Let’s be honest, what’s your all-time favorite dragon movie? Is it Dragonslayer? Dragonheart? Q: The Winged Serpent? Maybe it’s an animated feature like How to Train Your Dragon or Raya and the Last Dragon? No matter what your answer is, the unpopular opinion remains, Rob Bowman’s 2002 popcorn flick Reign of Fire is one of the most underrated movies featuring the mythic fire-breathing beasts. Never mind the fact that the flick boasts a lowly 39 Metascore and 42% Rotten Tomatoes score, the grim dystopian world-building, excellent visual effects, and big-d*ck swinging performances from Matthew McConaughey and Christian Bale remain a ton of fun to behold. Of course, Reign of Fire had the misfortune of running into the far more potent cinematic behemoth, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, which largely overshadowed the movie’s mild commercial success and eventually relegated the film into obscurity at worst, and cult-classic status at best.
To wit, did you know that a sequel to Reign of Fire was a slight possibility at one time? Did you realize there was a video game released in conjunction with the movie in 2002? Are you aware of how influential the visual effects and creative fire-igniting dragon designs have been to such acclaimed and successful projects as Harry Potter and Game of Thrones? Well, we’ve got a lot more interesting factoids about the making of Reign of Fire, including its script development, production difficulties, the inspiration behind the dragon’s fire-breathing physiology, on-set anecdotes and illnesses, and the post-release influence the movie had on other dragon-based movies and TV shows. Yeah, it’s that time to find out What happened to Reign of Fire at long last.
Although Reign of Fire was released in July 2002, the screenplay was originally written by Gregg Chabot and Kevin Peterka back in 1996. According to Screenwriter’s Utopia, the script was sold to Spyglass Films in 1996 around the time Dungeons & Dragons and Lord of the Rings were in early development. Therefore, the notion that Reign of Fire is a venal ripoff of Lord of the Rings is a bit misguided. However, in his review of the screenplay in April 2002, Christopher Wehner noted that: “The script has experienced numerous rewrites. The draft I am discussing today is dated August 29, 2000, and is Matt Greenberg’s revised draft. How much of the actual script is Chabot and Peterka’s I do not know. It’s safe to say that much of their original script has been rewritten though I’m not certain.”
Okay, so right off the bat we’re dealing with a movie with multiple writers whose vision most likely got lost in translation from draft to draft over a lengthy four-year process. When Airborne and The X-Files director Rob Bowman took the job, he was under no disillusions about how silly the project was, telling Vice News 15 years after the fact, “I walked into that movie thinking, ‘you’re going to make a dragon movie; you’re going to get your ass kicked.’” As far as Bowman’s inspiration for making the movie, he stated, “What I wanted to do was put regular people up against an overwhelmingly superior opponent. It’s nothing more than a metaphor for something really difficult to deal with.”
When it came time to design the physical appearance of the scaly dragons and their unique fire-breathing methods in the movie, Bowman turned to insects and reptiles in the wild for ideas. The biggest inspiration he patterned the physiology of the dragons after was the King Cobra snake, which is notorious for spitting venom from its poisonous glands. According to Bowman, “There had to be some relatability to the various predators that exist. The skin had to be the same skin as you would find on a king cobra, with a little texturing, let’s say from an alligator.” In the behind-the-scenes DVD feature detailing the production, Bowman sought to achieve things visually with the movement of the dragons that had never been done before, “Such as, make it move on the ground like a leopard, make it sound like a cobra about to strike, make the skin sort of look like an alligator but make it the spine of a serpent.”
Beyond the venomous King Cobra, the other major source of inspiration for the dragon designs in Reign of Fire came from the Bombardier Beetle. The insects are known for having two chemicals in their abdomen. Once the chemicals are released from the sac and fuse together, they create a scorching hot spray used to kill prey and fend off enemies. While the King Cobra and Bombardier Beetle took precedence, Bowman also combined the unique physical traits of everything from Komodo dragons and elephants to lions, tigers, and sharks. Say what you want about the overall movie, the dragons themselves are pretty badass and still look great 20 years later. Plot-wise, these details matter a great deal because the resolution of the story relies on Van Zan (McConaughey) to use this knowledge of the dragons’ separate sacs to blow the motherf*ckers up. More fascinating, the fire-igniting tactics have been adopted several times since by other high-profile movies and TV shows.
Strapped with a hefty $60 million budget, Reign of Fire officially began principal photography on February 19, 2001, and wrapped in July of the same year. To prepare for his role, a pre-Batman Christian Bale initially intended to pull a Machinist and lose a bunch of weight for his role as Quinn, the leader of the few survivors left in the dragon’s invasive wake. Bale felt the character should’ve been physically gaunt given the dystopian environment and lack of food and resources. However, once Bale saw how jacked up McConaughey was for his role as the macho dragon-slaying Van Zan, Bale changed his mind, swiftly hit the gym, and beefed up his body in order to make for an equally matched adversary. During the final battle scene between Quinn and Van Zan, the actors reportedly got so carried away in the immersion of their characters that real blows were traded on set while filming the fight, including the instance when Van Zan headbutts Quinn.
As for the pre-Renaissance Matthew McConaughey, he went full method actor while making Reign of Fire and insisted that everyone in the cast and crew refer to him as Van Zan during the entire production. In his 2020 book Greenlights, McConaughey claimed he shaved his head for the role because he was losing his hair in real life. According to co-star Alexander Siddig via AV Club, who plays Ajay in the movie:
“The only thing I remember about that was the first day. The first A.D. came into the trailer where we were all having our makeup and shit done, and he was, like ‘Guys, I need your attention, please.’ And we were, like ‘Yeah?’ And he said, ‘Um, Mr. McConaughey’s gonna arrive on set in about 15 minutes, and I have to give you a directive – which comes from the producers – that you are not to call him ‘Matthew’ or ‘Mr. McConaughey’ or anything to do with his real life. You must call him Van Zan. And even if you meet him outside in the road, even if you meet him out in town in Dublin,’ where we were shooting this movie, ‘You must call him Van Zan.’ And that is exactly what I remember about that movie, because as that first A.D. left the building, I shouted – rather lamely – ‘And he’s got to call me Elvis!’ But he didn’t call me Elvis. In fact, he didn’t call me anything!”
Okie dokie. The next thing worth noting is that Reign of Fire was filmed on location in The Wicklow Mountains in Ireland. Filming also took place in London’s Trafalgar Square, interiors were shot in a studio in Dublin, and Admore Studios in County Wicklow. The opening scenes in London were partially filmed at a hotel near the decommissioned Pigeon House Power Station in Ringsend, Dublin. Oddly enough, a replica of the set can be found at Disneyland, Paris.
The production also planned to film scenes at Glendasen Valley Lead Mines, however a sudden outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease – the first of its kind in 40 years – resulted in Bowman and his crew being given special permission to film in the area due to a quarantine mandate. That is, Bowman was allowed to film in the Mines as long as no damage was done to the area and the sets and props were immediately removed once filming was completed.
For those unaware, Foot and Mouth Disease is an infectious viral condition that usually comes from cloven-hoofed livestock, with gnarly fever blisters forming in the mouth and on the feet. The 2001 outbreak in the U.K. included 2,000 cases, affected over 6 million cows and sheep, and caused a major crisis for the British tourism and agriculture sector.
The next thing to know about Reign of Fire pertains to the impressive dragon designs. For starters, the dead dragon spotted in the film was designed and created by Artem, and the visual effects were done by Disney’s Secret Lab animation studio. The digital effects required to create life-like reptilian scales on the dragons’ exterior proved challenging.
According to Dragon Scales: The Evolution of Scale Tool for Reign of Fire:
“In recent years there have been several movies starring creatures with scaled surfaces. Among these are Jurassic Park, Dragonheart, and Lake Placid. The surfaces of these creatures have generally been constructed by layering painted textures atop displacement maps. This gives the model texture, but the scales stretch and shrink under the movement of the creature, giving a rubbery look that is not realistic.”
As a way to combat this problem, the FX team took inspiration from Neil Eskuri’s ground-breaking work on the 2000 movie, Dinosaur, as a way to choreograph the dragons’ dynamic movements as realistically as possible. According to Reign of Fire’s FX technician Carlos Gonzalez-Ochoa, the production required, “100-foot creatures with wing spans of 300 feet that could undergo enormous speeds and accelerations. The artistic direction required each dragon to have wings that transition between a variety of physical behaviors and interact with the environment.”
Another method of achieving Bowman’s desired gritty sense of realism was to use practical pyrotechnics on set, i.e. real fire. According to Special FX Supervisor Dave Gauthier, the primary fuel source used to create the genuine fires on set was liquid propane. Prior to filming, Gauthier “Figured out what kind of quantities I could use, what kind of pressures I could push propane and what it would look like, how safe I could keep, how directional and knowing exactly where it was going to go.” Astoundingly, Gauthier only had two weeks to make these calculations and did little research beforehand due to the time restrictions of being hired so late into the production.
Gauthier explained, “During the actual filming, I’m sure we had 25 people running around on set, moving flame bars, moving big tanker trucks, and lots of diesel fuel,” adding “That’s my prime goal, I want to make as much fire as I possibly can, but at the same time I have to keep it as safe as I can.” All in all, roughly 800 tons of liquid propane and several thousand gallons of diesel gasoline were used to create the hellish inferno seen in Reign of Fire. The billowing black smoke in the film was achieved by pumping diesel fuel through Dante machines, while the white smoke used to create atmospherics required regular smoke machines.
To create the look and texture of dragons’ slimy saliva in the film, a mixture of water and cold mixing food grade starch. Meanwhile, air-actuated plungers were utilized to create the fire-stream effect that illuminates a character’s face in the darkness.
For those interested in the explosive gunplay featured in the film, Van Zan uses a Mossberg 500 Cruiser with a truncated barrel. Meanwhile, Quinn sports the rare and exotic rifle, Ulrik’s Mauser Tyrannosaurus Rex in .577 Nitro, which is similar to the .600 Nitro rifle featured in The Lost World: Jurassic Park. It’s yet another direct umbilicus connecting the two prehistoric fantasy movies.
After roughly one year of post-production and editing, Reign of Fire was released theatrically on July 12, 2002. Although the film received mostly negative reviews, it opened at #3 at the U.S. box office during its first weekend, grossing roughly $15.5 million. Alas, the movie would largely disappear five months later in the wake of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, which went on to gross nearly a billion dollars worldwide. As a result, Reign of Fire was deemed a financial disappointment, earning just $82 million against its $60 million budget. Between the lackluster commercial performance and critical misgivings, plans for a potential sequel were inevitably scrapped.
According to Bale in a 2002 Movie Hole interview, the actor discussed the potential for a sequel, stating, “Possibly. I told Scott Moutter, who plays my stepson in the movie, that he’s well-positioned to take the sequel from me because of the way the movie ends!”
Although a Reign of Fure sequel never materialized, its legacy persists to this day. In 2002, a Reign of Fire video game was published by Kuju Entertainment and released for Xbox, PlayStation, and Nintendo GameCube. However, like the movie itself, the video game received middling reviews at best.
In terms of awards and accolades, Reign of Fire was nominated for Best Fantasy Film at the 2002 Saturn Awards and won an award for Best Visual Effects at the 2002 Sitges International Film Festival in Spain, although it lost the Best Film honor to Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Although the film did not fare well among most professional reviewers, it had its fair share of supporters, including popular film critics Richard Roeper and Elvis Micthell, both of whom praised the fun, escapist B-movie stylings of the apocalyptic action-adventure film. Others like Roger Ebert were far less impressed, with the hilariously scathing opening of his 1-star review reading: “One regards ‘Reign of Fire’ with awe. What a vast enterprise has been marshaled in the service of such a minute idea. 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.”
Despite the incredulity Ebert refers to, reflecting back at Reign of Fire 20 years later, it’s hard to overlook its influence on other popular dragon-based stories featured on the big and small screen. The 2-phase fire-igniting method of the dragons featured in the film has been famously adopted by the FX team on HBO’s landmark series, Game of Thrones (which also stars Reign of Fire’s Jack Gleeson, mind you), as well as Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, and Gods of Egypt. According to his 2017 interview with Vice, Bowman acknowledged the influence of Reign of Fire in pop culture and expressed no ill will for having his dragons imitated onscreen, stating, “It’s OK. It’s a compliment.”
In fact, Bowman always set out to make a more realistic depiction of dragons than a fantastical one, telling Vice: “I felt that if I could get the audience to just accept one thing, which is the dragons, then I would provide an ultra-realism around it.”
Frankly, that’s essentially What The F*ck Happened to Reign of Fire. The script endured various rewrites and iterations before Rob Bowman took over the directorial duties. The movie was shot on location in Ireland and was nearly forced to shut down due to the sudden outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease in the United Kingdom. Despite the hiccups along the way, painstaking efforts were made to create as gritty, terrifying, and hyper-realistic dragons as possible. Although nobody will ever confuse Reign of Fire with a cinematic masterwork, Bowman and his Special FX team truly deserve kudos for introducing the inventive fire-igniting method the dragons use to defend themselves in the film to the mainstream, with the spray-and-ignite technique adopted by far more successful and superior movies and TV shows like Harry Potter and Game of Thrones. Now that you know a little more about what went into the making of Reign of Fire, we’ll ask once more. What is your all-time favorite Dragon movie and why? Drop a line in the comments below!
UPDATE: One of Reign of Fire’s original writers, Matt Greenberg, reached out to us on social media to add some thoughts on the film:
“I figured I might as well add of few clarifications/corrections to several of the points you raised in your piece. The original screenplay by Chabot and Peterka was originally titled WHEN HEROES GO DOWN. It did not sell to Spyglass in 1996. Rather, it was bought by the late Richard Zanuck, the Zanuck Company and Fox 2000 in 1994 or 1995 (can’t remember which). The original Chabot and Peterka draft had a lot of wonderful world-building. As I recall, the feel of the characters under siege from the dragons was inspired by the story of the English surviving the Blitz in World War 2.
I came on in 1995 and delivered my rewrite in 1996. In terms of the dragons themselves, my approach attempted to take a less fantastical, more realistic bent. The project subsequently went into turnaround at Fox 2000 and was dormant for several years. As I recall, Spyglass took over the project from Fox in the spring of 2000. Rob Bowman then came on shortly thereafter. I did another rewrite under his supervision in 2000 (that is the draft that is alluded to in your article). As I recall, it was Rob who came up with how the dragons manufacture and disperse their fire (my version was somewhat different). While in pre-production and production, two other writers took over rewrite duties and made significant changes. They did not receive screen credit in the subsequent WGA arbitration. So it goes in Hollywood. Anyhow, just thought I’d throw those details in for the record. Again, thanks for keeping the memory of the film alive.”