Interview: Duncan Jones on the Ethics, Heroes, and Science of ‘Source Code’

By  · Published on April 1st, 2011

Source Code really solidifies a suspicion we all have had about director Duncan Jones: he’s a real people person. Yes, unlike most sci-fi filmmakers, there is very little cynicism or dread to his films. While both Moon and his successful sophomore effort, Source Code, do explore the idea of man abusing science, ultimately, there’s a huge amount of hope in his work. Not only that, but he follows generally fun and ‐ if a tad flawed ‐ good people. That’s right, there’s no mopey, emo action lead in Source Code.

Colter Stevens, the hero of the film, is the Han Solo archetype. He’s charming, brash, and sometimes, thinks more with his fists than his head. Stevens is quite similar to Duncan Jones’s previous antagonist, Sam Bell. There’s an everyman quality to both leads. They’re not macho. They’re not invincible. And they’re both flawed individuals. Like Bell, Stevens doesn’t shy away from acting like a jerk here and there. The predicament he’s in ‐ once again, just like Sam Bell ‐ raises ethical questions. Although Source Code isn’t entirely hardcore science-fiction, Jones does what all classical films of genre should do: ask a few questions.

If you’ve ever seen Jones an interview before, then you already know he’s a personable and fun-seeming filmmaker. He manages to take that upbeat spirit of his and interject that good nature in his films, and as was the case with Moon, it works.

WARNING: This interview contains major spoilers.

Did you enjoy your SXSW experience?

[Laughs] I did, actually.

How was it hearing the first major reactions for the film?

It was fantastic. I obviously got very nervous, so my girlfriend and I disappeared during the actual screening and went and got some food. We did come back afterwards and we were there for the last five-minutes. I got a sense of the crowd. I was very relieved that it went down well.

When it comes to Colter Stevens, how important was it for him to have an “everyman” quality?

What we were going for was the everyman leading man. You know, the one you could really believe in when it comes to what it would actually be like if you were in this absurd, bizarre situation. It was just a matter of finding that tone for it. The idea is just to create an everyman hero. Someone classical. He’s just an ordinary guy that finds himself in extraordinary circumstance. That was an idea we were playing with.

Would you say he acts like a jerk, at times?

[Laughs] I don’t know if I’d say he acts like a jerk, but I think he’s frustrated. One of the things Jake [Gyllenhaal] and I were talking about when I read the script was that there’s a tone to this film that could take itself too seriously or could be quite pretentious. We thought about injecting some humor into it, and we think that was the right choice. That’s the way we went. The idea of Colter is that, he’s more like an Indiana Jones, but more like a poor man’s Indiana Jones. A guy who’s able to deal with situations, but gets very frustrated. That was the idea. I love those kinda guys. I want those flaws. This is the type of guy I wish I was or could hangout with. I think that’s what draws empathy and makes you care about a character.

Are a lot of people asking about what happened to Sean Fentress?

Actually, no. Not everybody does, but some people do. It’s dark. That was something there in the script. When someone asked at the Q and A about Sean I just said, “Sean’s dead.” [Laughs] Completely deadpan. There ya go. That’s the answer.

Do you think that’s a questionable decision on Colter’s part to take over his body and identity? I mean, he is stealing Christina, in a way.

There is certainly a whole ethical issue to that. Colter is deciding to live on in this parallel reality, but he’s doing that at the expense of someone else [Laughs]. There’s definitely an ethical question there.

Michelle Monaghan did agree that he was just a school teacher anyway, so it doesn’t matter.

[Laughs] There’s always that. And the character, Christina, does say that he seems to have improved. But he’s improved through that process.

There’s a real gray area when it comes Jeffrey Wright’s character, Rutledge. He’s cocky, but what he’s doing, in someways, is noble. Can you talk about not vilifying him?

That’s an interesting question, because even in some of the reviews that I’ve seen, some people say Jeffrey Wright is the villain. Jeffrey Wright has a very, very different priority than we as the audience do as to what should happen. Colter is being used. By the end of the film, we see the state that Colter is in. He’s not going anywhere. It’s not like he has a life to lead, and that they’re somehow stopping him from doing that.

At the same time, you have to respect his wishes. I think what the ethical conundrum here is: Rutledge is in the position where he’s invented this technology that allows him to use this solider in such a way that the solider may not have any rights, but Rutledge may be able to save the lives of many, many Americans. That’s really the question: Should the rights of the few outweigh the lives of many?

Can you talk about finding that ethical balance in the film? Not putting your personal stance in the film?

There were different drafts of the script, and I got involved fairly late on. I don’t think they were playing around with the balance of who would be making the case for Colter and who would be making the case for the country. That kind of moved around a little bit over the course of different drafts. It ended up where we are now. It’s interesting, because it really just depends on the audience’s point of view. Some people really see Rutledge as a villain, while other people see him as fairly gruff, but having a perfectly defendable position.

Both Moon and Source Code really explore the dangers of technology. What is it about that concept that interests you?

I enjoy technology. I’m hugely accepting of the benefits that science and technology give us. I don’t have a problem with technology, at all. I understand why you might think that, but in both of the films that I’ve done so far, it’s not the technology that’s the problem, but the people using it. To me, that is always the issue. Technology is always going to allow you to do things, which you haven’t been able to do in the past, but the real interesting question to me is: In a world where we are constantly changing our ideas of what is right, how do they fit in this new and constantly changing world?

When it comes to exposition, there’s very little. Can you talk about the process of being informative about the source code and the rules, but avoiding huge exposition chunks?

Ben Ripley did a good job by starting off understanding how everything would fit together, then stripping it down. That was a process he continued. When I got involved I said, “Look, I think we can strip this down to the bare essentials, at least enough for where the audience got the rules for it.” I felt if we injected humor into the tone of it, I think audiences would make that initial leap of faith. We wanted to say clearly we were going to stick with the rules, but you gotta stick with us. If so, you’re going to have a good time.

Was the opening of the film always just going to throw you right in?

It was always a fantastic start to the script. It just kinda jumped right into it by starting off with a bang. It was always a fast read and it was meant to be a very quickly paced film.

How much research or thought was put into the scientific aspects behind the source code?

I think there was a balancing act. Ben Ripley’s wife is a scientist, his father is a scientist, and I think his whole family are in that realm. I know it was important to him that there was a theoretical grounding to it all. For me, I came into it with some questions. For me, there’s hard sci-fi and there’s soft sci-fi. Hard sci-fi is where you can see how we went from our present society through a process of innovations to where we could, theoretically, get to this science-fiction world. Soft sci-fi is where you’re just talking about dragons, magic and crazy stuff, and you don’t ever actually see how it happens.

Time travel is a bit of a sub-genre that is a gray area to me. I understand it, theoretically, but I don’t really see how we could get there. Like I said, if you can get the audience to come onboard by infusing a lightness in tone with humor, then they’ll take that leap of faith.

Would you label Source Code as hard sci-fi?

No. Ben may disagree with me, but I find it somewhere in that gray area between hard and soft sci-fi. It’s certainly closer to hard sci-fi, but I do think that we ask certain things of the audience that in a traditional hard sci-fi film, the audience would be able to understand how we got there from our present society.

Do you consider the film to have a closed-ending, or are the final moments open to interpretation?

I certainly know what it means [Laughs]. I actually don’t think it’s too interpretive. I think we’re pretty clear on what it means, but I would be interested to hear how other people have interpreted it. I know what the intention was.

Have you heard any interesting theories about the ending?

Not yet. I think it’s early. The screenings have only just started. I know that there are people discussing it afterwards, and I think that’s a good sign. The fact that people aren’t leaving the movie theater saying, “Lets just go get a pizza,” and are actually talking about the movie, then that’s got to be a good thing.

Source Code hits theaters on April 1st.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.