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Man on His “Moon”: Duncan Jones Pulls Off Sci-Fi for $5 Million

Man on His "Moon": Duncan Jones Pulls Off Sci-Fi for $5 Million

“I started off very young,” “Moon” director Duncan Jones told indieWIRE of his relationship with filmmaking. “My dad and I used to shoot little one-stop animations on an old 8mm film camera when I was no more than 7 or 8, and when he was away at work, I would keep shooting nonsensical short animated films using ‘Star Wars’ figures or Smurfs – depended what the narrative was. Growing up I was on film sets occasionally, when my dad was acting, so I got to run around and do odd jobs on films like ‘Labyrinth’ and others… I seemed destined to make films…”

Jones (who, if you didn’t pick it up from the “Labyrinth” reference, is the son of David Bowie), has fulfilled that destiny with “Moon,” an indie sci-fi drama that won over audiences and critics alike at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics, which picked up the film during the festival, is releasing it theatricallly this Friday.

“Moon” was a long time coming for Jones. Post-“Star Wars” figure shorts, “academia, sports and girls” got the better of him, and he stopped being interested in films for a long while. “I took an incredibly roundabout route getting into feature films,” he said. “I got some funky scholarships to play soccer and did well in my SATs, so I went off to college and then grad school, but found that that wasn’t me. My family, relieved I seemed to have come to my senses, were happy to let me go to film school.”

During film school, Jones worked his way into the “low, low budget” music video & commercials business. After building up a reel, he started shooting short films, and later some bigger commercials. “Eventually [I began] working with a guy called Trevor Beattie, who ran a pretty big advertising agency in the UK,” Jones recalled. “He asked me to join his agency as a creative, where I would still get to direct, and I had the time of my life! After 18 months of working at the agency though, I could feel the itch again, and knew it was time to take a shot at making a feature film. I felt like I had acquired all the right tools through the many, many years I had spent since film school, and set about making ‘Moon,’ with my trusty gang of collaborators.”

Set in the near future, “Moon” stars Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell, an astronaut assigned by ‘Lunar Industries’ to a three-year mission mining Helium 3 on the moon, the earth’s new energy source. As his contract comes to an end and Sam’s health starts to deteriorate, painful headaches, hallucinations and a lack of focus lead to an almost fatal accident. While recuperating, Sam meets a younger, angrier version of himself, who claims to be there to fulfill the same three- year contract Sam started all those years ago.

The “science behind the fiction” came to Jones – who co-wrote the script with Nathan Parker – via a book called “Entering Space,” by Robert Zubrin. “This is an amazing piece of non-fiction,” he explained, “that goes into detail about how we might colonize the solar system, and do it in a way that is fiscally viable. One of the early chapters in the book was about going to the Moon to mine Helium-3, an isotope that has the potential to be a ‘fuel of the future,’ clean burning, and to be used in fusion power stations, when we get them online.”

A scene from Duncan Jones’ “Moon.” Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Jones also noted numerous cinematic influences at play. “When Sam [Rockwell] and I were initially talking about the kind of films we both loved and what kind of film we wanted to make – films like ‘Outland,’ ‘Silent Running’ and Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ were at the top of the list,” he said. “Though there are homages to other sci-fi films generously sprinkled throughout ‘Moon’ – Gerty’s obvious HAL lineage, for example – those were the three films that were in mind first and foremost. Technically, I was watching a Criterion edition of Cronenberg’s ‘Dead Ringers’ and a DVD of Spike Jonze’s ‘Adaptation’ pretty regularly to really break down how I would approach the effects we used with Sam where he plays multiple parts.”

Visually, Jones and concept artist Gavin Rothery worked very closely with production designer Tony Noble for the look of the base, “borrowing liberally” from their favorite sci-fi film makers and designers. “[We wanted] to create something that felt authentic to the sci-fi films of the late ’70s and early ’80s. The idea was that we wanted to make a film that felt like it could have been a lost gem from that era.”

Jones was also working on budget from that era, or even less so. The film cost under $5 million, about half of what “2001: A Space Odyssey” cost in 1968, without adjusting for inflation. That makes “Moon” a significantly minimalist alternative to the big-budget summer fare it’ll be competing against.

“It’s an indie sci-fi film, and there are not a huge number of those made,” Jones said. “Namely because sci-fi by its very nature tends to be expensive. We had to approach it as a puzzle; how do we create something that will appeal to Sam Rockwell as an actor, be inventive and dynamic enough for an audience, use those special effects we know will give us the most bang for our buck and do it for less than $5 million. I wanted a completely controlled shooting environment, so we shot everything in sound stages at Shepperton Studios, and we used model miniatures for the lunar exterior sequences. It really was a slightly insane approach, but with the amazingly talented people we had working on the film, we were able to pull it off.”

Jones called the experience “an outrageously, apparently insurmountable challenge.” “The shoot was done at break neck pace,” he said. “Thirty-three days of live action and 8 model miniatures for a film with over 450 effects shots, is crazy, and I would never agree to approaching it like that again. But it was necessary. It was a first film, and we all laid it on the line for it.”

While he might go about it a different way next time, Jones isn’t done with sci-fi. He hopes his follow-up project to “Moon” will be a Berlin-based future city thriller called “Mute.” “It takes place in the same time-line as ‘Moon,'” he said. “We’ll have to see how and if we can make it come together, but I would love for that to be next. It wouldn’t be far off-base to call it my love letter to ‘Blade Runner,’ possibly my favorite sci-fi film of all.”

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