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''Dragonheart'' heads to theaters after 7 years of production

Dennis Quaid stars as a knight and Sean Connery voices a computer-animated dragon out to save the world

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Producers, if they want to keep their studios, directors, actors, and crews happy, try to find inexpensive and appropriate locations in places like Tuscany or Hawaii, spots with balmy climes and palate-pleasing cuisine. For Dragonheart, Universal’s medieval tale of the last dragon slayer (Dennis Quaid) and the last dragon (voiced by Sean Connery) teaming up against the tyrant king (David Thewlis) of a scourge-ridden England, producer Raffaella De Laurentiis’ castle-dotted country of choice was…Slovakia.

In this poor fragment of the former Czechoslovakia (northeast of Austria), the best that De Laurentiis has to offer a visitor is ”a pasta I can’t recommend,” just as the lights and heat go off in her trailer on a marrow-freezing night in November 1994. This power outage, however, is the least of the mishaps faced by a movie that has had one of the longest gestation periods — it’s opening this week, seven years after De Laurentiis first optioned the story — in recent history.

In an era when blockbusters depend on quick turnaround, Dragonheart‘s crawl to the screen means that not only does it follow medieval flops like last year’s First Knight, but it opens during the second week of Mission: Impossible and the fourth week of Twister. And with $22 million in special-effects fees riding on a first-time, fire-breathing star, Dragonheart boasts a leading man who’s even more expensive than Jim Carrey.

As the 95th day of filming gets under way, it’s all too much for hirsute human star Dennis Quaid. Huddled in a corner of a faux-dank castle at Koliba Studios in Bratislava, dressed in a re-creation of a 10th-century warrior’s tunic, Quaid is bellowing at the top of his lungs. At his finger. With each ”Argh!” he’s hoping to draw pain out of the pinkie he broke in two places three days earlier while filming a sword-fighting scene with Thewlis (Naked) on a blustery mountaintop. ”I was really having a good time until this happened,” he mutters through gritted teeth to director Rob Cohen. Finally, distraction approaches in the form of Jack, Quaid’s then-2 1/2-year-old son with Meg Ryan. The actor slaps on one of his benign shark’s grins, and father and son retreat.

In late 1993, Universal had its eye on Harrison Ford to headline its $57 million fantasy adventure, with Richard Donner (Assassins) on board to direct. But Ford passed, Donner followed, and Quaid — as he may regret on this particular day — begged Cohen for the part. Aside from the fact that Quaid has the requisite ”heart, humor, and athleticism,” his coming in without an offer struck Cohen as ”such a knight-of-the-Old Code act” that the director was sold.

”You can miss out on a lot of things because of your pride,” Quaid says simply.

Perhaps a bigger ego would have served him well. It would, at least, have spared him the indignity of spending a month suspended by wires 15 feet in the air while being dragged over fields and through forests. Or riding a Croatian horse whose phobic reaction to the English phrase ”Camera rolling!,” says Quaid, resulted in its ”trying to murder me.”