An oddity of an odyssey

Fri, Jul 17, 2009, 01:00

COVER STORY:YOU HAVE TO feel for Duncan Jones. Okay, he has directed an excellent debut feature, which, following loud buzz at the Sundance Film Festival, has received tremendous reviews in the US. Indeed, Moon,a science-fiction chamber piece starring Sam Rockwell, is just the sort of film that generates fanatical and durable cult followings. And, sure enough, round-faced, wearing a wispy near-beard, Mr Jones appears to be enjoying his promotional duties at the Edinburgh Film Festival, writes DONALD CLARKE

His strangely familiar eyes – why are they so familiar? – sparkle with excitement and he gabbles his answers with admirable enthusiasm. “It’s been a huge relief that people like the film,” he says. “You never really know until audiences get to look at it.”

Yet, for all his apparent nonchalance, Jones knows that there is an unacknowledged dozing elephant in the room. Eventually, aware that it must inevitably be woken, he decides to poke the beast himself.

“Sundance was the first public screening of any kind,” he says. “I was very happy with the result. The build up was nerve-wracking. Then my dad decided to turn up at the last minute. I knew he might turn up, but it wasn’t confirmed until a few hours beforehand. I was so relieved that he liked it. I think he was relieved that he liked it. But he’s always a proud dad anyway.”

As you will probably have gathered, the director’s father is no ordinary Mr Jones. For the rest of his life, however famous he becomes in his own right, Duncan Jones will remain the first child of David Bowie.

It must be a drag. Before I set out to meet him, my slightly younger partner, who enjoys a joke, remarked upon Jones’s plight. “That poor, poor man,” she said. “He’s going to be besieged by hacks your age asking why his dad never answered the letter they wrote him in 1978.”

Jones offers a sincere smile and gestures towards his bag. “I’ve got a letter for you here, actually,” he laughs. “Look, I was prepared for this and I understand it. One of the reasons I waited so long to make my first film was that I wanted to build up a thick skin, so I could deal with it.”

The subject matter of Jones’s superb film positively demands that we compare his art to his father’s. Set on a grubby moon base, established to supervise the mining of a substance necessary for generating nuclear fusion, the film finds Sam Rockwell’s lone worker discovering unhappy intelligence about the true nature of his professional circumstances. Featuring a phlegmatic computer voiced by Kevin Spacey, the film carries as many flavours of Bowie’s Space Oddityas it does of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

“I definitely wasn’t referencing anything my dad had done,” Jones says. “I know it’s bizarre, but I didn’t even think of that until after we’d made the film. It was only after we’d made it that people began comparing it with all these things my dad had done. A lot of my early experiences of life were listening to the music he was listening to and watching the films he was watching, so it is hardly surprising there are similarities in what we do.”

Not every child of a rock star survives his or her adolescence unscathed, but Jones seems impressively unburdened by arrogance or preciousness. Yet he has been almost famous all his life.

Nearly four decades ago, David and Angie Bowie brought a baby into the world and, according to a shocked Daily Beast, named him Zowie Bowie. If you’ve seen the African-American ladies in Brünosnarling at the hero for calling his baby OJ, youll have some idea of the feigned disgust that steamed off the newsprint.

“Actually, I was christened Duncan Zowie Jones,” he explains with an amused sigh. “Bowie is my dad’s stage name, so I was never, ever called Zowie Bowie. The tabloids liked that because it rhymed. My parents did call me Zowie now and then, but then, realising that it drew too much attention, they called me ‘Joe’. Then, later, I sort-of co-opted my own name back.”

Admirers of Bowie will be pleased to hear that, for all his flamboyance, the great man appears to have been an excellent father. He fretted when Duncan didn’t sit his A-Levels. He couldn’t understand why, when the lad seemed so inclined towards film-making, he attempted a PhD thesis titled (deep breath) How to Kill Your Computer Friend: An Investigation of the Mind/Body Problem and How It Relates to the Hypothetical Creation of a Thinking Machine.

Still, watching documentary footage of Bowie from the mid-1970s, when he was suffering from the paranoia that cocaine induces, one can’t help but worry for the young Jones. Following the break-up of his marriage in 1976, the musician gained custody of his son. Was Duncan aware of the drug taking?

“Not really. I was very sheltered in some ways,” he says cautiously. “He was very good at making me feel as normal as possible. That was not something I had to experience in any real way. I was a little geeky kid anyway. If I wasn’t shooting little stop-animation films, then I was playing computer games or Dungeons & Dragons.”

Well, okay, but life can’t have been all that normal. After all, young Duncan was toddling about Hansa Studios in Berlin when Bowie recorded Heroesand Low. To men of a certain age and inclination (ahem), this is akin to meeting somebody who attended the parting of the Red Sea. One imagines a romantically glum city populated by spooks in grey raincoats.

“Berlin felt really exciting, actually. It didn’t seem glum at all. My dad liked it because there was a nervous energy there. It felt like a dangerous place. We could hear poor East Germans getting shot trying to get over the wall. I would go to the top of the studio and look out and see the watchtowers. It was a very strange place to be.”

Bowie sent the young fellow to the notoriously rugged Gordonstoun public school in Scotland. Not much caring for the cold showers and sprints round the heather (Prince Charles, another old boy, also found it a bit trying), Jones was “asked to leave” before sitting his A-levels. Unsure exactly what sort of man he wanted to be, he took a course in philosophy, worked for a while at Jim Henson’s Creature Shop and embarked on that unfinished PhD thesis.

Direction eventually came in the form of a lecture by Tony Scott. The film-maker had been working with Bowie on a TV version of his movie The Hungerand, after encountering Jones a few times, took him aside and persuaded him to think seriously about a career in film.

Like Tony (and his brother Ridley), Jones, after a spell in film school, inveigled his way into the world of advertising. A high-profile spot for French Connection – that one with all the sexy fighting – established his reputation and, after a surprisingly brief period of haggling, he managed to get his debut feature off the ground.

Though Moonstars an American actor, it is very definitely a British film. Shot in Shepperton Studios on a (for the genre) miniscule budget of £2 million (€2.3 million), the film largely shuns computer-generated imagery for beautifully crafted models. Fans of live-action Gerry Anderson productions, such as Space: 1999and UFO, will find their nostalgia glands pumping during the exterior sequences.

“You have to remember that Danny Boyle’s Sunshinecost $50 million and that was regarded as a low-budget science-fiction film,” he laughs. “But I had worked in advertising with that blend of CG and live-action before, so I knew how to do it. The sad fact is that all these model-makers who had their heyday in the 1970s and 1980s all lost their jobs when CG came along. It was amazing having all these old guys together.”

It must have been like getting together a group of blacksmiths or barrel makers. “Yeah, or ship builders. It’s almost a lost art. Here was the guy who designed R2-D2. Here’s the guy who built the Nostromo for Alien. It was amazing.”

Moonis both an invigoratingly original fable and a canny collection of knowing nods towards earlier classics. It looks like the work of a man who has spent decades immersed in the genre’s key works.

“We wear all of our references very conspicuously on our sleeves,” Jones agrees. “There’s a bit of Alienhere. There’s a bit of Solarisand Blade Runnerthere. All the films I grew up with are here. It’s no accident that, doing the voice of the computer Gertie, Kevin Spacey reminds you of Hal. That leads you to draw certain conclusions about the computer, not all of which may be right.”

So, where next? Addressing issues of identity and human consciousness, Moonis an audacious debut that – if nothing else – finally allows Mr DZ Jones his own, independent celebrity. I have heard tell that he plans to extend the film into a trilogy. It’s a delicious prospect.

“Not quite. I do have a universe that Moonis a part of. Sam has agreed to do a cameo in the next film, Mute, which is in that universe, but that won’t be a main part of the story. That section will just be an epilogue for those who have seen Moon. Then, in the long distant future, I’d like to do an action film that’s also in the universe.”

I hope (and believe) that Jones will fulfil that dream. For the moment, he might want to chase up that letter he promised me.

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Moonopens today, see review

The kids from fame: sons and daughter of the stars

“I feel sorry for Moon Unit Zappa,” the man the media called Zowie Bowie sighs. “That really is one of those rock star’s kids’ names.”

As it happens, Ms Zappa, a prolific actor and the author of a novel, didn’t find her name too much of a hindrance.

But it’s not easy being the child of a rock star. For every Stella McCartney (fashion designer daughter of Paul) there’s an Emma Townsend (insufferably twee singer and daughter of Pete). Lisa Marie Presley’s only significant gift has been for marrying the most eccentric man in the room.

Passable musician Jakob Dylan and hack film director Jesse Dylan may not have brought disgrace to the family fame, but – have you heard The Wallflowers or seen Kicking and Screaming? – that may only be because the family name is actually Zimmerman.

Still, it is surprising how many children of musicians have forged genuinely respectable careers. There are worse actors than Liv Tyler, daughter of Steve, and much worse singers than Rufus and Martha Wainwright, the children of Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle. Zak Starkey is a less ordinary drummer than his dad, Ringo Starr, and the late Jeff Buckley eventually became even more revered than his equally late dad, Tim.

Mind you, the world could probably have survived without records by Julian Lennon (hummable but bland), Sean Lennon (supposedly avant-garde) and Ziggy Marley (what was that song called again?).

Who’s next? Well, for about 10 minutes last week, Paris Michael Jackson became the most famous little girl in the world. “I keep watching Paris. She maybe wants to do something,” Joe Jackson, Michael’s formidable father, said ominously. Leave the poor girl alone.