Speaking by phone from Liberty Studios in London, 38-year-old former Vanderbilt student Duncan Jones seems unaffected by the flurry of media attention he’s receiving for his directorial debut, the science-fiction film Moon.
Produced for $5 million (a mere pittance in the film industry), the thought-provoking thriller opened in American theaters in July to critical acclaim. It was named a best film at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and earned “Best British Film” honors at the Edinburgh Film Festival.
The son of glam-rock legend David Bowie, Jones didn’t find his current success by riding his famous father’s coattails. Once a shy, awkward teenager, he stayed clear of red carpets and nightclubs, instead occupying himself with books (science fiction among them) and with making stop-motion animated films.
Wishing to avoid comparison, he chose not to pursue his father’s line of work, instead earning a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the College of Wooster in Ohio. To the surprise of friends and family, in the fall of 1995 he entered Vanderbilt’s philosophy Ph.D. program rather than return to England. He settled into campus life quickly, joining the rugby team and spending time with friends at local hangouts like San Antonio Taco Co.
“I remember when I first came to Vanderbilt and thinking how huge it all seemed,” he says. “I took some fascinating courses through the philosophy department. In particular, I remember one on medical ethics that gave me some truly disturbing dilemmas to chew on. … I had an outstanding experience at Vanderbilt, but it was tough in that I was starting to see that I was being drawn toward film.”
A trip to a film set to visit his father prompted a life-altering realization for Jones.
“I had this kind of epiphany, that this was what I was supposed to be doing. This hobby of filmmaking from my childhood—this was what I should pursue.”
I believe you are the sum of your experiences, so you need to experience as many things as you can. Because of that, I think education is a gift that no one should pass up.
Jones left Vanderbilt in 1997 to study at The London Film School. In the years that followed, he worked as a cameraman and commercial director and took part in other aspects of the industry. Moon, partially funded by Trudie Styler, wife of rocker Sting, is his first feature, and critics are already predicting a successful future for the director.
Jones’ interest in philosophy played a significant role in the writing and producing of Moon, he says. The movie focuses on a solitary astronaut (played by Sam Rockwell) serving out a three-year stint on a lunar space station, where he oversees the mining of helium-3, a vital source of energy back on Earth.
“Moon is an unusual film in a lot of ways, and I’m quite sure that the philosophical underpinnings of the story were informed by many of the things I was studying during my time at Vanderbilt,” says Jones. “I guess that’s part of the beauty of higher education—you never know when you are going to be able to draw from it.”
Now the darling of the film-festival circuit with offers coming in to direct more features, Jones seems to have found his calling. But he hasn’t forgotten his passion for learning and the education that helped form who he is today.
“It may have taken more than a decade to make my philosophy study pay for itself, but pay for itself it finally has,” he says. “It was an exceedingly circuitous route, but … I believe you are the sum of your experiences, so you need to experience as many things as you can. Because of that, I think education is a gift that no one should pass up.”