Let director David Lowery and star Bryce Dallas Howard take you behind the scenes of the new Pete’s Dragon movie
At first glance, writer and director David Lowery may seem an offbeat match for a big screen remake of Walt Disney Pictures’ 1977 live action/cartoon hybrid. After all, his last feature film as a director was 2013’s stylish R-rated crime romance Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. A spectacle laden family adventure about a magical dragon does seem an unusual followup.
“It was suggested that Disney was interested in a new version of [Pete’s Dragon] that only used the title but that was, otherwise, completely brand new,” David Lowery tells ComingSoon.net. “…I remembered [the original] fondly and thought, ‘Sure, I’ll go meet with Disney on that. They’ll never hire me in a million years, but it’s a fun opportunity.’”
At first, David Lowery boarded Pete’s Dragon solely as screenwriter alongside his writing partner Toby Halbrooks. After a year spent cracking the script, Lowery wound up getting the offer to direct.
“It was that thing were I asked myself, ‘Do I want to see what someone else would do with this movie?’ No. I wanted to see what I would do. That’s kind of my gut check for directing a movie. Is this something that I would rather go see as an audience member or do I feel like I could do the best version of it? This one definitely felt personal enough that I didn’t want anyone else to do it.”
Offering a very different approach to the story than the 1977 version (David Lowery has purposefully avoided rewatching the original), the new Pete’s Dragon takes place in a world that, while certainly contemporary, is purposefully of an unspecified era, aiming for a timelessness to its story of a orphaned boy who is discovered living in the forest.
“It’s a situation where I come upon [Pete] in the forest and he gets brought into my family,” explains star Bryce Dallas Howard, who plays a Park Ranger named Grace.
Grace is also the daughter of Robert Redford’s character who, in a clip from the film screened for press, is shown regaling local children with tales a dragon.
“In a way, we’re kind of the adults in this child’s life,” Howard continues, “as he’s transitioning from living in the forest to living in civilization. It’s my particular responsibility to figure out what the story was. Where did he come from? How did he survive? Then, ultimately, getting entangled in all this dragon business and wanting to save the dragon.”
Howard, who herself is a big fan of the original Pete’s Dragon, became interested in David Lowery’s take thanks to producer James Whitaker, whose credits include films like American Gangster, The Odd Life of Timothy Green and The Finest Hours.
“[Jim] is something with whom I’m quite close,” she says. “We’ve done a lot of experimental directing workshops together… Jim is like Mister America. He’s like the gentlest, sweetest, most honest, beautiful kind of classic American man.”
While the new Pete’s Dragon is set in an ambiguous American town, production itself took place in New Zealand.
“It’s a utopia,” says Howard. “New Zealand is a utopia. I brought my kids with me. They went to school there. We all practiced our Kiwi accent. Some with success, others not so much. It was idyllic, truly… It was a very sort of gentle, organic, comfortable experience.”
“It was just wonderful,” David Lowery concurs. “I just loved how chilled out everybody was. Everything looks like ‘Lord of the Rings.’ They don’t do anything to make it look more magical. That’s just the way it is. It’s just a special place to be in general… I’m a very soft-spoken, laid back kind of person. I don’t like tense environments and very anxious environments. I find that making movies in the US, that often happens. Everyone is working really long hours and it gets very tense. In New Zealand, everyone puts the quality of life higher than everything else. It’s very relaxed. No one has attitudes. You do work long days and everyone works extremely hard, but they value the quality of their life.”
Both Bryce Dallas Howard and David Lowery credit the ease of production with a sense of creative excitement that permeated cast and crew.
“The kids have so much genuine innocence and a sense of wonder,” says Howard. “I’m a big dork and so is Wes Bentley. So are most of the actors. Bob [Redford] is not a dork, but he brings this amazing authenticity to everything he does. All of it felt really serendipitous. It felt just beautiful. It’s everything you could want in a project.”
Although working alongside the legendary actor, director and producer may seem a daunting prospect, the entire crew found working with the Academy Award winner to be an utter delight. Redford himself kept busy in New Zealand, walking or even sometimes hitchhiking to set.
“He’s so cool,” smiles Howard. “He doesn’t go to his trailer or anything like that. He stays on set. He reads and snacks. We were just all there together. Every day was 20 questions. ‘What was this like? What was that like? What did you do on that? How did you balance this?’ He was amazing.”
Recalling her very first meeting with Redford, Howard can’t stop laughing at how it played it.
“We were shooting a lot of stuff for the end of the film,” she says. “It was a shot where I’m meant to reunite with him and we run towards each other from a great, great distance. There were basically two separate kind of camps. It was a long, long, long walk to get to Bob. He arrived to set and I was like, ‘Is that Robert Redford?’ David yelled action and we were supposed to run towards one another. This is the first time I met him. I was so excited, I just started running. Then I picked up speed. When I finally collided with him, I almost knocked him over and he’s a really strong dude. David yelled cut and he said, ‘You came at me like a cannonball!’ I was like, ‘It’s nice to meet you, sir!'”
Of course, the other major star of Pete’s Dragon is Elliot, the massive title character created for the film by Weta Digital. Although Elliot is a CGI creation, an effort was made to keep the film’s visuals as practical as possible.
“For the kids, but for all of us as well, it’s important to be in the actual environment,” says Howard. “Because Weta was actually there, they were always pushing that and encouraging us to use our actual environment. They created a big blow up dragon. It was a giant balloon that they would blow up. We could look at this big green dragon when we were acting. That made all the difference in the world for us acting.”
“The learning curve really came in post,” says David Lowery. “You really have to kind of learn how to see things again. Everyone’s goal from the beginning of the process is that we all want the CG to look real. We’ve all seen movies where the CG looks bad or not good or kind of spotty… You really have to learn how to see things accurately in a brand new way and think, ‘Okay, something about this doesn’t feel real to me. What is it? Is it the light? Is the color temperature on his fur a little different than on the skin of the actor standing next to him? Is it that the shadow is a little too tense? Does he have too many spectral highlights in his eyes?’ That was a bit overwhelming because I realized, ‘Crap, I have to learn how to look at things in a new way.'”
David Lowery did find inspiration for Elliot in his two orange cats and they are largely responsible for Elliot’s furry look.
“At one point, we were going to record my cat to use as vocalizations,” the director laughs. “But he wasn’t behaving that day, so we got rid of that idea.”
“What I kept imagining was Falcor from ‘NeverEnding Story,'” says Howard. “It’s a dragon, it’s super friendly and it’s the best friend that you always wished you had. That’s my childhood image. Also my dog growing up. Her name was Littlefoot after ‘Land Before Time.’ I was a cinephile as a child. There’s that relationship where an animal becomes your family or your best friend. That was kind of a lot of what I envisioning.”
“For me it’s cats because I’m a cat person,” David Lowery continues, “but it ran the gamut of animals. One of the great things I learned about animators at Weta — and I assume this is everywhere — is that part of their job is to just watch funny animals videos on YouTube. They would just watch these videos and find references. It went from cat and dogs to lions and tigers and bears to seagulls for flying. When I watch the movie now, I can see all those things. I can see, ‘That’s where we used the reference video for how the wings should wobble in the air.'”
As for directing a CG dragon, David Lowery says that it’s really not all that dissimilar from directing an actor, save for a much slower response time.
“An animator would do something and you’d say, ‘I want to have a little more sadness in the eyes in this part of the frame.’ You get very technical because there’s frame counters counting everything. ‘From frame 20 to frame 40, let’s make the eyes a little sadder.’ It gets very specific like that, but there’s also the broad strokes. ‘I want him to walk in, take a beat, and settle down on the cave floor.’ …You’ll give direction and then a day later, you’ll get a new version.”
While he’s very pleased with his experience making Pete’s Dragon and has already signed on to direct Walt Disney Pictures’ live-action Peter Pan, David Lowery promises that he’s not leaving the indie filmmaking world behind.
“I’ll go back and forth,” says David Lowery. “I’ve got an indie film that I want to do and then a slightly larger one. The great thing about those is that they don’t take as long. This has been a three-year process. That’s the time it took to get it made. The one I’m going to shoot this fall will take six months. Then I can do another big one. There’s value in both. I don’t have a favorite. I love both processes and don’t want to limit myself to one. I also feel like the stories I want to tell are varied and I want to get as many of them done as I can while I have the opportunity to make them.”