There are few producers in Hollywood who have had quite as long and storied a career as Charles “Chuck” Roven. He’s had an equal number of hits and misses, but the biggest hits included Warner Bros’ live action Scooby-Doo movies and a certain “Dark Knight Trilogy.”
Over the past few years, he’s been developing a movie based on Blizzard Entertainment’s Warcraft, which finally hits theaters on Friday with director Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code) at the helm. Unlike the games that depict an age-old battle between the humans of the Alliance the orcs of the Horde, Warcraft goes back to the beginning when the beastly army of the Horde first arrives in the land of Azeroth, looking for safe haven, only to find themselves caught in battle with the army of King Llane (Dominic Cooper).
Den of Geek got on the phone with Roven a few weeks back to talk about making Warcraft and the difficulties of making a movie based on a video game.
Den of Geek: I’ve known about this project being in development for some time, but was it over at Warner Bros. for a while before Legendary split off?
Charles Roven: It was a Legendary-acquired project, and I’m not sure what the deal was between Warners and Legendary, but when Legendary moved, they took it with them. I think Legendary was always the creative driver in this project, like they were on Pacific Rim and Godzilla vs. 300 or “The Dark Knight Trilogy” that Warners was the driver.
You had worked with Thomas Tull on those other movies, so how did you get involved in this movie?
I think it was either 2008 or 2009 when Thomas and Jon (Jashni) pulled myself and Alex Gartner, my producing partner on the project, in to see if we were interested in joining them to produce Warcraft. I of course knew of the game and the brand, but I never played it and didn’t really know much about it other than it was a big fantasy game.
And I really didn’t know about the history before it became a big online game, so Alex knew much more about it than I did, so we started working on the development process back then and brought Duncan in I guess in 2013, maybe 2012. It was after Source Code that we became engaged.
I haven’t played the game myself, but I’m curious about using the game as a reference point. Obviously there have been other video games that have been turned into movies, but it’s harder because I’m not sure how much source material you had. With “Lord of the Rings,” you have Tolkien’s books. If you do “Game of Thrones,” you have Martin’s books, but in this case, you have a game with more leeway but also more limitations, right?
What I discovered over the course of my relationship with Blizzard was how much more, be it ancillary material beyond the game itself that Blizzard was creating—books, discs, other kinds of products… Really, the game itself was a jumping off point. Obviously it was the biggest driver and there are upgrades of the game, and I guess the subscription that the game drew, but there were multiple kinds of products, both from consumer products to books, recordings, quite a wealth of the lore.
In fact, during the course of our development process—and we worked very closely with Blizzard—they had done one script without us. We then developed a script with Sam Raimi. Sam took another movie and we went off in a different direction.
Then we came up with what we thought was the best creative idea we had to move this project forward to a movie, which really came from Blizzard sending us some of this source material and saying, “Let’s take it back to the beginning when the humans and the Orcs met.” Chuck Leavitt wrote that script based on the source material that Blizzard gave us. We liked that script quite a lot, we thought it was very good, but it was really written from the point of view of Azeroth and the humans.
I had been trying to get Duncan interested in getting involved with anything after Moon, because I was very impressed with that film and his partner Stuart Finnigan. After Source Code, we met again, and at that point, the project didn’t have a director but it had this Chuck Leavitt script, and he read it and he came back and said, “Look, I think that’s a great basis for a movie, but I would rewrite that script and make it from both points of view. I think the most important thing you need to do is tell the story equally from the Orcs’ side and the human’s side, because there are good and bad guys on both sides, and we need you to be invested in characters on both sides.” That is what sold us on his vision for the piece—us, Legendary, Blizzard—we all drank the Kool-Aid after that.
He obviously had a lot of amazing FX-work in “Moon” considering the budget for that movie, but “Warcraft” is like that times a million. I think I saw two scenes where there was no FX work at all, so there’s a lot of FX work. How did you know he could handle the long haul of doing an FX-driven movie like this?
Well, there was also some FX in Source Code, too, and also he did an interesting graduated step of making a very inexpensive movie, a more expensive movie—kind of a mid-level budget movie—and we knew that it was going to be a learning process for him, but he’s a really smart guy and a really talented guy, and the most important thing is as I said that he had a creative vision for how to execute the movie. We worked hard with him, we collaborated closely with him, and we wanted to make sure we put him together with extremely talented people, both in front and behind the camera.
We had just a spectacular group of people from Simon Duggan the DP, to Gavin Bocquet the production designer, to Mayes Rubeo the costume designer, to Bill Westenhofer, the visual FX supervisor, to ILM and Jeff White. We’re talking about a multiple Oscar winners or nominated behind the camera to support Duncan and to help him realize his vision.
One of the things you can tell from Duncan’s other movies is that he’s really good with actors. For this movie, you have a bunch of actors who will never be seen on screen because they’re doing performance capture although they’re more than just voice actors. How was it casting actors in those types of roles? Was it very different from casting actors in front of the camera?
In many ways, it’s the same, but the process that the actor goes through to immerse into the role is different. You really want every actor to immerse into their role, but when you’re dealing with motion capture, what you are motion capturing is something that even though they have some humanoid shape, if you will, they’re still big, huge creatures. Not only did we work on the acting performance, we put them through very rigorous training and performance work on their body movements.
A gentleman by the name of Terry Notary, who works very closely with Andy Serkis, he turned out to really be a major influence on teaching all of the Orcs—not just our leads—movement, where they got their strength from, how to walk. It was really fascinating. Each one of them has their own character. Look at Gul’dan, but basically Daniel (Wu) spent the entire movie in a bent-over crouch until he fights with Durotan. Up until that point in the movie, he’s in this weird crouch and then he rises up and he gets rid of his robe and his hood and you see he’s actually a pretty strong, big muscular guy, a worthy opponent of Durotan.
It was great working with Terry, and I think all of the actors really appreciated how he helped them invest in each one of their roles. He didn’t just tell them “Do it this way.” He helped them and together they crafted the character.
This movie has an interesting place this summer because it’s one of the few big movies that’s not a sequel, and while it has a built-in audience, it also has people who don’t know about Warcraft who may or may not be open to it. How do you approach a movie with so many different variables that you have to deal with? Even just making a movie based on a game.
That’s the tricky thing, because it’s got a fanbase of people who have played it currently that extends to the people that played it back when, stopped playing it but remember it. Those legacy fans are very, very important, because you want to reawaken what it was that drew them, so you have to honor the canon, you have to honor what happened in the lore, if you will, in a certain kind of way and give them something to hold onto. But at the same time, you gotta make sure that you’re crafting a film that’s going to appeal to people that don’t know anything but the trailers and TV spots that they see and whatever it is that we can engage them to go see a movie that they’re going to know is from a game that they’ve never played, and obviously haven’t cared to.
First of all, we’ve got to trust our story and trust our characters. One of the things that we did, which I think was a good thing—and you can tell me if you agree—is right up front in the beginning after we let you know that there’s a war between the Orcs and the humans. We throw you into this close-up of this beast, although he’s really sentient, isn’t he? ‘Cause he’s thinking about something, he’s something about what the voiceover is about obviously and how he’s going to protect his family and his people, and then you pull back and you realize, he’s in a tent, sleeping with his wife who is pregnant. If we’ve done our job right, you’re going to be immediately pulled into who this guy is, and you’re going to be immediately be invested in him, if you believe that he really exists, which obviously, we hope with the great work that ILM and Bill Wesenhofer and the actors did, that you will.
The FX are an amazing achievement but also humanizing the Orcs, which Duncan did as a director with the actors, and it’s hard to tell with a picture or even a trailer that will be the case. By the end of the movie, you really care about these characters and what happens to them.
Yeah, exactly, but hopefully you’re also left with a certain kind of promise that there might be a way for things to get better. There are those that survived and have come out of it in a better place.
Before I let you go, are you still developing an Uncharted movie as well? I see parallels between these two movies.
Yeah, we are.
That’s also been in development for a long time, so how has that been going?
It has been in development a long time, and we’re hoping that we’re going to find our way through that development and start a movie next year.
What’s been holding it back?
It’s just that the development process is not an assembly line business. Each script or project has its own gestation period, and these brands are expensive, so people want to be very careful before they pull the trigger. They want to feel comfortable that we’ve created the right recipe. That’s why it took eight years for Warcraft to get to the screen.
Warcraft opens in North American theaters on Friday, June 10. You can read our previous interviews with director Duncan Jones and some of his cast right here.