How ‘Game Night’ And ‘Vacation’ Influenced ‘Dungeons And Dragons: Honor Among Thieves’

John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein’s first feature film together as directors was 2015’s Vacation. A movie that, today, a lot of people have come around to, but at the time earned itself a Rotten Tomatos score in the 20s, but actually did wind up doing okay at the box office. (For the record: I am a huge fan of their Vacation.) But for Daley and Goldstein, there was a disconnect because they thought they had made a really funny movie, so why was it being savaged by critics? The pair, ahead says their followup, Game Night, was a response to the criticism levied at Vacation. Game Night was a critical success and the film earned about what Vacation did, against the same budget, but now the optics completely changed. They did a stint on The Flash before finally settling on a huge IP that has no real established characters, so it can be anything really, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves.

The reason for the history lesson of a first paragraph is the fact that Vacation also informed how they approached Dungeons & Dragons, as it pertains to IP. They feel it’s the IP and nostalgia of the prior Vacation movies that got them into hot water with that project and they aren’t going to go down that road again. Again, a property like D&D let them do basically anything they want – in this case they decided to make it a heist movie – but are still careful to respect the rules of Dungeons & Dragons. And what they made was a really funny movie, in their style, that isn’t a parody of what a movie like this should be.

Chris Pine plays Edgin, a bard and thief who leads a ragtag bunch to steel treasure, with the rule that no one gets hurt. He and Holga (Michelle Rodriguez) are captured and imprisoned. A member of his crew, Forge (Hugh Grant), agrees to raise Edgin’s daughter, which he does, but also has turned her against her father and, with the help of an evil wizard, Sophina (Daisy Head, who is great and legitimately sinister) has amassed great power and fortune. Now Edgin must put together a new crew to break into Forge’s lair and win back his daughter and in the process, steal all Forge’s treasure. This movie is the definition of “good fun.”

But as we went on, it’s apparent the reaction to Vacation still bugs Daley and Goldstein. (To be fair, I don’t blame them. It’s a very funny movie.) But, then again, there’s nothing wrong with having a chip on one’s shoulder about a perceived slight to use for greater success. And they have an idea for a Vacation director’s cut that I do hope they get to do.

Before we start, I have to mention I am a big fan of your Vacation. I’ve written about this.

John Francis Daley: I remember that. Thank you for defending it. I think each of our movies that end up doing well will give retroactive legitimacy to Vacation.

Which brings me to my point, since this is before Game Night, I want my credit.

John Francis Daley: Okay!

Jonathan Goldstein: You were probably the only pull quote the trailers could use.

John Francis Daley: “UPROXX calls it amazing.”

I saw it again in theaters and made my girlfriend go…

Jonathan Goldstein: Oh God. I thought she was going to break up with you.

No, she’s just in the other room right now.

John Francis Daley: Oh, good. It all worked out.

Okay, so what was both your relationship with Dungeons & Dragons before making this?

Jonathan Goldstein: If you make this all about Vacation, I’d love it.

John Francis Daley: Yeah, me too.

Trust me, I could. I don’t think the good folks at Paramount would be very happy, but I could definitely do it.

John Francis Daley: Okay, the relationship with D&D? Well, I first discovered it as a teenager on Freaks and Geeks. My character was supposed to be a big fan of it. So we played a quick campaign with the cast.

Oh yeah, James Franco plays it and winds up liking it. Am I remembering this correctly?

John Francis Daley: That’s the episode. That’s right. And it was called “Discos and Dragons.” It was my favorite episode, not because of the Dungeons & Dragons component, but because we got to see Jason Segel do a disco dance. Then I picked it back up as an adult about two years before we started on this movie. And I played a campaign with my adult friends and I played as a kid. I remember the game was so different from anything I had played. My older brother’s a Dungeon Master. Just that you make it up, you do things on graph paper, you create a dungeon. It was really cool to me.

I always thought it was a video game until I was invited over to play once and I was lost. Though I loved the Saturday morning cartoon in the ’80s, and they’re in this movie.

Jonathan Goldstein: They are! Yeah.

How many people get that reference? It took me a second but I was like, “Oh, there’s Eric.”

John Francis Daley: Everyone in Brazil…

Jonathan Goldstein: 30 million people in Brazil and 12 million in the UK and a handful here.

Wait, what does that mean?

John Francis Daley: Well, we did a Comic-Con in Brazil, in San Paulo, and it played like gangbusters because we showed the scene in the maze where we revealed those ’80s characters. I guess it was huge there. Don’t ask me why, but I don’t think it has that same resonance in America. I think it’s a little more fringe out here for whatever reason.

Jonathan Goldstein: We knew it meant a lot to a certain piece of the audience so we wanted to give a little visual shout-out.

I’m going from memory, but I think Eric was voiced by Donny Most? Is that right?

Jonathan Goldstein: My gosh.

John Francis Daley: We’re the wrong person to ask.

Jonathan Goldstein: That sounds about right.

Their leader was Willie Aames.

Jonathan Goldstein: The All-Star team.

It was a Saturday morning staple.

John Francis Daley: That’s right. But it’s tricky when you’re trying to depict cartoon characters in an otherwise semi-grounded-looking world. And so we muted the colors a little bit.

Jonathan Goldstein: We also cast a small muscular man instead of a boy as Bobby.

I feel Dungeons & Dragons is an interesting piece of IP because you can do anything. There are no real characters, but people know what it is.

Jonathan Goldstein: It gave us a way in to making a movie that we could retain our, sort of voice in, but on a great big scale. So it’s almost, in some ways, a Trojan horse for us to do what we do elsewhere, just in a great fantasy world.

John Francis Daley: That’s not to say we’re just slapping the Dungeons & Dragons title on this movie. It is very much D&D to players of D&D, who are in the know of the unique sensibility and tone of the game.

Jonathan Goldstein: But you don’t have to know anything.

John Francis Daley: Yeah, so we’re not adapting anyone’s story, but we’re definitely adapting the rules and the magic and the bizarre locations and creatures as well as that sense of fun and whimsy that you don’t often find in the fantasy space.

So take me through this. After Game Night, was this something you wanted to do? Or were you approached?

Jonathan Goldstein: Someone came to us. I mean, we had left The Flash movie looking for our next thing. We questioned it first because there has been stuff connected to D&D that is not necessarily considered the finest onscreen adaptations. But then we read the script that Michael Gilio wrote, and we saw the potential of what it could be. He had fashioned it as a heist movie, which was really appealing to us. And we thought, all right, that’s a way into this world.

John Francis Daley: Yeah if people aren’t familiar with fantasy movies, they are at the very least familiar with heist films.

I am curious what you two were feeling after Vacation. Were you worried? I’m assuming it didn’t get the reaction you were expecting.

John Francis Daley: It certainly didn’t get the reaction we wanted [laughs]. But look, you’ll learn from each of these experiences. “You never stop failing because the moment you do you fail.” [Note: This is a quote from a big moment during Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, that you probably haven’t seen yet.]

Right, but you made a funny movie, then didn’t get the response I’m sure you expected…

John Francis Daley: We’re incredibly proud of it. And the thing is, it taught us that you have to treat IP like that with great care.

Jonathan Goldstein: Great care.

Okay, so is that where you feel some of the negativity came from? The IP?

Jonathan Goldstein: Oh, I think people brought to the movie resentment that we had touched this franchise. And when you go back and you watch the original Vacation movies, they’re pretty raunchy.

John Francis Daley: And mean-spirited.

Jonathan Goldstein: Totally mean-spirited in a lot of ways. And that’s what they accused us of – of being raunchy and mean-spirited. And I don’t know that it was.

John Francis Daley: Not necessarily any more than the original, which we, by the way, we revere and were paying homage to in every way. But Game Night was kind of our reaction to that. We had no gross-out jokes in that movie because apparently some people don’t like those.

Jonathan Goldstein: Critics don’t.

John Francis Daley: Critics namely. And we didn’t want to get beaten up, honestly. And so we were like, all right, let’s do a hard pivot and let’s make this thing look really different from your typical comedic fair. We love both movies in different ways, but it was funny to see how the perception of Game Night was so vastly different from Vacation when we both love each of those movies in their own way.

Everything that comes out of Chris Hemsworth’s mouth is gold in Vacation. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the guy with a “pet rat” on his shoulder who doesn’t know it’s there gets me every time.

John Francis Daley: I do want to go on the record though, and say that if we were to do a director’s cut of Vacation, it would probably be a little bit shorter than the theatrical cut, because we took a lot of swings and admittedly, some of them are hit-and-miss.

Don’t cut the rat.

John Francis Daley: Not the rat! But it’s kind of what you have to do with that kind of movie. And so, obviously there are parts that we…

Jonathan Goldstein: We’d do differently, but we’re proud. We’re really proud of the movie. When I watch it now, I laugh. I still laugh a lot.

John Francis Daley: Me, too.

Jonathan Goldstein: I think it’s as funny as many movies that have come out during that time that got a whole lot more acclaim.

John Francis Daley: Now it’s just sounds like we’re griping.

You’re preaching to the choir.

John Francis Daley: [Laughs] The one person.

‘Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves’ opens on March 31st. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.