Get ready to take flight.
The new Pete’s Dragon trailer is here, and it is gorgeous. While the previous trailer teased both the dragon and the story, this new trailer really gives a great sense of the movie and the beautiful, magical world that it inhabits. It perfectly encapsulates the story of Pete (Oakes Fegley), a child who, for the last six years, has lived in the woods with a giant, furry green dragon named Elliot. When Pete is discovered by a Park Ranger named Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), he quickly has to be orient himself with the world, and convince others that the dragon really exists. One person he doesn’t have to sway, though, is Grace’s father (Robert Redford), who has encountered the dragon years before. As the trailer suggests, this movie combines truly awe-inspiring visuals with loads of heart, humor, and a thrilling adventure. Rarely are movies this magical.
Last week I was able to preview new footage from the movie, along with this terrific trailer, and afterwards I sat down with Pete’s Dragon director David Lowery. I talked to him about his connection to the original Academy Award-nominated 1977 Disney film, which expertly combined live action and animation, and the new technology that went into making this version of the film.
What is your connection to the original film?
It’s more limited than people expect. It wasn’t the passion project that I long cherished because, I loved the original so much as a child. I’d seen it several times as a kid, but hadn’t gone back since I was six years old. I thought that the best thing I could do was take my memories of it, remember how it made me feel, and try to capture that, instead of isolate specific beats and pay homage to it in different ways. I really wanted this version to stand on its own. This is an opportunity to tell a story, and it does have some similarities to the original, and that’s what allowed this movie to be made, and that’s a platform we’re jumping off of, but for me, on a personal level, this is a story that I think is valuable and will be meaningful to people. A generation of children who haven’t grown up loving it will get to embrace it in a new way and make new, wonderful memories, and maybe one of those kids in 30 years will remake it again, and I hope that movie is completely different, too. I love the idea of a legacy of being inspired by something, but not being completely slavish to it.
Can you talk about working with Weta and the design process for Elliot?
Yeah, I mean, the design was basically done before Weta came on board, because I had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted him to look like, and we had hired a bunch of designers. My brother’s an illustrator, so I got to hire him, and he worked on it with us. I had done a bunch of sketches of, here’s what I think his size, scale, and general shape is. And I think we had some references that I pulled in, but ultimately the final design wasn’t that different from the initial concept. We were sort of figuring it out, like, I wanted his head to be big, and I wanted his neck to be long, but the little details like the spikes on his back or the type of wings, that was really where we really went through a lot of iterations to try to figure that out. The design—we had some great designers who put it together for us and made some photo-real renditions of him, paintings of him-and we took those to Weta and they started from the ground up, again, using that design. They built a skeleton, they figured out the muscle structure, how he would actually work, and that changed him a little bit as well. There were certain things like, Oh yeah, those arms are too big, that actually wouldn’t work, we’ll make those smaller. Things like that happened. But yeah, it was great. They make amazing monsters. It was so cool to see their process of bringing him to life.
Your decision to make him furry was inspired by your cats, right?
He was never not furry. I would have probably quit if there was a mandate from on high to make this dragon scaly. I would have said, “You guys, we’re making a different movie here. He’s got to be furry.”
It gives him a Chinese dragon feel.
Yeah, and Chinese dragons are often furry. We looked at the legacy of dragons across history and they run the gamut. St. George and his dragon, that style has given birth to the modern thunder lizard version of a dragon, but they’re more varied than that. And those Chinese dragons are awesome; they’re really majestic and fantastic. So we’ve got a kind of a weird blend of the two, plus a couple of ingredients of our own.
The movie has a kind of nebulous time period. You’ve called it “Yesterday.” Was it hard to stay within those parameters?
It wasn’t difficult for me, but it is difficult when you’re having to do things practically, and when someone is like, “Well, we have to make the driver’s license for the props, and what year is going to go on that?” And I’m just like, “Eh, we’ll never need a close-up of that, just pick a year.” We said between 1976 and 1984. That is our wheelhouse. There might be a car in the movie that’s from 1987, but you kind of go on gut instinct on what looks right. The general idea was to make this look like it took place in the past, not too far past where you’d feel like it’s a period piece, but enough in the past where you’d accept the magic of it a little more. Where you’d feel like a small town is just a little bit smaller, where the world is a little less connected, where there’s a little more opportunity for a dragon to exist undiscovered. And also there’s no denying the nostalgia, as well. I was born in 1980, and so I wanted this movie to feel like memories of childhood, and my memories of childhood are very rooted in the look of this movie, or vice-versa I should say. The jacket that Pete wears at the beginning of the movie is the jacket I had; there are little things that informed the look of the film and that’s a big part of it as well.
Your last film was beautiful and naturalistic. Was the look of this film a carryover?
To be honest, we used more natural light in this film. That film was … it had a couple of natural light scenes, but it was pretty heavily lit because of our time and budget, and we couldn’t afford to shoot at magic hour every day. But this movie was 80 percent natural light, and we would just go out there in the woods, and pump some smoke into the forest and wait for the right time of day, and start shooting. We shot really fast because of that. It was a very intense —I was thinking, going into a studio movie, you would have a lot of time, but you don’t. Like, every day was a marathon sprint, but that’s because we were trying to create this look that was very specific. A lot times it would be the middle of the day, and we’d be like, We can shoot inserts of feet on the ground, or shoot these little things that are controllable, but we can’t shoot the scenes until the afternoon light kicks in. And that caused things to be very rushed. So it was a definite 75-day marathon. But I wanted the look to be very big, very cinematic, and very old-fashioned. So, shooting on anamorphic lenses, shooting 2.35:1 gave it that classic movie feel. Because the movie is being converted into 3D, anamorphic doesn’t convert that well necessarily, or it’s harder, a lot of people aren’t doing it now for that reason, and I was like, Look, let’s just spend that extra time—if J.J. Abrams can do it, we can do it, too. Let’s spend that extra time to convert the anamorphic to 3D, and that way the movie itself will have that intrinsic quality that the right piece of glass will give any movie.
The cast is so amazing because you have literal legends like Robert Redford acting alongside these little kids who are so new to the business.
They don’t know who he is! That’s the amazing thing, they don’t know. Their parents told them, “You’re going to be working with one of the most famous movie stars in the world,” so there’s that understanding. But I don’t know if they had seen any of his movies by the time they got there. I think they had seen Captain America. But in Captain America he was just the bad guy, they didn’t have this sense of history that we bring to it. So it was kind of cool to watch that, there were no pretenses. There was no sense of nervousness on their part like I had; they were just like, Oh yeah, here’s the dude we’re acting with today. And all of the kids in that opening scene when he’s telling a story, again, no idea who he was, and everyone else is going up like, “Mr. Redford, that and there,” and this one little boy was like, “Oh hey Robert, your shoes are untied,” that kind of thing. They did not care or know. I think he found that pretty refreshing because no one was putting him on a pedestal at any point. It was very down to earth and simple and refreshing.
Pete’s Dragon opens in 3D on August 12.