SXSW Interview: Director Duncan Jones and Screenwriter Ben Ripley Explain the ‘Source Code’

Duncan Jones film, Source Code, open s this weekend and according to Rotten Tomatoes, it’s the best reviewed studio movie of the year.

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright, the film has some great twists and turns. And while you may think you know what’s going to happen (or will you?), you’ll still be in for a great ride.

I loved Duncan’s last film, Moon, and while this may have some shades to that – loneliness and  isolation – the film has so many more colors and that’s due to the screenwriter, Ben Ripley.

I talked to both Duncan and Ben at SXSW in a roundtable interview where they talked about casting, explaining the Source Code and how they put Jeffrey Wright‘s knee injury into the film!

This interview is very spoiler heavy so I didn’t include a lot of what we talked about. If you’re into spoilers though, check out the audio portion of the interview.

For the full interview, click the audio link above or download it from iTunes

I’m curious how much you explained to your actors about the multi-verse? Or they ask you any questions about that?

Duncan Jones: We had some good rehearsal time before we started shooting, and Jake and Michelle were up first, we basically shot the stuff on the train first. And I think we all kinda found our footing, as far as how much of the technology did we have to fully understand in order to be able to tell the story. There’s a few leaps of faith there obviously. My approach to it was trust in the script, concentrate on the characters and as long as I think you establish enough for the audience to just say, “ok I’m gonna take this leap of faith and go with the story,” I think you’re on to a good thing. ‘Cause I think my job is really to make sure that the audience invest in the characters.

Ben, when you were writing the script, did you think that the world that we start to film in is the first level of it or was there another world that might have seem behind it? That now there is a source code within a source code within a source code?

Ben Ripley: Right, the whole Inception idea. It’s interesting, ‘cause Inception I had no knowledge of that film because I’ve wrote this in 2006, 2007.

Duncan Jones: I think it came out while we were in post production.

Ben Ripley: Starting him on the train was the breakthrough that the whole structure of the scripts made sense to me. In early drafts, the train blew up and then the FBI truck showed up, and then there’s always kind of men in black, and then they trot out the captain, “Captain here’s your assignment, you’re gonna go back and hide his identity” and it just seem very plotting, like it just told you too much and it didn’t put you in that world. But once I just realize that this is actually a simple story, train pod, train, pod, train pod, little bit of the lab… it became fun because you were in his perspective. And if he had some degree of memory loss, Well that took care of all your exposition.

Duncan Jones: My job was to make sure that it didn’t feel like train pod, train pod, train pod.

Ben Ripley: My job was to close it down and his job was to open it up and let it breath. So we had an almost separate task.

There’s themes of isolation and loneliness in this as well as Moon. Are you drawn to that sort of thing and do you need a hug?

Duncan Jones: Yeah, I’m recovering; I’m a recovering only child. I am drawn to it. I mean, I think what I’m particularly drawn to it is the idea of identity and sort of thinking you know who you are and discovering that you actually don’t fully know and you need to find your place. In all honesty, when I read Source Code, I did not see the similarities to Moon. I saw only the differences. I saw a script that was pacey and just sort of just rollicking along, and I was excited by that. I love the fact that it was more than 1 actor. That was a good thing. It was all the differences, that’s the things that popped out at me. But obviously on a sub-conscious level, I think what was also working there was the fact that I recognized the themes and I recognized things which obviously I have an affinity to.

I have question about Michelle’s ring tone. Where did you guys come up with those songs?

Duncan Jones: That’s, I have to take full responsibility for that, that is by a guy called Chesney Hawkes, it was a one hit wonder in the UK when I was growing up. It’s an in-joke for the UK, everyone in the UK knows that song. I used it in Moon, that was actually the alarm clock that Sam Bell has, and yeah I used it as the ring tone in this, and don’t be surprised if you hear it on my next film as well somewhere.

Can you talk a little bit about putting together the cast? I feel like with a movie like this, it’s very different casting. I mean I know Jake’s a big name but it’s very unusual to see like Vera especially Jeffrey Wright in movies like this.

Duncan Jones: Well, obviously, it started with Jake. Jake introduced me to this script and got me excited about it. I mean what reading it got me excited about it but Jake was already in there. The two of us immediately started discussing who can play this character Christina, it’s not only a love interest, it’s really gotta be someone who has the skills to be able to create a character arc over the course of the film but only have 8 minutes in which to actually live those segments of an arc. It’s almost like in a normal film, you sort of develop your character over the whole course of the film, and in this, Michelle, what she had to do is she had to break up that arc and then stack it because she was gonna change and then live the same event again. Change slightly differently and then do that same event again and change again. So, it’s a very strange challenge I think for an actor. In fact every actor in this film had a unique and difficult challenge which is I think why I needed and was able to entice very, very talented people to come and work on it.

With Jeffrey Wright using the cane, was that written into the script, or was that an affectation he wanted to use for himself?

Ben Ripley: Well, the original drafts I wrote he smoked a pipe, he was the man with a pipe. So in the early drafts Colter is saying, “Let me talk to the man with a pipe.” And Vera would say, “The man with a pipe isn’t here now.” One of my favorite lines. And I believe, correct me if I’m wrong Duncan, but when Jeffrey Wright showed up maybe for a table read, he had tweaked his knee so he had the crutch for real, and I think it just charmed everybody.

Duncan Jones: It did, yeah. It was a table read that was happening fairly close to the start of production, producers being who they are, they were all nervous about, “is he gonna be able to walk and stuff?” “Well look, if he isn’t we’ll use the crutch, it’ll be fine.” And I think he would have been ok anyway, but we went with it, and I think for actors any opportunity to give them a prop in literal sense, but something for them to sort of feel a tangible, a tangibility to, I think it helps them and Jeffrey really wanted to do it and I like the use of it.

There’s a fair amount of comedy in this, so are you looking to do any other genres?

Duncan Jones: I definitely looking forward doing some other genres at some point, I don’t think it’ll be the next film but I will do other genres. As far as straight comedy, I’m not sure, I don’t know, I don’t know. I have a fairly daft sense of humor so, sometimes good people like Ben sort of stop me from running my mouth off. I’ll just go on and on.

But I think it’s really important, I think humor itself is an incredibly effective tool for getting an audience to find an attachment with the character, your main protagonist in particular. Humor, just in normal social situations, it’s not only a way of breaking the ice but you make a connection with people, if you can share a joke and find something funny. And I think it’s a very powerful tool in filmmaking.

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