‘Source Code’ director goes to science’s cutting edge — and a bit beyond

April 1, 2011

“I am very pessimistic,” Duncan Jones concedes, “about the idea of time travel.”

This is no small admission from the director of “Source Code,” in which Jake Gyllenhaal plays Air Force Capt. Colter Stevens, who travels into the past not once or twice but over and over. Jones, whose first feature was “Moon,” is a high-tech buff who argues that today’s sci-fi films are inspired in large part by “cutting-edge science.”

The spiky-haired filmmaker, who proves candid and easygoing during an interview in a Georgetown hotel bar, built his career in London. But lately he’s been working in Los Angeles, where he’s been attending Directors Guild of America presentations on emerging technology.

“They discuss a lot of scientific work that I would have assumed was science fiction,” Jones says. “Things move so fast that you can’t assume that you know what the state of the art is. There’s certainly fertile ground for making the sorts of logical leaps” that recent sci-fi movies do.

“Source Code,” which opened Friday, makes quite a leap. To stop a terrorist bombing, Stevens’s consciousness is transferred into the body of a man on a Chicago commuter train that’s about to explode. When he doesn’t identify the bomber on his first trip, he’s sent back again. And again. His journey could be called time travel, a time loop or — in Jones’s phrase — “a parallel reality.”

The director, 39, doesn’t put his sprightly, playful new movie in the same category as the grittier “Moon,” which is set at a lunar mining operation populated by only two creatures, one of them a robot.

“Source Code” is “not hard sci-fi, as I see it,” Jones says. “I feel safer calling it a contemporary thriller that has some science-fiction elements.”

Jones is a reader of New Scientist magazine who closely follows news of technological breakthroughs, but he doesn’t have a science background. In fact, he was pursuing a PhD in philosophy when he dropped out to become a filmmaker. He followed the advice of “Top Gun” director Tony Scott, the man he calls “my mentor,” and began his career making TV commercials. Scott said that was “the best training ground,” Jones explains.

Of course, not every would-be filmmaker is fortunate enough to be introduced to Tony Scott. Although Jones looks every bit the California slacker in his blue jeans, sneakers and battered brown T-shirt, his back story is a little more involved. He’s the son of the fashion-plate glam-rocker who played an elegant vampire in Scott’s 1983 film “The Hunger.”

Yes, the seemingly well-grounded Duncan Jones is the former Zowie Bowie, whose father, David Bowie, used to front a band called the Spiders From Mars. The physical resemblance is not striking, although it might be that Jones’s short, scruffy beard disguises the likeness. The filmmaker’s only man-who-fell-to-Earth touch is a silver Celtic torque around his neck, a rare, 3,000-year-old artifact that was unearthed in Cornwall. “I never take it off,” Jones says.

It turns out to be a gift from his father.

Mention David Bowie to Duncan Jones and he rises to leave, snapping: “That’s it! I’m going!” He delivers these indignant words with a twinkle in his eyes.

In fact, the filmmaker is quite comfortable discussing Bowie and the effects of being his son. “People asked me if my father’s music or my father’s films influenced me, and I would honestly say they didn’t. Because to me, it was always my dad. So I wasn’t watching his films, because I found it awkward. And I wasn’t listening to his music for the same reason.

“But I was surrounded by all the films that he would watch and the things that gave him ideas. The two of us spent a lot of time together. My parents divorced when I was very young, and I was in the custody of my father, which was fairly unusual. So when he was watching movies, I was seeing them.” Jones cites “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “A Clockwork Orange” and “The Day of the Triffids” as early inspirations.

Initially recruited by Gyllenhaal, Jones was hired to direct “Source Code” after it had been largely developed. “The structure of the script was sound,” he recalls. “What I immediately felt could be better was the tone. The draft that I read took itself very seriously.”

Because the movie’s time-hopping technique seemed implausible to him, Jones decided that “it was really important that the audience not think there was any pretentiousness about it. This was supposed to be a fun ride.”

“Source Code” has certain premises that overlap those of “Inception” and “Avatar” and a tricky plot that can’t be summarized without spoiling it. But Jones wants potential viewers to know that the movie includes action and humor, as well as romance (Michelle Monaghan plays the love interest).

“One of the reasons I’m talking to you is to let people know about that,” the director says with a grin.

Jones credits Gyllenhaal with holding the disparate elements together. “I think he does a terrific job of finding moments throughout the film where the audience can build a rapport with him. To me, it’s one of the strongest things I’ve seen him do.”

Despite its futuristic scenario, the movie evokes Hollywood classics from the black-and-white era. It features an Everyman hero, strangers on a train and clocks ticking down to a fateful confrontation. “The reference we kept going back to was Hitchcock,” Jones says. “Because it felt like a very classic thriller to me.”

Despite his lifelong immersion in sci-fi, Jones hopes to do other things as well, citing Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” as a movie that made him “hugely jealous, but very excited.”

“My next film is probably going to be science fiction,” he says. “Then I’m going to take a sabbatical from sci-fi and go and do some other genres.”

Jenkins is a freelance writer.

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