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Interview: Screenwriter, George Strayton

Thursday, 22 February 2007

George Strayton discusses his introduction to Dragonlance, becoming involved with the project, and the challenges of adapting Dragons of Autumn Twilight for the screen in an interview with DLMS Editor Benjamin Craig.

Q. When did you first read the Dragonlance books?

I read The Dragonlance Chronicles when they were originally released in the mid-80s. I'd been playing D&D since the late 1970s and was overjoyed when I read about the release of a new novel set in the world of Dungeons & Dragons (I'd started with the first book, Quag Keep by Andre Norton, which was published in 1979). I then went on to The Legends Trilogy and the individual Dragonlance novels like The Legend of Huma, Riverwind the Plainsman, and on and on. I had a long train ride to college, so I would read a new Dragonlance book every time I traveled back and forth.

Q. How did you come to be involved in this project?

After college, I became first a freelance game designer and then an on-staff designer at West End Games (where I worked on Star Wars, Hercules & Xena, and the Origins Award-nominated Men in Black). During that time, I met Cindi Rice at DragonCon in Atlanta. She was working as an editor at TSR. We had several friends in common (West Enders who had recently migrated to TSR) and we hit it off right away.

I left West End to move to Los Angeles in 1997 (although I still continue to do freelance game design on the side -- my most recent publication being FROSTBURN, an expansion book for D&D 3.5 released by Wizards of the Coast). I wound up writing for several of Sam Raimi's television series: Hercules, Xena, and Cleopatra 2525. I had very little formal training in screenwriting, so, to make a long story short, I decided to go back to school to earn my MFA in screenwriting from Columbia University (known in the industry as the "screenwriter's" school because the program puts more emphasis on story than the other film schools do).

I continued to attend conventions like GenCon and stayed in touch with Cindi, who by this time had become responsible for licensing Wizards of the Coast intellectual properties to film and television studios. The first project we worked on together was the GREYHAWK movie (the original D&D world, for those unaware), mostly because we were disappointed in the D&D movie. We pitched to every studio in town and had garnered some interest, but in the end, as with most things in Hollywood, it never got made.

Cindi and I continued to develop other film projects based on game properties (Deadlands, for example), but they all died at one stage or another. Then I got a call from Cindi in early 2005 asking if I'd be interested in working on Dragonlance. I was so excited by the prospect that I nearly dropped the phone. I wanted in, of course, but all Cindi could guarantee me was an interview with the producers. That meeting went well and I got the job.

Q. What were the key challenges in adapting a 440-odd page novel into a feature length screenplay?

Once I was brought on board for Dragonlance, I discovered that there had been several attempts to bring the story to the big screen in the past. My understanding was that Margaret and Tracy weren't happy with the scripts for those projects. I decided immediately that I would write my adaptation to please only them -- not the studio, not the movie-goers, not the executive producers.

Needless to say, it was a daunting task. The script had to be 95 pages, which is short for a screenplay (which usually come in around 110 to 120 pages). Since each page equals one minute of screen time, we're talking a length of an hour and 35 minutes. That worried me. So I realized the most important thing would be to find the spine of Dragons of Autumn Twilight. Once I had that, I could add the scenes and sequences that fit with that spine until I was out of page-count.

I reread the novel three times in rapid succession, and then I read Margaret's and Tracy's notes in the Annotated Chronicles so I could better understand what they were thinking and feeling when they wrote the novel. They had mentioned that in writing this first Dragonlance book, they were constrained by the Dragonlance adventure modules, which had already been written. That caused the novel to have more of an episodic feel than they would've liked (they reversed this process for Dragons of Winter Night and the subsequent books so that the story came first).

As far as characters went, I knew Tanis was the key to everything. Once I fully understood and fleshed out his character arc, I had a better sense of what I could condense, cut out, and combine. My original draft came in at around 106 pages. I tried to keep it at that length, but for budgetary reasons, I was compelled to continue cutting until it came down to about 96. Further cuts have been done in the animatic and production stages to get it down to 90 minutes (some made by me, some not).

Q. How closely does the storyline of the film follow that of the book? Which areas needed the most work in adapting? And are there any major sequences which have been left out?

The plot follows the general structure of the book almost dead-on.

(SPOILER WARNING for those who haven't read the novel.)

We meet our heroes in Solace. They flee with the Staff. Run into draconians. Deal with the specters. Meet the Forest Master. Head to Xak Tsaroth. Encounter the Plainsmen's destroyed village. Sneak through Xak Tsaroth with the help of Bupu. Deal with Onyx. Return to Solace only to get captured by Fewmaster Toede. The companions are "rescued" by the elves of Qualinesti. Agree to undertake a dangerous mission into Pax Tharkas. They free the slaves and face a final encounter with Verminaard, Pyros, and the draconian army.

(End SPOILER WARNING.)

Most of the adapting was in crafting a central throughline. The filmic form demands clarity and simplicity (not that a story can't be complex, but the overall plot has to be clear and concise or you start losing your audience). I wanted the mission from the time the heroes get the staff until the final battle with Verminaard to feel like one story, as opposed to a series of episodes in which the heroes complete one objective and then take on an entirely new objective, unrelated to the first.

I also wanted the film to be rated PG-13, which is in keeping with the tone of the novel. This is a story for adults (13 and up) and I wanted to make sure it stayed that way when it was transformed into another medium. My biggest nightmare was to see Dragonlance turned into a "kid's" movie.

Q. Are there any scenes or sequences you are particularly looking forward to seeing realised on screen?

I can't wait to see the final confrontation between the heroes and Verminaard's forces. For me it's the most emotional moment of the story. Everything's coming together and things quickly grow desperate for Tanis and his companions.

I also really like the moment when Tanis breaks off his relationship with Laurana. It's painful to watch (in a good way).

Q. How involved were Margaret and Tracy in the process of developing the screenplay?

Margaret and Tracy were heavily involved in developing the script, from the overall structure down to the pronunciation of the proper names. The studio always listened to their notes and took them seriously. In fact, at one point Margaret voiced her concern that the scene showing the parting of Raistlin and Bupu had been cut and she wanted it put back into the script. I was overjoyed because it allowed me to add something back (it was the one time I was allowed to actually make the script longer rather than shorter). They were invaluable to the process and provided many insights into the nature of the characters and the story. I can't imagine trying to adapt Dragonlance without their involvement.

Q. Who's your favourite character? And why?

Tanis. He's a strikingly complex character. He's conflicted about who he is and it affects everything he does, from his belief in the gods to his relationships with women. Should you listen to what other people say about you or should you believe what you think about yourself? If those are in direct opposition to one another, how do you know who's right? I can completely relate to that.

Q. Are there any major differences between writing a screenplay for animated movie and writing one for live action?

I'm not sure. I wrote the Dragonlance script as if it were going to be live-action. Some additional cuts and changes were made to better suit it for animation (not made by me) because, from what I've been told, animation can't be as subtle.

One thing I really missed was a read-through with the entire cast, which we always did in television. It was a great opportunity to make sure the scenes were working, that the dialog rang true, and that all the actors understood their motivations throughout the story.

And, of course, in live-action the cast members are acting with each other on a real set (usually), whereas in animation (at least on this project) each actor delivered his or her lines separately in a recording studio. They had to imagine everything that was going on in each scene, which I think makes it harder for actors to achieve a state of "being in the moment," so I was very impressed with our cast. Kiefer Sutherland, especially, was amazing.

Q. What are your favourite fantasy books and movies?

Not counting Dragonlance? Conan (the original R.E. Howard short stories and the John Milius film). The Lord of the Rings (novels and movies). Gary Gygax's Gord the Rogue novels. Bob Salvatore's Drizzt books. Dragonslayer (the 1981 film). Ladyhawke (except for the score). Excalibur. And the Star Wars trilogy (which to me is space fantasy, rather than science fiction).

- DLMS

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