Nestled within this season of blockbusters—Wolverine! Spock! Terminator robots!—is a more modest film called Moon (in theaters June 12) that might just blow your mind. It wasn’t made with a giant studio budget, nor does it feature the CGI effects of a typical sci-fi spectacular. But the movie—about a lonely astronaut living on the moon—is the kind that brings on all sorts of unsettling feelings that stay with you, in a good way, long after the credits roll. Last week, on the day of the film’s Tribeca Film Festival premiere, Moon’s star (and pretty much only cast member—more on that later), Sam Rockwell, was sitting across the table from his director, Duncan Jones.
“I know there’s this real sort of appeal and love of Sam,” Mr. Jones, 37, said with a grin explaining his decision to work with screenwriter Nathan Parker and create his first feature film specifically for Mr. Rockwell.
The two men had met in January 2007 to discuss a different project that never came to fruition, but they had bonded over a love of science-fiction films from the ’70s and early ’80s: Silent Running, Outland and (of course) 1968’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey.
“He’s a handsome, strong man. The girls love him,” Mr. Jones said.
“He’s a handsome, strong man,” countered Mr. Rockwell. Both of these statements are (in The Observer’s opinion) true, but so, too, was the two men’s easy camaraderie, which no doubt came partly from shooting an intense and ambitious film budgeted at $5 million and just 33 days. Still, it wasn’t just science fiction that had them feeling as though they shared a common bond.
“I think we probably both have felt like aliens sometimes,” said Mr. Rockwell, gesturing to Mr. Jones. “I know I do.”
“Definitely,” said Mr. Jones.
“Both of us were only children growing up,” Mr. Rockwell said. “Both of our parents were in the arts, and we got to see things from a weird perspective.”
Indeed. Mr. Rockwell, 40, who has become a beloved, chameleonic character actor thanks to his roles in movies like Safe Men, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Frost/Nixon (not to mention his weirdly seductive turn in Charlie’s Angels), grew up the son of two actors in what The New York Times once described as a footloose childhood. “I think we were both exposed to things early on … adult stuff,” he said.
Which brings us to Duncan Zowie Haywood Jones, a.k.a. “Zowie Bowie,” a.k.a. son of rock supernova David Bowie. Think about it: Mr. Jones was born in 1971, which means that for a few of his formative years, his father was in full-on Ziggy Stardust mode, singing about ground control to Major Tom and spiders from mars. (Is it any wonder Mr. Jones grew up to be so interested in outer space?)
“A lot of the movie, for me, is about the theme of loneliness,” continued Mr. Rockwell. “I think a lot of movies that I grew up digging—aside from those great comedies like Stripes or Animal House or Caddyshack—they were movies like Alien or Taxi Driver or The Deer Hunter or One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest—these were movies that had themes about manhood and what it was like to be a man, and courage, but also intense loneliness. I can only speak for myself, but as an only child I spent a lot of time alone.”
“Me, too,” said Mr. Jones.
“I think I understood loneliness,” Mr. Rockwell said.
IN MOON, Mr. Rockwell plays Sam Bell, an astronaut who is close to completing a three-year contract with a company that mines Helium-3—one of the main sources of energy for our little planet, spinning 240,000 miles below. He desperately misses his wife and daughter—his only company is a robot (voiced by Kevin Spacey)—and his health is mysteriously deteriorating when he meets a younger version of himself on the space station, there for just the same reason he is. Mr. Jones, who calls himself, “a bit of a geek,” said he had been influenced by the book Entering Space: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization by astronautical engineer Robert Zubrin. “It’s all about how do you colonize our solar system in a way that makes it financially viable,” he said. “One of the chapters was about Helium-3, which is theoretically a fuel for cold fusion. It was quite a short chapter, but I found it really fascinating because if we are going to colonize space, it’s certainly not going to be for the props—we’re going to do it for the money.”
The idea of having Mr. Rockwell play multiple roles was partly to entice the actor. “It became part of this ingredients list of how do I make a film that Sam wants to be in? I know, I’ll make him play all the roles … and write the theme music, too,” Mr. Duncan joked. It was indeed a challenge for Mr. Rockwell, who had to shoot each scene multiple times, either with a body double or using a Motion Control camera that can replicate body movements identically. Mr. Rockwell would act out the scene, go to hair and makeup to differentiate between the two characters, and then come back to set and do it all over again. It became what the two men described as a kind of dance, having to stick to precise moments to make the scene work—action scenes when the two Sams fight or play Ping-Pong were particularly difficult.
“Didn’t I move the ball?” Mr. Rockwell asked his director.
“You jumped on the table,” Mr. Jones said.
“I jumped on the table in the rehearsal, not in the take, right?”
“No …” Mr. Jones said with a smile. “It was the take.”
“Well,” Mr. Rockwell, “anyway, it was complicated.”
“Poor Sam,” Mr. Jones said. “Here he is trying to act and it’s like, ‘Don’t touch anything! Don’t move anything! Look that way—but don’t move there.’”.
“It was actually cool for me because I like to keep it loosey-goosey and sometimes directors don’t like it,” Mr. Rockwell said. “So this forced me … I could keep it loosey-goosey as long as I stayed within the context of the structure of what we were doing.”
“If you can imagine the instructions on set,” Mr. Jones laughed. “‘Please send original Sam into makeup so we can shoot Sam One so we can shoot the other side to Sam Two.”
Mr. Rockwell, who said he watched the 1988 David Cronenberg film Dead Ringers multiple times to prepare for his role in Moon, said, “Hey, did I ever tell you about the time I ran into Jeremy Irons before shooting? I told him I was doing this visual-effect twinning thing. I was like, ‘Hey, I saw Dead Ringers,’ and everything, but he didn’t know who the hell I was.”
“Did he blow you off?” asked Mr. Jones.
“No, he was really nice. He was with his family, and you know no one wants to be bugged with his family. It was just like I was waiting for some tidbit, some great gem of advice. Like just one sentence, you know? And he was lovely, but I wanted something that is just not possible. It was very much like, ‘You’re on your own, kid!’” Mr. Rockwell laughed. “You can’t get one sentence or a paragraph on how to do this. It was on-the-job training for both of us.”