'Mute' Director Duncan Jones On His Strange And Deranged Sci-Fi Passion Project [Interview]

Writer-director Duncan Jones' new movie, Mute, has been a long time coming. "I've finally got this boulder up the hill," he told us with a laugh and a sense of relief. The filmmaker behind MoonSource Code, and Warcraft originally envisioned his bleak, surprisingly old-school sci-fi mystery as his directorial debut, but the project faced its share of challenges over the years.

When you see the movie, it's easy to understand why. Mute certainly isn't a middle-of-the-road film or a story that plays it safe. The movie is a real nasty piece of work at times, but it's also not without a sense of perverse fun and beauty. After sixteen years of Jones trying to get Mute made, the end result is a packed-to-the-brim science fiction noir that feels like it's been waiting to be unleashed for a long time.

We recently spoke with Jones about the project's history, his affinity for Blade Runner, twisting Paul Rudd's nice guy image, and more.

You've maintained enthusiasm for this project for so long. What about Mute kept you trying to get it made?

It's a combination of things. You know, when you trying to create stuff, for me at least, I don't feel like I actually come up with truly original ideas that often. You really treasure them when you find them or when you think you've found them. For me, Mute felt original, and I think that was really part of it. You know, this lead character who couldn't talk, and these two incredibly chatty antagonists that he finds himself up against. It was just a dynamic and a way of telling the story where you spend way more time with the antagonists than you normally would, that just felt new. It felt like I was doing something that I hadn't seen that often. I think that was one of the reasons why I just couldn't let it go easily.

It's refreshing to see a sci-fi movie that doesn't have any shootouts or big futuristic guns. It's very grounded for a movie set in the future. 

Absolutely. I mean, there was something that Phillip K. Dick said about Ridley Scott's Blade Runner when he first saw it: it wasn't a science fiction film that they had made, it was a futurist film, and that he loved that. What I took that to mean was they had made a noir thriller which, although science fiction was an element of it, it wasn't really about the science fiction. It was about the people, and it just happened to take place in a future environment, and that's kind of what I wanted to do with Mute, was make a science fiction film which wasn't about the world-changing technology. Or something that was going to affect everyone. It's a small, localized noir thriller that just happens to take place in this place called the future.

Years ago you called Mute your love letter to Blade Runner, but it feels like your love letter to Hardcore

Yeah, absolutely.

But do you still see it as your love letter to Blade Runner? Or did the story become more of its own thing over the years?

I think you're right that it did become more of its own thing, but I think what it is about Blade Runner which makes the original Blade Runner so unique, is the fact that it was so human. It is so much a character film, even though there were these amazing visual settings for it. I think in that respect there is still a connection between this and Blade Runner. It absolutely is not a Blade Runner-style movie. I mean, it is a noir. You're right, Hardcore is absolutely the right reference, and that was one of the ones that we were using, Paul Schrader's Hardcore. It's a noir thriller that happens to take place in the future. Hopefully, the visuals are engaging enough and believable enough that you'd take this future version of Berlin as being a believable place.

You've said before it's tough to do a futuristic city right in a movie. So, how did you want to make sure you got futuristic Berlin right? Why Berlin?

One of the amazing things about Berlin is that it is this incredibly dynamic and fast-changing city. I had the chance to live there briefly in the 1970s when it was in the midst of the Cold War, and it had this incredibly unique sense of being an island in the middle of the Soviet Bloc. This island of Western civilization in the middle of the Soviet Bloc. I think that, even with the fall of the wall, Berliners have always seen themselves as kind of a little bit apart from everyone else in Germany. Apart from everyone else in the world, in a sense. Even today the city constantly feels like it's reinventing itself and looking to the future for what it's going to be, as opposed to what it is right now. It is probably, in the Western world, the most forward-looking, most focused on what it's going to be, place that I've been, as opposed to being sort of satisfied with what it is.

You usually see futuristic New York or LA, but not Berlin. The setting definitely feels new for this kind of movie.

Yeah, that's absolutely true. In fact, when we talked to Studio Babelsberg about it, I think one of the reasons that all of the film community that we dealt with in Berlin was so excited was, you know, you're making a film and it's not about Nazis? That's wonderful. They were thrilled by the fact that we were making a science fiction film.

There's an optimism to your other sci-fi movies, Source Code and Moon, but Mute is easily your bleakest movie. Because it is such bleak material, is that what caused some of the trepidation over the years from studios or financiers?

I think it was always difficult to get made because of that bleak material. Unfortunately, my own personal life kind of had been a little bit difficult over the last few years, with various family members dying. It kind of put me in a mindset while we were making it that was probably the necessary place to be in order to stay honest to the tone and the genre of the movie. But yeah, it's dark but at the same time, you know, between Cactus and Duck and the various cameos and slightly surreal moments throughout the film, hopefully, there's enough humor that comes out of those that it balances it out. Like, Dominic Monaghan's cameo.

Moon was a very introspective sci-fi movie, definitely about the love-hate relationship you can have with yourself. 


And I know that movie was personal too. Maybe this a stretch, but with Mute, was part of the reason the character was mute was to be able to wrestle with those internal questions?

I don't know. I mean, that's an interesting question. I almost think in some ways I'm still too close to Mute to really know all of the therapeutic value that the film had for me. Leo's character was always designed to be someone who was, in a sense, characterized by the interactions he has. Because he's quiet, it's really up to the people that he talks to, or who rather talk at him. They're the ones who kind of bring their own assumptions and prejudices to him. You know, this big, tall, weirdly dressed quiet guy comes up to them. Are they scared by him? Are they intimidated? Do they think that he's just thoughtful? Do they think that he's like a guardian? I mean, it really kind of depends on who interacts with him, how they deal with him. So I think, you know, that was him.

What I do know, as far as the personal side of things in the movie, there are a lot of characters who are impacted by their parenthood, either being parents or the parents that they had. Leo obviously can't talk because his mother was strictly Amish in her religion and refused to allow him to have the surgery he needed to be able to talk, so that created his character, and that impacted him in a way which has changed his entire life. Obviously, Cactus is a very unorthodox dad, and yet you can see he cares for his daughter. It's just he doesn't live a life which makes it easy to be a normal parent, so he deals with it the best way he feels he can.

Parenthood was one of the things where I felt a particular sense that I was dealing with something that I was very sensitive to, whether it was my own parents, or my position now as a parent. You know, on the shoot, I had my four-month-old son with me. So every day from coming back from the shoot, you know, I was changing diapers and feeding him, trying to be as good a parent as I could under the circumstances of making a movie.

I definitely want to ask about Paul Rudd as Cactus. He's a great actor, and he has a very likable, affable image, which is such a contrast to this role. Were you interested in twisting that image?

Yeah. No, definitely. Hey, look, I absolutely believe in baggage [Laughs]. I've lived with it my whole life. I know that Paul Rudd brings with him a certain expectation of being the smart, funny, sweet guy that we're all going to love no matter what. I love using that, hopefully to best effect, to let the audience kind of feel that way at the start of the film and then slowly take it away over the course of the second and third acts.

I remember one of your earliest ideas for Sam Bell's return was Leo walking into a bar and a bunch of Sam Bells hanging out. Did you have any other ideas for how Sam Bell could have appeared in the movie? 

[Laughs] Well, you know, it was tricky, because we knew we were probably only going to get Sam Rockwell for a day. It was like, okay, so let's pepper this universe with a campaign to free the Sams. And that would be kind of both in the footage that we see of him, some of it we put in the movie, some of it we ended up not needing for the movie. Then also, we'd have the poster campaigns, stickers, and things like that. But it's kind of the cause celebre of this period of future history, is that the people want to see the Sam Bells released.

Are there any other background details that maybe might go missed the first time around, but for you, really make the world more complete?

Well, there's some goofy ones, and there are more personal ones. I guess one of the goofy ones is that I'm a big international rugby fan. In Europe, there's something called the Six Nations, which is a rugby competition between various European countries. I have always thought it was kind of fun to mock Germany, that they're not part of the rugby world cup, or of the rugby Six Nations because they don't really play rugby. But in my future, there is now an Eight Nations, so there are posters for that as well. Which is, you know, that includes Germany as being a powerhouse of rugby. I think that gets a laugh. You don't see it as much as in the original cut, but we have these banknotes because there's still paper money used by people who don't want to go digital. We have David Hasselhoff and all of these various ridiculous characters on the money. So that's another kind of in-joke, Easter egg-y type thing in the movie.

With the movie hitting Netflix this weekend, you're going to see a lot of instant reactions, but not knowing the box office, what will define Mute as a success in your head? Do you already feel it is one, or does it depend on the reaction? 

Well, you know what? I think there are two things. The reviews are going to be unavoidable. So, we'll know whether people liked it based on the reviews. I think in some ways, a bit like Moon... You know, Moon didn't have a stellar theatrical release, but it had a pretty good one because it was such a small film, and Sony Classics ramped it up to like 250 cinemas, which was great.

I think Moon has really become a calling card for me over the years. Not so much when it first came out, but more over time, it became more and more kind of known amongst cinephiles. I feel that that may be the same route for Mute. I'm hoping that if people like it enough and the word spreads, that it will become a film which people can discover. I think that's kind of a fun thing about streaming, that it's going to kind of live forever on these portals, so you don't have to see it opening weekend. Obviously, I would like people to, but you don't have to see it opening weekend.

The movie can grow, and you can tell somebody about it. They may never have heard about it because the marketing is not going to be for like something like a new Star Wars or a new Marvel film; it's going to be something that they may have never heard of. It's like, "My God, really? There's this movie where Paul Rudd plays a villain, and it takes place in future Berlin? I've got to see that." Then hopefully, you know, people will get to discover it.


Mute is now available to stream on Netflix.