By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Duncan Jones is looking a bit like a middle-aged surfer with his scruffy beard and casual clothing as he sits in a hotel suite overlooking one of L.A.’s busiest freeways. His mind is occupied with many thoughts: he and his wife, Rodene Ronquillo—quietly sitting a few feet away at a table—are expecting their first child, his big-budget, effects-laden studio feature “Warcraft” is due out and he is heading for Moscow later in the day to do more promotion for the film.
The award-winning filmmaker appears calm on the outside, though. He’s jovial and chatty as he talks up the action-packed fantasy based on the popular Internet-based role-playing game. The film, from Legendary Pictures and Universal Pictures, is the realization of a quest that has occupied three years of Jones’ life and many more for its producers.
Though his previous features—the BAFTA award-winning “Moon” and the 2011 sci-fi drama “Source Code”—also involved fantasy and/or science-fiction elements, they weren’t a tenth of the size and scope of “Warcraft,” which was filmed in Canada with dozens of actors, hundreds of crewmembers and required a great deal of technical attention. (The film has more than 2,000 visual effects shots.) What Jones, 45, had going for him was his personal affinity for the game and his desire to tell a story involving Warcraft characters and settings that he wanted to share with the rest of the world.
Blizzard Entertainment created the game in 1994 with “Warcraft: Orcs and Humans.” A decade later, it expanded to “World of Warcraft,” a subscription-based multiplayer online role-playing game in which vast numbers of players anywhere in the world can adventure alongside one another in the same universe. Today, it boasts more than 100 million registered users and is ranked among the Top 10 most popular multiplayer role playing games. Since that time, five expansions to “WoW” have been released, the most recent being “World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor.”
Conflict is at the center of “Warcraft” lore and when Blizzard and the filmmakers began discussions about bringing the property to the big screen, the challenge was not only to be faithful to countless legions of fans, but also to provide a captivating narrative for audiences unfamiliar with the fantasy environments and characters. Potential directors came and went. Jones was able to convince them he was the man for the job.
The film opens in the once-peaceful realm of Azeroth, which has been invaded by a fearsome race of invaders. These orc warriors have fled their dying home colony to repopulate another. As a portal opens connecting the worlds, one army faces destruction while the other faces extinction. Heroes on both sides emerge and are set on a collision course that will decide the fates of their family, their people and their homes.
“Warcraft” stars Travis Fimmel (History’s “Vikings”) as the mighty human warrior Anduin Lothar, commander of Azeroth’s military forces. On the other side of the multiverse is Durotan (played by “Fantastic Four’s” Toby Kebbell), the beloved leader of the Frostwolf Clan, who has ventured with his family and people through the Dark Portal to Azeroth. Paula Patton (“Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol”) plays Garona, a bewitching half-human/half orc, who must choose a side. The film also stars Ben Foster (“The Mechanic”), Dominic Cooper (AMC’s “Preacher”), Ben Schnetzer (“Pride”), Rob Kazinsky (“Hot Pursuit”) and Daniel Wu (AMC’s “Into the Badlands”).
Born in London to celebrity parents (the late rock star David Bowie and actress Angie Bowie), Jones has forged his own career path as a filmmaker. He and wife, a professional photographer, make their home in Los Angeles.
Q: “Warcraft” obviously will have a built-in audience of fans of the game. But a film has to appeal to a broader audience, doesn’t it?
Jones: That was my job to hopefully create something that appealed beyond.
Q: You are a gamer?
Jones: I am.
Q: Taking something you’re familiar with, and making that into a film. We’ve seen games turned into films before…
Jones: And the track record hasn’t been great.
Q: What was the special ingredient that you brought in that made this work?
Jones: I don’t think there is any reason why games can’t be source material for a movie anyway. It’s like a book. It’s like a true-life story. If you come up with a way to tell a story and have a compelling character or set of characters that are going to bring you through that story, the inspiration for the story isn’t what’s going to be at fault if it doesn’t work. For whatever reason, people who’ve made films based on computer games in the past maybe haven’t prioritized making a good film as much as capitalizing on the fact that there is a known franchise to try to make a movie out of. In the same way that comic book movies used to be a little rough and now they’re very successful—I think a lot of them are quite entertaining and have real merit—my generation grew up playing computer games and a lot of filmmakers these days would have computer games as part of their upbringing and their culture.
Q: What did you tell Blizzard to convince them you were the right director for this?
Jones: There was a certain frustration level they had because they had been trying to make a movie for a while—nearly 10 years. They worked with other people. It’s well known that they worked with (filmmaker) Sam Raimi for a while. I don’t think they ever agreed on what the film should be. Blizzard has been rightly very protective of something, which for them on the game-side brings them $1 billion a year. A movie is going to be small potatoes compared to what the game does for them. They wanted to make sure whatever we do with the film doesn’t tarnish the reputation of something that is so successful and that they’re so proud of. It’s a legacy that they have in that industry, in that form of media. So they’re very selective and very cautious and they have strong ideas of what they want the movie to be, and me, being a player of the game from the very beginning, I kind of knew what they would want. I felt that if you were going to make a film based on “Warcraft,” I agreed that it shouldn’t be about humans being the good guys and monsters being bad guys. It should be about heroes coming in all shapes and sizes and appearing in unexpected places and, if we could make a film that did that, it got me excited, because I felt that on a structural level, as a filmmaker, there is something really challenging about making a war movie where you allow the audience to empathize with both sides of the combat.
Q: How much of screenwriter Charles Leavitt’s original script did you keep or did you completely rewrite it?
Jones: A fair amount. My addition to the script was an aggressive polish with a bit of restructuring. What they already had agreed on, and what made me feel confident that they were telling the right story, was that “Warcraft” has been around for 20 years so there’s 20 years of storytelling. They selected a very specific moment, which actually is right at the start of when the games began. I thought that was sensible because as they told stories, they were adding more and more folklore, making things more and more convoluted, and now it’s like the Greek myths. It scrolls all over the place. It’s difficult to tell one story without knowing the story before it.
So, with this first one, things are pretty simple. These creatures, orcs, have a world. It’s dying. They have to find a new home and they invade a world that already has people in it. Those are the humans and the dwarves and the people that we get to meet in the movie. That’s the conflict that basically has made 20 years of games.
Q: You include some characters in the film that “Warcraft” gamers will be able to identify. One of them is this creature called Kobold. What are some of the other elements you culled from the game that will be most appreciated by the “Warcraft” fans?
Jones: I’m a fan of Pixar. I think it’s amazing how successful they are at making movies that work on two different levels—for the kids and for the parents of the kids. I’m pretty sure the kids don’t get a lot of the jokes or references that the parents do. I think that’s totally fine. I think the kids love the movies and the parents love the movies. So I was thinking if we could approach “Warcraft” in that way where an audience that knows nothing about “Warcraft” will enjoy a big, sprawling epic fantasy film with characters that engage them and they can follow, and at the same time fans are going to be able to see lots of extra elements such as what you’re talking about and a lot more, hopefully, Easter eggs throughout the film, where they’re going to go, “I know this place. I recognize this location that the film is taking place,” because they’ve spent so much time in the game there. That rewards the fans on an extra level.
All of those locations (in the film) are places that people who play the game have spent large amounts of time in so if the camera is pointing in one direction, they’ll be saying, “I know what’s over there, and I know what’s over there.” There’s a place called Iron Forge, where the dwarf king lives, so that location is something they absolutely recognize and the characters there they will recognize as well.
Q: Have you ever sat down and figured out how many hours you’ve spent playing this game?
Jones: I have not spent as much time as Rob Kazinsky, who is one of our cast members. He is a longtime hard-core, incredibly passionate player of the game. I’ve spent a pretty good amount of time, enough to be embarrassed but not guilty. (He laughs.)
Q: Did Rob play while you were on location?
Jones: I believe he played a little bit while we were shooting. But he loves it as do a lot of us.
Q: You’re three feature films all have had something to do with sci-fi or fantasy. A Are you drawn to that genre or is it coincidence?
Jones: I think it’s a short enough list at this point that its possibly coincidence. I’m not averse to doing a contemporary film. I guess “Source Code” was kind of contemporary but I’m not averse to doing a reality-based movie. It just so happens that these first three films have kind of allowed me to play with ideas that go beyond things that you wouldn’t get in a regular world. But I would enjoy that. My next film is going to be science fiction as well so it does seem to be becoming more of a pattern. There are a couple of ideas for things I’d like to write that would not be as strictly genre.
Q: Where are you on “Mute?”
Jones: I have promotion obligations for this film, which I’m happy to do. And then my wife and I are expecting our first kid in a month’s time. So that’s going to keep us very busy, obviously. At the end of July, we’re going to be flying out to Berlin and starting pre-production, set-construction and things like that (for “Mute”), and shooting before the end of the year.
Q: Are you familiar with Michael Moorcock’s Elric books?
Jones: Yes I am, very much so. The Elric saga, yeah. Michael Moorcock’s stuff is incredibly surreal. These are the days when you could probably get it made. Maybe more on TV than in film. But Elric is a fantastic character.
Q: I ask you about it because it seems it would need a director with a specific set of skills like you have on this.
Jones: I kind of feel like I’ve set myself up now with an interesting and unique resume of movies to make some things that would be more difficult to convince a studio to back anyone else to do. So I think that’s a little bit about the films I’ve chosen to make—I sound like Liam Neeson— is that it’s given me a unique set of skills. (He laughs.)
Q: You had more than 2,000 effects in this. Was any of this daunting?
Jones: Yeah, it was 3-1/2 years of playing 4-D chess. (He laughs.)
Q: How do you approach that on a day-to-day basis?
Jones: You try and concentrate on what’s right in front of you while you’re working and, at the end of the day, you kind of take a step back and you think, “Are we on track to tell this story we’re trying to tell?” It’s not the fact that it’s daunting, but the focus required on a constant basis for 3-1/2 years is exhausting. It’s really challenging. That was something new. That was something I hadn’t experienced on “Moon” and “Source Code”—that stamina factor.
Q: You finished principal photography on this in 2014, and the past year and a half you were in post-production.
Jones: ILM is in San Francisco, which is close enough that if I wasn’t on Skype or Cinesync talking to them online, I was flying up to San Francisco or driving up to San Francisco, and working with them in person. Just because the work had been handed over as far as the editing was concerned, there was a lot of work to be done, and the editing would be tweaked and changed based on the effects shots. Because even if something works as an offline, once you start getting delivery of the detail of the effects shots, you start to make little tweaks to it, just to make the finished shots work in a way that you can’t really judge when it’s not all there.
Q: Was there one particular part most challenging?
Jones: Patience. (He laughs.) Patience was the challenge every step of the way. I had it when waiting was required. But every stage, every decision I made, you’re hoping and waiting for the repercussions to feed back in order to know if it’s the right choice or not, whether it’s getting effects shots back after you’ve composed a shot and are not entirely sure it’s going to look like you thought in your imagination. The patience factor and stamina—that’s what you need for a film like this.
Q: That will serve you in fatherhood too.
Jones: Good point. Thank you.