With Duncan Jones’s new film Source Code firmly ensconced in UK cinemas, Alex Fitch caught up with the director to talk about some of the film’s themes and its links with computer games and modernist sculpture.
Alex Fitch: There are a lot of parallels between Moon and Source Code – the lead character who’s in a situation not of his making, which is connected with technology and so on. Do you think that’s why the writer and producers approached you? And did you take on the project because they are themes that interest you?
Duncan Jones: The first part is absolutely right, it was actually Jake [Gyllenhaal] who approached me; I was in Los Angeles doing international press for Moon at the time and was trying to meet up with people I wanted to work with. Jake had seen Moon and very much enjoyed it, so we met up to try and find something to work on together, and he suggested I read the script for Source Code, which he had been sent. I got very excited about it, not because of any similarities – I didn’t even notice the similarities – but because of what I thought were the differences and how it was an opportunity to do things I hadn’t done in Moon. But I think Jake gave it to me because he saw similarities between Moon and this project and thought there were certain things I’d done in Moon that would transfer well to Source Code.
The narrators of both films have been constructed in a way by technology – they’re not quite human – and I wonder to what extent we should treat Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, Colter, as an unreliable narrator. We can take a lot of the film at face value, as much as he’s experiencing it, but there’s this one scene where he’s talking to someone and suddenly they get pixellated, so you’re unsure whether it really is a simulation or a kind of time travel. How much did it interest you to play with those ideas? You could almost take the ending of the film as the fantasy of a dying man that perhaps doesn’t actually happen…
A la Brazil or something? Well, I believe there is a logic to the way I told the story, which can be interpreted in one specific way, which would all be coherent. I wasn’t going to throw stuff in there just to put you off the scent! It all does work towards a particular goal; I can tell you what parts of it are: the pixellation in particular, you’re right, is a key moment. How does the pixellation work with parallel realities? The idea is: in all other versions of the source code, when he gets sucked back into the original reality – which means there is still some kind of link with this mysterious source code at that point – and he hears about the news of his own death, it basically short-circuits him so much, that tenuous link yanks him back to the original reality. In the very last version of the source code where he’s sent off to what is supposed to be a heroic death, that tenuous link is severed and he actually exists in that parallel reality. That’s my explanation…
I’m surprised that you’re happy to give a definitive version as other directors would say, ‘well, I don’t want to explain it to you’!
That’s because they don’t know what the answer is! Also, obviously in that final passage, that final source code where Colter has gone off to that parallel reality and has stopped the train from going off, we now exist in a new reality where because the train was never blown up, he was never sent on the mission in the first place, so he must still exist in the facility where [his military handler] Goodwin is. That is the same Goodwin in this parallel reality who receives the email he sends from the train. I love the paradox of that ending, which was why I was so keen that was part of the film.
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I suppose – and I’m not suggesting you want to do ‘Source Code 2’ – you could end up with a scenario where several versions of Colter from different parallels end up in the same place, because he’s succeeded on various missions!
Obviously if terrorists were looking for a target to blow up, they would choose a city to cause maximum damage, but I’m interested in the idea of the film’s theme of a character processing information around him, and since he’s going from a less complex system – the suburbs – to a more complex system – the city – I was wondering if those were themes you’d considered, that he was disrupting increasingly complex environments…
That’s interesting, I can’t say I have. You see, I’m admitting I didn’t have a pre-existing plan there! No, that’s very interesting, that’s a fascinating interpretation. It’s something that was there in the script to begin with and structurally I thought the script was very sound, so it made sense to run with it.
That’s another parallel with Moon, that both characters go from a place that’s quite sparsely populated and very much contained to a very open environment where their presence may become an increasingly disruptive presence, because they’re more than human.
That’s true, there are a number of parallels regarding identity and the nature of a working person trying to impose some kind of rights for themselves against a malicious authority and through the use of technology. It does make you realise just how blinkered you can be at times: when I was reading the script I wasn’t seeing those parallels! I got very enthusiastic about certain aspects of it and they must have been coming through on a subconscious level.
Colter is obviously a very likeable and engaging character, we’re with him on his journey and we’re happy that he succeeded, but at the same time I feel the film doesn’t spare a thought for the poor guy whose body he’s stolen. It’s all very well that he was going to die in every other reality, but when Jake survives it’s because he’s stolen someone else’s life.
It’s true and it’s part of the less-than-rosy happy ending people talk about, which the film doesn’t actually have, but at the same time there was really no way of getting around Sean Fentress dying; he was either going to die when the train blew up or everyone else was going to be saved and he was going to die because Colter was going to have to use his body. So it was the one sacrifice that was going to be unavoidable…
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Was the sculpture that the two leads confront at the end in the script? Is it set in Chicago or was that a visual element you brought to it?
The script was originally set in New York, but because of sensitivities to the terrorism angle, they felt it was important to move it away from there. We discussed a number of cities but for a list of reasons, we decided that Chicago was a great city to do it in – it’s a big multi-cultural city in the Midwest, something that both the East and the West can relate to. Visually, it’s a very beautiful city as well. We knew we were going to be shooting in Montreal so we needed to find a place we could match. Montreal can be matched with a lot of places, but Chicago is particularly easy and I was really pushing for this because I wanted to use this Anish Kapoor sculpture. I knew it could be a really useful visual metaphor, a useful tool in the flashbacks he’s having, and make a good payoff at the end of the film as well. It looks alien, it doesn’t even look real! I love that aspect of it…
And obviously, aesthetically, it echoes some of the themes of the movie.
Absolutely, it’s about reflections.
And narrowing your vision down to one specific point…
…and distort it. Distorted reflections, at that.
The film is an Anglo/French/Canadian/American co-production. It’s all very well considering the success of The King’s Speech, but post-Film Council, a lot of people are probably wondering, ‘what is the future of the British film industry?’ Based on your experience, I imagine it’ll be a lot of co-productions?
I think so. Before Source Code happened, we were talking about looking into Anglo-German co-productions. There’s a lot of opportunity there: the Germans have got a lot of money they’re investing in co-productions, and Canada was another good one. I think and hope The King’s Speech is a bit of a game changer. But the Film Council didn’t invest any money in Moon, so I have no idea how they work!
Another influence on the film, whether directly or indirectly, seems to be computer games. You have this idea of a character trying to complete a level; they learn the rules as they go along and as they persevere, they master it. Was it in the script, or are you actually a gamer?
I’m a massive gamer! I have been all my life. I started off on the Atari, got a Commodore 64 and the first floppy drives, then it was the Amiga 500s. I’m a hardcore gamer and always have been, and not just a hardcore gamer, a PC gamer – I’m not one of these console lightweights! (laughs)
So like Colter, you’ve also had to suffer the frustration of levels not quite loading properly.
Oh absolutely! I remember the old days of having to type in: ‘CONFIG.SYS’ and ‘AUTOEXEC.BAT’ to get things to run on a 486! That was a bit geeky, wasn’t it? Sorry about that!
Interview by Alex Fitch