It’s been an emotional, trying few years for Duncan Jones.
Professionally, Jones spent three and a half years making Warcraft, an expensive and ambitious fantasy film that just didn’t catch on with American audiences – an experience that was, as Jones puts it, “soul crushing.” Personally, Jones lost his father, David Bowie, in 2016. In 2017, Jones lost Marion Skene, the woman Jones gives credit for raising him. And while all this was happening, Jones himself became a father for the first time. These are the kinds of events that will lead to a lot of soul searching and reevaluations. And for Duncan Jones, one of these revelations was that it was finally time to make the movie he’s been trying to get made for the last 16 years. It was time to finally make Mute a reality.
Having seen Mute, it now makes a lot more sense why it was so hard for Jones to get this film made, even with a pedigree that includes the beloved Moon and the crowd-pleasing Source Code. Set in the same universe as Moon, Mute is not a traditional film in any sense of the word and it’s certainly a story traditional studios aren’t going to jump at the chance of making. (To sum Mute up in one word, it’s insane.) We often hear filmmakers say things like they had no options other than to make their movie, or sell their movie, to a streaming service – but in the case of Mute, Jones is emphatic that without Netflix, Mute would, frankly, never exist. But with a beautiful looking sci-fi film like Mute as a Netflix exclusive, it truly feels like the end of something and the beginning of something else. It would kind of be like if The Fifth Element had just never been in theaters.
On the surface, Mute shares some aesthetics with the original Blade Runner, but that’s about as far as that comparison goes. Mute has more in common with Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H. (Yes, really.) Alexander Skarsgård plays Leo, a bartender in futuristic Berlin who lost his ability to talk after a graphic boating accident as a child. Leo is looking for his missing girlfriend (Seyneb Saleh), and along the way interacting with every rogue in Berlin’s underground crime world. This includes two wisecracking, Hawaiian shirt-wearing American doctors – Cactus (Paul Rudd) and Duck (Justin Theroux) – who are pretty obviously influenced by Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John from Altman’s M*A*S*H. But instead of saving lives in Korea, these two perform underground, black market surgeries and the occasional torture.
This is a different Duncan Jones than I’ve spoken to before. There’s always been a confidence to him that kind of seems missing this time – not that he’s not confident in what he’s made (though, he very clear he knows Mute isn’t for everyone) but just more this feels like a director who has been through the emotional ringer and is just putting himself out there to see what happens. He’s also a director who doesn’t know what he wants to do next. For 16 years that answer was “Mute.” Now that Mute exists, he’s just not sure and he is someone who is wrestling with the way the system currently works: Mute finally exists, but it won’t play in big theaters. And now that he’s made his most personal film, does he owe someone a huge hit? Or, as he puts it, a “home run”?
Ahead, we have a long conversation with Jones about his life and making his most personal film. And when Jones starts talking about his recent losses, he still gets pretty emotional. (I tell him as someone who lost his father in the last couple months, I can at least somewhat relate.) Jones is an incredibly gifted filmmaker who is at a crossroads, and we will just have to wait and see where that takes him.
We’ve been hearing about Mute for a very long time.
[Laughs.] I’ve been trying to get it made for 16 years, so it has been a long time.
Why did it take so long?
Well, it’s a dark, weird movie…
Oh, yeah, it is…
You can’t bring that into a big studio and kind of expect them to sign on the dotted line. It’s not the kind of movies studios normally make. I think there’s been a really weird period over those last 16 years where weird, middle-budget movies kind of disappeared for awhile. And now we have these amazing places like Netflix and Amazon – and I believe Apple is even making movies now – that are starting to pick up the slack on that kind of stuff. And allowing filmmakers to make stuff that doesn’t really fit into the studio machine. So I kind of have to give Netflix the credit for making films like this possible.
I’m imagining you in a meeting with a studio head asking you, “So Justin Theroux’s character does what?”
[Laughs.] I mean, be careful about how you write this article up as far as revealing how things go, but there’s a lot of stuff that makes this film what it is that makes it very difficult for a studio to understand why they would want to make it. It’s much more like an old ‘70s thriller and it’s equally dark. There’s an amazing Paul Schrader film called Hardcore that had a similar kind of vibe. I was going for that and I was going for the humor from the Robert Altman version of M*A*S*H.
Because Paul Rudd’s Cactus is Hawkeye and Justin Theroux’s Duck is Trapper…
[Note: If you want to remain spoiler free on the relationship between Rudd’s Cactus and Theroux’s Duck, you can skip this next part.]
Yes. And I absolutely love that film. It’s my favorite comedy. Don’t tell Edgar Wright, but it’s my favorite comedy. As much as I love that movie and the relationship between Trapper John and Hawkeye Pierce: they are mean. They are really mean. And they’re funny and they are the smartest guys in the room, but they are mean people. And I always thought they get away with it in the movie because of their situation and the war and the people they are trying to help, but God help anyone if they decided to just pick on someone and be the villain. So that was my take on it: What if those guys were the villains in the movie?
So after Korea they started doing black market surgeries and torture.
At first we want to like them, because we’ve been trained to like them.
Absolutely. You set up these expectations of who these people are, and over the course of the film you start to say, “Oh, these really cool guys that I wish I could hang out with? I don’t want to hang out with these people.” You keep peeling and you keep peeling and you’re like, holy fuck, why did I like these people? And that’s what I want the audience to feel over the course of it.
I saw Mute in a theater, but most people won’t. With this movie, it really feels like the end of something and the beginning of something. It would be kind of like if The Fifth Element was never in theaters.
It’s really, really hard. There used to be a time when middle-budget movies had support from the independent arms of the studios to make films in that $20 million to $40 million range. And that just disappeared. It’s gone. Dead. So, Netflix, Amazon, Apple, these places have started to pick up the slack. And I’m incredibly grateful for that because, on a creative level, it’s now an outlet for different kinds of movies to get made. So that’s a huge “pro” in the situation. The “con” is you have to play by their rules. And as much as it hurts me sometimes to think, God, there’s never going to be a big opening of this movie, we’re never going to get the chance to show it on huge screens everywhere and do that side of it. There are not even going to be DVDs or Blu-rays. So that part of it is not ideal. But the benefits: if Netflix hadn’t picked this up it wouldn’t have gotten made. That’s just the truth of the matter.
So there will never be a Mute Blu-ray? Netflix has put some stuff on Blu-ray, like Daredevil.
I don’t believe Netflix has ever released one of their original features on Blu-ray. From their business perspective, they can put TV shows on Blu-ray because those become lures and feeders to get onto Netflix and get a subscription to see the next season. But that works for TV shows, it doesn’t work for movies because movies are the essence of why you need a subscription. If you don’t have a subscription, you can’t see the film. So why would they ever sell DVDs? Because that would undermine getting a subscription. It makes total sense to me, but I hate it.