How I'm Living Now: Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, 'Dungeons & Dragons' Filmmakers
With production grinding to a halt in the face of the coronavirus crisis, the entertainment industry has found itself navigating uncharted territory. To offer a better sense of how, The Hollywood Reporter is running a regular series that focuses on how Hollywood's writers, actors, directors, executives and others are living and working in these challenging times.
In March, filmmakers Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley were just days away from flying to the United Kingdom to scout locations for their next movie, Paramount and eOne's Dungeons & Dragons. Then the pandemic shut down travel to and from Europe, and the longtime creative partners found themselves sequestered at their respective homes in Los Angeles, plotting their action-fantasy movie remotely. Goldstein is sheltering in place with his wife, novelist Adena Halpern, and their 8-year-old, while Daley does so with his wife, Corinne Kingsbury, creator of The CW's In The Dark, their 3-year old, and Kingsbury's mother.
Heat Vision breakdown
The filmmakers, known for directing Game Night and writing Horrible Bosses and Spider-Man: Homecoming, spoke to THR about the next steps for D&D, what they learned from developing a Flash movie that never came to be, and their reaction to the Snyder Cut becoming a reality.
So, what do your days look like now?
John Francis Daley: It's been weirdly not much of a difference from what our routine was before the quarantine. Jonathan and I usually write over Skype anyway from our homes, so it's more like people are now adapting to our way of life than us adapting to anything else.
Jonathan Goldstein: In normal life, we try to see each other as little as possible. It's been three months since I've physically seen John.
Daley: And yet, I don't miss the guy at all. It's weird.
Goldstein: That hurts a little. On a serious note, it's been very helpful in terms of my mental state having that work to do and to be able to go online with John five days a week and spend about as much time as we would under normal circumstances. It really grounds you.
Daley: The first week of lockdown, it was almost impossible to write because we were reading about the horrible things that were going on, and it's hard to put yourself in a mindset of creativity when there's a lot of real, terrible stuff happening around you. But everything sort of becomes normalized after a while. In the last month and a half, I feel like we've been working really productively.
What were you working on professionally when the stay-at-home orders came down?
Goldstein: We had just commenced on our second draft of Dungeons & Dragons. We were able to go off and devote our time to that. On the other hand, we were supposed to be flying to the U.K. to scout in March.
Daley: Once we got our scout dates, I think the next day they had basically shut down all travel to and from Europe. It obviously put everything in that sense on hold. That said, the studio and eOne and everyone over there remain cautiously optimistic about getting the ball rolling again as soon as possible, obviously in the safest possible way. We have turned in our second draft of the movie and are doing prep with storyboarding and visualizing sequences. That's stuff we can do from our homes as well.
So right now is it daily video calls with department heads?
Daley: We do a weekly [meeting] with the studio where we all get on the phone and discuss the state of everything involved in the movie. The only thing we have back-burnered is the actual physical scouting.
Are you already thinking about how you can oversee a set safely?
Daley: Very much, especially with background players. That whole world is going to change dramatically, I feel. We have these scenes with big crowds that we are now rethinking and deciding if it's worth preserving or if we should try to pivot and find another way into the scenes we were imagining.
Does your vision for Dungeons & Dragons feel like a natural evolution for you in terms of the humor you've put into recent projects like Spider-Man: Homecoming and Game Night?
Goldstein: We want it to be fun. It's not an out and out comedy, but it is an action-fantasy movie with a lot of comedic elements and characters we hope people will really get into and enjoy watching their adventures.
Daley: D&D is such a unique look at the fantasy genre where it is contemporary in terms of the people playing it and the way they speak to each other. So we never wanted to spoof the genre of fantasy or take the piss out of it. But we did want to find another way into it that we hadn't necessarily seen before. Just the format of Dungeons & Dragons is so interesting and fun and all about critical thinking and thinking on your feet and figuring out ways to make things work after they fall flat. There's a lot of the spirit of that that we're trying to inject into the movie itself.
Back when we used to be able to have parties and events, were Hollywood D&D players like Joe Manganiello coming up to you with story ideas?
Goldstein: We haven't been accosted by players yet, but we are working with the Wizards of the Coast, the brand holders of D&D. They are the experts. We have people there that we work with and it's pretty helpful, because as much as we know about D&D, it's a drop in the bucket compared to the 45 years of lore that's out there, so these guys are such a resource. If we need a particular spell that a [high]-level wizard could do, they could give us a list. It's a lot of fun.
Daley: I also play a weekly game of Dungeons & Dragons which has now become Zoom games. That is also a fun way to keep your foot in that world as you are writing a movie about it.
Do you anticipate with casting that you'll be doing it via video calls versus getting in the room with someone?
Goldstein: I would imagine, yeah.
Daley: Unfortunately. That is one of the downsides of all of this. So much of casting is feeling the electricity in the room, especially when you are doing a chemistry read between people. But we've been told by our casting department at Paramount that they've already done chemistry reads like this, where people would be Skyping in from Australia and said that it works really well, as long as the connection is [good]. It's brand-new territory to figure out, and hopefully it will garner the same results that a normal casting session would.
In these unexpected times, we got the unexpected news last week that Zack Snyder is going to release his own Justice League cut on HBO Max. Since you spent some time in the DC universe, what was your reaction?
Goldstein: It's about time. There's been such a movement trying to get that to happen. It also aligns with new corporate needs — they have a new platform to promote. I'm curious to see what the difference is after all of this.
Daley: Apparently they are spending $20 million to polish up some of the unfinished effects work and stuff, which is kind of mind-boggling to me, because that's the cost of a lower-budget movie.
Goldstein: But, you know what I'd love? To do a writer's recut of movies we didn't direct.
Daley: (Laughs.) That'd be a lot of over-the-shoulder ADR lines I'd imagine. There's a director's cut of every movie somewhere, and I think the great thing about these streaming platforms is it does allow audiences a look at the things that normally would never be seen by them. It's ultimately good, and I think the opportunity for directors to show their unfiltered vision to the world is, in theory, a really good thing. That said, a lot of times when I watch the Blu-ray of a movie, I end up watching the theatrical cut and not the director's cut because it's usually an hour longer. A lot of fat does need to be trimmed sometimes.
Even though your DC movie, The Flash, did not come to fruition, what kind of things did you learn as storytellers by getting to play in that world?
Goldstein: The challenge is to approach it as you would a much smaller movie, and not get caught up in the fact that you have $100 million-plus to spend and start thinking about the biggest set pieces you can construct. Rather, focus on the stuff that makes it special and makes an audience invest — and that's the characters. That's in the stuff you don't need a lot of money to do right. That's how we approached The Flash and that's how we're approaching D&D.
Daley: And it's how we approached Spider-Man, too. Our favorite scene that we wrote in the movie was the scene in the car where Michael Keaton is driving Tom Holland to the dance. It was probably the least visual spectacle of that whole film.
What advice would you offer fellow filmmakers to keep motivated during this time?
Daley: Now is the opportunity to put some of your vision to life. Not necessarily on the screen yet, but definitely on the page, if you have any means to do it.
Goldstein: Cervantes wrote Don Quixote from prison. So there are plenty of examples of people in situations as bad or worse than ours actually using it to be as creative as you can, because there are not a lot of other things you can do right now, and you may never have this opportunity again where you can't go to a restaurant, you can't go out with your friends, so you are forced to be in.
Daley: Most ideas I come up with are when I'm sort of pacing in my bedroom in the middle of the night, not when I'm going out on walks, not when I'm having dinners with people. In that sense, it has been creatively fulfilling just to sit with your own thoughts and come up with new ones. But I'm very excited to have dinner somewhere other than my counter watching TV.
Goldstein: You can give yourself a film school education. Get the Criterion Channel — that's what my wife and I did — and start watching the movies you haven't had a chance to watch.
Is D&D taking all of your attention, or are you finding time to come up with other ideas to pitch down the road?
Goldstein: We always try to have as many balls in the air as we can, and we are producing a number of projects right now, some that we are writing, some that other people are writing, and we also have a pilot at CBS that was picked up to be filmed and obviously didn't get to be. They asked us to write a second episode of the show, and now we are waiting to hear if it's going to come together or not.
Daley: It's based on my wife hiring her mom to be our nanny while we work. What's crazy is she is now shacking up with us. My wife wrote the pilot with us. As I speak to you, my mother-in-law is with our 3-year-old watching him. That's a bit of an adjustment too.
When this is all over, what is the number one thing you are looking forward to doing?
Goldstein: I just want to give John a big hug.
Daley: Yeah, likewise. And then not see each other for another three months.
Goldstein: That's right.
by Brian Davids