Filmmaker Duncan Jones Breaks His Silence on “Mute” (Interview)

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There’s been an amazing resurgence in the science fiction genre in recent years, and Netflix is at the forefront of it, releasing a number of popular sci-fi series like Stranger Things and otehrs. More recently, they’ve even been buying sci-fi films like The Cloverfield Paradox from Paramount and Extinction from Universal, and the streaming proved pivotal in getting ’ long-in- Mute made.

Mute is meant to be a companion to Jones’ debut Moon, starring Alexander Skarsgard as Leo, a mute Amish bartender working in Berlin, whose waitress girlfriend Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh) goes missing. Leo’s journey gets him involved with a pair of AWOL military doctors, Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and Duck (Justin Theroux), who have their own plans that Leo might disrupt.

Mute is definitely a strange movie. On the one hand, it’s clearly influenced by the original Blade Runner and possibly the films of Terry Gilliam, but there are other influences at work, too, which we learned about when we spoke on the phone with Jones earlier this week.

I remember speaking to you for Moon, however long ago that was, and I think you already had written Mute and were trying to get it made.

Yeah, it was intended to be my first film actually, before Moon came out.

At that time, I vaguely remember you saying you were doing it as comic book, because you didn’t think you could get it financed. What was the big turning point to get it made?

Netflix, honestly. No, joke. I mean, I wasn’t in a place where I could make it, because I didn’t have the films under my belt when I first started trying to do it. Then, by the time Moon was finished, Source Code kind of ran into Moon pretty quickly afterwards. I think that the independent arms of the film studios that used to make original films in the $20 to 40 million budget range had kind of disappeared, and the studios were focused on making franchises, sequels, reboots, and things that they knew already had a preexisting audience, while relying on opening weekends to basically make most of their money back, knowing there was only going to be a one or two-week window before the next big film came out. [Mute] was never really that kind of film, and until streaming came into play there wasn’t really a home for those kind of movies.

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So this came out of a general meeting you had with Netflix? Or were they aware of Mute and expressed interest in making it?

I think we had been to that year’s AFM (American Market) trying to see if there was a way to do it that way, and at the same time, I think Stuart Fenegan, my had started investigating and talking to people at Netflix to see whether there was a possibility of doing it there.

Did you ever actually start that comic book?

I don’t know if you know Glenn Fabry* — he’s the artist who was working on it. Incredibly talented guy, and he was working on it for a long period of time in between other jobs, and it was just a very, very slow process. I think Glenn was kind of having complications in his life, so wasn’t really able to keep on it on a regular basis, so we would hear from him like every six months or sometimes a year apart, and suddenly pages would appear, but there was no consistency to it, so we started investigating the movie and trying to keep pushing it as a movie, and the movie happened before the graphic novel got finished.

(*Note: Fabry painted all the covers for Vertigo Comics’ original Preacher comics.)

Were you able to use some of his art or designs or anything, or had you been doing that separately anyway? Had you been kind of designing the world and all of that stuff?

There was a bit of cross-pollination just because if you live with a project for this long, any avenue that you may pursue you start to sort of gravitate [towards]and know what you want things to look like. So there were certainly things that Glenn did that informed what we did. Yeah, there was lots of back and forth.

After seeing the visuals in the movie, I’d probably be skeptical that this movie could be made for a reasonable budget, because it looks huge. After doing the CG-intensive Warcraft was it easier to do the CG visuals for this film?

I think the approach that we took is…  because we were shooting in Berlin and were at Studio Babelsberg for all of our build, then on location around Berlin for the rest of it. It was really making as much use of Berlin as we possibly could, and then really just accentuating and adding details here and there in order to take it into the future. But as much as possible that is actually a Berlin that you can go and visit.

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Some of the places looked familiar, but I wasn’t sure how much was actually Berlin. Was that a real bowling alley that looked futuristic or did you have to do a lot to make it look like that?

It was a real bowling alley that we did some tricks on to turn into a three-tier bowling alley. It was originally only a one-tier bowling alley, but it does exist as a bowling alley. It’s a very cool place, but not quite as cool as we made it look.

Did a lot change from when you first came up with the idea for Mute? For instance, I assume Leo was always mute, but was he always Amish and was this always set in Berlin?

Yeah, 16 years of working on it, so, yeah, lots and lots changed. Originally, when I wrote it, it was supposed to be my first feature film, and it was much smaller scale. Sexy Beast and Layer Cake were coming out at around the same time, and we were looking at making it as a small London-based sort of brick gangster film, which was in vogue at that time. Thinking maybe that would be something we could pull off for the tiny budget we expected we would be able to get. Moon happened instead, which I’m forever grateful for, but off the back of Moon, I went back and looked at the new and I was like, “You know what? There’s a lot of things about Moon and the world that we just started to touch upon that I think could be really interesting if we kind of expanded on them in this story.” And that’s kind of where the cross-pollination between Moon and Mute happened.

I thought Leo’s Amish background was an interesting decision, only because Berlin seems like the exact opposite of anywhere that an Amish person would want to be.

The idea was trying to come up with what this future was that we were working with. I had this idea that in much the same way that Israel had been calling Jews to come back to the homeland, that as a reaction to Angela Merkel bringing in one million immigrants in 2016, there would be a swing to the right, and the right swing would include the new German politicians saying that they wanted to invite back any and all people of Germanic descent to come and bring traditions back to the homeland. That was kind of the campaign. We actually had a version of the new German Chancellor that we filmed that we didn’t end up using in the film where she gives this impassioned speech that is actually what brings the Amish back to Germany and Switzerland.

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How did you end up with Alex playing Leo? He’s great in the role, but he doesn’t really talk at all…

Yeah, it was a challenge in kind of the same way we did Moon. We were looking at trying to come up with a role which would really engage an actor to want to play the part, to give them a real challenge. Obviously, with Sam it’s playing multiple versions of himself with nuance, differences. With this one, we needed an actor who could do an entire feature film without saying nearly a word of dialogue, and there wasn’t really that many people that I felt confident in who had the physical presence of someone like Alex, but also had the acting ability. But I had seen him in Generation Kill, and I thought he was really interesting and talented in that. I had the chance to meet up with him after he’d the , and we talked about it. I kind of felt confident that he was the right guy when he seemed so intimidated about doing the role, and I thought, “Okay, yeah, you understand why this is difficult,” and that gave me some confidence in him doing it.

It’s funny you mention Generation Kill, because Alex tends to play these alpha males, but in this, he’s kind of shy, and you really feel bad about how everyone mistreats him.

Unlike Paul Rudd, “Mr. Nice Guy,” who we also had some fun with.

Rudd’s character Cactus Bill is interesting, because he brings humor to the mix, but Cactus is also quite menacing at times. He goes back and forth.

Well, that was the design. I think Cactus and Duck are both very much kind of built off the backs of Trapper John and Hawkeye Pierce from Robert Altman’s M.A.S.H., which is one of my favorite comedies. And I always thought what’s interesting about those characters in that film is that as smart and engaging and fun to watch as they are, they’re also kind of mean in M.A.S.H., and I always thought, “Well, what if they were beyond mean? What if they were actual villains?” And that’s really what Cactus and Duck are – my riff on those two guys and just how dark they could go if they wanted to be.

They’re a cross between surgeons and mercenaries, which seems completely counter-purpose to each other. If they’re hired to kill someone, as a doctor shouldn’t they then try to save them?

I don’t know. I guess you’d have to ask anyone who works as a mercenary, ‘cause I don’t actually find that far-fetched at all. (laughs)

It’s funny you mention M.A.S.H., because I haven’t seen it in twenty or thirty years, and there was something about their relationship that felt familiar, but I just couldn’t place it.

Oh, you’ve got to watch it again. I watch it every year, that movie. It’s absolutely one of my favorites.

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Cactus and Duck have a really interesting relationship because at first you think they’re lovers, but then I wasn’t sure if they were just joking around by calling each other “babe.”  Is that typical for soldiers to make those kinds of jokes towards each other?

Again, you’d have to ask the military guys. I have, and I know that they got it. I mean, I didn’t write based on any experience in the military, because I didn’t have that, but what I did have is … spent a lot of time living with a bunch of other guys when I couldn’t afford to live in London on my own. There was kind of four or five of us who lived in a house together, and you kind of end up living out of each other’s pockets. If you’re working freelance, maybe one month I’ll make some money, or one month the other guy will make some money. I won’t make any money, and you’ll pay for each other’s food. You really do kind of end up in this brotherhood just kind of for survival purposes. I think there is a weirdness about the relationship between guys who are feel like it’s them against the world that I think is certainly something that may resemble what guys in the military sometimes feel.

It adds an interesting layer of humor which you don’t normally get in noir films. Maybe Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice and Chinatown had it, but is it tough mixing humor into an otherwise serious story?

Because we go to such dark places, think that’s what kind of allows you to get away with it. I think if it didn’t go as dark as it sometimes goes, I think the humor would kind of undercut the seriousness of it. But because it does get quite dark, I think the humor kind of works to help counter how dark it can get. And if you look at a film like Paul Schrader’s Hardcore, which is incredibly dark and doesn’t really attempt to balance it with humor it can feel quite oppressive and difficult to watch. But that was really what we were going for is a noir thriller, but having enough humor in it that you kind of felt like you were getting a full meal.

It’s also more overtly humorous than some of your other movies, but it’s also much darker than anything else you’ve done.

Yeah, pushing all the boundaries.

You don’t know whether it’s okay to laugh or not. You mentioned filming in Berlin so what was involved with creating that world? Was there a lot of CG? 

No, not really. I mean, the infamous robot sex dolls that are in Dominic Monaghan’s cameo. Did you notice that was Dominic Monaghan?

I had to check later and found out, but I didn’t realize it was him at first.

Those were all actual puppets, rod-driven puppets, so we did as much as we could in-camera. Built some beautiful sets and shot on location around Berlin. I’d say about half the film was shot just on locations around Berlin, and the other half was shot on sets that we built. So not a huge amount of CG. Definitely lots of FX work, and a certain amount of digital visual FX, but mainly just set extensions and just adding elements here and there to take Berlin as it exists for real and pop it into the future.

You also got to work with [composer]Clint Mansell again, so had you two been talking about him doing the music even for this even while you were doing Moon?

Yeah, absolutely, since Moon. I mean, he always knew that after I made Moon that I was going to keep on trying to get Mute made. And he knew that when I got that chance I wanted him to come and do the score.

Do you have any idea what you want to do next?

Yeah, there’s two projects I’m trying to push. One, of which is kind of the third part of the anthology of Moon, Mute and this third film, so we’ll see if I get a chance to do that. If not that, I have another thing, which is based here in L.A., which I would try to do. My wife, Juda, have our little girl in April, so I want to stay in the city and be based here with her whatever I shoot next. I’m trying to make sure that at least for the next year I’m going to be based here in L.A.

Without spoiling anything, would this third chapter explain why the character from your first movie appears in Mute? It’s only a tiny bit but one that’s impossible to ignore.

No, no, it wouldn’t. Think of it as like short stories. If you had three short stories and they all happened to take place in kind of a similar … William Gibson uses it as a thing all the time in his short stories. You know the world, but all the characters don’t necessarily have to know each other. They’ve all kind of got their own agendas and their own stories, and we just get a chance to see them and how this similar world affects them.

Mute is now streaming on Netflix.

  | East Coast Editor
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