Feel First, Intellectualize Later: An Interview with Legendary Composer Clint Mansell

A symbiotic relationship between composer and director has always been of massive importance when creating a work that’s not only momentarily visceral and dynamic but has the staying power of something truly cinematic. And if there’s any modern composer that truly knows how to penetrate films with sonic accompaniment that haunts, excites, and transcends, it’s visionary English maestro of emotional sound, Clint Mansell. With an affinity for twisted psychological intensity, his compositions work like a drug to suck you into the world of the film and hit you straight in the gut—even with his most elegant melodies teeming with an undercurrent of unease and desperation that makes us cling to each note with pleasure. 

After departing from Pop Will Eat Itself in the mid-1990s, Mansell has been proving his tremendous ability to create a potent soundtrack, working with myriad directors from Darren Aronofsky to Duncan Jones, breathing life into their creative visions. And since the release of Aronfsky’s debut feature Pi, he and Mansell’s work have become synonymous with one another’s—intwined in such a way that one’s images conjure up the other’s sounds, while one’s sounds evoke a very specific movie of the mind. And as one of the most simpatico working relationships in the world of film today, the two have shaped many a vision together—from the iconic paranoid and heartbreaking score for Requiem for a Dream, to the classically harrowing sounds of Black Swan, and the music to come for the upcoming Noah

So although we’ve become quite accustomed to hearing Mansell’s sound in one very specific world over the years, it’s interesting and thrilling to see him lend his talents elsewhere—as he has recently with his incredible work on Moon and Stoker. And in a very rare treat, this week Clint Mansell will take to the stage at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle to play his first New York City performance. Live with a string quartet, full band, and video projection Mansell will be playing songs from Stoker, as well as a taste of everything we’ve grown to love and obsess over him for from Requiem for a Dream, to The Fountain, to Moon, and back around. 

A couple weeks ago, I got the chance to chat with Mansell about composing from gut feeling, the joke of 21st century filmmaking, and how mood’s overarching effect.

So do you find that live performance translates well to your music? Is performing something you still enjoy from your past when that was such a large part of your work as a musician?
I always enjoyed playing live when I was younger. But the experience of playing live, in a lot of respects, is a youthful thing. It’s sort of pleasing to me—and probably my family members—that I found a way to re-enter the live environment but doing it somewhat age appropriately without having to shoehorn myself back into a pair of leather pants to rock the house, you know? 

And it’s a wonderful space to perform in.
We played a church in London a few years ago and it was beautiful. Churches just have an ambiance of their own. With film music, there’s a lot of long quiet passages—which is not really what people usually go to gigs for, so it may require sitting down and being a bit attentive, but obviously a church would really lend itself to that, so I’m really looking forward to it. I haven’t played a gig in New York since 1996 when I was part of something called Night of Nothing at Irving Plaza where I was a guest member of Nine Inch Nails for a few songs.

What originally struck me about your music is how psychologically rich it feels and how it transports you into the mental landscape of its characters so fully. How do you go about building these worlds of sounds for the films you score and do you have a certain process?
I’m not very analytical really; everything I do is based on gut feelings. I just spend a lot of time with the film and with the characters and allow it to consume me, I suppose, and completely absorb it so that you’re thinking about it on a subconscious level. A lot of the films I’ve done have tended to have a main character who is driving the story whose journey I have to support. Black Swan was probably an example of that. This character was totally obsessed with her work and getting the role, but the fact that it’s a ballet, that music would have haunting her and taunting her the whole time. You know what it’s like, the first thing in the morning you might hear a record on the radio, and you can’t get it out of your head all day. So I thought well, if you imagine that the music is actually part of what you’re doing and you’re listening to it all day, it will drive you insane. To a degree, it’s very similar to what I do. I listen to the same bit of music over and over again. I see my stuff as a very Burroughs type approach.

Like cutting-up of the work?
Yeah, I like to write a piece and move it to a place where it wasn’t written for—which is not exactly a revolutionary idea but it does bring in an element of chance, so things occur that you wouldn’t naturally gravitate towards or wouldn’t have occurred to you. You can get these ideas in with like a very violent scene but with music that’s very beautiful—you can juxtapose and it gives you so much more than just the one note of: oh here’s sex, here’s violence, here’s a kiss; you musically can bring in other layers. You can build up an idea of who these people are. My job is to embellish the universe that the filmmaker is trying to create with this story and images and performance; everything I do has to be true to that world. You don’t want something to happen musically to take you out of the movie. So I’ve constantly got to find my way into these characters’ heads and be aware of the fact that if something doesn’t ring true that I’ve got to do something about it. Like in the film Double Indemnity, Edward G. Robinson is an insurance claims adjustor guy and he can spot something’s off with an insurance claim because he gets this little man that gives him indigestion— that’s kind of what it’s like.

Do you tend to use the character as the musical conduit for the story? Like in Requiem for a Dream, there’s the song "Marion Barfs." A lot of the songs from that film sound like they’re scoring the entire scene or the specific chapter of the story but a song like that sounds like its scoring from her insides. 
I don’t think I would analyze it that deep really because it’s really a gut thing, it’s an emotional thing. I think the application of intellect, that comes after the fact—for me, anyways. I just respond to something and so I don’t know if I think about it in that linear kind of way.

Well that’s the best way to enjoy a film: to experience it and feel it first, then intellectualize later.
When I first get a film I watch it and watch it and then I kind of jam to that picture, just very rudimentarily on a piano whilst watching it. And believe you me, it’s very unmusical at that point. But what I’m getting is rhythm and momentum from the performance and feel like I can just respond to what’s going on emotionally and  build from there and get deeper and deeper. You can go in and color-coordinate, find out how these scenes fit together and do that on an intellectual basis. But I always tend to come from the emotional side—which is a gift and a curse. It may not always be the right way to go but you know, that’s how I do it. 

The beginnings of your career, playing with Pop Will Eat Itself, etc., that was a very different musical world than you’re in now. Did you make a conscious effort to move into scoring or was it more of an organic progression that happened from meeting Darren [Aronofsky]?
It was a completely fortuitous chain of events. I’ve always loved film, I’ve always loved film music, but my choices of what I like in film music are probably quite different. I come from more of John Carpenter, David Lynch school of film score appreciation and you know, John Williams, no offense but that’s not really my thing. So I was always interested in stuff like The Parallax View with Michael Small’s music—minimal really but really evocative. I also grew up watching cowboy movies with my dad and those have great rollicking scores to them as well. But then in my late teens, early 20s is when I discovered cinema of a lesser known nature, Blue Velvet, Betty Blue, etc. stuff like this. Those films all have much more interesting musical senses to me. To this day, I wouldn’t give you a round of drinks to what the score to Die Hard 5 is, I mean who fucking cares—no offense to anybody working on—that but who cares?

Well it’s completely different. With someone like Angelo Badalamenti, his music is like a character of its own in Lynch’s films.
Absolutely. Filmmaking, by in large in the 21st century, is a joke I think. It’s all basically the same thing designed to get 15-year-old boys to part with their money. So that was never really of interest to me. I spent a lot of time listening to music and movies that I was excited by and when I met Darren, these are the things that we bonded over really. He was getting the money together to do Pi and he had no real musical connections to people, and we were introduced through mutual friends.

Were you working down at Nothing Studios with Trent [Reznor] at that point?
No, I was living in NY at the time. If Darren had known someone with film experience, he may have preferred to go with someone with chops—but having said that, knowing Darren maybe he wouldn’t have either. You’d think that if you were making your first film you might want someone with experience opposed to some guy who was a long-haired alcoholic in a rock and roll band. 

But if you share a sensibility then that’s important.
We bonded over these different elements of filmmaking that we were excited by, and we were very fortunate in a lot of ways on Pi because it meant that we had no industry or nobody butting their noses in telling us what to do. We had time to figure out what we were doing, and originally Darren wanted to use pre-existing electronic music for Pi and I was just going to write a main theme, a snappy title. But then because he had no money and no real contacts, he couldn’t get a hold of the music and the rights, so every time they lost a piece I basically had to write the piece to replace it. And by doing that I needed up scoring the whole film. And by doing so, Darren and I figured out what we liked without anyone telling us we couldn’t do it this way or that way. We just didn’t know. Even when we did Requiem, we just didn’t know. We were just doing what we liked and that’s an invaluable, invaluable experience. 

Do you miss that sense of freedom?
To be honest, I still have a huge awareness over the fact that I don’t know what I’m doing and honestly, I think that’s an absolute benefit. Sometimes when I meet with a director, I tell them that the biggest ability for me is having the time to get it on, because you start off the film and it’s like a huge blank piece of paper and you’ve got all these choices and you make one or two and certainly your options have narrowed hugely. But that kind of vulnerability, I don’t know if people like that, they seem to like the sort of I’m here to solve all your problems! 

But that music, I’m sure would be pretty void of any authentic feeling.
Of course, it’s bullshit. You know how the movie industry works, people aren’t into vulnerability or actually having an emotional connection to something, they like trousers stuffed to the gills with confidence. I think that’s why we have so many poor products. And obviously I’ve scored a lot of films now, so I do have some knowledge about the process, but the feelings aside, to start every film is like, what the hell are we going to do with this? My most successful movies—and by successful I don’t mean box office, just my own personal preferences—are the ones that I’ve had to try hard and dig deep to find things and challenge myself. I mentioned John Williams earlier, I couldn’t do what he does; if someone said, we really want a John Williams or Hans Zimmer type, well, you better get someone else. I can do what I can do but I’m not a musician, per say, I’m not classically trained musician. I noodle around on piano and guitar and I have to find the emotional moment. I look for the moment in the story where everything comes together that’s bigger than all of those parts are, these moments of transcendence that just elevate you somewhere else. 

So yes, aside from working with Darren, you’re very selective about the films you take on. How do you go about choosing a project and how early on are you brought into the process?
It’s got to have to be something that appeals to me, something that makes me think I’d connect to the story. And there’s a time for everybody where you might just need a job, of course, but the one’s you’re really excited about like when I first read the script to Moon. It blew my mind—why aren’t scripts like this every day? It just had everything I love: isolation, loss, memory issues, just so intellectual while being deeply emotional. And you know, that’s exactly what I am looking for. I’ve been very fortunate in as much as a lot of my work has had a life outside of the film it’s been written for, which have afforded me the opportunity to not have to jump at every job that’s come my way. There was a time that I did so that I could learn my trade really, but in doing so, I also found the things that I don’t like or can’t do and areas where I can shine. Stoker was very much like that. 

And that was such a stunning soundtrack, but sonically that entire film was just mixed so well.
The sound of the film is just incredible. The balance between the sound design, the score, and the dialogue is just so finely tuned and elegant. I would never have thought to put any of my work in an elegant category but just everything on the film is just beautiful. That all comes from the director and their sensibility. Before I’d gotten offered the Stoker job I’d actually withdrawn from scoring for a while, because after Black Swan everything that was coming my way was crap. The film was successful, so bigger films that want to be successful think they can use you now because you have this proven hit factor or something. No, it doesn’t work like that and I was getting all these rubbish films. And I knew I was going to be doing Noah with Darren and I thought I’d just explore some other things for a while.

Where do you look to draw from for inspiration?
Music in general really. I definitely go through love/hate relationships with music. Sometimes I can’t bear to hear it and other times you just want to play it all day. That’s the fantastic thing about music for me: there are no right and no wrong answers, it’s just what it is and it’s people’s expressions of themselves and their feelings and you don’t when yesterday’s cacophony is going to be today’s sweet melody because you’re in different moods and different times. Again, I like this sort of Burroughs thing of random experience and if something happens to fall into your lap. There’s great music out there. It’s really that simple, I suppose. Some days everything works like a charm and other days it sucks; so, obviously my own moods play a big part it in.

So did you start working on Noah?
Yes, I haven’t been on it that long. I had written stuff in advance just based on the script and I went to Iceland to the shoot to just get a few for things. I’ve just been chipping away at it.

Well, I’m very excited for that one. But are there any favorite films you’ve worked on, ones that particularly allowed you to explore something new?
I tend to always like the later stuff I’ve done because I’m always just thrilled to have gotten through another film and actually had some meaningful music involved in it. But I did really enjoy Stoker and I just finished a film called Filth. But probably The Fountain and Moon are amongst the favorites of my own—but you’re kind of always hoping the next will be the best one.

I also always loved how your music works so well in the films and with the characters but it also can have a life of its own separate from the work. Personally, I listen to the Requiem soundtrack when I need to calm down, which is probably odd but I love it.
Does that help?

I must be pretty anxious if that’s going to relax me.
So it’s like the equivalent of giving hyper active kids Ritalin or something.


Duncan Jones Talks ‘Source Code’ & Sci Fi

The golden age of science fiction films occurred in the late 70s and early 80s, when Star Wars made geeks of us all, Ridley Scott directed Alien and Blade Runner, Spielberg shot Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Back to the Future changed Hollywood. In the decades since, good science fiction films have become an endangered species. Sure, you have your occasional Gattaca, Strange Days, or Sunshine, which go virtually unnoticed in theaters as studios pump out I, Robot or the last two Matrix films, enough to scare off most producers from investing in the next dramatic vision of our future. Why isn’t there a demand for relatable science fiction films? The genre is shockingly ignored, especially in an age so obsessed with technology. Enter writer/director Duncan Jones, one of the few beacons of hope in our currently bleak cinematic sci-fi future.

First off, he’s the son of David Bowie, meaning he has some of the best creative genes that money can’t buy (yet). Second, he directed the sleeper techno parable Moon, which may have been the best small sci-fi film of the last decade, its story focused on characters rather then computer generated special effects. His second film is this month’s Source Code, and while it goes a little bigger — with budget, effects, and actors — than his first directing accomplishment, it cleaves to his roots. Fresh off his first vacation in more then three years, Jones took some time to talk to us about Source Code and sci-fi while lying in a hammock on a sunny, cloudless March afternoon.

I heard you just got back from vacation. Where did you go? I went to Kuaui, Hawaii. First time going anywhere in Hawaii. It was my first vacation in 3 years, since I directed Moon, and it was 9 days of bliss. The crazy thing is after we finished Moon, I went straight into doing press for Sony classics and traveled all over the world. I actually had to cut off my press early to start up Source Code.

Which of those countries on your world publicity tour received Moon the best? I feel like it was pretty well-received everywhere I went. But it seemed to have the best reaction in Australia, for whatever reason. I also had a wonderful time at SXSW in Austin, Texas. It’s particularly exciting for Source Code to be world premiering at SXSW. I have really fondness for Austin. I had no idea what type of film culture the city had.

You said you started working on Source Code before you were even finished with publicity for Moon. How did this happen? While doing publicity on Moon, I got to meet Jake Gyllenhaal. I was a big fan of his work and when we met we hit it off. He mentioned that he was supposed to be working on this film called Source Code when we sat down and he thought I should read it to see if I wanted to direct it. Obviously, I loved the script. It was original and completely unlike anything I had ever read or had ever seen.

And you started shooting immediately? Yeah, we had to start shooting to fit Jake’s schedule before he went off to do press on Prince of Persia. So we shot the entire film incredibly quickly, with like 34 to 35 days of actual shooting, which was about the same time it took us to shoot Moon in. We put the train on a gimble device up in a sound stage in Montreal, which rocks the train back and forth, and we would shoot in it all week. I don’t know if this film would have come together if it weren’t for our incredible cinematographer and tight-knit crew.

Did this speed of production have any effect on the tone of the film? The pace definitely had an effect on the aesthetic of the film itself. There is a real sense of pace to the film, as it really gets on with it. I really enjoy being able to make a film like that, one that doesn’t really slow down. While Moon was more contemplative, Source Code had much more inertia to it, which was something I really enjoyed.

You’ve had strong leads in both of your films, first with Sam Rockwell who played three different characters in the film and now with Jake Gyllenhaal. What was it like working with him on Source Code? As far as I’m concerned what makes Jake such an interesting actor is that he will really go out of his way and try to experiment. Actors work so hard to come up with what it is they want to do with a role and how they want to be seen. As a director I want to let my actors do that and then suggest alternate ways to do it as well. Thing about Jake is that he tries everything. Because of this, we were able to take a more dower, serious story and inject more humor into it. This took the script in a different direction while we were making it, thanks to Jake’s willingness to experiment.

It is reported Moon’s budget was 5 million and it looks like you put every penny onscreen and then some. Did you take the same approach with Source Code, which I can only assume had a larger budget? Moon was 5 million and Source Code was bigger. But not much bigger. It was a conscious choice on both my part and my producer’s partners part to keep Source Code relatively small in scope. This was a step for all of us. I’ll admit we are hoping to emulate what Chris Nolan has done with his career, as far as budget progression. I don’t think Sci-Fi is necessarily done best at a lower budget—it’s really just the budget that suits the story of each film and what it is you’re trying to accomplish. There are other sci-fi projects that I would hope to do at bigger budgets one day, but I have to prove that I can work at those budgets before I am given bigger budgets to work with. That’s just how the business works.

But you wouldn’t turn down a budget that gave you more then was necessary. I wouldn’t turn a 100 million dollar film down, no, of course not. However, I would highly recommend that a project has a budget that truly suits it. I don’t think you just throw a lot of money at a movie that doesn’t need that type of budget.

What were some of your artistic influences when you were growing up? Well, I had a fairly unusual upbringing and because of this I had a chance to see a lot of films at an early age, which a lot of people didn’t see until they were older. But I especially loved British comic books, like 2000 AD, which was our equivalent to America’s HEAVY METAL. That was a staple for me when I was growing up. I read everything by Philip K. Dick and George Orwell. What I really appreciated was the speculation you get in the Science Fiction genre and the opportunity to talk about “what if’s.” I’ve always been a huge “what if” fan.

Is that why your films are all science fiction or have science fiction themes? Well what I said when I was doing Moon was that one of the great benefits of doing science fiction is that audiences don’t feel like they are being preached at, as they can immediately distance themselves from the film because it takes place in a different time or land or general setting. That’s a real power that the science fiction genre allows, as audiences can easily distance themselves from the story much more easily.

With all the technological advances occurring on what seems like a monthly basis, do you think Science Fiction is going to make a comeback? I don’t know if it’s about making a comeback really. It’s kind of like fashion these days. There’s such a vast network of communication between people these days, there’s no “cool and not cool.” There’s just communities that like a little bit of everything. Places where all genres are covered. I think due to technology and the cost of special effects coming down, it’s much easier to make Sci-Fi films then it has been in the past. Moon is a terrible example. We did our film for 5 million and there was hardly any CG.

So do you think practical or CG works better? For example, some people will say that the original “Star Wars” films, which used mostly practical special effects and a small amount of CG, are better then the new “Star Wars” films, which had mostly CG. I think practical can work better, but sometimes CG is a must. There will be a lot of post work involved in Ridley Scott’s new Alien prequel Prometheus, but I doubt we’ll all really notice it because the story is what we’ll be focusing on. It must be all about the story and the characters. If a story is relying on the special effects, then that’s the wrong use of special effects. But if the CG compliments the good characters and story and we hardly notice it, then that’s the best use of special effects.

So I’ve heard your Dad is a musician. How did his influence effect your route to becoming a director? Yes, my dad is a musician among other things and when I was a kid he used to get very frustrated by the fact that I had absolutely no interest in music. So one of our little hobbies was to make short films together. So when I was a little kid at about 7 or 8 my Dad and I were doing one stop animation and other fun little short films together in our free time. We would do all sorts of cheesy technical tricks within the camera, like make ourselves levitate around the room. So that was the beginning of my directing career, I guess.

But then you decided to study philosophy? I felt a certain responsibility to pursue my academic career as far as I could, so I went to college in Wooster, Ohio and then pursued a graduate degree PhD track in philosophy at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tennessee. But after a couple years I became really frustrated because I wasn’t passionate about where I was going. Basically, I was on track to graduate and end up teaching philosophy for the rest of my life. My Dad saw this when he visited me once, so he invited me up to Montreal to the set of The Hunger, which was a film that became a TV show that he was acting in. Tony Scott was directing it and while I was visiting he asked me if I wanted to come up and work on the shoot. I took the opportunity and got to spend the next few weeks working right beside Tony Scott. Tony was this fantastic, lovely man who really talked to me and gave me advice. He said, “Look you’ve obviously got a passion for this. Why don’t you go back to the U.K. and try to start working in commercials and see if you can work your way up in the film business?” And that’s what I did. I dropped out of the PhD program and went to film school in the U.K. It took me about 10 years of working in low-budget music videos and commercials before we took the leap and put it on the line to make MOON.

Forgive me for asking, but have you ever thought about a science fiction film about Major Tom? I’ve tried for a really long time to build up a career on my own right. I’m two features in now and I’m working on my third. I’ve been able to do it based on my own ability. I’d never want to step on his [David Bowie’s] career and I hope he would never step on mine.

SxSW Day 1: ‘Source Code’ Debuts & a Conference on Douchebags

By eleven in the morning, the cavernous hallways of the Austin Convention Center are shoulder-to-shoulder with eager technophiles and casually dressed business types, already networking and gathering shwag. Rumor has it that most of the real deals at the SxSW conference go down during this interactive portion (like Foursquare and Twitter in years past), as few distributors are buying the festival’s films, and most bands know better then to sign with a record label. After wandering through a few lounges to hear about APIs and hundred gigabyte clouds — riveting stuff, really — I head to the first panel of the conference, aptly titled “How Not to be a Douchebag at SxSW.”

Two of the four speakers on the panel have their hair dyed bright red and dark blue, respectively, which doesn’t necessarily instill confidence in their knowledge of how to avoid “douchiness.” They instruct a packed house on “conference etiquette,” giving insight on Badge Surfing (where people only talk to you based on your badge), Party Chasing (no party is worth waiting in line for), and voting at SxSW with your feet. I visit the Screenburn video game exhibit hall, where the new Mortal Kombat and Homefront games are being swarmed with gaggles of high school kids who have somehow scored the festival’s coveted Interactive conference badges. The Unlimited Justice booth, a campaign being funded by clothing designer Marc Ecko to eliminate corporal punishment by paddling in schools, is undoubtedly the most memorable. They actually have a chair in which you can assume the position and a machine operated by some hot chick will smack you on the ass with a wooden paddle. This is almost entertaining enough to make me forget about the quake in Japan. image

The film festival starts up shortly thereafter, with the World Premiere of Source Code, the exciting second film from Duncan Jones, who I have high hopes will ressurect the Science Fiction genre. I also check out the documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times, which is entertaining and informative despite being rather scattered. It reminds me of a number of things I already know: the New York Times is one of the most important publications in the world, the New York Times thinks they are better then everyone else, the New York Times should be protected at all cost. However, the most enjoyable hour and a half of my day comes when I see Sound of My Voice, an indie feature about a Los Angeles couple who infiltrate a cult led by a woman who claims she is from the future. The film’s afterparty invite was nearly as high concept as the film itself. To close out the night, it’s James Wan’s horror film Insidious, which is both wonderfully campy and terrifying enough to make me lose sleep tonight. But that’s what afterparties are for…

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Links: Robert Pattinson Not Romantic, Megan Fox Not Hot

● Robert Pattinson may be the romantic interest in the lives of many tweens and middle-aged women, but the Twilight actor says he “can’t think of a single romantic thing” he has ever done. [People] ● Despite showing up to an event with visibly lighter skin, Sammy Sosa is not trying to be like Michael Jackson, he just went through a “rejuvenation process for his skin.” [ChicagoTribune] ● Duncan Jones will follow up his breakout film Moon with a thriller entitled Source Code, with Jake Gyllenhaal in the lead. [Screendaily]

● You can thank Brian Austin Green for Megan Fox not knowing how hot she is. Fox says she doesn’t notice all the notice because she’s been in the same relationship “forever.” [DigitalSpy] ● Sapphire, author of Push which is now the movie Precious, says that Brandy originally inquired about playing Precious, but the author turned her down. [Rap-Up] ● Paris Hilton is upset that her likeness is being used on an empty billboard in New Zealand; the billboard features Hilton with the word “Vacant” over her face. [Stuff]

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 2001Alien 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 RiseSR: 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]

Duncan Jones on ‘Moon’ & Double-Billing Sam Rockwell

The Tribeca Film Festival is over, and Duncan Jones is one happy dude. His directorial debut Moon — a lonely sci-fi spookfest starring Sam Rockwell — was extremely well received and is riding a lunar module of buzz all the way to its June 12 release date. Jones — born Zowie Bowie to some Brit named David — celebrated his film’s premiere last week at new Meatpacking catacomb Bar 675 (at a Heineken and Stoli-sponsored event), where he talked about releasing an indie in sea of blockbusters, the genius of Sam Rockwell, and knowing thyself.

Where did the idea for the film come from? I wanted to work with Sam desperately, and I’d given him another script, and it was something that he was really interested in. But he wanted to play the lead role, and I wanted him to play the villain, so we actually met up here in New York to try and convince each other, and that didn’t work out. But we got on very well, and I knew that I wanted to work with him on my first film, so I said, “Look, what kind of films do you want to make?” And we started talking about science fiction and playing blue-collar characters, and it sort of just worked out that I wanted to write a script for it, so I wrote a blue collar Sam.

Did your father have any influence on the film’s sci-fi motif? No, not really. I was a student in philosophy for a long time; I find that a lot of filmmakers did philosophy. I was in the college of Wooster in Ohio for four years as an undergrad, and then I did three years of PhD track at Vanderbilt. What was it like making a science fiction film on an indie film budget? You don’t see that very often. Well, there’s a reason you don’t see it — because it’s so hard. We had about $5 million, which is a lot for an independent film.

What were the limitations other than budget? Well there was a whole series of approaches that we could’ve taken for the lunar landscape, and the one that we found most cost-effective — and I think gave us the most unique look — was to use model miniatures, the same techniques they used back in the late 70s and early 80s in films like Aliens.

What is the ethical dilemma that your film investigates? If you met yourself in person, would you necessarily like yourself, or would you only see the faults?

Are you talking about interacting with your own consciousness? Well, not even consciousness — just in a simple way. What are you actually like as a person to have to deal with, if you had to experience yourself? The question is, would you like yourself?

What was it about Sam that attracted you? I just think he’s a phenomenal actor, every time I’ve seen him in anything. Obviously he’s played the lead in a few films — I loved him in Confession of a Dangerous Mind — but then whenever he’s been a supporting actor, he just steals scenes. He’s got so much charisma and so much energy, and he seems so honest. I’m trying to find some film award somewhere willing to put him up for best actor and best supporting actor — that’s my plan.

Is it daunting to release a film in the middle of summer? At first I was like, “are you crazy?” There are all these massive films coming out, but I guess it kind of makes sense. I don’t know about other people, but I don’t just say, “That’s the film I’m going to see this summer.” I see a lot of films, I see more than one film, and if I want to see Star Trek, I might also want to see something that’s a very different take on sci-fi. I think we’re a good alternative for the big summer blockbusters.

What summer films are you most looking forward to? James Cameron’s Avatar … can’t wait to see that, whenever it comes out. Terry Gilliam’s Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, because anything Gillian does is worth watching, even if it doesn’t always work. I want to see Inglorious Basterds.