Alfred Hitchcock had a celebrated recipe for suspense: a time bomb planted under a table, people sitting at the table and only the audience being aware that something is ticking.
It's a formula for tension that's more or less thrown out the train window by "Source Code," the psychological thriller opening March 25 and starring Jake Gyllenhaal: The movie has about eight explosions. Characters and audience know they're coming. And you can still cut the tension with a knife.
But "Source Code" -- the name given a highly experimental military project by which an Army helicopter pilot is sent back through time to investigate a commuter-train bombing in Chicago -- takes its own novel tack toward creating suspense. Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal) has been severely wounded (this is not a spoiler). The military's Source Code researchers, led by the ruthless Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), have found that in the last eight minutes of someone's life, he or she can access a parallel reality, thus providing the opportunity for someone to get on that train and find out what happened -- not change the past, just discover what happened.
One of the problems is that Colter has to figure out where he is and what's going on before he can actually investigate, and he only has eight minutes and -- BOOM! -- the train's blown up. So he goes back again. And back again.
Just as Colter is under pressure, so were the filmmakers, who had to avoid the traps of a "Groundhog Day" setup.
It didn't bother Gyllenhaal. "No," he said, "it attracted me. It attracted me because it was an opportunity to play a character who was experiencing things at the same time as the audience is experiencing things. So, in a way, I could be asking the same questions the audience would be asking, just as I was asking them."
The Oscar-nominated actor ("Brokeback Mountain") said the most critical -- and most frequent -- direction he got from Jones was "make it weirder."
"We knew beforehand that the only way this was going to be engaging and intriguing and fun to watch was through variation," Gyllenhaal said. "How Duncan staged a scene, how I responded, how I gathered information, how much I was aware of what was going on, and how much I wasn't aware. So it felt like a real tightrope walk for me. And as soon as I stopped thinking about all those cliched responses you might expect from an actor in a thriller, as soon as it became a real psychological exploration, it became fascinating to me."
His 'strange' career
Gyllenhaal has become one of the more respected Hollywood actors of his generation, largely through roles that seem, if not anti-Hollywood, then certainly unconventional. "Brokeback" came with built-in risks. "Donnie Darko" may have made his career, but it's a strange entity, nonetheless. "I have a relatively strange mind," Gyllenhaal says. "Some strange things are going to come from it."
While there has been the occasional payday, like "Prince of Persia" ("Even there I tried to throw in a little bit of something," he countered), he's also done "The Good Girl," "Lovely & Amazing," the grossly underappreciated "Zodiac" and, more recently, "Brothers," the Jim Sheridan's adaptation of the Susanne Bier's Danish film. "I loved that story and I loved that character," he said. "In fact, I loved that character maybe more than any I've played; I'd like to bring him back in some kind of incarnation again 'cause I just loved what he was struggling with.
"But, yeah," he added, "I think things work the best when I listen to my own instincts."
Those instincts led him to recruit Jones (the son of David Bowie) to direct "Source Code." "He was the one who suggested I read the script," said the director, whose sci-fi "Moon" had caught Gyllenhaal's attention. "The first time I read it, I found it incredibly exciting. The second time I read it was as a director, and I really scratched my head: How do we get through all the repetition? How do we get through all the claustrophobic environments? How do you break out of those and make the film feel bigger and not make the audience feel like they're seeing the same thing again and again? To be honest, part of the draw was the puzzle-solving aspect of it."
Another military engagement
One solution was variation; another was the love story that develops -- in eight-minute increments -- between Gyllenhaal and co-star Michelle Monaghan. One thing the filmmakers couldn't have foreseen was that the country would be in another military engagement just as Gyllenhaal was playing yet another serviceman (a Marine in "Jarhead" being his most notable). And a wounded one at that.
"I always feel a sense of responsibility," the actor said of playing soldiers. "There's the whole argument about whether movies have an influence, and from my experience, yes: I have people coming up and saying, 'My brother enlisted because he saw "Jarhead" and he loved that movie so much.' Or, you know, ' "Brokeback Mountain" changed my life; I was always ashamed of the way that I felt, and I saw that movie and it made me feel this way or that way.'
"You know," he added, "there are so many responses to movies. Sometimes I think, with this movie, 'Well, there could be a 12-year-old kid who's going to see this movie, who's going to be one of the most brilliant scientists in the world, and who says, "You know, that source code's a brilliant idea; maybe we can make that happen." ' It may be too outlandish and hopeful, but I believe in the power of movies."