With Walt Disney Studios’ “Pete’s Dragon” still rolling out to theaters globally and arriving on Digital HD, Blu-ray, and On-Demand in the US on Nov. 29, director David Lowery recently spoke one-on-one with Inside the Magic about the creative choices he made when adapting a beloved Disney classic and updating it for a new generation of fans.
Warm and personable with a clear passion for his projects, Lowery has infused that sensibility into a genuinely earnest family film unencumbered with hewing closely to the original source material while still maintaining its charm for filmgoers of all ages.
ITM: It’s a tricky task for a director to remake any Disney classic, but was it perhaps a little liberating to create a fresh vision for something like “Pete’s Dragon” and how much did that inform your creative decisions as a director?
David Lowery: It was incredibly liberating. I felt no pressure to adhere to the original in any shape, way, or form. I think if I had been asked to remake the original beat for beat, I wouldn’t have been interested. But I was very interested in telling a unique story, a new story, that had traits from the original in it. I loved the idea of an orphaned boy who has a best friend that is a dragon. That’s such a great concept and I felt that we could make a movie that dealt with the same ideas and had the same characters but they existed in a completely new story. That would allow this version of “Pete’s Dragon” to exist alongside the original. They both could be great films that audiences could love and cherish and one would not step in the other’s toes. So it was really liberating for me in all sorts of ways but primarily just in the idea that I didn’t have to think about the original. I didn’t have to go back and try to recapture a moment or a beat from the original. I was able to just tell my own story and still have it be called “Pete’s Dragon.”
ITM: Did the new version of Elliot come together relatively quickly or were there a lot of revisions? Was there ever an attempt to try to recreate his original look?
Lowery: I had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted him to look like. I did some sketches when we were first writing the script and then one more when we began prep to sort of like say, “Here’s what I want him to look like. Here’s how big he is. Yes, he is furry.” That was very important to me. And then they hired a bunch of concept artists to kind of like have a bake-off and take those initial sketches of mine and come up with the best version of him. They made a lot of great iterations of the dragon and it gradually got whittled down to two artists who were kind of veering into the same rough idea. Those ideas got turned over to Weta who then created the final design of the dragon. It was pretty quick, I would say about three months or so working with the designers and working with Weta to nail down what he looked like.
To answer the other question, at one point we did have one of those concept artists come up with a photo-real version of Elliot from the original just to see what it would look like. We just wanted to see and it was horrifying. There were some things that worked great in two-dimensional cell animation that do not translate whatsoever into photo-real 3-D and Elliot is one of them. So be glad that we stayed far away from the original design!
ITM: When casting children in such important roles for a film, how do you go about finding not just the right actor for a role but one that can hold their own against the likes of a legend like Robert Redford and yet also convincingly interact with Elliot on the set?
Lowery: It’s a really tall order. It’s a lot of responsibility to put on the back of a 10-year-old. It was (Oakes Fegley’s) first big movie and certainly the first time he had to work for more than two or three days and he was on set pretty much every day for the entire four months of shooting. We did a big casting search all over the US and our casting director knew what I was looking for. She knew I wanted a little kid who felt rough around the edges, who had a great physical presence because ultimately Pete is not a character who talks very much, and he had to be able to listen and to convey a lot of emotion non-verbally.
She met Oakes in an audition and put him on tape and sent that over to me and said, “I think this is your Pete.” I watched it and I was very impressed but not completely sold so I flew to New York to meet him. When he walked into the room and the second he walked in I knew that she was right, this was Pete. The reason we felt that was the way that he moved, the way he carried himself and the way that he would listen to me when I spoke. He just had all the qualities that I knew Pete needed to have and he had a tremendous presence, a presence that doesn’t always come through in an audition. Once I met him and I saw all that, I knew he could do it and I didn’t have any doubts that he wasn’t able to hold his own with Redford or interact with Elliot because I just got a sense of what he was. It’s an ephemeral quality that’s hard to describe but he had it and it was an instantaneous yes on my part.
ITM: I loved how the film was set in an era that reminded me of my childhood but didn’t beat the audience over the head with it and it was done in a subtle manner. How much of that was by stylistic choice or was it born out of necessity?
Lowery: Yes, it was a choice from the very beginning. I like movies that exist in non-specific time periods in the past. I feel that by setting a movie in the past you’re sort of doing what fairy tales used to do which is beginning with “once upon a time.” We don’t actually say that but it’s intrinsically part of the experience, that you understand that the movie takes place long ago but you don’t quite know when it is. There’s things in this movie that you might recognize from your childhood like an automobile from the eighties or a jacket that is very eighties but there’s also a lot of things from the seventies and sixties and there’s one vehicle from the nineties. It sort of all blends together and we didn’t use a literal chronometer to figure out the time period, we just kind of went with what felt right for this movie and what felt right for the tone and feel of it. It was a very organic process and something I’ve done in other movies. I really like movies that are not set in a specific period of time because that allows them to be timeless. I think some movies need to be timely and it matters a great deal for some movies to have a timestamp on them but others it’s better for them to just exist outside of time and this was one of those.
ITM: I was reminded a bit of Pixar’s “The Good Dinosaur” with how nature played such a major part, as almost another main character and a driving force in the story. Was there ever a thought to shoot the movie like Jon Favreau did with “The Jungle Book” using green screens or was it crucial to shoot the movie on location?
Lowery: It was crucial for me to shoot on location. That’s just how I like to do things so that was always going to be the way we did it. The idea was to go to as many real locations as possible and to shoot the movie in the real world so our giant CGI dragon would feel more real by virtue of being in a real space. The first version of Jungle Book I saw was after we filmed shooting and I was just blown away. I felt like Jon Favreau had hit upon some new solution for capturing the real world and I was momentarily very jealous but then I realized he was doing something so far beyond and different than what we were doing that it wouldn’t have really worked with our film. I loved what he did but I also feel like that’s not how I make movies. I kind of need to go to a real place, I need to be in reality to be able to tell the story that I want to tell. So as much as I admire that technology and I’m impressed by it, and being a little jealous by how he was able to shoot outside for months without ever having to deal with rain, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do that but who knows, maybe the right project will come along.
ITM: Your collaboration with writer Toby Halbrooks on this movie must have impressed Disney because the two of you are already back together at work on the live action “Peter Pan” movie. Can you give Disney fans an update on that and what attracted you to the new project?
Lowery: “Peter Pan” is one of my favorite stories. It’s always been something I care deeply for so it was completely the opposite of “Pete’s Dragon” where it wasn’t one of my cherished childhood favorites but this one is. I really have a wonderful working relationship with Disney. Everyone there is just terrific and I wanted to make another movie with them. They suggested this project and asked if I’d be interested and we decided to have a go at it. So we’re working on the screenplay right now and it’s still in the very early stages. We just started writing it but it’s a lot of fun and we’re excited to have that responsibility because when you’re dealing with a movie like that, that’s one of the most famous Disney films of their animated classics, then you need to be very careful with how you adapt it. So we’re taking it one step at a time but having a lot of fun doing it.
“Pete’s Dragon” arrives on Digital HD, Blu-ray, Disney Movies Anywhere, DVD and On-Demand on Nov. 29.