Can 'Warcraft' break the curse of the video game movie?

Director Duncan Jones adapts Blizzard's franchise for the big screen.

Universal Pictures / Warcraft

There's a special place in cinema hell for video game movies. From 1993's cringeworthy Super Mario Bros. -- a high-profile abomination that even Nintendo wants to forget -- to the basic-cable-worthy schlock that was Mortal Kombat and even the underwhelming Jake Gyllenhaal-vehicle Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, games have failed to make the big screen translation. But that's precisely why director -- and son of the late, great David Bowie -- Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code) agreed to tackle the theatrical debut of developer Blizzard's real-time strategy game Warcraft.

"There's been a rough track record of movies based on video games," says Jones. "I do like the challenge. I like the idea of maybe making a film which is way better than anyone expected it to be because I know the expectations are all over the place."

Set mostly in the Earth-like world of Azeroth, Warcraft follows the premise set forth by Warcraft: Orcs and Humans, the franchise's first release for PC in late 1994. Having destroyed their own planet with dark magic, the Orcs attempt to take over the world of humans, setting off an epic clash of clans. What follows onscreen is a live action/CGI mashup visually reminiscent of Avatar that opts for a kinetic pace of nonstop battles over deep character study and plodding narrative.

Jones wasn't originally attached to this Warcraft adaption -- Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead) was. But, having been a longtime fan, he jumped at the chance to pick up where Raimi left off and build a film that lets audiences decide who the good guys are.

In advance of the film's US release June 10th, I sat down with Jones to talk about his love of PC gaming, how spaghetti Westerns informed Warcraft's battles and his early sci-fi and fantasy inspirations.

Had you been a PC gamer? What was your experience with Warcraft?

I've been a games player, a PC gamer for a long time. I had an [Intel] 386, then got a 486. [I] upgraded through the Pentiums. And I was playing all of the original real-time strategy Warcraft games and the Command and Conquer games, which were kind of happening around the same time.

But I was playing video games since the Atari 2600. Then the Commodore 64; then the Amiga and Atari IIe. Basically, everything ... ever since I first could play games, I was playing them.

What attracted you to this as your third feature film, especially with the challenges of translating a video game to film?

I like the puzzle-solving nature of making movies. With Moon, my first film, I had Sam Rockwell performing mainly against himself. I mean, he really is the only actor that we see on screen most of the time. So there was the challenge of that. In Source Code, I had this small piece of narrative that I was sort of repeating multiple times, sort of Rashomon-style. And I wanted to make sure each time it felt original and new. So there was the challenge of that. And, obviously, Warcraft, it's breaking the curse of games movies. But also structurally, it's kind of interesting. It's not what you would expect. It's a war movie where the audience gets to empathize with both sides.

How did this come about? Did Blizzard approach you? Were they seeking someone to bring this to the screen, or was it a personal passion?

No. This is a film which I think Blizzard and Atlas and Legendary, who are involved in it, have been trying to make for quite a few years now. And my involvement originally was as a fan who was incredibly excited that Sam Raimi was on board to direct that movie. You know, I love Evil Dead 2 and I love a lot of his movies, but that one in particular. And I just got really excited about what he would do with Warcraft. And when he eventually dropped out to pursue The Wizard of Oz, there was no one attached and it seemed like the film had stalled. I had just finished Source Code around that time, and it had received good reviews. And I was able to talk my way into getting a chance to pitch what I would do with that project if I had the opportunity to do it.

And fortunately, being a long-term fan, my pitch was very much in sync with what Blizzard were hoping the movie could be.

What was the research process like? I mean, getting it just right so you don't alienate fans, but also...

How many days of this [mimics playing on a PC] were involved? I mean, I think the fact that I was a fan meant that there was already a real synchronicity between what I thought the film could be and should be, and what Blizzard were hoping the film could be. Blizzard have this amazing history and legacy of taking things that people are already fans of and putting on that little twist that makes them kind of unique and allows you to see them in a different way. And [with] Warcraft, it really is sort of that idea of taking Tolkien, where humans and hobbits and cute creatures are the good guys, and then the creatures and the monsters are the bad guys. That was kind of the standard for fantasy. And they kind of turned it on the head by saying, "No, you as the player can be the hero on all sides." And that's what we wanted to bring into the movie -- the idea that heroes come in the most unexpected places.

Were there any guidelines of dos and don'ts from Blizzard?

Well, I mean they do have a legacy. They have 20 years of digital folklore that they've made up, and it served them very well. ... I've always worked very, very closely with them throughout the process, from the beginning right through to the end. And it was always about making my case. If there was ever a point where we weren't completely already in agreement, I would make my case as to why for a movie there were changes that would be necessary. And sometimes they'd push back and sometimes they'd understand and agree.

In terms of the visuals, how did you set on the exact style you wanted without going too believable, but also not too cartoon-y?

I mean, there were kind of two big challenges in making Warcraft. One was to take the aesthetic of the game of Warcraft, which is very stylized and kind of comic book-y, and where the characters are drawn both narratively and aesthetically in these big, broad strokes and find a way to give it a bit of three dimension and realize it in a live-action way.

And that was really just a matter of spending a lot of time in preproduction working with Blizzard and with our own artists and just finding a way to strike that balance between the oversized armor and weapons of the game and something which feels that way but works in a live-action environment.

The other big challenge was how are we gonna make our Orcs, which are really more than just monsters. They're not monsters in our movie; they're characters. And we spend a lot of time with them and we get to know them. We get to care about them. And the technology for that was really something where ILM came in with this next-generation motion capture that they've been working on. I think body-motion capture is now at a pretty good state. But facial-motion capture, there was room for improvement. And they, at the time, had just come off from doing The Incredible Hulk and the first Avengers movie. And Jeff White and Jason Smith, who I talked to at ILM, were basically both Warcraft fans as well. So it was kind of a nice synchronicity there. And they talked about this new facial capture that was going to have such a fidelity that it would capture all of the nuances that, in previous generations of mo-cap, had kind of had characters slip into the Uncanny Valley. But now, with all of those details there, you really believe these creatures exist.

As for taking those battles from the game and bringing that to the big screen -- how did you approach those shots, especially when you're filming in 3-D?

Well, this was my first 3-D experience. So there were certainly some suggestions and some rules of thumb that I was given early on. [I] got to watch some footage from other films, obviously, and talked to people involved in shooting 3-D.

But just as far as how you frame, how fast you pan the camera -- things like that where you don't want to, in a way, draw the audience's attention to the edges of the frame -- it's kind of a weird thing, because whenever you frame something, there's always going to be something on the edge. But it's always about not making the eye be drawn too much to that because that's where things start to mess with your head, especially when you're panning or something like that. So there were some framing elements that we sort of were keeping in mind.

But as far as the scale of the battles, it might seem like an odd homage, but one of the things I really wanted Warcraft to reflect were the old Sergio Leone Westerns, in particular Once Upon a Time in the West, because we have so many duels. We have these kind of one-on-one battles. And we have guys jumping off balconies onto their horses or griffins ... onto their flying horses. So they're all of these kind of Western-feeling things, these big operatic moments in our movie. So that was something that I wanted to pay homage to. So on some of the framings, Sergio Leone really sort of became a touchstone.

I know we were joking before about Mortal Kombat and the Street Fighter movies, and how video games movies can go so wrong. So when you decided to start working on this screenplay, how did you make sure there was enough story there?

There was a pre-existing script that I worked on top of. So I think the best way to describe my work was an aggressive polish. There were some structural issues that I changed. And there were some characters that I made more of than what was in the previous script.

I think as a filmmaker, I try and switch off my game-fan hat ... but really sort of think about it as a filmmaker. Who are the characters that the audience are gonna care about? How can I get them to care about them? And then, what is the story which is gonna draw the audience through with it? ... That you would do in any kind of film. And the fact that it's based on a game is really not as big an issue.

I noticed there were one or two moments in the film where myself and the rest of the audience cracked up. Was that intentional on your part? Did you look to break the tone?

Yeah. Absolutely. Where you can mix the operatic, high drama -- the Sergio Leone duels and the big, wide-scale battles scenes up with a bit of humor, I think it makes you feel like you had a full meal.

Going back to your body of work, what is it about sci-fi and fantasy for you ... from your youth, what were some of the first things that you fell in love with?

Yeah, Moon and Source Code were kind of sci-fi. One's sort of more speculative future sci-fi, and Source Code is more kind of contemporary playing with potential technologies. And then obviously, Warcraft is more fantasy-based. But both fantasy and sci-fi were just really important to me, and things that appealed to me when I was growing up. There was a British comic book called 2000 AD, which was a huge influence. That's kind of like the Heavy Metal of the UK. It's been around for decades, and it's where the character Judge Dredd comes from. So I was a big fan of that. I was a big fan, obviously, of Blade Runner and Star Wars and all of the expected ones. But also, you know, 2001.

I remember my dad showing me Metropolis and things like that as well when I was growing up. So, I kind of had a mixed diet on film. J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick as far as literature goes. And lots of games, as well. I was playing game since I was a kid.

Image credits: Universal Pictures / Warcraft