In theaters on March 31 from Paramount Pictures, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves marks the return to the big screen of one of the seminal fantasy properties of our time. Dungeons & Dragons, the tabletop role-playing game, was first published in 1974 and gained popularity throughout the 1970s and ’80s, with groups of players gathering to invent characters and play out elaborate fantasy stories. (It was also the subject of unfounded rumors in the ’80s, with some incorrectly linking it to Satanism.) A notoriously bad film adaptation in 2000 couldn’t dim D&D’s shine for long; in the past decade it’s seen a resurgence in popularity, thanks in part to its appearance in the ’80s nostalgia-centric “Stranger Things” and the proliferation of D&D game play on the live-streaming platform Twitch.
It’s good timing, then, for another Dungeon & Dragons movie, this time helmed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, the writer/director duo behind 2018 comedy Game Night. Daley and Goldstein spoke to Boxoffice Pro about subverting audience expectations with a movie that, per Goldstein, “deserves to be seen on the big screen.”
I’m interested in movies that are absolute train wrecks—which the previous Dungeons & Dragons movie certainly was. Have you guys seen it? It almost provides a blueprint of what not to do when adapting D&D.
John Francis Daley: I had a very vague familiarity with it when it came out. I think I might have seen it in a Redbox a few years later, but I don’t have much of a recollection of it. I’m kind of thankful for that. When we approached this movie, we wanted to do it with fresh eyes.
Jonathan Goldstein: I’ve never seen the movie, and I made the decision that I wouldn’t, at least until we were done with this one. Because, like John said, I didn’t want to be influenced by it. I didn’t want to be reacting to anything that came before.
Well, unless your movie has a lot of overwrought political drama, I think you’ll be fine.
Jonathan Goldstein: [Laughs] That’s really the core of our movie.
John Francis Daley: It mostly takes place in a congressional hearing as we get into the politics of the neighboring cities of Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter [laughs]. No.
Jonathan Goldstein: Part of what drew us to the opportunity of making a movie like this was to do something that hadn’t been done before, which was to bring a certain sense of comedy, but also something that captured the spirit of playing a D&D game. Because when you’re playing a game, for the most part—some people take it deadly seriously—it’s a lot of fun. It’s a lot of things going wrong, and pivoting, and figuring out how you’re going to deal with surprise[s]. That’s a lot of what happens in our film.
John Francis Daley: All that said, I don’t think that you need any familiarity with the game to enjoy the movie. It was very important to us to keep it ground-level enough that anyone could see the thing and enjoy it without knowing what all the proper nouns mean. We, in fact, did a proper noun pass as we went through the script just before shooting it, to make sure we weren’t bogging down the audience with a bunch of words that they wouldn’t give a shit about.
It’s helpful that D&D has been so influential in modern fantasy. Most people know the basic concepts, even if they don’t know where they’re from.
Jonathan Goldstein: People love “Game of Thrones,” and that was based on a book that most of them hadn’t read. And there’s a lot of complicated stuff going on in those that you don’t need to know or have great familiarity with.
John Francis Daley: And, obviously, there’s no story here that we need to adhere to, as D&D is a series of constantly evolving stories in the hands of the players. But what it does have is a very established lore of locations that is unique to the franchise, as well as monsters and magic that you’re not going to find in any other fantasy genre. Being able to blend those unique elements of D&D with a unique tone allows you to kind of—not necessarily get contemporary, but definitely to have fun and not take itself too seriously. It’s a great combination.
So you have the tone you want, and you have lore and locations and types of characters—bards and monks and Druids and all that—but then you need a plot. How do you crack the story?
Jonathan Goldstein: There are a million stories to tell, so it was really up to us. What we decided to do was focus on a subgenre that we felt had a lot of potential in a medieval setting, and that’s a heist movie. That was the jumping-off point: a band of misfits who, working together, take down a bad guy and rob his treasury. That led us to all the complications that follow from that, and all the ways we could follow these characters and their individual arcs through the movie. There’s, I think, going to be more emotion in this than people are expecting. Because you really get invested in these people. They’re relatable figures, not abstract movie villains or good guys.
John Francis Daley: The other thing we did, by embracing the archetype of a heist picture, was embrace the expectations that people have of the tropes—and then subverting them. It was really important to us to have as many twists and turns as we could in this film, where you think you’re going down one direction and then we suddenly guide you somewhere else. It was so much fun to do that in Game Night, and to be able to do it on such a grand scale. It was really delightful for us.
I was just thinking how well you did that in Game Night. It’s nice to be surprised by a movie.
John Francis Daley: Absolutely. These days, it’s really hard to be surprised. I think that there is this fatigue that people have. Everything is so by the book and follows the conventions of storytelling. To be able to break free of that and tell a story where the audience truly doesn’t know exactly where it’s going was something that we were very excited about.
People tend to think they know what to expect when it comes to fantasy stories. It’s one of those genres, like horror, where people will say, “I’m just not into it.” You don’t hear people say that about comedy.
John Francis Daley: Critics generally don’t like comedies as much, but I think the tide might be finally turning there as well.
Jonathan Goldstein: I think it’s really in the hands of our marketing people now to tell people that this isn’t what they expect it to be—that it’s not a heavy, gray, maudlin piece about people struggling through medieval times. It’s a fun ride of a movie that happens to be set in a fantasy realm.
John Francis Daley: But, that said, I think there is also this expectation that it could go too far in the other direction, where it’s hyper glib and jokey and not at all grounded. That wasn’t our intention, either. We wanted to keep the stakes very much alive. We wanted to keep the intentions of our characters totally real and justified. It was straddling that line between humor and stakes that was important for us to keep track of as we continued to develop the film.
Jonathan Goldstein: Also to get the scope in this movie, which is why it really deserves to be seen on the big screen. We filmed all over Northern Ireland. We filmed in Iceland. We have an actual exploding volcano. There’s a feast for the eyes here, and we would love for people to see in the theaters as opposed to on an iPhone.
John Francis Daley: [It’s] the same way that we held ourselves to a high standard when we were making Game Night, knowing that people were familiar with that type of film and trying to subvert people’s expectations as to how far you can go with a comedy, how you can play with the look so that it doesn’t feel like a comedy and it actually feels more like a respected psychological thriller. We held ourselves to an even higher standard in making this film. We did not want to make something that was basic or down the middle. As a testament to our studios, they allowed us to really push the envelope with our storytelling and with the scope of the picture. We embraced practical elements as much as we could. A perfect fusion of practical and visual effects is that sweet sauce that you need to make a film that feels timeless and doesn’t feel of any certain era. I think there’s also the fatigue of films that all look the same. I’m not going to say which films those are. But I think that there is this longing to break out of that and embrace a more symbiotic approach between practical and visual effects.
Speaking of symbiotic approaches, D&D is highly collaborative. That’s the whole point of it: a group of people getting together and telling a story. As you were directing, did you get the actors involved from a character-development standpoint? Or did you pretty much stick to what you had in the script?
Jonathan Goldstein: It was a combination of both. We always want to be open to what the actors bring to their characters. Chris Pine, for example: we spoke at length with him in the early stages of writing and rewriting the script. A lot of the things that he suggested made their way into the script. When the actors arrived in Belfast, one of the first things we did was have a game of Dungeons & Dragons with them that lasted for several hours. It really gave them the spirit of what it is to be in a campaign in D&D, but it also let them play as their characters for the first time. So we saw things emerge that we then were able to write to.
What was your hometown movie theater growing up?
John Francis Daley: I remember it vividly. It was in Spring Valley, New York. Right by Nyack, where I grew up, in Rockland County. A United Artists theater, I believe. I remember vividly [seeing] the standee for Twister and thinking, “I have to see that movie.” As well as seeing Jurassic Park there for the first time, which—I’ve said in a few other interviews—is sort of the spirit animal of the Dungeons & Dragons feature. Spielberg influenced me so exponentially and made me want to become a filmmaker. I can so quickly go back to that exact theater space, with the smell of the popcorn and the sticky floors. It’s like home.
Jonathan Goldstein: For me, it was my adolescence, which was spent in Cleveland, Ohio. It was the Mayfield Theater, just outside downtown Cleveland. It was this very old movie house. They would show these double features. A friend and I would go every Friday or Saturday night and watch two classic movies. It was a kind of film school for me, because I saw every meaningful movie you could think of in those two or three years that I went there.
During the period of the pandemic when theaters were closed, I think a lot of people realized how valuable an experience it is.
John Francis Daley: That’s exactly right. As we were crafting this film, it was so important to us to create an experience that was worthy of going to the theater. That’s why we can’t stress enough: This is a theater experience. It’s got the laughs that are only the best when you’re surrounded by other people laughing. But there are also heart moments as well, that you wouldn’t necessarily get if you were watching it alone. I remember, in one of the first test screenings we had, something happens, and it elicited a lot of tears in the audience. And that is, in my mind, up there with getting people to jump in their seats from a scare and getting people to laugh. Those three reactions are what you really want out of filming.
Have you gone out to the cinema recently?
Jonathan Goldstein: We saw The Banshees of Inisherin together. It was just us, I think, because it was the middle of the day, and we snuck off and watched it. I keep meaning to go, because I think we have a standee in the theaters right now for our movie, and I haven’t seen it yet.
John Francis Daley: I want to see Avatar 2. I still haven’t seen that. Deciding if I should take my six-year-old. Probably not. Might totally traumatize him.
Jonathan Goldstein: We did get to see our own film at the Imax headquarters here in L.A. just a week ago, and it’s amazing. So fun to see it that big.
John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein at the Movies
What do you go for, concessions-wise?
John Francis Daley: I usually get a medium popcorn with Raisinets. And the Diet Coke.
Jonathan Goldstein: Do you mix the Raisinets?
John Francis Daley: I do. And I learned that from the movie Whiplash, where Paul Reiser does that with Miles Teller. I thought, “Oh, that’s a handy way to do it.”
Jonathan Goldstein: My wife is a big candy fan, and she always gets the Twizzlers. We wind up sharing those. I drink about a quart—
John Francis Daley: Of bourbon?
Jonathan Goldstein: That’s fine, right?
John Francis Daley: Look. The theatergoing experience is an excuse to day drink without scrutiny.