Duncan Jones on PC gaming and Warcraft

Hollywood has a disastrous track record when it comes to videogame adaptations. From 1993’s infamous Super Mario Bros, to last year’s terrible Hitman: Agent 47, there arguably hasn’t been a good one yet. Duncan Jones, director of Moon, Source Code and now the film adaptation of Blizzard’s Warcraft, doesn’t understand why 

“It’s ridiculous,” he says. “Source material is not what stops a movie being good – it’s what you do with it. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do Warcraft. I’ve been a gamer all my life and I was determined a good movie could be made out of a game. And I actually love that there are no pre-eminent examples of good ones, because I want to be the guy to do it!” 

Jones’s relationship with videogames goes way back. “I started off on the Atari, but I got a bit more serious when I got a Commodore 64,” he recalls. “When I got my first floppy drive I fell in love with games like The Bard’s Tale and Ultima. Then when I got a gaming PC I loved the Wing Commander series, Command & Conquer, Warcraft and LucasArts adventures like Full Throttle and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. I still think Fate of Atlantis would have been the best Indy movie sequel if they used that story!” 

One of the biggest problems with game adaptations is how they borrow broad visual or thematic elements from, yet ultimately betray, the source material. But avoiding this is precisely why Jones was hired. “The guy before me [Sam Raimi] and Blizzard couldn’t agree on what the film needed to be,” he says. “But the fact I came to the project as a fan, from the original real-time strategy game all the way up to and including vanilla World of Warcraft, made them very comfortable with me doing it. I understood what fans wanted and expected, and I don’t think it could be any more faithful.”

But Warcraft isn’t just for fans of the games. It needs to attract a broad audience too, which Jones tells me is a difficult balancing act. “The key was making sure the core story was legitimate and true to the lore,” he says. “But at the same time tell a story that anyone can understand, to draw the audience in.” 

Jones compares his challenge to that of Peter Jackson when he made the Lord of the Rings trilogy. “Not everyone who saw those movies were Tolkien fans, or had even read his books,” he says. “It’s the same with Warcraft. We’re trying to get the audience excited about the scope and scale of the world, and show them how much fun and escapism you can get in these stories.

“A lot of filmmaking is puzzle solving,” he adds. “Pixar make films that work for kids, but also work for their parents. We have to make a fantasy film that appeals to people who know nothing about Warcraft, but we also want it to work on a deeper level for those people who are familiar with it.”

One of the most interesting aspects of the Warcraft games is allowing you to play as both orcs and humans, and showing that there are heroes on both sides. Good and evil are usually clearly delineated in fantasy fiction, a trope Jones hopes to subvert. “I think that’s what separates it from a lot of fantasy,” he says. “Rather than humans being the good guys and the monsters being the bad guys, there really is a mix of bad and good on both sides.”

Although Jones co-wrote the screenplay with Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond, K-PAX), he credits Blizzard for this. “They allowed the player to be the hero on whichever side they fought for,” he says. “One of the reasons I thought it would be fun to take this on is I would get to work on a canvas with the scale of something like Lord of the Rings, but hopefully take some of those old traditions and flip them on their head. We’re bringing something to movie fantasy that Warcraft brought to videogame fantasy.” 

But with 20 years of lore to work with, how did Jones decide which parts of Warcraft’s vast, complex mythology to focus on? “It’s huge,” he says. “There are the expansion packs, the books, the comics. So we had to think about how it all started. We’re telling the story of when the orcs first came to Azeroth, igniting this perpetual conflict. The first game, the RTS, was about that initial invasion, so we wanted to go back there.” 

Unlike a lot of videogame adaptations, Blizzard has been heavily involved in Warcraft from the beginning. Jones worked closely with Chris Metzen, one of the original creators of the Warcraft universe, and artists Nick Carpenter and Wei Wang. “Wei is one of our most important assets,” says Jones. “He’s our orc and creature designer. He has a fascinating story, actually. He was a fan and sent Blizzard some of his art, and they were so impressed they hired him! We begged them to let him come and work with us on this.” 

But it goes both ways, and there were moments when Jones had to step in for the good of the film. “One of my jobs was to build on and keep true to as much of the lore as it made sense to within the context of the movie,” he says. “But I also had to push back where the lore was either in conflict with itself, or where it didn’t serve the movie’s story in the best way possible.” 

Another challenge was making the Warcraft universe look real while also retaining its distinct visual personality. “Wei Wang helped us to transform the stylised characters and armour from the game into a more realistic setting, but that also stayed true to the original designs,” says Jones. “I think we’ve got the balance of what makes it look like Warcraft and what makes it feel like it could be real. If we went too real we’d look like Game of Thrones, which is fantastic but not what Warcraft is. Or if we went with the exact visual style of the game it would end up looking silly in a live-action film.” 

Jones’s breakthrough film, Moon, is known for its superb use of practical effects. I ask him what it’s like going from that, which had a relatively small budget of $5 million, to a $100 million CG epic like Warcraft. “I’ve always tried to incorporate VFX,” he says. “Moon had a lot of practical effects, but it also had CG that was designed to be invisible. In a number of shots Gerty isn’t actually there, he’s CG. The scenes where Sam interacts with himself required a lot of VFX discipline. And I’ve used it in commercials too.” 

If Jones thinks of filmmaking as puzzle solving, one of the toughest puzzles to crack must be getting convincing, emotional performances out of the film’s cast of CG orcs. Industrial Light & Magic, the visual effects company behind Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, and too many other classic films to list, is working on Warcraft, and this is one of its goals. 

“We’re in a time now when the top special effects companies in the world are able to achieve astounding results, whether it’s Gollum in Lord of the Rings or Caesar in the recent Planet of the Apes movies,” says Jones. “Jeff White from ILM, who was behind The Incredible Hulk in The Avengers, is working with us. And, coincidentally, he’s a World of Warcraft player!” 

Despite an increasingly busy schedule and a baby on the way, Jones still manages to find time to play videogames. “I’m loving XCOM 2 right now,” he says. “The original was great, but Firaxis have done a fantastic job with the new ones. Steam is my main way of buying stuff at the moment, and I’ve been playing a few indie games. Superhot is a lot of fun, and I also love Papers, Please and how it gives you these weird philosophical dilemmas to deal with.” 

I ask if he’s ever been tempted to get into game development himself. “Making movies takes up a lot of my time, but that hasn’t stopped me from dipping my toes into videogames a little bit in the background, in stuff that hasn’t been announced yet. I wouldn’t be too surprised if something appeared on the horizon in the next few months.” 

Jones wants Warcraft to break the spell of bad videogame movies. He has a clear passion for games, and has a respect for the source material that many directors seem to lack. “It took a generation of filmmakers who read and loved comic books to start making really good comic book movies,” he says. “And it’s going to take a generation raised playing games to make great game movies. We grew up playing them. It’s part of our culture, and I still get excited about them.”

This interview appears in the current issue of PC Gamer UK, and the upcoming issue of PC Gamer in the US, out this Friday.

Andy Kelly

If it’s set in space, Andy will probably write about it. He loves sci-fi, adventure games, taking screenshots, Twin Peaks, weird sims, Alien: Isolation, and anything with a good story.