Sky's the limit after $5 million 'Moon' shot

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Making a sci-fi thriller set on the moon for just $5 million sounds like lunacy, but it worked so well it's put Duncan Jones' directing career in orbit.

Jones is well known in the U.K. for helming commercials and for being David Bowie's son. His first feature "Moon," opening today in New York and L.A. via Sony Pictures Classics, recalls sci-fi films of the '70s and '80s like "Silent Running," "Outland" and "Alien." Special homage: Stanley Kubrick's 1968 epic "2001: A Space Odyssey," whose HAL 9000 computer inspired "Moon's" lunar station computer Gerty, voiced by Kevin Spacey.

Sam Rockwell plays an astronaut finishing a three-year contract to mine helium on the moon to ship to Earth for energy use. The plot thickens when he meets a younger, angrier clone of himself who's there to do the same job. Kudos: Rockwell plays both roles, acting seamlessly with himself. Jones pulls it off without wildly expensive visual effects work.

Jones created the story specifically for Rockwell: "I met up with Sam to discuss another project that we ended up not doing, but we got on very well." They talked about films they both loved and the kind of performances Rockwell wanted to do next. What really resonated was "the idea of those blue-collar guys back in those old science-fiction films." Jones to Rockwell: "Look, if you promise to read the script, I'll write something for you."

Jones did an extensive treatment, but was too busy shooting commercials to write the screenplay. "My regular collaborator is Mike Johnson, who just wrote the Sherlock Holmes film that Robert Downey Jr.'s doing." Because Johnson was tied up with Sherlock, Jones needed to keep looking.

Enter Nathan Parker, an unproduced screenwriter, who "took my treatment and did a really good job with it." Jones wrote the subsequent drafts. That was about three years ago. After nine months Jones had a script for Rockwell. Three months passed before Rockwell committed.

From Day One Jones had a $5 million budget in mind for his voyage to the moon: "We were thinking about how we could keep our costs to a minimum by keeping our cast small, by shooting everything in studio and by using very specific special effects."

Thanks to his background in commercials he understood the costs of different kinds of effects work. "So the fact that we used model miniatures and decisions like that were partially fiscal and partially aesthetic."

Waiting for Rockwell to sign on was torture. "Stuart, my producer (with Trudie Styler), and myself had pretty much made a commitment that we were going to make the film with or without him because there was this unique opportunity in Shepperton Studios."

What opportunity? "With the writers strike coming up there was this small pocket of time where the studio's base was available and they were going to be able to cut us an amazing deal to shoot there," he told me. "If Sam didn't do it we were going to have to find someone else quickly."

Gerty, the other key role, is only a voice. Jones got Spacey on board through Styler, who got involved when he needed to arrange special effects financing. "Trudie is very supportive of young British filmmakers. She's Sting's wife. She's very well connected in the U.K. And she was able to get the script to Kevin Spacey knowing that I really wanted him to do the voice."

Jones had a good offline cut of "Moon" with temporary special effects when shooting ended. He screened it for Spacey, who was so taken with Rockwell's performance that he came onboard.

Everything went lightning fast. Recording Spacey in London only took half a day. There were just 33 days of live-action photography despite the film having more than 450 effects shots and many scenes that had to be shot twice so Rockwell could play his other self. Model miniature work required another eight days.

It was murder getting even $5 million to make "Moon." Part of it came through U.K. tax breaks benefiting private film investors, but "we needed still quite a chunk of financing in order to close things out and we sold all of our English-language territories up front to Sony Worldwide Acquisitions Group."

That deal could have sent the picture straight to DVD in the U.S., but happily it was embraced by Sony Pictures Classics. The distributor, Jones noted, was in "a very powerful position because they didn't really have to compete with anyone. They just had to decide whether they wanted it or not."

So SPC waited to see how audiences reacted at Sundance last January. "When they saw that it was very positive that's when they said, 'Yes, we're going to do this film.'"

Next up for Jones: "Mute," a companion piece to "Moon" but with a different feel. "'Moon' is a lonely, quiet film about alienation," he explained. "'Mute' is going to be a much busier and in some ways more commercial thriller that takes place in a future Berlin."

Will he have more than $5 million to spend? "I hope so. Not a huge budget, but definitely a step forward."

See Martin Grove's Zamm Cam movie previews on www.ZAMM.com.
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