How David Bowie's son wound up making an indie movie about the Moon

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Duncan Jones, director of the upcoming sci-fi drama Moon, told SCI FI Wire that he welcomed the challenge of directing the ambitious film on its very modest $5 million budget and revealed some of the old-school tricks he employed to pull it off.

Moon stars Sam Rockwell (Galaxy Quest) as Sam Bell, who's approaching the end of his three-year contract to mine the power source Helium-3 on the moon. He's lived and worked alone on a lunar base there, with only the computer Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey) keeping him company. Now, just as he's preparing for a return home to his wife and daughter on Earth, Bell begins to fall apart, physically and emotionally. And then he meets another Sam Bell, who's angry, younger and in far better shape.

SCI FI Wire spoke to Jones—the 38-year-old son of David Bowie—by telephone last week. Moon opens in a platform release starting on June 12, and the following are edited excerpts from our exclusive interview with Jones. (Possible spoilers ahead!)

You shot Moon on a budget of just $5 million. What were some of the tricks you used to stretch your bucks?

Jones: Up front, we decided that we weren't going to go on any location shoots. We wanted to have completely controlled shooting environments, so we did everything on soundstages. We basically had two soundstages, one which was for the interior of the moon base, which we built in its entirety and which was another attempt to create a believable location space and also to save us some space, since a lot of our lighting was pre-existing within the set build. So our cinematographer only had a very small lighting kit that he had to carry around with him around the base. Most of the lighting was actually built into the base.

And for the exteriors?

Jones: For the exteriors, we built this chunk of lunar terrain, about 30 foot by 40 foot, and were pulling around model miniatures. So we went with a very retro technique for doing those effects. Obviously, we had the benefit of having the backup of a post-production company like Cinesite, who sort of beautified and fixed all the obvious problems, like being able to see fishing line when we were pulling trucks across the lunar landscape and digitally expanding the landscape. But we tried to capture as much as possible in-camera in order to save ourselves money and to give the film a different, hybrid look that just felt more real.

If someone had walked in the door a few weeks before filming commenced and doubled your budget, how different might Moon look?

Jones: That money would have been spent on giving me more time, I think, during the actual shoot. I would have taken a few extra days to build the actual interior of the lunar base. I would have put more detail in that. I would have maybe spent a little more money on a couple of effects shots. But, really, the majority of it would have been spent on giving me and the crew and Sam more to have more camera coverage and more takes. So it wouldn't have been a hugely different film, I don't think. The story was largely contained anyway. There wasn't a natural way to expand it just by throwing money at it. It was what it was. More money just would have given more time.

Sam Rockwell acts opposite himself for much of the movie. How did he pull off the technical aspects of that without losing the humanity of either version of Sam?

Jones: It was an incredibly hard thing for Sam, because he's trained in this acting technique called Meisner, which is very much a reactionary form of acting where you use the actors you're working with to spur you to do improv back at them. It's a very collaborative way of working, which, obviously, completely had no bearing on what we were doing.

As an independent [film], we were very fortunate in that my producer was able to put aside enough money for me to spend a week doing rehearsals with Sam in New York. Sam brought along a friend of his, Yul Vasquez, who's another actor, and we basically broke down the script and worked through it. So Sam had the opportunity to try things out in that week's rehearsals and build up differentiations between the various versions of Sam that appear in the film. So we got a good 80 percent of the way there just in rehearsals.

How did that carry over to the set?

Jones: When it got to the actual shoot, and it became very, very technical, at least we had that [rehearsal period] to rely on, to give Sam some sense that, as an actor, he was still given the opportunity to put his spin on it. And it was very technical when we were shooting, but we made some discoveries along the way about how we could do things in such a way that Sam could be fairly improvisational at times. So it was a balance between what Sam needed and what I needed in order to feel like he could be organic with the process of acting.

Your father has been a public figure for many years and is an entertainment legend as well. What do you think, directly and indirectly, his influence on you has been?

Jones: My parents divorced when I was very young, and, unusually for that period of time, I was actually in the custody of my father. So I grew up around all the same things that were influencing him. If he was interested in music and playing it in the living room, I was hearing it. If he was watching movies that were giving him ideas, I was probably watching them, too. So there's that. I shared those experiences. And my father was tremendous at being able to recommend things to me while I was growing up that seemed just right for the age that I was at, that were appropriate and gave me food for thought. So I was reading George Orwell and John Wyndham and J.G. Ballard and other authors, Philip K. Dick and William Gibson, as I was growing up. It was always giving me interesting, challenging things to think about.