Dis­ney is reimag­in­ing a ’70s fave with ex­tra soul and state of the art FX. Tara Ben­nett meets

SFX - - Pete's Dragon - Pete’s Dragon

Some say the ’70s was Dis­ney’s for­got­ten decade, overshadowed by the golden eras ei­ther side of it. But the House of Mouse had a pro­lific, in­ven­tive run of movies back then, from am­bi­tious SF epic The Black Hole to a live­ac­tion mu­si­cal fea­tur­ing an an­i­mated dragon...

While Pete’s Dragon was a mod­est suc­cess at the time, it never re­ceived the crit­i­cal ac­claim that met Mary Pop­pins, an­other live ac­tio­nan­i­mated hy­brid. Nor does it have the cross-gen­er­a­tional nos­tal­gia of that Julie An­drews classic. So in 2010 Dis­ney tar­geted this boy-and-his-dragon tale as part of the back-cat­a­logue that might be ripe for rein­ven­tion. They stripped the mu­si­cal as­pect from its DNA and asked writ­ers to pitch them new takes. In­die di­rec­tor/writer David Low­ery, best known for Ain’t Them Bod­ies Saints, was one who heeded the call.

A long-time Dis­ney fan, Low­ery tells SFX he saw the orig­i­nal film when he was six – but he hasn’t re-watched it, even to this day. “It’s not one of the crown jew­els of their li­brary,” Low­ery says of the 1977 ver­sion. “It’s beloved by many peo­ple, but it’s not so beloved that you can’t take it and run. I saw it as an op­por­tu­nity to tell a new story.”

The pro­duc­ers agreed. “The man­date from the stu­dio was, ‘We want to make a movie called Pete’s Dragon. It has to have a boy named Pete in it… and a dragon. That’s it. They had

I hope peo­ple who love the orig­i­nal love it, but if they don’t, I un­der­stand

been think­ing about it for a while, but they didn’t have a goal to have it in the­atres by 2016. They were more of the opin­ion that if the right story came along, and the right sto­ry­telling, it would be worth do­ing.”

Low­ery spent a year writ­ing the script with col­lab­o­ra­tor Toby Hal­brooks, aim­ing to cre­ate a time­less story with Pete and the dragon’s friend­ship at the cen­tre. Set in the Pa­cific North­west in the early ’80s, Low­ery’s script finds four-year-old Pete be­com­ing sep­a­rated from his fam­ily on a camp­ing trip and spend­ing the next six years in the woods with El­liott, his dragon com­pan­ion and pro­tec­tor. At 10, he’s dis­cov­ered by a park ranger named Grace, who takes Pete back to civil­i­sa­tion.

“It’s about find­ing your home and where you be­long, which is what all of my movies are about,” Low­ery con­fesses with a smile. “Com­ing from a strong fam­ily, that’s al­ways been im­por­tant to me. Over the course of three movies, I’ve re­alised they are all about that, and it’s the heart of this one too.”

Dis­ney loved the script. “I think they were sur­prised by how much we brought to it, and they were so sur­prised they made the movie,” Low­ery laughs.

mak­ing it per­sonal

They also of­fered him the op­por­tu­nity to di­rect, forc­ing Low­ery to make a very per­sonal de­ci­sion. “The last thing I wanted was to go and make a stu­dio movie where I didn’t get to make my own movie,” he tells SFX, frankly. “I didn’t want to just be that guy who has one in­die film and then goes and makes anony­mous, main­stream sum­mer movies for the rest of his ca­reer. It’s not what I seek to do. So I spent a year writ­ing the script think­ing some­one else would make it. But I can’t help make every­thing I write very much me, so over the course of the year it kind of turned into my movie. I was de­vel­op­ing an­other movie at the same time [that I planned] to di­rect. I reached a So­phie’s Choice mo­ment where I could have made that one, which was much smaller and in­de­pen­dent, but the truth was this one felt more mean­ing­ful to me.”

Low­ery says he has no re­grets about choos­ing to wran­gle a dragon. “Do­ing this one was un­pre­dictable and it pushed me cre­atively. De­spite the fact that it was much big­ger and a dif­fer­ent au­di­ence and with a stu­dio, it still felt like the movie, as a film­maker, I wanted to make.”

Shoot­ing on lo­ca­tion in New Zealand, Low­ery used lo­cal visual FX house Weta Dig­i­tal to cre­ate El­liott the dragon, a fully com­puter-an­i­mated char­ac­ter. Low­ery’s take sub­tly ref­er­ences 1977’s 2D an­i­mated El­liott but it was the di­rec­tor’s beloved cats that in­flu­enced the new de­sign the most.

“There’s a scene where El­liott wakes up in a cave, and ev­ery be­hav­iour is based ex­plic­itly on my cat wak­ing up,” Low­ery laughs. “Over­all, El­liott needed to feel like an an­i­mal, in the sense that he needed to be cud­dly, warm and ap­peal­ing, or fierce when he’s pro­tec­tive, but with a level of in­tel­li­gence be­yond a dog or a cat. And he needed to have a sense of em­pa­thy that was deep and equiv­o­cal to Pete’s. He’s like a very, very smart dol­phin.”

This dragon has a tra­di­tion-bust­ing layer of fur and Low­ery had other spe­cific de­sign needs, too. “The shape of his head was re­ally im­por­tant to me. It had to be over­sized and his jaw re­ally big so there would be a clum­si­ness about him, and he would com­pen­sate by be­ing very del­i­cate and gen­tle. He can get fu­ri­ous and roar, but he’s a very gen­tle dragon.”

Low­ery handed his ini­tial sketches over to the de­sign team, who re­fined the fi­nal look that was then passed to Weta to craft in three-di­men­sions. “They took the de­signs and fig­ured

out how to make him work as a real crea­ture. There were changes – the arms got smaller and the wings needed to get big­ger for him to ac­tu­ally be air­borne.”

While Low­ery’s proud of El­liott as a tech­ni­cal achieve­ment, he’s even more thrilled about the per­for­mance Weta cre­ated to play against hu­man co-star Oakes Fe­g­ley. “The thing I wanted to give kids [in this movie] is not be­ing afraid to get sad and pro­found with the emo­tional jour­ney Pete goes on,” Low­ery ex­plains. “I re­mem­ber hav­ing very com­plex feel­ings as a kid, and movies are a ve­hi­cle for au­di­ences of all ages to con­tex­tu­alise emo­tions. So we wanted to make sure we brought more life into El­liott, and we see him make de­ci­sions and see him hav­ing feel­ings as well.

“El­liott needed to be able to re­late with Pete on a very mean­ing­ful level,” Low­ery con­tin­ues. “He can’t talk but I think that’s good. I think you get a lot out of non-ver­bal com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Since he can’t talk, Pete doesn’t feel the need to talk to him, but you feel this in­cred­i­bly deep con­nec­tion be­cause there are no words to get in the way. They are equal, so there’s no sense that Pete takes care of El­liott, or El­liott takes care of Pete.”

roar power

Sat­is­fied with the in­ter­ac­tion be­tween a child ac­tor and a CGI dragon, Low­ery could then lean on the rest of his hu­man cast, in­clud­ing Robert Red­ford, Karl Ur­ban and Bryce Dal­las Howard, to land the film’s emo­tional jour­ney. Low­ery par­tic­u­larly praises Howard’s take on Grace. “I’ve loved Bryce since The Vil­lage,” he en­thuses. “But when she started hav­ing her own chil­dren, she gained this warmth that’s very ma­ter­nal and beau­ti­ful. Be­cause Pete, by all ac­counts, is hav­ing a pretty awe­some time liv­ing in the woods with a dragon, you have to give him some­thing to ac­tu­ally make him want to come to town. Be­cause he’s the age he is, it’s fam­ily and home, and above all, a mother. Bryce was able to rep­re­sent that qual­ity so beau­ti­fully. Grace and Pete is a defin­ing re­la­tion­ship of the film.”

Low­ery tells SFX he’s proud of the throw­back vibe they’ve achieved. The film’s pe­riod set­ting pur­posely keeps to­day’s tech­nol­ogy out of the story and al­lows chil­dren to slip into the magic of be­liev­ing with Pete. “I re­ally hope kids aren’t too cyn­i­cal these days,” he says of the film’s im­pend­ing re­cep­tion. “I hope peo­ple who love the orig­i­nal love it, but if they don’t, I un­der­stand. At the same time, it’s not go­ing to ruin the old movie for them be­cause it’s so dif­fer­ent. Hope­fully, they’ll love this one too. And for kids who have never seen the old one, they will grow up with this one.”

Play­ing “fetch” with this guy is a whole lot of fun…

Now that’s a life guard.

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