Pete’s Dragon, out in 3D on Friday, is an absolute blast. It’s the story of a young boy named Pete (played here by Oakes Fegley) who has grown up in the woods and has a close friendship with a dragon named Elliott. One day, Grace Meacham, a Park Ranger and daughter of a local man who believes that the dragon is real (that man, it should be noted, is played by Robert Redford), discovers Pete and they set out on an adventure that forever changes their lives.
Bryce Dallas Howard, who is absolutely terrific in the film, plays Grace with the perfect combination of heart, warmth, and strength. She’s skeptical of the dragon reports, until some very extraordinary events open her eyes to the magic that’s all around her. I was lucky enough to sit down with Howard after the footage was screened and we talked about her love of Disney, how much she wanted to be a part of the film (she really did), and how the filmmakers’ insistence on natural light gave the movie an even dreamier quality.
Was Disney something you always loved and wanted to be a part of?
Yes. So, the person I loved most on planet earth was my grandmother, and she would take me to Disneyland every year by herself, and I would spend the entire day on one ride, and the next day the entire day on another ride. I would completely wear her out. I grew up seeing these extraordinary films about female empowerment. For over a year I would only wear my Snow White costume, my Alice in Wonderland costume, or my Cinderella costume.
You have kids now. Is it fun experiencing it with them?
Yes. We try to be really cautious with media with them. We go to a school where we have to promise no media, which we try to follow as best we can. But the films that I do let them watch are Disney films. Frozen—the music is on constantly in our home, Josh Gad, who played Olaf, is my kids’ godfather. My husband and him have been best friends since kindergarten, so he’s like family—he is family. So, it’s like this weird, meta experience for them, where they’re watching Frozen but then hearing uncle Josh, so that’s a really big deal. What we do is we do different stages with our kids when we feel like they might be grappling with something. We’ll oftentimes bring in a film to watch with them, to talk about some of those things. So, we just did Aladdin with our son, and he’s like 9 ½, and he’s getting into that punk phase, and I was like, “There’s a film you need to watch …”
Were you a fan of the original Pete’s Dragon?
Yes, very much so. Very, very much so. I read the story to my kids like every single night. I actually, when I was driving here, I was thinking, It’s been a few months since I’ve seen the original. I need a refresher. No joke. The two films are completely different. It’s inspired by the themes of the original film, obviously it’s the same title, there is a boy named Pete, and he does have a dragon, but it’s not something that is really meant to step on the toes of the original film.
When you heard about it, did you immediately sign on?
It was like a six-month situation. I heard it was happening, I was really excited, I asked if I could read a script—my agent slipped me a script. The first feeling I felt was really curious because I loved the original film so much. And then when I read the script I was oddly relieved that it wasn’t a remake, and I really loved it, and said that I loved it to everyone I knew. Like, six months went by, and I assumed it had just gone away. And then I got a phone call from Jim Whitaker, the producer, and Jim and I have known each other for a very, very long time. And he said that, “I’m producing this film, Pete’s Dragon, we’d love for you to take a look at it, we’re offering it to you.” And I just went over to my whiteboard on my refrigerator, and said, “Okay, so what are the dates? Okay, where is it? I’m going to look into schools for the kids. Yeah, I’d love to read the script, but this is happening, don’t change your mind.”
What was it like shooting in New Zealand?
Perfect. New Zealand is a utopia. New Zealand is the greatest place on planet earth.
David Lowery said that he shot the film with 80% natural light?
I’d say it was more than 80% natural light. It was beautiful, it was a lot of moving the set to follow the light. It was so, so, so interesting. I’ve never been a light chaser; it’s great if you have beautiful, natural light, but I wouldn’t change a scene for that. And the process was, every single day, we knew the scenes we were doing, we knew the order we would be doing them, but there was as much attention as there was to the performances, or to the staging, was the same amount of attention that was given to the visuals. We would start a scene, and the cinematographer would say, “Ah, ah, ah! The light changed!” And then we would move the scene five feet and we’d do it again. I think it really lent itself to creating a magical, visual world. It elevates the visuals to a place that is maybe not possible. We’re used to the sun moving, and every moment it’s in the shot and the background will shift slightly, and I just think that’s really cool and surreal, and a subtle thing they did.
And the setting is out of time, right? It’s “yesterday.” What was that like?
I loved it. Again, it invoked this innocence because we weren’t wearing contemporary clothes and contemporary brands, and we weren’t carrying cell phones and all of that, and it kind of felt more like the early ‘80s. Everything was has this timeless, but innocent quality.
Obviously the dragon was not there on set. What did you think when finally saw your scenes with it?
It was so awesome—even today! Because, every time I see it, the visual effects get further and further developed. When I first saw a cut of this in November, he was really good already, and David gave me like 6,000 qualifiers, and then I’d watch and be like, “It’s fantastic!” And then I saw more, recently, and it was that thing, and then again today. It’s amazing seeing this thing I’ve kind of just imagined for the most part. Although, they did have this blow-up Elliot on set. It was this big bouncy house.
What was it?
It was this bouncy house technology that I’m assuming they were using. They just blew up this giant green dragon. And so we had something to look at. It was great for the kids; it was great for me. It’s not just that big giant blow-up dragon, it’s a real dragon now!
Pete’s Dragon opens in 3D on Friday.