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An Interview With Director Duncan Jones (Mute)



Conducted By: Darryl Griffiths

First off. Just to say that i got to see the film last weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it. Found it to be really thought-provoking stuff.

Thank you mate.

‘Mute’ has undoubtedly been a passion project of yours, for a number of years. What have been the main challenges in bringing it to the screen and how has the concept evolved over time?

Yeah, it’s tricky. I mean Mike Johnson and myself wrote it sixteen years ago and i hadn’t made any other films yet. It was kind of being designed to be my first film and just to give you a context of how long ago it was. I think Sexy Beast and Layer Cake had just kinda come out. There was this feeling of this new wave of British gangster films and maybe be able to ride on the wave off the back of that and do this little thing ‘Mute’, as a contemporary London-based film. Obviously over sixteen years it’s changed dramatically from what it was originally into the film that we’ve made now.

In keeping with the project. Setting it in Berlin in 2052. I know it’s a city that is of great sentimental value for you, without being intrusive. From a strict narrative standpoint, what was so appealing about setting it there?

Well, i mean i was there for a little while in the 1970’s, when it was this little island of western civilisation in the middle of the Soviet Union. Even back then, you could kind of get a sense that the energy and dynamism about the city, was really about the future and what Berlin was going to become. What was gonna happen to the city in the future, whether it was the fears being kind of disappearing into East Germany or whether Germany was going to be united. Even back then, there was sort of feelings about whether that was going to be an option and every decade that i came back to Berlin after that. Even after the wall came down, i think Berlin of all western hemisphere cities has always felt like a place that had its eye on the future and less on what it was at that particular point in time. Which is kind of ironic because it’s such a city which is absolutely built upon its history, but that’s the interesting thing about Berlin is that it really does seem kind of dynamic and forward-looking, and for a science-fiction makes it an ideal place to set a story.

Setting the film in the not-too-distant future. Yet with the slick aesthetic, it still feels quite modern day. Were you really looking to maintain that in the building of this world?

Yeah i think one of the things I’ve noticed in science fiction films, a lot of times it feels like the future is all designed by one company. Obviously you can feel the production designer’s hand on it and the aesthetic choices. One of the things that i asked Gavin Bocquet who was my production designer, which is the antithesis of what a production designer wants to hear, is make it ugly. Make it clash. Make things feel like they are designed by different companies that weren’t talking to each other when they design things. That was really kind of part of the design and feel of it. What worked in our favour was that as much as possible on location we were shooting in Berlin, in the actual existing city and that kind of gave it an authenticity. It was really about what  props and things can we bring to this? What sets can we build on the actual city streets to create something that feels really tangible and real.

Shifting to the characters now. We are mainly led through this world by Leo played by Alexander Skarsgard. He’s very much the moral fibre in this decadent world, feeling like a relic of the past. Was it rigid in how you wanted to articulate the character to Alexander or quite collaborative in how you achieved it?

I think it was pretty collaborative. Having lived with it for such a long time, i had pretty strong feelings about elements of it. But to be honest Leo’s character was much more flexible because i really understood the challenge that i was asking him to try and navigate. This character is going to have to have a beginning and an end, as far as where he starts and where he ends and not  having any dialogue to use as a crutch. So let’s together. Come up with the best way for the audience to actually engage and care about this person, knowing that we’re going to be relying on other characters talking to him and what you can do in your performance to get them to buy into it. Fortunately we also have half of the film with Cactus and Duck who are basically the other extreme, so that is really what allows us to get away with it. We don’t spend the whole film with Leo, perhaps only spend half of it with him.

Leaping to that other extreme. Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux’s on-screen partnership is fascinating. With their respective back catalogues, we’re almost programmed to like these guys, yet the film goes to such a dark place. Without stripping them of their comic smarts, were you conscious of playing to their strengths whilst pushing them out of their comfort zones with these characters?

Yeah absolutely. I think as far as casting them, it was using the baggage of the fact that they are always seen as such good guys, particularly Paul Rudd who is the audience’s darling. I think that was absolutely something that i wanted to do. Use that to get the audience on side and think ‘OK, i’m watching these guys because somehow they’re going to tie into being the heroes of this movie’ and then slowly start to erode and pick away at it, revealing who Cactus and Bill really are.

Of course the film has seen you reunite with prolific composer and Moon collaborator Clint Mansell, serving up a soulful score here particularly for the sequences shared by Leo (Skarsgard) and Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh). How do you feel his work enhances the narrative?

I mean music is such a huge part of film making i think and can carry so much of the emotion, whilst actually changing the emotion of any given scene. Not every project is right for every person as far as composers go, but i always knew that when i got around to doing ‘Mute’, Clint was the guy i wanted to work with on this. He totally understood and felt the same film i wanted to make, which made it a really enjoyable collaboration. I think he understood how important it was, not just for us to come up with the theme tune that would be the signature to the Leo/Naadirah relationship, but also be able to bring that back to throughout the film. Even when she’s not around, to keep her alive just through the music.

With this film, Moon and Source Code. There is undoubtedly a deep affection you have for the science-fiction genre, whilst in ‘Mute’ being various film noir elements within it too. What were your earliest and fondest memories of this genre offerings, that really inspired you?

Oh that’s hard to say. I’ve always been a fan of escapism. So as far as the science-fiction side of it, i love the escapist aspect of it and now that i’m making films myself. I think what i have grown to love about science-fiction, even with all that escapism. You can actually use it to try and allow people to feel like they can be open to ideas, that they might not be otherwise open to, because you’re talking about them in something which doesn’t feel like a personal attack on them. There’s a certain distance to it because it’s just science-fiction, so i think i kind of like that aspect. As for noir thrillers, i feel like i haven’t seen that many of them in recent film making. That’s probably more on me than on what’s being made, but i think that’s why i wanted to make one. I kind of felt like i haven’t seen a good one in awhile. This is the kind of film that i used to enjoy and would love to see something like that and that’s why i wanted to make ‘Mute’.

Before ‘Mute’. There was the experience of making ‘Warcraft’. Coming off the back of helming a big-budget Summer tentpole. Did it significantly alter your thoughts on the Hollywood studio system, especially heading into this project with Netflix involved?

Yeah. It was a long three and a half years of politics and trying to negotiate very intricate problems. Just on a political level making ‘Warcraft’ and i think off the back of that, i really kind of committed to myself. Promised myself that i’m going to make a film for me next, because this one has been too many compromises and too much politics. So i think that’s why i felt like i had to make ‘Mute’. The wonderful thing was with the relationship with Netflix, is once they agreed to what i wanted to do, signed off on the script and were happy with the cast. They absolutely just let me go ahead and make the film i wanted to make. I had final cut. I didn’t have to agree to anything really. I just made the film i wanted to make.

With the Netflix aspect in mind. After receiving such support, do you believe streaming services in the near future may overtake the major studios, in terms of harbouring talent?

Ermm. I don’t know. What i would say is the studios have made a commitment, to making a type of movie that is going to become i think increasingly challenging to keep original and to make them feel like, i’m seeing the same film every year every time i go and see a big studio film. So i respect the creativity of the people that they are getting involved in doing studio films. Because i think they’re the ones who are doing the heavy lifting of finding ways to make remakes, franchises, sequels, reboots, in keeping them original as possible. But i think it’s going to get tired, unless they start bringing in some original ideas and original characters. Original talent will get you so far, but eventually you need the ideas themselves to be original.

On a final note. Within ‘Mute’ you get a sense of an emerging world of warm gestures and inclusion, is being oppressed by cold corporate figures. Considering the state of the wider world, were you keen to represent that level of diversity within the film?

I mean Berlin in particular is this incredibly strange place and i think they see themselves as quite apart from the rest of Germany in some ways. But i think the dynamism of that community is mainly because of the massive immigration. The number of Turks and Arabs and Africans and Russians who’ve come to Berlin and kind of made it this really interesting and dynamic place. I can only see that continuing and becoming more so in the future and i think that was the Berlin we were trying to mirror in some sense. Get ahead of as far as our science-fiction depiction of it, but it’s weird. I think the world now is changing so bloody fast, it’s very difficult to get a bead on which direction it’s going because it’s zigzagging every second. But it feels right and while we were in Berlin, it felt like this was a future that could come to pass from where we are now.

Duncan Jones’ Mute is available to view on Netflix from Friday 23rd February.

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