Exclusive Interview — Duncan Jones Talks WARCRAFT and Growing Up a Gamer Geek

With the release of the first full trailer for Legendary Pictures and Blizzard Entertainment's film adaptation of WarcraftDuncan Jones has quickly become a household name for any geek worth his or her salt. On his way from the premier of the trailer at BlizzCon to do some pre-production work on his upcoming science fiction flick, Mute, Duncan took the time to call us up here at GameTyrant and talk shop, one World of Warcraft nerd to another. We discuss his love for the source material, his history with fantasy role-playing games stemming from Dungeons & DragonsUltima Online and eventually running a guild in World of Warcraft rather than doing his homework in graduate school. I've transcribed the full interview below, so grab a drink and soak it all in, because finally we have someone as geeky as us at the helm of a video game movie.

Jake: What are some of your influences moving from science fiction into a more high fantasy story?

Duncan: Well the game obviously is a huge one, both because I really was a player and also fantasy gaming and fantasy itself is something I’ve always been a fan of. I was both a sci-fi and a fantasy geek growing up. I’ve only really had the opportunity to show off my sci-fi chops, but I’ve always been a big fan of fantasy. Whether it’s playing Dungeons & Dragons as a kid or playing Warcraft and Ultima Online, or being a fan of that kind of artwork, all those things are permeating what Warcraft is going to be.

Jake: What are some of the conflicts you had adapting something as beloved as Warcraft for a broader audience that may not know the story-line?

Duncan: I think the biggest one, that was a challenge before I even became involved, was what story do you tell? Blizzard and the guys at Warcraft, Chris Metzen and Nick Carpenter, have been creating this universe of stories for 20 years, so that’s a huge amount of storytelling that you can draw from. But by the time I got involved, they had already narrowed in on, “Let’s go back to a first contact story. When humans and orcs come together and meet for the first time. ” You get a kind of clash of cultures that knew nothing about each other. So I think that really chops away a huge amount of story that you no longer have to be burdened by. You’re going backwards in time to a place where you can really focus on something that is a lot more streamlined.

Jake: Where you’re going back to the first Warcraft game, are we going to see much of the other races besides orcs and humans?

Duncan: Now that the trailer is out, there are certainly some Elves in there, there are some Dwarves, there will be some other creatures [as well]. We’ve seen a griffin obviously, which isn’t a playable race, but there are some cool creatures in there as well. So I think you’ll get a good sprinkling of those things that people that know Warcraft will definitely be aware of.

Jake: How did things go getting involved with Blizzard and the Warcraft movie?

Duncan: Blizzard and Jon Jashni from Legendary have been trying to make this film for awhile. I’m sure you’re aware that Sam Raimi was attached for awhile. I had been basically stalking in the background when we first heard of it back in 2011. I was very intrigued to know what was going on with the project, because I was a fan [of Warcraft] and I wanted to see the film. I kept on asking, “When is this thing going to happen, if it’s going to happen?” I think awareness developed that I was a devout fan and wanted to see what movie they were going to make. As it started to trickle out that the film maybe wasn’t getting traction, I started putting my name in the hat to say, “Look, if it’s not working this way and you want to try it a different way, I would really be interested in getting involved.” Eventually I was invited to come in and give a pitch on what I thought we could do with the project. Legendary was intrigued and sort of asked me if I would come and do the same pitch to the guys at Blizzard, and it was all sort of kismet. When I talked to the guys at Blizzard it became pretty obvious that I was speaking the same DNA that they were hoping for.

Jake: Obviously you’re a big gamer, talking about Warcraft lore, D&D and Ultima Online. What kind of background do you have in these kinds of games?

Duncan: Well, I mean I used to play The Last Vikings before Warcraft had even started. I played all the [Warcraft] real-time-strategy games. I avidly played Ultima Online until World of Warcraft came out and then the clan that I ran basically left Ultima Online to go play WoW. That’s what I was doing in graduate school, which obviously wasn’t a great sign for my graduate school education.

Jake: I think you turned out alright.

Duncan: I suppose you could say that.

Jake: What was your initial reaction to the fact that you are the dude doing Warcraft?

Duncan: It was a massive load of excitement, and then there was also this huge new boulder on my shoulders that I knew I was going to have to carry to the finish line. I was just joking about it the other day, now that the film is finished and the trailer has come out I feel like that boulder is now off of my shoulders and in my stomach until the movie is actually released.

Jake: You took a very stylistic choice with the CG in order to match the feel of the game. Were there any tough hurdles you had to cross to get to that point?

Duncan: It’s been tricky to kind of cross that point and just find the sweet spot between this incredibly cool, but over-the-top style that the Warcraft games have and find something that feels believably live action and real. We didn’t want to just copy what Lord of the Rings or other fantasy films had done. We were trying to find our own aesthetic. We’re very excited about it. Myself and Bill Westenhofer, who is my VFX supervisor and who is also an avid Warcraft player himself, we talked really early on about what sort of tweaks we can make to give this a really unique look. One thing that we came up with is this sort of “small world”. Basically, when you’re playing the game and travel from one territory or environment to another one the transition from something like forest to desert is very rapid. You get this sense of almost like a patchwork quilt from one environment butting up against the next one. Whenever we do have one of these big, broad, epic sort of landscape shots we always try to pack two or three different environments in that shot so you get patchwork nature, even in this live action environment.

Jake: Did you face any kind of conflict from Legendary or Blizzard on your stylistic choices, or were they pretty much on board with what you were doing?

Duncan: (Laughs) I think they were very much on board, if only in that they were relieved that finally someone seemed to have found the avenue to move forward. I think they were very excited about what I was suggesting. The fact that Blizzard was so in sync with where I wanted to go with things, I think there was just a very rapidly building enthusiasm for what we were doing. Blizzard, understandably, had always been incredibly cautious about how to proceed. You know, they don’t need to make a movie to be successful. World of Warcraft has done incredibly well for them. Hearthstone is doing incredibly well for them. StarCraft, Diablo, everything they’ve done have been very successful games. They don’t need movies, so if they were going to do one they wanted it to be right.  More power to them, that is the way it should be. It took a long time to find an avenue and fortunately me being in sync with them was enough for them to start moving forward.

Jake: It is great seeing such a die-hard fan at the helm. Lack of love for the source material is what has made other video game movies kind of crappy.

Duncan: Absolutely! I think that’s one of the things that we talked about early on. We need to make a movie where the Warcraft fans could show it to people who don’t know Warcraft and say, “See! This is what we love so much about this universe.” It really is a kind of communication tool for those who play Warcraft to those who know nothing about it.

Jake: I think you hit nail on the head with that one. I grew up playing Warcraft II and World of Warcraft, so I felt I needed to share the trailer with my mother who watched me and my brother play it through the years. It made her feel like she needs to see the movie so she can understand why we love it so much.

Duncan: That right there! That is exactly the definition of the experience I was hoping for!

Jake: So when you are sitting down to play World of Warcraft, are you more of an Alliance guy, or do you swing more on the Horde side of things?

Duncan: I spent my first period on vanilla Warcraft, just after the beta, playing Alliance most of the time. Then I just sort of fell in love with the orc’s side of things, so I started playing a lot more Horde. I do feel like I am legitimately comfortable on both sides. I do have to straddle the loyalties there, it’s my job.

Jake: Very true! But if you absolutely had to chose?

Duncan: Well, I probably play my orcs more than my Alliance characters as a whole. So I guess I’d have to pick Horde. What I would say, because of the film itself the experience of making the orcs and the motion capture technology that we used, these actors, Tony Kebbell, Rob Kazinsky, Clancy Brown and Daniel Wu were all forced to wear the silver pajamas with the dots on them, making them completely lose all their inhibitions. We had so much fun shooting the orc side of things that now it is pretty much no contest. I had so much fun with the Horde guys that there is a little bit of extra loyalty there.

Jake: It’s easy to bond with a bunch of orcs in silver pajamas.

Duncan: Yeah, Dom Cooper and Travis (Fimmel) still had to try and look cool in their armor. But Clancy Brown in silver pajamas, it is just fun times.

Jake: Try as you might, you’re just not going to look cool in those.

Duncan: Exactly!

Jake: With the evolution of CG and performance capture, do you find it is best to bring on actors who know the ropes of the process, or has it become a lot easier to teach it to noobies?

Duncan: I think that biggest challenge is convincing an actor that everything they do, every nuance of their performance is going to be picked up. I think because the technology has been so rapidly changing and becoming more and more able to pick up those details, some actors are not at first aware of how good the resolution is, as far as what gets picked up. They think that they get away with stuff, but then you start showing them that this is what we’re seeing. This is what is actually going to animate our skins. Immediately they start to realize, “Oh my god, this a real performance. I have to give it 100%. I need to really be there and do this thing properly.” We certainly didn’t have any issues with that on our shoot, but I think there is kind of an education you have to go through right at the start of the process. The ability to lose all those inhibitions and treat it almost like a play where you’re not worrying too much about what’s around you or what it looks like, and really just try to get into the moment, that is the biggest challenge. As far as the actual way you perform, the detail is so specific now that any acting style works and it will transform, as long as you work for the character that you’re playing.

Jake: Based on the possible success of this film, do you think you’d ever want to try your hand at one of Blizzard’s other properties?

Duncan: I am very comfortable doing, and I hope I continue doing three Warcraft movies. Chris Metzen (Game Designer on World of Warcraft) and I talked about what those three movies could be if this one is successful. I think we would have a lot of fun following up on this movie with two subsequent stories. Obviously there are some amazing other properties that Blizzard owns, but I don’t know. I am sure that there are some other guys out there, possibly even some guys within Blizzard themselves who could do an amazing job with some of the other franchises. If I can just bounce back and forth between a couple more Warcraft movies and some projects of my own, that gives me a pretty rich and enjoyable career to look forward to. And it’s more than just putting my name on a franchise. Hopefully you can sense my actual love for the Warcraft universe in particular. I think being able to kind of be the guy that sets the table on how that universe is portrayed in film is just such a rare opportunity. I’m really very grateful to Blizzard and Legendary.

Jake: Any Warcraft fan can see you’ve put a lot of love for the game into this film. I’m very excited to see what you’ve done with the universe.

Duncan: The Easter Egg hunt that went on after the trailer came out is nothing compared to the Easter Egg hunt you guys are going to have when the film comes out.

Jake: So, to wrap this up Duncan, what would you tell our younger readers who are big Warcraft fans who are interested about starting down a similar path as your’s? What kind of advice would you give them?

Duncan: When I was growing up film making was something that seemed incredibly intimidating. Mainly because the level of technology and the things you had to have knowledge and the know-how about, like cinematography or how to develop film or what lighting was like and how that works and how you know whether or not something was properly lit. But we all now carry, most of us at least, pretty proficient little digital cameras in our phones. So there is no excuse! The most important thing for you to learn now is how to tell a story. So write a story and try to tell that story in visuals. With the characters and the dialog it only has to be a couple pages long, but if you start making short films now just filming them on your phone, you’ve done the most important thing you can to start getting into film.

It was great getting the chance to chat with Duncan Jones. He is a super cool and humble dude. I think Blizzard couldn't have made a better choice for a director to bring Warcraft to the big screen! This is just one simple geek's opinion, but I think we're on the brink of a video game movie renaissance of the likes that Iron Man did for comic books.

Warcraft is slated to hit theaters on June 10th, 2016. I look forward to seeing more from this awesome film!

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