Duncan Jones went through personal hell while making Warcraft — and survived
By Bryan Bishop | Photography by James Bareham
One of the first things you notice about Duncan Jones is that he loves to laugh. Sometimes it’s a self-deprecating chuckle, others a full-throated guffaw. While I’m waiting to sit down with the 45-year-old director at a studio space in Burbank, California, I can hear his roar from rooms away. (It turns out he’s watching Candace Payne giggling about her new Chewbacca mask, and when it comes up that I’m getting married soon, he’s got an idea: “You’ve got to do your vows in that!”)
You can understand why he’d want to grab a few minutes to cackle alongside the rest of the internet. Jones is in the midst of the weeks-long promotional push for his third feature, Warcraft — a few days ago he was in Moscow for 10 hours, next up is New York, then it’s off to London and Beijing — and at this point he’s essentially a marketing marathon runner.
But for somebody who first burst onto the filmmaking scene in 2009 with the low-budget sci-fi drama Moon, a time when he was known more for being David Bowie’s son than for his own work, there’s a sense of welcome relief, too. Warcraft, his first franchise film and biggest by an order of several degrees, is almost out the door. He’ll soon be returning to the indie world with his next film, Mute, which recently locked down Paul Rudd and Alexander Skarsgard in the leading roles. And later this month, Jones and his wife are expecting their first child. It’s as if Duncan Jones can hardly believe he sees the finish line.
Maybe it’s because he’s coming off the most harrowing four years of his life.
Duncan, like all great writers, draws on personal experience,” his producing partner Stuart Fenegan tells me over the phone. If anyone should know, it’s Fenegan; the two first met in 2003 in the UK commercials scene, bonding over a shared desire to make feature films, and have worked together ever since. One of their early successes was a tongue-in-cheek nod to kung-fu movies for the fashion brand French Connection, and looking back, the 2006 spot contains much of the DNA of the filmmaker Jones has evolved into: it’s quirky, with a playful sense of humor, and a movie geek’s love of genre. What wasn’t apparent yet was the sense of emotional intimacy that weaves through his feature work, no matter the genre or budget — one that seems inextricably linked to how he discovered the medium in the first place.
“My dad, bless him, tried to get me to learn musical instruments, and I always kept it at arm’s distance,” Jones says, relaxed in a T-shirt and glasses. (Strip away the director’s beard and brawny shoulders, and, yes, the family resemblance is undeniable.) “But film I loved. One of the father and son bonding things I remember is him showing me how to make a zoetrope.”
Interest in that primitive, flickering marvel led to home experimentation with stop-motion animation and an 8mm camera, and along the way Jones hung out with his father on the sets of movies like Labyrinth and Tony Scott’s moody vampire flick The Hunger. But early exposure didn’t translate to an obvious career path, and it was only after Jones was three years into a PhD program at Vanderbilt that filmmaking called again.
“My dad was working up in Montreal with Tony Scott on this TV version of The Hunger, and asked me if I wanted to take a little break and come up and join them.” Once Jones was on set, Scott put a 16mm Bolex camera in his hands and tasked him with shooting pick-up footage for the show. “I had the best time. And I was like, ‘This is it. I need to go to film school.’”
When Jones took his feature debut Moon to Sundance nearly a decade later, the film was praised as a refreshing return to thoughtful, intimate sci-fi at a time when the genre was often eclipsed by sound and fury. The story of Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), a corporate maintenance worker nearing the end of a three-year solo shift on a lunar station, it used the genre to tackle feelings of alienation and identity in ways that were shockingly accessible — and, it turns out, personal.
“When he was writing Moon, he had a long-distance relationship with a woman from Korea, and that feeling of loneliness and isolation was certainly a part of it,” Fenegan says of Jones’ creative process. “He had spent a lot of time doing his graduate studies in the Midwest, completely separate from his family and friends. Again, firsthand experiences of that isolation and loneliness.”
“The response from those who saw it was amazing, and it really made me feel like, ‘Yeah, I actually have found something I’m good at, that I really enjoy doing,’” Jones says now. Moon earned him a BAFTA for outstanding debut by a filmmaker, and he parlayed the momentum into the Jake Gyllenhaal action film Source Code. Its $32 million budget was a significant jump in scale, and with the movie’s high-concept premise — Gyllenhaal plays a soldier who relives the last eight minutes of a bombing victim’s life in order to find the perpetrator — it’s easy to imagine a rote, action-heavy take on the material. But Jones found both critical and box-office success by teasing out some familiar themes.
As he tells it, his characters tend to be “someone who’s being abused by the system that they are there to work for, and not being given all the information. Feeling alienated by their job, and the circumstances that they’re in.” They’re common dystopian concepts that seem particularly resonant for Jones, even while they’re hard to square with him as an individual. In person, there’s no sense of the alienation that simmers in the background of his movies. He’s charming and engaging, enthusiastically joking with the same verve he exhibits on his lively Twitter account. Jones isn’t feigning an interest in movies, gaming, and fan culture; he embodies it, from the custom Warcraft and Moon T-shirts he wears at interviews, to the late-night visits to fans he and his wife made last year at Comic-Con.
There is a line to be sketched between that aspect of Jones’ work and his father’s own explorations of being a misfit and outsider. But it’s abundantly clear that Jones has been able to use his own astute sense of emotional empathy to elevate genre material — and that ability is what got him the Warcraft gig in the first place.
Sam Raimi had been attached to direct the film in 2009, but creative differences between the director and Blizzard stalled the project. When Raimi dropped out, the project started anew with screenwriter Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond), focusing on human forces fighting an orc invasion. “Enter Duncan,” says Warcraft producer Charles Roven. “He comes in, reads the draft. He tells us that he really likes the story, but there’s one huge problem that he would change: he would tell the story from both the point of view of the orcs and the humans.”
“The idea of showing a conflict from both sides; that’s what really appealed to me,” Jones says. “Trying to allow the audience to empathize with characters who, from their point of view, are doing the right thing. I just find that interesting.” It was a fundamental shift on a tentpole film whose $100+ million budget would far eclipse anything he’d ever attempted before — with technical and visual effects challenges to match. But even while he was pitching for the job, Jones was already dealing with a much more personal challenge in a very public way.
In November of 2012, Jones’ fiancée, photographer Rodene Ronquillo, was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer. The couple responded that same day by heading to a courthouse and getting married. By the end of the week, Rodene Ronquillo Jones was in surgery and prepping for the long road of chemotherapy and treatment ahead.
One month later, the couple took an unusual step: they shared what they’d been going through on Twitter.
“It was scary, and the only thing that kept us going was just sharing stories, and being able to vibe with other people who’d gone through it,” Ronquillo Jones says now, looking back at the ordeal. “It’s such an unknown, uncurable thing, and it’s such a life changer. Community was the only way to get through the whole process.”
When doctors recommended she shave her head ahead of treatment, her husband did the same in solidarity (Rodene gave him a bright pink mohawk), and they detailed all of it online. “Keeping things private like that, to me, makes them more scary,” the director says. “I think opening up and letting people who are going through it say, ‘Yeah, we’re going through that, too,’ or, ’We’ve just been through that, and you can get through it’ — I find that much more comforting than trying to keep everything private and feeling like you’re surrounded by shadows.”
That following January, the professional and personal intersected as Jones teased he was waiting to hear back on some big news, and it finally came: he would be directing Warcraft. But step by step, treatment after treatment, the Jones’ continued to put their struggle in the public eye to raise awareness — often accompanied with the hashtag #touchupyourlovedones, because, well, that’s how they’d discovered the lump in the first place.
“I was 29, and I’ve met other girls in the community who are 25. That’s really young to get hardcore cancer,” Ronquillo says. “It was just more beneficial to be able to share something like that, and let people know this is a huge problem, and will continue to be a problem if people hide it, and act like it’s some sort of mysterious disease. Because it’s not.”
“You also have to respect those people who choose to keep private about it,” Jones admits, and it’s hard to not think he’s speaking from very recent personal experience. “Everyone’s got their own way of dealing with things.”
For Duncan and Rodene Jones, “dealing” meant moving full steam ahead with the rest of their lives. Within days of Rodene finishing her treatment, the couple had moved to Vancouver to begin pre-production on Warcraft, where she served as the on-set archival photographer. (“It was a great distraction, because we went from hardcore cancer stuff, to hardcore film stuff,” she says.) For Duncan, the task turned toward realizing his vision, and much of it came down to turning the game’s creatures into beings an audience could actually care about.
True to his original take, Jones’ Warcraft spends equal time between its human characters and its seven-foot tall, green-skinned orcs. So while massive sets were built for the film — from the cobblestone streets of Stormwind to the orc encampments — the orc performances were all recorded via motion capture, only fully realized when the CG creations were brought to life. “You shoot your film, and you go back to edit it, and you’ve just got some characters and some sets,” explains visual effects supervisor Jeff White. “You don’t really have a movie until the orcs go in there.”
It’s easy for filmmakers to be overwhelmed by 1,500 effects shots in a film, White says. “But Duncan understands the technology. He’s not afraid to keep pushing. I think what was so great is that we could do animation reviews with him, and he really zeroed in on what the character needed, communicated what was happening in that scene, and why certain things were important.”
The emotional intent is clear right from the beginning of the film. Warcraft opens with an orc chief and his wife (Toby Kebbell and Anna Galvin, respectively) worrying about the future of their unborn child, with Jones fearlessly holding on a two-shot of the all-CG couple. It’s a gutsy way to open — if the visual effects don’t deliver, you’ve basically tanked your film in the first five minutes — and it’s to Warcraft’s credit that the orcs are often the easiest characters to identify with.
But they’re a far cry from Sam Rockwell’s lonely clone. We’re in a moment when promising directors with distinctive voices are regularly snatched up and, for better or worse, tossed into the Hollywood franchise machine — Ryan Coogler with Black Panther, or Rian Johnson with Star Wars: Episode VIII. There’s a legitimate fear that a franchise can drown out the voice of the filmmaker, and with the expectations of gaming fans, a major studio, and game creator Blizzard all bearing down, there’s no film that would seem more likely to drown under that pressure than Warcraft. But Jones’ personal themes of interest undeniably emerge.
Take Paula Patton’s character, Garona. In the film, her half-human, half-orc character is ostracized from the orc community for being different, only to be captured later by the human forces — who also rebuke her. “She’s trying to work out where she can belong. So I think in the same way that Sam Bell [in Moon] knows himself to be different because of the fact that he’s a clone, and the way that Colter Stevens [in Source Code] realizes that he is not who he thought he was and doesn’t fit in, Garona follows that pattern.”
That concept of the individual fighting for a sense of identity against a monolithic machine is echoed throughout Warcraft, and in Jones’ own experience working on a film with so many corporate masters. In addition to Blizzard, Charles Roven’s production company, and the team at Legendary Pictures, the film also faced a midstream change in major studio partners, with Legendary moving its distribution deal from Warner Bros. to Universal after the film was already moving forward. (Making things even more interesting, the Chinese conglomerate Wanda Group bought Legendary five months ago.)
“There’s a skin-thickening process that you have to get used to when you do studio films,” Jones says. “It’s not the struggling artist fighting the world. There’s a certain amount of bureaucracy and diplomacy that you have to be able to deal with, and you need to be able to have your ideas really challenged, possibly multiple times by different people.”
“There’s a lot of competing priorities as to what Warcraft needs to be,” he admits. “After that experience, it will be very satisfying to go back to an indie where it’s me and my producer, and whatever me and the actors decide we want to do.”
That indie is Mute, the first of two semi-sequels to his debut that will make up a loose trilogy he describes as “the Moon-iverse.” A sci-fi noir set in a futuristic Berlin, it follows a mute bartender (Alexander Skarsgard) hunting for his missing girlfriend — what sounds like another classic Jones outsider. “It’s a bit of a palate cleanser after doing a big studio film like this. It’s my mustard after a big bowl of ice cream,” he says, before launching back into that big laugh.
Every so often Jones gives off the faintest hint of weariness when talking about Warcraft, and it’s not hard to understand why. While he began making the film against a backdrop of personal struggle, that’s how he ended it, too — with his father passing away on January 10th. Like many others, I looked to Jones’ Twitter account when the Bowie rumors first started swirling — and he confirmed the news with a photo of his infant self on his father’s shoulders.
After taking two weeks off from the internet, Jones came back: cracking jokes, posting about video games, and talking up his “directors as babies” Photoshop series. A month after his father died, Jones shared the Christmas card that he and Rodene had given Bowie the year before. It announced to the world that the Jones’ were expecting their first child — the same month, it turned out, that Warcraft would be hitting theaters.
When asked why he decided to share such an intimate moment with the public, Jones is uncharacteristically at a loss for words. “It’s a tricky one, that. I don’t know. I don’t have much more of an answer, other than it felt right.”
“I don’t even know what to make of people that I know over the internet,” he confesses. “It’s been such a part of my life now, for such an extended period of time, that I’m not willing to think of them as strangers. Especially the ones that I actually have known — only in that capacity — for years.” It’s a relationship, he admits, that is strangely in tune with his films; like Sam Bell trading messages with the loved ones he’s really only ever seen on a video screen.
What’s very clear is that sharing and connecting — through Twitter, through the internet, through his films — is vital for Duncan Jones, and helped in 2016 just as much as it did in 2012. It’s the same community of online fans and friends he’s turned to as Warcraft’s largely-negative reviews have filtered online over the past few weeks, trying to ensure that his movie is addressing the wants and needs of the fans that were so clearly on his mind while making it. And now that this tumultuous chapter is over, it’s time to move on to the experiences that lay ahead.
“Starting with what we went through with cancer, and ending with the birth of the baby, it really does feel like just this incredibly intense [period],” Jones acknowledges. “All the life experiences that you want, and you don’t want, all compressed into this 3 1/2 years. I almost feel, like, ‘Okay, well, we’ve done all the hard stuff in life. I guess now we just cruise.’”
Design by James Bareham
Edited by Emily Yoshida