The fantasy adventure Dragonheart was originally greenlit in 1990, but it took seven years and a lot of compromises to make it to the big screen.
Released 25 years ago this month, Dragonheart is one of those 1990s adventure movies that has its devoted fanbase of people who saw it when they were young but isn’t necessarily among the decade’s most celebrated blockbusters. It was a moderate success upon release, but has also quietly carried on as a direct-to-video franchise all these years, most recently with the 2020 prequel, Dragonheart: Vengeance.
Originally conceived by filmmaker Patrick Read Johnson and screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue, the film follows the unlikely friendship between Draco, (voiced by Sean Connery) the last surviving dragon, and Bowen, (Dennis Quaid) an English knight who has sworn to hunt down and kill all of his kind. Together, the pair con the surrounding villages by staging dramatic dragon slayings and reaping the rewards, while the tyrannical King Einon (David Thewlis) terrorises the land.
Universal originally bought the script in 1990, but the start of that decade would prove to be a period of transition for Hollywood movies, when rapidly advancing VFX technology became more and more integral to blockbuster success. Indeed, it was two later Universal releases in particular that would change the course of Dragonheart’s destiny.
Where Johnson and Pogue intended an off-kilter, transcendent epic that would cost around $20 million to make at the most, and the result wound up being a more family-friendly fantasy run-around that cost three times as much. The script itself didn’t change, but during its long and fraught development, the execution different drastically from what was planned…
Johnson came up with the original story, pitching producer Raffaella De Laurentiis a film about a dragon and a knight teaming up to con villages for money. His pitch evoked Westerns like The Skin Game and Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, transplanted to a more fantastical setting.
De Laurentiis optioned the story and Johnson teamed up with Pogue, with whom he shared a manager, to further develop the script. The project as they saw it would have a comic tone, but also embed chivalric values and Arthurian mythology as part of an emotional payoff whereby the knight and the dragon both find redemption through their old ideals.
The script was completed in 1990 and submitted to Universal on a Friday and the following Monday, they had a green light from the studio. The exceptional speed of this decision speaks to how well the script was received – the executives found it funny and moving and they snapped the project up right away.
From there, the script amassed a lot of buzz around town, with lots of interest from various actors, composers, (Jerry Goldsmith reportedly asked Johnson personally if he could score the film) and other big names.
Pre-production began in earnest right away, with location scouting in Spain. Johnson had recently directed his first feature, the 1990 comedy Spaced Invaders, and the plan was for him to make Dragonheart his second feature, with a dream cast and animatronic dragon props (pictured above) to bring Pogue’s script to life. However, the project’s popularity soon proved to be a double-edged sword.
The Darkman knight
In an insightful, career-spanning interview with IGN, Johnson recalled: “This was a movie that everybody wanted to be in, and everybody wanted to score, and everybody wanted to be the cinematographer of, and everybody wanted to direct.”
On the directing front, Johnson had only made one $1.75m-budgeted film before, and in her role as producer, De Laurentiis was trying to convince the studio that the film could be made for a low budget to prevent the studio handing the project over to any of the more experienced directors who were interested in making the film.
To their credit, Johnson and De Laurentiis put together quite a package, getting Sean Connery on board to voice the dragon and assembling a cast that included Liam Neeson as Bowen, Kenneth Branagh as King Einon, and Elizabeth Hurley as peasant girl and love interest Kara.
What’s more, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop built an array of dragon miniatures and puppets, as well as working full-size animatronic dragon head to feature in the movie. Test footage of a campfire scene was shot, featuring the head and, since Neeson was unavailable that day, a young Clive Owen as the knight. All of this, with that cast and those effects, was priced at just under $15 million, which is not bad going at all.
But we mentioned two Universal releases that changed the fate of Dragonheart, and the first of those was Darkman – we’ve covered Sam Raimi’s weird and wonderful superhero film in a previous episode of the Film Stories podcast, which you can hear below…
Sam Raimi’s weird and wonderful superhero film was a solid performer upon its release in cinemas later that summer, but pre-release, executives were not as pleased with the film or Neeson’s performance in it. While Neeson was very enthusiastic about making the film, the powers-that-be balked at Johnson’s choice of casting.
If you’re wondering how they got from Neeson to Dennis Quaid, the studio were convinced that they should be spending more money on a script this good and that started with appealing to big stars. Tom Hanks, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Kevin Bacon were all offered the role of Bowen, so sure the studio were that they’d have a bigger hit with a bigger name.
Weirdly, the same producers were simultaneously asking whether it was wise to pay Connery his asking price for a voice role if his voice was all they were getting, suggesting Whoopi Goldberg might be a “cool and new” alternate choice for Draco. Connery ultimately went on to provide the dragon’s voice after all, but the studio went a different way with the visuals.
The dinosaur factor
The other release that affected the film’s development was Jurassic Park, a release of such enormity that it was making waves before it even came out. Steven Spielberg’s film featured a mix of practical effects and ground-breaking CGI, and the Industrial Light & Magic test footage impressed Universal a lot more than Henson’s animatronics for Dragonheart.
Indeed, executives were convinced to pause production and wait to see how successful the effects in Jurassic Park turned out. When that film came out in 1993, the answer was “very”, and Universal also released Johnson from his directing contract during the hiatus, relegating him “story by” and executive producer credits instead, so that they could seek a more experienced director.
In late 1993, the studio hired several effects houses to create CG test footage using audio of Connery from other films. This was the era in which Disney had famously got Robin Williams to voice the Genie in Aladdin by animating footage of the character based on his stand-up routines, so you can see the angle there.
Although their test has never been released, ILM reportedly won the contract by elongating the existing model of the T-Rex from Jurassic Park and adding pterodactyl wings to its back to approximate the shape of a realistic CG dragon. We’ve only got this screenshot to go on, but if there’s footage of this thing running lines from The Hunt For Red October or The Untouchables, here’s hoping we see it as a special feature on some future release of Dragonheart someday.
While the budget was inflated drastically by the use of a CG Draco, the search for a new director was still ongoing. Richard Donner spent six months working on the film before departing and Branagh, who was offered the lead role as well as the director’s chair, was declined because he wanted money that was now being channelled into visual effects.
John Badham also passed, but his producing partner and frequent collaborator Rob Cohen signed up to direct Dragonheart. Adhering to the Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves school of casting, Cohen cast American actors Dennis Quaid and Dina Meyer as the male and female lead and reserved all the English actors except Pete Postlethwaite for more antagonistic roles.
Meanwhile, Jurassic Park’s infamous Dinosaur Supervisor Phil Tippett was in charge of the dragon design and animation and one of Cohen’s duties was to decide when and where to cut scenes with Draco that would have been more achievable with animatronics and puppets than with CG. This was still early days for the technology while Spielberg’s smash-hit had just 6-and-a-half minutes of animated dinosaurs, the finished version of Dragonheart would require 23 minutes of Draco in total, and that was after cutting several scenes for efficiency.
Another big change was the design of Draco’s face, which was more directly based on Connery’s own face than the original concept designs. Cohen and Tippett assembled a library of facial references from the star’s previous films for the animated dragon and ILM’s Caricature software was developed to sync up the effects and Connery’s performance.
According to a preview piece published in Entertainment Weekly when the film finally hit cinemas, the CG dragon cost $22 million, almost a million dollars for every minute of screen-time in which it appeared and more than the total budget of Johnson’s version. Altogether, the film cost a reported $57 million to make.
From script to screen
Throughout all of this, it doesn’t seem as if it was one of those productions where the script was rewritten so much as it was cut down. Johnson and Pogue have had many less-than-flattering words to say about the way Universal handled the film, with Cohen’s direction coming in for a lot of criticism from each of them.
One often-repeated anecdote has various crewmembers, including Pogue and De Laurentiis, alerting Cohen to the potential folly of shooting a scene where starving villagers attempt to capture Draco and Bowen and eat them, in a location with lots of far more edible-looking pigs in shot, only for the director to ignore them all. But beyond the casting and the Prince Of Thieves pretending, Dragonheart lands in the broader, more family-friendly tone that a movie this expensive had to at the time, leaving out a lot of the nuance, sidelining the romance and emotion, and flattening down the story arc.
The original director and writer have both had their say over the years, with Johnson giving many entertaining interviews about what went wrong from his point of view, and Pogue writing an expanded novelisation that reinstated a lot of cut scenes won greater acclaim than the film it was based on.
None of this hurt the film at the box office much and it went on to be a decent-sized hit when it reached cinemas in 1996. The more positive notices praised the design of the CG dragon and Connery’s vocal performance, which are universally agreed to be the film’s finest points, but few reviewers had much to say about the script that was such a hot property back at the start of the decade.
A direct-to-video sequel titled A New Beginning followed in 2000, and since 2015, a trilogy of prequels saw Ben Kingsley, Patrick Stewart, and Helena Bonham Carter lend their voices to new dragon characters. There’s been further speculation about a potential big-budget remake of the original film too, ranging from Johnson wishing that he could make the film again with Neeson and Connery back in 2013, to the screenwriter of the prequels, Matthew Feitshans, observing that the DTV films are keeping the brand visible for a potential big-screen revival.
All in all, things might have been very different if the film had been made earlier in the 1990s, but there’s one last legacy of the version we got. We’re sure Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Johnson’s version of the film would have been spectacular too, but composer Randy Edelman did a fine job and created one of the more ubiquitously reused movie anthems of the decade with the track “To The Stars”, which you can reacquaint yourself with below…
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