After 16 years in development, Duncan Jones’ Mute arrives on Netflix tomorrow. It is the fourth film for Jones, who made an outstanding debut in 2009 with Moon, starring Sam Rockwell, and followed it up with the Jake Gyllenhaal-starrer Source Code in 2011 and 2016’s Warcraft, which hit $433 million at the global box office. But Mute was one of the first screenplays he ever put together, and over the years multiple studios balked at the production cost required for the darkest of sci-fi noirs. Until, that is, Netflix rose to the challenge.
The film follows Leo (Alexander Skarsgård), a mute Amish bartender in a nightclub whose girlfriend Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh) goes missing. As he investigates her disappearance, he’s dragged into a murky underworld where a pair of American ex-Army surgeons, Cactus (Paul Rudd) and Duck (Justin Theroux), seem ever-present.
I first met Jones in 2009, and even then he was talking about setting Mute up as a short-order follow-up to Moon. With a nice little wink in Mute, the two movies share the same universe, and Jones has teased that a third story set in his near-future Earth isn’t far away. “They’re all coming out in the wrong order,” he tells me. “We made Moon because I couldn’t get Mute made. And after Source Code we were trying to get this other film made, which is basically the third part of the triangle.” It involves a pair of sisters, but more than that Jones won’t say.
Expect it to be as different to Mute as Mute is to Moon. Where his debut was an isolated tale involving, for the most part, a single actor, Mute sets its action in a dystopic near-future vision of Berlin (Jones, to give him his due, disputes my use of “dystopia,” but watch Mute and tell me if you’d choose to live in that Berlin) and Jones goes to town on his world-building, conjuring a dense city and a full cast of colorful characters—including a particularly entertaining cameo for Lost star Dominic Monaghan.
I meet Jones for deli in LA a few days before the film’s rollout, and Barrett Heathcote, who edited Mute and Moon and has worked with Jones since his earliest days as a filmmaker, joins the conversation below for good measure. As it turns out, he was there at the film’s inception…
DEADLINE: You were speaking about Mute when I first met you, in 2009. It almost seemed like it would never happen.
DUNCAN JONES: We went through so many different phases with it. Between trying to make it in different cities with different actors, and trying to pitch it to different studios and here at the American Film Market. We tried to drum up interest by doing it as an animated film at one point. We also tried with a graphic novel, which would have been a good move to get us there. But unfortunately these incredibly talented artists were struggling to keep up with the work at the time, and it just kept getting slower and slower, so we never really got through with that.
DEADLINE: When you say “animation,” do you mean hand-drawn?
JONES: No, it was motion capture, computer generated. We were really just trying different avenues to get people interested in making it. What was against us, as you now know, is that the script was so dark and difficult, and the subject matter just so atypical of anything that the studios might be interested in. It was just not going to happen that way. Stuart [Fenegan, producer] did this incredible job of trying every avenue and he found that Netflix might be willing. I guess we hit the right combination of budget and cast; if we could get this cast, we could do it at this budget. That fills a slot they have in their stack sheets as far as how to make films.
DEADLINE: Trying to rationalize what’s on those sheets, based on what ends up getting a greenlight, is quite a puzzle.
JONES: It boils down to, “Is the audience big enough? If it is, we’ll make it. We will make absolutely anything.” I think that’s kind of great. I think this movie will be a testament to that ideology because I do believe it’ll encourage people to join Netflix for it. So it works for them.
DEADLINE: Where does the idea originate?
JONES: It’s actually good that Barrett is here because he was there at the beginning. I had just written an incredibly wordy script about artificial intelligence, that was basically a 12 Angry Men courtroom drama.
DEADLINE: About A.I.?
JONES: About A.I.
JONES: Exactly. It was just sheet after sheet of dialogue [laughs]. It was before A.I. and I, Robot. It was a good idea, and an interesting subject matter, with some great speeches, but it wasn’t really a film.
DEADLINE: It could be an episode of Black Mirror.
JONES: I don’t know, I think it was a better book. It was more like literature. They say with movies, show don’t tell [laughs]. I was whining about it, and Barrett was the one who suggested, “What if you didn’t—”
BARRETT HEATHCOTE: No, it was you. You gave me the script to read, I read it, and we met up. I didn’t know Duncan very well at the time. We’d worked together on a couple of things. I said, “I think the script is great,” and it was the first full-length script he’d written, and I said, “You’ve just done it with dialogue rather than stage direction. The story is great.” We got to talking about the whole thing of actions speaking louder than words, and I think he lent me Narc.
JONES: That’s right, yeah. I was a big fan of that at the time. The opening scene is like five or eight minutes of Jason Patric. That whole sequence, there’s no dialogue at all, and it’s so strong and effective.
HEATHCOTE: And it was really interesting because, as we were talking about this, Duncan said, “I’m going to set myself an exercise and write something where my main character is mute.” Those were his exact words.
JONES: And he was like, “Don’t get crazy. You mad bastard!” [laughs]. Yeah, so that’s where it started. After years and years of reinventing it and changing it, and then just learning stuff myself both in real life and in filmmaking, it meandered all over the place. It was originally a contemporary British gangster movie. I think Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast had just come out. It was the advent of the British gangster film, and lots were happening. I was like, “I could do it in London and it would feel like that.” That was the original idea: low budget, shoot in London where we were living, and see if we could get it picked up there.
It was so early on that Leo’s character was essentially just a guy who couldn’t talk. There was no real background to him other than that. I had already fallen in love with the idea of using Trapper John and Hawkeye Pierce from Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H as my villains. To this day, that film is still my favorite comedy. Every time I watch it I think to myself, I wish I could sit around the table with guys like that. Then I also remind myself that they’re horrible if they don’t like you. What if they hate you? What would happen to you? That’s kind of where Cactus and Duck came from. It was turning those guys into villains.
DEADLINE: So how do you get from that to a sci-fi film set in Berlin?
HEATHCOTE: I remember we were talking with Duncan about it. He and Michael [Robert Johnson] had written out the whole script and it was all London and contemporary. I remember us thinking the story was there, but as we were going over it, something didn’t feel right.
JONES: I remember there was one turn that I found I wanted to make, which was the feeling of all these characters being somewhere they weren’t from. That was something that happened fairly early on.
HEATHCOTE: You suggested we go to Japan.
JONES: Yeah, I was thinking of moving it to Tokyo and using Ken Watanabe as Leo, and then keeping my Trapper John and Hawkeye Pierce characters; Americans who are living in a culture they don’t like and they want to get out. Actually, Stuart’s first task with us was trying to find out how to film in Japan. Bless his heart, that was the first thing he did on the whole project, and he came back and was like, “Yeah… no.”
I think it was the London version I gave to Sam Rockwell.
DEADLINE: This is before Moon?
JONES: Oh yeah, this is all before Moon. 2007, maybe. I gave Sam Mute wanting him to play Duck, and he loved the script. But he didn’t want to play Duck because he’d played enough villains. He wanted to play Leo, which was never going to happen [laughs]. I love Sam to death, but I had Ray Stevenson in my head for a while. Then, obviously, Ken Watanabe. Big guys, because he was going to be silent and I wanted him to have a presence that people could interpret in multiple ways. To one person he might seem dumb. To someone else, intimidating. To someone else, thoughtful. But having him be a big guy was essential. Without the physical presence, it limits my options. You don’t get the intimidation factor. You could do it, but you’d have to play it a different way.
So Sam wanted to play Leo, he said no [to Duck], and then at that point in the meeting with Sam I said, “I’m going to go ahead and write something for you.” And then I wrote Moon.
HEATHCOTE: I remember he had said no and you said, “I want to go to New York to meet with him and persuade him.” When you came back you said you each knew within five minutes that you weren’t going to change each other’s minds.
JONES: Oh yeah, that’s right. We had such a great time, though. Thinking about it, it’s kind of amazing because I hadn’t made a film yet and he was like, “Yeah, OK, send me something and I’ll see what it’s like.” That’s honestly not how meetings go. You don’t know that you disagree with one another immediately and then find out you’re f—king creative soulmates. It was inspirational for me. If you ask him what his side of that meeting felt like, I’m sure he would have told you he said, “Yeah, yeah, kid, send me the script and I’ll see,” you know? “I’ll tell you what I think of it.” And he was probably right, in that that’s how he thought of it. But for me, at the time, I was like, “Great! I’m going to write that script, about a blue collar guy working in a sci-fi environment, like an old ’70s sci-fi movie.” That’s what started Moon.
HEATHCOTE: It all happened so fast, too.
JONES: Yeah, from that meeting to having a first draft of the script was nine months. Then from the first draft to shooting was probably three or four months later. The speed was incredible.
DEADLINE: You won the BAFTA for Outstanding Debut for Moon. I was on the jury that gave you that award, and I remember us deliberating, saying, “For a film to be this ambitious from a first-time director…” Now I realize Moon was the small, easy film you’d written because you couldn’t get Mute going right away.
JONES: Well, to do this version of Mute as the first film would have been ridiculous. Maybe not the original, London-based contemporary version; that would have been a British gangster film. But it was after Moon that I thought, This sci-fi thing, I really enjoyed that. It felt right. Then, thinking about Mute, it felt like perhaps I’d found the missing ingredient. That’s when I started to convert it into science fiction, and I started discovering all sorts of really cool synchronicities and was able to integrate things that just wouldn’t make sense in today’s world. You know, like the Amish culture thing. The reason why Leo doesn’t have the ability to talk in the future. That idea alone added a whole new layer of depth, where the guy was essentially fighting technology in the same was Lee Marvin does in Point Blank.
DEADLINE: You also get to let your imagination run rampant with the technology in the film. My favorite is the food delivery that tracks your phone’s location so you don’t even have to put an address in. Why don’t we have that?
JONES: Yeah! It was absolutely fun. It’s a balancing act because you want to do it in such a way that Berlin feels believable. Also, that it doesn’t feel it was designed all by one company. That’s one of the things that drives me absolutely crazy with sci-fi, where you get the Apple effect from having the same studio designing the world and it feels like one company does everything.
I gave the script to Gavin Bocquet, who did Warcraft with me, and who is an amazing production designer, and I gave him probably nightmare instructions. Don’t make anything pretty. Make it feel like these things are mashed together. Which is probably not what production designers want to hear. But giving it that ugliness and allowing different designers to come up with things independently of one another, without knowing what the others are working on, you get this much more real city.
DEADLINE: How much time have you spent in Berlin?
JONES: I’ve been there throughout the decades, really. I mean, I lived there for a little bit with my dad [David Bowie], when I was a little kid.
DEADLINE: I remember him having his Berlin period.
JONES: Yeah, and I was with him. I was at some American military academy for a year and a half while we lived there. Obviously, my perspective was that of a child, but I could still feel the isolation of that Berlin. I very much got that sense. You got it just from the security around places, and flying into the airport, and really feeling a sort of exhilaration but also an oppressiveness.
Then, I went back a number of times over the years, just before the wall came down and then after the wall came down. Every time was different; every time. You could see how it was evolving and changing, but it was absolutely the fastest, I’d experienced, of a city changing. It’s a weird thing because all cities change, but normally it’s over decades or centuries, and this felt like over fifteen years it was from one place to a completely different place. That speed of change, again, just lent itself to, what’s the future of this city if it’s changing this fast already?
DEADLINE: You’re not shooting a bunch of scenes around tourist landmarks but still the city feels believably Berlin.
JONES: I think a big part of that is with Mute, half of it was done in the studio, but it was mainly building interiors. The exteriors were all on location in Berlin. The one piece that wasn’t was the backlot of Studio Babelsberg, which is the exterior of Leo’s apartment. That was a period set.
DEADLINE: That’s right. When I was there they were shooting a WW2 movie on that set.
JONES: Yeah, so it wasn’t futuristic at all. We added our own elements, but basically, it was a period Berlin set that we worked on top of.
I mean, if you’re going to commit to, “This is the Berlin that you know, but in the future,” I think if there is a way to bring enough props and enough little tweaks here and there in post-production, you should use the city. You’re never going to get better than that. Also, because this is near-future. Plus, being at Babelsberg was fun for me as a filmmaker, to be in the place where Fritz Lang shot Metropolis. There’s just incredible history there.
The timing could have been better as far as when we shot the film. Dragging poor Rodene, my wife, out there with a 4-month-old; that was hard for her. And then the woman who raised me, she was going through brain cancer at the time, so I kept having to fly out to the city and go and visit her while she was still able to see me. It was tricky. There was a lot going on.
DEADLINE: You dedicate the film, “In memory of those who became parents,” to your dad and to Marion Skene, the nanny you mention that raised you. They died within about a year of one another.
JONES: I think the only reason I kept wanting to do it for those years was it was about more than just, “This is kind of a neat story.” I think the fact that it was about parents, and seeing parents as being good and bad at the same time, is something that really felt like, yeah this is an interesting way of trying to express something without it being too direct. Not to sound pretentious, but this is an artistic way of dealing with my own s—t.
DEADLINE: Which is what all filmmaking is about, really.
JONES: It should be. Exactly. If actors can do it, then so can bloody writers and directors too. It brings a conviction. You don’t have to force yourself to believe something and just go along with it because the giant robot has to get to this place. Those characters have real psychologies and they’re acting because they need to. That’s what they have to do.
HEATHCOTE: It’s very much about being parents too, isn’t it?
JONES: Yeah, with Leo, and then Cactus, Paul Rudd’s character. It’s funny because we trimmed a couple of things out of the film that filled it up even more, and I think it was the right thing to do just to make the movie work. But Leo has an older sister, and there were some scenes where she comes to the rescue a little bit and sometimes I think, Oh, it would have been nice to keep that. But it was right because it was slowing down the pace. And you have to make a movie that works, even if you are going to lose a few of your babies.
Leo and his sister were the children of a difficult woman. The reason Leo can’t talk is that his mom—as you see at the very beginning of the film—doesn’t believe in modern medicine, and both he and his older sister have kind of paid the price in their own individual ways because of their mom. There are parent-children relationships throughout the film. Cactus is kind of the most obvious example of is he a good parent, is he a bad parent? I mean, he obviously loves his daughter. He looks after her as best he can.