Cool Stuff Under 20 Dollars – Filmmakers Reflect on Reign of Fire, 18 Years After the Bizarre Blockbuster Bomb Became a Cult Film
With the tagline “Fight fire with fire,” the dragon apocalypse blockbuster Reign of Fire crashed and burned at the box-office in the summer of 2002. Once it hit home entertainment, the metamorphosis from flop to beloved cult film was almost instantaneous. Over the next two decades of cable reruns, the movie rose from the ashes…
With the tagline “Fight fire with fire,” the dragon apocalypse blockbusterReign of Fire crashed and burned at the box-office in the summer of 2002. Once it hit home entertainment, the metamorphosis from flop to beloved cult film was almost instantaneous. Over the next two decades of cable reruns, the movie rose from the ashes to a loyal fandom. io9 spoke to the director and screenwriter about its surprise legacy and how this wild idea became an even wilder film.
Set in a dystopian London besieged by dragons, Reign of Fire debuted in third place on its opening weekend, behind Men In Black II and Road To Perdition. By the end of its theatrical run, it barely scraped back its $60 million budget (grossing $82 million internationally), which is an interesting figure when you consider its stars—Matthew McConaughey, Christian Bale, Gerard Butler—were all on their way to A-list status. “I don’t think you can afford to put those three guys in the same movie right now,” director Rob Bowman reflected.
“One regards Reign of Fire with awe,” wrote Roger Ebert in 2002. “Incredulity is our companion, and it is twofold: we cannot believe what happens in the movie, and we cannot believe that the movie was made.” He added that it “makes no sense on its own terms, let alone ours.” Variety’s Joe Leydon noted that it had “an uncommonly satisfying mix of medieval fantasy, high-tech military action and Mad Max-style misadventure” while the New York Times’s Elvis Mitchell added it had “a jamming B-picture buzz,” and was “loads of fun”—“the kind of swift filmmaking and high spirits that have been missing from movies for a while.”
Those reviews recognized something late Hollywood producer Richard “Dick” Zanuck also saw. Having won a Best Picture Academy Award for Driving Miss Daisy—a win that hasn’t aged well in hindsight—Zanuck was best known for producing classics like The Sound of Music, The Verdict, and Jaws.
“The original script was a spec that was written by these guys who I don’t think had ever written anything before, like, these Wisconsin guys,” recalled screenwriter Matthew Greenberg. “I remember reading about it when it sold and thinking ‘Ah! Why didn’t I think of this? This is great!’ It sort of had to be written by people who weren’t in the film industry, because if you told anybody the pitch was ‘dragon apocalypse’ they’d be like ‘get the fuck out of my office!’” Those ‘Wisconsin guys’ Zanuck took a gamble on were Gregg Chabot and Kevin Peterka, who had never had anything made before Reign of Fire and have never had anything made since, only adding to the mystique.
Then in his 60s, Zanuck didn’t care about what their previous credits were or weren’t: he cared about what was on the page and what he saw was a merging of medieval and military. More importantly, he felt it was something he had never seen before. “It wasn’t only dragons,” said Greenberg. “It was dragons and modern-day in this sort of fucked up setting. In Hollywood, it’s very interesting because you’re dealing with vast amounts of money and everybody’s scared: terror and anxiety and envy are the three major emotions that you pass through…Where Dick was brilliant was he understood the balance between risk and safety, he always knew you could play it safe and you might get lucky, but when he saw something that really spoke to him…From our first pitch he got it, he understood where at least I was coming from, and with his son Dean—who was also a producer and extremely smart—they were able to guide it through the initial stages of development.”
Then a “baby writer,” Greenberg was considered the guy you got to punch up a script and make it shootable—which is exactly what he was hired to do for Chabot and Peterka’s script. Yet unlike his last two projects with Dimension—Mimic and Halloween H20—he had fought to get on Reign of Fire, not just as a fan of the early draft but as someone who had a background in it “academically” after being a medieval studies major in college.