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.
I don’t always believe the “We didn’t have any other options” line when it comes to streaming services, but in your case I do because this movie is insane.
I promise you, of 16 years trying to get this movie made, this is the only way we could get it done.
If you made Moon or Source Code today, would those be Netflix movies?
Moon was such a low-budget film, we would be able to make it without a studio involved at all. We’d be able to scrape the money together [from] the various investors we built up over the years. And we would do what we did with it. We would take it to the festivals and hopefully find a home for it that way. Source Code is a tricky one. I think a studio would have picked that up, only because, even though it’s a slightly unusual story, it’s also very audience friendly. A studio would convince themselves that they would be brave for making Source Code, when actually it’s just making a fast, popcorn movie. And I think that’s what Source Code was. But, like I said, Mute would not get made through a studio.
You’ve mentioned the influences from Blade Runner on Mute. Is it weird this movie took so long to make they actually made another Blade Runner?
[Laughs.] Yeah, it was weird. But after the amount of time I’ve been working on this film, it had created so much life of its own, that I think any kind of original Blade Runner-y inspiration became really superficial. Other than that, it’s not Blade Runner. It’s ‘70s thrillers. It’s Paul Schrader’s Hardcore. It’s Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H. It’s Lee Marvin in Point Blank. Those are the movies it really references. And maybe Casablanca is some ways. But it doesn’t really reference Blade Runner.
It’s weird that after all these years you’ve only made four feature films…
Tell me about it. It’s killing me.
So what do you want to do going forward? Did you like your experience making a huge studio movie with Warcraft? And I know it did really well internationally but didn’t catch on domestically. What do you want to do?
I don’t know. It’s really tricky. I have so many mixed feelings about Warcraft. I spent three and a half years working on it. Everyone involved making it were truly, truly passionate fans of the project and wanted it to be a breakout success. Most of the heads of department on that film played Warcraft. It was a big deal for us. And the fact it didn’t hit in the States the way we hoped it would was kind of soul-crushing for us. And I still stand by it. It’s not perfect, but I think it’s a damn good fantasy film. And I think, over time, that’s proving itself and people are finding the movie. I don’t think we’re going to get the chance to make another one anytime soon. It just doesn’t seem likely. And as far as me doing other big studio films, I just don’t know if I have the heart for it after that. But, at the same time, if I want to keep working in this business, I have to hit a home run, I guess. So I’m still trying to work out where the next step is.
I needed to make Mute for myself, just as kind of therapy after the three and a half years of Warcraft and after the crappy couple of years I’ve had with my dad dying and the woman who raised me dying, I just kind of needed to do something that felt right for me. And at this point, it’s not that I’m lost. I have a couple ideas of what I’d like to do, but I’m just trying to work out what’s the right move now. I’ve done the one for me, do I go and do one for them? Do I do one for the studio? Or do I try and find something that still feels personal, but maybe make it fit in a more studio mold, or at least a more accessible mold? I really don’t know. I’m working it out.
You mention your dad and the woman who raised you. You had a touching dedication to them in the credits. And as someone who lost his dad a couple of months ago, everything you said makes sense.
Oh, I’m sorry. The crazy thing is, it kind of forces you to accept, okay, I’m not the kid anymore. I’m the grownup now. And essentially that part of it and also having kids as well, I don’t know if you have kids…
I do not.
So for me, it’s that kind of a one-two punch. The one-two punch of parents dying, then having kids, it’s like, “Oh, man, I’m the guy everyone has to look up to.” So it kind of messes with you… it doesn’t “mess” with you, but it kind of challenges you.
This all makes perfect sense.
You get it. You get it. And I’m not scared of it, but at the same time, I know that there is a lot of soul searching and serious grownup thinking I’ve got to do now about where do I go next. What’s the next right step for me? And also just in honor to the things that my dad taught me in trying to be brave and trying to be true to yourself. I don’t want to sign on to a Star Wars, or something like that, just because those kind of things might be available to me. If I do it, I want to do it because I want to do it and not because it’s expected of me.
I can’t imagine the difference considering your dad was extremely famous, but there was also a lot of seeking his approval and it just feels like a big thing missing now.
Well, it’s crazy. I’m sorry you had to go through that, too. But, at the same time, I guess its natural and it’s how human life works. [Laughs.] So what now? Now what do we talk about?
Yeah, this is a tough transition. Well, good luck with the movie. It’s insane but I really enjoyed it.
Look, I really appreciate it. And I know there will be people out there who either hate it or just not know how to approach it. So, I’m really grateful that if there are people out there who do appreciate it and I’m very appreciative of people supporting it vocally.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.