WITH Star Trek currently hoovering up the cash at the box office, it is easy to forget when big screen science fiction’s focus was a little smaller, more personal.
Back in the day, films served up complex and involving stories that made you think, with next to no space battles and phaser blasts.
In his new film Moon, director Duncan Jones takes his inspiration from those now-classic tales as he focuses his camera on Sam Bell, coming to the end of a lonely three-year shift on the moon in the not too distant future where he mines Helium 3 for the Lunar Corporation.
With only a computer called Gerty for company (voiced by Kevin Spacey), Sam is just weeks from going home to his wife and daughter when things unravel as he starts to suffer hallucinations and – after a near-fatal accident – meets his replacement, who looks eerily familiar.
As the company look to get the mining back on track, Sam is forced to question everything about his life and existence.
For Duncan, his first feature film is a labour of love which has taken more than two years to complete.
He said: “I probably wear my heart on my sleeve with this film. Its obviously not about lasers or explosions, it’s not about monsters or alien races. It’s about people. How they work, what makes them tick, and how hard it can be to be one sometimes.
“When I was writing the script, I was going through a heart-wrenching long-distance relationship that was never going to work, and a lot of those feelings came out in the script. So did a lot of feelings and things I went through growing up.”
That shows with the personal mood of the film being mixed in with broader ideas around alienation, industrial ethics, technology and corporate greed, and backed up by old school and computer special effects which created a beautifully realised but harsh futuristic environment.
“Those films and others like them told human stories in future environments. I’ve always wanted to make a film that felt like it could fit into that canon.
“People who appreciate science fiction want the best for the world, but they understand that there is an education to be had by investigating the worst of what might happen. That’s why Blade Runner was so brilliant; it used the future to make us look at basic human qualities from a fresh perspective. Empathy. Humanity.”
To convey those ideas on screen, Duncan turned to Sam Rockwell to portray the on-screen Sam. The 40-year-old American turns in an affecting performance, fully repaying Duncan’s faith in him.
“Sam is an amazing, talented, smart, lovely man, and the consummate professional,” he added. “We became very close making this film, and I consider him one of my friends.
“I think what you get with Sam when you work with him, is someone who really wants to give you as many ideas and as much of himself as he can. I just feel so lucky that he agreed to do the film… then again, it was written for him, and I don’t think I could have brought myself to make it without him.”
That close working relationship must have been a pre-requisite on a highly pressured shoot over 33 days on set at Shepperton Studios and with a budget of just £5million.
Duncan said: “Oh man, the pressure on us was immense.
“Pre-production & financing, as hard as it was, was a picnic compared to two months of 18 hour days, problem solving and compromising every day to make a film that should have been impossible to make for the time and money.
“I truly believe that no one else could have pulled off what we did in the time and for that budget. It was an extraordinary achievement by everyone involved.”
He added: ““Sci-fi by its very nature often demands the biggest production values, and, as you can imagine, that’s the hardest thing to achieve with an indie budget. So putting Moon together was an intricate puzzle: we wanted to tell a story that was both intimately human but universal in appeal; we wanted to keep our cast small and our shooting environment completely controllable; and we wanted to get every last drop of screen value out of our visual effects.
“It was hugely ambitious, but it paid off—we made an honest-to-goodness science fiction film, with an intense story, an amazing performance by an extraordinary actor, chock-full of gorgeous special effects, and we did it in 33 days and on a small budget.”
Duncan’s indie sci-fi flick will now go up against some of the bigger guns of the genre, although he is confident there is room for everyone.
“I don’t know about you, but I don’t choose to see only one kind of film each summer,” he said. “I see lots of films.. of all different types! Variety is the spice of life!
“Sometimes I want to eat cupcakes, other times I fancy a curry! Hopefully thats the way the audience will feel too. I certainly think as a smart indie sci-fi film, we are a “unique dish” on the summer film menu. Consider us the tasty baklava of summer film treats.”
With Moon’s cinema release just a few weeks away, what does Duncan hope film-goers will take away from the film?
“Actually I want them to do two very different things,” he said. “Firstly I’m hoping the film will provoke a simple question: what am I like as a person? What am I like to deal with?
“I would love the film to lead an audience to that little bit of introspection.
“Secondly, I want them to want to see the old sci-fi films we pay homage to. The science fiction of the late 70s and 80s was so different from what we get today, and it was a truly golden era for smart sci-fi.”
Duncan added: “Oh, and merchandise… lots and lots of merchandise! I’m joking!”
Coming next – Duncan reveals his sci-fi geek credentials and lifts the lid on how Moon was made. Plus, how I got to chat to Duncan in the first place!