Can you imagine watching "A Clockwork Orange" as a 7-year-old sitting next to David Bowie?
Such was life for Bowie's son Duncan Jones, who received his education in science fiction from the man who created Ziggy Stardust.
Though Jones might not have gallivanted about his childhood home wearing intergalactic makeup, his father's taste in movies greatly influenced the young filmmaker.
"His interest in science fiction and the characters he created after having seen '2001' and 'A Clockwork Orange' obviously affected me," Jones said while in Austin for the South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival this month. "Around the house he would say, 'Oh, you got to see this film!' As a sci-fi geek, which is what he was, his interest in that obviously permeated my upbringing."
Jones channeled those early sci-fi influences into his debut feature, 2009's critically acclaimed "Moon," and has returned to the science-fiction milieu with his follow-up, "Source Code," which made its world premiere at SXSW and opens Friday in Austin.
Jake Gyllenhaal originally brought the project to Jones' attention after the director approached the "Brokeback Mountain" star about working together. The story follows Capt. Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal), who, when the movie begins, has apparently entered the body of another man on a commuter train outside of Chicago. As he attempts to piece together exactly who he is or where he is, the train explodes. Stevens comes back to consciousness inside a pod under the supervision of a team of military operatives.
Gyllenhaal's character slowly comes to understand that he is being transported into the body of a civilian in the last eight minutes of the man's life. His mission — complicated by his growing affections for his sudden female companion played by the unassuming Michelle Monaghan — forces him to continually return to this man's body until he can disarm the explosives on the train.
The elements of time travel, which Gyllenhall also experienced in his first acclaimed film, "Donnie Darko," excited the actor, he says.
"I've always been fascinated with time in movies because it allows you to tell a story in a way that is not linear," Gyllenhaal said while in Austin for the premiere. "It doesn't have to follow any rules. You can make up your own rules. Something about it and something about time and giving a performance in that just gives you any opportunity, and I revel in not being confined and just being allowed to go."
Though both Jones and Gyllenhaal found the script to be a whip-snap ride, they recognized the difficulties in coherently presenting a story that hopscotches time. Jones, who says he learned the art of storyboarding from his father at an early age, had to graph out the film in order to assure that a movie based on a reconfiguration of time and space, and one that features repetitive action in a relatively unchanging environment, would not become monotonous and tiresome for the viewer.
The actor and director realized that the resonant allure of the film, however, came not from the esoteric notions of dealing with time travel, but from the relationship between the characters — one Gyllenhaal says was cultivated through improvisation — and the effective use of humor. Together the two men worked to keep the heady theoretical aspects of the script to a minimum and allow the characters to breathe life and humanity into the story.
Despite, or because of, the unbearable strain of the role of a confounded hero, the frustrated Colton Stevens resorts to a perverse and playful sense of humor that befuddles those around him and, naturally, charms the damsel in distress. Jones says he sees in Gyllenhaal's performance a more-than-passing resemblance to Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones.
"It's an everyman who's ... frustrated with the rest of the world, but you share the ride and the humor of the stuff he goes through," Jones said. "I think humor is a very powerful tool, especially in filmmaking because you can immediately create a connection between the audience and your protagonist if you can get them to sort of see the humor in a situation together."
Gyllenhaal, who admits to a growing desire to direct a film of his own, says the humor was not in the original script, but that he and Jones found the levity and irony together.
"I always love the character where they walk through the door and they hit their head and then they beat the crap out of somebody ... or they get the crap beaten out of them," Gyllenhaal said. "It's the idiosyncrasies and the strangeness of life that makes things funny. We just found those moments, and we just went with it. And sometimes I just think that comedy is confidence, and we just had this confidence in those situations."
Following what he calls a film that settles into the gray area between "hard" and "soft" sci-fi, Jones says his next movie will be a "big bustling action sci-fi film." After that, the director, who turns 40 in May, intends to take a sabbatical from science fiction and focus on some other genres that have always sparked an imagination that flits between the known and the unknown.