Finding the Legendary booth on the floor of the main exhibition hall at Comic-Con is always fairly easy, because they don't do things by half-measures. This year, all you had to do was look for Ogrim, the giant Orc wielding the massive Doomhammer, and that's exactly where I found Duncan Jones, director of next June's “Warcraft.”
Google Cardboard struck a deal with Legendary to help them create a very nice viewer for the new Legendary VR app that was being demoed at the booth. I got to run through all three of the experiences that they've put together, one of which was clearly based directly on last year's full-sized Jaeger Pilot exhibit. They've also created a “Crimson Peak” experience which is one long walk down a haunted hallway in the bones of the home that serves as the focus of Guillermo Del Toro's new film. Finally, they've created a race through the skies of Azeroth on the back of a griffin, and that last one was a perfect lead-in to my conversation with Jones, who showed up while I was getting my first look at the world he's created for “Warcraft.”
I asked how he felt to finally be showing off footage from the film for Hall H, with this being his third year at Comic-Con. He laughed. “I'm still just getting over the convention madness. I've been running around getting stuff signed.” He was indeed laden with various bits of nerd paraphernalia, and he compared navigating the floor to playing a frantic round of Mario Kart. “I also turn into an uber-nervous wreck,” he confessed. We talked first about the VR app and about how far VR has come since I moved to LA in 1990, stopping first in the Bay area to make sure I could meet Jaron Lanier, one of the fathers of modern virtual reality.
I love the idea of Google and Legendary making VR accessible to people. There are some hiccups still…
… but they are working on all sorts of different ways of getting these materials in front of people. Like this, which you can only see using the Chrome Browser:
I asked him if building those assets helps at all with future “Warcraft” films if they make them, or if this is something that only really matters one film at a time. “I certainly hope we would not limit our storytelling based on the assets. But there will certainly be some amount of re-use. Stormwind certainly isn't going anywhere.”
We talked about how it feels to build the full world that fans of Blizzard's various “Warcraft” games have been participating in for so long now. “The more we build it, the more details there are. It's like this tangible dream. It starts as this smoky dream, and then we keep filling in more of those details. As the technology improves, who knows how we'll be able to use those assets? You may be able one day to veer off course and leave Stormwind and fly off somewhere else for more VR experiences.”
More than any of the technology, what I find interesting about “Warcraft” as a movie is the notion that this is a big fantasy epic with no clearly delineated “bad guys” in it. Instead, because players in the games can pick roles on either side, it was important to Jones to make sure to give both sides an equal voice in this conflict. “The Horde can be the heroes,” he said, grinning. “I think this is the appeal. As you may know, 'Warcraft' is a project that was in development for some time, and they just were not able to thread the needle and figure out what would make it work as a film and still be referential to the game. And when I came in, my first pitch was, 'Look, when you play the game, you play as the Horde or you play as the Alliance, but you are the hero. This film has to do that, or it's wrong. I know it's not all about the game, but that is what makes it unique as a fantasy universe. And as much as I love 'Lord Of The Rings,' and as much as Peter Jackson broke the path for fantasy films, those are movies where the cute guys are the good guys, and the bad guys are the ugly ones and the monsters. This is an opportunity to take that trope and flip it on its head and say, 'No, good guys are all over the place, and the bad guys? You have to work that out.' That's a more interesting version of that original fantasy idea.”
We talked about the way studios are starting to bring guys up from smaller films to gigantic films very quickly. Jones has made two features, and while “Source Code” is bigger than “Moon,” and both are fiendishly clever on a technical level, I asked how it felt for him to make the jump to something as gigantic as “Warcraft,” and whether he ever felt overwhelmed by it. “There is a strange experience I went through on this film because the world that we're creating…. I should say reflecting, since Blizzard has already created it… is so vast, so how do you give these different environments enough face time that the audience will feel like they know them and they've got some sense of understanding of them. I think we've done a pretty good job, but you're definitely going to want to go, 'What's over there? What's over there?' If you're on the moon base in 'Moon' or the train in 'Source Code,' you know what those places are because we shot the hell out of them, but Azeroth… it's a big place. There's a lot to show. We've done a wonderful job of setting up the world, and you're going to want to explore more of it.”
All told, Jones will be on this film for a full 3 1/2 years, and I asked how much he was in love with the material before making that commitment. “I'm hoping I can keep playing in this world and squeeze in some of my own stuff as well. That would be the dream career.” I asked him how it feels to have Legendary's full support on the film. “That was a huge part of this. I have the added benefit that the guys at Blizzard are very very important. I was a 'Warcraft' player myself, and when I pitched my take on the film, they said right away, 'that is a player. That is the game.' So I've had their support from the very beginning.”
I asked what I should take from the film as someone who has never played the game. “The feeling that makes 'Warcraft' work as a game is that feeling that heroism can come out of anything or anyone. That's certainly captured by the movie. The movie was designed for the audience beyond the gamers. That was essential. But Peter Jackson was faced with the same thing on the first 'Lord Of The Rings.' He made something that the fans could dig deeply into, but the word spread that those were films for everyone.”
With a world that's been a living thing for as long as this one has, it seems like there are a million possible stories to tell. I asked how they narrowed down what they wanted to see from this first big movie. “Most of the potential stories had been cut away before I become involved. I think they knew, and they were absolutely right, that the story to tell is about the first contact between the Orcs and the humans. That kind of immediately limits a time period in the Warcraft lore. This is before the main game. The main game happens way after the Orcs and humans had first contact. There have been ten years of 'World of Warcraft,' but before that were ten years of real-time strategy games placed in that world, and the very first game was called 'Orcs and Humans,' and that's when our game takes place. A lot of the gamers probably didn't even play those games because they're too young, but I remember. Because I'm old.”
The panel on Saturday afternoon was certainly dazzling, although I admit that I didn't totally understand what I was seeing. It looks to me like the Orcs are living in a world that is dying, and they find a way to open a portal to a much greener world, one they are determined to take as their own. There seems to be a high cost for opening that portal, like a human life must be sacrificed for any Orc sent through, leading to the phrase that Clancy Brown snarled at one point, looking out at the crowd. “All I see here is fuel for the Fel.”
Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Toby Kebbell, Dominic Cooper, Robert Kazinsky, Ben Schnetzer, Clancy Brown, Ruth Negga, and Daniel Wu all came out on the panel at Hall H to talk about their roles, and I loved the way Legendary handled the actual presentation of the footage. Having said that, I was unable to track any of the character names, and it does feel like a fairly dense amount of material to have to decode for the casual or first-time viewer.
What is clear is that ILM has done an exceptional job of realizing the vision that Jones had for how to bring his Orcs to life, and they've got to be as close to photo real as possible if this film's really going to convince us to sympathize with them just as much as we sympathize with the human cast.
Daniel Wu talked about how he was supposed to take a year off of acting, and then the call came in for him to audition for this movie. His wife, a huge “Warcraft” fan, told him that not only was she okay with him taking the audition, but “you have to fucking do it.” It is safe to say Daniel Wu is currently very popular in his own house.
Toby Kebbell may be the first person to give Andy Serkis a real run for his money as a digital movie star, and Rob Kazinsky, who says he's got 600 days logged as a “Warcraft” player, seemed positively delighted to be in this. “I lost a relationship to this game. I lost my self-esteem. It would all be really sad if I wasn't in this movie.”
Paula Patton's got one of the hardest roles to play physically. As a half-human, half-orc, she's playing a make-up role, and she's going to have to be a great character to overcome what is potentially a ridiculous appearance.
After seeing the footage and talking to Jones, I am sure that fans are going to be well-served by this films. I am now curious to see if the rest of us are going to be able to enjoy and understand it to the same degree.
We'll find out when “Warcraft” arrives in theaters June 10, 2016.