LOS ANGELES—Duncan Jones had entree into the world of celebrities, movies and pop culture from the moment he was born.
As the son of British rock legend David Bowie, he had friends who were the children of other musicians, actors and artists. He grew up the musical equivalent of a military brat, calling, at times, London, Berlin, Tokyo and New York home. His introduction to professional filmmaking came from observing his father on the sets of films, including the 1986 fantasy “Labyrinth.”
But his 2009 low-budget science-fiction drama, “Moon,” and this Friday’s science-fiction thriller “Source Code” reflect a very different Duncan Jones. Whereas his celebu-spawn contemporary Sofia Coppola makes movies like “Somewhere” and “Lost in Translation” — films ensconced in show-business culture — Jones crafts mind-bending science-fiction narratives in which isolated men in desperate situations search for answers.
To find the roots of the 39-year-old director’s aesthetic, one has to look to Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, where Jones spent 2 1/2 years in a doctoral program in philosophy.
“I studied mind-body philosophy and how one might apply ethics to potential thinking machines in the future, and my approach is still massively influenced by those years,” Jones says, reflecting on a time that shaped his thinking and his approach to storytelling.
“I was truly miserable at grad school and lonely, and I explored my feelings in an almost monastic way,” he adds. “I think that has informed how I work with actors and tell them what their characters might be going through.”
Speaking in Beverly Hills at the end of a long weekend promoting his new movie, the bearded, shaggy-haired Jones references philosophical ideas like Schrodinger’s Cat (a thought experiment in which a feline can be simultaneously alive and dead) when describing “Source Code.” In the film, Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Army Capt. Colter Stevens, a man who loses consciousness and wakes to find himself forced to take part in a secret military program through which he relives, over and over, the last eight minutes of a dead man’s life.
Stevens’ mission is to identify the bomber on the Chicago commuter train where his alter ego died, but he quickly determines that he actually must reconnect with his own life while also attempting to change reality by altering the past.
When describing how he directs, Jones frequently uses the phrase “problem solving,” and “Source Code” presented plenty of opportunities to do just that. The most obvious was presenting the same eight minutes of time in new and interesting ways, always starting with Gyllenhaal opening his eyes in the midst of a conversation with commuting buddy Michelle Monaghan.
Gyllenhaal says in a phone interview that Jones reminded him of his “Brokeback Mountain” director, Ang Lee — a far-from-obvious analogy given that Lee is known for lush emotional tales, not outer space and time travel. But the actor says their on-set styles are remarkably similar. “Duncan is quiet and stoic when he gives you a direction,” he says. “First he trusts the actor wholeheartedly and practically begs us to lead him.”
Despite his childhood proximity to the limelight, Jones never expected to find himself working in Hollywood. He says he was uncomfortable in the world of rock concerts and movie sets and wasn’t even a fan of his father’s work. “I always see him as my dad and was unable to see beyond that,” he explains. However, he and Bowie, who won custody of his son after a divorce, bonded by shooting 8-millimeter stop-motion animated movies together.
After concluding in his late 20s that he didn’t want to become a professor, Jones left graduate school and visited his father on the set of the television series “The Hunger” in Montreal. While there he assisted director Tony Scott, whom he credits with inspiring him to abandon the unhappy path he was on and turn to moviemaking. “He didn’t know that he was helping me to change my life, but he was,” says Jones.
After graduating from film school in London, Jones pursued a career in advertising — the same field in which Scott started. He gained attention with ads for brands such as French Connection and then made his move into films with the 2009 Sundance Film Festival entry “Moon,” which he also co-wrote. It starred Sam Rockwell as a solitary man running a mining operation on Earth’s satellite.
“The thing about Duncan is he’s both emotional and cerebral,” Rockwell says over the phone of his decision to work with the then-first-time filmmaker. “He understands that you have to track emotional logic, not just the logic of the story.”
Though it generated only $5 million at the domestic box office, “Moon” proved to be the calling card Jones needed. It earned him fans throughout Hollywood, including Gyllenhaal, who already was attached to writer Ben Ripley’s “Source Code” script and championed Jones to direct it after the two met.
The $32-million production — after tax credits in Montreal, where it was shot — represented a big step up from the $5-million-budgeted “Moon.” But Jones already is getting even bigger opportunities. He was a finalist to direct Warner Bros.’ upcoming reboot of Superman and passed on a new movie based on the British comic-book superhero Judge Dredd.
Instead, he’s working on an original script for his next movie and, as his nearly 16,000 Twitter followers can attest, frequently playing video games. Jones says he plans to make one more science-fiction movie, after which he hopes to move on to other genres.
But whatever he does, it seems unlikely that he’ll be able to resist playing with big ideas. Jones acknowledges he obsessed over crafting the end of “Source Code” to make sure that every loose end came together in a way that even a philosophy professor couldn’t question.
“I wanted to make a film that’s accessible but resolves all of the logical implications and paradoxes,” he says. “I understand that not everyone leaving the film is necessarily going to get all that, but I needed it there for my own satisfaction.”
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