There was no real choice in the matter: Duncan Jones had to make Mute. It's not just a movie, but in many ways the culmination of his life and career to this point, a synthesis of experiences and thesis project about everything he's learned, developed and re-developed over time to match a rollercoaster decade and a half.
The 46-year-old filmmaker has been talking about the project since he became famous. Do a quick search, and you'll find him discussing the idea when he was doing his first round of press for Moon, his debut feature, all the way back in 2009. And at that point, he had been working on the movie for nearly a decade, rewriting over and over a script that he had first started soon after graduating from film school in 2001. Conceived with writing partner Mike Johnson, the initial idea was very different than the movie that will finally come out on Netflix on Friday.
"I was thinking that this could be a small London-based contemporary kind of gangster thriller, in the same vein as something like Layer Cake or Sexy Beast or Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, which were the kind of films that were coming out around the same time," Jones told SYFY WIRE this week. "It was a long time ago and it was a very different film."
The basic plot of the film that audiences will see on Friday is still mostly the same as it was back then: a motley crew of shady characters maneuver around a seedy underworld, and eventually a mute bartender named Leo, who is singularly focused on finding his missing girlfriend, intersects with wise-cracking ex-military doctors nicknamed Cactus and Duck.
The first attempt to make the movie, as it was written back then, came in the mid-to-late aughts. After years of working on commercials and music videos, Jones felt ready to make his first feature, so he met with the actor Sam Rockwell, who would become the first of many actors to get the Mute pitch.
"I think Sam was the funniest and the most endearing one in that I sent it to him with the hopes of him playing Duck, the character Justin Theroux ended up playing," Jones recalled. "And Sam wanted to play Leo, but he just didn't have the physical size for that character."
Despite that casting disagreement, the meeting was still very productive. They wound up talking about their mutual love for sci-fi films from the '70s and '80s, a conversation that led Jones to write Moon, a movie that was tailored specifically (and only) to Rockwell's quirky charms. And that near-future sci-fi experience, in turn, wound up leading to a full reimagining of Mute.
"I revisited it because I'd made my first film and I was like, okay, now I can make Mute," Jones said. "And I looked at it, and I was like, this contemporary setting is actually less exciting to me than what we just experienced making Moon. Maybe I can make it into a science fiction film."
The setting moved from modern-day London to a near-future Berlin that looks a bit like Blade Runner's Los Angeles, if a bit less dystopian and doomed. There are fewer noodle shops, though just as much rain. And bionic body parts abound, giving Cactus and Duck plenty of business, though they work for the mob more than the public interest; they do the dirty work to pay off a criminal who can secure Cactus's return to America.
"One of the things that didn't work about the original London version is that Cactus and Duck, and in particular Cactus, had to want to get home," Jones explained. "He really had to hate where he was. And I think London was too easy for him. Everyone speaks English. It's just, it's not as alienating for him to be in London as it is to be in a country that doesn't speak his language. So I think that was one of the benefits of moving it to Berlin."
The future technology had to be updated over the course of the script's development, to stay ahead of the rapid advance of consumer tech over the course of the decade. Jones tried to keep it largely based in believable near-future concepts, like drones that deliver food and refrigerators that keep a running tally of groceries inside. Of course, none of those small details would have mattered if Jones didn't find the right actors, which continued to be a challenge.
He met with Jake Gyllenhaal about the film… and once again, a filmmaker-actor get-together wound up leading to another project, the 2011 thriller Source Code. Jones didn't write that script, but came aboard and made significant changes and, importantly, got experience working with a bigger budget and in a studio setting.
But Mute still lingered, returning to the forefront of his mind whenever there wasn't another project to be made. Jones still hadn't cast the thing, despite years of targeting performers both mentally and in face-to-face meetings. "There were other actors who I really was hoping for early on, but that was such a long time ago," he said. "Ray Stevenson, this amazing Irish actor who was in the TV show Rome, he was one of my early choices for Leo. But time marches on."
After Source Code, Jones spent three and half years making Warcraft, an exhausting process that led to a lot of important lessons, if not rave critical reviews. After that, his father, music legend David Bowie, passed away, followed shortly by the woman who helped raise him, Marion Skene. And through his mourning, he began to look differently at his script. The plot didn't change, necessarily, but certain elements took on new meaning and emphasis.
"Over time, with the opportunity to make other movies and as I developed and grew older as a person, and lost my own parents and became a father in my own right, some of the subtext that was in the movie, which I didn't even really realize, became much more obvious to me," Jones explained. "Like the idea of parenthood and how Leo was affected by his mother by her not allowing him to have surgery [to restore his voice]. And how Cactus had tried his best to be a father in these circumstances. And what [Leo's girlfriend] Naadirah was doing for her daughter, without that becoming a spoiler. I think, all of these elements became much more important to me than I originally realized when I first wrote it."
Jones knew that Mute would always be hard to get made in the current franchise-focused Hollywood environment, and after his experience with Warcraft, he wasn't exactly craving another big studio-driven project. For filmmakers of a certain pedigree, Netflix has become a godsend, making the mid-budget (and increasingly ambitious) projects that don't get greenlit by traditional studios these days, and the company swept in to finally make Jones' long-gestating dream come true. He just had to cast it, which had always been its own challenge.
At one point, Jones happened to catch the 2008 HBO military mini-series Generation Kill, and knew instantly that Alexander Skarsgard would be a perfect Leo, given his size and ability to express so much with so few words. Luckily, the stars finally aligned, and the actor he wanted for the role also wanted to play the role. Theroux, as previously mentioned, plays Duck, while Paul Rudd takes on the role of Cactus, a complicated character that audiences might hate to hate.
So Mute finally got made, and Jones is out finally talking about the project as a real entity, not a notion of the future. It took 16 years to make happen, and he laughs when asked why, exactly, he stayed with it for all that time. It obviously became a personal mission, and took on new meaning as it neared production, but why was he so devoted in the first place? Why was he still obsessed with it 14 years later, even before the deeper connections became clear? His answer is deceptively simple.
"When you're creating things and when you're writing them, for me at least, coming up with something that feels truly original doesn't happen that often," Jones explained. "When you find something that you look at, and every time you look at it, it's like, yeah, I don't think I've seen anything like that or I haven't seen anything like that in a long time, it kind of reinforces the idea that this is something you really need to pursue. Because originality is a rare commodity."