Courtney Solomon - Director of Dungeons & Dragons
Imagine the gargantuan task of bringing the legendary role playing game Dungeons & Dragons to the screen as a first time director. Now add to that the task of working on the script, bringing the financing of the picture together and making a 30 or so million dollar picture look like 100 million dollars!
By all accounts the work that Courtney Solomon did on Dungeons & Dragons was impressive and we had a chance to talk to Courtney just Dungeons & Dragons was released on DVD and his next project 'An American Haunting' was being sold at Cannes.
How did you manage to get a project like D&D as a first time director?
It was no easy task. It was an idea that I had when I was twenty. I used to play the game and I loved it. I grew up in the film business and I was ready to make my journey to Hollywood and start my career, from Toronto. I made some cold calls and nobody had the rights at that point. They had talked to a lot of different people in studios and big film makers and that sort of stuff, but they were never really comfortable making a deal with those people. I guess mainly because they didn't feel they'd have enough control. The lady that owned the company at that point was a real "control freak" if you will. It's owned by Hasbro now. Long story short, initially they weren't going to give me the rights either. They sort of laughed me out the door because I was so young. I wasn't saying that I was actually going to be the filmmaker at that point, I was saying that I would just produce it, get the money together and find the filmmaker to do it, which is the route I went with for many, many, many years until finally we went and did it ourselves.
Basically it took two years of negotiating with them and sending them proposals and convincing them that we would take care of them and listen to what they had to say, which was sort of a blessing and not a blessing at the same time. Sometimes it's hard dealing with right's holders who have opinions about what should be in the movie and don't really know anything about making movies.
Then I went to Hong Kong and found investors to let me put the script together and actually be able to purchase the rights. I started with my own money, but I ran out of it. I then went around Hollywood with my script. I nearly had a deal with Disney, nearly had a deal with Jim Cameron. I worked with Francis Coppola for a year on it. I mean any big name you could think of, we worked with on the project in the development stages. Then finally, none of those deals panned out. We went and did some foreign sales and Joel Silver got involved and then one of my investors put up a chunk of the money and we got a bank loan and went and made the movie. At that point, everybody said, "You should direct the movie because you know the material better than anybody else and you should go and do it." I said to myself "Am I crazy?" and after that I came to my senses and started working. I mean that's the abbreviated version, obviously.
So it's definitely an example of how somebody who can be business savvy and work within the industry, can then ultimately get the creative green light to go off and do a dream project.
Sure. You have to be tenacious, number one. You just can't give up, there had to be at least a thousand doors closed on me during that process of getting the movie to the point where it was financed. What it comes down to is you have to really learn your way around Hollywood. That's just what I learned doing the first movie. I mean that's a hard movie to start with and it's a hard movie by big A-List director standards. You know? I'm just a first-timer. I mean that's a hard movie to do as your first one, just because of the visual effects and the fact that we didn't have a lot of money to do the movie. I mean the budget's reported at the $35-million range, but that's not the real money. We had to make the movie that's with deferments and everything else. I mean there were huge effects deferments, and huge actor deferments and producing and directing deferments and everything. We didn't have that much money to make the movie. I learned so much in the making of the movie and what to do and what not to do, and what the realities of that are.
It's a great process to have gone through. It's sort of like being educated on five movies, having done five as weird as that sounds. It feels like five because you don't start off with movies where you're shooting for 70 days and 550 digital effects shots in the movie, 15 different CG creatures and cities and the whole bit. It was a big thing to deal with. But it was a great thing to deal with at the same time because, as I said, it taught me all the business side of the business, which you know, if you're a creative person and you want to be a director, you still need to know. You're absolutely right, "know the business side of the business." Look at the best people. Look at Spielberg. He's as good a businessman as he is a director. Also look at Lucas for example. He is a great businessman. So it's important to understand that side because the two inter-relate with each other so closely, more than anybody on the outside might ever realize.
Somebody sitting in the audience doesn't realize the reality. If they hear a budget, they think that's what the movie cost and somebody went and blew all this money. But that's not really the way it works. Everything is related and what you do with that money is very key. Our movie, thankfully, if nothing else, looks definitely like it's a $50-60 million dollar movie and it's made for more like $20-million. And that's getting your value on the screen.
I look at it now and I go "God, if I only knew then what I know now." And I'm sure after I finish An American Haunting, I'll go "Well if I only knew then what I know now." So it's the same story. Of course it will be a lot easier. The whole process of doing my second movie has been so much easier than getting D&D done. I can't explain it to you in words. It's so much easier.
In addition to being a first time director, you had quite a pool of up and coming actors that you directed. Everybody from Marlon Wayans, who seems like he's just a diamond in the rough there with some really big talent, to Thora Birch, who had so much buzz from American Beauty When we started casting Thora had just finished American Beauty, so there was a little buzz that it was probably going to be a good movie, but nobody had seen it yet so nobody really knew. I went with Thora just because we got along well and she seemed to dig the character and seemed to be a good person to put into the role. Marlon was somebody who had read the script, and came to me and said he just really liked it and really liked the character. When I met him, I just thought he was perfect for Snails because that's how I envisioned Snails. Mainly he's just this goofy character.
We took a take on D&D, which has been both criticized and praised at the same time. Our focus was to make a younger version of it to sort of reintroduce it to a new generation. So that was a cognizant decision. We wanted to have these sort of fun-loving characters and we wanted to be in the spirit of D&D, which was not to put a Tom Cruise or equivalent like person in the lead roles, but actually make it normal people just like people who play the game. That was the idea behind the way we cast it.
You've made statements that if you actually go through the film, it adheres to the rules of D&D.
It does adhere to the rules of D&D as much as was possible to translate into a film obviously, it adheres to the basic rules of it and follows it. You've got the characters doing what their supposed to do. The thieves are using thieving abilities and the rangers using ranger abilities, and so on and so forth. You know and they're following as much as possible the combat rules, but those were the hardest things to incorporate obviously from a game into a movie because they just don't translate. In the game somebody could be casting one of those spells and standing there for ten minutes until the spell is ready to go, which is hard to do in a movie.
So you have to take liberties where you can, but for the most part, it did follow the rules. You could bring a younger audience in and you didn't necessarily have to know Dungeons and Dragons at all to enjoy the movie. It's just supposed to be a story on it's own and just be a movie on it's own. If you're a D&D player, then you could enjoy the characters, the rules and you could enjoy seeing a bunch of the creatures come to life. So that's how we always structured it.
I thought it was a kick that you got Richard O'Brien. When I watched D&D and so him I was like "That's Riff Raff! Wait, he got Riff Raff!" He looks so much different now. Did you seek him out for that role?
We were casting those roles in England because we were shooting in Prague and it was obviously less expensive to bring over English actors than U.S. actors. I mean again, everything was down to budget. So I saw one of the casting tapes while I was location scanning in Prague and Richard was on the tape. I looked at him and I said exactly what you said. I said "That's Riff Raff." I said "That's Riff Raff!" because I'm a big Rocky Horror fan.
When I saw him on there, his audition was hilarious because he just sort of talked to the camera. He said "Hello Los Angeles. This is Richard O'Brien and I read this part, and I just want to say I'm perfect to play this part so your search is over. I don't need to read because you know who I am and you know what I can do. So just come to your senses, give me a call and let's get on with this." And that was his audition tape. I just thought "God, it's Riff Raff. I mean he's so talented." I thought to myself "God, it would be so cool if we had him in here because Dungeons and Dragons and Rocky Horror were actually created in the same year. I just thought it was sort of like a piece of pop culture being put into a movie, which is pop culture. You know what I mean? So it was the perfect fit. It's such a great character. It wasn't cognizant, but when I saw who he was, I was like "I've got to have Riff Raff in the movie."
The same was true when I saw Tom Baker as the elf king. The only problem was, I mean Tom was far too big so I had to sit him down in the whole scene because he was like 6'3", over 200 pounds and that was an extremely large elf by anybody's standards. But it was great having him in there. I don't know if you're familiar with Dr. Who, but that's another piece of at least English and European pop culture.
I just thought those two fit nicely as cameos in Dungeons and Dragons because it is Dungeons and Dragons after all. So that's how I got them in. They're both extremely talented actors. It's amazing when you look at all the British audition tapes because the actors are all so talented from over there. I mean they're just like classically trained, all of them. Not that the actors here aren't talented, the actors here are tremendously talented as well, but there is not the same type of classical training that you see over there.
They can really put it on. And when you work with people like Jeremy, I mean that was an interesting thing all by itself. Obviously he was an Oscar winner and here I was asking him to do this over the top, over the moon part which is basically geared toward kids. But he came in with the right attitude and said, "This is just good fun." So that's what he did. He made a great wizard.
The whole point of the movie was that it was supposed to be fun. We honestly got criticized by some of the fans for not giving them the Braveheart version. There are two D&D versions; the serious players, they want the serious one with the serious dark character in the center of it, everything to be done absolutely seriously and the serious combat obviously. That's an R-rated movie and that's just not what we were going after. We were going after a movie made more for a younger audience actually. So that's just the way it turned out.
We've seen all the surveys and all the data obviously and far more of them wanted it the way we did it than the other version. I think there are less of the dark players than there are the light players.
It probably would have been harder to get financing for a darker version.
Yeah, because it wouldn't have had as wide an audience in anybody's mind. It wouldn't have been this commercial. The downfall of financing the movie the way we did it is that we had to sell domestic after the movie was done. So there was no studio involved when we did the whole movie, which in one way is a good thing at least when making the movie. But on the other side there wasn't what needed to be done for a movie that they're involved with from day one, which is a McDonald's tie-in, a tie-in on Cartoon Network. All the things that get it to the demographics that you're looking for. We sold it to New Line in October and they released it at the beginning of December. So there was very little advertising and promotion around the movie. The type of things the film needed are usually planned for a year in advance.
That's probably why it'll do so well on DVD.
I'm sure it'll do well on DVD. It was interesting because it opened up in France three weeks after it opened in the U.S. at two and a half weeks. It did almost 40% of its entire U.S. box office take just in France. The French had been planning for 7 to 8 months with us. They had pre-campaign ads. They had a McDonald's tie-in. They had billboards all over the country, everything like that. By hitting the right demo, they turned it into what was it like the 19th highest grossing movie in France out of 850 films last year.
France releases a lot of movies. It's a big, big movie territory. So internationally, it's actually done theatrically way better than it did in the United States, but the DVD should be huge. Because I'm sure there are a lot of people that didn't see it in the U.S. and/or read the wrong things about it. That's why I took so much care to re-color of the DVD, the way it should be looking, which was really helpful because we had to do it digitally. With a digital print you can do anything you want, whereas when you're color timing a film, you're very limited.
I also got to remix it for Near-Field and SurroundSound. I really got to use the Surround speakers. I'm a big DVD fan myself. I have a huge collection. One thing I was always pissed about when I usually watched DVD, I said "It's not enough use of the Surround Sound." I thought we had the vehicle to do it and New Line was all game for it.
What exactly do you have the ability to do on the DVD in terms of Surround Sound that you didn't theatrically?
Well it's just a difference of the room actually. I mean you can do more theatrically because you spend a lot more time and money on the mix. But when you're in a movie theater, you don't hear the Surrounds the same way you do when you're sitting say in your living room and you've got your speakers around you. The sound actually moves through the speakers in a different way. So it's called a 5.1 Near-Field Surround mix that you do for DVD's so you can make it to the environment that people will be watching it in, which is their living room and for their home theater setup.
So, that by nature dictates that you have to adjust your original mix and change how the sounds move through the speakers for the space that you've got between the speakers, which is what it's all based on. Being in your home theater, you can hear much more pronounced sounds behind you, sounds around you, sounds moving from front to back and back to front, left to right and so on and so forth. There's so many things happening in the movie, as subtle as background sounds from a crowd to the dragons flying by and swooping that we had to work with. I wanted to make full use of it so that people would get their money's worth.
How much involvement did you actually have on what exactly would be on the DVD and what that DVD would be like?
We provided all the materials for it that was on it, so we went through everything with New Line. We had some behind-the-scenes footage so they made a "Making of" video that's on there, a documentary. They made a documentary about the history of the game, which I think was a nice addition for the players and for people to understand Dungeons and Dragons. The deleted scenes. Again, back to the issue of making the movie. It was such a low budget, there were scenes that were supposed to be in the movie to help clarify the story that we didn't have the money to finish the effects on or when we were shooting them. I wanted people to at least see that the ideas were there for those various deleted scenes. It's good to be able to put the commentaries on, which is something I said I really wanted to do and they said "Well, we'll definitely do that with you."
Then I sort of gave them the idea to put together a little thing on the effects, like the deconstruction thing where we sort of show you the three phases of how a dragon is made and then how it turns into a dragon battle and the steps in between. Those of course are major phases as opposed to the little steps in between. So I had a lot of involvement in doing that and then obviously with the mix and the recoloring of it. The people who work on the Platinum Series are great. They really know what they're doing.
What were some of the DVD's that influenced you, the source information you went out to when you were starting to think about what you wanted to put together on your DVD?
Well it was kind of depressing actually because we totally did it independently. I couldn't do what I had originally planned. You know you start something and you have all these plans and then you know, because the fact of the reality takes over and you can't follow through with everything.
Originally I wanted to actually document going through the whole process of making the movie. In other words, from like where you start with the script and the writers and have a little camera video taping you and so on and so forth, but all the way through, all the different stages and the effect stages and everything else. Then give people an actual menu list of different things. I've seen several things like the X-Men DVD that had the Hugh Jackman casting tapes for example. I wanted to put some of those on, but I didn't actually think about it until I saw the X-Men DVD, so that kind of influenced me after the fact, which was a bad thing.
Some of the DVD's I really like, the Lawrence of Arabia DVD I think is great. I love Spielberg's commentary on there. I love the way it looked. It's one of my favorite movies. I liked the Gladiator DVD, that was pretty cool. I thought it wasn't like the best thing in the world, it was cool. Also Full Metal Jacket, Color Purple. Beetlejuice, I always loved that movie. The Mask. It was just a fun movie so I enjoyed it. The Mummy, obviously. Great on DVD. Great to watch Jaws on DVD. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Special Edition DVD is very cool. There are so many. I have over 150 of them. I'm really big fan of the extras on DVD's
What was the process of becoming a Platinum Series DVD with New Line?
The movie just lent itself to that and they wanted to really make the DVD as good as it could possibly be and to put it under their best label. That was really the process. They just called me up and said, "This is going to be a Platinum Series." It wasn't even a request that I had made. I didn't even get to the point where I could make the request because they had already decided. I guess it's because they have so much extra information. They have so much at their disposal with a movie like ours that they don't usually have with a regular movie, that it just lends itself to being that type of a DVD.
Having gone through the experience of making the Dungeons and Dragons DVD, will you do things differently during production of your next movie?
Definitely. I mean without a doubt. As I said to you, I would like somebody actually documenting with a mini DV camera, all the processes of the film making process because so many stories and things happen during the course of making the movie that you only get one chance to document. I think it's important to have somebody following you around all the way through it so that you can bring the audience stuff that they never ordinarily see. I also think that in doing a DVD, you can actually shoot scenes alternately and you can also shoot angles alternately, just for the purpose of the DVD with that in mind when you're actually shooting the film. Of course you've got to allow for time for it in your schedule, but I think it's totally worthwhile because it's becoming a big market. So studios can financially justify it and at the same time, it gives the audience an experience beyond the film. It gives them alternatives. I think that that's really cool. I'll do a lot more planning on my next project as far as what I'm going to do no the DVD up front and talk to people about it. I'd like to have a separate person on staff that will actually work on making sure that we get everything we need in the can, so to speak, so that that way when we go to making the DVD, we can really make something special. I envision a DVD where you've got like two hours of great extras that aren't just commentaries and things like that, but they really let people into the fun stuff of what went into making the movie and really getting personal with the actors, the director and the filmmakers and the whole crew.
So the bext time around, you'll definitely save your audition tapes.
I actually had them for D&D! The problem with that was I didn't even think of it. And it's so stupid because I'd seen it so many times before, but there was so much going on when we did all the stuff and initially designed it that I didn't even think about it because it was before the release of the movie actually that we were working on it. And so I didn't bring out those tapes, and I was just like smashing myself saying "Oh my God, that's so stupid" because everybody I'm sure would have loved to see it. I had the tapes for everyone of the actors that auditioned.
So you could have seen Ridley's audition. You could have seen Marina's audition. You could have seen, Norda's audition, Elwood's audition. Some of them are hilarious and it would have just been fun for people. Also there was a 7-minute blooper reel that I had cut together when I edited the film that I wasn't allowed to put on the DVD because it wasn't appropriate to be put there. But it's too bad because I really would have liked to have put that in. People would have got a great kick out of that.
That's too bad. I'm a big fan of outtakes and bloopers.
Yeah, I'm a big fan of them as well. There's been talk that they might let me, actually give me the money to finish some of the scenes and let me actually do a director's cut of the movie on DVD. So if they do, I'm going to really push to get some of these other things out onto the DVD as additional extras as well on a director's cut. Because there's a lot more that we didn't put on there that's really cool and a lot of stuff people would like to see. Trailers that nobody ever saw and that sort of stuff.
I hear you've been working on selling a film at Cannes? What's your next project?
It's based on a true story called An American Haunting. It's a horror. It's a highbrow horror, more in the psychological realm like Sixth Sense. It's the true story of a ghost actually killing a human being.
It's really quite a scary story, actually authenticated by Andrew Jackson. We actually have a transcript from him where he reports to have met the ghost. It happened in a rural town in Tennessee. This was a couple of years before he was the President. The journal that we bought is a journal of the teacher lived on the land. The haunting took place over four years. He went on to be a U.S. State Senator. So it was really quite cool. The ending of it is so unique because you've never really seen a ghost act like this. It's lore in the South. I mean they call it like a Halloween like ghost story. The ending of the movie is very much like Sixth Sense, which is why I use that analogy. It's one of those endings where when you find out why the ghost did what it did, it sort of knocks you over because you totally didn't expect it. Yet when you retrace the steps of the movie or the story, you just look at it and you go "Oh my God, it was right there in front of me."
So that's what it made it so appealing to me. Well also because the ghost is a character itself that has four different personalities. It actually speaks. There have been like twenty books written on this topic already.
Is it in pre-production or has it been produced?
Right now we're just finishing off the script. Obviously we're just finishing the financing too, which is now looking like it's done, so we'll be in pre-production on it depending on whether the strike goes or not, which it doesn't look like it's going to now, but I can't say. So if the strike doesn't go, we'll be in pre-production in the summer. If the strike does go, we'll be in pre-production whenever it's over.
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