Mute may be the title of director Duncan Jones’ latest movie, but one thing comes through loud and clear: the filmmaker has become one of the most reliable voices in thoughtful, moody, human-scale science fiction.
After his much-admired 2009 debut film Moon, the clever follow-up Source Code and a foray into large-scale franchise filmmaking with Warcraft, Jones -- who as the son of pop icon David Bowie has artistry, theatricality and a keen sense of the cosmic in his DNA -- is delivering his first original film for the steaming giant Netflix, which debuted on Friday. Set in a high-tech Berlin nearly half a century in the future, Mute focuses on the desperate, determined efforts of a mute Amish bartender (Alexander Skarsgard) to track down his missing girlfriend, running afoul of two alternately amusing and deadly dangerous surgeons (Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux) who have a role in her mysterious disappearance.
Jones joined CBR for a freewheeling peek behind the scenes of his latest effort and the surprising influences that fueled it, his specific affinity for sci-fi storytelling, the kinds of films he expects to make moving forward and the as-yet-untapped material that could lure him to adapt a comic book property for the big screen.
CBR: You clearly had a lot of fun with this one. As hard as it gets making a movie, I bet you were having fun all the way.
Duncan Jones: I did! I mean, it's kind of an amazing cast to be able work with, and working with Justin Theroux and Paul Rudd, who are both very funny guys -- well, Alex [Skarsgard] is funny too, but he was quiet most of the time. But Paul and Justin, they're just really funny, great guys and it just made it a load of fun.
What was the essential thing about this project that made you say, "I have to make this film"? Was there one thing that just made you say "Gotta do it"?
I think it's really hard. In my opinion, there was an original idea at the heart of it, which just felt worth pursuing because I don't know about other writers, but I think coming up with something that feels really original is fairly rare. A lot of the time it's a riff on something, and also you are trying to reinvent something. And this felt like there was something really unique about it.
So, Leo's character being unable to talk, having a lead protagonist who didn't talk and then my solution to the puzzle of, "How do I do that movie?” Of having half the movie with him and the other half with these very talkative, witty American surgeons. It just felt like, “I haven't seen this before. This feels really unique and original, both structurally and the characters.” I wanted to try and pursue that.
Maybe it wasn't as challenging as it might sound, but the whole of Alex’s character not talking at all -- did you find that be challenging cinematically, or did it free you up in certain ways?
Not cinematically. I think [it was challenging] in the original writing phase, trying to come up with as much as possible a visual way of showing his investigation, showing the red herrings that he's led on, showing how he comes up with solutions to things and doing it all without dialogue.
That was kind of a test for myself and for Michael when we were writing it, but I think once we worked out that side of it, the onus was really on Alex to deliver. And it was really getting him on board, and making sure that he felt comfortable that he had enough variety in what he wanted to do with his performance that he could go from being Leo at the start of the story to this different guy by the end of it.
With Paul and Justin, obviously these two men are known for their improvisational skills, plus Paul's a screenwriter, Justin’s a screenwriter -- tell me about that collaboration and fleshing out these characters with guys who bring that much to the table.
I think they were a little intimidated too, only in that they knew how much I wanted to channel Trapper John and Hawkeye Pierce from Robert Altman's M*A*S*H. That was really important to me. And I think they understood, "OK, so we are riffing on those characters. We are finding ways to tweak those characters into something slightly different."
But I think they already know each other very well, and that was one of the reasons why I was so excited about casting the two of them, is that dynamic between guys who are smart and know each other, have that friendship is really what Duck and Cactus had to have, and fortunately they went along with it.
Did you sometimes just feel like, "I'm just going to get out their way."
100 percent. We would do what was on the page, and get that done as quickly as possible, and then let them improv their way through scenes, especially things like the surgeries and stuff like that. We did what was on the page, and then immediately through it out and just let them go for it.
The Blade Runner influence can't be missed in a lot of science fiction.
It's aesthetic in this one, maybe, and that's it, I'd say.
The more connective thing rather than the visual elements for me was the fact that if you strip away a lot of the sci-fi of the story, it's essentially a noir story, as is Blade Runner. Was that on your mind as you were putting it together, that you were writing a sort of noir story with a high-tech edge?
Yeah, absolutely, and the references that we were using in the writing were Paul Schrader's Hardcore, M*A*S*H for obvious reasons, and Lee Marvin's Point Blank. It was really those movies, especially the Paul Schrader one. That was really a touchstone for us, but that film is incredibly dark. And we were trying to balance the darkness of that with our own humor. And M*A*S*H is kind of a blend of dark and has humor. And that's kind of where we were trying to go, trying to find that tension point between the two.
Tell me a little about layering in the science fiction elements to a story like this, because it is a very grounded human story at the core, but also there's parts of it you can't tell without the futuristic aspect.
Yeah, absolutely, and I think that was part of the fun of it. Rather than having like a single technology changing the world, it's a small intimate kind of localized story that takes place in a science-fiction world. And the science fiction really just kind of is something they kind of bump up against once in a while, but it's not the reason for being for the story, which is taking place.
Obviously, Leo's character being sort of Amish, there was this backstory, which is not really in the film, but was there to sort of wrap our heads around while we were writing the film that in the same way that Israel has sort of called back Jews to come to the homeland that the swing of the pendulum from Angela Merkel who's allowed and invited mass immigration into Germany swings the other way to sort of more right-wing parties who basically said to those around Germany, "If you have German heritage, if you have German customs and traditions, come back to the homeland." And so, Amish and various other have sort of come back to Germany.
That's kind of the backstory of why Leo and his family are there. And Leo just doesn't fit in this world, this very technological science-fiction world where he just basically lives in this little sort of apartment that has no real technology in it. That was kind of the backstory foHavr him.
What got you creatively charged up, as far as the world-building aspect of this film?
I have a fairly unique relationship and experience with Berlin because of my dad's work. I was back there in the 1970s when he was working there when it was in the heart of the Cold War and the wall was very much up, and you really felt a sense of flying into this incredibly isolated island of Western civilization within the Soviet Bloc. So there was a sense of what Berlin was back there, which I definitely remember and feel and was able to kind of measure up against the Berlin that I saw over the decades after that.
And one thing you can definitely say about Berlin is its one of the most dynamic and fast-changing cities I'm aware of, certainly in the Western world, that's just changed dramatically decade to decade. And so setting a science fiction film there kind of feels right, because it is kind of this clashing point between Eastern and Western cultures.