With only two films, director Duncan Jones has become a favorite in sci-fi geekdom. His first film, Moon, followed Sam Rockwell on a base on the Moon as he discovers a copy of himself. Now adapting another writer’s work, Souce Code follows the story of a soldier who must repeatedly assume the identity of a man on a train during the last eight minutes of his life while searching for the train’s bomber. Duncan Jones sat down last week for a discussion of the production and the logic behind the film. READER BEWARE: THIS INTERVIEW CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS AND IS MEANT FOR READING AFTER SEEING THE FILM.
How did this project come about? After Moon it had been announced you were working on a film called Mute.
I actually tried to make Mute before Moon, and it was definitely too ambitious for a first feature film. It was definitely the right call to do Moon first. But I did have these aspirations to make Mute next, and that was one of the reasons I was able to meet up with Jake Gyllenhaal. He had seen Moon and seemed to very much like it. And I’m a huge admirer of his and really wanted to work with him. We met up to discuss what I hoped was going to be Mute. But he said, “I have this great script for you. You got to read it.” And he gave me Source Code. I went home and I read it, and I thought, I think there’s something I can do in this. I loved the pace of it. I was really interested in the science fiction conceit at the heart of it. And it seemed to do so many things. There was a romance to it; there was the opportunity to put some humor to it. In my mind, it was so different from Moon, but after the fact, I realized it’s not that different, especially with the act of being in a heavily confined space.
Could you talk about your interest in science fiction as a genre and maybe what some of your influences were?
I definitely consider myself a science fiction fan. My dad [ed. Note: Mr. Jones’ father is the rock star David Bowie] always liked me to read every evening for an hour or two a night growing up. If I was finding it difficult and hard at the time, science fiction became my favorite, and I was always reading one to another. So whether it was George Orwell’s Animal Farm, or John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffirds, or the major works of Phillip K. Dick, J. G. Ballard—those were the things I really enjoyed. That’s what started my science fiction interest. I love to take the opportunity to look at “What if” stories. Even like J. G. Ballard and look at the world very much how it is, but just tweak one thing. What is the world like this? And it just gives you a whole new perspective.
What was the physical shoot of this film as opposed to Moon where the set was so cramped that people had to enter through an airlock?
There were many similarities—there was some difference—but there were many similarities. I can’t help but think Jake’s optimism that I would be the right person to work on this film, that I had dealt with claustrophobic environments and managed to keep them in balance. There was the interior of the train, which was a set in Montreal—most of the film was shot in Montreal—there was what we call the pod, which is the holding area for Carter between the train, and then there was the area where Vera Farmiga and Jeffery Wright were, and those were all in Montreal. We built the exterior of the train station in a parking lot in Montreal as well.
There was also this desire to try and see the film with ideas and influences, and occasional in jokes as well. There was the sort of Hitchcock vibe we wanted in the film, where the opening titles go off with the lines.
As well as the Bernard Hermann-esque score…
Definitely, with the clock towers on the platform and at the train station, and the way Jake is dressed in this fairly traditional jacket and tie that’s a bit out of period and of course the score itself.
Well even though it’s a science fiction movie, there is a sort of influence of film noir, where one man knows what everyone else doesn’t know, and that vibe to it. Outside science fiction what were some of your other influences for this film?
Outside science fiction for me, I know [screenwriter] Ben Ripley obviously had its own influences. But for me, it was films like The 39 Steps and North by Northwest, just trying to find a couple of Hitchcock vibes—The idea of a mysterious dame on a train, and an ordinary guy on a train in outrageous circumstances and trying to workout what’s going on. It seemed very classic; other than the science fiction ideas, it seemed like a very traditional story in many ways.
Of course, it does have a strong comic touch as well. Was it difficult to find that balance between the comic and the serious elements, and how much of that was in the script or opposed to finessing in the performances and the editing room?
One the things Jake and I both felt early on was that the script structurally was very sound—we loved the pace of it—but we felt the film would probably work better if we injected humor into it, if we found a way lighten the tone. I felt the script took itself quite seriously. There was some on-the-nose comic moments, but the whole thing took itself quite seriously, and that was one thing I wanted to do was try and lighten it. Because we shot the scenes on the train first, that was the first opportunity we had to set that tone—the interplay between Jake and Michelle, and Jake and the other passengers on the train. That was a fun few opening weeks to push it a little too far and go a little bit surreal with it, and then in the edit, working with the master Paul Hirsch, we had the opportunity to fine tune it, and really set the tone.
Other than the humor, how much did the script change?
I found the script to be very successful, both structurally and the way it interweaved all these different facets—the romance, the mystery, the action—so I didn’t want to mess with that. The only things I really wanted the tone to change, and then the ending. I really felt like there was something missing. Originally the ending was a very straightforward romantic happy ending and it really didn’t work for me. I found it to saccharine, and as a sci-fi geek, there was this loose thread I had to address and couldn’t let go. (After a pause) Okay. If you assume Coulter Stevens is right and is jumping from a reality where he’s being sent on a mission, to a parallel reality, he’s not just living the last eight minutes of someone’s life. He’s actually being sent on a parallel reality, and into the past of a parallel reality, where he is able to stop a train from blowing up. So that means there is obviously another Coulter Stevens where the group is based and where he has not yet been sent on a mission because the train never blew up. So it’s really important that he let Colleen Goodwin [Vera Farmiga’s character] know, that this Coulter needs to be saved. But what you have besides a happy ending, you have all sorts of ethical implications at this point. By Coulter jumping into this alternate reality, he’s basically booted Sean Fender from his body and killed him. He’s also repeated this event, and each time he’s failed, he’s created an entirely new reality where a terrorist event has occurred successfully, so he’s killing hundreds of people. That’s the start of it; I could really go on and on. Those are the things I found interesting, and really didn’t want to let them go.
Was this sort of all your own theories about time travel and parallel universes, or other authors you read?
It’s funny because Ben Ripley wrote the script, and it was a new experience to come on someone else’s work and try and realize it. While we were making it, I only had a brief opportunity to talk to Ben and he came to the set while we were in the middle of shooting and said hello and how much he loved what we were doing, and that was it. It was only after that I had a chance to catch up with Ben, and really understand what he was writing. Fortunately, we had the same interpretation of what he was going after. I think, being a stickler for detail, I wanted to get more into what the repercussions were of the science fiction conceit he came up with. I know that in early drafts of the script, he had included a lot more description and exposition of how the Source Code worked, and I think ostensibly, he pulled that out. Because that’s not what the film’s about—it’s important to set up the world and the idea, but really it’s about Coulter Stevens and Christina, this woman he meets on the train, and Colleen Goodwin, and it’s about the relationships between these people and how they change over the course of the film.
There’s a sequence where Captain Stevens jumps back into reality when he learns he has died, even though the train never explodes…
I guess we took a little poetic license there, the idea that the information is so overwhelming that it distorts this bridge he has been able to cross to a parallel reality, so he’s kind of sucked back through because of that complete crash of his understanding of reality and that new information he’s been given.
Though now with your ending it leaves the possibility of a Source Code 2…
…If I can get Mute made, I’d do anything. I’m very happy with the film we’ve made, and very excited about launching it out into the water and seeing how it floats.
When was the choice to bring on comic Russell Peters made?
Russell Peters was a massive risk and massive opportunity for us. There was comedy written in the script…it was okay, it was pretty good. Ben Ripley did a noble offer with it. But the opportunity to work with a stand-up comedian, someone who does this for a living, was too good to pass up. We also gave him the opportunity to write his own material for the end of the film. I naively allowed him to not show it to me until we started shooting. When it came to shooting day, he did it and it was hysterical, but it was so bloody rude that we could hardly use any of it, because it was hardly PG-13. Maybe we’ll put it on the DVD, because it was too good, but we couldn’t use it. But there were some slices we put in there, and I think they were enough for the job we wanted to do in the film.
You mention the PG-13 rating. Did you have any other constraints working in the studio system for this film that presented either challenges or opportunities?
In regards to the PG-13 rating, there were two things. We could say “fuck” once, so we were very selective in that use. It’s like a power tool at that moment. And then we obviously had the body reveal, which was a difficult balance in getting what I needed across. I wanted the audience to get that he’s not going anywhere; he’s not going to save himself. That was really important. At that same level, we had to make sure it wasn’t so gruesome that we couldn’t actually show it. As far as I found myself having to deal with the situation, it was actually fairly benign. I went through a learning curve where myself, my producer Stuart Fenegan, and Sam Rockwell made all the decisions. When we were making Moon, it was the three of us making the decisions, and we could move like that and add a scene if we wanted to and change it dramatically. When you are working on a film like this and you’re spending millions of dollars of other people’s money, you have to very careful and make sure that you are able to make everyone understand the decisions you’re making and make sure they all feel comfortable with that. Sometimes it’s like the difference between driving a speedboat and an oil tanker. You have to move incrementally and plan very much ahead and understand where it is you are trying to get to. But that’s just a good practice to have anyways, and it’s something I used to do in commercial industry anyways.
Could you explain about some of the strange production design choices in the pod?
The idea is that the physical body of Coulter Stevens at the military base is having its own physiological responses to what’s happening to him, and he’s interpreting those. So he’s got a rising temperature, running of bodily fluid, having cold sweats—any of those things are being incorporated into that manifestation, so he believes the capsule is freezing or there are liquids that are leaking from the walls, all those things are being incorporated. And, to expand on that notion, he starts in a pod that is much smaller, and much more coherent to him, and it makes sense that the last thing he remembers is being a helicopter pilot in Afghanistan, and he starts off in what is not a helicopter but it feels like some sort of cockpit, where he is able to follow orders and feel like he knows where he is. In the course of the film, that pod morphs and changes and grows, and ends up looking like more like a prison cell. I’m sure you noticed the window that’s in the cockpit, and grows into a larger window like a medieval cell at the end of it, is shaped like the window like the incubator at the end of the film.