A Long-Running Game of ‘D&D;’
The scene would have delighted any Renaissance Faire organizer, except this was no medieval fest. There were 350 extras and 150 animals, transforming a Prague street into a bazaar overcrowded with vendors.
Marlon Wayans was talking to a bearded, three-eyed, purple-skinned creature with a nose ring. And then there were the bees. This was the first day on the set of the $36-million-budgeted, independently financed “Dungeons & Dragons” (in theaters Friday), and it was the first time Courtney Solomon had directed anything, unless you count high school theater.
Producer Kia Jam remembers how Solomon handled it. “It was as if this guy had been doing this forever,” said Jam. “He’s deathly allergic to bees, so we had two guys on bee control walking behind him. You’d think Courtney would have been overwhelmed, but he walked out very calm.”
This was no surprise. At age 20, Solomon embarked on a decade-long quest to bring the biggest-selling role-playing game ever to the screen. It took him from his Toronto home to Hong Kong in search of investors. It saw his dreams of making a $100-million summer blockbuster nearly turn into a straight-to-video disaster, due to battles with the game’s owners.
Directing the film was the easy part.
“Dungeons & Dragons,” which was finished without an American distributor signed, will be released by New Line Cinema and stars Wayans, Jeremy Irons, Thora Birch and Justin Whalin. Today, Solomon, sitting in his publicist’s office sporting a sweatshirt, “D&D;” cap and traces of dark circles under his eyes, appears excitingly relieved, comparing his film to “Star Wars” at least once every 15 minutes. He eagerly talks about filming a “D&D;” trilogy, and if you ask him one question, he’ll launch into an hourlong “D&D;” discussion.
“D&D;,” in which a band of heroes takes on a politically ambitious wizard, is a lighthearted, fast-paced fantasy film that does indeed owe a heavy debt to “Star Wars” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” It’s no coincidence that special-effects supervisor George Gibbs, who won an Oscar for “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” worked on “D&D.;” The film’s soul may have been independent, but its heart is high concept. “I hope we still made a big blockbuster,” said Solomon.
Solomon’s enthusiasm clearly won the affection of his cast. Birch, who plays the Empress, has repeatedly told the press that she was ignorant of the game’s lore, joining the project because of Solomon’s passion. Lead actor Whalin, whose character, Ridley, is an amalgam of Han Solo and Luke Skywalker--a lower-class rogue about to discover he’s in possession of an unexplainable magical force--joined the project in 1997, sticking with Solomon despite its uncertain future. And Lee Arenberg, who plays Elwood the Dwarf, is already comparing Solomon’s knack with actors to the skills of Tim Robbins.
His Determination Comes With a Cost
Things weren’t always so positive. When filming begin, it was the culmination of an eight-year obsession for Solomon. It had tested his determination, precipitated a breakup and forced him into the director’s chair after potential deals with Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron and Renny Harlin dissolved.
“I didn’t feel like I was settling,” said Solomon about directing the film himself. “I was horrified, frightened and terrified, obviously, but after going through these different directors, and seeing these different visions, I felt like I had been so close to it for so long that I finally had to do it.”
Like thousands of others who grew up the ‘80s, the 30-year-old Solomon was mesmerized by the adventures of Luke Skywalker and Indiana Jones, and he doesn’t hide his geeky fandom. “I’m like Captain Kirk on the Enterprise,” said Solomon. “When everything seems to be lost, I dig a little deeper.”
Solomon was light-years ahead of other wannabe filmmakers, thanks to his mother’s job as a freelance production coordinator. With his parents divorced, and no baby-sitter, Solomon spent his formative years sleeping on sets, working on his first crew when he was 6. He later worked as a production assistant on such Canadian-based films as “Mrs. Soffel” and “The Dream Team.” With these experiences, Solomon decided he didn’t need film school, although he was accepted to NYU.
“I wanted to go to Hollywood,” said Solomon, “but not just with a script. I wanted to go with a property.” He had been an avid D&D; player in high school, and he thought it was ripe for development as a motion picture.
In 1990, Solomon called TSR, the company that created the game in 1974. He said nothing about his film idea and posed as an economics student to acquire the corporation’s financial information. The Dungeons & Dragons game has now sold more than 25 million copies, and with merchandising and licensing components, the property has generated more than $1 billion in revenue. Those numbers attracted Hong Kong entrepreneur Allan Zeman, who was looking to invest in a film.
With Zeman’s backing, Solomon created Sweetpea Entertainment, named after Elvis Presley’s mother’s dog because Solomon promised his mother the company would have something to do with Elvis. After two years, Solomon had put together a proposal that TSR took seriously, and he settled in L.A. By the time he was 24, he was shopping a script written by Carroll Cartwright and Topper Lilien that was drawing rave reviews from top directors.
“There was 60% of Hollywood that loved the script, and 40% that hated it, but what everybody didn’t like was the genre,” said Solomon, noting that fantasy usually spells failure. Although “The Princess Bride” was a modest success, studios had been burned by films like “Willow,” “Krull” and “Dragonheart.”
Though deals between Coppola and Harlin fizzled, it was the one with Cameron that particularly stung Solomon. The “Terminator” director was looking to produce a film before “Titanic,” and Solomon had all but sold the project, which had grown to a $100-million-budgeted feature, when 20th Century Fox, where Cameron is based, and TSR failed to negotiate a merchandising deal that pleased the studio.
“That was one of the points where I wanted to give up,” said Solomon. “It wasn’t [Cameron’s] fault. There were a lot of tough times. I don’t want to get into the details of those times.”
But after more than five years of living with this fantasy world, Solomon wasn’t about to abandon his dream, even though it would soon cause a long-term relationship with his girlfriend to come to an end.
“I just didn’t pay enough attention to her because I was so deeply involved with this,” said Solomon. “It’s like a child. It’s like you’re giving birth, with a long labor period. When you’re the underdog, you’ve got to put in double time all the time.”
Joel Silver’s Entrance Helps to Open Doors
Then “Matrix” producer Joel Silver entered the picture. Silver, however, envisioned “Dungeons & Dragons” as a syndicated television series, which caused one problem: A television deal wasn’t in Solomon’s contract with TSR, and TSR was in the process of being sold to Wizards of the Coast (WOTC), the company behind the Magic card game. (WOTC has since been sold to Hasbro.)
“The lady who ran TSR gave me her word that Wizards was going to extend our rights to include TV, so we set the whole thing up,” said Solomon. “I made the deal with Silver. He was making the deal with the networks, and the new company came in and said, ‘The hell with you. We’re not giving you those rights.’ This is after I put all my work in, my reputation, and had done tons of work with a heavyweight like Silver.”
The prospects of getting a film underway were bleak. Solomon’s contract with TSR required him to start filming before a certain date or lose the rights, and Solomon knew WOTC wanted control of the property. “They figured I had the rights too long and couldn’t get the movie done,” Solomon said.
So with only $3.5 million raised, Solomon went overseas to shoot a spiteful direct-to-video film. “It was not going to be a good movie,” said Solomon, “but we were going to make our money back.” This brought litigation from WOTC, which argued that Solomon wasn’t shooting a real movie. Yet Silver was impressed with some initial scenes filmed by Solomon and agreed to stay on as an executive producer, making the search for investors much easier. It was Silver who persuaded Oscar-winning actor Irons to play the role of the villainous wizard.
Solomon was then able to raise $30 million, scrapping the direct-to-video idea and quelling WOTC’s fears of ruining the trademark. Due to the budget, many scenes had to be cut, but Solomon believes he made a film that looks like a $60-million-to-$70-million picture. Still, he’s looking forward to working on the DVD, which he hopes will contain 20 additional minutes. Solomon would like to fill in some plot points, adding scenes the budget didn’t allow.
Warner Bros. had a first-look option, but Mark Ordesky, head of acquisitions at New Line, had been eyeing the project for years. Warner Bros. let its first look expire to pass “D&D;” off to its sister company, which will also be releasing the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
Solomon is refusing to pick a new project until he sees “D&D;” through its theatrical release. After dedicating his entire 20s to “Dungeons & Dragons,” he isn’t about to abandon his first-born in its final weeks. “All along the way there was the chance I would not be able to do this,” said Solomon. “I had the chance to make smaller movies, but I didn’t want to. I wanted ‘D&D;’ to be my first movie. I had it set in my head this would be my first movie.”