Source Code Interview with Duncan Jones and Ben Ripley

I had the opportunity to sit down with a small group of people and talk to the cast and crew of Source Code in individual sessions. The most interesting interview, by far, was with Duncan Jones (director) and Ben Ripley (writer). Not that the actors were less interesting, but being able to spend twenty minutes or so just diving into the minds of the creator of such a complex and unique story that was Source Code. I am very excited to share this with you.

There are so many images we see in this film, over and over and over, but there was one image I saw for a split second – and it was gone, and it’s still in my mind.  There’s a scene early on when he goes into a bathroom, and there’s this poster that’s got, like, the teeth…Is that something that I should be interested in?  Or is that —

Duncan:  Or is that a DVD pause moment? (Laughter) It’s not actually, it was part of the production design.  We were trying to make sure that um, you know we’re obviously shooting a lot of our film in Montreal.  Um, we had ah — but obviously the film takes place in Chicago; you do everything you can to just reinforce and let the audience feel comfortable that you’re in Chicago.  So that was just, I think it was a Museum of Natural History poster from Chicago that was in there, so no — not any great clue that you need to be aware of.  Or maybe it isn’t.  (Laughter)

You shoot an eight minute scene over and over and over again, so what kind of tips and tricks did you put in there to make it fresh every time without changing the dialog too much?

Duncan: Well, the script was already in a fantastic state to begin with, so that, you know, thank Ben for that.  Um, what we did is we, you know, I had — we shot the stuff on the train first, so I had Jake and Michelle in early and we rehearsed.  We had like a week almost of rehearsal time before hand.  That really gave us an opportunity, um, for all of us to work on it; really get our heads around the conceit of the film and um, know what was required on a mechanical level to make the narrative get from A to B.  Once we’d done that, we were able to be much more free when it came to the actual shooting of the film, and Jake and Michelle could be improvisational.  And I really just had to sort of make sure that all of those boxes were ticked as we went along.  And to be honest, when it came to the actual shooting, we were really able to be quite fluid and organic and just, change things up and try things out — because we’d already done that homework in the rehearsal period.

So what actually prompted Source Code?  Were you just sitting there one day, watching Groundhog Day, and thinking, you know, this would be great if you could put it in sort of a ‘Sci-Fi’ twist, or you know?

Ben: Ah, something like that.  I had a long admiration for non-linear storytelling.  I’d never written something like that before and, you know, the idea took a long time for me to crack, and I had different components of it at different times.  But in looking at Sliding Doors, and you know, Matrix and Groundhog Day I was thinking well, is there — and my wife works for a bio-tech company, they make medical devices — is there a device?  You know, it’s not spiritual necessarily; it’s hard science, and it will probably come out of the Department of Defense, because they are investing all this money and their staking the whole future  on remote operations, predator drones, Global Hawks, things like that.  And so I just kind of fell in love with the idea of a very kind of cold device, ah, whose technology we probably wouldn’t see that much of.  There’s not a lot of “tech” in Source Code — it’s implied, ah, that would occasion these trips back.  But it took a long time to sort of discipline the idea down and the world down to one guy, a train, eight minutes, again and again.

Well, I was over-thinking it last night, because I thought, “OK, he succeeded.”  You know, he got the bomber, got him chained up.  And initially the doctor’s going, “Hey, you know, I’m great, I saved the world,” and then the time would closes…well, time reassigned itself back to the original morning, and when Colter’s boss gets the text message, I’m thinking, well, it’s that old ‘grandfather paradox.’  To me it sounded like, OK, he stopped it from happening, therefore there was no need to send him back.  So I drove myself mad for about an hour last night before going to bed, so I blame you…(Laughter)…So I started thinking about all these permutations — I thought, well is it like you said?  Is it like, an alternate universe, or you know, is everything just reassigned…There are, I mean, in other stories there are talk about closed time loops; that they exist — they exist because they have to, or they serve a purpose.  And so, am I even close here, or do I sound like a madman and should leave the room? (Laughter)

Ben: The only adjustment I would make is that, you know, you look at a film like Back to the Future, or you look at a film like Terminator, and they view it as one linear progression; where if you go back, suddenly I do one thing, and now instead of a jacket, you know, I’m wearing a hazmat suit in this room, for some reason.  And I think that Source Code is different in that it says if something happened in our past, you can’t change it.  And that’s in line with what theoretical physicists are saying these days.  You can’t change it, but what you can do via Source Code, or some other technology, is access a kind of parallel track.  Now, was this parallel reality there to begin with always, and we just kind of opened a portal?  Or by virtue of sending him there did we actually create it?  I think that’s actually, even headier.  And the end of the movie, when she gets the text message, implies that Source Code‘s much more powerful than you realize.  Vera Farmiga, we actually created you by sending me back on that train.

The colonel that showed up for work, put her jacket on, and got the text; you know, that was…

Duncan: I think you’re  correct, you have the interpretation pretty close.  I mean, we reset and we rejoin the story in a parallel reality.  One where a train has not blown up on it’s way to Chicago, but (one where) poor Sean Fentress is now inhabited by Colter Stevens, and there is a body waiting to be sent on a mission at Vera Farmiga’s facility.

Can you talk about handling  that idea, actually, that Colter Stevens does take over Sean Fentress’ body?  Which is kind of a dark idea, when you think about it, like, that guy doesn’t exist, or like basically, so he can inhabit his body, and basically that the girl he was going to get — which is kind of messed up.

Ben: Yeah, it is messed up.  (Laughter)

Duncan: I like the fact that we’ve made a film that feels like it’s “feel-good,” but if you think about it a little too hard, you realize it’s actually kind of mean.

I have two rather quick questions.  One, did you ever consider sending him a pizza?  (Laughter)  I mean, as, with the text?  (Laughter)  I just kind of thought about it…

Ben: Given the logic of Source Code, it wouldn’t have mattered. You know, he tried to call him — didn’t matter.  Tried to send him a pizza — didn’t matter, because their parallel.  Nothing he does here has any influence on him.

And then was Rutledge ever more sinister, or did you see him as sinister, or did you just see him as a guy that was doing his job and he was just thinking about the many; really, really seriously thinking about  the many?

Ben: Well, in some of the earlier drafts — and this is still  somewhat there — ah, Goodwin, the mission controller, starts out as somewhat antagonistic, she won’t tell him anything, and she’s sending him back.  And Jeffrey Wright’s character is sort of this, ‘Let me talk to that guy, you know, he could help me.  You invented this,’ you know, and he actually gives him some information.  But at some point they sort of switch, and he becomes the bad guy who’s just (obsessed) with the technology that he’d created, and Goodwin becomes more of the ally.  You know, and I always liked that, when it sort of works out that characters can kind of flip their, you know, their allegiance.

So it was purposeful?

Ben: It is purposeful.

Cool. I kind of have a branch off that with Jeffrey Wright’s character.  He walked with a cane, and it made him look more sinister.  Was that intentional, or was there some kind of previous injury that we just don’t know about? (Laughter)

Duncan: There was a real injury to Jeffrey Wright!  Which kind of necessitated the use of that, and we kind of incorporated it in.  So, yeah, that sinister leaning of that cane was an unintentional, but necessary aspect of his, ah, ankle.  (Laughter)

Without giving anything away about the ending, um, when you were writing the script and when you were directing the ending, were you making an ethical comment about the situation, or were you just saying, ‘well, this is a promise that Vera made, and we have to follow through with it?’

Ben: I think by the time we get to the ending you’re just on emotion, and all you care about is what happens with these characters.  Ah, I think the sort of ethical comments came earlier when he’s learning the true extent of what it means to be a postament soldier — whether that’s right or not.

And he is conscious, because isn’t there sort of a question kind of opened when she opens up the sarcophagus, and, I mean, he obviously has thoughts.  I mean, so I asked Vera, “Did she kill him?  Or did she just facilitate  what was already…”

Duncan: Out of interest, what did Vera say?

Um, oh my gosh…(Laughter)…She said she didn’t really know.  She said she didn’t really

Duncan: In my mind, he was in a pretty vegetative state.  Enough to be used as a piece of machinery, but not enough to function in any other way.  So what she does when she turns him off, is sort of — it’s like switching off a patient who’s not coming back.

So, brain dead, so to speak.  But then the irony is that you use…

Duncan: Yeah, a certain amount of functionality to be able to make use of him for this — for the Source Code.

That was what kind of kept you up for an hour, you know. (Laughter)  You get home, you’re kind of pumped up, and you’re not sleeping right away. (Laughter)  Because that’s an issue, you know, because, would I be able to do that?  And how much of that was thought through, in terms of your take on it as well your take on that.

I saw some parallels at the end with Johnny Got His Gun.  Was that ever a reference point?

Duncan: Ah, not that I’m aware of.  Ah, you’ll have to forgive me, no…

Dalton Trumbo, the soldier, has no limbs, no face.  At the end of the movie, the nurse euthanized him.

Ben: OK, we’re going to go check that movie out.  (Laughter)

Well, there’s also this, ah, Twilight Zone episode with Earl Holliman, where he’s in a sense-deprivation chamber, and he thinks he’s alone on Earth, but he’s really being monitored by scientists.  Was that something that you ever went back and looked at?  Or just…

Ben: Um, I didn’t, but one thing I…

It’s just common to the genre.

Ben: Yes, yes.  Ah, it intrigued me though, that for a while, he could have been in orbit — he could have been in outer space; he could have been in a capsule.  You know, I didn’t over-explain in the script what the capsule was.  You know, sometimes it looks like a chamber, sometimes it looks like sensory-deprivation.  Ah, because he’s a military guy, sometimes it looks like the cockpit of a helicopter, which is his job — what he does.

Duncan: I mean, I’m grateful to Ben that he didn’t over-explain that on the physical level as to what that would be, because it really did give me a little bit of room for interpretation on that.

Why would it fall apart that one time?

Duncan: Why it stretches?

Well, yeah, and then the whole freezing, and that, kind of — that was a little bit…

Duncan: Well basically, at the very end of the film, you obviously get the reveal of where he is located in real life, the one that Vera is able to see, and it’s got this glass window above him.  Um, the idea is that this is obviously a manifestation — his brain interpreting where he is, in order to give him a location, in order to communicate with Vera, or with Goodwin.  And that interpretation changes as he gains an understanding of what’s happening to him.  He starts off thinking that  he’s a helicopter pilot, so he must be on some kind of mission.  So he’s in an environment which feels like a cockpit.  And then over the course of the film, as he sort of starts to think of himself as being imprisoned, it stretches out and ends up like some kind of medieval prison with a big glass window above him.  It’s not supposed to be something which is very literal, and the audience can actually — well, might not necessarily get that, but I think as a state of Colter’s consciousness, you can kind of — hopefully the audience will feel that change in his understanding of his own environment.

And in terms of the time he comes back and everything’s cold, and everything’s shut down; just prior to that, I think that’s the one where he gets run over…Is it when he gets hit by a train that he comes back?

Duncan: Yeah, and there’s also – yeah, so there’s that happening in the Source Code realm, and then on the physical level he’s having some kind of reaction to that — some kind of trauma from that which they’re trying to fix.  And his, again, his interpretation of what’s going on to him is what happens in the capsule.

It’s not that I’m broken, it’s that my aircraft, or my pod or whatever it is I’m flying is broken.  Yes, and any pilot you talk to will say, if you’re having a problem in your aircraft, you get the manual out and you start going through a checklist, and you start repairing your aircraft.  And then, one of the great touches that they put in is that he’s got this sort of strobing light on his flight suit, almost like if you get ejected, and you’re in the ocean at night with your little raft.  You know, you put on a beacon.  And that’s just his pilot training, kind of trying to make sense of it.

Can you talk about the difficulty within the Source Code, creating a sense of danger?  Because ultimately, Colter Stevens, if he gets hurt, he’s still going to go back and do it again.  Can you talk about building stakes on that?

Duncan: Yeah, completely.  And that was,uh — there were two big challenges, well there were many challenges, but the two that really stood out for me as the director looking at the script is you have a repeat of events and you have to keep them fresh for the audience so they don’t feel like it’s just a repetition.  You have to keep each one different.  And then, what you’re talking about, which is you know, Colter is going to die at the end of each eight minutes, and then he comes back.  How do you get the audience to care that he’s died?  And really, that’s about trying to find ways to make them empathize with the situation he’s in, and the frustrations that he’s coming up against in trying to complete his goal.  If you can get the audience to think, ‘well, yeah, he’ll come back, but maybe he’ll never actually solve this situation, maybe he’s stuck for eternity in this loop,’ I think in that way, you can get the audience to care about the frustration that he’s going through.

Duncan, can you talk about what speaks to you about these stories of men who – sort of in isolation – they don’t know what’s going on, and they have a mystery to unwrap, and at the same time, they’re sort of undergoing these existential crises that really they didn’t realize they were going through?

Duncan: Ah, I’m a man nearing my forties who doesn’t have a family yet.  (Laughter)  I don’t know.  I find it interesting.  I’m an only kid as well, and you know, when we did Moon, Sam Rockwell and I had a very similar upbringing.  We were both you know, only children, um, kind of had a kooky upbringing, and I just…I don’t know, I’m just interested in people finding their identity and the frustrations and difficulties of that.  So I think in both of these films, that question of identity comes up.  But I have to honest, when I first read Source Code, what got me excited about the Source Code script wasn’t the similarities with Moon.  I didn’t actually notice them.  Um, it was what was different; the fact that it was fast paced, you know — a fast paced movie that really just drove along; the fact that it was more than one actor, you know, all of those things are the things that excited me.  And it wasn’t until we sort of were in the editing that Paul Hirsch, the editor on the film, was the one who remarked on the similarities.  But it’s, you know, it must be a subconscious thing  that the things that I loved about were both the ones that were conscious and subconscious.

Were there any specific lenses, or focal lengths that you were using for the aerial shots?  They had a really unique look — very sharp.

Duncan: Oh, you know, I can’t actually remember.  Um, I can’t remember.  I know that the actual rigging that was used was something fairly new, and I’m sorry, I can’t remember the name of it.  But those helicopter shots were done by a guy called Louis Morin – was the VFX supervisor with us.  And, um, I think he did an extraordinary job.  We sort of talked about what we hoped to achieve, and he was able to bring that through.

They were gorgeous shots.

Duncan: Yeah, you have to thank Louis.  (Laughter)

Well, there were a lot of unanswered questions still, like the whole thing about ‘we’re running out of time.’  Well, don’t you have a time machine, or a way to alter time?  It made me think, was there something inherent, like the further away in real time they get from the incident, the less chance they have of fixing it?  Was that the intent?

Ben: In earlier drafts of the script, yes, there was this idea that we’ve got a dead body, someone who’s been murdered in a terrorist incident, and there’s a certain after image.  But there’s a certain shelf life on that, and that is a time constraint.  I got away from that, and the time constraint became ‘if we don’t crack this, if we don’t figure out what the next target is, or who he is, he is going to perpetrate strike number two.’  So that is the ticking clock, and there is a line in the movie that lays it out, and says, ‘In this reality, the clock’s only moving one direction.’  You know, we have to burn eight minutes sending you back, and then we have to burn time interrogating you when you come back.  And if you continue to not do your job, we’re getting much closer to the precipice of the second attack.

And that makes it, you know, a million times worse and a million times more difficult to correct then, you know, once he crosses that border.  Uh, but then – so there’s no infinite, you know, they just can’t keep sending him back because he…

Ben: They’re still — their clocks are still ticking in their reality.

How many Source Codes are there, eight?

Duncan: What, how many times do we actually revisit it?  Well, it’s fair – it’s a little bit ambiguous, because there is this period in the movie where Rutledge is sending him back again and again, and it’s kind of – we kind of edit it down.  But I think it’s six full ones, and then probably eight or nine if you add on the, um…

The ones you don’t see?

Duncan: Yeah.

That big mirror thing, is that an actual location in Chicago?

Duncan: It is, it’s a sculpture by Anish Kipoor outside of Chicago, and it’s an amazing looking thing.  And I think it’s becoming a little bit of a Chicago landmark now.  It exists, it’s absolutely beautiful, if you ever get to Chicago, I highly recommend visiting it.

“The Bean?”  Don’t they call it “The Bean?”

Duncan: Yeah.

Thank yous, and goodbyes.

by Angela Davis

transcript by Rachael Edwards

About Angela

Angela is the Editor-in-Chief of Lost in Reviews. She and Ryan created Lost in Reviews together in 2009 out of a mutual hatred for all the stodgy old farts currently writing film reviews. Since launching the site, Angela has enjoyed reviewing indie films over all other films, picking up new music from all corners of the world and photographing live shows. She is the co-host of Blu Monday and a member of the Kansas City Film Critic Circle.

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