‘I’ve never needed to use my father’s name’: Hollywood’s hottest director Duncan Jones on growing up with David Bowie

by Martyn Palmer / Daily Mail

16th August 2011

He is a blockbuster movie director in his own right – which is why he’s never given full account about growing up with his father. Until now …

When Bafta-winning film director Duncan Jones was a little boy, his dad tried, tried and tried again to get him excited about music. His father is David Bowie, so Jones’s musical genes must be first-rate.

‘He really, really wanted me to learn an instrument,’ says Bowie’s son.

‘He tried to get me to learn the drums but I didn’t want to. The saxophone? No. Piano? No. Guitar – no thanks! Bless him. He kept on trying and nothing was happening. Nothing would take. I don’t know if subconsciously there was some reaction going on; if there was something in me that didn’t want to learn an instrument – because I couldn’t have been that incompetent! He’d say, “You have to practise…” and I was like, “But I don’t want to practise…” It didn’t interest me so it wasn’t going to happen.’

Stubborn resistance to his legendary father’s vocation didn’t stop there. Aged 11, Duncan Zowie Haywood Jones (Bowie’s real surname) changed his name to his nickname ‘Joe’ before, aged 18, settling on his resolutely ordinary first name, Duncan. It doesn’t require a therapist to observe that Jones has determinedly avoided trading on his heritage.

‘I’ve certainly never used my father’s name as a way of getting a meeting,’ says Jones. ‘And fortunately, I’ve never needed to…’

That said, Jones clearly adores his dad and throughout our interview he talks of him with genuine affection, sharing anecdotes of a unique childhood spent loitering in the wings of vast stadia, while his father defined the musical tastes of a generation.

But Jones is not, and never wanted to be, Bowie Mark II. Music wasn’t his passion – film-making is. And it is testimony to Bowie that he nurtured and supported his son, helping him find his own creative path through life.

It paid off. At 40, Jones is the hottest director in Hollywood, thanks to two sci-fi films. The first is his award-winning debut, Moon, a tiny £3 million-budget, exquisitely shot, nightmarish tale of an astronaut on the last days of his mining mission.

The Bafta Jones received for Moon provided the perfect calling card to major Hollywood studios, swiftly resulting in the critically acclaimed Source Code. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, to date the £19m film has grossed more than £75m worldwide.

At first glance, you wouldn’t mark Jones as a player. He slips through the reception area of the plush, discreet and trendy London hotel where we meet without attracting a second glance. His ensemble – brown stubble, dishevelled light blond hair, scruffy jeans, a T-shirt emblazoned with the iconic anti-hero Sid Vicious – shouts ‘geek’ rather than Hollywood power broker, and there isn’t any immediate physical similarity with his father.

Indeed, there are times when I have to remind myself how easily Jones could have been a selfish, spoilt rock brat rather than the down-to-earth, affable man who settles back into his chair and politely orders a coffee.

‘Well, thank you. I think…’ he laughs when I compliment him on his seemingly well-adjusted outlook.

‘I don’t know why but for whatever reason that side of life – the celebrity and the spectacle – has never interested me. I love my work but I don’t like being in the spotlight. I was never going to be an actor, that’s for sure.’

Performing centre-stage to anthems like Diamond Dogs and Starman was always the proclivity of his father, while Jones prefers to observe: either behind the lens directing (today) or watching from the wings (back then).

‘That’s where I feel completely at home,’ he says. ‘You know, it was work. Dad was working. And it was like any kid going to watch his dad at work, no matter what they do. We were just waiting for the concert to be over so we could go home. I could hear the noise up front but I’d spend most of my time hanging out with the roadies and playing with them. You know those big crash cases that they put the equipment in? Big, thick metal boxes with foam padding – well, I’d stand inside one of them and get the roadies to push me around like I was in a go-kart.

‘In many ways it was an incredible childhood. We travelled all over the world and we got to do some amazing things.

‘I remember one time going to see a sumo wrestling show in Japan when I was a little kid and being amazed. There were a lot of unique things that I got to do and not a lot of people get to experience things like that. And I treasure those memories. But often I’d sit around being bored backstage at a concert.’

The one negative from accompanying Bowie on tour, Jones confesses, is his discomfort being photographed.

‘That dislike of being photographed stems from my childhood. There were always photographers everywhere and a big reaction that came when anyone tried to take a picture of me. It was like: “Hide him!” I was really uncomfortable with it.

‘Every night when we’d leave a concert I can remember the big hullabaloo – security guards and me being whisked into the car before my dad came out separately so that they couldn’t get a picture of us together. The woman who was looking after me would have her arms wrapped around my head so that they couldn’t get my picture. It was a big event just to get in the car and go home at the end of the day. It obviously affected me.

‘I’m much better now but it took me a while to get used to it. Fortunately my girlfriend Rodene Ronquillo is a photographer so she is slowly desensitising me.’

It also seems a neat dose of self-help that Jones, in becoming a director, took control of the camera.

Bowie’s love for acting and films sparked a much more interactive relationship between father and son.

‘It was the opposite for me on a film set,’ says Jones, suddenly animated. ‘That was like going to Disneyland. I’d see the amazing sets being built, how the make-up worked. In The Hunger (the vampire classic co-starring Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve), Dad had to age at one point to become an old man and I remember him scaring the **** out of me.

‘I hung out with Dad when he was doing Labyrinth. And I remember the amazing Fifties Soho set on Absolute Beginners. All that made a huge impression on me.’

Jones says some of his fondest memories are of watching movies with his dad when they were living high above Lake Geneva in Switzerland, where Bowie was a tax exile in the late Seventies.

‘Dad really enjoyed introducing me to new things in literature, music and films.

‘I was about seven and we’d watch these big adventure movies like The Sea Hawk, a pirate movie with Errol Flynn, or James Cagney movies on video. I absolutely loved those films. Dad introduced me to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and the original Baron Munchausen. He’d say, “You’ll love this! It’s amazing – you haven’t seen anything like this before.” I was eight when he showed me A Clockwork Orange. I remember he was sitting with me on the sofa with his arm around me, explaining everything.’

A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick’s hugely controversial film about a futuristic thug with a passion for rape and ‘ultra-violence’, is not the kind of film that most parents would screen for their young children.

‘I know!’ laughs Jones. ‘But Dad talked me through it. He was very responsible about it and he knew what he was doing.

‘Around that time my dad showed me how to use an 8mm camera. It had the little Kodak cartridges that you stick in, and I remember it had the ability to shoot one-stop animation. I loved it and I’d take it with me when I went off on tour with him. I’d use my Star Wars figures, Smurfs toys, whatever I had, and make these little animated films. Dad would help.

‘He taught me, in a lovely way, the basics of making a movie, like how to do storyboards, write a script, do the lighting. He also taught me how to use a splicer – cutting the film and sticking it back together in the projector. I had this big blue box that was full of my storyboards and scripts. I’d make these little sets and I’d set up backstage with my Star Wars and Smurfs toys. While Dad would go on stage I’d be making my little movies.’

Jones’s mother, former American model and actress Angie Bowie (born Mary Angela Barnett), is notably absent from all of his anecdotes. Her drug-taking, bisexual exploits at the time have been well documented. She and Bowie divorced in 1980 and Jones hasn’t seen his mother, who now lives in Arizona, for years.

‘We stopped communicating when I was 13 and it was the right choice then and I’m convinced it’s still the right choice now,’ he tells me firmly.

‘She’s a woman who didn’t have a very positive effect on my upbringing so I think it was the right move.’ It’s clearly a painful area and he won’t go into any more detail.

At 14, Bowie sent Jones to Scottish public school Gordonstoun – nicknamed ‘Colditz in kilts’ by one former inmate, Prince Charles.

‘I was there for five years before I was asked to leave one week before we were meant to after I had slept through most of my A-levels. I was so stressed out. I’ve never really gone into it with Dad as to why he decided Gordonstoun was the right place for me to go. If I’m honest, it wasn’t a great fit for me. It was fairly austere and they still maintained that disciplined regime – the morning runs and the cold showers. I didn’t feel comfortable. I was just trying to survive.’

Ultimately, Jones took American SATS examinations and studied philosophy at Wooster College, Ohio.

A procession of celebrities – and accompanying newspaper headlines detailing lurid stories about Bowie’s own bisexuality and drug abuse – trooped through their lives, but true to Jones’s nonchalant attitude to fame, they made little or no impression.

‘I do remember Suggs from Madness,’ he proffers when I insist he recall some A-list names.

‘He was a lovely guy. I remember him coming out to Switzerland to see Dad and I was a huge Madness fan – I wanted the black-and-white clothes they used to wear. There were a lot of people about but it didn’t interest me and to be honest  I didn’t pay much attention.’

He says he was protected from the wilder side of his father’s life – not finding out about it until he was an adult.

‘I was massively kept away from that kind of thing.’

Film school in London followed, then several industry jobs working in production houses, at a special-effects company, and finally in advertising (making commercials for Heinz Ketchup, French Connection and McCain Oven Chips), before Jones felt he was ready to make his first feature film.

Too many rejections to mention – ‘I don’t want to embarrass them by putting their names out there, but I did start to wonder, God, is this ever going to happen?’ – led to him raising the money for Moon, starring Sam Rockwell. The rest, as they say, is history.

‘I remember the night that Sam said he would do the film. I was sharing a flat with three guys in London and had a conference call with my producer and Sam’s agent in New York, working out the final details, and then it was like, “OK, Sam’s in.” I was calling everyone, including my dad. He was thrilled for me, but a little nervous too.’

Released to universal acclaim in 2009, Moon went on to earn Jones a Bafta for Outstanding Debut for a Writer, Director or Producer. In his acceptance speech, Jones was clearly overwhelmed and close to tears.

‘It meant everything to me,’ he says. ‘And it couldn’t have come at a better time. I’d just got involved in Source Code and I was trying to find my way in dealing with a host of producers, many of whom had contradictory opinions about what the film should be and all of whom wanted to let me know about it. Winning the Bafta was a huge help because all of a sudden I was “Bafta-winning director” and my opinions became a lot more valid.’

Source Code is a striking sci-fi thriller with Gyllenhaal as Colter Stevens, a U.S. soldier who wakes up in the body of an unknown man travelling in a train that’s about to be targeted by a terrorist. After the bomb explodes Stevens is sent back again and again to re-live the last eight minutes before the attack until he can stop the bomber. The film consolidated Jones’s meteoric Hollywood rise.

‘I do have a long-term goal,’ he admits. ‘That is to get to the point where I can work in the same way that guys like the Coen Brothers and Tarantino do – people who write their own material and are able to get the budget to be able to do it justice. That’s where I want to get.’

Most of the industry thinks he’s already arrived. The day after we meet Jones is due to fly to Hollywood where a series of meetings await him and he will decide on his next project. We agree to catch up just before our interview is published to let me know the latest news.

Some very big doors have opened up,’ he tells me on the phone.

‘I went to some meetings for Wolverine and if there were any comic book movies that could lure me in, it was that one. But there’s already been a Wolverine movie and a number of X-Men movies. There are a lot of comic-book fims coming out right now.’

Jones has, he says, just committed to his next project.

‘I can’t give you specifics but I can say that I now know what I’m doing next. It’s an original script that I’m writing myself, set in a big sprawling, urban environment here on Earth in a sort of Blade Runner-inspired future. I would love to have it run parallel to Moon so that even though they are completely separate stories they happen within the same universe.’

At the moment Jones lives, works and breathes Los Angeles.

‘I like hanging out with my girlfriend and my friends in LA where we live, watching movies and going out to eat fish and chips on the beach in Malibu. And I am a bit of a geek; I still like playing computer games – Assassin’s Creed. Amazing!’ But he’s adamant that he feels like a Brit abroad, not an American in the making.

‘I’m definitely a Brit. I was born in Britain and I’ve lived here for most of my life. I think in some ways the more you travel the more you want everyone to know where you are from. When you go abroad, you’re more British than you are at home. A lot of my friends are Brits – in fact it’s like Little Britain out here! But I wouldn’t want to bring up kids here. If I have a family I’d want to be in the UK or New York, where my father is.’

He sees Bowie as much as possible.

‘We Skype every weekend and whenever I get the chance to go to New York we meet up. He doesn’t get to see an early cut of my films. He sees it when it’s finished. But he’s very supportive and always has been.

‘He’s just a wonderful guy and father and I think he understands that I’m a creative person in my own right. He gave me the time and the support to find my feet and the confidence to do what I do.’

The one regret Jones has from his childhood is, ironically, that he never did learn to play an instrument.

‘Of course, I greatly regret it now,’ he sighs ruefully.

‘I’d love to be able to play the guitar or something else but I just don’t have the time to learn…’


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