Duncan Jones: How David Bowie's son stepped out of his father's shadow to create his own “Sp
Duncan Jones is a British film director and the son of singer/songwriter David Bowie and ex-model Angela Bowie. He was born in 1971 and, after his parents' divorce, spent his childhood living with his father in London, Berlin and Switzerland (Levine, 2017). He has co-written and directed three feature films, with a fourth in post-production at the time of writing; the low budget independent British science-fiction drama Moon, the low-budget, American science-fiction thriller Source Code, the studio produced fantasy epic Warcraft: The Beginning (based on the video game series of the same name), and the Netflix produced science-fiction thriller Mute, which will be released in late 2017 (IMDB, 2017).
Despite his rock royalty beginnings, Jones has gone to great lengths to ensure he creates his own path, refusing to use privilege to open doors and, in many ways, outright rejecting the celebrity world he grew up in. He struggled having such an iconic and recognisable father, and how he believes he saw the worst side of being famous when he was younger. In 2011 he said: “I've certainly never used my father's name as a way of getting a meeting... that side of life – the celebrity and the spectacle – has never interested me” (Palmer, 2011). So, how did this self-confessed “painfully shy” (Evening Standard, 2009) son of a pop-icon come out from under his father's shadow to become one of the most promising British film-makers working today?
At least part of this success is down to his insistence not to be associated with the name Bowie. Born Duncan Zowie Jones, he refused to adopt the stage name Bowie in an attempt to distance himself from his father's legacy (Palmer, 2011). Jones has never wanted to be famous, he told The Independent that he was “very aware of the drawbacks of celebrity and fame and recognition” but he was “burning with ambition” and “brimming with ideas” (Burrell, 2006). Despite his desire to be recognised in his own right the director does cite his father as one of his key influences, recalling how they would “do silly things like pretend to levitate around room, by standing in one place, jumping, taking a picture, taking a step forward, jumping, taking a picture, so it would look like we were floating around the house” (Reid, 2009).
Jones is also keen to point out that his father had a big impact not just on his love of film, but also on the way he likes to approach his work, saying that “... his bravery and willingness to try stuff that other people weren't expecting” led to him taking creative risks in his own work (Evatt, 2016). At the age of 13, Jones ceased contact with his mother (Sheridan and Gye, 2016) and, growing up, he spent a big portion of his childhood hanging out backstage while his father toured. Backstage Jones would make stop-motion animation films, using the 8mm camera his father had bought him, inspired by the science-fiction movies that his father introduced him to at a young age (Viera, 2009). This may have been the beginning of his interest in film, but Jones considered his numerous visits to film shoots the real catalyst, specifically the time he spent on the set of Jim Henson's Labyrinth, in which his father starred (Mellor, 2015).
It makes sense to consider the biggest influences on Jones' film tastes have been movies from the '70s and '80s. His own visual style heavily draws from more classic aesthetics. His debut feature, Moon, made on a small budget of $5 million, used techniques directly from the 70s and 80s, including using miniatures to create the transport systems featured in the film, and building a “four-walled set” that the cast and crew were locked inside during shooting – which in turn added further to the sense of isolation that is key to the movie. The film itself, not just visually but also within the script, is a homage to the more character-driven, plot-driven science-fiction films one would have seen during that period in time, while an emphasis was put on creating both a visual aesthetic and an atmosphere calling back to those older films ('Moon commentary with Writer/Director Duncan Jones and Producer Stuart Fenegan', 2009). Even when approaching his big budget studio outing, (Warcraft: The Beginning, he began by looking at the earlier incarnations of the source material and building those designs into the designs of his own feature film (Hardwick, 2016). He relied heavily on in-camera sets and props, choosing only to use CGI for the more difficult and complex moments (Watercutter, 2015) and, although the movie features a lot of CGI effects, this approach is something that is not often seen in modern film. Not only that, but Jones once again made efforts to make sure the audience related to and understood the characters (FilmIsNow Movie Bloopers & Extras, 2016), continuing to take influence from these older movies.
He continued to draw influence from more classic cinema when directing the 2011 science-fiction thriller Source Code. Unlike Moon and Warcraft: The Beginning, Jones did not write the Source Code screenplay, but was brought onboard when Jake Gyllenhaal, star of Source Code, brought the script to Jones' attention after seeing his debut, Moon, and noting the thematic and genre similarities between the two properties (Lambie, 2011). Jones was unaware of the similarities when he signed on, but began working with writer Ben Ripley to create a script more focused on the characters and the plot ('Source Code Audio commentary with Jake Gyllenhaal, Director Duncan Jones and Writer Ben Ripley', 2011). Jones strongly believes that, much like those films from his youth, a good story, no matter how ambitious in scope, “... tends to ask some pretty fundamental questions and attempts to get at the heart of what it is to be a person, to be a human being, to be mortal...” (Harris, 2011), and this approach is clearly and consistently used in his own work.
Despite his affection for the craft and his love of movies, Jones did not jump straight into film, and it was not until 2001 that he decided film was where he wanted to work. Before then he spent time figuring out who he was and what he wanted to do, originally counselling children with learning difficulties and then taking up a scholarship in Philosophy at a college in rural Ohio. However, he was drawn to Vanderbilt University in Nashville to begin a PhD, following his then-girlfriend there (Fox, 2009), a decision which baffled many of his nearest and dearest, including his father. After the relationship ended Jones found himself “confused and directionless”. It was then that his father insisted that he joined him on the set of vampire-centric TV series The Hunger, directed by Tony Scott. While on set Jones was offered the opportunity to act as a camera operator and found he really enjoyed the work. Following that he returned to England where he graduated from the London Film School as a director and, based on the quality of his short science-fiction film, which Jones called “my dry run at a feature film” (Reid, 2009), Whistle – which was credited as a loving tribute to “Dad's Everywhere” (Whistle, 2002) – began directing commercials for a wide range of prolific companies (LFS, 2010). He first gained notice in the industry with his campaign to mark the 25th anniversary of McCain Oven Chips, a project which was shot in the style of a generation earlier (Burrell, 2006).
He would go on to make several notable adverts, but the most infamous would be his “Kung-Fu Lesbian” advert for the French Connection fashion label, which had attracted over 50 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority a day after airing (Telegraph, 2006). While working in advertising, Jones was able to hone his craft and find his voice, using the time to focus on understanding the different aspects of film-making and the importance of managing a budget. He argued that taking any opportunity to make films, whether that be commercials, short films or other outlets, gave him “a better appreciation” of where he was likely to accrue costs, what equipment he would need and when he would need to take time to focus on different aspects on the process. (Mulrooney, 2009). While it is clear that the time he spent working on commercials was key to his growth as a film-maker, a lot of the decisions Jones has made with regards to his own personal visual style, storytelling and genre choices have been as a direct result of the experiences he had growing up. He argued “I can't get away from the fact that everything I am is a reflection of the experiences I went through growing up” (Wired, 2009).
Jones' movies, from the independently produced low-budget sci-fi Moon to the studio behemoth of Warcraft, deal with characters struggling with some form of isolation and alienation. As Jones himself puts it; his characters tend to be “feeling alienated by their job, and the circumstances that they're in” (Bishop, 2016). Clearly, this is a personal subject to Jones, who has experienced the emotions first hand, having spent his childhood hanging out with roadies backstage, while at the age of 13 he was sent to Scottish boarding school Gordonstoun where his name set him apart from his classmates (Graham, 2009). One would expect that he would gravitate toward those genres and tell stories about these kinds of people, especially given how much emphasis he enjoys placing on the characters and how their feelings drive the plot. When speaking to Collider during the press tour for Source Code Jones explained that, while he was initially unaware of the similarities, he agreed to come on board the production because there “... was the recognition that there was something there which I found interesting on a different level, the idea of identity” (Goldberg, 2011).
It is clear that while his father played an important role in forming Jones' cinematic tastes and interests, which, in turn, had significant impact on his own cinematic style, Jones himself is eager to make it on his own. In 2009 he told the Evening Standard “I would love my work to be well known but I've always wanted to make a name in my own right” (Evening Standard, 2009). Jones speaks very highly of his father and considers him a “gravitational pull on my life” as far as to how he sees himself and how he considers himself and the rest of the world (Blair, 2016), but he is quick to point out their differences, not only in his inability to play a musical instrument, despite his father's numerous attempts to spark interest (Palmer, 2016). When talking about Warcraft: The Beginning, Jones explained that he enjoys the writing process and fount the creative process of telling a story visually compelling. He went on to say that “I actually like writing as well, so writing and the visual elements of storytelling kind of went together, you know, just very naturally to me” (SBS VICELAND, 2016).
Jones' own success is as much about embracing what he learned from his father as it is his willingness to take risks and his refusal to compromise his own cinematic vision. This is no more evident than when discussing his up-coming science-fiction thriller Mute, which has been something of a passion project for Jones, and he has been trying to get it off the ground since before he began working on his feature debut. When discussing Mute Jones said “I'm not so keen to get it made that I'm willing to rewrite Mute for the mute to talk. Although it has been suggested, 'Can't it just be voiceover?' No” (Everett, 2011). Much like his father then, holding true to that creative vision has allowed Jones to forge his own path without the Bowie name, and that is how that self-confessed “painfully shy” (Evening Standard, 2009) son of a pop-icon managed to succeed on his own.
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LFS. (2010) Duncan Jones wins BAFTA for outstanding debut for 'Moon'. [Online] Available at: http://lfs.org.uk/content/duncan-jones-wins-bafta-outstanding-debut-moon [Accessed: 08 October 2017]
Mellor, L. (2015) Den of Geek. [Online] Available at: http://www.denofgeek.com/movies/labyrinth/17651/labyrinth-looking-back-at-an-80s-fantasy-classic [Accessed: 13 October 2017]
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The Telegraph. (2006) Kung-fu lesbian advert sparks viewer protests. [Online] Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/1510644/Kung-fu-lesbian-advert-sparks-viewer-protests.html [Accessed: 09 October 2017]
Viera, L. (2009) Chicago Tribune. [Online] Available at: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2009-06-21/news/0906190184_1_moon-base-kubrick-films-adler-planetarium [Accessed: 14 October 2017]
Watercutter, A. (2015) Wired. [Online] Available at: https://www.wired.com/2015/05/warcraft-duncan-jones-intel/ [Accessed: 12 October 2017]
FilmIsNow Movie Bloopers & Extras. (2016) Warcraft directors vision: Duncan Jones featurette. [Online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ggHzRXv3PEw [Accessed: 13 October 2017]
SBS VICELAND. (2016) Duncan Jones on Warcraft, David Bowie, & diversity – The Feed. [Online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iakhcdz4UR0 [Accessed: 12 October 2017]
Whistle. (2009) Directed by Duncan Jones. [DVD] Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
Hardwick, C. (2016) 'Episode 808: Nerdist podcast Duncan Jones', Nerdist, 26 May. [Podcast] Available at: https://nerdist.com/nerdist-podcast-duncan-jones/ [Accessed: 13 October 2017]
'Moon commentary with writer/director Duncan Jones and producer Stuart Fenegan'. (2009) Moon. Directed by Duncan Jones. [DVD] Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
'Source Code audio commentary with Jake Gyllenhaal, director Duncan Jones and writer Ben Ripley'. (2011) Source Code. Directed by Duncan Jones. [DVD] Optimum Home Entertainment.