'Film was the thing I had really wanted to do': Duncan Jones on becoming a filmmaker (rather than a musician)

Duncan Jones tell Marc Fennell about getting in to filmmaking, making racially diverse fantasy, and his father, David Bowie.

Duncan Jones was known as Zowie Bowie for the first half of his life. After a childhood spent growing up around the world, Duncan has become one of Hollywood’s most sought-after directors, making Moon with Sam Rockwell, Source Code with Jake Gyllenhaal, and now helming the adaption of one of the world’s biggest video games, Warcraft.

Like many of us, Duncan Jones grew up watching David Bowie as the Goblin King in Labyrinth. His view was different, though: he was accompanying his dad to work.

“I got a chance to be on film sets like Labyrinth- that was absolutely something that I dreamed of being able to do one day. I never thought I would back then.”

However, it wasn’t until he was on a different path altogether that his aspiration became clear to him.

“There was a point in life when I knew that the track that I was on was the wrong one. I was pursuing my academic career as far as I could, and I found myself a graduate school studying towards a PhD in philosophy. There’s nothing that you can do with that other than teach, and I had no interest in teaching.

 “As I was moving down that track, I realised I’d set myself on it when nobody was pressuring me to do it.

“That’s when I realised, I don’t have to do this. I had the opportunity to escape and try something else, and film was the thing I had really wanted to do.”

He dropped out of Vanderbilt University in Tennessee and headed to London Film School, where he graduated as a director in 2001.

“There’s something on a creative level that was really compelling to be and felt very natural, between writing and the visual elements of storytelling,” said Jones.

Having watched his father on sets, Duncan had an advantage, but it’s one that he laughs off, saying that he was drawn to film because of a lack of musical talent.

“It was the fact that I was actually able to do it, as opposed to playing an instrument, which I was bloody awful at. Saxophone was the worst. I was able to make a god-awful racket but no kind of tune.”

Warcraft: The Beginning will be Jones’ third film, and the most daunting to date – the Warcraft universe is among the most popular fantasy franchises ever. Since the release of the first game in 1994, the world now includes comics and novels. Jones is tasked with bringing this universe to life on the silver screen.

A notable difference between Warcraft’s Azeroth and Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is that the characters aren’t divided as schematically between good and evil creatures.

“Warcraft itself put its own twist on Tolkien by allowing players to play as the hero as any kind of creature in the game,” said Duncan. “When Peter Jackson did the Lord of the Rings trilogy he brought everyone in to fantasy and set a level which everyone has been striving to achieve since. And in those movies the good guys tend to be the humans and the hobbits and the cute characters and anything that was ugly was a bad guy. And that came from the time when those stories were written.

“When we made Warcraft we wanted to reflect that twist, and allow the audience to empathise and care about our orcs and our humans, and see this conflict from both sides.”

Jones’ film has also bucked the trend in many fantasy movies that sees white heroes often face down armies of non-white villains. The cast of Warcraft: The Beginning is refreshingly diverse.

“It’s just sensible in this day and age,” he said. “Our audience is global, our audience is diverse, and the player base of Warcraft is diverse too. It’s absolutely natural. The opportunity to make it representative is something that feels absolutely organic and natural and right for the way the world is.”

There’s another imminent release due for Duncan Jones’ too: his first child is due to be born in the next few weeks. Duncan is philosophical when asked about becoming a father so close to losing his.

“If I could teach my kid some of the lessons my dad tried to teach me, I’d be in a good place.

The willingness to follow what you think is the right thing for you as opposed to what’s expected of you - that took me a little while to learn.”

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5 min read
Published 16 June 2016 at 4:01pm
By Marc Fennell