Once upon a time, Duncan Jones intended Mute to be his feature film debut. An unorthodox mystery set in a future Berlin, the film follows Leo (Alexander Skarsgård), a mute bartender who tears through the city’s criminal underbelly like a silent wrecking ball after the woman he loves goes missing. Of course, Mute didn’t end up being Jones’ first film, far from it, and in the fifteen-plus years he spent trying to get the project off the ground, the film evolved, became connected to the filmmaker’s sci-fi masterpiece Moon, and ultimately landed at Netflix when the streaming giant gave the Jones the freedom and the funds to finally make his dream project happen.
With Mute now available on Netflix, I recently hopped on the phone for a chat with Jones to talk about his long journey to getting the film made and why it was such a personal project. We discussed why he wanted to do a film with a mute lead in the first place, coming up with his pair of unorthodox villains (played by Justin Theroux and Paul Rudd in wonderfully against-type performances), how Mute uses color, designing a futurist noir without looking like Blade Runner, and more.
Please be aware there are spoilers.
Why was it that you wanted to do a movie about a mute character? Was that the seed of the idea for you?
JONES: It was certainly one of the seeds, yes. No, I think it was the seed. I wrote it with Mike Johnson, my writing partner, almost 16 years ago. Really, originally it was set as a challenge to see if I could have a lead, a protagonist, who didn’t have any dialogue. I had just written another film, which was a courtroom drama that was all dialogue, and it was driving me crazy how non-cinematic that was. I wanted to try and swing the other way and do something where we didn’t rely on dialogue as a crutch. The more I worked on it, the more I kind of started to think okay, I don’t know if I want to do a whole film with this guy who doesn’t talk, so let’s split it between Leo’s investigation and these two other guys, Cactus and Duck, who have a lot to say for themselves.
That is some fantastic against-type casting with those two. How did you end up with them as your pair of unorthodox villains?
JONES: I was, I am still a huge fan of Robert Altman’s film MASH, and Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould’s portrayal of Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John from that movie. The interesting thing about MASH, the original movie, not the TV series, is that those guys, as funny and engaging as they are, they’re also kind of mean. I always thought if these guys were in any other film or were even slightly meaner than they already are, they’d be villains in this film. That was kind of my taking-off point for Cactus and Duck, was what would those two guys be as villains?
You said that it was a challenge for you at first, but when you finally wrote it, and then coming to film it, how did it help you understand your lead, that he can’t talk and has to express himself other ways?
JONES: I guess the whole project itself, just over such a long period of time, over a decade and a half, it takes on a life of its own, really. Real life kind of impacts what you’re trying to create. I had the chance to make three other movies before I made Mute. Originally it was going to be my first film. I can’t even imagine how different the original film would have been from what it’s become.
Also, I think some of the subtext of what Mute is and what it’s about has really come to the forefront. It was always there, this idea of parenthood and what makes a good parent and what parents do to you, how they impact you. In this case, for Leo, he’s someone who doesn’t have a voice because his mother was incredibly religious and had basically told him and instructed him not to have surgery to be able to speak, because that was against her beliefs. Now, I think he lived his whole life and his whole life was impacted because of that decision. Obviously, Cactus as a parent is coming from a very different place of living this lifestyle, which is totally not in keeping with being a parent, but somehow trying to make it work because he’s trying to look after his daughter.
I think the parent side of Mute was always there but never as big a focus as it is for me now, now that my parents have died and I’ve had kids of my own.
Well, also something I wanted to talk about in the parent aspect, I was curious how you used color story to explore that. I noticed that Leo’s world is saturated in blue, and with Paul Rudd’s character it was a lot of reds, and the daughter is mostly in purple. Can you talk about that element of creating the look of the film and how that ties into the story?
JONES: That’s interesting. Gary Shaw was the cinematographer that I did this film with, and Gary and I did Moon together. One of the things that I had been mentioning throughout the process was how I wanted to associate Leo with water, whether it was what happened to him when he was originally a kid and how he lost his voice and his regime of swimming to try and face his fears, and drinking the pint glass of water he does as kind of a, almost like a meditative thing, and obviously how the film ends with him in water and how he defeats Duck. That was kind of, that lends itself to why we would be going for more of a blue look, I think, for that character.
It’s interesting, you’re picking up on some things which I probably will recognize over time but probably are more subconscious than conscious at this point. But it certainly makes sense that with Cactus, beyond just being a fiery character, we have the scene with him in the fireplace, and he, that element of him, of being more a fire spirit as opposed to a water one, that kind of makes sense that the reds and the warms, and also the seediness of the red-light district, all of that comes into play with Cactus’ character.
You’ve been with this project for over 15 years now, and you mentioned that it’s changed. Did the story itself specifically evolve a lot, or more of the thematic elements?
JONES: More the thematic elements. I think why I originally stuck with it is it felt like there was something original about the dynamics between the lead protagonist detective who didn’t talk and the two antagonists who were very talkative and very witty and fun, and making them as engaging and appealing as possible at the start of the movie, and then starting to scrape away and to reveal who they really were as we move into the second and the third acts.
So I think that was kind of always there, but like I was saying before, I think some of the subtext, some of the themes of parenthood and things like that, even though the structure didn’t change much, I think my appreciation for that and the emphasis and focus on that definitely grew over time.
How much did it change after you made Moon and decided to tie these two movies together?
JONES: I mean, that was the big change, because that was … Originally, Mute was supposed to be my first feature film, and we had very little money. We were assuming it was going to be a tiny little London-based movie because we didn’t have the money to do anything else at the time. At that point, films like Sexy Beast and Layer Cake and all of these little British gangster films were coming out. We though that a contemporary version of it would work in London at that time. It wasn’t until after we did Moon that it really sort of started to occur to me that some of the things that the film was about and how it mechanically worked would be actually accentuated, would work better if it took place in a science fiction setting as opposed to a contemporary one. That was fairly early on, but it was a pretty dramatic change from London-based contemporary to Berlin-based science fiction.
Absolutely. And of course, I have to dig into the Moon connection a little bit because I absolutely adore Moon, and I think your tie-in here is pretty fun. First of all, how soon after Moon is Mute set?
JONES: I would say it’s within months, within months to a year of Sam Bell getting back to Earth.
So let’s talk about the 156. Where did the idea for that come from to be the sort of hinted-at next chapter of Sam Bell’s saga, and making that Sam Rockwell’s cameo?
JONES: Well, I mean, it kind of made sense that if the corporation was going to be this comfortable with running this facility on the far side of the moon with all of these Sams First of all, how many of them are there in the nursery that we see? And secondly, when Sam does get back to Earth and blows the whistle on this, what happens to all the guys who are still asleep? The idea was that there becomes this global campaign. It becomes like a cause celebre of people wanting to help out the Sam Bells. That’s this campaign to free the Sams.