We chat with the director of ‘Moon’ and ‘Warcraft’ about his latest.
This Friday on Netflix, Duncan Jones returns to the sci-fi setting that launched his career. Mute has been compared to Blade Runner (by the director himself) for blending film noir and science fiction, but when you dig a little deeper, you discover that the film is steeped in all manner of classic cinema. Jones is a geek. He pulls his passion from all kinds of movies, comics, and novels. He’s a sponge, absorbing the craft of storytelling from others and redistributing it to his own work. The results walk that tantalizing tightrope between nostalgia and innovation.
Mute tells the story of Leo the bartender (Alexander Skarsgård). A childhood accident robs him of his voice, and his mother’s religion robs him of a fix. Years later, when his girlfriend goes missing, he must traverse the underworld of Berlin in a hunt for answers. This search brings him into contact with Cactus (Paul Rudd) and Duck (Justine Theroux), two former combat medics making a quick buck in their basement operating theater. Nothing good can come from their confrontation.
Mute is set on the same Earth that trapped Sam Rockwell on Moon. Written before that film made it on screen, Mute is a story we’ve been waiting a long time to see. No one longer than Duncan, though. I talked to the writer-director over the phone recently to discuss why it took so long to complete the film, the myriad of influences hidden within, and how his relationship as a father and with his father shaped the screenplay. Here’s our conversation in full:
I understand that Mute has been gestating for a long time.
What took so long?
Well, as you may have noticed, it’s quite odd, dark subject matter. It’s a very original and slightly weird movie, and I think that the studios have probably decided from a business perspective that those are not the kind of films that they’re interested in making these days. The studios used to have independent arms that would specifically focus on making films kind of in the $20 million to $40 million budget range, which were more sort of originals.
And a lot of those sort of mini studios that were part of the studios have closed down, and the bigger studios are now focused on franchises and sequels and reboots and preexisting known quantities where they feel like the audience already knows what the film is generally going to be about. I think it makes sense from a business perspective because if you look at the calendar for theatrical releases now, most studios get, at the very most, two weeks to make all of their money back before the next big studio film comes in. A lot of the time they only get one week. So they’ve made a strategy of really trying to kick some serious butt on their opening weekends and hope that that’s going to get them most of their budget back.
What was the impetus for returning to the Moon universe?
I’ve been trying to make this film for a very long time. In fact, originally it was supposed to be my first film, and way back then, 16 years ago, the idea was that it would actually be contemporary and London-based, and it’s changed dramatically over a decade and a half into the film I’ve finally made. But I think after I made Moon — and I kind of had a wonderful experience making that film — I was able to look back at the script for Mute. And I realized actually it would be really fun to connect these two films because I think thematically there are some similarities about these two lead protagonists. And if I were to bring Mute into the same future as Moon, I think I could actually … there could be a lot of fun for people because I might actually be able to have a little bit of an epilogue to Moon in Mute.
As you were saying, talking about Hollywood, cinematic universes are pretty popular right now. Any idea if you’ll return back to Mute and Moon’s world again?
There is one more film that I would like to do that would be kind of the final part of this three-part anthology. I like the word anthology, because they are not really prequels or sequels, and I think the word side-quel is a little awkward, but it is an anthology. And it’s almost like three short stories that take place in the same environment. But, yes, there would be a third film, and I’m hoping if we’re fortunate we’ll get the chance to make it.
Yeah, I kind of got this Elmore Leonard vibe where people would pop up in one novel here and another novel there.
The opening shot of the film is a direct reference to Sunset Boulevard. Mute certainly has a very evocative, nostalgic noir backdrop a la Blade Runner. Has this been an itch you’ve been dying to scratch?
Yeah, and I think I kind of … I may have spoken about Blade Runner too much back when I was talking about Mute in the early days because in reality there are certain things which are similar about it. They are both noir stories, and they both take place in future city environments, but really Mute is much more, I think, beholden to other films, you know, ’70s thrillers. Things like Paul Schrader’s Hardcore, or I think Lee Marvin in Point Blank, and then there’s obviously a fairly extensive homage to Robert Altman’s M.A.S.H. with the Cactus and Duck characters. But it really kind of fits more into those ’70s movies than anything else.
Why change the setting to Berlin?
I’ve had a fairly unique experience of Berlin over the decades because my dad was working out there. I was there in the 1970s when it really was this incredibly isolated little bastion of Western civilization in the middle of the Soviet Union. And then over the years, I went back to Berlin for different reasons and just saw how fast and how dynamically it was changing. And I think that, to me, was one of the most interesting things about Berlin is that of all Western cities it just felt like the one that was most focused and interested in the future and in changing itself in the same way that kind of Tokyo has always felt like this incredibly futuristic city because it always had its eyes on what was next. I think Berlin is kind of similar.
Paul Rudd is this perfect foil to Skarsgård’s mute bartender. How do you approach casting those two characters?
Leo is obviously silent, but there’s so much communicated with either the way other people interact with him, or just those … Alex’s amazing ability to communicate just with the close ups, and just seeing how he’s being affected by the things that happen to him. And with Paul Rudd and with Justin Theroux they’re both very smart, very funny, very talkative, witty guys in real life and the characters they play in the movie. And I think that’s what gives it a natural foil, you get the silence of Leo’s sort of detective work, and then you bounce back and forth between that and the fun sort of characters and conversations of Cactus and Duck.
The Amish background for Leo, where did that come from?
I went to college in Wooster, Ohio, and that’s Amish country. When I was working on Mute it occurred to me that in this science fiction setting, why would a guy who is unable to speak not use technology to be able to speak? And what I thought was interesting going into some of the subtext of parenting that kind of flows throughout this movie, is if Leo’s mother was very ardently Amish and basically had a religious reason why she wouldn’t allow him to have the surgery then this becomes kind of a weight that Leo has carried throughout his life that he’s tried to respect his mother’s teaching and what she wanted and not have the surgery even though at any point he could have had it.
Religion is so rarely addressed in science fiction.
Yeah, we touch on it a little bit in Moon. We have the harvesters in my first film and the broken down harvester of Judas, but it’s just kind of … they’re just gentle allusions. There’s nothing too contentious I think.
With Mute you partner back up with your Moon cinematographer, Gary Shaw. There’s this visual consistency to both films even though Mute’s production design is allowed to get a little wilder. What was your conversation with him in setting the style for the film?
I think one of the things that we talked about early on was that these are two worlds that we’re really trying to depict. It’s sort of Leo’s oasis of his apartment, which really should feel almost like a period film, but being intruded upon by the lights outside on the street. That was really kind of what we wanted. It was something very organic and soft and almost period from inside his apartment, and then just the harsh world of neo-future Berlin outside the windows.
And then obviously the city itself when you go outside. We shot the entire film in Berlin. We were at studio … We did our interiors at Studio Babelsberg, and then we traveled around Berlin using actual Berlin locations for all of our exteriors. And I think being able to find places in Berlin as opposed to knowing what we want and just going and trying to find something that fit in. We were actually able to location scout around Berlin and find these amazing places because it is such a dynamic city, which is always changing.
And Clint Mansell is back on the score as well. I love the score, I think it rides the line of classic and sci-fi so well.
He’s just a genius, truly. I don’t like to throw that word around, but he really is. He experimented and tried things out while we were making Mute. Not all of it was working, but when he finally kind of fixed on it and realized, “Oh, okay, this is what we need to be doing” … He’s just the best, and I love working with Clint, and if you can marry Clint up with material which appeals to his sensibilities… He really got Mute, he really understood what I was trying to do. He’s just the best in the business.
Did he come on board later, or was he always scheduled to be a part of it?
He came on board back when I did Moon. He always knew that when I eventually managed to find a way to get Mute made, he was going to be the guy I was going to be coming to.
You mentioned this a little bit, but ultimately so much of Mute is about the challenges and pain of parenting. Was that your theme from the start, or did you come to that during the writing?
No, I think it was … it was in the writing, but in the rewriting to be honest, because originally that was never as prominent in my mind. It was there as part of the set up. Leo obviously couldn’t talk, and the reason he couldn’t talk was because his mom had not allowed him to have the surgery. And Cactus obviously is a dad who really cares about his daughter but has not done a very good job of putting her in an environment, which is best for her, but he’s trying his best. So that was always there, but I think it was only because of the time … those 16 years of development and me becoming a dad and me losing my own dad and the woman who raised me, all of those things kind of came into making Mute what it is now.
The film concludes with a dedication to your dad and the nanny who raised you. It’s a tremendous gut punch after everything we’ve just experienced. It made me re-evaluate the whole movie. Could you speak to why you dedicated the film to them?
I guess. I don’t know what to say other than it was very therapeutic to me making this movie in some ways, but in other ways I feel like what I put into the movie and how much it … what it meant to me … I probably don’t fully understand yet, myself. I’m sure over time I’m going to sort of see things and realize I did things because of very personal reasons. And I’m not sure I entirely know all of the details yet or can fully verbalize it. I know a lot of stuff came from my gut, and I know that, that’s usually the best way for me to work.
Final question. Are we ever gonna get that Dark Horse Comics adaptation of Mute?
I don’t think so. I’m hoping that we can at least release the pages that Glenn Fabry did do, because they are absolutely beautiful, but I kind of … this boulder has been on my shoulders for such a long time, and I wanted to get it up the hill, and I did with the movie, and I’m so happy about that. But now that it’s done I really want to move on, and I don’t really want to have to revisit it in order to complete the graphic novel.
I want to see those pages!
Thanks so much for talking to me, Duncan. I love the movie, and I love Moon. I think these are two really nifty sci-fi films for the 21st century.
Thank you. Hey Brad, you’re with One Perfect Shot as well, right?
I sure am, yes, sir.
I hope you can find some nice shots from the movie.
(Laughter) Oh yeah, there’s one or two there.
Mute arrives on Netflix this Friday.