Duncan Jones‘ “Source Code” booted up at SXSW, kicking off festivities last week, and word has been good. In our review, we noted that “Jones remains a strong and original voice in a genre badly needing of both” and whatever you may think of his followup to “Moon,” it is undeniably unlike any other sci-fi pic out there right now. This is thanks largely in part to the brainy, narrative-looping script by Ben Ripley. The writer, who previously penned a couple of forgettable “Species” sequels, makes his jump to the big leagues in a major way with a script that conceives a high concept sci-fi premise without ever losing the audience in geek speak.
We sat down with Jones and Ripley as part of a Q&A session with the press at SXSW, and they talked about the balance between tech talk and narrative movement in the film, collaborating on the script and the range of influences on the story from “Rashomon” to “Sliding Doors.”
How difficult and important is it to write a movie that deals with things outside of reality?
Ben Ripley: I grew up surrounded by technology, my father was a computer scientists and he got his Ph.D in computer science in 1970. There were only two or three universities that offer advanced degrees so I was just surrounded by that and seeing his colleagues go into the research labs, seeing the technology and I’ve always been at home with that and although I kind of went in a more creative field, English major or writing movies, I think you have to have a core comfort with tech and part of a core comfort is actually not working so hard to make other people believe it so you have to believe it yourself. To me, Stanley Kubrick is a great example of someone who can present a world as a real world. And I think the other thing I would say in terms of making science fiction believable, is removing a lot of the explanations. The early drafts of “Source Code” were belaboring, “Here’s the technology, here’s our operative, here’s the situation” and it was prosaic, and by taking out the science it became much more like real life and paradoxically it’s believable.
Duncan Jones: Yeah, I think in this particular case I was looking at a script which really had been structured and worked on for such a long time, my job became about how do I maintain sort of an emotional connection for the audience with the stories of the characters? And I really kind of just allowed myself to just lean on Ben’s script as far as the technology goes and that was my approach on “Source Code.”
Q: Did you guys work together on the script?
BR: We came at the project in different phases. I had worked on the script for a couple of years by the time we all thought it was good enough to look for a director, so by the time that Duncan came on most of my work was done and his work was just starting out.
DJ: Yeah, I was brought onto it, there was already a real sort of plan of attack on when they wanted to shoot the film. Jake [Gyllenhaal] was already sort of attached and we knew that he had an availability. He had just finished “Prince of Persia,” he had to go off and do press for that film so we had this window of opportunity to shoot it, so my job really just became about let’s find out how we can tell this story, put in the visuals I was hoping to put in the film and do it within the time frame and the budget we had.
Q: What was the thing that made you want to make it?
DJ: Well there was two things. The strength of the script was apparent in the read. It was very pacey, it just kind of kept you constantly engaged. Obviously I’d just come off “Moon” which was a little bit more thoughtful in pace, a little cerebral and a little slower. And I wanted to be able to do something which was going to be go, go go the whole way through so that was what immediately drew me in and the chance to work with Jake obviously was a big deal to me, I’m a big fan of his, I think he’s very talented, so it was sort of that two hander.
Q: How did you decide what to reveal about the film for promotion?
DJ: Well it’s been kind of a learning opportunity for me. Obviously with “Moon” it was an independent film, I had control over how things work, on this film it’s a much bigger budget, it’s a film that’s being released by a large entity that’s used to doing this, so it’s really…I had to put my faith in it a little bit and I have been putting my faith in how they do that. I make suggestions, sometimes they like them, sometimes they don’t but I always give them my opinion.
Q: Was that part of it, wanting to see how the studio system works?
DJ: Absolutely. I think it’s important, even if you want to do your own films, if you want to do your own films on a budget, then you need to know how Hollywood ticks.
Q: What was the challenge for both of you in writing something with a non-traditional structure?
BR: We were looking at a lot of films for inspiration, we were looking at “Sliding Doors,” the Gwyneth Paltrow movie, we were looking at “Run Lola Run,” we were looking at “The Matrix,” we were looking at “Groundhog Day,” we were looking at “Rashomon,” at some point you just have to kind of forget all of that and tell your story and I would actually say that the limitations of the setting, the limitations of the eight minutes, the limitations of his lack of memory, those are all great things that as a filmmaker you love. Because then you know, okay, I can be creative within this confine. The hard thing is if you don’t have limitations and then you have no idea what the heck to do.
DJ: And I think establishing those limitations on a purely physical side, the locations that we had to work on, it became even more important that we had worked out a way to break free of those restrictions as far as repetition, had to look different, they had to be, you know I had amazing actors working on the film who were able to give me nuanced but different performances each time so there was a sense of progression and a narrative that was unfolding, even though we might be revisiting the same place. Hopefully….it doesn’t feel repetitive even though we’re going back to the same place.
Q: It seemed like there was a Hitchcock vibe in this, is that something that was conscious?
DJ: Absolutely. There is the score and there is the train stations with the clock tower and another clock on the platform of Jake in his jacket and tie, I think it felt like a good place to work from and that was for all the departments actually. Whether it was music or wardrobe it was really how can we bring just an element of that to this, even down to the grade in some ways.
Q: You’ve done an indie film, this sci-fi action thriller, what’s next for you?
DJ: I think there’s a “Scream” sequel….no I’m writing my next, what I’m hoping is going to be next film. I’m very lucky, Summit are flying me around the country right now talking about “Source Code” and while I’m flying I’m in the business class so I can plug in my laptop and get some writing done while I’m flying. So I’m hoping to work on that next, and then “Mute” which is obviously this perennial, this thing I’ve been trying to make for a long time. I think that’s going to kind of be my “Don Quixote,” it’s going to be around for years. Maybe in my 70s I’ll make it, but in the meantime I’m going to turn it into a graphic novel, it worked for Darren Aronofsky and maybe it will rub off on me. I’ll get a chance to make it if people option the graphic novel. I’m not telling you it will work but I’m very excited about it.
Q: Do you have any desire to break out into a more epic scope?
DJ: Absolutely I’ll branch out of that and break out of that….the next film — we’ve broken out of confined environments — it’s going to be future city stuff, so it’s big sprawling fun. —reporting by RP