Matthew Hutson

Psyched!

Duncan Jones on the Moon

Duncan Jones discusses his movie Moon.

Posted Jul 14, 2009

Matthew Hutson: What would happen if you were stuck on a moon base with yourself?

Duncan Jones: Pretty much [what happened in the movie], because there was a lot of of me in it. A lot of me and Sam [Rockwell, the lead actor]. I grew up as an only child, as did Sam. That's one of the things that we shared that gave us a good starting point for discussing how we were going to do the film. But I think the film kind of asks the question, What would it be like if you met yourself? And over time, I think, I've become pretty okay about myself. But it did take a long time. I'm 38 now so when I was younger I used to have a lot of concerns and I didn't really know my place in the world and it took me a long time to feel comfortable in my own skin.

MH: Do you think that the outcome would have been very different if you met a younger version of yourself in the movie?

DJ: Yeah, definitely. I think so. It might have been more like Sam 2 when he first turns up on the scene. He was a bit more aggressive and a bit more impatient. If there were two of them, I think it would have been a very different story. As opposed to having one guy who had three years to mellow out a bit and feel a bit more comfortable with himself.

MH: You wrote the film specifically for Sam.

DJ: I did, yeah. We met up in New York a couple of years ago to discuss a different script and he loved that script but he wanted to play a different role than the one that I was interested in him playing, so we met up in New York and tried to convince each other and that didn't happen. But we got on really well and we both had a love of science fiction and I really really wanted to work with him on my first feature. So I told him I would write something for him and that's what Moon was.

MT: What is it about his personality—or anyone's personality—that makes you curious about what would happen if you put two of that person in a room together?

DJ: Well, as a performer, every time I've ever seen Sam, he just takes over the scene. There's a real passion and an authenticity in everything he does. You always believe what he's doing and what he's trying to communicate. But also, there's a real empathy there and you really feel on the emotional side what that character's state is, whether you like him or don't like him in any given moment. I'm not going to say that anyone is going to feel bad for the character he plays in Green Mile, but at the same time you can really get a sense of who that character is and why he's doing the things that he's doing. I think it's just because he's so honest and believable and I just really wanted to give him the opportunity to take on a real challenge, which I think this role was, to play multiple parts. I was quite excited to see what he'd do with that. And I tried to give him the differentiation between the two characters and see how the conflict occurs and how it resolves itself.

MH: What was the original kernel of an idea for the movie?

DJ: It was a strange one, because, like I said, it was written for him. There was already this growing list of things that I knew we needed to do. It was a bit ass-backwards in some ways because we knew what the budget had to be before we knew what the film was going to be. Because it was going to be our first feature. And I had a background of doing commercials in the UK and the kind of commercials I tended to make were kind of live action, computer graphics hybrid commercials so they were quite effects-heavy and I had a pretty good understanding of what effects would be the most cost-effective to to. So it was basically this list [of criteria]: We knew we would have about five million dollars we should be able to raise for the film. We knew it was going to star Sam Rockwell. We knew that we wanted to keep the cast as small as possible, and then we also knew that we also wanted a controlled shooting environment so that meant we would want to shoot everything in studio if we could. So that kind of gave me an initial starting point of what the story should be. And then also my own life. I was going through a long-distance relationship at the time which actually kept on going right through the shoot. And that was having a pretty profound impact on me emotionally and it kind of gave me a lot of ammunition, as to real feelings that I wanted to communicate in the film. So all of those things sort of came together. And then the idea of cloning and it being based on the moon was almost secondary in some ways.

MH: The idea of cloning has come up in other science fiction movies in the past but you take it to a higher level and explore it more. Are there other ideas you've seen in other movies that other directors haven't taken far enough and that you would want to explore?

DJ: Cloning I'm not so sure about but having one actor playing multiple parts, that was obviously something we were very interested in researching and seeing what other actors had done. There was Cronenberg's Dead Ringers with Jeremy Irons. We had the Criterion Editon of the DVD of that and there was a whole making-of section on that which was incredibly educational just on the technical side of how to do it, but also I think for Sam it was really useful to see what Jeremy Irons was doing as an actor to differentiate between the two characters. So that was a good all-around education. There was also Spike Jonze's film Adaptation where Nicolas Cage plays twins, which for me was really interesting just on a technical level because they did a few things in that film which visually were great and I actually was very fortunate to have the opportunity to talk to Spike about that and how he did it. He gave me some really good advice about how you work out which Sam is driving the scene and you film that first. As far as cloning. Are there any particular films that you would be thinking of?

MH: Have you seen Multiplicity?

DJ: Multiplicity is a film that we consciously avoided.

MH: It was slightly different in that the charactes in Multiplicity have slightly different personalities.

DJ: It was almost like a photocopy and each time the character got dumber and dumber, from what I remember. But in the buildup to making Moon we stayed away from Multiplicity mainly because it was a comedy and it was quite a broad comedy and Sam and I both wanted to make sure that our clones were fully rounded human characters.

MH: Why is the question "would you like yourself" important?

DJ: I think it should be important to everyone. I think that to me what makes it a really good starting point for a science fiction film, is that it's a very human question and a very important question. We all have relationships in the world but there is no relationship more important than having to deal with yourself and being aware of what you're like as a person to deal with and I think that's something that not everyone really does, not everyone takes the time to think about, what am I actually like and would I like myself if I had to deal with me. So I think it's an important question, so if in any way the film gives people pause to have that little conversation or investigation with themselves, that would be really exciting.

MH: It's not such a far out thing. People have internal dialogues all the time so in some ways it's a social experience just to be by yourself.

DJ: I think you're absolutely right. I don't think our film is that far out. I don't think it even had to be a science fiction film in many ways. The location on the far side of the moon gives you isolation, and the science of the cloning gives you this unusual situation but really it could be a stage play. It's a psychological and philosophical question really.

MH: You studied philosophy in college?

DJ: I did, I was at college in Ohio doing philosophy and then I went on to graduate school at Vanderbilt in Nashville. It was general moral philosophy, but also I was trying to make some arguments for how you might possibly apply ethics to sentient machines when we get to that stage. It was a little premature.

MH: The title of your undergrad thesis was "How to Kill Your Computer Friend: An Investigation of the Mind/Body Problem and How It Relates to the Hypothetical Creation of a Thinking Machine."

DJ: That was pretentious bullshit, really. The paper itself was pretty good. It had some good ideas in it but it had a stupid title, sorry. When you're in college everything seems much more important than it really is.

MH: When you mix the mind/body problem with thinking machines something's gotta come of that.

DJ: Absolutely. I was looking into Daniel Dennett's work with the Cog project at MIT trying to create machines that were self-aware and just expanding on that from a moral philosophy point of view, where would we stand if and when Cog ever got to the point where it was self-aware and what are our duties to it? Can we turn it off? Just things like that. Daniel Dennett describes "functional equivalence:" If something always as far as you're able to sense it is doing what you expect a sentient being to do, even if it's completely artificial, it's your duty to treat it as a sentient thing. That's it in a nutshell. I didn't need to write a paper, I could have just told you in a couple sentences.

MH: It seemed like that also played a role in the plot of the movie.

DJ: In a way. Gerty [the computer in Moon, voiced by Kevin Spacey] was my antithesis to Cog. The idea was, Gerty isn't sentient. Gerty is actually very, very simple in some ways. He has one through line which is I'm going to make sure that Sam is safe and looked after and returns home at the end of three years. That's his job, and it starts when Sam wakes up and it ends when Sam is in the return vehicle going home. After having three years of not having anyone around. as far as Sam's concerned, Gerty is his best buddy, someone he can rely on and treat like a human being. For Sam 2, he's just a machine and for the audience he's possibly Hal 9000. Everyone brings their own baggage to Gerty. But Gerty's actually very simple. So I think that's quite interesting from a psychological point of view, that Gerty is the sum of what people bring to him.

MH: I think that goes with the general trend of anthropomorphizing things. People do that with their iPods.

DJ: Absolutely. That's aboslutely the case. I do it with my laptop. You hate me, you hate me!

MH: To me the limitations of Gerty came to the fore when I realized how easily he could be deceived. Sam said, "I'm just going outside to check on the thing, I swear." And Gerty's like, "Okay I believe you." In any human, the bullshit detector would go off.

DJ: I think with Gerty, as infinetesimal as the chances were that Sam is telling the truth, he had to give him the benefit of the doubt. Because Sam is the guy that he is there to look after. And if there were micrometeorites or if there were some kind of damage to the base, Sam should go outside to check it. So even if it's incredibly unlikely, he has to let him do it.

MH: Do you think much about what aspects of social interaction are important to simulate in artificial intelligence?

DJ: It's important that a computer system which is going to be able to interact with human beings be more than just like Eliza, you know that old computer program where you would type in things and it would give you crappy answers back. It would not pass the Turing test. Basically if you want to have a computer system that could pass the Turing test, it as a machine is going to have to be able to self-reference and use its own experience and the sense data that it's taking in to basically create its own understanding of the world and use that as a reference point for all new sense data that's coming in to it. That to me is really interesting. My old girlfriend a long time ago who I went to Vanderbilt with, she ended up on a psychology track at graduate school and one of the things I was always asking her is how much evidence is there that a human being is a purely physical system and that what we consider the mind is actually just a manifestation of a physical system, of a self-referencing system where you have sense data coming in and some kind of system in the brain which is referencing that and comparing it to experience and a little feedback loop. It seemed that there was at least some evidence that that might be the way things work. I'm certainly not a dualist, I believe that everything is a physical system, so to me that makes sense and the only way you are going to replicate a sentient being in a machine is to create that same system. I went off on a really big tangent there. To answer your question, yes.

MH: Science fiction seems like a great way of exploring a lot of philosophical questions.

DJ: The beauty of science fiction is that it takes the audience's guard down; they're much more willing to open themselves up and allow themselves to be questioned and have their values questioned when they don't think we're talking about their world or them and what they're used to. Put it in a science fiction setting and all of a sudden it's an other, it's something completely alien to them, but you can actually talk about something that's incredibly close and incredibly human and very personal, but because their guard is down they're more willing to accept it. Which is why I think a lot of the best science fiction literature is stories and ideas that really delve into human nature as opposed to the flash and the sexy sci-fi stuff which is maybe one of the reasons films these days may be taking a step away from that. It seems like the reason that I miss the science fiction from the late 70's and 80's is that at that period they really were doing interesting, introspective human stories that just happened to take place in science fiction settings. Now we're not really doing that so much and that moved my attempts to make a film that had that kind of appeal.

MH: Do you think people were more interested in the psychodrama aspects in the 70's because of limitations of special effects or do you think there is some other factor?

DJ: I don't think so. We're talking about films like Alien and Outland and Silent Running. And 2001. These weren't people who were scared off by how to create the visual, they knew how to do that, Ridley Scott and Stanly Kubrick, they could do whatever they wanted if they could imagine it. I think science fiction wasn't considered an adolescent pursuit at that time. It was grown up. It was an acceptable way to challenge your audience. And I think now it is considered a bit more adolescent, in film, not in literature but in film. And I don't know why that's happened to be honest. Maybe it's to do with summer blockbusters and science fiction having sort of an immediate appeal when you watch a trailer, it kind of lends itself to opening weekend grosses. But for whatever reason, people have shied away from getting too deep in science fiction in a movie. I think they find it a little bit embarrassing if you take science fiction too seriously. I'm of the opposite mind. I think there is no better [genre] to take seriously than science fiction.

MH: Do you have more thought experiments planned that you hope to execute in science fiction?

DJ: Yeah, the next film I'm hoping to do is also science fiction. I'm not going to do science fiction forever, but it just so happened that these first two projects are science fiction. Again, it's not intentional but this sense of isolation and alienation is interesting to me because I did grow up on my own a lot of the time. I had my dad [David Bowie], but he was traveling a lot and I spent a lot of time on my own. You can learn a lot about yourself and also just about people in general by putting them on their own. So my next film is about the alienation of actually being surrounded by people. So it's actually the opposite of Moon. It's a future city story and it's about a character called Leo who's mute and is unable to talk and about how he finds ways to communicate and what the world comes to expect of him and what they think he is. And again, it's that idea that everyone brings their own baggage. And the way they interact with him is more of what they think he is than what he actually is. I'm very excited about it. I think it's going to be really good.

MH: Do you get a bigger budget this time?

DJ: Yeah, a little bit of a bigger budget. It's a good step up. Moon was about $5 million and this is going to be about $20, $25 million. Still within the realms of indie-land but enough for me to know that I can make something pretty impressive, I think.

MH: Is that with Sam Rockwell also?

DJ: Sam is going to be doing a cameo. We had a talk about it when we were out in Austin. I still want him for the role but he doesn't feel comfortable doing it because it's a villain and he kind of wants to move away from that, especially now that he's doing Ironman 2, which is a big Hollywood film. I think he wants to get back to his roots a bit more. But we will definitely work again because we got on really well. But in the next film, basically we're going to do a tiny epilogue to what happens at the end of Moon because the two films work in the same time line; they're part of the same universe. So basically there is one scene where our lead character is in a cafe and the TV is on and there is Sam Rockwell giving his evidence to a big panel about what happened to him up on the moon. There's a whole bunch of Sam Rockwells actually. So that will be great fun.

MH: So one interesting thing that came up in the movie is whether you can fool yourself. It seems like, you know yourself inside and out so you would be able to see through all of your schemes. Like two mirrors facing each other, how many levels deep do you need to look? Okay, he thinks that I think that he thinks that I think that he thinks that I'm going to do this, so I'm going to do that.

DJ: [laughs] Well that's a really interesting question, I mean, do you think you could fool yourself. I'm not sure that I would be able to fool myself. Maybe I'm naïve, but unless I have reason to believe that someone is trying to pull the wool over my eyes, a lot of the time I may take them at face value. If they say something about themselves and I have no reason to doubt them, I'll accept that.

MH: I was trying to figure out whether Sam 2 was trying to fool Sam 1 and whether Sam 1 was willingly buying into it, believing he would survive the ride home. I didn't know if he knew he was going to die but he'd get in the container anyway because part of him wanted to believe.

DJ: I see, when Sam 1 is trying out the little uncomfortable helium return container. Yeah, I think that's actually him trying to go along with Sam 2's plan because there's not really a lot of options at that point. I don't know if Sam 2 is trying to deceive anyone at that point.

MH: The whole idea of theory of mind to the extreme.

DJ: Yeah. Do you think anyone will come out of it, asking that question of how they'd feel meeting themselves? Did you?

MH: In the movie I was asking, what would I do in this situation? I think that's hard to avoid.

DJ: Well that's good. Job done.

MH: Have you asked a lot of people how they would get along with themselves?

DJ: Well, I know my producer, when we were working on this together, he's got a very different personality type than me and he was like, I couldn't deal with myself all the time. I don't think I'd have such a big problem. There were a few people involved in the making of it who commented how they would feel if they had to deal with it. A lot of them seemed to think they wouldn't enjoy being in their own company, which I was a little surprised by.

MH: Do you think that's a sign that they aren't emotionally healthy or is that a normal reaction for a lot of people?

DJ: I think it's them maybe doing themselves a disservice and assuming that they are more difficult to be with than they actually are. And if they were on my side of a conversation and saw what they were like to deal with, they aren't difficult to deal with. I think people on the whole are pretty sociable and good. Maybe I'm an optimist, I don't know. I think there's an innate goodness in people.

MH: I think there are relationships, either in couples or mother and daughter, where two people are too similar to get along, like if they're both too stubborn.

DJ: Yeah of course.

MH: If you could meet another one of you from any age...

DJ: From any age, wow! Which one? Ooh, thats really hard. It would either be 14 because I'd just been sent to boarding school at 13 and I really didn't like it and I did not take the opportunity to make the best use of that potential education that I would have had. So it would have been me then to just tell myself it would be okay, just deal with it. Or it would have been me, probably when I was in my mid to late 20's when I was just finishing college and going off to graduate school and being completely unsure what to do with my life and feeling really down about that, really feeling like I'd let everyone down because I didn't have a real passion about what I wanted to do. I'd just give myself a pat on the shoulder and say it was going to be okay.

MH: What was NASA's reaction to your movie.

DJ: We had a great time. We had a guy called Tom Jones who's a working astronaut in the audience. About 80% of the people in the audience were either NASA employees or retirees. I was really so terrified and intimidated by the crowd but they loved the film and we had a Q&A afterwards and it went really well. And as opposed to all the other Q&As where people just talked about what's it like working with Sam, and technically how difficult was it to do the effects, it was all about, "We think that the moon base could look like this and we'll tell you why, cause we're working on this kind of concrete using elements from the moon and frozen water," and it was great. It was a real techie discussion about the elements of the film, so that was very exciting. Good reaction too, so I was relieved.