Source Code Director Duncan Jones Drops 9 Tips for the Aspiring Sci-Fi Filmmaker

Duncan Jones is a director who loves his science fiction. After finding success with his debut feature Moon, Jones assumed the helm of this week's Jake Gyllenhaal pic Source Code, about a soldier involved in a government project that sends him back to relive a dead man's final eight minutes in order to avert a terrorist attack. What's more, Jones spent his down time on the Source Code promo trail whipping up a treatment for his next film -- an even larger scale tale that he promises will be "my last blast of sci-fi." So really, who better to drop some friendly pro-tips on making science fiction cinema than the man currently making his mark in the genre?

"I guess I love the hypotheticals of it. I love the 'what if' aspect," Jones told Movieline, waxing rhapsodic on the genre he's become known for. "One of my favorite writers was a guy called J.G. Ballard, and what he used to do, rather than [writing about] aliens and space and things that are completely created in the imagination, is that he would take the world as it is and then just tweak something, just make one change. Then he would ask the question, 'What would happen if the world were like this?'

"That's what I love about science fiction," he continued. "The genre is so open and there are so many different ways to approach it." Still, Jones intends on exploring new territory after he makes his next film. "I really am going to take a break from the genre. There are other kinds of films that I want to make. It's a big old world though, sci-fi. I must admit, people kind of know me for sci-fi but I was just as passionate and into fantasy. So one day I hope to do a bit of that, too."

Now get out your notebooks, Duncan Jones disciples: Sci-fi school is in session!

1. Nail down the rules of your film's movie science.

"For science fiction in particular, because you're changing the rules that all of us kind of agree to in the world that we live in, it's so important that you establish the new rules up front. Make it really clear to your audience; this is what fits with this world, this is what doesn't. And you stick to them. Because if you do keep throwing in new changes, the audience feels that anything's possible and it doesn't really matter. There is no consistency. There are no stakes if you can just bring in another crazy thing that's going to throw everything else out the window."

2. Pull out what you don't need.

"Being a sci-fi fan myself, when I was reading [Source Code screenwriter] Ben Ripley's script, I know he'd done an awful lot of research. And I know that in earlier drafts he'd had a lot more explanation and exposition in his scripts than in the draft that I read. But even in the draft that I read I tried to pull out the pieces that weren't absolutely essential so we were really left with a clear set of rules that would be established with the audience up front and then we'd stick to those."

3. Know what kind of sci-fi story you're telling.

"As a sci-fi fan I kind of see the world divided up into hardcore sci-fi and more soft sci-fi. The difference is that with hard sci-fi you create a science fiction world where you can clearly see how the world that we're living in could evolve or technologically innovate to become that science fiction version. With soft sci-fi you can be much more fantastical and there can be a sort of magic, you don't really have to explain it in the same way. And they're both very legitimate, it's just that you do have to treat them in different ways."

4. Be familiar with the genre classics that have come before.

"I think it's good to have a little bit of knowledge of what the history of that genre is. And certainly in the case of Source Code there were particular references that I saw to which I wanted to pay homage, a little tip of the hat. [SPOILER] Quantum Leap, for example -- there is a particular scene in Source Code where I felt there was a really strong reference to that and I wanted to acknowledge that. So we have a really fun cameo in the movie because of that. But I don't think you have to."

5. Use visual effects as storytelling aides and not just pure spectacle.

"It is amazingly good fun to go to the movies and visually see this crazy stuff that you've never been able to see in a movie before. And it's very easy in Hollywood, or it has been in the past and recently, to be able to justify a movie's existence purely on the fact that you're going to have a visual spectacle. But I think that's going to become more difficult. I do think it depends on the scale of a film, but I also think we live in an era now where effects really are starting to mature. They're starting to become so prevalent and so impressive that it really is becoming more about the storytelling nature of them and how a director uses them, because almost everything now is possible, visually. Hopefully we're going to focus now on how you can use those incredibly powerful tools to tell stories."

6. Protect the mystery of your film as much as you can.

"In some ways it's not so much at the movies themselves where you have to be worried about when the audience is going to work things out. I think the audience is still the same as it was in the past in terms of the audience sitting in the theater. The big difference these days is the internet and people's interconnectedness through the web and social networking. It's very difficult to keep a secret. You look at films like The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects and you can't help but wonder, would the reactions to those films be any different today as they were when they first came out? So many of the great moments in those films would probably have already been blurted out on the internet, by preview time. I just wonder if that means we've lost a little something now. Audiences are smarter and they're much more aware of what's going on in the movies they see, but in some ways that lack of innocence means that they're kind of missing out on some things as well."

7. Trust in your marketing department not to give too much away.

"I had a really interesting experience when I did Moon with Sony Classics. It was my first film and my baby, I was so precious over it, and they released a trailer where I was convinced that the audience understood something which I really didn't think they should understand until they saw the film. And I got all upset about it, and learnt afterwards that Sony Classics actually knew a heckuva lot more than I do about how to market a film and what an audience actually wants to see in their trailers before they go to see a movie. After that experience I think I've become a lot more mature about it, and I think I understand that sometimes when you've made a film the things you think are obvious, audiences either don't necessarily pick up on or they do pick up on it and they actually enjoy the aspect of re-experiencing that event in context when they go to see a movie."

8. Get involved in the marketing strategy for your film to prevent spoiler-y ad campaigns.

"There are people who focus on and specialize in this and are very good at it. What I would love to do is to work with them pre-emptively even before I shoot the film to come up with the strategy of how they might want to market the movie so I can shoot them bonus material or entirely new things altogether that they could use exclusively for advertising that wouldn't reveal anything important about the film. I can guarantee that that's part of my plan for my third film."

9. Learn from Ziggy Stardust himself. (Well, it helps.)

"I would say that my upbringing meant that I was brought up by a father that was incredibly passionate about science fiction, among other things. He was a voracious reader, someone who had a real passion for movies, and he was showing me movies and giving me books to read that definitely made me interested in that genre. I mean, he got me started on George Orwell's Animal Farm, 1984, and then John Wyndham's Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes. He introduced me to Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard, William Gibson who wrote Neuromancer. In movies, he was the one who showed me 2001 and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. So he really was the kind of guy who introduced me to all the things that excite me in science fiction."

Source Code is in theaters Friday.


  • SD says:

    Yes, Yes, YES! on point number 1. The first episode of Pushing Daisies did this perfectly. I cannot stand when a film or show decides to make up its own rules as it goes along for the sake of advancing the plot.
    As for number 4 - I got real Quantum Leap moment from the trailer where Jake slowly moves in front of the mirror to look at his reflection. I wonder if that was what he was referring to.
    As for the marketing I think that they have done a great job with Source Code to give enough of the story away without ruining any of the details or twists. I was really disappointed with the Moon trailer when you go "Oh look, it's another Sam Rockwell." I would have much rather had that surprise in the cinema.
    I'm really excited for Source Code. The script was amazing and I really hope Jones doesn't mess it up 🙂

  • tomOdaighre says:

    I think point 1 and point 3 are slightly in contradiction with one another. I've always found the distinction between hard and soft science fiction very artificial, and that really, so long as your world has its own internally-consistent logical rules, it doesn't matter how close the physics resembles what we currently understand.

  • JR says:

    10. Don't cast Jake Gyllenhaal in your movie?

  • Charle says:

    Sound advice from Duncan Jones!

  • Lily says:

    So you hate space/time continuum based plots and can't stand s**tty rebooting of old story lines? Well then Star Trek 2009 is the film for you!

  • Nicole says:

    What about, giving us your money instead?

  • Zoe says:

    what like taking a fairly common technical term like 'source code' and applying it in a completely wrong way because you think it sounded cool
    or copying the premise of an already sucessful movie like twelve monkeys?

  • Tina says:

    I agree with what the director says. The best thing I feel is, he would like to concentrate on other matters as well. This is something that will give an entire picture to him. It is good to cover the marketing as well as the script part. This is what makes a director a successful director.