New Movie Probes Future Of Moon Travel Duncan Jones talks about his first feature film, Moon. It's an indie sci-fi flick about living on the moon. Drawing from current NASA research projects, Moon aims to paint a realistic picture of a lone astronaut in charge of mining the moon for an energy source.
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New Movie Probes Future Of Moon Travel

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New Movie Probes Future Of Moon Travel

New Movie Probes Future Of Moon Travel

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PAUL RAEBURN, host:

From NPR News, this is SCIENCE FRIDAY and I'm Paul Raeburn.

The 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing has been much in the news lately, and that has prompted all kinds of discussion about whether we should think about going back to the moon. Our next guest has gone back to the moon in a manner of speaking, with a new film called simply "Moon."

The movie is set in an uncertain future when the world's energy problems have been solved by a massive lunar mining operation in which helium-3 is extracted and sent back to Earth to fuel fusion reactors. But it's a cold and lonely existence for the miner who runs the operation and who lives alone up there for a three-year tour of duty.

It's not entirely fiction. NASA has actually looked into mining the moon. And the film raises intriguing questions about what it means to live in space. Joining me now to talk more about the film is the director Duncan Jones. He joins us by phone from London. Thanks for being with us.

Mr. DUNCAN JONES (Director, "Moon"): Thanks, Paul. It's nice to talk to you.

RAEBURN: Tell us a little bit about this movie. Where did you get the idea?

Mr. JONES: Well, I was a huge fan of the actor Sam Rockwell, and I've actually had the chance to meet with him a few years ago to discuss a completely different film project.

That project wasn't going to work out. I think it was maybe too ambitious for a first feature film. But we found that we both had a love of science-fiction films, and in particular those science-fictions films from the late '70s and early '80s, films like "Outland" with Sean Connery and "Silent Running" with Bruce Dern, and obviously Ridley Scott's "Alien."

And I think what we loved about them is that there were these sort of blue-collar working class people working in space and they were very much character-centric films about what it would be like to be in that kind of environment.

RAEBURN: And so these were all films not only character-centric but, generally, I think, some alone character or one or two people somehow marooned in space.

Mr. JONES: They tended to be, and they also tended to be about sort of that first generation of spacefarers or people who were sort of pioneering living in space. And I think that sort of - that part of future history, the idea of what it's like to sort of be one of those pioneers is something I found fascinating.

RAEBURN: Now, how did you know Sam Rockwell and why did you focus on him?

Mr. JONES: Well, he's an actor I've been a huge fan of for a long time. And like I said, I sent this other script to him, through the sort of the normal channels, to his agent, and he'd loved that script. But he'd wanted to play the lead character and I had wanted him to play a different character.

So although I'd never met him before, he suggested that I come to New York and have a meeting with him. And we basically sat down and had coffee and talked about it and tried to convince each other.

RAEBURN: And it worked.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: Well, in a manner of speaking. It worked in that we both found that we got on very well and we had a lot in common. But the film that we ended up making was different than the one that we actually had that meeting for.

RAEBURN: What was the first film that you had the meeting for?

Mr. JONES: It was another science-fiction film which hopefully will be my next film, but is a very different cup of tea.

RAEBURN: So you developed the story for this film.

Mr. JONES: I did. I read a book by a gentleman, Robert Zubrin, who wrote a non-fiction book called "Entering Space." That was really an attempt to describe how we might go about colonizing the solar system and doing it in a fiscally viable way.

Basically he was suggesting that because there was no Cold War anymore and because of the amount of - the huge amount of money that would be required to actually get us to become a spacefaring and a space-colonizing species, we really need to have a profit motive.

And one of the first chapters in his book described how helium-3 mining, acquiring this potential fuel for fusion power, could be the thing that really launches us as a spacefaring species.

RAEBURN: So that's an interesting point. Right at the very beginning of the film, we see this - what's happening on the moon as helium-3 is being mined and shipped back to Earth, and I wondered whether there was some real science there.

Mr. JONES: There is a little bit. I mean, that's basically kind of - Robert Zubrin's book is really where I got that initial concept from. And the interesting and slightly eerie fact is that the moon does hold a huge - a vast concentration of helium-3 on the surface, basically impregnated into the first few feet of the lunar regolith.

And it's, you know, you could literally just harvest it up, cook that lunar regolith to release the gas, and then compress it into a liquid form and send it back to Earth. And it's actually something which would be much more difficult to acquire back here on Earth. It's quite rare on Earth and expensive to extract.

RAEBURN: Now, did you bring much of a science background to this film yourself?

Mr. JONES: Well, my background really was philosophy. I was at college in Wooster, Ohio, and then I went to graduate school in Nashville, Tennessee. So philosophy was my background.

RAEBURN: Now, I hope you won't mind if I mention so some of our listeners will know that your father is David Bowie, the performer, musician. And he - some of his work has dealt with science fiction in some respects. Did that influence you as a child growing up in the family?

Mr. JONES: Well, certainly. I mean, it was kind of unusual in that - my parents divorced when I was very young. And unusually for that period, I was actually in the custody of my father. So, I grew up with him and around all of the things that were interesting him at that time. So, if he was watching films, I was seeing them. And if he was listening to music, I was hearing it.

And he was a voracious reader himself, and was always someone who thought it was important as a father to make sure that I read a lot. So, I, you know, he gave me an awful lot of interesting literature to sort of, to pique - to get my interest, to - to make me want to engage with literature. So I was reading a lot of George Orwell and John Wyndham, and later on Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard and authors like that growing up.

RAEBURN: Well, there's certainly some Orwellian influence in this film. I'm tempted to say a few things about it. I don't want to give away too much for listeners who haven't seen it. But we certainly are dealing - I guess in this case, it's fair to say it's a giant corporation that's limiting freedom, rather than government, perhaps.

Mr. JONES: I guess you could say that. But at the same time, this is a green energy company, remember. It's mining helium-3 in a benevolent way to try and, you know, improve the conditions of the Earth and make sure that they have enough energy on the planet.

RAEBURN: Well, that's one of the interesting things about the film, I think. These are supposed to be the good guys, or in our current world, green energy companies are good guys. Yet, in the film it's a lot more ambiguous than that.

Mr. JONES: Yeah. I think there's - I think - maybe it's just the cynical part of me. But I can't help thinking that, you know, as benevolent as a company's reasons for existing are, the human element - the profit-driven element is always going to be there in the background.

RAEBURN: And even - that's one of the things that's not going to change as we develop ourselves into this advanced future world that you're picturing in the movie.

Mr. JONES: Well, I certainly think that technology moves an awful lot faster than human nature.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAEBURN: We've got plenty of experience on that already.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAEBURN: Let me just remind listeners, the number is 1-800-989-8255. Give us a call if you'd like to ask Duncan Jones a question.

And I have a question about the making of this movie. I thought the movie was very well-done from the standpoint of creating a real environment on the moon. It looked very real. The trucks looked very real and so forth.

Mr. JONES: Yeah.

RAEBURN: So I'm assuming that you, like most directors who makes science fiction films, must have spent a huge amount of money on special effects to make this come out right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: I wish that were the case.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: We actually did this film for five million dollars, which is sort of a pittance when you look at Hollywood films. What we did is we went back to the - you know, we went back to the old techniques that were used back in those old science fiction films that we admired so much.

So we used model miniatures for all of our exteriors. We had - we shot everything at an amazing studio that has a huge amount of history here in England, a place called Shepperton Studios. And we were on the same soundstage where they built the Nostromo from the Ridley Scott film "Alien." And we actually built the entirety of the inside of the moon base in one soundstage.

And next door, we had this 20-foot by 30-foot piece of miniature lunar landscape that we built, and these beautiful little Tonka truck-style model miniatures of the vehicles that we were dragging across the landscape with bits of fishing line and titanium wire.

RAEBURN: Don't say that. I'm going to have to try to track one of those down for my three-year-old son now if you mention it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAEBURN: So, $5 million is really an amazing figure. I mean, don't science fiction films cost $100 million $150 million most of the time?

Mr. JONES: At least, these days. I mean, I wouldn't even sort of venture a guess at what "Transformers II" must have cost. But we really did sort of want to come at this from the opposite angle of where the big Hollywood films come from. I mean, they seem to - you know, I love those kind of big summer blockbusters as well, but the focus on those tends to be to get from one action or special effect set piece to the next one. And we - we really wanted to concentrate on character.

And because this is a small indie film and we were doing it on a low budget and it was kind of a thinking person's science fiction film, we were approaching it, you know, low budget, but keep the emphasis on the character in the story.

RAEBURN: But when you approach a movie that way, I mean, did you know going in that you would be able to do this for some reasonable amount of money you can afford, or did you have to, you know, spend a long time working out these techniques to see if it was possible?

Mr. JONES: No. We definitely - you know, we - the whole project was approached as a first feature film. I mean, this is - I came out of a commercials background. So I have an experience on the technical side of filmmaking but had never actually made, narratively, a feature film. So, for me, this is a feature film. But I thought…

RAEBURN: What was your…

Mr. JONES: Sorry.

RAEBURN: What was…

Mr. JONES: Yeah. I felt comfortable and confident on the special effects side that I knew what I was doing and - because we were focusing on very specific special effects and using model miniatures, it would allow us to do it for this budget.

RAEBURN: Now, you had one very tough audience that you screened this movie for, and that was a group at NASA.

Mr. JONES: That's correct. Yes.

RAEBURN: Did they blow you out of the room or did you survive?

Mr. JONES: I survived. And it was absolutely one of the most exciting and exhilarating experiences that I've ever had. It was tremendous.

RAEBURN: Tell us about it.

Mr. JONES: I was sent an email out of the blue by a professor at the NASA Space Center in Houston, saying that he heard about this film from the festival circuit, and he knew that it involved helium-3 mining and he would very much like to be able to do a screening of the film at the NASA Space Center, which excited me enough just in it's own right. But I had assumed that it would be…

RAEBURN: (Unintelligible) at Houston?

Mr. JONES: …sort of, just a screening for the public in the same way that you would do a screening over here in London at the Science Museum or something. But what actually happened is that he was involved in doing a lecture series for the NASA community and the screening was for them. So about 80 percent of our audience were NASA employees or retirees. And there was actually an astronaut, Shuttle pilot Tom Jones, who was in the audience. And they watched the film, and they seemed to really to appreciate it. And we did a Q&A afterwards. And it was fantastic.

RAEBURN: Real rocket scientists you're talking about here.

Mr. JONES: Absolutely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: And they had a lot to say and we had a lot to discuss. And they were asking why the base itself, the moon base looked as, sort of solid and concrete, more like a bunker than the kind of NASA technology that you - sort of a base - that you might expect them to develop, something that they would bring with them.

And I suggested, well, you know, I'm extrapolating. I'm assuming in the future you're going to want to use the resources on the base. And a woman put a hand up and said, actually, yes, that's exactly what we're going to be doing in the future. I'm working on something called mooncrete(ph), which is basically a concrete substitute using lunar regolith and ice water from the polar caps.

And that's something that we are working on. So then, a discussion basically broke out amongst the people in the audience themselves, these various people who worked in NASA.

RAEBURN: Let me pause for just a moment to say that I'm Paul Raeburn and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

So where do you go next? Do you plan another science fiction film, or you're going to get in to a different genre altogether?

Mr. JONES: I will get into a different genre after the next film. But the next film is also going to be science fiction. And it's going to be the antithesis in a way, almost the other side of the coin from "Moon." "Moon" is very much this film about, sort of, quiet side of the - sort of the dark - the far side, rather, of the moon and living on one's own and having to deal with sort of that kind of isolation.

The next film is going to take place in a future Berlin, on the earth, at the same, sort of, in the same time as "Moon" is going on. And it's really about what it's like to be a citizen in an incredibly busy, overpopulated city in the future.

RAEBURN: And you're going to be able to do it for a few million dollars again?

Mr. JONES: Hopefully, we'll move the budget up slightly. It might be around 15 to $20 million…

RAEBURN: Oh, you're thinking big now.

Mr. JONES: …(unintelligible).

RAEBURN: Oh, you're thinking big.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: Big for me.

RAEBURN: Listen, thanks very much for being with us. Our guest has been Dr. -has been Duncan Jones…

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAEBURN: …not doctor yet - honorary doctor Duncan Jones, director of the new movie "Moon," which is out in theaters now. Check it out.

And thanks for being with us.

Mr. JONES: Thank you very much.

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