The Duncan Jones Films

June 3, 2015

Moon (opening sequence, trailer, 2009).
Source Code (trailer, 2011).

Q. You have a son and his name is Zowie?
DB: One of his names.
Q. Is there a meaning to Zowie?
DB: No.
Q. And how old is he?
DB: Seven-and-a-half.
Q. Does he look like you?
DB: Yes.
Q. Which bit?
DB: Um, not the eyes (laughs). He’s blond and very lively. He’s not interested in music at all.
Q. He’s not going to take after you?
DB: No, he likes mathematics (laughs)
.

Bowie, interview in Japan, December 1978.

Searching for the father in the work of the son risks diminishing both. One easily makes the father a thick cloud of influence, burnishes the son into a mirror. Here we go, anyhow.

Because there are parallels, and extensions and variations on common themes, in David Bowie’s songs and in the films of Duncan Jones. Especially as the latter fill a void: Bowie’s absence neatly coincides with the releases of his son’s first two feature films. Bowie keeping out of the spotlight also let Jones establish himself as an artist. After all, there was a Bowie hard at work in public during 2008-2012; he just wasn’t the rock singer.

There’s a generational symmetry. Bowie’s father had wanted a life in the entertainment business but lost much of his savings in an ill-fated nightclub. Instead, he supported Bowie’s musical ambitions, hoping his dreams would come to fruition in his son. They did, although sadly Bowie’s break didn’t happen until after Haywood Jones’ death in 1969.

And Bowie was a pop singer who dreamed of being a director. He’d taken various film roles, he said, because he wanted in on the trade secrets—working with Nicolas Roeg and Martin Scorsese would let him see how masters shot a film. Thus armed, he’d make his own films. The David Bowie Is exhibit shows just how detailed Bowie’s plans were: the storyboards and scale model work for the Diamond Dogs and Ziggy Stardust films that would never be made. (Instead, Bowie made albums as if he was a director: having his “actors” improvise in the studio from his scenarios, then piecing together a “storyline” in the vocal booth.)

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As it turned out, Bowie was raising a director. He brought his son to various soundstages and location shoots, with Labyrinth (shot when Jones was 14) a high note, and on The Hunger, director Tony Scott let the 11-year-old Jones shoot with a “wild camera,” roaming around the set during takes (Scott reportedly wound up using some of Jones’ footage). Bowie screened countless films with him—whenever there’s a blank spot in a biography during the late Seventies or Eighties, Bowie’s likely in Switzerland watching movies with his son. Making movies, too: “One of the things we were always doing together as a hobby was filming stuff, shooting on 8mm cameras and using tiny little editing systems to cut together Smurf movies,” Jones said in 2006. “I had these Smurf and Star Wars figures and would do one-stop animation with them. I was six or seven.”

Wary of the press, as he’d been a paparazzi target since infancy, Jones even asked in early newspaper interviews that a childhood shot of him be used, so that he wouldn’t be recognized on the street. He was adamant on making his own way in film, not dropping his father’s name to ease his way into productions. (That said, being the son of a rock star does help with some financing: among the producers of Moon were Bill Zysblat, Bowie’s longtime financial adviser, and Trudie Styler, aka Mrs. Sting.)

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You know, it was work. Dad was working. And it was like any kid going to watch his dad at work, no matter what they do. We were just waiting for the concert to be over so we could go home. I could hear the noise up front but I’d spend most of my time hanging out with the roadies and playing with them.

Jones, interview, 2011.

After getting a degree in philosophy at the College of Wooster, Jones entered Vanderbilt’s PhD philosophy program in 1995. Two years in, he was “miserable” and wanted to make films instead (likely not the first philosophy doctoral student to reach this conclusion). “I had this kind of epiphany, that this was what I was supposed to be doing. This hobby of filmmaking from my childhood—this was what I should pursue,” he told Vanderbilt’s alumni magazine.

He enrolled in the London Film School, apprenticed as (again) a cameraman for Tony Scott and as an assistant director on commercials made by Walter Stern. By 2006, he was directing his own commercials—his debut being a notorious one for French Connection in which two women kung-fu fight, rip off each other’s clothes and make out. Loudly exploitative, the commercial did showcase Jones’ developing style, a postmodern “realism”–the performers aren’t models or actresses but stunt women, doing their own moves; the soundtrack juxtaposes cartoonish sound effects with a “medieval” aria (composed by Mark Sayer-Wade, with a Jones libretto).

Jones’ 2002 short Whistle (it’s on the Moon DVD) suffers from the typical student film’s stiffness in shots, edits and performances. Yet Whistle has the central Jones scenario in place: a man, isolated in a remote place, being manipulated by “off-stage” forces, with his emotional life used as leverage. An assassin, based in a Swiss chateau, dispatches various people via drones. He gets assignments from an elegant old man located off-site; his mental state is monitored by his rather robotic wife. A killing goes awry, with the target’s wife and daughter becoming collateral damage, leading the assassin to have a crisis of faith. He tries to quit and escape but winds up becoming the next target for the drones. Despite the lead character’s epiphanies, the company stays in business (Jones’ films all end this way, much as how weddings usually close a Shakespeare comedy).

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Moon: Sam, packed in a box

Jones’ studies at Vanderbilt entailed “applying artificial intelligence and morality to sentient machines. Very sci-fi. I was trying to get ahead of the game, ready for when our robot masters arrived,” he once said. He read Robert Zubrin’s 1999 Entering Space, which analyzed the potential for humans to colonize the solar system (and which has a chapter on how the moon’s Helium-3 deposits could fuel nuclear fusion projects on Earth; mining Helium-3 is the job of Sam Rockwell’s character in Moon). Jones used the book as the starting point for Moon, which he wrote in the mid-2000s and shot in 2008.

Made for $5 million on a 33-day shoot, Moon was one of the most impressive directorial debuts of the 2000s and the decade’s best “hard SF” film. He wrote the script with Nathan Parker (“I fucking hate first drafts,” Jones said in 2009. “I write extensive, usually 20- or 30-page treatments and beat lists, and then I hand it over to the writer I am working with to get my first draft done, then I alternate drafts with the writer“), with Sam Rockwell in mind as the lead, and basically sole, actor (the only scene in which Sam physically interacts with another human being is in a dream sequence).

In Moon, Jones’ situates Sam in a “realist” environment—the moonbase has a compact, visually coherent floor plan and is depicted as being a bit grimy and worn-down—with a post-modern backdrop. Moon relies in part on the viewer’s memory of earlier SF films. There are visual references to Outland, Alien, Silent Running and 2001, while Jones and Rockwell used David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers to map how Rockwell’s character could play off his identical twin clone.

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Moon: Gerty, sympathetic God

And of course, there’s “Space Oddity.” It’s as though Moon is Jones remaking his father’s breakthrough hit by moving it into a more remote key, adding some new overdubs and a different outro. Ground Control and Major Tom are, respectively, played by Gerty (a movable computer voiced by Kevin Spacey) and Sam, the astronaut who cracks up and “leaves the capsule” by escaping the moon base (though tellingly Sam returns home; he doesn’t drift off into space).

Where “Space Oddity” finds the rational can-do American mind collapsing in the face of the void, blanking out, with the body drifting off, Moon is infused with meaning upon meaning: it’s man symbolizing empty space, in the way that the harvester robots have transformed the lifeless moon surface into an industrial complex.

Take the boatload of Christian symbolism. Sam has named the moonbase’s four robot harvesters after the Gospel writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (a later shot discloses that Luke, the harvester on the blink for the whole film, has been renamed “Judas” on a post-it note). Sam’s wife is Tess, from Theresa, a name derived from the Greek therizo, “to harvest,” while his daughter is called Eve (a bit too on the nose). Sam (Samuel) himself has a biblical name (literally “name of God”), one of an Old Testament prophet; Sam ends Moon by returning to earth to bring the Good (?) News.

Even the film’s plot is an annunciation (Sam realizes something’s wrong with his reality, discovers his existence is false, the truth revealed to him by a “god,” i.e., Gerty) followed by death and multiple resurrections (Sam is grievously wounded, prompting Gerty to awaken a “Sam 2” clone to replace him; Sam 2 temporarily repairs the dying Sam 1; the two eventually activate a “Sam 3”). Jones shoots each Sam clone waking up several times, with Sams 2 and 3 first “awakening” in a sparse white room, the base’s vestibule between life and death.

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moonsam
Moon: “I thought you died alone/ a long long time ago”

Sam 1: I’m the original Sam!
Sam 2: I’m in the same boat, asshole.

Christianity is just one way of viewing the film; its most obvious (too obvious?) level of interpretation. Jones once said he wanted the sequence of Sam clones to play with “the idea of a confrontation between yourself and a different version of yourself. I just liked the notion of maybe the me from now being able to talk to me from a younger period; of how different I am now to how I was.”

Again, it’s Jones playing deep into Bowie territory: the idea of piecing together a self from a mess of other selves (some yours, some others); repeated themes of duality and schizophrenia; alternating moods of radical reinvention and eternal continuity (like breaking apart your established sound to make a “Speed of Life,” then including the “Laughing Gnome” riff in it).

Moon sounds these themes in subtle ways, aided by Rockwell’s precise performance (you never lose track of which Sam he’s playing in a shot). There’s the prospect that the idea of a unique individual consciousness is a cruel joke (each “morning” a clone’s alarm playsThe One and Only” by Chesney Hawkes. (“And yet you try to make me forget / Who I really am / Don’t tell me I know best / I’m not the same as all the rest.”). Or that much of what makes you “you” is possibly false information programmed by others (consider how many of your childhood memories are actually yours, and how many are stories your parents have told you, perhaps validated by a few photographs).

So Sam, who thinks he’s serving a three-year stint on the moonbase and will soon return home to his wife and young daughter, instead finds he’s one in a long series of clones, and that his memories are those of the original Sam, who may have never left Earth. “His” wife is actually long dead; his daughter is a teenager (who has grown up knowing the “real” Sam, so she’s not even missing her father). His life is that of a plastic toy kept in a box.

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Moon: death and resurrection

There’s an optimistic reading to the film’s close. Gerty, rather than going the way of the usual murderous super-computer, instead helps lead Sam to enlightenment. And the Sam clones enact the range of human experience: the dying Sam 1 breaks down into a petulant adolescent whereas the “young” Sam 2 quickly matures, helping his “father” to accept his end and die with honor. The clones even act as the parents of “Sam 3,” the clone activated to run the moonbase: Sam 1 chooses to die for his child while Sam 2 goes to earth to fight for him.

I am fascinated by the idea that the person you think that you are is very different from what other people see you as,” Jones said. Moon ends with a man falling to earth. Not, as in Bowie and Nicolas Roeg’s film, an extraterrestrial looking to save his home by coming to ours but a manufactured human coming “home” to a planet he’s never seen but that he remembers in his dreams.

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Jones’ follow-up was 2011’s Source Code, based on a Ben Ripley script developed years before Moon. It’s a less personal film, which Jones said he took in part to prove he could helm a mainstream picture, and he had some frustration with the shift in scale. Where Moon was the work mostly of him, his producer and Rockwell, Source Code had multiple layers of producers and some mid-level studio money behind it (a $32 million budget). Jones also had to contend with a script in which a tenuous love story attempted to flower in the midst of a 24-esque “beat the clock” terrorist scenario.

That said, there are a number of similarities between the films (its star, Jake Gyllenhaal, had wanted Jones to direct after seeing the first few minutes of Moon). Again, a man kept in isolation is being lied to by his employer in order to keep him concentrated on his work. Gyllenhaal is Colter Stevens, a paraplegic, barely-alive Afghanistan war veteran whose brain is linked to “source code,” which allows a government lab to “insert” his mind into the last eight minutes of another man’s memories. This man, a teacher named Sean, was killed by a terrorist bomb; Stevens is repeatedly resurrected in the man’s body so that he can find who set the bomb, and thus let the government prevent a further atrocity. (As a tip of the hat to Moon, before the storyline is revealed, Sean’s friend/love interest Michelle Monaghan’s cel phone rings to Hawkes’ “One and Only”).

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Jones’ hand is most evident in shot composition and set details. Take the color scheme: blue unites Monaghan, Stevens and Stevens’ sympathetic army supervisor (the Gerty of the film), played by Vera Farmiga (her boss, Jeffrey Wright’s character, an amoral careerist scientist, wears brown—he’s out of the circle). There’s a hierarchy within the blue unity: Stevens wears a darker blue than Sean, the man he’s inhabiting, while Farmiga and the train conductors, the authority figure, wear shades of black-blue.

Like the moonbase, the main set of Source Code is a bottle world: the fishbowl of a two-tiered commuter train car (a life-sized set that Jones had constructed, built on a gimbal, rather than use an existing train car). The other two main environments are equally enclosed: the technology-dominated government base, code name “beleaguered castle” (it has more glowing screens than humans) where Farmiga and Wright monitor the action from what might as well be outer space; and Stevens’ mental projection of his helicopter cockpit which is shot at odd angles and extreme closeups, with handheld camera and short cuts, and the set is doused in blues, altering in shape and props upon each return visit.

code

Again, the film plays free agency against corporate repetition. Without Stevens’ knowledge, the doomed train passengers would simply repeat the same lines and actions, dying in exactly the same way; the train is a limbo between existences. But Stevens’ consecutive appearances soon alter the narrative, from helping a woman to avoid spilling her coffee to having an obnoxious comedian entertain a car full of passengers.

It’s reality as video game—Stevens plays out the train bomb scenario nine times, usually losing, but finally “solving” the game in his last go-through. Jones edits each scenario differently, changing dialogue (the only constant is Monaghan’s opening line, “I took your advice”), so that the film essentially repeats nine times, sometimes as black comedy, sometimes as distorted, sped-up fragments, sometimes as a downbeat thriller (see the eighth repetition, in which the villain kills the heroes and gets away with his plans).


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Source Code: blue, blue, electric blue

Source Code did well, making $135 million, and Jones hoped to use it to springboard into more ambitious films. “Until all this is done and I go back to Los Angeles and start taking meetings, I don’t know how seriously I’ll be in a position to get the films made that I’d like to make,” as he told Den of Geek.

He’d envisioned Moon as being one part in a possible trilogy, and he’s long wanted to make a film called Mute (he originally talked to Rockwell about starring in it before Moon even came about). His inspiration for the latter was a SF fan’s: what’s happening elsewhere in the world of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner?

What will Berlin be like in that same future? It got me very excited,” he said. “Berlin’s always a city I’ve found fascinating. I lived there for a little bit when I was a kid, and I went back again more recently, after the reunification of Germany, and it’s a city that’s changing so fast. Just because of the reunification, and the fact that the Soviets no longer exist, as such, so all the old socialist buildings are being repurposed—night clubs, residences, gyms…So, I was thinking, if Berlin has changed that fast in the last fifteen years, what will it be like thirty or forty years from now?

Jones is now a talked-up director, getting on the shortlist for a Superman film and eventually landing Warcraft, adapting the World of Warcraft video game franchise. He’s spent over three years on the project, mostly in post-production. If the film’s a hit (as it likely will be) will this finally give him the pull to make Mute or his other personal projects? Here’s hoping.

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Mute: Berlin street, Jones’ storyboard, ca. 2009

Jones goes a bit against the current grain by not indulging in grimdark SF dystopias. The worlds of Moon and Source Code have positive qualities. The moon colony supplies cheap, clean energy to Earth, letting the human race advance beyond its fossil fuel stage and reduce the pace of climate change. And the use of source code allows someone to prevent terrorist atrocities without resorting to murderous violence or repressive government measures, like a happy dream from the Bush years.

What interests him is what’s sacrificed to make even these compromised utopias: a single human soul, whether the string of short-lived clones in the moon base or the maimed soldier locked in a box in Source Code. Ursula LeGuin’s Omelas lies at the heart of Jones’ work to date—a brighter future built on the enslavement and degradation of a single person, someone who has to be lied to in order to keep working. The company always stays in business.

Of course, this being Bowiesongs, we should close back with the father. Who, after all, was a proud father, and one who’d want to pay homage to the son who had surpassed him, at least in one field.

What’s the very first thing the viewer sees in Moon, after the production tags?

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Moon premiered 23 January 2009 at the Sundance Film Festival and it screened in the UK and US that summer, Europe and Asia that fall. Source Code premiered on 11 March 2011 at the South By Southwest Film Festival. Warcraft is due to be released in June 2016. Let’s hope Mute will follow.

Top: Duncan Jones and his dad, Sundance, January 2009; Jones and Jones and Roeg, 1975; Jones and Jones at press conference, 1974.

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Kooks

March 18, 2010

Kooks (BBC).
Kooks (demo).
Kooks (LP).

The baby was born and it looked like me and it looked like Angie, and the song came out like—if you’re gonna stay with us, you’re gonna grow up bananas.

David Bowie, promotional sheet for Hunky Dory.

On the last day of May 1971, David Bowie was sitting at home listening to a Neil Young record when someone from the hospital rang to tell him he had become a father. Angela Bowie, after a 30-hour labor, had given birth to a son, who would be named Duncan Zowie Haywood Jones. Over the next day or so Bowie wrote a song about his son—he debuted it at a BBC session less than a week after Duncan’s birth. It was Bowie’s Neil Young piece, or so he said. “For Small Z.,” he wrote on the LP sleeve.

“Kooks” is the obverse of “Oh! You Pretty Things,” in which parenthood is something odd and catastrophic, an unavoidable pre-determined obsolescence. “Kooks” is awkward, warm, funny and welcoming, and its lyric captures the bewilderment that many people (I’m assuming, not being a father) face upon becoming a parent—I’m such a complete mess myself, how on earth can I raise another human being?* With classic lines like:

Don’t pick fights with the bullies or the cads
‘cos I’m not much cop at punching other people’s dads.

The song is basically a set of choruses occasionally broken up by four-bar “intros,” while the two verses serve more as bridges. “Kooks” opens with Bowie alternating between the D and Dsus4 chords on his guitar (just moving the middle finger between two frets)—this continues into the chorus until Bowie finally breaks the pattern by moving to C on “we believe in you.”

The song’s harmonic stasis (both choruses and verses start in D, with Bowie moving up a step finally in the fourth chorus repeat) is masked by a dense arrangement: Trevor Bolder doubles on bass (a very busy performance, full of runs and octave leaps) and trumpet—the latter mainly bridges the intros and choruses, with Bolder playing the vocal line of the chorus, though he gets a tiny solo when Bowie mentions the trumpet in the lyric. Rick Wakeman’s piano dominates the verses, veering between the cutesy and the slightly abrasive, while Mick Ronson’s string arrangements, a typically lovely, melodic accompaniment, sweeten the choruses.

Ken Scott, Bowie’s producer, loved the track and thought Bowie should do a whole album of children’s songs—Bowie allegedly considered the idea but sadly never followed through on it.

First performed 3 June 1971 at the BBC; recorded June-July 1971 (the early mix linked above was done for a promo version of Hunky Dory issued in August). Duncan Jones managed to have a fairly normal life, as lives go, and went into the film industry: his first picture, Moon, is worth viewing.

* Well, that’s not the only interpretation. James Perone offers the theory that “Kooks” is about a couple offering an invitation to a ménage à trois to “an individual of indeterminate gender.” If so, that would make lines like “we bought you…a funny old crib on which the paint won’t dry” a bit perverse.

Top: The three Bowies, June 1971.