Duncan Jones
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Duncan Jones' unique path from Smurfs stop-motion to blockbuster auteur

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Feb 22, 2018, 11:00 AM EST

When Duncan Jones released his directorial debut, Moon, in 2009, it seemed like a new prodigy had burst onto the scene out of nowhere, an instant auteur who could please both critics and audiences with heady, fun science fiction. And while all that was technically true, the odyssey that Jones had traveled to get to that point was also far more eventful than most first-time filmmakers.

As the only son of David Bowie, a career in the arts would figure to be Jones' birthright. But while he spent time on movie sets and on epic world tours, he also carved his own path to success. He spent years in academia before even deciding to become a filmmaker, and then once he went to film school, it took nearly a decade of honing his craft with music videos, commercials, and short films before he could raise the small budget to make Moon. In the decade since that film's release, Jones has made three more sci-fi films: Source Code, Warcraft, and this weekend's Netflix release, Mute, a movie that he had been planning since receiving his diploma.

This week, Jones took the SYFY WIRE Survey and looked back at the highs and hard times of his winding career, which, as learn below, started long before film school (and even middle school).

What was the first script you ever wrote?

Duncan Jones: It was the script I wrote immediately before Mute, and it was called John Fleming. It was a science fiction — no surprise there — but it was a courtroom drama about the rights of an artificial intelligence. And it was kind of like 12 Angry Men but for sci-fi. It was all dialogue, and it was not cinematic, and it was driving me crazy, 'cause I was looking at it and I was thinking, yeah, you could probably afford to make this on a really low budget, but would anybody want to watch it?

I mean, it was a nice idea. I think the idea of an AI having to prove itself — in a way that kind of evolved into Sam Bell [of Moon]. It kind of exists in that way.

What was the first short you ever made?

The very first short I made was a very long time ago, probably back in the 1970s. And it was with a one-stop 8-millimeter camera, stop-motion animation, and it was using Smurfs and Playmobil figures. It was amazing. I think it was about a tornado that hit Smurf town.

Who is your artistic hero?

Probably Terry Gilliam. First of all, I just love the fact that he won't give up. Whether it's Don Quixote or anything that he's tried to make, he has this incredibly inventive artistic mind, and he will just keep on banging away until he finds a way to get things made, or if he can't he'll just ... I don't know, I think he's just so brave and exciting and creative. And I love the fact that what's in his head he just goes with, whether it makes sense or not. It's beautiful and it's creative.

I've met him a couple of times over the years. I mean, I know that he'd remember me, but I don't know if he knows how much I admire him. I cannot wait to see Don Quixote. It's probably the film I am most looking forward to seeing.

What was the hardest scene you ever had to shoot (or write)?

Warcraft was a political minefield as far as filmmaking goes. And I think a lot of the rewriting in that over the course of making the movie was really, really difficult and at times disheartening. Just being forced to make changes and compromises just due to the politics and the nature of that film. So that was a real heart-wrencher. But I've learned a lot, and I've become more mature and able to deal with those kinds of situations, because I've been through it now. But at the time, that felt pretty traumatic.

It was mainly studio politics. You know, Legendary had an incredibly turbulent period while we were making Warcraft. They were associated with Warner Bros. They left Warner Bros. and joined Universal. They were sold to Wanda, this Chinese conglomerate. They lost or replaced a number of their producing staff halfway through our movie.

And at the same time as all of that, we were also working with Blizzard, who understandably were very careful about what happened with the movie, because their bread and butter was the game Warcraft, which was bringing in a billion dollars a year for them. So whatever we did with the movie was likely to be small potatoes compared to how important the game was for them. So it was really a very active political landscape.

I think I learned a lot from that experience, and if I ever put myself in that situation again, even though I went into it eyes open, I'm a lot wiser now.

What was your best day on set, and what happened?

I would say one of the things about Warcraft is that we got to build some phenomenal, huge film sets, and one of them was the exterior of the city of Stormwind. We built this huge chunk of the town.

I had had the good fortune growing up to be on the set of the movie Labyrinth, where they had this set for Goblin Town that they'd built. As a boy, I got a chance to kind of wander around that, and it had such an impact on me. And there was also this other film that Julien Temple directed called Absolute Beginners, and they built this whole section of Soho in London in — I guess it would have been the 1950s. And seeing those big movie sets and being able to walk around on them and then finally having a set of that scale and size that was part of my movie, I think that was just an incredible experience.

What was your worst day on set, and what happened?

Oh, the worst day I experienced was actually really, really early on, when I was at film school. Whatever you're doing, it feels like the most important thing you could possibly be doing. And it was a short film that I was making at film school, and we were on location. And we'd hired this actor, this old dude, and he was flat on his back drunk when we were supposed to do his scenes. And we basically lost half a day because the guy was drunk on his butt. And that was just like the most stress-inducing thing in my life at the time.

Obviously, time's moved on, and I've kind of grown beyond that now. But I remember at the time I thought it was the end of the world.

What was the film?

Oh it was this bizarre thing. It was a Celtic Iron Age short film that I made where the actors spoke in Icelandic and Welsh, so basically they couldn't communicate with each other, and I as a director couldn't understand anything anyone was saying anyway.

I wrote it in English, and then I had a Welsh guy translate the Welsh section. And then my actor who was Icelandic, he translated the Icelandic bit. And then they all spoke their dialogue at each other and I just had to take their word for it that they got it right.

That’s kind of the fun thing about film school. I really don't believe that anyone has to go to film school. I think your best experience is if you can get yourself on a film set. But one of the fun things about film school is that you can make these films that have no justification existing other than the fact that you just want to try stuff out.

What’s the best creative tip or advice you’ve ever received?

I think the best advice I ever got was for those people really at the start of their careers. And it's to find people who are as passionate about filmmaking as you, that complement what you want to do. So if you want to be a director, and you find someone as passionate about editing, or as passionate about lighting, or as passionate about acting. If you can team up with them, it just gives you so much more momentum to get things done.

Especially if you're working on the very low-budget side of things and you're trying to put together a short film or even a very low-budget feature. I think if you can find just a small team, it makes people take you more seriously, and it gives you much more chance of trying to do it, as opposed to trying to do it on your own.

What are some of your unlikely inspirations?

Oh, gosh, I'd have to think about that one. I would say going to graduate school in Nashville, Tennessee for three years is probably one of the more unlikely inspirations. Because that experience of being there, pursuing a graduate degree and realizing halfway through that I didn't want to be there and it wasn't what I was destined to do with my life, is kind of what became the inspiration for Moon in a sense. Being on the far side of the moon for three years was really my three years at graduate school, at Vanderbilt.

What made you initially pursue a graduate degree?

At that time in my life, I was doing very well academically, but I really truly didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. I'd graduated with honors from my undergrad college. I didn't know what I was supposed to do next. I had a bachelor's degree in philosophy, and you know, I didn't know If I wanted to teach. I didn't really think I wanted to teach, but I didn't know that. So I decided, all right, well, look, if I can get into graduate school, and I did, I was like, I guess I better keep going then and see what happens.

It wasn't until I started doing that that I realized, you know what, I really don't want to teach philosophy and I don't know what else to do with this degree.

So what pointed you to filmmaking?

I think it was after a certain amount of time, after a few years at graduate school, all of my family could sort of see how miserable I was there. And my dad was actually — this is where nepotism comes into play — my dad was working on a film shoot up in Montreal and asked me if I wanted to come and spend a few weeks with them working on this film that they were doing. Well, actually it was a TV show that they were doing, with Tony Scott directing. Tony, he really took me under his wing and absolutely kind of changed my life, because he reminded me about a passion that I already had for filmmaking, which I'd kind of buried because of this academic pursuit.

It was a TV version of the movie The Hunger. And the season one, the narrator who was Terence Stamp, and the second season was my dad. He was the narrator and did the first episode and did all the of the joining pieces between all the other episodes.

What is your dream project? Other than Mute, of course.

Well, Mute was kind of like a boulder I had to get up a hill. That was kind of just something I couldn't let go of, like some ancient Greek punishment somewhere in hell that I had to do this.

But as far as actual passion projects, there is this amazing compendium of comic characters in the UK called 2000 AD. You know, I think, if I were ever to do a comic book movie, or a movie based on comic characters, it would probably be one of those characters. You guys have DC and Marvel out here, well, in Britain we had 2000 AD. That was kind of like somewhere between DC and Marvel and Heavy Metal magazine. It was kind of like a combination of the two.

You've said that Mute is the spiritual sequel to Moon and the second part of a trilogy. Is the third part what you're working on next?

If I can. It's another one of those films where it might take a while to get made. I wrote it after I did Source Code. I would say rather than ... you know, it is a trilogy, but it's a trilogy in the kind of same way that an anthology might have a trilogy. They're kind of all parallel but separate stories. I would love to get that made. But I'm wiser now, so I'm not gonna focus just on one film. I'm kind of pushing a couple of projects at the same time, and whichever one gets traction, that's the one I'm gonna make next.

Is that third one a sci-fi film, too?

Yeah, the one that fits into the Moon and Mute sort of anthology, that one is science fiction. The other one is a little bit unique.