’t question." For that I'd be willing to suspend my disbelief indefinitely.

  3. Pecos45 says:

    Bryce Howard, Kate Hudson, Liv Tyler, Kiefer Sutherland, and Jaden Smith.
    How many more offspring of celebrities are we going to have to endure? It's like Hollywood inbreeding.
    (Oh, I know. They had to work hard for everything their parents gave them."

  4. DDB9000 says:

    I have not seen "Source Code" yet, but "Moon" was a great film. Looking forward to seeing more from Duncan.

    Two corrections – one in the story, one in a comment…

    "The Hunger" was a feature film, NOT a TV series – oddly enough I just got the DVD last weekend.

    And the name that David & Angie gave Duncan was "Zowie" not "Zoey". Notice the spelling similarity with "Bowie"?

  5. Jim Gardner says:

    The article fails to mention that Jones father starred in the great Sci-Fi film The Man Who Fell To Earth.

  6. Ron G says:

    If you consider David Bowie's fascination with science fiction themes in both his music and film career – going all the way back to "Space Oddity" (remember Major Tom?) through "Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars," songs like "1984" and "Loving the Alien," and films like "The Man Who Fell to Earth" and "Labryinth", etc – it's no wonder that Duncan Jones finds himself drawn to the subject matter, subconciously or not.

  7. Sheila says:

    Source Code hit a nerve with me. The ending brought out some deep cellular emotion from an unknown place. I would consider this a gem on many levels.

    I also enjoyed Moon and have seen it multiple times. Duncan is a serious talent in his own right. However, I am a huge huge fan of his father's music, and creative mind in general. I see those genes have been passed on.

    Duncan Jones is a breath of fresh air and much appreciated.

  8. dcmortimer says:

    "Moon" for me was the best SC/FI movie I have seen for a long time, I wish him the best with his future ,looking forward to seen more great works from him .

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