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All Corey Solomon Wants for Christmas Is a Mega Hit

 

Dungeons and Dragons will do for fantasy movies what Star Wars did for science fiction movies," proclaimed Courtney (Corey) Solomon, the movie's director and producer, at the movie's first press conference in Atlanta, Ga., June 29. On December 8, the world will find out if he was right.

Corey Solomon, Lee Arenberg and Justin Whalin at DragonCon 2000. (Photo by Jean Marie Ward)

Intense game store and Web-based marketing campaigns all but guarantee players of the game Dungeons and Dragons(r) will see the movie at least once, probably during its critical opening weekend, December 8-10. But whether the movie develops the "legs" of a true blockbuster will depend on its ability to attract two very different audiences. It will need to appeal to adventure movie fans who couldn't care less about hit points and yet stick close enough to the script of the game to keep gamers coming back for just one more show.

For the gamers, the movie gets one thing right from the start. It gives its core audience dragons and lots of them. The 11-minute, 280-shot ending sequence boasts over 150 red and gold dragons fighting over a 3-D city. The effects for that scene alone took over six weeks to complete.

Solomon, himself an avid Dungeons and Dragons player and dungeon master, promises that gamers will be able to translate the movie's cinematic effects into standard D&D(r) elements about 90 percent of the time. In most cases, the movie's mages follow the same procedures as their role playing counterparts.

Photo: Lev Raphael
Justin Whalin (Ridley Freeborn), Marlon Wayans (Snails) and Zoe McClellan (Marina) find themselves in another tight spot. (All Dungeons and Dragons images courtesy New Line Cinema.).

"You know how it is in the rules," Solomon said, "there are spells where you actually use verbal incantations and some spells where you don't. That's why we did it that way in the movie. But sometimes it comes down to timing in the movie. You can imagine sitting there on the shot in the middle of an action sequence where they've got to get that spell out or else they're dead. If they spent the time it would take to do the full incantation, it wouldn't really work cinematically."

The unconscious shifts between ardent D&D gamer and experienced director characterize Solomon's approach to what is obviously a project of the heart. The son of a Canadian film production coordinator, Solomon worked on over 20 films and television shows before acquiring the game's movie rights -- at age 19. He formed his production company, Sweetpea Entertainment at 21, and put together the funding and distribution packages himself in addition to directing the D&D movie.

Photo: Lev Raphael
Thora Birch (center) plays the young empress Savina beset by treachery.

Developments in all areas of the entertainment industry over the past five years provided a considerable boost to Solomon's efforts. The explosion of the Web provided gamers world wide a place to congregate and marketing tool for games and related items. Advances in technology fueled increasingly sophisticated -- and increasingly less expensive -- computer-generated image (CGI) effects, which in turn changed the expectations of action/adventure audiences.

The career of Joel Silver, the movie's executive producer, typifies this shift. Silver's earliest film credits include associate producer's billing on 48 Hours and The Warriors -- movies with action effects based on real-world stunts. With the exception of Predator, the early features produced under Silver's Silver Productions banner (Commando, the Lethal Weapon movies and the Die Hard series) followed this trend.

However, few people outside the movie industry think of Silver in that context any more. These days, when you say Silver's name to action/adventure fans they think of only one movie: The Matrix.

Photo: Lev Raphael
Jeremy Irons (foreground) plays the evil mage Profion the root over everyone's problems.

The businessman in Solomon views the advanced and cost effective CGI effects of The Matrix and its successors as critical to the bottom line of his $36-million movie. But the gamer in Solomon -- the young man still held captive by D&D's humanistic fantasy -- sees those effects as a means of realizing a dream for himself and others.

Solomon's passion for that dream expressed itself in his dealings with his cast, which includes Oscar-winner Jeremy Irons, Thora Birch (American Beauty), Justin Whalin (Lois and Clark, Charles in Charge), Marlon Wayans (The Wayans Bros.) and Lee Arenberg (Waterworld). "All the actors are pre-signed for two sequels," Solomon said with his characteristic confidence. "If people didn't have passion, we didn't use them. You have to have the talent and the passion."

For the actors, that passion took many forms. For Jeremy Irons, who plays the mage Profion, it meant abandoning renovations on his real-life Irish castle to take part in someone else's fantasy and (horror of horrors for a classically trained actor) improvise. "In the last battle in the movie Jeremy did this long, long spell," Solomon said. "He's going on and on with the incantation, which we made up from a combination of German and Latin and other languages. The fan was running at the rooftop at the time, so we had to ADR [audio-dub record] everything later, because the fans were so loud.

"[Jeremy] wanted to kill me," Solomon said, chuckling at the memory, "because he had to match what he said, and we didn't script it. We roughed it out there. He did it, and that was it. So when we came back to England to ADR it, he said, 'You're kidding.' And yet he did it. He did it perfectly."

Unlike his character Elwood, the Fire Dwarf with an attitude, Lee Arenberg's passion translated to bubbling, infectious enthusiasm. "We want the fans to make this movie big so we can make more of them," he said. Arenberg loved the rough and tumble of the filming, the storybook locations in the Czech Republic and the "crazy" Czech stuntmen who kept telling him: "Hit me! Hit me!"

Solomon used Arenberg, the acknowledged wild man of the set, to "divide and conquer" the entirely reasonable reluctance of fellow cast members to attempt the movie's wilder stunts. "Corey knew he could get me to do anything he wanted, and when I did, the rest of them would follow along," Arenberg said.

Photo: Lev Raphael
Whalin and Wayans confront one of the movie's more colorful creations.

"We were doing these sewer slides, and they were real sewers a couple hundred years old," Arenberg continued. "I went down the sewer, and the water ripped my [character's] beard off. So I'm going around for the rest of the scene trying to hide the lower part of my face, because it would ruin the shot, and the rest of the guys would not go into the sewers."

"Corey's big line was, 'Harrison Ford would do it,'" Justin Whalin said. "We were going to attack a castle. They hung a rope from a grappling hook about forty feet up, and Corey said, 'I want you to climb up the rope.'

"I said, 'I dunno, Corey. It looks kind of high to me. If I fall, it's gonna hurt.'"

At this point Whalin mimicked Solomon's fast-puff style of smoking and deadpan delivery: "'Harrison Ford would do it.'" In the end, Justin Whalin did too, generally to his dismay.

"For me, the stupidest thing was the scene with the ax in the Maze," Whalin said. "On the last day of filming Corey took me aside and said, 'Today's the day we're going to kill you on the set. Today's the Maze. We've been saving this for the end, so if you get killed we can still finish the movie.'"

One of the movie's major set pieces, the scene in the Maze involves a giant prop ax, which weighed over 300 pounds, rolling across the center of the screen. "I didn't want to go near it," Whalin said. "But after looking at he dailies, Corey said, 'You know, it would probably be better if you were in the same frame as the ax. I'm not going to ask you to do it, but yeah, it would look a lot better.'

Photo: Lev Raphael
One of dozens of dragons featured in Dungeons and Dragons, The Movie.

"I had never actually been standing there when the ax was coming at me," Whalin said. "It was moving so fast! So I just jumped from my toes. I don't remember doing it, but if you freeze-frame it, you can see my clothes blur.

"When it was over, I see the script supervisor is crying. The production assistant, who worked with [Stanley] Kubrick said, 'Justin, you are so stupid.'

"And Corey is going: 'It's great! It's just GREAT!'"

If that brio and passion translates to the screen as a fully-realized movie, instead of merely a live-action version of a beloved roleplaying game, audiences will line up for Dungeons and Dragons, the Movie. They won't be able to help themselves. And dungeon master and filmmaker Corey Solomon will have himself a hell of an early Christmas present.

Jean Marie Ward

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