Duncan Jones Interview: Mute

Screen Rant was able to sit down with Duncan Jones ahead of Netflix’s release of his new film Mute, starring Alexander Skargard, Paul Rudd, and Justin Theroux. The discussion ranged from his thoughts on smaller, more independent films finding a home on streaming services like Netflix and Amazon to the possibility of making a film based on the world of the comic 2000 AD. Over the course of its development, Mute became a very personal project for Duncan due to the recent loss of his father, David Bowie, and the birth of his first child.

Screen Rant: Dude, I was just talking the other day with a buddy of mine about how it is getting more and more difficult to find original ideas.

Duncan Jones: The thing, in my experience, studios used to have an independent arm, you know, like Fox Searchlight things like that where they would focus on . . . the big studio would make big franchises, or they do the reboot so the remakes of the you know whatever... And then the Independent arms would kind of come up with the original material and if it hit then they would take it to the big studio and the big studio would kind of run with it. They got rid of that, their kind of their business practice now it's “OK we're just going to focus on these big films, opening weekend, got to make most of our money back in that first week”; if they're really lucky they have two weeks and then the next big studio films coming out and there's no more money to be made.

Screen Rant: I agree.

Duncan Jones: And so now it's up to streaming, because no one else is making it.

Screen Rant: Which is funny because that's part of my first question, the first thing I've noticed the trend of streaming, especially with sci-fi, is that Netflix is picking up all these great sci-fi shows and it almost feels - especially Blade Runner, and I thought was great last year, right?

Duncan Jones: Yep.

Screen Rant: And I felt like, man, maybe sci-fi is moving towards towards the streaming thing. You've got Black Mirror, you've got Altered Carbon . . .

Duncan Jones: Yeah.

Screen Rant: You've got this, what do you think the trend is with that and how do you feel with Netflix kind of moving in that direction or streaming just in general really?

Duncan Jones: Yeah, I mean streaming right now is interesting because, you know, I haven't had the experience of working with Amazon yet, but I'm curious how they do it; because they still manage to do the theatrical which I obviously like and would love to do . . . but then they still are also able to give filmmakers the opportunity to make original different kinds of films.

Netflix have their own business which works and I totally understand it, which is, we want to get people subscribed and staying subscribed. So, from what I can take from that, what it means, is they're never going to release their feature films theatrically, unless it's just in the smallest numbers unless they’re going to qualify for awards.

Screen Rant: Right, right, Bright did that.

Duncan Jones: Exactly and then they'll not release them on DVD or Blu-ray because they want you to stay subscribed to watch the movies.

Screen Rant: Sure.

Duncan Jones: That makes sense, they released their older TV shows I think on DVD and Blu-ray, but that's kind of a feeder to get you to subscribe to see the new season. So, I get the business of it, obviously I kind of regret not being able to have people go and see it in a big crowd, but, you know, it's a small price to pay to get to make original movies, so I'm all for it.

Screen Rant: Which. . . speaking of which, I saw it three times, I saw the film on my computer. . .

Duncan Jones: You saw what, Mute?

Screen Rant: Your film.

Duncan Jones: Oh hey, wow!

Screen Rant: On my computer, on my phone with headphones on, the sound is amazing by the way, if you actually have headphones on, it enhances it so much more. Then we also have a projector, so I saw it on our projector and this film is beautiful, I do want people to get the big screen experience that I've seen. But, I have to ask, I notice and I'm a huge fan of yours, so I noticed there is a Moon, kind of cameo/Easter egg/reference.

Duncan Jones: Yeah

Screen Rant: I also read that you thought about possibly doing your own Sci-Fi Cinematic Universe. Is that true and is this just a fun cameo or is this something that you kind of want to build on in this mythology?

Duncan Jones: It's a fun. . .the Sam Rockwell one was a fun cameo where I kind of thought “here's an opportunity to give a little bit of an epilogue to what happened to Sam Bell and Moon for those people who've seen that film, but in a way that hopefully is not distracting to Mute which is its own separate story.” The whole idea of sequels, prequels, cycles, whatever, what I would say is that these two films, and then there’s one more film I hope to make, are kind of an anthology.

Screen Rant: OK.

Duncan Jones: That's all it is, you know, there's going to be . . . there's going to be some things that you hear about in those films from the other films, but really they're all independent stories, they just happened to take place in the same world and the same timeline.

Screen Rant: Now, one of the coolest characters with the coolest name is Cactus Bill, but it's crazy as I've never seen Paul Rudd play a role like this.

Duncan Jones: Yeah.

Screen Rant: And he's still so charming as Paul Rudd, but he's so, like, you kind of do want to hate him for certain things that he does, right?

Duncan Jones: You have to hate him.

Screen Rant: You have to hate him.

Duncan Jones: By the end of it.

Screen Rant: Yeah, I mean you definitely do but, how much of Paul Rudd's performance was improv and how much of that was actually on the paper?

Duncan Jones: You know, I'm a huge fan of Robert Altman’s MASH and the original where Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland played these characters, Trapper John and Hawkeye Pierce, and it's one of my it’s my favorite comedy and one of my favorite movies and when you watch that film and you watch those guys, they’re so engaging and fun to watch but at the same time you start to notice it, especially when you watch as much as me, how mean they are, they're not nice guys, but they get away with it because of the circumstances and because of that particular film and I couldn't help thinking OK if these guys were in different circumstances, and you didn't have sympathy because of them being in the Korean War and what they have to face every day, and you just turn their meanness up, just a little notch, that's Cactus and Duck and that's who these guys are. So, you know, for me it was always kind of fun to take something that I admired so much and try and turn it into something different. Also because of the dialogue and the wit that those guys have, to me that makes the perfect foil for Leo, who obviously doesn't talk at all, so and their comeuppance, you know, without getting spoilers, but their comeuppance is they both end up losing their voices, Duck gets drowned, Cactus get stabbed in the throat with his own knife, so there's kind of a, kind of a poetic justice in that.

Screen Rant: I loved Alexander Skarsgard’s performance in this. It was one of those things where, there are certain choices that he made, I wasn't sure why he made them or . . .but like, when he would like when he would drink water, he would, he would kind of like take these gulps and kind of hold it, now was some of that character choices that you told him specifically to do or is it some of the stuff that he may have kind of created on his own with Leo?

Duncan Jones: Some of the stuff he created, that wasn't one of them, that was one of the ones that was kind of a little bit of a holdover from an idea I had about him maybe having had trouble with alcohol in the past. I was thinking about, it's not something we ever pursued, but I kind of like the visual of conquering water, I mean he lost his voice when he was a boy, you know, swimming and ever since then he swims all the time, he drinks the water and it's always kind of like him against water.

Screen Rant: Gotcha.

Duncan Jones: Kind of who he is and that carried on. One of the things that Alex brought to it though is the idea of carving the little beads, that was actually one of his ideas and I thought yeah that's that's really nice and actually I can use that in this unexpected way with Nadeera and Josie, the little girl, so no, he brought that to it which was which was really cool.

Screen Rant: That's interesting. So I've read you were trying to get Mute off the ground for a while and it's a big passion project for you. Over a decade I believe, shows the perseverance you need in this business to really strive, but what is it about the film personally that motivated you to just keep going keep striving and it probably helped you in retrospect though, because visually everything now is a lot better than we have ten years ago.

Duncan Jones: One hundred percent, and as a, I hope and think and feel that I'm a better filmmaker now than I would have been when I tried to first make it. I wrote the script with Mike Johnson, my writing partner, sixteen years ago and we've been trying to make it ever since. Every film I do, I’m always like “I'm doing Mute next!” and you know for one reason or other it's taken as long as it has, but I think, you know, some of the subtexts of Mute, were not as relevant when I wrote it as they are now, to me personally, you know, my dad died a couple years ago and then I had my son, you know, just over a year ago, just before we started making Mute, so the whole idea of parenthood and how Alex loses his voice, why he doesn't get his voice back is because his mom's religious and she says.

Mute - Alexander Skarsgård

Screen Rant: Oh right, “it’s in god’s hands now”

Duncan Jones: It is in God's hands and he respects that and he tries to live with that decision, you know, that's who, that's who Leo is, he was created by his mother's decision.

Screen Rant: Right.

Duncan Jones: And Cactus obviously, is the other end of things, you know, he has a daughter and he cares about her and he's trying to do the best he can but he is they are not in a good situation to raise a kid.

Screen Rant: Right, right, right, definitely.

Duncan Jones: And you know I think the whole idea of parenthood and what's, you know, what’s the responsibilities of a parent and how do you make the best you can out of the circumstances you're in? All of those parenthood issues were always there but I think became way more personal to me over the last couple of years in, you know, as I was making this movie.

Screen Rant: One thing I appreciate about this movie and love about it is the worldbuilding you created. Now, this movie I feel like could, obviously it’s a sci-fi movie, but it could have been in almost any genre and still worked, right? So why the sci-fi backdrop?

Duncan Jones: I mean I think, you know, originally when we wrote it, you know, all that decade and a half ago, it was supposed to be my first film. At the time films like Sexy Beast and Layer Cake were coming out in the UK, that’s where I'm from, so you know, small British gangster films based in London were kind of in vogue and Mute was kind of like “yeah I can maybe make it like that,” you know, do it as a London based little kind of gangster film, do it for a low budget, and that would have been that. But after I made Moon and I looked, you know, again I was thinking “OK I'm making Mute next” and I read the script I was like got this so many things that we did on Moon that I love and that I wish I could make some of those things happen in this film. And by putting it in a science fiction setting which is what we ended up doing, just after Moon, a lot of things I think came to life in a more, in a more, interesting way than they would have been if it had been a contemporary set film. Now you're right, I mean, it absolutely works if it's not science fiction but I think, there was this thing that Philip K. Dick said after he watched Blade Runner on Ridley Scott's playground, he said ‘you haven't made a science fiction film you've made a futurist film’ and I think that's really interesting because it's, it's not about technology's changing the world, it's just a real story about people and characters and it just so happens that it takes place in this place called Berlin in the future.

Screen Rant: Yeah.

Duncan Jones: You know, so it becomes a location rather than the reason for being.

Screen Rant: Now that you say that, it makes complete sense, because I am, when I got . . . because you just, you really get involved into this movie right? I almost forgot it was the future even though you see all this stuff and I just lived in the world.

Duncan Jones: Yeah, yeah.

Screen Rant: Which is really interesting. So in the past you've mentioned your desire to place female leads at heads of sci-fi action flicks, how has the landscape changed recently for the better?

Duncan Jones: I mean absolutely, I think you know, Wonder Woman is massive one, Wonder Woman is massive and there's another of the films recently which have changed the dynamics of what films get made, I think for the positive. We, just off the back of Source Code, I wrote this film which was supposed to be, kind of action based, but it's two female leads from the north of England and we were really struggling to find a way to get it financed, you know it just is what it is. . .

Screen Rant: Wow, sure, but it is changing.

Duncan Jones: It has changed and I'm excited about trying to do it again now because I think even if I can't get it through the studio system, you know, when we, after the back of Source Code, Netflix wasn't wasn't what it is now.

Justin Theroux in Mute Netflix Movie

Screen Rant: Sure.

Duncan Jones: And Amazon wasn't what it is now and Apple's doing movies now, so I think that there are more opportunities to make it. I'm absolutely going to be trying to make that film now with this, this new world that we're living in and I have a I have a lot of optimism that we’ll have, we'll have a better bet.

Screen Rant: You know, you just mentioned Wonder Woman, obviously Black Panther’s great, have you - and I know that you've talked about in the past of possibly a Green Lantern movie that or you gave a quote about a Green Lantern movie, I think I should say, not that you're gonna do it but have you ever. . .

Duncan Jones: Have you heard my pitch on that?

Screen Rant: Yes. I did, I just read it last night, I dug it. Have you ever thought about moving or  jumping into one of these superhero franchises? Because now with Black Panther and Wonder Woman, those are superhero movies at its best, where it actually has a real message to it, right? Have you thought about doing something like that?

Duncan Jones: I think if anything about, you know, whether it's Wonder Woman or Black Panther and I think that they’re the two main examples, I think if you can connect the material in a very personal way, beyond just a ‘I like that comic book’ I think there is a better bet that you're going to come up with something which feels really original and strong. So, for me, I was not brought up a DC or Marvel boy.

Screen Rant: It's just not your thing.

Duncan Jones: My background, I was in the U.K. I was brought up on something called 2000 AD and 2000 AD is where Judge Dredd came from and there's a bunch of characters that most Americans probably never even heard of that came from 2000 AD, if I had the chance do a comic book movie it would be one of those.

Screen Rant: Really?

Duncan Jones: Because that's where I come from, you know, that's what I was reading as a kid, and those are the characters that related and reflected me, so I think I would far rather do one of those than try and crowbar myself into American comic heritage, which isn't a natural fit for me.

Screen Rant: Absolutely, great answer by the way. Now speaking of movies with messages, this has a strong message but it has a lot of messages.

Duncan Jones: Yeah.

Screen Rant: Right, it has a family message, it has, at least I got from Cactus Bill, you reap what you sow, you know, so there's a lot of messages. Now with, how do you view, because there's so many ways that this movie go, depending on who you are, what message do you want fans to walk away with when they watch it?

Duncan Jones: You know I'm kind of very fortunate that I grew up in very unusual circumstances, traveling the world, seeing, you know, a lot of people’s, different people's perspectives on how they see each other, you know, this is, this is a film which obviously, you know, hopefully, people in the United States are really going to enjoy, but I know that people who are not from the United States are going to see the characters of Cactus and Duck and think ‘yeah those of the Americans I know, they're scary as fuck.’ You know, they're weird, they're funny, they're entertaining, they're really cool, but I don't know what the hell they're going to do next. That's Cactus and Duck from the rest of the world’s perspective and I think, I think they're all going to be different views on this movie depending on where you come from. You know, there's a lot of military bases in Germany, I lived in Berlin for a little while back in the 1970’s. And even back then, you know, since the end of World War II, there's been a military, American military base in Germany and they're still there today and a lot of the troops that are based there go out to, you know, go out to the Middle East and I don't see that changing for a while I think that's kind of going to be the future for a bit.

So I think as much as this is, you know, we talked about is it science fiction or not or is it necessary?

Screen Rant: Right.

Duncan Jones: It certainly feels believable that this could be the future. . .

Screen Rant: Oh, One Hundred Percent.

Duncan Jones: And it's a very tangible, believable city . . . Kind of lost my train of thought. . . to say that, you know, I think the characters in the movie will relate to different people in very different ways.

Screen Rant: Now the film is beautiful, it's gorgeous, everything about it, I love it, because it screams, it screams that neo-punk sci-fi to me. What influences did you use for the visuals of this film?

Duncan Jones: That's a good question, I mean, because we were trying to make it, make the film for such a long time, we tried different avenues. There was. . . for a little while we tried to make a graphic novel.

Screen Rant: Well it reminds me a little bit of, I'm not sure if you're familiar with, with the Manga Akira,

Duncan Jones: Oh, yeah yeah yeah, yeah.

Screen Rant: Aesthetically, it just seems like kind of like Akira to me.

Duncan Jones: Yeah.

Screen Rant: And I got that from it, but also it feels like Blade Runner also.

Duncan Jones: Yeah.

Screen Rant: You know, the world feels like the sci-fi world that I'm comfortable with, but something brand new.

Duncan Jones: Well I mean, I think, I think one of the things that differentiates us, I think in a good way from Blade Runner is Blade Runner is a is a very believable future city, whether it's the new one or the old one. I mean the old one is focused on LA, I don't know how much it feels like LA though. It's definitely the future and it's beautiful and it's believable but is it LA? Whereas we really wanted it to be Berlin, you know, we wanted to be the a recognizable city Berlin where we actually shot our film on locations around Berlin and then just found ways to bring props, you know, maybe do a little bit of set dressing, add a little bit of stuff in digital, but this is a recognized - you can go visit these places.

Screen Rant: Sure.

Duncan Jones: You can go to that bowling alley, you can go to these locations at the Brandenburg Gate and actually see what you see in Mute. So it was really just about turning the dial a little bit and just putting us in the future, but it's a real believable city.

Screen Rant: Now with, with all the past films you've done, you know, Moon and Warcraft, what did you learn about making films on this film, that you can take going forward?

Duncan Jones: What I love about this film, because I certainly learned a lot on the other films, but I mean this one was such a personal project, it was kind of, you know, I just kind of was almost trancelike in some ways because I've been thinking about it such a long time. You know what Sam Rockwell told me something on Moon when we first did it, because it was much more smooth, was much more serious, the humor in Moon was brought about really because Sam kept on telling me in order for the, in order for the serious stuff to pay off you need the humor as well, and I think that's something that I've kept, I carried, but I only really was able to take that advice to heart and use it in Mute.

So I think, I think on Mute I got to prove his point and especially you know working with guys like Paul and Justin, who are both very funny and smart in their own right, and letting them improv through some of their scenes, just the use of humor especially is a balance to really dark material, you know, I think I think that was kind of, it was, I felt proud of myself that I had learned something from Sam and I've been able to apply it.

Screen Rant: Right, well thank you so much for your time.

Duncan Jones: Oh, my pleasure.

MORE: Read Screen Rant's Mute Review

Key Release Dates
  • Mute (2018) release date: Feb 23, 2018
Zoe Kravitz Superhero Movies
The Batman Makes Zoë Kravitz The Actor In The Most Superhero Franchises

More in SR Originals