Over the ‘Moon’ with Duncan Jones & Sam Rockwell
In Duncan Jones’ directing debut Moon, Sam Rockwell is a hard-working moon miner about to finish up his contract working for the government. His only companions are tapes from home and a talking computer, GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey in an eerie HAL-like voice). Sam whiles his time away sending videos back to his wife and child on Earth and building elaborate matchstick buildings when he’s not retrieving precious resources from the moon for the folks back home. His tour of duty is so close to ending, he can taste it — but of course, that’s when things start going awry. It’s hard to discuss Moon without giving away surprises. So beware — Spoilers Ahead! — as we talk with Rockwell and Jones about their trippy, old-school science-fiction flick. We get down to brass tacks about video games, futurism, Sam’s refusal to get a computer, therapy, Twittering, and many other topics besides Duncan Jones’ dad (who is David Bowie, fine, so let’s move on).
Tell me about meeting each other, and Duncan, about your interest in Sam. Sam Rockwell: We met at a coffee shop. We were set up through my agent, and we were supposed to meet on another project, and that didn’t feel like it was the right one, but then … it came up somehow that we both were sci-fi fans. Duncan Jones: We got on well. I didn’t want to let it go because I wanted to work with him. And he was like, “I’m through with this! I’m outta here.” And I was like, “Stay! Please, Sam, stay! What can I do? What can I do?” And he was like, “I wanna play a blue collar guy. What can you do about that?” And I was like, “Well, I’ll write something for you.” So about nine months later I gave him the script [for Moon].
And, Duncan, your interest in sci-fi goes way, way back. Your thesis in college was … DJ: Batshit. Crazy. [laughs]
Batshit crazy, yeah. And amazing. It 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.” And it ties into Moon and GERTY and all that. DJ: It’s all about thinking machines.
You’ve been interested in sci-fi for a really long time, since you were a child … DJ: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
What attracts you to the genre? DJ: You know, when I was a kid growing up, I was a only kid and we traveled an awful lot, and one of the few things that made me feel at home was movies, whether they were on old U-matic tapes or VHS. But we had Star Wars before anyone else had it. We had the first pirate copy of Star Wars, and it was on these three big U-matic tapes, so I used to get all the kids round my house and we used to watch Star Wars. So films were a big deal for me, and science fiction was obviously a big deal as well. And I was kinda geeky, so …
What attracts you to science fiction? DJ: At that age, I think it was just the whole escapism of it, the fact that you were in this whole different world, and it was just exciting to be somewhere so different. I think that was part of it, at that age. As I got older, my appreciation for science fiction changed, and I became more interested in the fact that you would hear or read these stories that involved very human things but done in such a way that you could appreciate the human elements of the story, but not feel like you were being lectured to, because again, you had this distance because it was science fiction.
What’s your take on science fiction, Sam? Like, which authors and movies inspired you, especially for this project? SR: I guess, well, Blade Runner, Alien, Outland, Silent Running, and 2001 … Alien might have been the first one we talked about. DJ: That’s true. Well, that kind of tied with the whole blue-collar thing, didn’t it. SR: Yeah, we were trying to do a combination of science fiction and — well, a lot of science fiction movies in the past 10 or 15 years have been about incredibly good-looking people up in space, and they sort of save the universe from a monster or something, and back then it was like, they’ve got these really great character actors like Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton and Veronica Cartwright and all these people. The mix of English and American actors in Alien was interesting, and the fact that the acting was so realistic, and it was about these blue-collar people. Or a movie like The Thing, where you’ve got these blue -collar people up in this isolated working environment, like regular joes, and they’re ordinary people forced into extraordinary circumstances. So you relate to them, and the acting was so real. In Alien, it was so real it was like a Cassavetes movie, actually. You know, you have Harry Dean Stanton improvising with Ian Holm and stuff like that, and these incredibly skilled actors like Tom Skerritt, and they throw this monster into the mix. And the monster seems very real. So I think the reason you get pulled in, if you take Alien, just that movie, is that they have a very naturalistic, kitchen-sink movie in space, and then all of a sudden they start introducing more extraordinary things, and so because you’re sucked in through the reality of the acting, you start to buy the monster. You become afraid just like they are. So it’s a very effective movie, and I think we might have talked about that movie in particular along with Outland and other ones, Bruce Dern in Silent Running, and that’s the thing that I … I said, “Why don’t they make sci-fi movies like that any more? Where’s that movie?” So I think we bonded on that, so that was our aesthetic with Moon, I think. At least it was mine, and I think it was yours, too. DJ: Yeah, definitely.
Has the future become much more boring now that JG Ballard died? DJ: Oh, absolutely! JG Ballard passing was a big deal for me because I was a huge fan of his, and I don’t know if it’s more boring, but I just think that now we’re lacking one of the really interesting minds as far as it comes to futurism and looking at what our situation is in the world, and how we’re going to be affected by the technologies we’re inventing and the changes that we’re sort of creating for ourselves. So it’s a shame that he’s gone. SR: What did he write? DJ: He wrote Crash and a bunch of books like High Rise … SR: Crash? Which one?
The good one. SR: The one with the car accidents? DJ: And Empire of the Sun. That was about his childhood. About his real childhood. SR: Wow.
In the Japanese internment camps. SR: But those don’t sound like sci-fi stories … DJ: I should give you some of his short stories because he has some amazing stuff. He did this really, really interesting short story about a laboratory where they were doing experiments and not allowing people to sleep. It’s just really weird. And it’s great ’cause he would take, rather than go into crazy sci-fi, what he would do is he would take the world as it is and he’d make one subtle change. He’d just make one little change. And then the story would be about, what does that change do to the world? Really good stuff.
You could compare him to William Gibson … DJ: William Gibson and Philip K. Dick, though, they both kind of made big changes. Ballard’s beauty was that it was small changes.
Right, but they were no less prescient. SR: So he was like Kurt Vonnegut too, a little bit. DJ: Yeah, yeah. SR: There’s a Kurt Vonnegut story about what if the Japanese and Germans had won World War II. I think it’s a whole novel, not just a short story. DJ: There’s a great Philip K. Dick story about that as well. SR: He did Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, right? DJ: Yeah, Blade Runner. But there’s a book that he did that I’d love to make into a film, but I just don’t think if it’s politically acceptable. It’s called The Man in the High Castle. I think that would be an amazing film. It’s, again, the same thing, if the Germans and Japanese had won WWII and the Germans had basically owned the East Coast and the Japanese had won the West Coast, and it’s all about these, they’re kind of like antiques dealers who live in the Midwest who basically sell Americana to these Nazis and Japanese. It’s great. Amazing story.
So do you want stick with science fiction, as far as movie-making goes? DJ: Well, my next film is probably gonna be a sci-fi, but no, not forever. I want to do some different genres; there are some things I’d love to do, but not just sci-fi.
Your next project, I read, is similar to a sequel to Blade Runner. DJ: It’s not a sequel. It’s a thriller that would take place in the world, if Blade Runner’s going on in LA, this is a story that’s going on in Berlin. So they’re not related in any other way except for the fact that it could be from the same world.
Video games and sci-fi are all part of a geek culture, if you will, that is becoming far more mainstream as an extension of these alternate realities that movies Moon are presenting. What’s your take on that? DJ: Games, films, literature — it’s all about creating worlds and stories in those worlds. I used to work in the games industry as well. I was a games designer about 10 years ago or so … It was a terrible game. It was called “Republic.” It was at a company called Elixir Studios, and they were like the European equivalent of Ion Storm, so you know what happened to Ion Storm — basically, the same thing happened to Elixir Studios.
Do you still play video games? DJ: I do play them, yeah. [laughs and turns to Sam] Sorry, this is so boring. SR: No, go ahead, man. I’m taking a break. DJ: Call of Duty 5 … PC. Only PC. Yeah, I hate consoles. I have an Xbox, don’t use it. I have a Wii, don’t use that. I need a keyboard and a mouse. I’m old school.
You’re old school like GERTY. DJ: Yeah, exactly.
And Sam, you don’t play video games. SR: I don’t. DJ: He believes in living life. I hide from life. SR: I’m a bit of a technophobe, yeah … I have a cell phone. That’s about it. I text. That’s about it. DJ: Thank God for texting. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to get ahold of you. I wouldn’t know how to interface. SR: It’s true. I don’t have email. I don’t have any of that.
You don’t have email? SR: I don’t have a computer. DJ: See what I had to deal with?
I don’t know how to respond to that. SR: It’s possible. You can do it, if you want.
But why? SR: It’s just not necessary for me. Once in a while, I would like to do the research you can get on a computer. That, I think, might come in handy. I might get an iPhone, eventually, just to do some of the research. But I’m not a letter-writer, so I don’t really care. I’ll write some texts. The text thing is already too much. It’s like, enough with this thing. I wanna throw it out the window. It’s like every two seconds I’m texting, almost get hit by a car texting. It’s ridiculous.
But you’re in a science fiction movie. SR: Yes, but I’m an actor. I’m not a space technician. [all laugh] Technically, it was challenging, making the movie, but for different reasons. There are a lot of people who don’t have computers, you know. A lot of cool people … Tom Stoppard doesn’t have a computer, did you know that? Tom Stoppard. I heard that David Mamet doesn’t have a computer, but he probably has an assistant who has a computer. DJ: Russell Crowe hates computers. If he sees a computer, he breaks it. SR: I heard Viggo Mortensen doesn’t have a computer. DJ: That makes sense. SR: He’s the coolest guy around … He doesn’t need a computer. DJ: He just looks at them, and they know. SR: I know Patricia Clarkson does not have a computer, and I’m a big fan of hers. We’re friends. DJ: But actors need to be able to relate to people and understand people, whereas we don’t. [laughs] We just have to use computers.
It’s hard to even talk about the movie without revealing spoilers, so Sam, talk to me about your research. Did you go to a therapist for that, or what? SR: I do go to therapy, but that’s something entirely different. All actors should go to therapy.
I think all people should. SR: I think all people should too.
What about you, Duncan? DJ: I don’t go to therapy. SR: The English aren’t big on therapy. DJ: But I need the interior conflict in order to make stuff … and then get him to act it out. SR: The British aren’t big on therapy … It’s too self-conscious. DJ: No, not really. We’ve got to catch up on dentistry. SR: I think they think it’s like you’re feeling sorry for yourself, which is actually, it’s not, but I think there’s a sort of … it’s that phrase “Get on with it.” DJ: Yeah, absolutely … When I grew up, we had this phrase that was always thrown around, “character building.” So if anything happened to you, or any shit you happened to deal with … SR: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. DJ: Yeah, character building. SR: I agree with that. Sometimes you do sort of have to get on with it. But anyway, yes … It was intense. For a lot of reasons. Technically, it was mind-boggling. It was a never-ending challenge, technically. It was a lot about timing, and we talked about dance, and I think that there is a kind of timing to it, and I think I do have good timing. I think that was … I mean, I’m being very vague here, but … DJ: We knew up front, there’s no point in getting you to play the same guy the same way multiple times. There’s no drama or conflict or anything interesting in that … We spent a lot of time trying to find ways to split these Sams up and make them into different people. SR: A few months before, we had time to sort of work on this, and he flew to New York, and I got an actor friend of mine, Yul Vazquez, who I studied acting with, and we would read a scene and we’d read it one way, and then we’d switch parts and do it the other way. And then we would improvise and riff, and he would incorporate some of the improvs and film it on video, and then he would go back to London and incorporate some of that into the script. And then I went to London and we found another actor, and we rehearsed with him, and it was just a process where we found we were going for two very broad strokes of archetypes for the two different clones — one was maybe a tough guy, the other was more sensitive. And then slowly we got more specific on really crafting out three dimensional human beings.
DJ: That’s why the script kind of made it clear what the difference was — there was this difference in experience between the different Sams. One guy’s been on his own for three years. One of them has just woken up into this absurd, bizarre situation. SR: You know, if you spend three years in prison, or three years in Auschwitz, it’s different than spending three years in New York City, you know what I mean? So three years on the moon, I think, affected this guy in a way that made him different. It’s a different experience. It’s like ten years on Earth, in a way. It’s a Robinson Crusoe castaway experience that’s going to change you. And we discussed a back story of how he was before he was there; he was more selfish and narcissistic, and then this experience kind of changed him a little bit.
So Sam, Iron Man 2? How’s that going? Fun? SR: Iron Man 2. Very fun.
Awesome. Jon Favreau’s Twittering about it. SR: I’m Twittering about him … Twittering in my pants!
Where are your favorite places to go in New York and London? SR: I like Avenue C Espresso. Esperanto’s over there. I like Zum Schneider, the German place, although it’s crowded, but I like the beer. Good beer during the day. DJ: In New York, I like K-town, just because I love Korean food, so anything, any bibimbap, just throw it in front of me, I’ll eat it. And in London, there’s a place called The Big Easy, which is basically an overload of Americana. So, because I live in London, I sort of get all the London I need, but whenever I need a little bit of America, I go to The Big Easy.
Why do you want a little bit of America in London? DJ: Well, because I’m cosmopolitan. [laughs]