John Francis Daley And Jonathan Goldstein have been to the SXSW Film Festival twice before — for 2013’s “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” which they wrote, and 2019’s “Stuber,” which they produced. But when the duo make their action-comedy debut ‘Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves’ as the opening movie of Austin’s annual event this Friday, it will be the first time they’ve done so. as directors. They couldn’t be more excited.
“It’s the perfect setting for this movie,” says Goldstein, sitting in the Paramount office he shares with Daley, for an interview with Variety about the release of their latest film.
“It feels like the epitome of the South By movie,” Daley adds. “It’s big and all-encompassing, but there’s also something a bit subversive about it.”
If it hadn’t been for a Chicago Cubs game and a lightning-fast superhero, this might never have happened.
In June 2019, Daley and his wife, both huge Cubs fans, walked into a local sports bar in the Valley, eager to see the Chicago baseball team take on the Los Angeles Dodgers. They found themselves seated next to a literary agent who began chatting with Daley about his career as a filmmaker. For a decade, Daley and Goldstein forged a path as screenwriters (including 2011’s “Horrible Bosses” and 2017’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming”) and directors (“Vacation” in 2015, “Game Night” in 2018) which landed them a coveted job. write and direct the DC movie ‘the flash— a job Goldstein and Daley had just left. This news which had not yet been announced, but Daley let it escape the agent.
“And he’s like, ‘So you’re looking for your next thing?'” Daley recalled.
That agent tipped off Paramount, who invited Daley and Goldstein to a meeting and handed them the script for “Dungeons & Dragons,” an adaptation of the 50-year-old fantasy role-playing game that shaped the minds of millions of gamers. around the world. (Paramount is co-producing the film with eOne, which is owned by Dungeons & Dragons parent company Hasbro.)
“If we hadn’t been to a bar in Sherman Oaks mid-day, we might not have been working on this project for the past four years,” Daley laughs.
By then, Daley and Goldstein had been working on “The Flash” for over a year, as the latest in a parade of legendary filmmakers – including Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, Seth Grahame-Smith, Rick Famuyiwa and Robert Zemeckis – who’s had fun directing the first live-action film about the Scarlet Speedster. The film’s star, Ezra Miller, had played the Flash, aka Barry Allen, previously in 2016’s ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’ and 2017’s ‘Justice League’, and Goldstein and Daley saw in the playful, boyish performance de Miller a chance to move away from what Daley calls “that growing sense of fatigue” among audiences for superhero movie tropes.
“We pitched this idea of a superhero at ground level where it’s not entirely doomsday stakes,” Daley explains. “He’s just learning about his powers and also being somewhat dysfunctional with his life. The more imperfect we can make a superhero, the better, because that’s the inherent challenge: how do you make someone who is, you know, physically perfect, imperfect? »
Goldstein and Daley say they met Miller once over dinner before they started working on a screenplay. “They were intense and very bright,” Goldstein says of the actor. “Later it became clear that they didn’t quite want to do the same as us.”
Miller reportedly wrote a rival version of the script with Grant Morrison, which the studio eventually passed on. But by then, Goldstein and Daley were ready to move on.
“It was a number of creative differences that led us at a certain point to decide it was time to move on,” Daley explains.
Goldstein adds, “If we feel like the powers that be aren’t keen on making the same movie as us, we’re not going to win this battle. And so it is better to cut your losses and get out of there.
Director Andy Muchietti (“It”) and screenwriter Christina Hodson (“Birds of Prey”) took on the project and eventually got it. Goldstein and Daley, who have a credit story on the film, were recently able to screen it, and they still see their DNA in the film.
“They took what we started and really ran with it and made it into a really fun and emotional movie,” Goldstein said. “We’re really happy with how it all turned out.”
The fate of “The Flash,” which Warner Bros. pledged to publish in June, remains uncertain following Miller’s disturbing and headline-grabbing behavior from 2020, including video of Miller choke a woman in Iceland, allegations of abuse and harassment and arrests that led to a plea of no contest for misdemeanor disorderly conduct in Hawaii and a to plead guilty to illegal trespassing in Vermont. (In August, Miller published a general apologies for their behavior and said they were in “continuing treatment” for “complex mental health issues”.)
Asked about Miller’s actions, Goldstein and Daley choose their words carefully.
“All I can say is that having gone through the harrowing process of making a massive movie under the best of circumstances, I was very empathetic to the people who put a looooot time, and then themselves in the making of the film, like Andy and Christina,” says Daley. “I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for them. But I’m so glad the finished product is a super fun movie. He laughs nervously. “Is it diplomatic? »
Goldstein intervenes. “Obviously you don’t want headwinds when you’re trying to get a giant, expensive movie out into the world,” he says. “And I hope the quality of the movie will pass and people will embrace it.”
One of the qualities the filmmakers say they tried hardest to bring to “The Flash” is also something they infused into “Dungeons & Dragons” – namely, making sure the source material is extremely popular doesn’t overwhelm the character-driven story to the film. center.
“I’m not a huge superhero,” Goldstein says. “I collected comic books as a kid and I love Marvel movies. But what grabs me is the story and the people in it. That’s how we approached D&D. It’s not s Wasn’t acting that much, okay, what are the monsters going to end up with? What dragon can we include? It was: Who’s our team? Because that’s the heart of D&D. Who’s playing- “Who are your friends? What characters do they take as avatars, and why are we going to care about them? That’s how we approached the whole movie.”
Both men played Dungeons & Dragons as teenagers, and Daley had a game as an adult for several years before making the film. But they also knew they had to expand their film beyond the game – which until recently felt inaccessible to anyone not a huge fan.
“There’s this stigma that you have to get over, it’s not just for nerds,” Daley says. “There is something bigger and more cinematic.” They briefly considered the idea that the film might be about people playing the game, but quickly dismissed it, especially after the release of 2019’s “Jumanji: The Next Level” in which ordinary people play as as avatars in a video game.
“The moment ‘Jumanji’ came out, we said, ‘No, we can’t do it again,'” Daley said. “Plus, it’s doing a bit of a disservice. It reduces D&D to just a game and I think there’s so much to explore in this world. And it’s hard, stake-wise, to care about a character that you know the audience is being played by someone who’s safe in their home.
Instead, the directors let the action of the story be informed by the open-ended nature of how players approach the game, in which a group of fantasy archetypes try to make their way through a campaign. elaborate.
“It’s a lot of [the charaters] tossing around ideas, some of them kind of shitting on those ideas, and ultimately seeing if that idea can come to fruition,” Daley says.
Goldstein adds, “It was our way of capturing what happens at the table when you play D&D without breaking the fourth wall, or actually going meta with it.”
Ultimately, the filmmakers brought the same spirit of creative exploration to the scriptwriting process — which they hope will translate into the audience experience.
“When we were writing that first draft, it was so much fun,” Daley says. “Often in early drafts you have the freedom to write exactly what you want it to be. To the credit of the studio and eOne and all of the brand owners, they have really allowed us to preserve our vision throughout. I mean, there were arguments about what was to happen and this and that, but nothing that seemed insurmountable. We’re really proud of it. It perfectly captures the movie we envisioned when we started.