A month mostly filled with successful sequels and franchise installments comes to an end with an unexpectedly promising original. Not wholly original, as “Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” is based on the 1974 table-top role-playing game which counts as its own genre. However, the picture is closest in spirit to “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.”
It is an IP sell with plenty of Easter Eggs and in-jokes for fans of the brand. However, it’s first and foremost a rousing, crowd-pleasing action comedy filled with a game cast including Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, Regé-Jean Page, Justice Smith, Sophia Lillis, and Hugh Grant that plays for those who play the game or those who have merely heard of it via pop culture osmosis.
The $150 million Paramount/EOne production comes courtesy of writer/directors Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, who last helmeted the winning ensemble comedy “Game Night.” The Jason Bateman/Rachel McAdams romp had the sheen of a big-studio comedy with the cinematic polish that justified a big-screen viewing and this film, nevertheless, makes sure not to let the spectacle overwhelm the comedy.
The filmmakers sat down with TheWrap for a conversation about how they made a film that stood on their own, how they settled on character types and the lessons they took from “Star Wars,” “Ghostbusters.”
and “Jurassic Park.”
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you make a “Dungeons and Dragons” movie that was appealing both to fans and to those who have, at best, heard of the game?
Jonathan Goldstein: John and I would do what we called “a proper noun check,” where if we felt like we were piling on references of any kind, we would make sure that it didn’t start to feel like you were missing anything.
john francis daley: It’s like the first “Star Wars,” where there’s the suggestion that there is this world that exists outside of our core characters, but you don’t need to know anything about politics [or the outside world] to enjoy the film.
Goldstein: Anyway, you don’t have to have read the “Lord of the Rings” books to enjoy the movies.
Daley: We tried to set ourselves apart and create this access point for people who were naturally averse to fantasy. In our film, “Dungeons and Dragons” inherently exists in this quasi-contemporary space. One foot is in a familiar medieval fantasy but you have characters reacting to things in the way you or I might when faced with such scenarios. These aren’t stoic portrayals of humorless heroes.
That’s what makes Regé-Jean Page’s character such a delight. He’s the only one who acts like that, and he’s used very efficiently.
Goldstein: It’s like Jesse Plemons in “Game Night,” where he’s a stock character from a thriller amid this ensemble comedy. Likewise, Jean-Page’s character is a stock character from a fantasy and in both cases less is more. You want your audiences to want him to come back.
In a franchise with a limitless number of character types, how did you finalize your core actors?
Daley: We knew that our leader should be Chris Pine because he is so adept at juggling tones and being able to make you laugh in one moment and then make you tear up in the next. He knew how to play it earnestly because he’s not a sarcastic character and he’s not taking the piss out of the genre he inhabits. The mandate for us was for them all to be as disparate as we can make them without creating an imbalance.
How did you balance the tone in terms of four-quadrant appeal? It’s very much a “Jumanji 2” PG-13, as opposed to a “Taken” PG-13.
Goldstein: It wasn’t that hard. Sure, there are some people who play “Dungeons and Dragons” with lots of blood-spurting violence, but our intention was to capture the way most people play. There’s not a lot of blood and it’s done in an almost comedic way.
Daley: We were using the films that we grew up with, like “Jurassic Park”, which when I first saw it in theaters, I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker. You can see it as a kid and it’s not going to haunt the shit out of you.
Have you seen the 2000 “Dungeons and Dragons” movie?
Goldstein: I never saw it. Once we started working on this movie I decided not to see it because I knew that it wasn’t well-liked. I know that there’s something with blue lipstick [Bruce Payne’s bad guy]? So, we didn’t give anybody blue lipstick.
Daley: I watched it when it first came out and have very little recollection of any of the story points.
So, there’s a scene in the picture that is a reference to the video game “Portal”…?
Goldstein: It is one of my favorite video games.
Daley: It’s a reference to the mechanics of that game. It was very much intended as a homage where what’s unique from other portals that are depicted in films is that it must be on a surface and that surface can be mobilized and can move from place to place. We liked the idea of creating limits for the physical properties of our portals.
Goldstein: It’s also fun to take technological things and make them magical. The technology of our world is mostly magic. It was a fun way to do something that we hadn’t seen in the fantasy space. However, the color of our portal is very different from the portal gun.
How did you balance your own specific sensibilities with the needs and requirements of an IP franchise picture?
Goldstein: Some of the jokes in this movie cost a great deal of money. For example, the intellect of our creatures that come along in the Underdark and pass our group by. It’s a big swing because you must spend a lot of money to build those digital assets and if it doesn’t get a laugh, well, you’re screwed. We tried to be efficient with the money in terms of getting the most bang for your buck. We decided to use practical effects wherever we could, which can be a little more expensive upfront but it’s savings because you don’t have to build all these digital assets later.
Daley: With the practical approach you’re treating the creatures as actors, whereby you can’t go back in in post and change the performance. You’re committed to what you get on the day. I like embracing those limitations. Part of the fun of filmmaking is finding a way to make the things work that you didn’t originally intend.
The film reminded me of the first “Ghostbusters.” It wasn’t just a sci-fi comedy, where the comedy was dialogue and the sci-fi was spectacle. Some of the show was funny, too.
Goldstein:That’s 100%. You don’t have to build a wall between the comedy and the cool stuff.
Daley: Otherwise, you start to feel that contrast in a jarring way where it’s like, “Okay, we have this story that is in no way comedic nor do any of these sequences have anything comedic about them. Now, let’s just inject a bunch of jokes from a writer’s room into it.” That can be disruptive and hurtful to the story.