David Bowie was all for Warcraft, says director son Duncan Jones

Duncan Jones, director and son of the late singer David Bowie, showed his father an early cut of the film

Duncan Jones began work on Warcraft in 2012.
Duncan Jones began work on Warcraft in 2012. PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

SAN FRANCISCO • You could see Warcraft as just one more entry in the arms race of summer movies.

Adapted from the video-game series, the film, to be released on June 10, depicts the conflict in a mythical world called Azeroth, as humanity defends itself from a horde of invading orcs.

With its intricate visual effects, immense battle sequences and a reported budget of US$100 million (S$138 million), it is a movie that its creators dearly hope will provide the foundation for a blockbuster franchise.

Yet, Warcraft is an intensely personal undertaking for its director, Duncan Jones. It is a supersized project that this film-maker and dedicated gamer passionately campaigned to make, with just two movies on his resume.

It is also a film whose years-long creation circumscribed a period of upheaval and tragedy in his life.

When he started work on Warcraft in 2012, he had just married his wife Rodene after she was given a diagnosis of breast cancer and had a double mastectomy.

Then, as the movie was nearing completion, his father, rock star David Bowie, died of cancer, in January. "My film started and ended with cancer," Jones, 45, said during a recent interview.

Now, with Warcraft about to enter cinemas and his wife preparing to give birth to the couple's first child at about the same time, he cannot help but regard the film - with its subplots of fathers and sons and an orc couple preparing for their first baby - as a distillation of some of the best and worst experiences he has had.

"Warcraft is going to be a period of my life I treasure and loathe at the same time," he said.

He was at Industrial Light & Magic, the effects company that helped create the mediaeval settings and motion-capture orcs for Warcraft.

Jones is the son of Bowie and his first wife, Angela. His debut feature, Moon (2009), was a well- reviewed, Stanley Kubrick-style suspense film that starred Sam Rockwell as an astronaut working in solitude on a lunar base.

In 2011, his science-fiction thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Source Code, was a commercial hit.

However, Jones said he struggled to put together a planned third film and the only projects that studios offered were sequels to other directors' movies.

"I don't want to build on someone else's legacy," he said. "I wanted to establish my own thing."

That opportunity presented itself with Warcraft, which video-game publisher Blizzard Entertainment had spent years trying to get made.

When director Sam Raimi left the project, Jones pounced, only to be disappointed by the screenplay.

"It was the stale fantasy trope of, humans are the good guys, monsters are the bad guys," he said. "It just didn't capture in my gut what made Warcraft, the idea of heroes being on both sides."

Chris Metzen, who is Blizzard's senior vice-president for story and franchise development and has worked on its Warcraft and World Of Warcraft games for more than 20 years, said his company was also looking for a more balanced story that found "a common humanity" in both sets of characters.

"We were told audiences just aren't going to sit for that," he said. "And Duncan comes in and almost the first thing out of his mouth was, like: 'Here's how I see it. It's 50-50.' And we just about jumped out of our chairs in joy."

Although Jones had never made a film as big as Warcraft, Metzen said: "He was obviously just a geek like us - a PC gamer who had spent an inordinate number of hours within World Of Warcraft and just got it."

There was plenty of practical experience still to come for Jones, who wrote the Warcraft screenplay with Charles Leavitt.

Developing the motion-capture technology to create the film's gargantuan, tusk-mouthed orcs took many months for Industrial Light & Magic.

Jones said he did not see the first finished shot of an orc until about two weeks into filming, at which point, he said: "There was a huge sigh of relief."

Warcraft, which carries a costly price tag and faces steep competition at the summer box office, has been flagged as one of the summer's riskiest releases by trade publications such as The Hollywood Reporter.

Jones said his father, an avid fan of fantasy and science-fiction, had been encouraging of Warcraft.

"I showed him an early cut of the film and he was excited for me and was amazed at how we achieved some of the visuals. I took him through how we did some things," he said.

"It's always nerve-racking, showing your parents things you've been working on. But he loved Moon and he loved Source Code."

He said he and Metzen had discussed a possible three-film Warcraft arc if the first movie were to prove successful.

He will next direct Mute, a science-fiction film that he has wanted to make for many years and which he said was "way back down on the lower end of the budget".

That desire to balance mass entertainment with smaller, personal expressions came directly from his father.

"One of the things my dad always said is that it's okay to do one for you and one for them," Jones said.

"He taught me a lot of things, but that's certainly one of the many that I took to heart."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 30, 2016, with the headline 'David Bowie was all for Warcraft'. Subscribe