‘Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves’ Directors Tell Us How They Captured the Classic Game’s Spirit
For directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, making movies has been a game for the last few years. The pair have defined fun at the multiplexes by penning hits like “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and directing the 2018 hit, “Game Night.” The latter defined their colorful, energetic style that now aims for grander heights in “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves.” Anticipation for the movie revolves around the directors’ reputation for crafty entertainment and how this is their take on the classic tabletop role-playing game. Popular in certain circles since first appearing in 1974, “Dungeons & Dragons” has kept a cult fan base but has defied being well-adapted for the big screen. An attempt in 2000 resulted in a box office bomb.
Playfully, Daley and Goldstein’s “Dungeons & Dragons” sticks to the spirit of the game and classic fantasy, while adding some of the big popcorn style familiar to franchises like Marvel. Chris Pine plays Edgin, who we meet in a dingy medieval prison with fellow outlier Holga (Michelle Rodriguez). Once a Harper, meaning he used to be a spy fighting for good, Edgin battled the Red Wizards of Thay, in the process losing his wife and young daughter, Kira (Chloe Coleman). After a hilariously fun escape, Edgin and Holga set out to find Kira and her current guardian, the shady Forge (Hugh Grant). Alas, Forge is now aligned with an evil sorceress, Sofina (Daisy Head). As they head out on their epic quest, Edgin and Holga are joined by aspiring wizards, Simon (Justice Smith) and Doric (Sophia Lillis). Daley and Goldstein sat down with Entertainment Voice to discuss working with this large cast to bring about their own spin on “Dungeons & Dragons.”
Let’s start with how this is your first major feature since “Game Night.” Why “Dungeons & Dragons” and why now?
Daley: We like to challenge ourselves and after “Game Night,” which was our attempt to challenge what people perceive a typical mid-budget comedy to be, we really wanted to tackle something that has this preconception attached to it. This movie is not something that you would typically think has all the elements that we tried to introduce: Humor, heart, this semi-subversive kind of take on the fantasy genre. What “Dungeons & Dragons” the property gives us is ample opportunity to really dive into it without betraying what the founders of the game intended.
Goldstein: We also love the idea of bringing our voice to the bigger canvas that “D&D” allowed us. It’s kind of fun when you’re dealing with all these high stakes and world ending stuff, to just take a break for a laugh. It’s even more surprising and a fresh take on the fantasy genre.
It does take a different tone from what fantasy has been lately. Whether on film or TV, fantasy is treated with a very dreary, moody lens. How were you both thinking of doing “D&D” in this post-“Game of Thrones” environment?
Goldstein: It’s baked into what “D&D” is as a game. I’m sure there are some serious campaigns somewhere out there, but by and large, it’s a game of friends having fun together. So we wanted that spirit of invention, unpredictability, to infuse the movie. It just couldn’t be dead serious all the time.
Daley: Yeah, we wanted to have this playground where it could all feel fresh in a way.
Of course the fame of this title is that it began as a popular game. Your last movie solidified you guys almost as game experts. Viewers will be wondering about your history with “D&D” before you decided to make this film? Were you both fans or players in the past?
Goldstein: I played it as a kid when the game was relatively new and I remember just feeling the excitement of a game where you invent as you go, sort of. You’re given the raw materials but it’s up to you and your friends to create it. Back then it was something totally new.
Daley: I was fourteen and working on the set of “Freaks and Geeks” when I was introduced to the game. It was during an episode where my character is supposed to be interested in it. It just stuck with me to the point where as an adult I started playing it again about two years before we started shooting. Then, it was the actual shooting that kept me from continuing to play. It’s kind of a funny pattern. My wife and I would host game nights in our house until I started working on the movie “Game Night.” So the movies start being based on things I love to do, then they take me away from those things (laughs).
“D&D” is famous for being a role-playing game, but for the movie you have to cast actors who will inhabit these roles in the public consciousness after the credits roll. How did you come to decide this particular cast was the perfect fit for your interpretation of “D&D”?
Daley: I think each of them is unique in their own way and different from one another. The ensemble we put together for “Game Night” was an attempt at finding a group of people you could see being friends from the outset. With this, we liked their differences, we liked you wouldn’t expect them to be hanging out with each other. It’s like those weird, random pairings they do to present the Oscars (laughs). To us, that’s exciting because their gaps begin to bridge throughout the movie. The chemistry comes through and you see their commonalities.
Aside from directing, you have also worked together as screenwriters on very popular titles, especially “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” How did working on a Marvel project prepare you to then tackle a franchise of this scale?
Goldstein: The biggest lesson I think we took from “Spider-Man: Homecoming” was not to be intimidated by the source material. When you’re working on something like this, there are so many fans and so much history that it can be paralyzing if you let it. So we always look at what this movie would be without the big stuff, at what the characters are at the heart of it. Peter Parker is just this kid with issues who gets these superpowers, which don’t turn him into a hero overnight. It’s the same with the characters in “Dungeons & Dragons.” They’re all flawed people in many ways just trying to get through the day and survive, but during the course of the movie they level up.
While this movie is much bigger than “Game Night,” it has a similar sense of color and richness to the visuals. As a directing pair, what inspires you both individually in terms of palettes and visual choices? What’s the process of then fusing both visions together?
Daley: We work very much as a team, generally in the same room. That allows for a sense of specificity in the writing and visual style. With “Game Night” we did indeed want to break the traditional mold of what a comedy usually looks like. That’s always been very alluring to us. It made us just want to keep doing it, push the envelope and make it more difficult. It can take a toll on your psyche but it’s gratifying when you see the finished product.
Goldstein: The other thing that helps is that even when we’re writing a scene we like to think of “how can we make this fresh?” We ponder in what ways we’ve never seen a certain scene be done before. It’s the same for the visuals.
Daley: Honestly, I’ve seen so many films with budgets like this that are utterly generic and I wonder if the filmmaker is simply lazy, or if they feel comfortable with the generic nature. It’s wild to me when you have this enormous responsibility, this enormous undertaking with a real moment to shine, and instead it feels like some people just squander that.
Was it nerve-racking to go from “Game Night” to “D&D” since the scale and responsibilities are so vastly different? “Game Night” had action but it didn’t have…
Goldstein: Dragons? Yeah, car chases are not dragon chases (laughs). It was intimidating. We quickly realized how technical it would all be. Suddenly a single scene is divided over different days over different locations. Keeping all that straight in your head can be daunting. It’s a lot to keep in your brain. Luckily we had a great team. I read somewhere that Steven Spielberg is always asking, “what does this do for the movie? How does this scene advance the story?” I always keep that in mind because it’s so easy to just become focused on the technical.
Daley: The other roadblock was that we wanted to lean heavily on the practical component for the effects and use animatronics, puppets, prosthetics. That made it doubly complicated because often our guys at Legacy, the practical effects company that worked with us, didn’t have time to always work directly with us because of Covid and they were all in quarantine. Fortunately they are so damn good at their jobs, it all worked.
After “Dungeons & Dragons,” what can we expect from you next? Will you stay with this kind of scale or will we see a “Game Night” sequel?
Goldstein: We’re skipping straight to “Game Night 3.” I’m kidding. It’s hard to say. If people embrace this film we can see continuing more with “D&D.” But we’re working on other ideas right now and writing. It’s kind of open-ended at the moment.
Daley: It’s nice to be open-ended. We’ve been in the “D&D” world for four years now from preparing to releasing it. Having nothing on the horizon is refreshing for us, and our souls.
And finally, what is your favorite game at the moment? Which ones do you both like to kill time with these days?
Goldstein: I’m a big fan of the videogame “Portal,” which is also kind of reflected in the film in a way. But yeah, that’s my go-to if I have any downtime.
Daley: With two children I have no downtime for video games at this point, but if we’re going analogue I love the board game “Mastermind,” which is kind of old school.
“Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” releases March 31 in theaters nationwide.