How Dungeons & Dragons Defies a Tired Hollywood Trend: “There’s Another Side to the Fantasy Genre”
The directors behind the new fantasy comedy movie tell Inverse how their film is different from other fantasy epics.
We’re living in a new golden age of fantasy. Every studio and streamer wants its own Game of Thrones success story, with Prime Video, Netflix, and even Disney+ trying to cash in on the fantasy craze. And yet, more often than not, these fantasy TV shows or movies end up all feeling kind of the same, with a dark and gritty story that’s more dark fantasy than high fantasy. All the constantly brooding characters, and plots full of betrayals and political scheming don’t leave much room for laughs. This all ends with Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves.
That’s right: The iconic board game is finally a feature film (again), but this time it leaves out the Shakespearean drama in favor of a hilarious comedy adventure full of chaotic characters that make mistakes and are all in it for themselves. The result is a wonderful fantasy movie that captures the frustrations, the epic fights, and also the chaotic joy of playing D&D.
Inverse spoke with directors and co-writers Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley about capturing the wildly different tones found in many D&D campaigns, Regé-Jean Page’s scene-stealing paladin, and using tabletop campaigns to prepare actors for their new roles.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
“Not to take away all the sheer quality and incredible nature of those more serious fantasy shows and films — we just think that there’s room for more than just that in the genre.”
How do you balance the expectations people have for fantasy nowadays being darker and more serious, with the knowledge that D&D is full of moments of levity and chaotic fun?
Jonathan Goldstein: There’s always been a sense of whimsy in the source material in the game of D&D; people are having fun when they're playing. And they’re not in the mindset of Jon Snow, generally.
John Francis Daley: It’s like what Gary Gygax did 50 years ago: He took Lord of the Rings and these medieval cliches and brought the fun to them, allowing people to live in that world. And that’s exactly what we wanted to do with the movie was to let people know, there’s another side to the fantasy genre. Not to take away all the sheer quality and incredible nature of those more serious fantasy shows and films — we just think that there’s room for more than just that in the genre.
I’m curious, since you’re both familiar with the game but have said you wanted the movie to be for everyone, what do you look for in terms of adapting specific aspects of the game? Is there a checklist?
Daley: We did have a checklist of things that we wanted to utilize without it ever getting in the way of the story that we wanted to tell since that was first and foremost. And we never let knowledge of the lore be a requirement to understanding what’s happening to our characters; that was always our standard. If you needed to read a book before you could enjoy this part, we didn’t put it in.
Likewise, the film feels like part of a larger world you’re alluding to without really explaining, like magic requiring all these components.
Goldstein: There is nothing I hate more than magic being portrayed as two wizards casting their staffs at each other and not doing anything else. So it was very important to us to give a tactile, tangible nature to the magic that our characters are utilizing so that it feels legitimate. And that was something that surprisingly hasn’t been done very often in this in this space.
Daley: Also, what D&D the game does that we wanted to capture was the limitations of magic. If you’re not careful, magic can solve all your problems, which doesn’t allow you much storytelling; it’s a save-everything. So limiting the kinds of things our sorcerer can do made for a more fun storytelling.
You even joke about how everyone assumes magic can do everything! But also, you add things to this movie that are classic staples of the game that even modern players may not be that used to, like puzzles and actual dungeons.
Goldstein: Obviously, puzzles and obstacles and booby traps are inherent in the game. We devised a way to incorporate that while also pulling the rug out from the audience so that they are surprised by the outcome of what ends up happening. If the characters were to successfully, for instance, navigate that bridge where they’re taking those really confusing instructions to heart, it wouldn’t be necessarily the most cinematic way to portray that.
Daley: Our favorite thing in whatever movie we do is to lead the audience to a place where they think they know what’s going to happen next. We do that with the music and that bit — our telling the rules of this challenge — and then none of it matters because the bridge blows up.
Speaking of that, can you talk about Regé-Jean Page’s character, the paladin? Because he stole every scene he’s in.
Daley: It was sort of what we did with Jesse Plemons in Game Night; we love a character who is absurdly serious, who has no sense of humor, who just doesn’t matter that he’s surrounded by knuckleheads. He’s a very straight arrow, and that was the comedy of that part and Regé understood from the beginning that the key to it was never winking, never showing that you’re in on the joke.
Goldstein: If he leaned into the humor of it, it wouldn’t have worked; it would have felt really lame. But it’s a testament to Regé’s talents and his understanding of the tone that we were going for, which is challenging because we are really straddling multiple tones throughout this film. And we had to make sure that our actors knew what the M.O. was.
That balancing of tones is also very important to the game, but it’s not the same playing for hours and hours to making a single two-hour movie. When did you feel confident that you had a good balance?
Goldstein: First and foremost for us, it was leading with the heart. I think that can drive any other tone, if it’s done successfully. So we really wanted to make sure that we were invested in these characters and that they felt fleshed out enough that it doesn’t feel like they are just stereotypes or devices. And once you care about them, and you’re really rooting for them to succeed and feel bad when they lose and feel good when they win, then you can start to deviate from that heartfelt nature at times and really go into the scarier moments and more dramatic moments. And certainly the comedy as well.
Daley: There’s sort of a rhythm to movies like this, where you think you are in a scene that’s meant to be played for horror and then you suddenly pivot to comedy. One of my favorite examples is that Intellect Devourer scene where we set up the rules and they’re attracted to mental energy, and then they just walk by. We always joke it’s like a multimillion-dollar joke to do that. But it played and it;s so much fun.
Speaking of the Intellect Devourer, can you talk about the mix of practical effects and VFX? Because you have some truly beautiful locations and some fantastic creature designs.
Daley: Well, we approached it with a real affection for the fantasy films of the ’80s. And since they couldn’t rely on CG the way a lot of films can now, we wanted to embrace practical effects. We worked with Legacy Effects, this company that has done some of the greatest practical effects in recent years, and we incorporated those into the movie so that the actors could be interacting with actual actors with prosthetics and so on. All the corpses in the cemetery scene were really there. I think the audience feels that difference. And you know, the CG added so much, it is impossible to do this movie without it. But that blending of practical and CG I think is key.
Goldstein: I think that the best way to approach something of this scale is to create a perfect fusion of the two techniques. We were using state-of-the-art technology even in our animatronic work with our Dragonborns, where we used motion capture — where an actor was expressing the facial movements of the Dragonborn off-camera — and that was replicated by the servo motors in the face of the Dragonborn.
That’s something that you couldn't have found in the ’80s, to be able to add to that and enhance that with VFX. We had [Industrial Light & Magic] doing some incredible work for us, sometimes fusing things that we had already done practically — like the fish, for instance — and then adding to it a bit of light so that you don’t really know what is real and what is fake. That, to us, is what Spielberg did when he approached Jurassic Park and why that movie still stands up to this day. And certainly, that’s what we endeavor to do in this in this film.
One of my favorite sequences is the Wild Shape escape, which is even made to look like a one-take. Can you talk about crafting that sequence?
Daley: It was one of the things that we initially pitched to the studio when we first met on the film because we thought it would be a really exciting sequence that immerses the audience in a way that only a oner can. But it was obviously a fusion of multiple shots. Many of them were done practically; many of them were done in dozens of takes.
Goldstein: Just [Sophia Lillis’ character] getting that hood over her horns took 14 takes.
Daley: I think it was like 21 takes, and you think about the amount of extras and horses and what is happening in the background when she’s just walking. That’s when you start to realize the sheer weight of what those multiple takes actually represent.
You guys not only have references to the lore of the game but even meta ones to the idea of D&D as a board game, like having a character recount his backstory and actually reference the fact that it is his backstory. Why did that appeal to you?
Goldstein: We like to throw critics a bone. Like in Game Night when Jason Bateman says “pick a tone and stick with it.” It’s that kind of a moment where we know that what we’re doing in the movie is giving you the backstory, but it’s more fun to just say “Here’s my backstory.”
Daley: The challenge is to never actually take the audience out of the movie with it. We spent a lot of time just on the script because Covid hit when we were in soft prep, and it gave us more time to refine the script for our actors. And as we were casting, that helped to determine what we were going to do. It was a really surgical approach to the screenplay before we even shot a foot of film.
And then when we’re there and shooting it, we obviously play around to a certain extent and then when we’re testing it, that is so incredibly informative. We love testing these films just to gauge how engaged the audience is at any given time.
One very cool thing about the movie is how you tease a much larger world beyond this specific story, kind of like a DM does when crafting a campaign…
Goldstein: I think our hope was to approach it in a way that, like Star Wars, where we’re focused in that first original movie on a group of less-than-perfect people, going up against something pretty powerful. And in that, you’re always getting hints that there’s this fast galaxy out there with politics and all these things, but you don’t really spend a lot of time on that. You’re focused on your people.
Lastly, you’ve talked before about playing the actual game with the cast, and I’m curious if that is a tool that you think can help beyond the making of an actual D&D movie.
Daley: It was an invaluable resource, and something I think we should approach any film with, regardless of the genre. Just play D&D with the cast. There’s nothing that creates the chemistry and the dynamic, and solidifies how each character is integral to the group than playing a campaign. It was highly enlightening, and it was also really fun too, because they all got to kind of let loose. You need your cast, especially an ensemble, to feel like a family of sorts.