Making a cerebral sci-fi film on an indie budget isn’t easy, especially when it requires your star to tackle simultaneous dual roles. Yet that’s exactly what 38-year-old writer/director Duncan Jones — son of rock legend David Bowie, born Zowie Bowie — undertook with “Moon,” an assured, haunting saga set on a lunar outpost where the only inhabitant, Sam Rockwell’s miner, awakens from an accident to find that he has a new guest: himself. With its eerily contemplative mood, stark space station setting and calmly speaking robot (voiced by Kevin Spacey), Jones’ first foray into feature filmmaking after years spent making commercials reverently nods to past genre classics like “Silent Running” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” But rather than overwhelming his tale, these references enhance what is, at heart, a melancholy inquiry into loneliness and the nature of self. While in Manhattan for the film’s Tribeca Film Festival premiere last May, Jones found time over breakfast to chat about the eroding mystery of the filmmaking process, his fondness for ’70s sci-fi, and his online social networking habits.
The first thing that struck me about “Moon” is how good it looks. How did you navigate such an elaborate production on an indie budget?
We had an initial ingredients list of things we knew we needed to do in order to make the film work. We already had an idea of what our budget would have to be for a first feature. It ended up being approximately $5 million. And just to give you a relative statistic, “Sunshine” is considered an independent science fiction film, and that was $50 million. We also worked out that we needed to have a completely controlled shooting environment, because at our budget and with our shooting time — we had 33 days to shoot the film — we needed to find a way to control our environment as much as possible. So we wanted to be on a soundstage for the entire shoot, and knew we weren’t going to be able to have a huge cast.
We ended up shooting at Shepperton Studios in England, and we built two soundstages, one which was the interior of the moon base, which was a completely closed set with a ceiling on it, and the second was the actual lunar landscape, where we shot with model miniatures. In commercials-land, I’d shot a few hybrid commercials where I used live action and enhanced it with post-production techniques, so using model miniatures was something I was used to, and knew how to get the most bang for the buck out of. We used the miniatures as a basis for the image, and then did enhancements like lens flares, bits of dust and digital set extensions on the landscapes, which was the most cost-effective way to do it.
Given how crucial “Moon”‘s central optical illusion is, when sitting down to write, did you first have to investigate whether the effect was feasible?
I can’t remember what order it happened in. I knew about the effect, and roughly how to do it. Then we watched the “Dead Ringers” Criterion DVD, which — speaking of making-ofs — has a fantastic feature with some of the original raw rushes of how they shot the scenes where Jeremy Irons plays multiple characters. That was basically a film school on that effect, and it was pretty easy for us to extrapolate how we could push the boundary a bit and do things differently. But as far as writing it, and using that effect throughout the story, we just went for it, and then worked out how we were going to do it.
There’s a very tactile, lived-in quality to “Moon”‘s environments and costumes, and I know you showed the film at NASA. How important was it to retain an element of realism, in terms of both setting and technology?
It was really important. It was science fiction, but at the same time, I wanted to feel a certain confidence that there was an integrity to the world we were building. If the world that Sam’s character is in didn’t make sense, then I think I would have felt it difficult to really throw my enthusiasm, my belief, behind it. When I told Sam “this has to be like this because of this,” I wouldn’t have been able to do that if the rest of the world didn’t make sense. It would have been just throwing random elements together.
Clearly, this film has a distinct ’70s-era feel to it. What is it about that era’s sci-fi, as opposed to today’s efforts, that appeals to you?
I love modern science fiction as well. I love explosions, I like great set pieces, great action scenes, heroic archetypes. All of that stuff is great fun, it’s entertaining, and that’s why I want to go see films. But there are things absent [from today’s sci-fi] that I miss from films in the past. For example, in the late ’70s and ’80s, you had sci-fi films where the guy was a little less glamorous, more blue collar, and it was just about a real human being. In our case, as in the case of “Silent Running” and “Outland” and “Alien,” these are blue collar, normal guys and gals who are working in unusual environments. And because you see them as real people against this sci-fi backdrop, I think in some ways you see them with a lot more contrast. You really get to see the details. If you do a contemporary film about miners in a mining town, it might work as a drama, but because you don’t have that separation, that shock value from the environment they’re in, you perhaps don’t notice some of the intricacies of the characters, and the things that make them human. I think putting people in a science fiction setting makes you see what makes them human.