Dragonslayer director Matthew Robbins is surprised as anyone that, here, in 2023, we are having an interview about his 1981 film that not a lot of people even saw in 1981. Robbins wrote Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, which just won an Oscar for Animated Feature, which kind of adds to the surrealness of this whole affair. You see, not a lot of people saw Dragonslayer on its release (though critics liked it and it was nominated for two Oscars), but it’s developed a cult following over the years (including by del Toro), but the only transfer that’s been available was a pretty decrepit-looking DVD. One so bad that even Robbins refused to watch it.
Which was all the more surprising when he was told there were some big Dragonslayer fans at Paramount and, not only that, those influential backers had convinced the company to restore the film and release it on a now gorgeous looking 4K disc that is now available as you read this.
Because a watchable transfer hasn’t been available basically since its release, there’s a whole generation who hasn’t seen Dragonslayer. Which includes a small role played by pre-Emperor Palpatine Ian McDiarmid that Robbins swears got McDiarmid the role in Return of the Jedi. (Then he says he’ll ask George Lucas himself to be sure when he sees him at lunch the next day. I wish I could go to this lunch.) But Lucas would have very much seen Dragonslayer since this wound up being the first non-Star Wars film that had its effects done by Industrial Light and Magic. And they’d get an Oscar nomination for their trouble, but wound up losing to another ILM movie called Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Robbins also directed The Legend of Billie Jean (a personal favorite of mine) and is thrilled that this is also a movie that seems to have resurfaced a bit as of late and he reflects on how he got an empowering film for women made when there weren’t a lot of those from that era, and the confusion of hiring two actors with the last name “Slater” to play brother and sister (Helen and Christian; the latter of which told us recently he had a huge crush on the former), but weren’t related in real life.
When I first heard they were going to make a Dragonslayer 4K, I was both very excited and a little surprised.
Well, same here.
Oh, you didn’t know?
I learned about it after the decision had been taken by the studio and I was very glad to be invited to take part, of course. I don’t live down in LA, but I went down there several occasions and sat in on the video sessions and talked with the audio crew as well and listened to what they had done. Over the several months that it was in production, I got to feel a lot better about what had been a really third grade… the original transfer to videotape. And then the DVD, which was just as bad.
I never saw this in theaters so this is the first time I’ve gotten to watch it the way it’s supposed to look, and it is just a gorgeous thing.
I mean, it’s shocking, heartening and depressing to hear you say that because I always felt … I would avoid seeing the film if it was a festival, or a workshop, or something like that because I couldn’t take it, honestly. It’s a beautiful-looking movie with very revolutionary effects for which they got a nomination, best special effects.
Which lost to Raiders of the Lost Ark. A forgotten movie that no one remembers.
[Laughs] Yeah, exactly. But from the same studio, wouldn’t you know it? But I was amazed really at how far the technology today has gone to clean up the mess.
See, this is surprising. I just assumed you or maybe Guillermo made some calls to get this 4K made…
No, I’m happy to report to you that Guillermo and I never made such a call. We made many calls to each other about lots of other things, but not that. But I’m happy to report that within the home entertainment Group and the various departments at Paramount who are involved in decisions like this, there was a lot of fondness for this movie. It’s my understanding that this came from the ranks of the artists and technicians involved in these restorations. “Hey, can’t we now finally do Dragonslayer?” The decision was taken and I was in front of it thereafter. So I was very surprised and very pleased that such a thing could take place.
So you said you have been avoiding watching it for a long time, so were you nervous at all digging into this again? How it might hold up?
A little bit, but I was also intrigued by the fact that the technical world has galloped so far. I was hoping that they could remedy, and in fact they could. When I first went down there, they showed me five little sequences that they already addressed for my approval. These are very, very sophisticated men and women doing this work. They could see the matte lines that were there. They could see the grainy skies and all the things that the movie had inherited when it was transferred to a commercial VHS.
I don’t know if you’re aware of this or not, but this movie was advertised in every comic book I had at the time. My parents wouldn’t take me because I was too young, even though I had seen The Empire Strikes Back and Any Which Way You Can, a movie about a bare-knuckles brawler. So my only experience was on HBO. Watching this disc felt like actually watching it for the first time.
Well, one of the best things about this new 4K is the sound, because these are the great days of Skywalker Sound. They built beautiful tracks in them. The legendary Walter Murch did the mix. So when I was at Paramount and they ran me how it was going to be, you listen to your movie, it was astonishing. I had not heard it like that since I had seen it on the big screen. It’s very a remarkable, wonderful job. I was still kind of amazed and delighted.
This is obviously before CGI, but the dragon looks amazing. It is actually an amazing-looking thing they built.
Yeah, it’s a terrific design. It was very influential. Over the years, I’ve seen other movies that have taken many of the elements that we established and happily transferred it. Peter Jackson in The Lord of the Rings inherited many of the elements of our dragon design. And I’ve seen stills of Game of Thrones. I’ve never seen Game of Thrones and intend to do so.
Dragonslayer also got an Oscar nomination for Best Score, and went up against, to this day, one of the most famous scores of all time, Chariots of Fire.
Yes, yes. But it was my pleasure to work with Alex North who was a very distinguished senior entity. He’d been a legend and had scored many great movies, that he wanted to do Dragonslayer was, I mean, it’s a wonderful score. He deserved that nomination. When you listen to that music, it’s pretty adventurous.
I feel like there are a large number of people that are probably in their 30s who’ve never seen this movie because it’s never been in this kind of format. And I think it gets kind of lumped in with, and no offense to the movies I’m about to say, but I think it gets lumped in with movies from that era like Krull. My point is I think there are a lot of people who are going to be surprised how good this movie is.
Well, I hope you’re right. I know what you mean. I came up in that era and I know what those other movies were like. But it’s just a big surprise, after 40 years, to be asked about the movie again. When Hal Barwood and I created that movie, we were working on a basic assumption about a story in which the world was gritty and real, not easy to inhabit in the first place, but with one fantastic element, a dragon. So it’s not a world of dosimeter fantasy with a lot of magic going on. I mean, I don’t know if we fulfill all those ambitions. But if you feel the movie can hold up today and not be lumped in with some of the other sort of down-market fantasy movies of the era that you’re talking about, then maybe because that’s what we had in mind. I don’t know that those ambitions were all that common at the time.
You had Emperor Palpatine in this movie. If you had only known at the time, maybe he would have stuck around longer in this movie.
I think George saw him in our movie.
Oh, is that what happened?
Well, I guess that would make a lot of sense. That’s kind of great.
In my opinion. I’ll ask him tomorrow when we have lunch.
I see George all the time. I’ll ask him. I have to tell you that when he introduced Ian McDiarmid into his cast of characters, I just thought it was a wonderful, normal bit of casting. In the early days of that whole series, it hadn’t taken up the enormity that it has now. So it was just a very normal thing. He’s a good actor. You saw him in Dragonslayer. He’d probably rely on that. Everything else, it’s all about him. But over the years, it is an irony that we did kill him off. I have no second thoughts about killing him off.
You also directed literally one of my favorite movies, The Legend of Billie Jean. In the last couple years, I’ve showed that movie to probably around 10 people and they all love it.
I get asked about that, too. It was not an easy production either, even without the special effects. But what can I tell you? Except it was a studio film and there were a lot of struggles over that movie, about the post-production, about how to cut the movie and finish it.
My friends who are women say it’s a very empowering movie that you don’t really see a lot from that era.
That’s true. I’ve been sent a few online essays on it by film critics, mostly essays from women, taking that point of view. I’m very happy about that because that was very much the spirit of the movie. The spirit of rebellion.
I talked to Christian Slater a couple of months ago and I brought up The Legend of Billie Jean and he just sighed and talked about what a crush he had on Helen Slater.
The damnedest thing is that Helen Slater was cast and we were looking, looking, looking, looking for somebody to play her little brother. When it turned out to be Christian Slater, it became impossible to convince the press, and anybody else, that they were not somehow legitimately brother and sister. They were just the real names. But he was 15, I think. It was pretty much his first movie. No, they were very exciting together. We had a great cast in that film. Today, when you look at that movie and the sexual predations of Mr. Pyatt, those issues today are certainly alive and kicking aren’t they?
The fact that she led her rebellion and was a rebellion of young people, it’s kind of a romantic impulse on the part of all of us when we were making that movie to bring that to life.
And she goes viral before the internet existed. She starts a hashtag, “Fair is fair.”
[Laughs] Well, I’m happy to hear you mention that because, not quite as much as Dragonslayer, but it has come back into the conversation, that movie because of the sexual politics. That’s the engine driving that story.
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