MUTE

BER­LIN-BASED SCI-FI NOIR MUTE MAY BE SET YEARS FROM NOW. BUT AS DI­REC­TOR DUN­CAN JONES EX­PLAINS, IT’S AC­TU­ALLY ABOUT HIS PAST

Empire (Australasia) - - Contents - WORDS DA­MON WISE

Di­rec­tor Dun­can Jones turns off the mute switch to talk about his lat­est sci-fi movie.

By the end of 2015, Dun­can Jones was worn out. The long, long ges­ta­tion of his lat­est film, War­craft, was still drag­ging on, its pro­duc­tion com­pany, Leg­endary, hav­ing changed hands twice and its re­lease date be­ing bumped from Christ­mas to the spring of 2016 by J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awak­ens. Jones’ wife Ro­dene Ron­quillo was still reel­ing from a har­row­ing — but suc­cess­ful — bat­tle against breast can­cer. And to top it all, there was the news that his fa­ther, rock icon David Bowie, was suf­fer­ing vir­u­lent, ter­mi­nal liver can­cer. On the up­side, Ro­dene was ex­pect­ing a baby boy, the cou­ple’s first. But even the good news couldn’t take Jones’ mind off what was ob­vi­ous: he needed a break.

In the mean­time, Stu­art Fene­gan, Jones’ long-time pro­ducer, had been shop­ping one of the di­rec­tor’s most per­sonal projects around Hol­ly­wood stu­dios. More than a pas­sion project, it had orig­i­nally been ear­marked to be the di­rec­tor’s de­but movie, long be­fore his 2009 sci-fi de­but, Moon. Called Mute, it tells the story of Leo, a mute ex-amish man liv­ing in Ber­lin in the near fu­ture, who is forced to turn pri­vate de­tec­tive when his girl­friend goes miss­ing. It was be­gin­ning to seem the project was jinxed, but from nowhere a cham­pion had ap­peared: stream­ing ser­vice Net­flix. They wanted to make it. And, best of all, there were no strings.

“It was a re­ally hard de­ci­sion,” says the di­rec­tor. “I didn’t want to work at all at the time. Stu­art had been work­ing his arse off to try and get us an op­por­tu­nity to make Mute, be­cause that was the one project we’d al­ways had in the cham­ber as be­ing ready to go. There were other things we were work­ing on, but be­cause of what had been go­ing on with my fam­ily, I wasn’t par­tic­u­larly fo­cused on try­ing to get those scripts ready. So, Mute was it. And ev­ery­one knew I wasn’t in­ter­ested in sign­ing on

to some other fran­chise, es­pe­cially straight af­ter War­craft.”

But Fene­gan kept com­ing back. “Look,” he said. “You’ve been wait­ing for such a long time to make this film. We can make it right now — do you want to or not?”

For Jones, it was hard to call. His fa­ther died much sooner than ex­pected, two days af­ter his 69th birth­day, in Jan­uary 2016. “I’d had no hol­i­day, and it had just been one un­for­tu­nate, tragic thing af­ter an­other.” He laughs rue­fully. “I’d had 15 years of wait­ing, and then, when the chance fi­nally came, I didn’t ac­tu­ally want to do it. But some­times work­ing is a good way to find a path through grief.”

Now 46, Dun­can

Jones grad­u­ated from the Lon­don Film School in 2001, and for a while it seemed his fu­ture would be in ad­ver­tis­ing. His call­ing card was a retro-style ad­vert for Mccain Oven Chips, which won him a place at Trevor Beat­tie’s agency Beat­tie

Mcguin­ness Bun­gay. There, Jones di­rected a Ma­trix-in­spired ad­vert for French Con­nec­tion. The tongue-in-cheek con­cept was “Fash­ion Vs Style”, but the me­dia saw things dif­fer­ently. “Kung-fu les­bian ad­vert sparks viewer protests,” noted The Daily Tele­graph.

All the while, though, Jones was think­ing of the big screen. Sit­ting at his desk in LA, he strug­gles to re­mem­ber when he be­gan to plan his film ca­reer. “Mute,” he reck­ons, “has been around for a while now. In fact, I’ve got the orig­i­nal script over here, in this…” — he af­fects a melo­dra­matic cackle — “dusty old binder!” He pulls out a folder with a clear vinyl cover. “Hmm,” he says, squint­ing at the ti­tle page. “This ver­sion is prob­a­bly one I’d writ­ten af­ter I’d been work­ing on it for a while, be­cause it says 2003, so, ob­vi­ously, I’d been work­ing on it for a bit.” He pauses. “This is the first one I sent to my dad, to have a read through.” He points to the Union Jack con­cept art on the ti­tle page. “And you can see from the im­age I used that, orig­i­nally, it was gonna be set in Lon­don.”

The first draft of Mute was worked up with Michael Robert John­son, one of the writ­ers of the Robert Downey Jr. Sher­lock Holmes. “It fea­tured the same ba­sic set-up,”

the di­rec­tor re­calls, “but it wasn’t sci-fi at the time. It was a con­tem­po­rary movie about a Bri­tish guy who couldn’t talk and a cou­ple of Amer­i­can doc­tors. And it was writ­ten ab­so­lutely down to the bone, be­cause it was very cost-ef­fec­tive — I’d thought, ‘How could I do this for no bud­get?’ I seem to re­mem­ber it was when films like Sexy Beast were start­ing to come out, and the Bri­tish crime-thriller genre was sort of per­co­lat­ing.”

Jones can’t re­mem­ber who was orig­i­nally in his sights, but knows Ray Steven­son popped up on his radar af­ter see­ing him in HBO’S se­ries Rome in the mid-2000s. He also sent a script to Sam Rock­well, to play a char­ac­ter called Duck Ted­ding­ton, who, along with a chap named Cac­tus Bill, is one of the two doc­tors in the drama. “But at that time,” says Jones, “Sam had played enough char­ac­ters that…” He pauses. “Sam wanted to play a dif­fer­ent kind of char­ac­ter. I’m try­ing to be care­ful, be­cause I know when this in­ter­view comes out a lot of peo­ple are not gonna have seen the film yet. So I don’t re­ally want to give too much away. Let’s just say Duck was not the kind of char­ac­ter Sam was in­ter­ested in play­ing at that time.”

In­stead, Rock­well wanted to play

Leo, but at 5’ 9”, he wasn’t ex­actly the per­fect fit for a char­ac­ter de­scribed in the script as “a hu­man wreck­ing ball of a man”. Those con­ver­sa­tions re­sulted in Moon, in which Rock­well played the care­taker of a re­mote moon­base, who dis­cov­ers he is not alone af­ter all, and is not who he thinks he is. But Jones con­tin­ued to work on Mute, mak­ing the bold de­ci­sion to switch the lo­ca­tion from Lon­don to Ber­lin, where, as a child named Zowie, he had at­tended school while his fa­ther worked on a tril­ogy of clas­sic ’70s al­bums: Low,

He­roes and Lodger.

The rea­son­ing was that Cac­tus and Duck — the film’s hero-vil­lains, played by Paul Rudd and Justin Th­er­oux — are medics who have skipped out on the US Army and are try­ing to make their way back home on il­le­gal papers. It was their sit­u­a­tion that in­spired Jones to shift the set­ting. “It was very im­por­tant to make the two Amer­i­can char­ac­ters feel alien­ated wher­ever they were,” he ex­plains. “And fairly early on, as soon as the bud­get re­stric­tions stopped be­ing a prob­lem, the first and most ob­vi­ous city to me to go

to would be Ber­lin, which is a city that I had per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences with, back when it was kind of an is­land in the mid­dle of East Ger­many. I’ve been back to Ber­lin, and even though the wall has come down, I think it still feels a unique place, some­where cul­tures col­lide a lit­tle bit.”

The idea to set the film in the fu­ture was made di­rectly af­ter Moon made waves on the fes­ti­val cir­cuit in 2009. “Be­fore it be­came very fash­ion­able to have shared uni­verses,” says Jones, “I started think­ing that it would be re­ally in­ter­est­ing if there was a way that Moon and Mute could ex­ist in the same uni­verse. But for no rea­son more than that, on a sub­tex­tual level, there would be some the­mat­i­cally link­ing ideas: in­di­vid­u­als be­ing op­pressed, or try­ing to fight against the sys­tem or the world that they’ve found them­selves in.”

Like Blade Run­ner’s Los An­ge­les, the Ber­lin of the near-fu­ture is a neon-soaked flesh­pot, strafed by fly­ing cars, but by day it is a hu­man jun­gle, filled with the mun­dan­i­ties of mod­ern life. Jones refers to a let­ter writ­ten by au­thor Philip K. Dick in 1981 to the pro­duc­ers of Blade Run­ner, in which he en­thused about the film, de­spite hav­ing only seen a bit of be­hind-the-scenes footage on ca­ble TV. Be­moan­ing the “mo­not­o­nous death” con­tem­po­rary sci-fi had set­tled into, Dick praised the film’s al­most real­ist ap­proach: “It is not fan­tasy; it is [...] fu­tur­ism.”

Says Jones, “I found that re­ally in­ter­est­ing. And it ba­si­cally gave me my in­cen­tive for what Mute could be as a fu­ture-set film. It’s not about sav­ing the world. It’s a small thriller, in the same

way that Casablanca was. It’s the very small story of two peo­ple, how they ex­ist and how their story un­folds within this very dif­fer­ent, alien-feel­ing world. Hav­ing watched other re­cent science-fic­tion films, as glo­ri­ous and beau­ti­ful as they look, they don’t nec­es­sar­ily feel that re­al­is­tic to me. Whereas I think Mute feels pretty re­al­is­tic. There may be fly­ing cars, but peo­ple will still go into a greasy spoon for break­fast.”

fi­nally went into pro­duc­tion, at Stu­dio Ba­bels­berg in Ber­lin, the dra­matic ups and downs just kept com­ing. The death of Jones’ fa­ther was fol­lowed in March 2017 by that of his for­mer nanny, Marion Skene, of whom he said on Twit­ter, “She raised me. With­out her, who knows what kind of a mess I’d be.” (The film is ded­i­cated to both.) On a much hap­pier note, his son Sten­ton was born in July 2016; he was just two months old when shoot­ing started. Nev­er­the­less, Jones now saw his chance to cre­ate a per­sonal trib­ute to his fa­ther. “There are a huge num­ber of homages in the film,” he says. “Do­ing it in Ber­lin, and draw­ing on all of the mem­o­ries I knew my dad had about that place, just seemed like the right thing to do at that time. My own kind of trib­ute, in a way.”

The first, and eas­i­est to miss, sees Leo — played by the 6’ 4” Alexan­der Skars­gård, whom Jones had spot­ted in TV’S

Gen­er­a­tion Kill — putting a vinyl record on a vin­tage turntable at the be­gin­ning of the film: avant-garde com­poser Philip Glass’ Sym­phony No. 4, in­spired by David Bowie’s 1977 al­bum He­roes. “I thought it was a way to have my dad in­volved in the film with­out it be­ing any­thing too di­rect and too ob­vi­ous,” Jones ex­plains. “In fact, Leo’s apart­ment is pop­u­lated with repli­cas of paint­ings my dad did when he was in Ger­many, back in the ’70s. So, yeah, there’s all sorts of mem­o­ries in the film. For such a re­cently made film, it al­ready feels quite nos­tal­gic.”

It was also nos­tal­gic in that it re­minded Jones what it was like to have au­ton­omy; al­though he’s very proud of War­craft, he de­scribes as “just a beast of a film”. On Mute, he says, he had fi­nal cut. “I didn’t have fi­nal cut on Source Code, and I didn’t have fi­nal cut on War­craft, but I did have on this, and it was fan­tas­tic. Es­pe­cially af­ter three-and-a-half years of mak­ing a stu­dio film on a scale that is pretty unique, to go back to some­thing like this where it’s just me and Stu­art call­ing the shots was re­ally pretty spe­cial.”

Sur­pris­ingly, Jones claims that the ma­jor stu­dios only be­gan court­ing him af­ter his sec­ond film, Source Code, in which Jake Gyl­len­haal plays a sol­dier beamed into the con­scious­ness of a man on a train in peril. “Af­ter that,” he says, “there were lots of of­fers. And, to be hon­est, there con­tinue to be of­fers to do kind of Marvel films and DC films and

Star Warses and stuff like that. I just don’t, I just don’t…” He laughs. “I just don’t want to do them! There’s a cou­ple of films that I would con­sider mak­ing as a hired gun for other peo­ple. I mean, if

2000 AD ever got its arse in gear to re­ally make proper films, I would do those.

I would love to have my DNA in 2000 AD movies. But we’ll see. Other than that, I kinda like to con­trol my own destiny.”

Next, even though he should be tak­ing that well-earned rest, the di­rec­tor is sketch­ing out a mys­te­ri­ous third film in the ‘Mooni­verse’ tril­ogy. Set in a world where “cor­po­rate en­ti­ties and cor­po­rate bound­aries be­tween na­tions are gonna be far more preva­lent”, it has — like Mute

— al­ready had a long, in­ter­est­ing life. “We’d done Source Code,” he says, “and I was work­ing with a com­pany in LA who were very in­ter­ested in do­ing my next film. So I wrote the script, de­liv­ered it, and… it was way over bud­get! For a non-fran­chise film with un­known char­ac­ters, and, un­for­tu­nately to say, fe­male leads, there was no way to fi­nance it. But if I can find a way to rein­vent that film in a way that it doesn’t cost $80 mil­lion, I’m gonna make it.”

Jones grins. Hav­ing been through the strange, cir­cuitous ex­pe­ri­ence of Mute, he now knows for sure that fate moves in mys­te­ri­ous ways.

MUTE IS ON NET­FLIX FROM 23 FE­BRU­ARY

Left: Mute’s neon Ber­lin is set in the very near fu­ture. Top right: Paul Rudd’s ‘Cac­tus Bill’ does busi­ness with Florence Ka­sumba’s Tanya. Right: Alexan­der Skars­gård as the silent Leo Beiler.

Clock­wise from left: Vor­sprung durch tech­nik!; New­comer Seyneb Saleh (cen­tre) as Naadi­rah; A nearun­recog­nis­able Justin Th­er­oux as Duck Ted­ding­ton; Di­rec­tor Dun­can Jones with Th­er­oux on set; Leo searches Ber­lin.

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