Pete’s Dragon takes place in the idyllic town of Millhaven in America’s Pacific Northwest, but the film was actually filmed in gorgeous New Zealand. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Standing in for Millhaven in the film was Tapanui, a small town of 700 people a few hours outside of Auckland. Filming completely took over the town for four weeks last year, and everyone living there was involved in the production in one way or another. So, what’s it like having a movie take over your town?
According to Nathan McPherson who was an extra in the film and lives in the town, “it seemed hard to believe at the start. Once [production] was rolling the scale was unbelievable for such a small place. There seemed to be vehicles and people everywhere.” Linda Cavanagh – Monaghan, the principal at local school Blue Mountain College, agreed that filmmakers and actors coming to town was an unbelievable experience. “My reaction was that is was manna from heaven on a whole lot of levels. One being the [school] kids’ exposure [to filmmaking], they could see what has happening from a technical point of view.” Kay Williams, a local who helped scout locations, echoed Cavanagh – Monaghan’s sentiment, “You’re sort of in a dream. I was up at 5am every morning and was not home until 9 at night. It’s probably never going to happen again in my lifetime.”
The town itself was transformed from New Zealand in 2016 to the US in the 1970s. Jann Robertson owned a local business during production. “We really had no idea what to expect. It was incredible, the detail [filmmakers] went to. The street signs, the names were changed. Little things that you just wouldn’t dream of until you actually see the movie, and a lot of it is just background. What they have to put into it is just incredible … This lady came along and painted bricks [on a concrete wall] and it looked original; we’ve left it.” No detail was too small. Even things like the power pole were given a makeover.
More than exteriors of buildings were commandeered for the massive production. The local hotel became dressing rooms, the school parking lot housed production vehicles, some locals even rented out their houses to the cast and crew. Many lucky locals made it into the film as extras.
The filming took place during a school holiday and many students were featured as kids living in Millhaven. Tommy Davies was one such student, for whom it was a life-changing experience.”You can see me in the movie,” he explained, “and when the police car pulls up [in the film] it came from my street that I live on.” So how did Davies do at pretending Pete [Oakes Fegley] was jumping off the roof of a school bus? “When Pete was jumping off we had to look out the window even though no one was there.” Davies was born and raised in Tapanui and calls the experience the “coolest thing [he’s’ ever done.” He describes what the extra signup process was like:
“One morning we went to get our photos taken and there was a line and it took maybe two hours. And then I got the call one day and [the filmmakers’] said ‘do you want to come down and get costumes sorted?’ so I tried on six different sets of clothes.” And now he’s made his motion picture debut.
Everyone I spoke to told me how wonderful an experience the film coming to town was for them, and certain themes began to appear. Firstly, craft services. “The food was amazing,” Williams told me. “It was like going to a restaurant every day.” McPherson agreed. “When you went in for breakfast everyone was happy and wanted to be there. At 5 o’clock in the morning people don’t always want to say hello,” but locals were amazed when Bryce Dallas Howard, Wes Bentley, and Robert Redford sat down beside them and did just that. “The cast and crew were all together and the stars would just sit down beside you,” Williams elaborated. “They weren’t on a pedestal.”
This extended to local hangouts that the cast began to frequent. “You’d go to pub on a thursday and Wes’ family would be there getting a burger” McPherson recalled. And Wes Bentley and his family frequented the local coffee shop, The Yellow Diner. Bentley enjoyed one pastry so much that it’s now named after him, the “Wes Bentley Caramel Slice,” and it is delicious, let me tell you.
“I think they just liked us because we were just ourselves,” Williams recalled. “We just made them feel welcomed and I’d like to think that’s what we’re remembered for. Here everyone just gets together and helps each other.”
Finally seeing the film was an emotional experience for many. “I cried,” Cavanagh – Monaghan admitted. “I think it was really emotional because it was our town. Lots of people cried. I’m looking forward to seeing the DVD where we can pause it.” This was another theme of my conversations. “It will be great to see the DVD to be able to pause on my face, and my son’s bus scene,” Robertson told me.
After being part of a production the people in Tapanui have a whole new perspective on filmmaking. McPherson told me he was surprised by “how many people it took to make a movie and how they all had a job to do. It was quite amazing.” “Robertson went on, “to think that people now … their hobby is knitting, but that can be a job in the film industry. Knitting costumes. When you’re brought up in small town, to think that all that’s out there, that’s just incredible … It’s unlimited, isn’t it? What you can be.”
When asked if they’d be willing to have another film come to town, the answer was a resounding “yes.” “I loved it,” Robertson smiled. “It was just amazing. You could actually feel the atmosphere in the town lifted. Everyone seemed to be smiling. It was just unreal.” The whole experience, everyone agreed, could only be described one way: It was like a movie.
Thanks to everyone who took the time to speak with me and for welcoming me into the community for a few hours on a rainy November afternoon.
Pete’s Dragon is now available on Blu-ray, Digital HD, and Disney Movies Anywhere.