'D&D: Honor Among Thieves' won't "alienate" newcomers, filmmakers promise
“It was important to us to make a movie that hardcore fans could enjoy, but we never want to alienate those who aren't familiar with the game.”
You can’t really say the story teased in Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is original, but that’s part of what makes it so appealing.
At San Diego Comic-Con 2022, Paramount Pictures rolled for initiative as it opened the first Comic-Con of the Covid-19 era with a preview of Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, a big-budget film based on the popular fantasy role-playing game.
Set in the official campaign setting of the Forgotten Realms, Honor Among Thieves follows an ensemble of misfits — an all-star cast of Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, Regé-Jean Page, Justice Smith, and Sophia Lillis — who accidentally unleash an evil menace. To save the world, this ragtag group must steal an ancient relic to set things right.
With its trailer set to Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” and two clips screened at Hall H highlighting the movie’s action and humor, Honor Among Thieves promises a rollicking heist in a world of magic like a ye olde Guardians of the Galaxy. In other words, it feels like quintessential D&D, which has led fans online to praise the movie for capturing the vibe of their own D&D games at home.
In a conversation with Inverse, producer Jeremy Latcham and co-writers and directors Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley (the latter having played a D&D fanatic in the teen comedy Freaks & Geeks) say that familiarity was intentional.
“It goes back to D&D the game,” Goldstein tells Inverse. “When you're playing a campaign, you’re never dead serious the whole time. It wouldn’t be a D&D movie if it was dark and gritty and no fun. That informed the tone that we wanted to go for.”
“It’s in the twists and turns that I think the real story exists,” says producer Jeremy Latcham. “Like, you start on a quest for X, along the way you realize you need Y, and then you learn something about each other. Someone who’s never played D&D can follow the characters. To me, that’s key, along with tone and character. These guys do that really well.”
At Comic-Con, Goldstein and Daley talked up their individual histories with Dungeons & Dragons, the most popular paper and pencil RPG since its release in 1974. It is now published by Wizards of the Coast, who credited the game for record sales in 2020. Both directors exhibit a firm grasp of what makes the true-to-type D&D experience: deadly serious stakes and gut-busting goofs.
“It was just about injecting [our movie] with the spirit of playing a D&D game,” Goldstein says, “There’s improvisation, laughter, life and death stakes, and a lot of emotion and heart too.”
Although Dungeons & Dragons is a game about stories, the filmmakers did not draft their script over sessions. “That might have been kind of hard to work with,” John Francis Daley says, adding that a part of the film’s success was dependent on the casting process.
“We did keep in mind that there are fundamental strengths and weaknesses each of the characters have,” he says. “That was something we were mindful of as we developed them.” During casting, the filmmakers sought actors who could work in “conjunction” with the traits of their class archetypes. “I think we were pretty spot on with making sure they all felt evocative,” Daley adds.
Central to Honor Among Thieves is its basic premise as a heist movie. Never mind the mimics, owlbears, and displacer beasts that await the heroes. “We knew we wanted to make it a heist film,” Daley explains. “We thought that that was a really juicy territory to explore. The big challenge was whittling it down and making sure it didn't feel like it was going all over the place, or grasping too much at too many ideas and becoming overwhelming.”
Thanks to a plethora of sourcebooks, acclaimed novels, comic books, and livestream shows with stories that have become part of official Dungeons & Dragons lore, Honor Among Thieves has an expansive canon to draw from. For the filmmakers, figuring out one story to tell was hard enough. But finding the balance between all the Easter eggs that will earn the approval of veteran Dungeon Masters and telling a story anyone can enjoy was like going up against Tiamat herself.
“It was very important to us to make a movie that hardcore fans could enjoy, but we never want to alienate those who aren't familiar with the game,” says Goldstein. “I think if you go too down that Easter egg rabbit hole, you start to lose some non-fans because they start to feel, like ‘There's something going on that I don't get!’ We wanted to make sure we were playing to both.” Part of that involved limiting the amount of exposition needed.
“We always did a proper noun check to make sure that we didn't bog the audience down with too many references,” adds Daley. “Everything is pretty true to the lore as much as it can be without being a detriment to the film.”
Honor Among Thieves still has a lot to prove before anyone can call Dungeons & Dragons the next big cinematic universe. The filmmakers are, of course, rolling the dice and hopeful they’ll land well. But they’re not arrogant enough to believe it’s a critical hit just yet.
“We can't know what the future holds,” says Goldstein. “Obviously we'd love this movie to be so successful that it becomes a franchise. We think it has that potential. We tried to craft characters and a world that allows that, but we don't want to get over our spurs.”
Latcham, whose producing credits include films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe like Iron Man, The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Spider-Man: Homecoming, knows firsthand the importance of not resting on laurels.
“As the world gets more fractured, you come together and you escape into this thing.”
“I came up producing with Kevin Feige at Marvel, and one of the things I would say is, ‘We should save this idea for the second movie.’ Kevin would go, ‘There’s not a second movie,’” Latcham says. “If it’s a great idea, put it in the first movie. I don’t think we ever held back. Everything in the movie is there to make this movie great. We put as much as we needed to make this fun and rewarding. If we’re fortunate to revisit, there are a million things to explore. But we tried to explore everything [here] so this would be a fully contained experience.”
Like any game of D&D, there could be another session, or an indefinite pause until everyone’s schedules free up. There’s never a guarantee when everyone can play again, but for this one time, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves will tell a story about a found family against impossible odds. It’s a story we’ve all experienced at our own tables before and one we’ll look for time and time again.
“People are playing D&D [now] because they’re searching for something,” observes Latcham. “We’ve been living in tough times, everyone’s on screens and isolated in their homes. It's hard to talk to your friends for three hours, but you can get on D&D and explore those relationships and build deeper bonds. That’s what D&D has become for people in the last couple of years. As the world gets more fractured, you come together and you escape into this thing.”
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves will open in theaters on March 2023.