Code Man Jake: Duncan Jones follows 'Moon' with metaphysical sci-fi thriller

When his debut feature Moon premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2009, British-born director Duncan Jones enjoyed the kind of response that most first-time filmmakers dream of receiving. Critics raved, audiences buzzed and the movie—a contemplative science-fiction drama starring only one flesh-and-blood actor, Sam Rockwell—scored a quick pick-up by Sony Pictures Classics, which gave it a prominent summer berth.

The strong word-of-mouth continued after the film’s theatrical debut; Moon grossed almost $7 million worldwide ($2 million more than it cost to make) and nabbed several year-end awards, including a BAFTA for Best British Independent Film. More importantly, it established the 39-year-old Jones as a filmmaker to watch in industry circles, a goal that was always high on his agenda. “Moon was definitely designed as a calling-card film,” he says, on the phone from Los Angeles. “The response was terrific and it allowed me to meet people and be offered a few things.”

One of the people he encountered on his post-Moon meet-and-greet sessions was actor Jake Gyllenhaal. Jones went into their meeting hoping to sell the Prince of Persia star on a script he had been developing, but Gyllenhaal had his own project in mind. “Jake told me, ‘I’m attached to this film called Source Code and I think you’d really like it,’” Jones remembers. “So he passed along the script and I read it and really did like it. After that, things came together very quickly, because the producers had a script they were happy with and a window of time in which Jake was able to shoot. So I got invited to join the moving train, as it were. That already made it a very different experience than Moon.”

Jones may have hopped aboard the Source Code Express as the wheels were starting to turn, but for the film’s screenwriter Ben Ripley, the project had been delayed in the station for some time. The idea for the film first popped into Ripley’s head about five years ago when he decided to try his hand at science-fiction after penning several horror movies and thrillers that were stuck in various stages of development. “I had this vague notion of telling a non-linear story like Groundhog Day or Rashomon using a specific kind of sci-fi technology,” he explains. “I started playing around with the idea of a technology that essentially allowed someone to die over and over in a violent event in the hopes of coming to understand that event. Initially, it was told in a much more conventional way, but I soon found that the story became much more intriguing as a mystery where the character is placed into the event without really knowing what’s going on. Once I did that, the script just came alive.”

Over the course of a year, Ripley developed a narrative that revolved around Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal), a military pilot who finds himself forcibly enlisted in a highly sensitive mission. A bomb has ripped apart a commuter train on the outskirts of Chicago and the perpetrator plans to strike again from the heart of the Windy City in only a few hours’ time. Fortunately, a top-secret military research team has developed a cutting-edge process called “source code” that may help the authorities prevent another 9/11. Using the short-term memory of a passenger—an ordinary schoolteacher—aboard the doomed train, the scientists create a digital re-enactment of the eight minutes leading up to the explosion. They then drop Colter’s mind into the body of the teacher and task him with uncovering the identity of the bomber. What happens when his eight minutes are up? Well, the poor guy is blown to bits along with everyone else aboard the train (including his lovely seat-mate, played by Michelle Monaghan) and has to re-start the mission all over again.

If this premise sounds complicated, Ripley reveals that his early drafts of the script would have been even harder for moviegoers to follow. “Those versions were much more technical and had a lot more science in them. During the development process, we found that by subtracting that stuff out, the movie became more believable.” Ripley also took the time to inject more emotion into the relationship between Colter and his one link to the real world, a scientist named Carol Goodwin (Vera Farmiga). “Originally their conversations were like an astronaut talking to Mission Control—very technical and very much like a military mission, because that’s how I thought Colter would make sense of what was going on. He’s a military guy and as far as he knows, he’s still on a combat mission.”

After living with the script for 12 months, Ripley felt ready to take Source Code out into the Hollywood marketplace, where it was acquired by Universal in January 2007 with Topher Grace attached to star. But two years went by and the studio declined to pull the trigger on the movie. In 2009, the script moved over to the start-up company Vendome Pictures and Gyllenhaal came aboard. The actor’s meeting with Jones happened not long after and, by November of that year, Source Code was a go project with a spring 2010 start date. (Vendome partnered with Summit Entertainment to distribute the movie, which will arrive in theaters on April 1.)

Source Code always had momentum,” Ripley says of his script’s journey through the studio system. “Even when it took a few years to get going, things were happening.”

With its story of a lone man being used and abused by the institution that employs him, Source Code shares some thematic connections to Moon (here, the military stands in for the earlier movie’s space-mining corporation), but Jones says that what attracted him to the script were the substantial differences between the two films. “This one had more than one actor in it, for starters,” he laughs. “And visually I could see that there were opportunities to do things I couldn’t really do on Moon. For example, I’m a big gamer and I realized that the idea of a character repeating the same event multiple times is an awful lot like a videogame where you get multiple lives to complete a level. So I started thinking of ways to pay homage to the videogame industry in the world of the film. There’s a scene in the movie where Colter jumps off the train. In the original script, it was less than dramatic because the train was leaving the station very slowly and he just stepped off. We tried to turn it into more of an event by putting the camera over Jake’s shoulder and then spinning around so that we’re in front of him as he leaps off the moving train. That’s my homage to the Grand Theft Auto games.”

In addition to videogame-inspired visual flourishes, Jones also went into Source Code intending to bring more humor to the film. “Jake and I agreed early on that that script took itself quite seriously, and one of the ways we thought we could elevate the film was by adding some humor to it. We created a very improvisational atmosphere during shooting and Jake and I constantly talked about how we would play things.”

Ripley spent a few days on the Montreal set during production and confirms that director and star spent a lot of time mining the material for humor. “Most of the comedy you see in the film is the result of improv between Jake and Duncan,” the writer says. “There’s relatively little of that in the script, where most of the energy is devoted to the driving thriller elements. I’m glad they put in some humor and it was incredibly entertaining to watch their rapport. Of course, outside of this interview, I will always take credit for it!”

For Jones, the infusion of humor into the proceedings benefitted not only the movie, but also his leading man’s performance. “What I’m most proud of is that I helped Jake do a film where you see him at his best. He’s obviously an unfairly handsome man, but he’s also unfairly talented, and to see him playing the lighter leading-man role really suits him. It’s kind of like Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones—it’s just something that he’s good at.”

Even more than the good Dr. Jones, Gyllenhaal’s Colter brings to mind a classic Hitchcock hero, the kind of man who’s able to hang on to his sense of humor even when thrust into extraordinary circumstances. “You’re not the first person to mention Hitchcock and that was definitely a feel I tried to bring to Source Code,” says Jones. “That played itself out in the cinematography, Jake’s wardrobe, the set design and the music. I talked a lot with composer Chris Bacon about how we could steer the score that way.” (Jones has lots of experience discussing music with professionals—his father is legendary rock icon David Bowie.)

Despite having enjoyed his experience as a director-for-hire on a Hollywood picture—particularly the bigger budget that went with it—Jones is eager to follow up Source Code with another self-generated project, even if it means raising the money on his own again. Still, he’s not shy about admitting his interest in helming a big studio blockbuster somewhere down the line. “I could certainly see myself doing it, but I want to get one or two of my own things under my belt first. I think a director like Darren Aronosfky has gotten it right. He’s built his own body of work and shown what he’s capable of doing… If I ever find myself in that situation where I’m working with a major Hollywood studio, I’d want to prep myself in the same way Darren has.”

As for Ripley, he’s gone from being a science-fiction neophyte to a sought-after genre scribe. The writer estimates that four out of his five assignments since Source Code have been sci-fi-oriented. Not bad for a guy who has so little interest in technology, he only just upgraded to a smart-phone and has yet to join either Facebook or Twitter. (Jones, on the other hand, maintains a lively Twitter feed with almost 40,000 followers.) “They seem to think I know what I’m doing in that genre,” he says, laughing. “I’m working on a project with Legendary Pictures right now that takes place in Roswell in 1947 during the reputed alien landings. But it treats the event very seriously, sort of how 13 Days treated the Cuban Missile Crisis. It deals with a team on the ground in New Mexico and also what happens in the corridors of power in Washington D.C.”

Whichever of his scripts gets green-lighted next, Ripley hopes that it will be matched up with the right director in the same way that Source Code complemented Jones’ talents. “I watched Moon after I heard he was interested in Source Code and was hugely impressed. So I always had a lot of confidence that Duncan would do a good job and not be teaching himself how to direct a movie on my movie. He had a lot of respect for the integrity of the story and also added some ambiguities that I think audiences will leave the theatre debating. At the end of the day, you’re just trying to entertain people and if you achieve any resonance with the characters or structure that intrigues them further, that’s all you can hope for.”