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