Co-screenwriter of the movie "Dungeons & Dragons" Michael Gilio standing in front of the movie poster at the Lake Theatre on April 25, 2023. | Sara Janz

Growing up in Arlington Heights, Michael Gilio loved the arts. “My friends and I made our own movies and we went to the movies every weekend. I also acted and wrote short stories,” he said. That passion became his career and eventually led him to Oak Park and to the success he is experiencing now as one of the screenwriters of Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves.

After high school, Gilio spent two years studying theater at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and one year studying film at Columbia College Chicago before deciding that he wanted to leave school and try acting professionally. 

“I was arrogant enough to think I knew better,” he said ruefully.

Subsequently, he wrote, directed, and acted in a movie called Kwik Stop that did well on the festival circuit when it debuted in 2001. 

“I was 28 years old and that movie put me on the map,” he recalled. “It did well for what it was, an independent low-budget movie. And it was the catalyst that brought me to Los Angeles.

“I was acting and writing, but I wasn’t very focused about what I wanted to do. Los Angeles was a culture shock for me. I drifted for a while until I eventually realized I didn’t have the temperament for acting. I didn’t like sitting around waiting for the phone to ring. So I started writing more since that was something I could have control over.”

Gilio credits his wife, Amy, with helping him finally find some direction. “We met at an acting class and I realized immediately that she was ‘the one.’ She was doing really well and I was totally aimless. I said to myself, ‘It’s time I get my act together.’”

Coincidentally, his grandfather died at the same time and left him a little money. “It wasn’t much, but it was enough to live on for a few months.” He had an idea for a screenplay so he quit his job and poured everything into the script. “I said, ‘This is it. Either this works or I’m done.’”

When his agent read it, he told Gilio, “This is going to change your life.” In 2008, the script for Big Hole was one of the top five on “The Black List,” a compilation of the best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood. “Before I knew it, I was being asked to write scripts for the studios. I finally started making a living as a writer,” said Gilio. “But nothing I wrote was getting made. That’s the sad, dirty secret of screenwriting.”

“Then about five years ago, Paramount came to me and said they wanted to reboot the Dungeons & Dragons franchise and they hired me to write the screenplay. I liked fantasy movies and had always wanted to write something in the genre.”

Chris McKay, a friend of Gilio’s, was asked to direct, so the two of them collaborated on the story. 

“We spent nearly a year trying to crack it,” Gilio said. “Our idea was that we wanted to do Ocean’s Eleven in Middle Earth.” McKay ended up leaving the project and so Gilio wrote the screenplay on his own. 

“I turned it in and the studio was really excited. They greenlit it and brought in directors to pitch their vision of the script and landed on Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley.

“I thought they might need another draft or two from me, but that didn’t happen. [Goldstein and Daley handled rewrites.] But I’m not going to quibble. The movie is good. What’s on the screen reflects my vision, my characters, and my story. I’m very, very happy with it. You hope that the voice and the spirit of what you wrote is preserved and it definitely was.”

After he turned in the script, the pandemic struck and Gilio realized he didn’t need to be in Los Angeles to be a screenwriter. “We thought it would be best for Roman [his 6-year-old son] to be around family and so we decided to move back to Chicago.” Gilio and his family now live in Oak Park.

It took more than 20 years for his second movie to make it to the big screen, but now that it has, it’s a bit surreal. “It’s very strange to be a part of a cultural event like this. People are enjoying it, but what has surprised me most has been that the critical response has been overwhelmingly positive. It was a tricky balance. We wanted fans of the game to feel heard and acknowledged while also making something with mainstream appeal. But I think we did it.”

“Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” is playing at the Lake Theatre and theatres throughout the Chicago area.

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