It’s no secret that Disney’s live-action adaptation of their animated classics have helped them become a powerful box-office juggernaut. The studio has already released two this year alone, and have a third planned for release later this August, though you could say that it was an unexpected choice.
Pete’s Dragon is a new telling of the 1967 classic film from David Lowery. Starring Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Wes Bently, Karl Urban, and newcomers Oakes Fegeley and Oona Laurence the film is a bit of an unconventional but welcomed adaptation, as it uses the bare bones elements of a savage boy being raised by a dragon, who then finds a home with his fellow humans, who try to figure out how he could live for so long on his own. While certain members of the small town community know of Pete’s secret friend, others see it as a threat, and are bent on capturing the creature.
We were recently invited to sit down with a group of journalists at the El Capitan last week to listen to David Lowery talk about the differences between the original and upcoming film, his process of bringing it from script to screen, the tone, songs, and more.
Check out the eight reasons why you should see this film below.
Before showing us four clips, Lowery said that he wanted to show the movie since he finished principal photography, but that idea didn’t really sit well with studio execs. “I am so thrilled to finally show some of this movie early on,” said Lowery. “I’ve been wanting to show it since last summer when we wrapped principal photography, and I was like ‘let’s just show the rough cut to everybody.” All joking aside, the director seemed genuinely excited to show audiences a Pete’s Dragon for a new generation. He describes it as a film that is timeless, as there is nothing that tells us when the film takes place. But we do know that it is set vaguely in the Pacific Northwest – but shot in New Zealand for weather, season, and timing constraints.
In one of the presented clips, we are introduced to Mr. Meacham (Robert Redford), who is an old timer who likes to tell stories about dragons and local demons to the neighborhood kids. We won’t get into spoiler territory, but just know like all legends, everyone has a story to tell about this mythical creature whom no one has really seen except the person telling the story. Just as we have seen in the trailer, the dragon is green and has red eyes, which has been described as “hellfire.” His daughter, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), a park service ranger, walks in and tells them that there are no such things as dragons. Mr. Meacham says “just because you don’t see something, doesn’t mean it’s not there.” Grace then counters by saying that just because he says it’s true, doesn’t necessarily make it so.
The second clip explores the relationship between Pete (Oakes Fegeley) and his friend Elliot, a large green furry dragon with wings. Again, to avoid spoilers, the basics are that these two have been friends for a very long time and have built a bond between each other. “One of the things I wanted to do was really sell the idea of friendship between a child and a creature like that,” says Lowery. The director compared it to our favorite pet as a child or our relationship with the family dog. “We really wanted to hit home the heart of that, but with a creature that is twenty times the size of a household pet,” said Lowery.
The Ain’t Them Body Saints director revealed that they worked with WETA Digital to bring Elliot to life, and despite being fantastical and computer generated, they wanted to treat Elliot as if he were a real character. Lowery wanted to show us a more sensitive and somber side to Elliot. The following clips then revealed how the people of the small town community first react to the sight of a dragon, which based on previous films are of two different ideals, but we won’t go too far into depth as describing it can be a bit spoilerish. But those ideals help give the film a sense of scope of the action and adventure you will see.
1 – From Small Indie To Large Studio Film
Making a jump from a film like Ain’t Them Body Saints to Pete’s Dragon would be putting it mildly to say the least. The film is the first time he is behind the lens for a major studio, and something that is much larger in terms of scale and tone. However, Lowery didn’t really see it that way. “You know, the weird thing for me is that the reason I kind of felt that this is the right thing to make was because the tone did not feel all that different,” said Lowery. “Sometimes I would joke that we were remaking Ain’t Them Body Saints with a dragon, but it really was like all of the movies I make. I can’t help but make them incredibly personal and try to make them my movie. That’s just the way I do it.” He didn’t expect to follow his small film with this one, but once he started to work on the script and added his own voice, the delineation became clear that this was the movie he was going to make. He says he looked at films like Ain’t Them Body Saints as sort of a fairy tale, and Pete’s Dragon is more of a literal one but in the same zone.
2 – Casting The Right Actors
Debra Zane, who was in charge, looked at an estimated 150 kids before deciding on casting Oakes Fegley as Pete. For Lowery, he was looking for a kid who was unvarnished and not perfect. There was something about being an untrained actor that appealed to him. He compliments kids who can cry on cue but that wasn’t what he was looking for. He loves to create a space where it allows the kids to be themselves. But he knew that it was a little bit difficult to do that given the film’s fantastical nature. “I want to see them processing things as they would in real life,” said Lowery, whom he describes Fegely as tough and scrappy, with a sensitive and resilient nature, that told him he could survive out in the wilderness. Out of all the kids they looked at, Fegely displayed the kind of talent Lowery was looking for. Lowery’s audition process had the young actor build whatever he could think of using chairs, or sneak up on someone. “He has that quality of he wasn’t showing off or impressing me,” said Lowery. “I’d watch him stack a trash can on top of a chair, and he’ll build a rudimentary-style trap, and you could see what he was thinking about.”
Howard said Fegley was wonderful to work with, and he even reminded her of her dad (Ron Howard). “He’s a self-aware person,” said Howard. “But he’s not aware of the extent of his talent, and he’s just really relaxed about it.” She said that he really understands a movie set. “To get a kid who is not self-conscious, who has that talent, who’s game, and has the genuine sensitivity and intuitiveness is beautiful to act opposite. And in addition to that, he gets a movie set, it was amazing working with him.”
Lowery chimed in that Fegely made friends with the crew very quickly, and Howard believes that if he chooses to, he can be a director. She also complimented Oona Laurence, who plays Natalie, Pete’s young friend. “She did everything perfectly, always,” said Howard. “She commands the camera like nothing I have ever seen,” said Lowery.
Howard revealed that she had been chasing to be a part of this film for quite a while. “Prior to reading the script, I had heard that it was not a straight-up remake, and that was the yes for me,” said Howard. The actress said she loved the original, and described how she would read the little board book to her own kids. But in loving it, she didn’t want it to be just a copycat, for like many of us, those films either work or do not work. “What has centered that film and what has made that film last is that central idea of friendship with an imaginary friend when you have no family, and then voilÃ , it’s not such an imaginary friend,” said Howard. Being a parent also helped her decide to become a part of the film, and she wants there to be more films like this. She added “I want there to be beautiful films out there that have innocence, and are timeless, and have really beautiful values without being didactic.”
Lowery then talked about casting Robert Redford in the film. The director talked about how he offered the project to the actor and filmmaker while the two worked on another film. But in terms of whether or not it was daunting to work with him, didn’t occur to Lowery. Someone on the crew told him that every time he gave Redford a direction, he would follow it up with “if that’s okay with you?” So apparently he was a little bit nervous. “He’s awesome,” Howard chimed. “He’s disarmingly relaxed and cool and game for things.” She admitted that after the first day of shooting with him, the cast was struck in awe that they were in the presence of Redford, but 24 hours later they realized he was just another one of the guys.
3 – Timeless
Lowery describes the film as timeless. He says the film never quite says when it takes place, although he likes to think it is set sometime in the late 70s or early 80s. “Many of you who have seen my other movies, you kinda know I like to do the whole timeless thing, and this movie definitely plays into that,” said the director. That having any sort of nod that would tell the audience when the film was set, would take them out of that space. So the film is shot in a way that doesn’t feel dated, but also not contemporary.
Lowery believes that if audiences were to accept the fantastical aspect of a movie, then there would need to be “a veil of time hanging over it.” He adds that the movies he loves the most are the ones that do not feel dated. “There are other films that endure because they don’t root themselves in a specific time,” said Lowery. “They don’t say this is a film about there here and now.” So the film will be set in the past, but you won’t see any iPhones. Rather, there will be cars from the late 70s and early 80s.
4 – Choosing To Be Practical
Lowery always knew that the film was going to be as real as possible, even with a giant CG dragon roaming around. New Zealand had the “slightly elevated magical version of the Pacific Northwest,” according to Lowery. It had the forest and weather he needed, not to mention that WETA digital was just in the neighborhood. “We wanted to really feel like the best version of being out in the woods, and the best version of running through the forest,” said Lowery. These beautiful locations were the hardest to get to, but it would help make the film feel more grounded. But the dragon would also help unground you. He says it is tough to contextualize a scene when shooting against a green screen. With a real world background, he can choose the angle to give the said scene context. It makes that much more of a difference.
“It’s pretty typical to assume that there is going to be some kind of visual effects these days. Once you do that a little bit you get what you need to do to prepare,” said Howard. “Certainly with Jurassic World, that was really heavy effects. Going back to Spider-Man, or something like that, you know you need to be like “Spider-Man!”
5 – There Be Furry Dragons
Thanks to Game of Thrones and good old fashion folklore, the first things we think of when describing a dragon would be cold, scaly, and unfriendly. But with this being Pete’s Dragon, it had to be somewhat different. So when pitching ideas on the design, Lowery said he wanted to have the dragon furry. Apparently, he got the idea from his cats. He even suggested we follow their personal Instagram account 2OrangeGuys. But getting back on topic, he wanted Elliot to be the kind of dragon you would give a hug to. “There’s no reason why dragons can’t be furry,” said Lowery. “I went through the design process of ‘What design choice would be great in the idea of making a dragon?'” Although, he admitted there were some things he could not do, like change the design of the wings, because it would feel like other mythical creatures such as a chimera. So they kept the wings and the tail, but added a furry texture to it.
6 – Respectful To Kids And Their Feelings
Contextualizing feelings is something Lowery believes can be gained by maturity. Now, this film explores some of those aspects, but as he puts it, should not be a psychological study of childhood. “I wanted to be respectful of children and their feelings, and to be accurate to my memory of what it was like,” said Lowery. He would recall tire swings and building tree forts in his childhood. While those same forts may not look like much to adults, they are a wonder to kids, and that is the kind of film that Lowery wants to bring to us. He mentions E.T., The Black Stallion, and The Red Balloon, as films that help capture a child’s imagination on the big screen. “I think it is important to think of those movies. I know a lot of teachers who show The Red Balloon in their class, because it is the kind of thing kids respond to. Same thing with Miyazaki’s stuff.” There are so many things that kids can respond these days, but for Lowery, he loves the films that lets kids see the emotional side of themselves.
“As a parent, the reason why I let my children watch films with children in it is exactly everything you said,” as Howard would agree. “It empowers them. It contextualizes their own story, and their own belief system.”
7 – Music
Despite music being the key in the first film, there won’t be any homages or nods music-wise in the 2016 film. Lowery confirms that there will be one song in the film though and it plays into the film. “I really wanted the score to avoid the winks and the nods, not because the original film is not great, but because I wanted this to exist in its own realm,” said Lowery.
8 – Robert Redford Rescues A Horse
This isn’t exactly supposed to be a real selling point, just some really cool tidbit that happened during production. And that title is not meant to mislead or be figurative. During the presentation, Howard revealed that Redford actually rescued a horse. “One day we all see this horse standing on the side of the road, and Redford goes ‘that horse should not be there,’ and he rescued it,” said Lowery. “Yeah, that day,” added Howard. The two then revealed that the horse was being taken care of in New Zealand and was a victim of abuse.
Pete’s Dragon opens in theaters on August 12th, 2016.