Building ‘Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves’: How Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley Brought the Ultimate Nerd Property to Movie Theaters
Some partnerships are forged in the heat of battle; John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein’s was built geeking out over home movies.
Daley, fresh from his debut as one of the geeks on the cult TV classic “Freaks and Geeks,” was one of the teen stars of the 2000-01 ABC sitcom “The Geena Davis Show,” and Goldstein was the youngest member of the writing staff. One day, Daley grabbed Goldstein to show him the stop-motion short film he’d made of himself getting hit by a car. “It was amazing — really well done,” recalls Goldstein, who is sitting across from Daley in their small office on the Paramount studio lot. “And I, of course, was like, ‘All right, I’m bringing in the shorts that I made when I was his age.’”
They stayed friends and, years later, began writing together, leading to a successful decade as screenwriters (“Horrible Bosses,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming”) and directors (“Vacation,” “Game Night”) that drew upon their ability to spin unexpected comedy from seemingly well-trod territory.
“They believe that the audience doesn’t need to be spoon fed,” says Paramount film group co-president Michael Ireland. “Instead of chasing kind of the easiest solution, they’re always challenging themselves to make that solution 20% smarter.”
Goldstein and Daley’s latest film, “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves,” produced by Paramount and eOne, is the biggest test yet of their approach. The $151 million film is based on the 50-year-old role-playing game, in which a group of friends assume the roles of fantasy archetypes and set out on a campaign designed by a player designated the “dungeon master.” For years, D&D was seen as the exclusive domain of nerds, and a poorly received movie adaptation from 2000 starring Jeremy Irons didn’t help matters. But thanks to appearances on “Stranger Things” and the web series “Critical Role,” as well as famous players like Joe Manganiello, D&D has enjoyed a major cultural resurgence.
Still, adapting the game into a feature film was far from a simple prospect, passing through the hands of several directors and screenwriters before landing on Goldstein and Daley’s desk in 2019. Their gently irreverent approach — tweaking the tropes of fantasy storytelling without outright spoofing it — won over a sterling cast, including Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, Regé-Jean Page and total D&D neophyte Hugh Grant.
“I had low expectations,” Grant says. “I hate all scripts, pretty much. And I found myself amused and quite touched. I didn’t want to put it down. It’s incredibly accessible to the non-D&D-er. I hope! Christ, if it isn’t, we’re sunk! I mean, I don’t think you have to know what an owlbear is to enjoy an owlbear.”
With “Honor Among Thieves” set to open the SXSW Film Festival on March 10 (it debuts in theaters March 31), Goldstein, 54, and Daley, 37, are also leveling up their career, launching their GoldDay production company with a multi-year, first look movie deal with Paramount.
“John and Jonathan have huge ambition that lives across movies in every genre, movies at every price point,” Ireland says. “They just have an appetite for trying to defy convention and subverting your expectations at every step.”
Seated next to a bookshelf filled with snacks and tomes of D&D arcana, and a dry-erase board with some curious notes on it, Goldstein and Daley explain how they cast a spell with “Honor Among Thieves” that they hope will win over hardcore fans and newbies like Grant in equal measure.
You first met at 16 and 32 — how did the age difference between you work out?
JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: I didn’t give him alcohol.
JOHN FRANCIS DALEY: He was very much like an older brother, and my parents sort of adopted him too.
GOLDSTEIN: I come from a lot of divorces, and there’s something about that stable family that I think I was drawn to.
DALEY: It wasn’t until a few years later that we really started working together. There was certainly an age difference. With each movie, I’m slowly aging into his bracket.
So you’re from different generations — how does that manifest in your writing?
GOLDSTEIN: I would give John a list of movies from before he was alive. And he would give me a list of current musicians I should listen to. Between the two of us, we caught each other up on the gaps in our background and found our shared voice.
DALEY: There were some similarities in the movies that we loved, Monty Python being one of them — especially when we were first starting in comedy, which was a lot more popular at the time. Now, we’ve been forced to — in a good way — find other ways into comedy disguised as different genres.
You tend to take on projects that have been bouncing around town—
DALEY: Has a stink on ’em?
— yeah, and then get them made. What do you think you’re doing there?
GOLDSTEIN: The reason projects languish is often because they check certain boxes that development [executives] thought they needed, but they’re not different or surprising in a way that actors who read it will respond to. Ultimately, the biggest hurdle of getting a movie made is getting the casting where a studio is going to greenlight it. We’ve been able to write or rewrite scripts in ways that actors want to jump into. It’s taking a character that you’ve seen before and giving it a twist that makes it odd or unexpected.
What do you remember about playing Dungeons & Dragons for the first time?
DALEY: My first memory was on the set of “Freaks and Geeks.” I remember even then, having already wanted to be a filmmaker, how much access it gave you to that creative spark that comes with filmmaking. And then prior to the pandemic, a friend wanted to dungeon master a campaign, and I agreed to be part of it. We played for 4 1/2 years leading into and then through the pandemic. Ultimately, working on the movie is what stopped the campaign. It was so much fun.
GOLDSTEIN: I came to it pretty young, and it was really my older brother who was leading the charge. This is probably ’82. I was like 12. I was fascinated by the idea that you made your own game. I had never seen anything like that before.
When you were first considering making this movie, did you think back to that experience as a kid?
GOLDSTEIN: It wasn’t so much that. It was seeing the potential to bring what we had brought to small- and medium-sized movies to a much bigger canvas. We didn’t want to do a straightforward fantasy epic drama. Nor did we want to do a spoof, or something where the comedy was the lead of it. We wanted to do a movie that was true to the spirit of the game, would appeal to the fans, but also could stand on its own.
DALEY: A lot of the world has already been built. You have all these books that you can use as references, and creatures and monsters that are unique to D&D and no other fantasy piece of IP. To be able to embrace the absurdity and oddity of some of these creatures and spells allowed us to make the thing that we felt very much aligned with our sensibility.
GOLDSTEIN: John mentioned Monty Python. That’s not quite the tone, but what those guys did very successfully was make intelligent absurdity — to shine a light on the ridiculousness of medieval clichés. We’re trying to do that with the fantasy genre.
Dungeons & Dragons has been one of the ur-texts of geekery for the past 50 years. So why do you think it’s been so hard to adapt it into a successful movie?
DALEY: Sometimes people take it too seriously and want to embrace the more dramatic elements of it. To us, that’s ridiculous, because you’ve got literally brains with four legs — you know, creatures that were so obviously written with a wink. On the flip side, if you try to get too goofy with it, you’re also doing it a disservice.
GOLDSTEIN: What we learned doing “Spider Man: Homecoming” was that while you have to have a certain reverence for and love of the source material, you can’t let the weight of that thing hinder your creativity.
How do you shake that weight off with “Dungeons & Dragons”?
GOLDSTEIN: It never left us with this one. We had people looking over our shoulder from the brand, from the studio. Even on set, we had advisers who said, “Well, she has to say something if she’s going to do the spell, because the spell has a verbal component.” The good thing about working with D&D specifically is it’s not like we’re bound by the characters or preexisting stories. We made up almost all the characters that are in here.
That’s the wrinkle about D&D, though: How do you convey the spirit of the game when there are no set characters or story to draw from?
DALEY: It’s a combination of things. Each character represents a different player and how they go about playing the game. Xenk, played by Regé-Jean Page, is very much the nerdy player that doesn’t make jokes and adheres strictly to the rulebook. Whereas Edgin, Chris Pine’s character, is the more casual player. He doesn’t bother to learn about the Bardic spells and would prefer to just hit people over the head with his lute.
GOLDSTEIN: The movie is almost like the dungeon master. The plot twists that we throw at our characters are what a DM would do at the table, just to screw with you and make it more fun. It was our way of capturing what goes on when you’re playing D&D, without breaking the fourth wall or becoming meta with it.
“Honor Among Thieves” — where did that subtitle come from?
GOLDSTEIN: Well, if we were running things, we probably would have just called it “Dungeons and Dragons.” But there’s so much that goes on in the Dungeons and Dragons world that they were reluctant to just let it have that broad title with no subtitle. I think they also liked the idea of it being a potential franchise.
DALEY: For the record, we’re fine with it! We don’t think it’ll do any damage to the film and totally understand where they were coming from.
GOLDSTEIN: We were braced for really terrible subtitles.
DALEY: We were ready to fight, yeah. So when they presented that subtitle to us, we were like, all right!
Would you want to make more D&D movies? Is that what’s on this dry-erase board?
GOLDSTEIN: I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Well, I see the words “dragon eggs.”
GOLDSTEIN: That could be anything.
DALEY: That’s a $30 million comedy.
GOLDSTEIN: Look, if we’re fortunate enough that people turn out for this and respond, I think we’re game for getting back into this world.
Do you think there’s an appetite right now in the industry for movies like “Horrible Bosses” or “Game Night”?
DALEY: I think “Game Night.” It might be straight to streamer.
GOLDSTEIN: Like with any genre, if you can do it in a way that they haven’t seen, people will turn out. But yeah, I think the studios are very nervous about spending the money it takes to market theatrically the kinds of movies we started our career making.
To be able to do the kind of storytelling at the level you want to do it, do you feel you have to find a way into a franchise versus writing an original story?
GOLDSTEIN: Using existing IP certainly greases the wheels. Any meeting we have with a studio head starts with, “Here’s four things we own — got any interest?” To some extent, I think we use intellectual property as a bit of a costume to get ourselves in the door. We’re still going to make the movie that we want to make. It just makes it all a bit easier to get it going if it has something that people are very familiar with.
When you announced your new company, you talked about taking viewers “on a journey they haven’t been on before,” but that seems at odds with franchise filmmaking.
DALEY: That’s what we hate about franchise films, honestly.
GOLDSTEIN: We are not going to turn our backs on tentpoles, but we won’t deliver the tentpole you’ve seen 20 times before because that’s anathema to us. We will only do it if we can give it something fresh.
In that vein, I was really struck in “Honor Among Thieves” that the lead female characters — Michelle Rodriguez’s Holga and Sophia Lillis’ Doric — are at the forefront of the action scenes, and the men are often hanging back.
GOLDSTEIN: That was not an attempt at wokeness on our part.
DALEY: Swear to God, it wasn’t. We liked that Holga is the bruiser that does the dirty work for Edgin, and he doesn’t like to get his hands dirty. We also love emasculating leading men.
GOLDSTEIN: Not for woke reasons!
DALEY: Just because it’s funny and fun and fresh. It was the dynamic we had with Rachel McAdams and Jason Bateman’s characters in “Game Night.”
GOLDSTEIN: Or Tom Holland versus Robert Downey Jr. in “Spider-Man.” We like our male heroes to be challenged and not simply heroic.
DALEY: What’s funny is that in our casting process on multiple films, we’ve met movie stars that you would think are comfortable enough in their own skin that they would be able to portray themselves in a vulnerable light. But a lot of them really don’t feel comfortable doing that. Obviously, we won’t name a name here, but there is a notable movie star —
GOLDSTEIN: I can think of two.
DALEY: — who is so handsome and awesome and will not make himself look weak. That’s so shocking, because to me, that feels like the most fun that you could have as an actor.
GOLDSTEIN: I think they think they love to do that. But when it comes down to it, they’re not really willing to look foolish or “less than.”
DALEY: We’ve talked about this before with Chris Pine. What we love about Chris is that he’s hyper-aware of that and wants to make himself look as bad as possible, almost to a fault. Sometimes we’re like, “All right, no, you have to be a hero in this moment.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.