Joining forces with leading action-adventure producer Joel Silver, New Line Cinema is about to take the game to a whole new level when it releases Dungeons & Dragons on December 8, 2000. The highly anticipated fantasy-adventure film brings to life the magical world that three generations of aficionados have seen only in their imaginations, but it also stands alone as an exciting adventure that non-players can enjoy as they discover the wonders of that much-visited D&D universe for the first time.
Dungeons & Dragons stars Justin Whalin (Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993)), Zoe McLellan (Mr. Holland's Opus (1995)), Academy Award winner Jeremy Irons (Reversal Of Fortune (1990)), Bruce Martyn Payne (Passenger 57 (1992)), Marlon Wayans (Scary Movie (2000)), Lee Arenberg (Cradle Will Rock (1999)), Kristen Wilson (Doctor Dolittle (1998)), Thora Birch (American Beauty (1999)), Richard O'Brien (Dark City (1998)) and Tom Baker (Doctor Who (1963)).
The film is directed and produced by first time director Courtney Solomon based on a screenplay written by Topper Lilien and Carroll Cartwright. Thomas M. Hammel and Kia Jam are Producers and Executive Producer Joel Silver. The Director of Photography is Academy Award nominee Douglas Milsome, BSC; the Production Designer is Bryce Perrin, and the Costume Designer is Barbara Lane. Caroline Ross edited the film. Joan Collins Carey served as Visual Effects Supervisor and Academy Award winner -George Gibbs as Special Effects Supervisor.
About The Film ......
Since it was sprung on the world in 1974, Dungeons & Dragons has become the undisputed champion of role-playing games, even as the RPG (role-playing game) phenomenon has continued to grow, with hundreds of new games being invented and the realm of play expanding onto the Net. In the 25 years since it was introduced, "D&D", has acquired three generations of fans, 25 million strong.
To put perspective on this phenomenally popular property, there are more than 400 paperback fantasy adventure novels that have been published set in the D&D world. That world is medieval and geographically vague, but filled with beings human and inhuman, exotic settings and magical paraphernalia which have all been defined for players with the wide-eyed attention to detail one would expect to find in a medieval bestiary or Grimoire.
The roots of the D&D world are literary, so heroic fantasy authors like L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, R. E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, H. P. Lovecraft and A. Merritt figure prominently in the library of any Dungeons & Dragons devotee worthy of the name. The wealth of exotic lore accumulated over 25 years of play is probably the most important element in richness of the D&D experience, but it is not the whole story, according to Gary Gygax, the co-creator of the game:
It is absolutely necessary to understand the only valid purpose for role-playing games. The games exist to provide entertainment. (But) without the interaction of the social group, the role-playing game experience is less entertaining
--its drama is less intense, its dangers abstract, its triumphs shallow....There is a message contained in the true role-playing game. It is the message of the difficulty of surviving alone, and the folly of trying to profit from the loss of others.
That philosophy is part of the spirit of Dungeons & Dragons, along with the heroic role-playing and the fantastic intricacies that continue to enthrall new players in each generation. It would therefore have to be part of the first D&D movie, along with the tapestry of mayhem and marvels that players love to weave when they play the game, if the game's unique spirit was to be preserved.
Who better to do that than a Dungeons & Dragons aficionado? That is why the game's proprietors, after years of dodging major studio offers to translate the D&D world to film, took the unusual step of optioning the rights to a young man named Courtney Solomon - an aspiring filmmaker with no studio backing.
Solomon's mother is a production coordinator, which had allowed him to get experience of all sides of film production by working on some 20 different films shooting in his native Canada, but he never attended film school. "Instead of going on with my university education, or moving to Hollywood to look for work," he explains disarmingly, "1 decided I wanted to make a big action-adventure movie like the ones George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were doing at the time.
"1 always liked Dungeons & Dragons when I was a kid, and my friends and I thought it would make a great movie, particularly when movies like Raiders of The Lost Ark (1981) began coming out. It's a unique world."
Hollywood had had the same thought, but so far no producer had succeeded in securing the rights to make a D&D film, because of the proprietors' fear that a big company would distor[ the game-world to suit its own ends. The 20-year-old Solomon must have looked less menacing. "1 'cold-called' the company and befriended some of the people there," he recalls, "and then I worked for 18 months convincing them to give this young untried kid the rights to make the movie."
Early in the creation of a campaign the aspiring Dungeon Master will encounter sizable financial obligations.
So began a quest that lasted nine years. Securing an option, Solomon eventually obtained financing from Hong Kong-based investors Allan Zeman, Nelson Leong and the Shaw family. Learning that Joel Silver had long been interested in the idea of a D&D film, Solomon showed him a short film he had made with a horse chase to convince the producer that he could handle the creative logistics of the huge assignment.
Silver signed on as executive producer, and nine years after Solomon's first "cold call" to the Dungeons & Dragons company the 28-year-old D&D aficionado found himself in Prague, Czech Republic, as the Dungeon Master -- producer, writer and director -- of a $36 million production that would be his first feature film.
"I didn't think anyone would let me direct," says Solomon, "but I had been working on it so intensely for so many years that everybody thought it would be a bad idea to give it to someone else to direct -- they might not give it the heart and soul I would. It was a scary proposition, but it was the kind of movie I always wanted to make."
Before the play session, have the scenario ready. It must be known to you and you must visualize in relation to the players and their game personas.
During that long nine year process, pieces had been falling into place. Solomon's first visit to Prague, for example, happened three years before the production of Dungeons & Dragons set up shop there, with the result that the script was rewritten to incorporate locations he had seen.
Justin Whalin, who agreed to play the thief-hero Ridley before the picture was a "go," had been another early addition to the production: "I got the part before the film was greentit," he recalled during filming, "and stayed very involved throughout the whole process." Whalin devoted three years to working on Dungeons & Dragons, which consequently lead to his Associate Producer credit on the film. "I have been there every step of the way. Besides being creatively fulfilling, working on Dungeons & Dragons has been an amazing educational experience as well," added Whalin.
The most important thing, Solomon says, was finding the right story, which means the right cast of characters -- the heart of any Dungeons & Dragons adventure. "Most of the characters we chose are around 20," he says. "The Empress Savina is just 17. I wanted characters who were that age because it's the point in life when people make decisions about where they're going to go and what they're going to do."
"Then you've got your older establishment characters, who are set in their ways and don't want things to change, while the young people want things to change and have all this enthusiasm -- somewhat naive at times -- about making that happen."
"It's a movie about people finding out who they are and making the right or wrong choices. You get taken through this great world, but you do it through the eyes of these characters, and you get to grow and learn with them. It's got a lot of action and special effects, but at the core of it, it's a great story with great characters, and all the characters are unique."
Elves are inclined to haughtiness and do not make friends easily, but friend or enemy is never forgotten.
Dwarves tend to be dour and tacitum. They are strong and brave, but they also enjoy beer, ale, mead, and even stronger drink.
Each character involved in the quest, who belongs to a defined race or class within the D&D world, is also an individual: The Empress Savina, thrust onto the throne by the murder of her father when she is still just 17, has to find the strength to thwart a palace revolution. Ridley, thief and commoner, has to overcome his hatred of Mages, while his friend Snails (described by Marion Wayans as "a punk") learns courage on the journey. The young Mage Marina has to overcome her pride, the elf Norda has to overcome a tendency to see things in black and white, and Elwood the dwarf is forced to relinquish his dwarfish propensity for solitude, which has no doubt been reinforced by signs like those we see in a tavern at one point: "No dwarves allowed."
"I had a lot of friends who were D&D players, and I sat in on a couple of sessions," says Lee Arenberg, who plays Elwood. "The game is very cinematic. The Dungeon Master who leads you through the experience is making up a story very similar to the one in this film. I'm a dwarf, I'm impervious to magic, I react like a dwarf would in the game."
Citing dwarves' love of meat and even stronger beverages, Arenberg notes that Elwood's greatest conflict arises from Marina's orders that no one is to drink during the adventure.
The professional thief is not dishonorable, although he is neither honored nor highly respected in some quarters. The primary functions of a thief are 1) picking pockets, 2) opening locks, 3) finding~removing traps, 4) moving silently and 5) hiding in shadows.
While magic users are not strong in combat with weapons, they are possibly the most fearsome of all character classes when high levels of ability are finally attained. Survival up to that point, however, can be a problem.
Although Dungeons & Dragons is a heroic fantasy adventure, Justin Whalin notes that inside the standard fairytale battle between good and evil "there's a real-world kind of world." There's a political struggle between the generations, between magic users and non-magic users (rich and poor), and conflicts between races who each have there own biases."
"All people are equal," says Zoe McLellan, who plays Marina. "The message is what drew me to this story."
The characters played by McLellan and Whalin exemplify that. "Marina first meets Ridley and Snails when they're breaking into the Magic School, and that's not a good first impression," says McLellan. 'qhere's an attraction right away, but they're thieves, and they're commoners, and they're boys, so it takes a while for her to get used to them."
Elwood and Norda, whose races have always been like oil and water, are another case in point: "Dwarves and elves go back centuries," says Kristen Wilson, who plays Norda. 'they are exact opposites, so they clash. But by the end of the adventure Elwood and Norda reach an understanding with one another."
"The theme is equality among different peoples," says Lee Arenberg, "that you can be whoever you are -- you can be a dwarf, you can be an elf -- but the main thing is that we get along together. This motley group of adventurers is fighting for the idea that everyone should have the same chance to succeed in life, and I think that's a great message for kids, and maybe even a better reminder for us "adults" that have forgotten this basic principal."
The need for cooperation arises out of characters who can only achieve their goal by joining forces. Marina, who is just in her third year of Magic School, knows a bit about magic and has the map that shows where the potent talisman they are seeking can be found, but she needs the combat skills of Ridley and Snails, who are professional thieves, to complement her own limited powers.
Elwood, as a dwarf, is partially immune to magic and fearless in battle, particularly when he is made irate by his bald-spot being uncovered. As for Norda, Kristen Wilson explains, "She works with the natural order. She's part of magic, instead of trying to harness it the way humans do."
The Dungeon Master approaches each play session with verve. It is not just a regular event -- it is a special exciting one in which danger, excitement, fun and adventure will prevail. Your attitude, posture, tone of voice and words all relay this to the group assembled. They are inspired, they believe, and for a time they are immersed in the mythic world thus created.
"We were very careful with the casting," says Courtney Solomon. "1 only wanted people who really loved the characters that they're playing." That was not hard to discern in Kristen Wilson, at least. "When I went into my first audition," she recalls, "1 told Courtney that I was Norda. That was pretty much it."
When the cast first assembled in Prague, Solomon spent two weeks helping them become their characters. "We were very untraditional in the way we set up," he says, "We figured how each character was feeling at different times, and I took them to the locations when there was nobody else around to show them where they'd be, because they really were going into a different world. And they've come through by creating these wild and interesting characters."
A trained dancer, Kristen Wilson says she found Norda by concentrating first on the special way she moved, and then on the way she talked: "She speaks many languages" -- "elvish, gnome, goblin, hobgoblin, orcish, gnoll and the 'common tongue' of mankind" according to the D&D handbook - "so her use of language and the way she articulates herself are different.
"Elves see things that humans don't see. Time is relative for elves. They see what's happening in the past and the present as well as what's going to happen in the future, so they're constantly filtering things and deciding what they're going to say."
Jeremy Irons took a more traditional approach to his character, the arch-villain Profion. "I think a lot of actors enjoy playing characters that allow them to be villainous, wild," he says. "Richard III and lago are among the most wonderful characters to play in Shakespeare."
The director's enthusiasm for the project was communicated to the actors, who gave it their all. Zoe McLellan, after describing Marina as "a priss," says her favorite day of filming was the nine hours she spent wearing a wetsuit under her costume and wading around in a sewer set, which was a major turning point for her character. "It was really dirty and gross," she recalls fondly, "but I loved it."
For Bruce Martyn Payne, who plays Profion's cruel lieutenant and head of the Empires forces Damodar, the opportunity to do all his own swordfights, with a sword that weighed a ton, was one of the high points of the game. "I have a great passion for it," he says. "I've done a lot of sword fighting beginning in drama school. It's a very eloquent domain for showing the largesse of a character without the accent being on the aggression. You're actually writing with your sword, and everybody has a different style."
Justin Whalin, Marlon Wayans and Lee Arenberg also did almost all their own fighting. Whalin, who is a skilled martial artist, overshot during a fight and broke a stuntman's nose. Later it was his turn when a swinging 400-pound axe came within less than an inch of him during the scene where Ridley braves the deadly maze of the Thieves' Guild: "We had four cameras on him," Courtney Solomon said, "and that shot is in the film."
Preparation is the key to an exciting and satisfying play session. This applies to the Dungeon Master's psychological preparation, the conceptual preparation of the material to be used, and the physical preparation of the place where the play session is to be held.
"Prague is a city with a unique look and a lot of locations that had never been filmed before," says the director, explaining his choice to make the film there, after citing the well-known high quality of Prague studios and technicians. "With a little dressing they fit right into the world we were trying to create."
Bruce Martyn Payne, who is a student of Celtic lore, thinks there may be a reason for that. "Historically," he points out, "a lot of Celtic and Gaelic tribes started here." "Western Bohemia," the name of the Czech province where Prague is located, is derived from the name of the Celtic tribe that first settled the region.
St. Nicholas Cathedral, one of the masterpieces of high baroque architecture, was the Empress Savina's private chapel and a memorable experience for Thora Birch, who was visiting Europe for the first time. "St. Nicholas left me dizzy with awe," she says. "200 feet high, huge statues, marble, wood -- it was very humbling in the scenes where I was alone there."
Jeremy Irons had a more out-of-the way architectural marvel for his lair -- the Bone Chapel in the All Saints Church of Kutna Hora, once used as a burial site for 30,000 of Prague's wealthy citizens who died during a plague. In 1870 an ingenious woodcarver arranged human bones into the shape of bells, a chandelier, a monstrance and a coat of arms, using them to decorate the walls of the chapel as well. "Nobody had filmed there before," Solomon said. The Prague authorities liked the message of the film, so they let us use the Chapel as the bad guys' base."
The setting where Profion and Savina circle around each other on a huge mosaic floor while debating the future of the Empire before a gallery of Mages in red velvet boxes is not a CGI creation -- it is Prague's State Opera, which required almost no re-dressing for these key scenes. The interior of the Magic School at the beginning of the film was filmed inside the Library of the Strahov Monastery, normally closed to visitors, which contains half a million books written in over a hundred languages.
Two real castles figure prominently in the action: Lipnice Castle became the setting for the Thieves' Guild, and the crumbling Rabi Castle became the setting for Ridley and Snails' fateful confrontation with Damodar.
Although all these settings were real, the sweeping opening shot of the film, which portrays the city of lzmer from the air, is a CGI creation of Digital Firepower, which did all the digital effects in the film. Working in conjunction with production designer Bryce Perrin, the Digital Firepower wizards sought inspiration for their magical city in the architecture of the city that had played host to the production for eleven weeks, which Zoe McLellan describes as "like a dreamworld."
How did the first-time director fare with his big-budget action film, whose challenges would daunt many a more seasoned filmmaker? All concurred, after the first weeks of shooting on difficult practical locations, that Courtney Solomon did not seem to be a first-time director. "I was impressed with his knowledge of this movie," says Marlon Wayans. "He knows every shot, he knows the world."
"He's very knowledgeable about the process, and very clear and exact about what he wants," says Thora Birch. "What won me over was Courtney's passion. His vision of everything, the characters, the sets, the effects - he has it right at his fingertips." Kristen Wilson adds, "I don't think of Courtney as a first-time director."
Because this is a game, there is nothing in the scenario to be tasted, touched, seen, smelled, or heard. Yet all of the five senses function in the game because the Dungeon Master provides this information to the players.
The production finished filming on soundstages at Prague's Barrandov Studios, where much of the blue-screen work was done to prepare such CGI effects as Teleportation Portals, a spectacular device the film's magic users employ to get from place to place.
For scenes like the final combat between Savina's forces and Profion's, when the sky above Izmer is filled with countless winged dragons battling for the soul of the Empire, actors and director alike had to make a special effort of imagination. "Fantastic!" says Bruce Martyn Payne. "Courtney Solomon has great passion for these things and is happy to share it with you. He'll spend time showing you storyboards, or computer visualizations, so you have a whole vision of this world inside you when you step before the cameras. You feel very much included."
"You have to know what it's going to be," says the director, "because the actors are playing against nothing! You have to give the 3D CGI characters a personality, and the actor has to appear to be really interacting with these non-existent characters."
Lee Arenberg found that not very different from "normal, acting. "Actually you have a creative role in that process," he says, "because when they start working at the computer they build it off what your reaction was, where you were looking, how you were reacting, and design the CGI character's action accordingly. So in my mind I was playing with another character."
"It's like being in kindergarten and pretending there's this giant dragon in front of you," says Zoe McLellan. "It's make-believe." Which is, of course, the essence of any role-playing game, and especially Dungeons & Dragons.