George Strayton, Dragonlance Movie Screenwriter
Monday, July 24, 2006
Dragonhelm interviews George Strayton, the screenwriter of the Dragonlance movie!
I recently had the chance to talk to George Strayton, the screenwriter for the Dragonlance movie. Check out what he has to say.
Dragonhelm: How did you get your start as a screenwriter?
George Strayton: Strange as it sounds, my entire career came from my love of Dungeons & Dragons. I started playing D&D in 1979 and never stopped (I still play once a week). After writing some freelance articles and adventures, I quit my day job and took a staff position at West End Games as a game designer and editor. Since then, I've written/edited over three dozen RPG products, including the D&D hardcover FROSTBURN for Wizards of the Coast.
Since West End Games specialized in movie tie-ins (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Men in Black), I started reading tons of scripts. Something about the form excited me, and so I decided to move to Los Angeles to pursue a screenwriting career (with no training/education in that profession). I quickly learned how to sneak onto the Universal Studios backlot, established a bunch of contacts, got myself a job as Director of Marketing, and then made friends with the television writing staffs. I realized television was the best place to get a chance to write -- they needed new content every week. So, after about two years, I got the opportunity to write an episode of HERCULES: THE LEGENDARY JOURNEYS. The staff liked it, and I got more freelance jobs. After a few of those, I took a staff writer job at XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS, which involves both writing and producing the show.
Once those series ended, I decided I wanted to pursue film writing, but discovered I was "typecast" by the powers that be as a "television" (the term used derisively) writer. So, to break that curse and take some time to write a bunch of spec movie scripts, I went back to school full time to pursue my MFA in Screenwriting at Columbia University in New York City.
Dragonhelm: How did you come to be involved with the Dragonlance movie?
GS: I had worked with executive producer Cindi Rice on several film projects, some of them D&D-related (although none of them have come to fruition as of yet). We had known each other from the gaming world (Cindi had worked at TSR when I worked at West End Games), so when the DRAGONLANCE film came up, she knew I was well-versed in both D&D and Dragonlance. Other DRAGONLANCE movie projects had come and gone, and Cindi knew one of the keys to taking this one all the way through the process to a completed film was to have a script that Margaret and Tracy liked.
Dragonhelm: Were you a fan of the Dragonlance novels prior to the movie? Has the movie inspired you to read more Dragonlance novels?
GS: I've been a DRAGONLANCE fan for a very long time, since Dragons of Autumn Twilight came out in the mid-80s. I was in high school at the time, and I couldn't get enough of the books. I read the Twins trilogy next, and by the time I was in college, TSR started releasing dozens of other titles set in the Dragonlance universe. To date, I've read about 50 Dragonlance novels, many of them multiple times.
Wizards of the Coast recently sent me Dragons of Dwarven Depths, so that's the latest one I've been reading. All I can say is it's fantastic!
Dragonhelm: What is the appeal of Dragonlance in animated movie format?
GS: That's a very interesting question. I've never written for animation before, and I was very determined to make sure this project had an adult feel (I didn't want it to get dumbed down -- the studios love to do that), so I wrote the script as if it were live-action. For example, to make sure the studio and all the producers understood the demographic. I purposely described the deaths of creatures and characters in gory detail. They won't necessarily appear that way in the finished film, but it got the point across -- everyone has agreed to go for a PG-13 rating.
Dragonhelm: Tell us about the process of adapting Dragons of Autumn Twilight to animated movie format. What considerations do you have to keep in mind?
GS: Like I said, I wrote the film as it were live-action, so I didn't do anything particularly for the animation format. Instead, throughout the process, I focused primarily on one thing -- writing a script that Margaret and Tracy were happy with.
Dragonhelm: Were there any scenes from Dragons of Autumn Twilight that had to be dropped or modified?
GS: Unfortunately, that's part of the difficulty in taking a 450-page novel and converting it into a 95-page screenplay. First, I re-read the trilogy twice so everything was fresh in my mind -- I knew that whatever I did in the first film would have an effect on the second and third. I didn't want to paint myself into a corner. Second, I made a list of critical scenes. Then I added in scenes that weren't critical to the characters' story arcs or to the plot, but which I as a fan always liked. Lastly, since I had very, very limited space, I tried to collapse as many scenes together as possible. And finally, because of notes from the studio, I had to add some scenes that weren't in the book (two in total). I extrapolated these from the existing scenes in the novel. Happily, in the end, Margaret and Tracy gave their blessing on everything.
Dragonhelm: How involved have Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman been in the script-writing process? What was it like working with them?
GS: Both Margaret and Tracy have been involved from the beginning. They've read every draft of the script and given notes, which I addressed in subsequent drafts. I very much enjoyed working with both of them, and I hope to continue that in the future.
Dragonhelm: Margaret Weis has said that the Dragonlance movie will be for an adult audience. How adult is it? Will it warrant a rating higher than PG?
GS: The studio is going for a PG-13 rating. I don't think we'll get that. It'll probably be PG. Which is fine with me. I just wanted to make sure that the animators didn't create G-rated-style animation, and that the studio doesn't market it to 5-year-olds (and younger). For me, the story revolves around Tanis's search for faith in the gods, his friends, and most importantly, himself. And that entire quest stems from his half-human/half-elven heritage. I didn't want to lose the scene where we find out his mother had been raped. That fact is one of the defining elements of his character. I never could've kept that in if the movie were going to be rated G.
Dragonhelm: How long of a movie will Dragons of Autumn Twilight be?
GS: I believe it will run about 95 minutes. But in the end, that will be up to the director and the producers.
Dragonhelm: Has anyone approached you about doing the script for Dragons of Winter Night?
GS: According to my contract, I will be the writer of DRAGONS OF WINTER NIGHT, but we haven't started discussions on the sequel yet.
Dragonhelm: Before the Dragonlance movie, you have worked as a writer for Hercules, Xena, and Cleopatra 2525, which are a different style than Dragonlance. What is it like going from that style to the high fantasy style of Dragonlance?
GS: It wasn't difficult for me at all. In fact, I was always trying to write epic stories on those series, and the headwriters had to constantly rein me in. Secondly, I've been a huge D&D for more than 25 years. Since Dragonlance evolved out of D&D, it was right up my alley. I remember being so excited when Dragons of Autumn Twilight first came out. It was, and still is, epic D&D at its best.
Dragonhelm: How is writing for an animated movie different than writing the script for a TV series like Hercules and Xena? Any similarities?
GS: Aside from the difference in the specific genre of fantasy, the script-writing itself was very similar. In fact, one of the things people have remarked on throughout the process is that I take people's comments seriously, which is something I learned from television. That training enabled me to quickly and fully address all of Margaret's and Tracy's notes.
Dragonhelm: You previously worked with Lucy Lawless on Xena: Warrior Princess. What was it like working with her again on the Dragonlance movie?
GS: She's a gifted actress, plus she's just plain fun to work with and be around. We had a great time recording her part.
Dragonhelm: One review I read of Xena was that it is "smart TV pretending that it's dumb". Do you think this is a fair characterization?
GS: I think it's close. At least, that's what we strove for. Unfortunately, there are a few episodes that are dumb TV not even trying to pretend to be smart.
Dragonhelm: What other projects are you working on?
GS: I'm working with Cindi Rice and her producing partner John Frank Rosenblum on another fantasy project that I think will have a lot of people excited. I'm also developing a sci-fi feature film with a production company that has a deal at DreamWorks.
Dragonhelm: George, thanks for taking the time to talk with us. We are anxiously awaiting the Dragonlance movie!
GS: Thanks, I enjoyed it! And while I'm eager to see the completed film as a screenwriter, I'm even more excited to watch it as a fan.
George Strayton's Credits:
DRAGONLANCE: DRAGONS OF AUTUMN TWILIGHT, Paramount Pictures and Commotion Pictures, 2007 (starring Kiefer Sutherland, Michelle Trachtenberg, Michael Rosenbaum)
Xena: Warrior Princess, Season V (staff writer)
Xena: Warrior Princess, "Eve"
Columbia University, Master of Fine Arts in Film (Screenwriting). Notable instructors:
Dungeons & Dragons: Dungeon Crawl Classics -- The Adventure Begins, Goodman Games, Co-author, Summer 2006
BIOGRAPHY - GEORGE STRAYTON
After writing and editing books based on film properties like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Men In Black, Origins Award Nominee George Strayton headed to Los Angeles, where he figured out how to sneak onto the Universal Studios lot (which involves a trek across the roof of the credit union on Lankershim). After a few months of unscheduled and unsupervised visits, he finagled himself a job as Director of Marketing at Universal Studios Television, giving him access to the staffs at the studio's various tv series.
Within a year, he was hired by Sam Raimi's Renaissance Pictures to write the fifth-season finale of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. After a few more freelance episodes of Hercules and Cleopatra 2525 (Renaissance's sci-fi series), he was brought on staff full-time at the number-one-rated action series Xena: Warrior Princess, where he worked under showrunners Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci (Alias, The Legend of Zorro, Mission Impossible 3, Transformers, Star Trek XI). There, he was given the honor of writing the 100th episode.
He has recently written DRAGONLANCE: DRAGONS OF AUTUMN TWILIGHT (Kiefer Sutherland, Michelle Trachtenberg) for Paramount Pictures and Commotion Pictures. Based on the NY Times bestseller, the film is slated for a Fall 2007 release.
Strayton attended Columbia University's MFA in Film (Screenwriting) program on scholarship.