by Ian Burrell / The Independent
6th March 2006
Duncan Jones, formerly known as Zowie Bowie, has been quietly building his career as an advertising creative without relying on his father’s name.
Duncan Jones, one of the emerging young talents of the British advertising industry, expressly asked that this interview should be accompanied by a photograph of him as a child and not by a contemporary portrait.
Why the reluctance to be seen as he is today? The answer is that Jones is one of the most famous offspring in rock. His father is David Bowie (born David Jones) and the young Duncan was known to the world as Zowie Bowie, and his birth inspired the song “Kooks”. “I was very aware of the drawbacks of celebrity and fame and recognition,” he says. “It’s just not for me. I don’t want people coming up to me in the shops.”
But Duncan Zowie Heywood Jones has made such an impact in his five-month-long advertising career that he will find it hard to go unnoticed for much longer. The film director’s first ad, a racy, post-watershed creation for French Connection, showing two gorgeous girls fighting and then kissing, has attracted widespread attention. “Kung-fu lesbian advert sparks viewer protests,” wrote The Daily Telegraph.
Jones’s boss Trevor Beattie, who persuaded him to join Beattie McGuinness Bungay (BMB), could not be happier with his new charge, who has moved the French Connection brand on from Beattie’s notorious FCUK tagline. That early success has not gone to Jones’s head is quickly apparent; he repeatedly expresses his nervousness ahead of this first media interview.
Dressed in a sloppy blue floral shirt and combat trousers, he is unshaven and speaks in a clear English accent that carries no trace of a childhood spent in New York, Switzerland, Japan and Australia. Like a good adman, he is careful with the words he uses, though this is also a reflection of lack of confidence in speaking for the public record. Beattie says that his staff feel protective towards someone who has not worked in an office environment before.
Not that Duncan Jones is a shrinking violet. He may shun the paparazzi but he is burning with ambition. Although only 34, he has followed a tortuous route to get to where he is and is brimming with ideas. “I think Trevor wanted me to bring a non- advertising mind to what he does. I’ve got a couple of projects and ways of working that I have been talking to him about.”
Jones first worked with Beattie as a freelance director 18 months ago, on a campaign to mark the 25th anniversary of McCain oven chips. A three-minute commercial, deliberately made in the style of a generation earlier, was the result. “It was very bizarre,” says Jones. “So much in the style of something from that period that it was on the edge of being dull at times but it kind of worked. It was great fun.” As a result, Beattie offered Jones a job. “Trevor said, ‘You might enjoy working as a creative; you might have some talents in that area.’ It’s worked out pretty well.”
Before then, Jones had been trying to establish himself as a director after completing a course at the London Film School. “I had been banging away, building up my showreel as a director. I view myself still as a director. That’s what I do.”
But finding his vocation was a long process. For years he had been “an eternal student”. Jones acknowledges his father as “a huge influence on me”. Bowie, who has remained a force in music for nearly 40 years, once hoped his son would follow him into that world. “When I was growing up he kept on trying to get me to learn instruments but I just didn’t have the patience for it,” says Jones. “But one of the things we were always doing together as a hobby was filming stuff, shooting on 8mm cameras and using tiny little editing systems to cut together Smurf movies. I had these Smurf and Star Wars figures and would do one-stop animation with them. I was six or seven.”
Bowie, a pioneer in making music videos, has pursued an acting career alongside his musical one, and as a result his son found himself on the set of several of his father’s films, including the 1986 children’s fantasy film Labyrinth, directed by Muppets’ creator Jim Henson. Jones recalls: “They were building these amazing sets, these Muppet villages, and it’s like a dream for a kid to be able to wander about in them.”
More significantly, in his mid-20s Jones visited the Montreal set where his father was filming The Hunger. The director was Tony Scott (who also directed Top Gun), and he allowed Jones to rove the set with a “wild camera” taking shots that could be cut in to the main footage. Scott was “incredibly benevolent”, taking Jones aside to explain his methods of working.
“It was a condensed but very exciting film school in its own right,” says Jones, who realised that his eternal student days were finally over. “That’s where I just knew what I wanted to do.”
Immediately prior to that he had been attending graduate school in the unlikely location of Nashville, Tennessee, home of Vanderbilt University. “I was doing philosophy, applying artificial intelligence and morality to sentient machines. Very sci-fi. I was trying to get ahead of the game, ready for when our robot masters arrived,” he laughs.
It was a rather different world to that lived by the likes of other famous offspring such as Jade Jagger and Stella McCartney. “There were a lot of cowboy hats and chaps around. On Friday nights everyone comes out in their Stetsons and they go line dancing. But at least I feel I understand the Midwest,” says a now relaxed Jones, who was born in Bromley and considers London, where he has lived for the past eight years, as his home.
So he returned to Britain and enrolled in the London Film School, invigorated by his encounters with Tony Scott. Jones eventually made a 26-minute short called Whistle, which was screened on FilmFour. By the time of the French Connection campaign, he felt confident enough to argue successfully that, rather than use two models in the ads, with body doubles for the violent scenes, stunt women Carly Harrop and Tailia Santos should act out the whole steamy scrap.
“They are brilliant British stunt women and they look bloody good as well,” he says. “It wouldn’t have been the same commercial if we’d been forced to do a swap out for fashion models. It wouldn’t have worked.” The ad also involved Jones writing the libretto for a mini-opera, scored by Mark-Sayer-Wade and sung by Mark Luther.
“People have reacted to the ad in different ways but I don’t think anyone can begrudge the fact that it’s well made and for me as a director that’s the most important thing,” he says.
Jones desperately hopes to do work for BMB’s newly won client Carling, expressing great admiration for the classic Dambusters ad, directed by Tony Scott’s brother Ridley. “That to me is perfect,” says Jones, who also has expertise in designing computer games and is working on a British sci-fi feature film. “It’s got the humour; it looks fantastic and delivers on the personal and aesthetic level.”
He acknowledges an inconsistency in his desire for anonymity and willingness to give a newspaper interview about his career. “It’s going to look ridiculous but it’s about the work and I need to be realistic about the fact that I want people to recognise my work,” he says. “I’m 34 now. I could’ve probably been where I am now when I was 24 if I had been swinging my dad’s name around like a bat. It’s taken me this long because I think I’ve earnt it.
“My dad and I are incredibly close. I’m going to see him (in New York) this weekend, and I think he’s very proud of the fact that I’ve done this on my own.”