In the sci-fi action thriller “Source Code,” Capt. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up inside the body of another man eight minutes before he and a train full of commuters on a Chicago train are killed by a terrorist’s bomb. Wired into a military program allowing him to travel through time, Capt. Colter is repeatedly transported into his avatar each time getting closer and closer to finding the source of the bomb and stopping it from detonating.
During the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas last month, I got the opportunity to sit down with “Source Code” director Duncan Jones, screenwriter Ben Ripley, and actors Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, and Vera Farmiga to talk about their new film and what is so intriguing about the sci-fi genre.
Duncan, You’ve described “Source Code” as a “thinking man’s sci-fi movie.” Can you elaborate on that idea and compare it to other sci-fi movies that might be a bit more mainstream?
Duncan Jones: Yeah, I see it as a contemporary thriller. There are definitely science fiction elements to it. It builds on that foundation and needs it for the story to work. But the heart of the film is about relationships. I think a lot of it comes from the set up that Ben wrote.
Ben Ripley: Yeah, there’s not a lot of tech in “Source Code.” There are no starships or lasers. We’re not in outer space. The technology is implied. I think that challenges you a little more whereas mainstream science fiction is going to try to wow you by setting the film on the surface of another planet; it’s the spectacle of it all. This is internal. This is a character mystery first and foremost.
Duncan, since “Source Code” is your second film, did you worry about what is known in the film industry as “the sophomore slump” – where your second film doesn’t live up to the critical success of your first?
I have to be honest, I didn’t think about it while I was shooting the film. It was a term I was familiar with, but I didn’t really have time to worry about it until we started talking to press and media. (Laughs) You start thinking about it when someone asks, “Well, what’s the third film called?”
Jake, this is the first sci-fi film you’ve made since “Donnie Darko” in 2001. How exciting was it to find your way back to this genre?
It was great. First of all, the screenplay was fantastic. For me, when Duncan decided he wanted to do it, that was it. I was excited because I feel like doing a sci-fi movie gives you the opportunity to use your mind in a way you normally don’t. Usually, you’re focused on character and not how a character is moving through a situation. Even if the character is moving through something, there are always rules of reality. In the world of sci-fi there aren’t any rules. It offered me the opportunity in my performance to pretty much do anything. That was a thrill. The process was fun because there is so much you can do
Was Duncan open to all your ideas?
All the time. I would say, “I’m going to try something crazy” and he’d say, “Do it, mate.” The crazier the better for him. He was like, “Weirder! Go weirder! You can do anything you want to anybody.” I found a real kindred spirit in that. He has this really big heart and is fascinated with details. It’s rare to see that in a movie like this.
Michelle, this is a fairly complicated script. When you were shooting it, did you ever have to stop and make sure you knew exactly where you were in the story?
Absolutely. I think the first time I read it, I had to read it again. The great thing about the movie is that it’s totally engaging. It literally grabs you from the first 10 or 20 pages. But you’re in an alternate reality part of the time so it definitely is confusing trying to work it out. You see the words on the page, but visually you’re trying to work it out in your head.
How did you manage to keep everything in order in your head and shoot what’s basically the same scene over and over again?
Well, when it came time to shoot it, it was really tricky. We were doing the same eight minutes. Playing those eight minutes over and over again was the most intriguing and challenging thing as an actress. We wanted to make them engaging and add all the subtleties. We would huddle up for a good hour prior to each scene over three days to make sure we were all in the same place in the story. We shot them chronologically, which was a nice luxury to have. We wanted to start each scene with a clear idea of what we wanted to puzzle together. That was our clear goal.
If you were to have the opportunity to go back and correct something in the past, would you or do you believe everything happens for a reason?
I’m a really big believer that everything happens for a reason, but if I could have eight minutes just to experience something again it would be my wedding because it was way too fast. No, I wasn’t drunk. (Laughs) It’s one of those things like, “Oh my gosh, I wish I could hear those speeches again! Oh, I wish I had a second shot at that first dance!” If I could have eight minutes again I would have that day.
You studied journalism for a long time…
Yeah, I did!
Could you see yourself on the other side of this table asking the questions?
Yeah, sure! It’s funny because for years that’s all I wanted to do and that’s what I studied. Then I discovered acting and found out when I was researching for roles I was doing the who, what, when, where, why. That’s how I prepare for all my roles now. So, I didn’t waste all that money [for college]. It was such a relief.
Vera, what were the challenges of playing a role that was fairly stationary from your character’s perspective?
Yeah, there wasn’t much movement. I was in a roller chair so I could roll back and forth and swivel right and left. My movement was confined. I knew my face was going to be massive and probably skewed in the way cameras skew your face when you’re video chatting. It forced me to think about their psycho-spiritual connection and maneuvering from an ocular standpoint. This role isn’t something I would particularly be drawn to, but because it is so opposite of what I’m usually drawn to, I took a look at it. Duncan Jones on the cover sheet was enough to get a yes from me. To be a part of an intricate puzzle was enough to get a yes from me. I think the challenge was to consider what the character was not saying and to read what was between the lines. I think that allowed for more life. I think the challenges were to convey all of that.
And convey it while reciting some very technical dialogue.
In all candor, that kind of dialogue – that expository dialogue – is just boring to execute. So, the challenge of that was to find life beyond the information. My character had to be a whip-cracker with information, but I also wanted to find a way to convey what her morale dilemma is and how that would play out.