Interview | Bryce Dallas Howard and the HSBC Commercial That Inspired ‘Pete’s Dragon’

Bryce Dallas Howard may be our candle on the water, but she doesn’t have to sing it. And it turns out she’s rather happy that this new version of Pete’s Dragon isn’t a musical, since she could focus entirely on her performance instead of on vocal lessons.

I spoke to the star of Disney’s latest remake over a cup of New Zealand coffee (which she promptly geeked out about), and we got to talking about her love of the original classic film, and what it means to play a loving mother in a children’s movie. We also spoke of the research she performed to play a forest ranger in David Lowery’s fantasy film, and the romantic relationship her character, Grace, has with a logger played by Wes Bentley. It turns out that it’s not such an unusual pairing after all: an HSBC commercial told a similar tale years ago, and it’s one of the things that inspired this new interpretation of Pete’s Dragon.

You can read our interview, and watch that emotional TV spot below. Pete’s Dragon premieres in theaters on August 12, 2016.

Walt Disney

Walt Disney

Also: Watch Our Sing-Along Review of ‘Pete’s Dragon’ (Exclusive Video)

Crave: When I watch kids movies now, as an adult, I have to ask myself how I would have responded to them as a child. I think I would have loved it, and I think I would have wanted you to be my mom.

Bryce Dallas Howard: [Laughs.] Oh, thank you!

Is that the sort of thing that enters your mind when you do a family movie like this? That the kids are going to look up to you as a sort of symbol?

No… but for me, just being a parent, I saw it a couple days ago for the first time in its completed version, and I saw it with my husband, and I was getting so emotional because it was the first time that I – I’m not going to cry – it was the first time that I had seen myself be a mother in something. So it was kind of like, I don’t know…

When I was getting ready for it I didn’t want to overcomplicate Grace. You know when you watch children’s films and there are scenes with adults talking, you’re sort of like “Get off! Get off the screen! Where’s the dragon?!” So I tried to really pay attention to that, where I wasn’t trying to, yeah, just overcomplicate moments.

And my husband said to me, “It’s really simple, Bryce. You just talk to Pete the way you talk to our kids. Like, that’s all you need to do. The same energy you have with the kids is Grace with Pete.” And when he said that it just really, it obviously made everything really easy. [Laughs.] Because I was like “Oh, that’s the zone I’ve been in for the last nine-and-a-half years, and I get it.” So when I saw the movie it was really, like I said, I was like, “Oh! Yeah! I’m a parent!” It was one of those weird kind of moments.

I’ll bet! Was Pete’s Dragon a film you grew up with?

Yes. Yes.

Okay.

Yes.

So when this came across your desk did you geek out? Or were you worried, or…?

Yes, well, I sought it out. It didn’t come across my desk. I heard that it was happening and I was like, “What are they going to… what? What is it going to be like? ‘Candle on the Water,’ what are they going to do?”

“You can’t make this movie without Bryce Dallas Howard!”

[Laughs.] Well, just, I was curious. I was really, really curious. And so I read it and I was surprised, honestly, because I kind of thought it was going to be a [more] faithful adaptation of the original film, which is why I read it in the first place because I was like, “How are they going to do that?” because it’s a movie that’s so specific to its time. And then when I realized it was something completely different, and it was really, it was really like… other than the title and the central themes and the fact that it was about a little boy who’s an orphan and his best friend is a dragon, it’s not similar to the original. It’s its own thing that I thought was so beautiful and sentimental, and reminded me of my childhood in the ‘80s, and then I just really wanted to be a part of it and it took like six months and then they said “yes.”

Walt Disney

Walt Disney

Was there an element of disappointment that you don’t get to sing “It’s So Easy” or anything like that?

[Laughs.] No, no.

No?

No, because it’s… then I would just be obsessing about going to voice lessons, and just being like, “Ugh, I don’t know if we can quite do it in the way that [they] did.” My kids haven’t seen the original, we have a book of the original that I read to my kids all the time. [Laughs.] Yeah, and it’s just those songs are so specific to the story of that movie, I think.

I guess they could have been adapted in some way, they could have thrown one in there. It wouldn’t have worked as a musical though.

No.

I would love to see Robert Redford sing, “A dragon! A dragon!”

Oh my gosh, totally! [Laughs.]

Okay, so you didn’t have to go to vocal lessons. Are there “park ranger lessons?” Or is it just, put on the outfit and wander through the woods? You don’t see too much of the job…

Well, you want to know a little of… yes, I sought out, definitely, speaking to people who were forest rangers, who were park rangers. And you know, you don’t want to walk around and seem… there wasn’t a lot of business to do [on screen], like I didn’t have a lot of technical jargon or anything like that, but I wanted to understand. What is the dynamic, in particular, in between a forest ranger or a park ranger, and being in a relationship with someone who is a logger. Like, what is that dynamic like?

Walt Disney

Walt Disney

Were you able to research that? Are there park rangers who have that relationship?

Well, my family, a lot of my family were loggers and so I was able to talk with my uncle and all that kind of stuff, on my mother’s side. So no couples. I didn’t come across any couples that I could model myself after. [Laughs.] And then yeah, and then I talked to a couple people who, where that was their profession, and it was a lot more involved than anyone would ever think.

I imagine so.

Yeah.

So you didn’t want to overcomplicate the adult relationships, but that is an unusual relationship that you have with your… husband? Are you married in the film?

[Shakes head.]

Walt Disney

Walt Disney

Not married, that’s what I thought. Okay. What is your backstory? Do you have a story about how you were protesting their logging and it was love at first sight…?

Okay, there is an HSBC commercial that was made, gosh, a while ago, that’s beautiful. I think it’s HSBC. And it is, if I remember correctly, the storyline is… I almost don’t want to even give it away. So David [Lowery] sent this to me in the original pitch to Disney. It is the story of basically a woman who’s protesting. She an activist. She’s sitting in a tree, like on top of a tree, so the tree cannot be cut down. And it’s a whole scene and everything, and then it’s at the end of the day, and she finally like… or she gets knocked out of the tree. Something happens, I can’t remember. But then you see that one of the loggers and her, riding in a car together, and you’re like “What?” and then they go home, and you realize they’re in a relationship!

What a twist!

[Laughs.] I know, I know! No, but if you Google this it’s actually emotional and impactful, and David sent that to me, and I remember… I haven’t thought about that ever since I saw it like a year ago, but he was kind of like, “That’s the dynamic.” And I think in the gentlest way, it helped to make it so that it wasn’t politicizing the issue. It wasn’t like this is a movie about [politics], and this what we’re saying about logging or mining. There wasn’t something… like, Wes [Bentley] was a logger and he was a good guy. He was saying you can’t cut too far deep into the forest because you need to replant. Then we’ll have nothing left to cut down eventually. So I think that that was, in a way, sort of bringing balance to that issue, if that makes sense.

It does make sense.

Check out the commercial. You’re going to die. [Laughs.]

HSBC – Lumberjack from THE APA on Vimeo.

Photo: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images for Walt Disney Studios

William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.