A Conversation with Writer/Director Duncan Jones About His Film MUTE and A Lot Of Other Stuff
Entertainment runs in the blood of writer/director Duncan Jones; not only is he the son of Rock legend David Bowie, he burst into Hollywood via the Sundance Film festival with his first ever feature film, Moon. Now several years and two movies later Jones is bringing his passion project to life with the help of Netflix. Mute is a sci-fi noir thriller set in Berlin that stars Alexander Skarsgård, Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux and Dominic Monaghan. Jones and co-writer Michael Robert Johnson have been working on this high-tech futuristic take on noir since the early 2000s, even before Jones wrote his first movie Moon, and it has gone through quite the evolution.
Recently I got to sit down with Jones and talk about all things Mute related and beyond.
GT: So tell me how Mute came to be, supposedly it is your passion project?
Duncan Jones: "Yeah, sixteen years we wrote it sixteen years ago me and Mike and originally it was going to be my first film before I made Moon.
GT: That's surprising, how has it changed, did it go through many changes since you wrote it?
Jones: We made one big dramatic change after about 2010 and that was to go from being, you know because it was me my first film it was mostly low budget, London-based gangster film and we basically wrote it around the same time that Sexy Beast came out and Layer Cake, and there was a kind of a new wave of British gangster films coming out. Guy Ritchie was kind of just making his first film, so it was going to be one of those and then after Moon and the experience I had on that I looked at the script and was like okay I'm going to do this next and it just felt flat to me. I started thinking, you know, what if this was science fiction instead of contemporary? There's a lot of extra stuff I could pull out of this. But it's had a long period of being of evolving and worked on since that change but it was around 2010 that it kind of became a science fiction film and then it's kind of had a life of its own since then."
GT: And so then Moon was your first movie, what made you want to connect Mute to Moon and was it always your intention?
Jones: It was kind of a 'it would be fun thing' but you know, I think I wanted to turn it into a science fiction film first and when that was successful then I was like, oh yeah, this is really improved what was kind of a basic thriller into something more interesting. Then I was like I would be kind of fun to tie up a couple of loose ends for Moon in this as long as it doesn't interfere with the story we're trying to tell.
GT: Before you decided to make that connection, did you ever consider casting Sam Rockwell?
Jones: Yeah, in fact, the reason Sam Rockwell and I met was I sent him the Mute script before we made Moon to play Duck, Justin Theroux's character and obviously he didn't want to play that character. As you can imagine that kind of a character is a tough character to play but he wanted to play Leo and there was no way he was going to play Leo. You know I needed the physical presence of a big guy like Alexander [Skarsgård] to play that character and at that point, I was like, okay Sam Rockwell you're too cool to not make a movie with, so I'm going to put Mute aside and write something for you. And that's why I wrote Moon.
GT: Now that you have made this little connection between both films, is there a chance that we'll ever see a sequel to Moon or to Mute or just something new set within that world?
Jones: I think that something within that world, well I mean what I've kind of hoped to keep to is is that if you think of it more as an anthology rather than prequels or sequels, anything like that, there's Moon there's Mute and there's one more film that are all independent from each other but they just happened to take place within the same world, same timeline.
GT: That's so cool, it was the things I really liked about Mute, how it really gave a little more context with Moon even though it didn't tie directly into the story. You're like that's what Earth was like, and he's just up on this little island. All we ever saw was the earth through this little screen.
Jones: Yeah that's right
GT: At first I thought, you know it's a lot like Blade Runner, but then I realized that all of your, all the gadgets and technology in the movie was a lot more believable, it wasn't too fantastical or silly, I mean it was easy to believe it was real.
Jones: Absolutely almost everything is only like one step away from where we are now. Drones delivering food, that's not that hard to believe, refrigerators that have the information for what's in the fridge, Samsung are doing that and you know it's the latest generation of fridges so it was really just basically taking stuff that's on the cutting edge now and making it just normal, you know. It's just part of life.
GT: It gave more validity to the story too, it wasn't too distracting. Sometimes you have these really elaborate things, they pull you out of the story a little bit.
Jones: Yeah it's like you are getting somewhere between magic and science fiction right? It's kind of like Black Mirror is very good at that as well, I think that they tend to take ideas which are kind of happening now and just take them just a couple years further. You know, where are they going to be in a couple of years.
GT: That was another thing I was going to ask about. In a lot of ways, Mute really feels almost like one big Black Mirror episode. Have you watched the show?
Jones: I'm maybe one or two off of having watched all of them but I've watched.
GT: Do you have a favorite episode?
Jones: Yeah, my favorite episode is the one starring Toby Kebble in season 1, his performance in that episode was actually the reason I cast him in Warcraft, and it's the one where he can rewind memories in his relationship
GT: Okay, let's talk about the cast a bit. Alexander Skarsgård, you said initially Sam wanted to play the role of Leo before you even made Moon? So what brought you to Skarsgård, he's having a great year by the way so that's only helping your movie.
Jones: I know I don't I'm lucky I now have a Bafta winning, potentially Oscar winning Sam in my movie as well which is good. I think he's going to get it, I hope. Alex, I saw in Generation Kill and I thought he was a really interesting intense, nuanced actor and maybe he'd be the right guy. Really it wasn't until I met him in person and you know he'd read the script we talked about it and he was intimidated by playing Leo because he understood how hard it was going to get the audience to empathize and care about him and see him change with no dialogue to use as the crutch. And I think the fact that he realized how hard it was made me feel confident, yeah, you can do this. I mean if you were like 'yeah no problem, I can do this' I would have probably backed off. But I think him taking it that seriously to realize it was a challenge is what brought me in.
GT: You know another question, was he always Amish, even from the beginning?
Jones: From that original change to sci-fi at that point he became Amish. I went to college my undergrad was in Worcester, Ohio, so I was in Amish country. When I was writing it as a science fiction film one of the first questions I had for myself was okay so he's mute, why can't he just get some device implanted and talk? I then decided there is a religious reason. His mom basically said no and he's a very respectful young Amish guy and did what his mom said.
GT: And then Cactus Bill and Duck. When I initially heard that you cast Paul Rudd, I thought okay, so based on his previous experience he's probably the comedy relief or something in this movie. He definitely has funny moments in the movie but, man I've never seen him do something like this.
Jones: He loved it. He had such a ball in this and I think again it's one of those things where you have the actual meeting with the actor to sort of see what you're really thinking and he was so excited because he said he always gets cast in these roles where he's the love interest, the goofy guy, the fun guy, and no ever offers him anything like this. And just seeing his enthusiasm for it and the fact that you know he got to work with Justin who is one of Paul's friends in real life and they're both smart and funny guys.
I'm sure you know Robert Altman's MASH I had them watch that movie for homework, they had to watch that movie repeatedly cause that's what we were trying to go for, those two guys had to feel like best of friends. They had to see themselves as the smartest guys in the room and just having that bond that you get when you when you live out of each other's pockets you really kind of have a love hate relationship with the each other and know that you are kind of stuck with each other. That's what I wanted, you know, Cactus and Duck to be is just like these guys who joined at the hip.
GT: Where did their names come from?
Jones: With Cactus Bill the idea is that he's literally a he's just a prickly motherfucker, he's just psychotic, he's very funny, very engaging, but he's got a really bad temper and that's why he's called Cactus. So that's Cactus and then Duck, again just totally unexpected unplanned, but is his full name is Donald Tethington for obvious reasons he earned the nickname Duck.
GT: So were Rudd and Theroux kind of a package deal?
Jones: It was absolutely ideal and they were cast in the same way that I would approach casting a romantic couple. I wanted to see the chemistry, I wanted to feel confident that there was a chemistry between them because if you didn't believe that those guys were best buddies and that they thought they were smarter than everyone else it just didn't work. They really had to see themselves as superior and be funny at the same time, right and that's tricky, you know? But I hit the jackpot with those two.
GT: Changing things up, how was working with Netflix different than your other studio experience?
Jones: It was, and especially with the previous film I made Warcraft where it was, you know the extreme of studio politics in filmmaking. That was three and a half really difficult years and then coming on to Netflix they said from the start that they were going to stand back and let me do what I want to do. If they signed off on the script, if they signed off on the cast that was it, now go away make the film. Here's your Budget, deliver on the budget we won't interfere. I was a little skeptical, but I trusted them and they were absolutely true to their word to me. So once they'd sign off on cast and the script they just let us go off and make the movie and that was it.
GT: And you shot the entire movie in Berlin?
Jones: We were in Berlin the whole time. We were at Studio Babelsberg where Fritz Lang made Metropolis, which was this incredible place. The film splits pretty much fifty fifty between studio shoot and on location around Berlin but the rest of the film was with these amazing places that exist in Berlin.
GT: OK so you've done 3 sci-fi films and one fantasy film, is there another genre that you would like to explore?
Jones: "Yeah and I know it sounds kind of trite, but I want to do a Western. I really want to do a western but it's really really hard to get westerns off the ground. It's actually it's less hard to get them off the ground, it's more hard to get audiences to go see it. People don't want to watch westerns it's really really really hard to get a financially successful Western.
GT: Lastly, do you have any projects in the works you want to talk about?
Jones: No, I do have two projects that I'm pushing and it's kind of, you know, just the way films get made, kind of a horse race to see which one gets traction. And then when I know I can get much more excited about it but for now, it's kind of two horse race. I'll have to see how things play out.