It’s easy to overlook, in a summer set to be utterly saturated by superhero blockbusters that other genres are getting their shot at box-office glory as well. One of the most prominent is Duncan Jones’ (Moon) hotly-anticipated fantasy epic Warcraft; the first feature film adaptation of the classic video game franchise from Blizzard. Originally a military-strategy simulator set in a fantasy kingdom of knights, wizards, monsters, orcs, elves and other assorted mythic fixtures, the series gained worldwide fame thanks to the ubiquitous MMORPG World of Warcraft. Now Jones, Legendary Pictures and Universal are betting that a big-budget feature film can not only conquer the multiplex, but also break the curse of the phrase “video game adaptation” being synonymous with “bad movie” and “box-office failure.”
Sure, game adaptations count a few genuine hits (the Angelina Jolie-starring Tomb Raider films, the original Mortal Kombat) and proven moneymakers (the Resident Evil films) among their ranks, but few are willing to stand up and defend them as genre-defining classics. And most of the genre otherwise is overwhelmingly packed with infamous failures that were roasted by critics, ignored by audiences and reviled by gamers themselves: Street Fighter, Super Mario Bros, House of The Dead, Postal, Double Dragon, Dead or Alive, King of Fighters, Tekken… the list goes on, and it’s not a pretty sight. No one knows this better than video gaming aficionados in the film industry itself, which includes many of the principals behind the long-gestating Warcraft movie.
Jones himself, in particular, pursued directing duties on the film after having followed the production himself originally out of pure fan interest and hearing that original director Sam Raimi had ultimately passed on the (by then) stalled project in order to direct Oz: The Great & Powerful for Disney. Jones is a true believer in Warcraft, that much is certain, but he and the film’s producers appear keenly aware that they may still have an uphill battle ahead of them convincing mainstream audiences that a “video game movie” is actually worth watching this time, to say nothing of convincing the sort of devout gamers who worship the Warcraft mythos to trade the keyboard for an afternoon at the movies – a notoriously uncertain proposition (just ask anyone who had money invested in Hardcore Henry).
As part of that battle, Jones and star Robert Kazinsky (Pacific Rim) – who provided the voice and motion-capture performance of Orgrim Doomhammer and is an avid gamer himself, at one point ranked as one of the world’s top Warcraft players – made a special appearance at the massive PAX East gaming convention on Saturday April 23rd to present an exclusive trailer and talk directly (with backup from perennial gaming-con fixture Michele Morrow as moderator) to throngs of devoted Warcraft fans. Screen Rant was on hand as part of that very audience to hear what the director and star had to say about the long-developing blockbuster – both men confirming upfront that the sorry history of previous video game adaptations was very much on everyone’s mind:
DUNCAN JONES: Blizzard has been working toward a movie for awhile, and it took a long time to realize that the best place to start is the start. So that’s what we did.
ROBERT KAZINSKY: Yeah, look video game movies, historically… suck [laughs] Yeah, they do, guys. Seriously, no one’s going to argue about Mario Bros. And it’s because, you know, games have evolved. Beforehand you would have – well, let’s take Mario Bros – you’d have Mario, and he’s going to save Peach. And you go, “how do you make a 90 minute movie out of this?,” and they make up some crappy storyline to go in there.
But while some game franchises may have become more narratively complex, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they’ve become any easier to adapt to feature films. In fact, Kazinsky went on to opine that the sprawling nature of many modern games makes them equally problematic as fodder for Hollywood.
RK: You’ve got Assassin’s Creed, Mass Effect… you can’t take a hundred hours of storyline and put it into 90 minutes of film. So what Duncan and Legendary and all those guys did was, quite smartly, they’re not trying to. It was an opportunity to do an origin story for the universe, rather than do an origin story of Thrall. It’s the story of this crossover, this first “first contact” moment we keep talking about. It’s telling a great story about that.
Jones revealed that, upon looking into the production himself following the departure of Raimi, he’d asked to see the script and found it lacking in one key area: The writers had attempted to streamline the Warcraft mythology into a more conventional fantasy mold of good versus evil and, in doing so, had (in his view) lost sight of a core component of what makes the franchise so compelling in the first place.
DJ: What I think Blizzard does well, what Blizzard has always done well, is take things that you feel you know well, whether it’s Tolkien or Marvel comic books or the Star Wars Universe, and synthesize it into something new. And what they introduced with fantasy in particular, in my opinion, is the idea of heroes on all sides. To not necessarily see one side as good and one side as evil, but instead it’s two different sides, two different perspectives on a war that’s unavoidable.
The IP’s overseers at Activision/Blizzard had apparently felt the same way about the studio’s take on the story, which is set at the beginning of the Warcraft universe’s main overarching storyline about a warlike race of Orcs who flee their dying homeworld of Draennor through The Dark Portal to establish a new homeland in the magical world of Azeroth – bringing them into a tense, morally-murky conflict with that world’s native inhabitants, who are mainly (but not exclusively) humans. Jones’ take, to split the film’s focus between human and Orc factions meant to be viewed as equally sympathetic (and unsympathetic) by the audience, rhymed with what the producers were looking for and thrilled castmembers like Kazinsky:
RK: I started the game playing Alliance for a long time – I’ve still got Alliance characters. But when I got into hardcore raiding I went with The Horde [crowd cheers] But the beauty of it is when I would go to any these places in the world [of the film] I’d have this perspective of having been there in Alliance.
One thing is certain: Kazinsky is no Hollywood poseur pandering for cheap crowd appeal. He electrified the PAX East audience with stories of his awe at inhabiting places that had “meant so much” to him as a player and (later, during a Q&A session with the audience) brought the crowd to a standing ovation when asked to give them his best “FOR THE HORDE!” battle-cry. He also posted a behind-the-scenes video to his Twitter, offering a fan’s-eye-view tour of the film’s meticulous recreation of the Lion’s Pride Inn:
His performance clearly has a fan in the director, who demonstrated a genuine fondness for Warcraft’s Orcs – particularly Durotan (Toby Kebbel) his wife Draka (Australian actress/singer Anna Galvin) and, of course, Orgrim.
DJ: I do have an Orgrim Doomhammer t-shirt. I love Draka and Durotan and my wife is 7 months pregnant so we have this… [moderator congratulates him] Yes! I did it! It’s me – I made her pregnant! Hah! No, but Draka and Durotan’s relationship in that story, they… yes, I know they’re Orcs, and I know it’s Horde, and they kick ass; but at the same time I love that we see them as random characters, and we see the relationship between them: “What’s an Orc couple like?,” right? And that couple, because of our situation… I very much have a kinship with Durotan and Draka.
But that’s not to say no interest was paid to their human co-stars who, unlike the Orcs (who were realized through state-of-the-art motion capture technology and ILM computer animation) did their acting, fighting and magic-casting in full costume in an attempt to realize Warcraft’s bizarre grab-bag of fantasy aesthetics. In particular, both Jones and Kazinsky singled out Ben Foster – the famously dedicated rising star who portrays Medivh, the archmage and Guardian of Tirisfal – who sought a deeper connection with the physical reality of his powerful magic-user character.
DJ: Ben Foster is amazing. He’s fun in this, he’s a fun guy, but he also… he has fun doing things you don’t expect, and he takes things seriously that you don’t expect. He wanted to know how to “do” magic – like real magic [laughs]: “Real magic. Warcraft magic. How do I cast it?” Well, you can’t really Ben, it has to be special effects…
RK: But it says I fire Arcane Missiles? How do I do it?
DJ: Right! “How do I cast that?” So we had to come up with… we came up with a whole choreography, and also a language as well because there’s a linguistic component to spellcasting in Warcraft, as you know. So we had to create that and realize it to a level where he felt like he believed it. “I believe I can cast this spell.”
RK: When you’ve got someone like Ben Foster, who’s one of the best young actors in the world, and he’s really committed to the truth – such as it is – in this magical realm, it makes a big difference. It really does.
Not that the Orc performers didn’t have a learning curve of their own. Warcraft‘s Orcs are absolutely massive creatures, bulky brutes roughly the size and dimensions of Marvel’s Incredible Hulk but with elaborately-detailed armor, outlandish weaponry and an entire tribal culture of their own. Terry Notary, the famed Hollywood movement coach whose helped actors learn to pantomime monsters, monkeys and everything in between, was brought in to create Medivh’s aforementioned magic-choreographyand also instruct an army of normal-sized humans in moving like gargantuan hulks – which Kazinsky compares to learning how to move “like you’re The Big Show” (a.k.a. professional wrestler Paul Wight).
RK: You’re talking about a guy who did everything: He did Lord of The Rings, he did The Hobbit, he teaches people how to be apes in Planet of The Apes, he’s kind of the movement impresario. This film wouldn’t work – really work, like the Orcs do – if he wasn’t able to make me big and fat and Ben Foster magical.
Another Warcraft fan, famed ILM effects supervisor Jeff White, eagerly jumped at the chance to join the project and cleared his calendar to help realize the all-important Orcs. After all, if the audience isn’t able to connect emotionally with these characters – most of whom are seven to eight feet tall, weigh over seven hundred pounds and have porcine tusks protruding from their lower jaws – the film (which was already well into production whether the Orcs were “ready” or not) wouldn’t be able to manage Jones’ vision of a fantasy war-epic where audiences can sympathize with both sides of a complicated conflict. Fortunately, White has the best calling card in the business for exactly this task: He supervised the realization of The Hulk for the first Avengers movie.
DJ: We were already a couple of weeks into shooting before we got our first Orgrim shot – the first shot where we could start to see what level our Orcs were going to be on. And that was nerve-wracking, obviously, because you’ve got this huge production, you’ve got this massive machine which is already ongoing, and you’ve got these brave souls in their [motion-capture] silver pajamas walking like Terry tells them to… and nobody’s actually seen what it’s going to look like yet.
RK: Yeah, I mean… we are wearing silly pajamas, and everyone can see your penis [laughs] and you’ve got this big helmet on… and there’s this real worry that… what if these Orcs looks bad? What if they just look like… not that the Uruk-hai [from Lord of The Rings] looked “bad,” but technology has moved on, right? Since the Uruk-hai. So what if this looks like that? Just, y’know, makeup and prosthetic, when we want more?
And then, we walk on the set one day and Jeff White (who Duncan was just talking about) showed us the finished rendering of my face. And every fear that I’d had to that point just melted away.
The Orcs, as seen in a PAX-exclusive trailer for the film which included footage not yet seen in other versions (the assembled audience in particular postively erupted in cheers at a brief shot of a dwarven blacksmith showing off a boomstick – aka “gun” – in what looked to be Ironforge) are indeed next-level FX creations. It’s one thing to see a single Hulk wrestling aliens, Ultrons or his fellow Avengers, but it’s a different experience entirely to see hundreds of such creatures – each with distinct faces, clothing, weaponry, etc. – not only rampaging across the screen in action scenes but also going about mundane tasks like setting up camp, cradling children, or showing complex emotions like love, sorrow, regret and hope. To hear Jones tell it, they were so impressive that they changed the direction of the film itself for the better.
DJ: It changed the way we approached the film! Because at that point, you’re still being a little bit cautious about how to film the Orcs, right? How close up can we get? And that confidence that we suddenly got [from ILM’s first tests] meant that when we start the film… one of the first shots in the movie is a close-up of Durotan, and we just sit on him – well, not literally sit on him, I mean, the camera holds on him – in a closeup of about ten seconds. We’re just lingering and watching his expression as he watches his wife sleep. And that ten seconds is all it takes in that kind of close-up for the audience to just melt into his eyes and say “I totally get who this character is,” and it’s no longer just this monster.
But lest fans think that Warcraft will be too heavy on the dramaturgy, the filmmakers were quick to point out that they didn’t lose sight of the core appeal of seeing Orcs and humans do battle with improbable armor, fantastical weaponry and out-of-this-world magic. And while Jones was obviously proud of the serious emotional core he’s invested the feature with, he was equally happy to share some more visceral just-for-fun material he made it a point to include:
DJ: One of things I’m most proud of, and this is just fun, is… we have all these amazing people working on the film, these fight choreographers; and they’re giving us these amazing scenes and fight moves, and I insisted on this one move – I just had to get this stupid thing in: “The Incline Head-Butt.” It’s a thing that Orgim does.
RK: See we realized that Orgrim, being this big strong thing, the toughest guy in the clan… but he doesn’t really fight much at that point.
DJ: He fights a bit!
RK: So we cleared a schedule and we were like “Okay, let’s fight,” and – should we talk about it?
DJ: Yeah, you can talk about it.
RK: So I’m standing in front of a yurt, right? And Daniel Cudmore – who’s fantastic, he plays Colossus in most of the X-Men movies, he’s a great actor – I hit him in the stomach with a big hammer, and I lift him up [over his head] and I drop his head on my head and knock him out! No fight choreographer in the world would come up with that, but Duncan did – and it looks awesome! There is inherent joy in this film, because people who played the game wanted to make a great film. We’re not making light in any way, we’re telling a story the way it was meant to be told. And there’s moments, little fun moments like that in the film that makes you go “Alright!
Whether or not that “inherent joy” will translate to global audiences remains to be seen. But for now one thing is clear: If Warcraft somehow doesn’t end up being the video game movie to break the “curse” on the genre and open the floodgates for more, it won’t be for lack of trying: Warcraft is clearly a labor of love for its creators. That level of commitment has brought us industry-redefining modern classics like the Lord of The Rings trilogy, Harry Potter and the better installments of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – could Warcraft be the next to join their ranks?
Warcraft opens June 10, 2016.