[This story contains spoilers for Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves.]
The writing-and-directing duo’s fantasy adventure film, which is based on the beloved tabletop role-playing game, has been met with rave reviews from critics and audiences, and most impressively, they’ve managed to pull off the impossible by satisfying both D&D die-hards and newcomers to the world. Furthermore, Goldstein and Daley even have a story credit on one of the buzziest superhero films of all time, The Flash, which finally releases in June after first being announced in 2014. (The pair left the project as writer-directors in 2019 due to creative differences.)
Daley is most known for his role as the D&D-playing Sam Weir on the short-lived cult classic, Freaks and Geeks, and when Paramount’s marketing department pitched a D&D-related reunion among Daley’s character, Samm Levine’s Neal Schweiber and Martin Starr’s Bill Haverchuck, Daley couldn’t resist the full-circle moment that promoted his new movie in the process.
“I jumped at the chance, because it is truly bizarre and amazing that there is this association with me as Sam Weir playing Dungeons & Dragons 23 years ago and now co-directing and co-writing this film,” Daley tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Daley’s days as a full-time TV actor are still paying dividends, as he first met his future creative partner Goldstein on the set of The Geena Davis Show (2000-01), which the latter wrote for at the time. And five years later on Kitchen Confidential (2005-06), Daley forged a relationship with a now-acclaimed actor and director who would later provide a rather delightful and unexpected cameo in Dungeons & Dragons, as Holga’s (Michelle Rodriguez) ex-lover, Marlamin. The surprise appearance was added during the later stages of post-production. (Skip the following quote if you’ve yet to see the film.)
“I co-starred with Bradley [Cooper] on the show Kitchen Confidential when I was 19 years old, and we appreciated each other’s careers from afar after that experience,” Daley shares. “So I don’t remember who it was that pitched Bradley, but the second I heard the name, I thought, ‘Oh, let’s go for it.’ So we sent him a copy of the unfinished film and he loved it. So he was ready to jump on board, and it was such an awesome day.”
Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Goldstein also discusses the film’s test screenings that ultimately led to additional photography.
John, the studio just released a brilliant promo spot for Dungeons & Dragons in the form of a Freaks and Geeks reunion with Samm Levine and Martin Starr. How did this come together?
John Francis Daley: Well, I would like to take the credit for it, but it was actually an idea from a brilliant person in our marketing department at Paramount. She was friends with Martin [Starr] and thought it would be a fun mini-reunion for the Geeks. So I jumped at the chance, because it is truly bizarre and amazing that there is this association with me as Sam Weir playing Dungeons & Dragons 23 years ago and now co-directing and co-writing this film.
Was this the same marketing team that put creepy smiling people at baseball games to promote Smile?
Daley: I think it probably was the same people, and I still think that was one of the most genius marketing schemes to this day.
Did Freaks and Geeks kick-start your affinity for D&D?
Daley: It did. It definitely introduced me to the mechanics of the game and what made it so special. But admittedly, it wasn’t until I was an adult that I picked it back up. This was a few years before we started on the film, and I fell back in love with it. There is this unpredictability in the storytelling and this sense of fun and humor that is naturally associated with D&D, and that’s what makes it so appealing as a film.
Jonathan, for those who may be unfamiliar, how did you and John first link up?
Jonathan Goldstein: John was an actor on a sitcom called The Geena Davis Show, and I was in the writing room for it. It was one of my first TV writing gigs, and one day, John stopped to show me these shorts he had made with visual effects in them. And he was just a kid, so it was like, “Holy shit.” And then I brought in DVDs converted from VHS to show him what I made at that age in high school or middle school. So it was very much a meeting of the minds, and we kept in touch about some TV ideas that John could perhaps play the lead in. And then we wrote a pilot, which didn’t wind up going anywhere, but we eventually decided to try and write a feature together. And that became the first thing we sold [The $40,000 Man]. It got us on The Black List and launched our feature career. We had both always aspired to direct, and then New Line came to us with Vacation and said, “Would you like to direct it as well as write it?” And we said, “For sure.” And here we are.
So how did you manage to adapt a tabletop role-playing game in a way that appeals to both its devout fans and the uninitiated, such as myself, without being too inside baseball?
Daley: That’s the inherent challenge, and we wouldn’t have even taken on a project that’s so ambitious, with such a fine line to walk, without knowing that there was a way to initiate the unfamiliar and also satisfy the familiar. So it’s all about story and characters. You have to approach it like a movie that you want to see, not what’s essentially a commercial for a game.
Goldstein: You don’t need to read Tolkien to enjoy the Lord of the Rings movies, and you don’t need to know much about the Star Wars universe to enjoy those original Star Wars movies. You feel like you’re part of a big world, but you don’t really need to know the ins and outs of it. What you’re following is the story of some characters who you start to invest in, and so that’s really how we approached it.
Daley: I’ve used this very bizarre example because it is so different tonally, but what was so incredible about The Wire was that these characters would talk shop and you had absolutely no idea what they were saying. But you understood the intention behind it, and after a while, you’d start to inadvertently learn the language. And so that was a fun way to inundate audiences without alienating them.
Coming off of Star Trek and Wonder Woman, how receptive was Chris Pine at first to joining another potential franchise? Were you worried that he’d already scratched this sort of itch?
Goldstein: He responded to the writing and to the script, and he saw the potential. It helped that his nephew was right in the middle of an ongoing D&D campaign, which he then sat in on and saw how much the kids enjoyed it. So he saw the potential of the D&D world, but he also liked the idea of playing a somewhat different role. A bard who plays the lute and sings and dances is not exactly the typical leading man part, and that had a real appeal to him.
Heist films are often viewed as metaphors for filmmaking, but Chris’ character really does fit the mold of a director. He comes up with the plan and his partners execute it. Was Edgin the director not lost on either of you?
Daley: Yeah, he’s also dealing with this cast of characters, if you will, where every laid plan goes wrong in some way, and that, to us, is very much the directing process. (Laughs.) You never quite get what you set out to do, and there’s a beauty in that as long as you give yourself up to that unpredictability and figure out how to pivot in ways that could end up improving what you had originally wanted to do.
Goldstein: Edgin also has this power of charm and indefatigable belief that if you just power through, you can get to your goal, and that becomes infectious for the group. And as a film director, you have to have that, too, no matter how difficult it gets. Your actors and your crew all have to believe that your vision is going to get them to the finish line.
[The next question and answer contains a notable spoiler.]
Well, on the subject of Holga’s (Michelle Rodriguez) former beloved, Marlamin, how did this out-of-left-field cameo go down?
Daley: Well, I co-starred with Bradley [Cooper] on the show Kitchen Confidential when I was 19 years old, and we appreciated each other’s careers from afar after that experience. And so when this opportunity came up, we knew we wanted someone to inhabit the role that brought with it this sense of gravitas and just full-on acting chops. So I don’t remember who it was that pitched Bradley, but the second I heard the name, I thought, “Oh, let’s go for it.” So we sent him a copy of the unfinished film and he loved it. So he was ready to jump on board, and it was such an awesome day.
So it was added towards the very end …
Daley: That’s right.
Rage Against the Machine guitarist and prominent D&D player Tom Morello also has a cameo in the film as Kimathi Stormhollow, who he plays as in real-life games. Is he going to get you guys a guest pass to Joe Manganiello’s star-studded game?
Daley & Goldstein: (Laugh.)
Goldstein: I don’t think we’re cool enough for that game.
Daley: I think you have to have a tattoo to be allowed into that game, and neither of us [have tattoos].
Goldstein: But we’ll get tattoos if we need to.
I’ve heard some good reactions to your movie from some of the people who play in that game, so I like your odds of being observers at the very least.
Daley: That’s good to hear!
As far as the impressive oner that shows off Doric’s (Sophia Lillis) abilities, was that the sequence that cost you the most sleep?
Goldstein: (Laughs.) Yeah, it was up there. Part of it was just getting the visual effects to where they needed to be, and COVID really did a number on some visual effects places. And so we kept waiting for new iterations and it went longer than we had hoped. Ultimately, it got pretty close to where we hoped it would be. There’s some amazing visual effects in this movie, and our vendors did incredible work throughout the process. That was just the one sequence that took the longest to get there.
Daley: And we have to give a shout-out to our storyboard artist Darrin Denlinger, who worked hand in hand with us on that sequence. He really helped to elevate it to the place that we’re all so proud of, but it was a process that took weeks and weeks over the course of the shoot. And sometimes, it was not in order, much like our oner in Game Night. And that, in and of itself, is kind of a mind-fuck, because you have to keep your eye on the through-line of the chase. But obviously, it was very gratifying when we got to a place where it started to come together.
What were your conversations with marketing like? What did you want to lean into versus hold back in the trailers and TV spots?
Goldstein: Well, all of our movies turn out to be challenges to market because they don’t fall neatly into one genre bucket. And so we feel for the marketing team because they only have 30 seconds or two minutes to get across what the movie is. So it was really about finding the same balance that we struggled with while making the movie, which is how much comedy and how much big, epic action. And we also wanted to make sure we got across the unique tone of the film, but that’s hard to do in a short amount of time.
Daley: It was also really important to us to showcase the heart throughout this film. Our characters are earnest, and they’re not taking the piss out of the world that they’re living in. And to be able to sell that in a minute and a half is particularly challenging because you have a lot to establish. So it was a process, but [marketing] was super receptive to our thoughts and notes throughout it.
And what did you learn from your test screenings?
Goldstein: Well, the biggest thing was that there was confusion over what the bad guys are up to. So we actually went back and did a reshoot where we clarified that with a flashback in Thay where you see Szass Tam rise above the crowd and do the beckoning death. So rather than just talking about it, we thought it would help the audience to be able to see it happen in the flashback.
Daley: And more generally speaking, what those test audiences give us is invaluable insight into where we have them on the hook and when they start to fall off. And so we would study the audience throughout every moment to see if we were going off on too much of a tangent, comedically, that we were alienating the audience, or if we were being too serious and hitting them with so many proper nouns that they were starting to get confused and frustrated. So it’s a wildly helpful tool to be able to use, especially with something like this where you’re really trying to play the audience like a fiddle.
Goldstein: And when he says we studied the audience, he means that, literally. We had infrared cameras on the crowd, and so if you do go to one of these screenings, make sure you don’t pick your nose because we will know.
Daley & Goldstein: (Laugh.)
So who can I blame for the lack of a Game Night sequel?
Goldstein: I guess it would be us, really.
Daley & Goldstein: (Laugh.)
Goldstein: Our favorite thing is to leave the audience wanting more, as opposed to hitting them over the head. And that was a case where we ended the movie with a sort of fake setup for a sequel, but we feel like it might be hard to top what we did.
When you first saw Jesse Plemons’ performance on your monitor, did you immediately high-five each other?
Goldstein: Oh yeah!
Daley: We also high-fived each other before that during our first table read with the cast. Table reads often charge you up as an actor and you might push things a little further for a comedic effect, but [Plemons] stayed as that droll, muted, humorless guy throughout. And that’s a real testament to him as a performer. He knew exactly what he wanted that character to be, and it was a revelation seeing him read alongside the rest of the cast.
Lastly, I know the company line is that you’re superstitious and that everybody just wanted to make one good movie, but do you have some idea of how you’d handle Szass Tam in another Dungeons & Dragons installment?
Daley: We have some idea. (Laughs.) But at this point, we’re just focused on trying to get this thing out there, and we’re so happy that we ended up making the film that we set out to make.
Dungeons & Dragons is now playing in movie theaters. This interview was edited for length and clarity.