Interview | David Lowery on the Cats of ‘Pete’s Dragon’

In an era when every nostalgia movie seems to be getting a remake, and in which fealty to the original story is law, David Lowery is breaking the rules. His remake of Pete’s Dragon, a Disney musical from 1977, jettisons almost every aspect of the original movie except a boy and his dragon. Gone are the musical numbers, gone are the villains, in are a fresh new perspective that feels more timeless than ever.

I sat down with David Lowery to discuss how he approached Pete’s Dragon, an excellent and emotional new family film about an orphaned boy who is raised in the woods by a green dragon named Elliott. When Pete is discovered by a forest ranger, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, he is taken away from his dragon friend and given a choice between two very different lives.

David Lowery told me all about his unusual stylistic approach to Pete’s Dragon, how traumatic Disney was willing to make the film (short answer: a lot more traumatic than it is), and why so many movie dragons seem to be inspired by cats these days.

Pete’s Dragon arrives in theaters on August 12, 2016.

Walt Disney

Walt Disney

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

Crave: Pete’s Dragon, obviously it’s a remake, and the original was a musical. We’ve seen Disney try to incorporate the music some of their musicals into their live-action remakes. The Jungle Book had a couple of songs in it…

David Lowery: Yeah.

Didn’t seem to be your path, in Pete’s Dragon

It wasn’t. Disney was clear from the very first hint of interest in this project, they were like: they want to remake Pete’s Dragon, they want to set aside the original and tell a new story, and they don’t want it to be a musical. So that was just the very first email I ever got about it, that was what it stated.

Had you not even solicited it? They just sent you an email?

It was around the time I was editing my last film. it was already in Sundance…

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints?

Yeah, so at that point you start getting emails saying would you be interested in this or that project, and a lot of them are remakes. A lot of them are studio movies because they just, you know, your agents are trying to figure out your tastes and the studios are thinking, “Oh, there’s an interesting director, maybe he’d be interested in helming this project we’ve got on our shelf.” So the Pete’s Dragon one was one of those and it was the only one I responded to because of the fact that it wasn’t beholden to the original at all.

I like children’s films. I love movies for kids. I’ve always wanted to make one and this felt like an opportunity to do that. I thought the original was great when I was a kid and I haven’t seen it since then. I decided not [to]. Disney was like, “Don’t bother watching the original if you don’t want to.”

It sounds a little crass when you put it like that. “Don’t even bother…”

I think… I know so many people who love it. I know so many people that love the original, and I loved it as a kid, and I feel that perhaps there was an underestimation on the amount of affection its had. I think when we did our first preview screening of the movie, one of the questions the moderator asked was “How many people have seen the original?” and most of them had! A lot of parents showed their kids, and I think that was a surprise. I think they felt it was more something like Watcher in the Woods, even Escape from Witch Mountain which they also remade… those movies that people have kind of forgotten.

I think Pete’s Dragon is much more fondly remembered than everyone or anyone expected. That being said, I felt it was also one of those movies that is not a crown jewel of the Disney legacy, and you can kind of… I think I thought it was worth re-approaching, and worth telling a new version of, and it gave an opportunity to make that children’s film I’d wanted to make.

Walt Disney

Walt Disney

Also: Bryce Dallas Howard and the HSBC Commercial That Inspired ‘Pete’s Dragon’ (Exclusive Interview)

The original is quite strange actually. It’s tonally kind of all over the place.

It’s so weird. So one of the movies I loved as a kid, that had a huge impact on me, was Popeye.

I love Popeye!

I love it to death, and I’d watch that all the time. 

That’s my favorite Robert Altman movie. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Yes, I know this is sacrilege.]

So great. But this was, in my mind, having not gone back and seen it, this was sort of similar. It had that seaside village, it had that ramshackle quality. It felt kind of crazy and it had some… it was long. I remember it being really long, which Popeye also is, and it had a weirdness to it, like a dangerous quality to it. Having since… I haven’t gone back and watched it but I know that, oh yeah, Pete is escaping slavery basically…?

Basically.

[Laughs.] And the Gogans want to kill him? So I admire that. I think that’s great. I also know that you could never get away with that in a modern Disney film so we didn’t even try. So it’s cool that it was so weird and you know, I’m glad that the movie is so different because that will allow audiences who haven’t seen the original to go back and experience it, and hopefully enjoy both of them because – aside from the character names – I’m pretty sure they’re completely different movies.

You say that children’s movies can’t be as dangerous now, but they sure as hell can be traumatic, and your opening seems like you’re trying to make us cry, like right off the bat.

I wanted to let audiences know right out the gate that this was going to be an emotional experience, and that also it wasn’t going to necessarily be the safest experience, but at the same time that it would all wind up okay. So if you look at the first five minutes of the movie before the title, it’s sort of an encapsulation of the entire movie, where things go… it’s very, very sweet, then things take a very dark turn, then ultimately they wind up okay. And that sort of makes a promise to audiences that as dark as this movie might get, it’s going to be okay.

I also just wanted to let kids know right from the outset that this was a movie that was going to be emotional, and that you have to come in prepared to feel feelings. And that was one of the primary goals of mine with this film, was to make a film that both honored and respected the emotion of children, but also gave kids in the audience the chance to feel things that they might not normally feel.

Walt Disney

Walt Disney

I feel like there’s an unfortunate tendency in a lot of film and television aimed at children to distract them.

Yes.

The idea is, I’m busy. I’m working, I’m doing my taxes, I need you to watch something and not have your childhood ruined by it.

Yes.

There’s elements of fun in Pete’s Dragon but were you concerned about modulating the intensity so that it can be entertaining as well as really painful?

One of the things that I am enormously grateful to Disney for was that they didn’t want us to tone it down. They didn’t want to make this a film that wasn’t intense, or that wasn’t emotional. The one thing that we did work on was trying to make sure we balanced that out with some humor, and so that was… if you’ve my movies, they’re not like laugh a minute movies. So like, trying to make sure we got some humor in there to balance out, like finding the right places to inject a little bit of levity after we’ve had an emotional experience was always important.

But in terms of the gravity of the film, or the intensity of certain moments, or the emotional roller-coaster ride that it kind of will put audiences on, we were supported 100% by Disney and they wanted us to do that, and always pushed us to go a little bit further than maybe we felt they would feel comfortable with. Like I’m 100% comfortable with going far with it, but they wanted to make sure that we had the support, the support from them as a studio, to make this a movie that wasn’t going to tread lightly around or tiptoe around the darker sides of the story.

Did you have complete carte blanche or was there ever a note? Like, “In the car accident can we CGI out that huge pool of blood…?”

[Laughs.] Here’s the weirdest thing. There was a point when they felt, and I felt… I wasn’t sure but they were supporting us if we wanted to do this, and make the car accident a little more violent to where you would see a hand, like the life leave a hand, or to see something like that. And I didn’t want scar children. I wanted to give them a dark opening, I wanted them to feel the feelings and to feel the emotion of it, but I didn’t want to send them crying from the theater so we found the right balance there.

The only point that was a note came from a scene that’s not in the movie anymore and it’s not in the movie for a good reason, but it is a beautiful scene which I love which is… there was a moment where, I don’t even want to talk about what it was because it’s not part of the movie anymore, but what it was was a scene where Grace – Bryce’s character – lets Pete make a decision on his own that’s a very difficult decision, and could be deemed irresponsible parenting. And we felt that that was, it came at a point in the movie where you don’t want to question the characters and you don’t want to feel uncomfortable about anything.

I love the scene. It’s a beautiful scene. It’s one of my favorite bits of performance in the movie but it’s one of those scenes where like, most of the audience felt… it was split a little down the middle but a lot of the audience felt that it was a grievously irresponsible moment for the character, and as a a result irresponsible for us as filmmakers to put it there. And so that was the one thing were I sort of was like, “Oh, we can’t lose that, it’s too good” but ultimately I do feel we made the right choice in taking it out because it came at a point when you don’t want anyone to get pulled out of the movie. But other than that…

I’m fascinated to find out what that was…

It’s very simple and someday I’ll talk about it. It’s not going to be on… I decided not to put it on the DVD because I wanted to just keep it for myself. It’s one of those moments where it’s not like an expanded version of the movie, or an alternate version of the movie, I just wanted to have… it’s a scene that is rightfully excised, but I’m clearly talking about it because I’m proud of it, but it’s one of those things where’s it’s going to live on my hard drive and maybe someday I’ll put it online or something.

Walt Disney

Walt Disney

You were talking about the humor, and I feel like a lot of the humor comes from the dragon itself.

Yeah.

And I was watching this movie and I was thinking to myself, “Whose cat is this based on?”

It’s mine.

Your cat?

Yeah.

What’s your cat’s name?

I’ve got two cats, Big D and Little K, and they’re brothers. We’ve fostered them since they were born. My wife fosters kittens and those were two that we wound up keeping, and we had two other cats at the time, both of who have since passed away due to old age. Now we only have these two, and they’re the light of my life, and I can point out all the moments in the movie where it’s just them.

We actually, I tried to get them to meow on cue sometimes to work in there. They have very distinct meows that we tried to work it into the movie but it just ultimately didn’t feel like… it didn’t work as Elliott’s voice. But nonetheless I’m a huge animal person and I wanted Elliott to be just a reflection of my desire to have giant 20-foot cats.

I find this is something we see a lot more in movies now. When I was a kid, the idea of dragons was that they are reptilian leviathans. Vermithrax Pejorative from Dragonslayer

Of course.

Walt Disney

Walt Disney

I feel like over the last 20 years or so, they’re cats. Dragonheart was based on a cat, How to Train Your Dragon was based on a cat…

Definitely, yeah.

Why do you think that is?

I think that they have… you know, you still have the Harry Potter dragons which are fearful, and you have Game of Thrones dragons which are fearful, but also everyone’s always loved dragons. So with Vermithrax from Dragonslayer, he’s scary but he’s awesome, and that awesomeness…

I think it’s a she.

It’s a she?

I think it’s a she… 

That’s right, yeah, yeah… gradually that awesomeness trickles down into, you want to commodify these characters in different ways. And not “commodify” in a commercial sense, but in terms of like your emotional investment, and so it goes from being this fearful fire-breathing dragon that almost… that dragon is quite fearful, but then you take the same design and put him in Dragonheart and all of a sudden he’s a little bit more lovable. And then you take Dragonheart and distill that down to How to Train Your Dragon, and it’s still reptilian – he’s more like a salamander – but you see a dragon and it goes from wanting to ride that dragon to wanting to hug that dragon to wanting to have that dragon be your pet.

And it just gradually, it’s not a watering down but it’s a distilling of your wishes when you see these characters. Same with NeverEnding Story which is of course easy because he’s furry already.

Yeah, he’s more like a dog dragon than anything else.

Yeah, and I think that’s where it comes from. I think it’s just wish fulfillment and the desire to have such a fearful creature be yours, naturally turns into having that fearful creature become not fearful at all but lovable, and in the case of this movie in particular, just wanting to represent my love of felines.

Walt Disney

Walt Disney

When you were designing the dragon, he doesn’t really look like the original…

Right.

…but he kind of does have the head of a camel, the neck of a crocodile and the ears of a cow. Was that kind of important to you, to evoke the original, or were willing to go in a completely different direction and it just never happened?

I wanted… there were things I loved about that design. So like, I didn’t necessarily say “Let’s try to capture those specific elements,” but I did say like, “Yeah, I want him to have a long neck, I want his head to be too big for his body, I want him to have a really big jaw.” These were things that just aesthetically worked for me in the original that I didn’t see the need to throw away, and even if I ended up designing a completely original dragon I probably would have done the same thing. Those things spoke to me. And we tried a couple ideas of pushing him closer to the original Elliott that felt horribly wrong, because giving a vaguely photoreal dragon pink hair is a nightmare. It was the most horrifying… it looked disgusting. It looked awful.

We also tried going in a completely different direction. We were like, okay, let’s get a couple designers. We got the guy that did the monsters from Pacific Rim, we had Brian Froud from Labyrinth, we got all these artists to take a crack at it, just no input from me, just design a cool dragon that a kid would want to be friends with. But ultimately it came down to this initial design, this drawing I did. My brother did some concept art, and it never really… even though we explored other avenues we never really changed from that, and it does harken back a little bit to the original too, which is good.

It’s an interesting looking movie. What was your influence for the color timing of Pete’s Dragon, because it’s almost sad to me…

[Laughs.] Oh yeah, yeah!

The way that the town and even the sky is portrayed, consistently, there’s a melancholy to it.

You know, I really wanted it to have that sort of evocative quality, to have the sky be sort of yellowish and cloudy with that weird pre-storm feeling sometimes. I don’t know if there’s a reason other than that’s where my aesthetic tastes generally go towards. I haven’t like broken it down and analyzed why I like the color brown so much, but we always, my production designer and I, we’ve done three movies together and we’re about to start our forth and we’re like, “At some point we’re going to hit peak brown. We can’t do brown anymore.”

But the look of it, I wanted it to feel old-fashioned, so that’s part of it. I wanted it to feel rustic, and of the woods and of the earth, so that came through with all the brown and the oranges and the yellows and the greens. And I wanted it to feel textured. I always love movies that have a texture to them, and when you shoot on film you automatically get that. There are no labs left in New Zealand so we had to do this one digitally, but at the same time I wanted to make sure it had a texture. So the shadows have a texture to them, the dirt has a texture to it and you can feel like you can reach out and touch the film.

And then the third thing is that it’s never quite perfect. Part of that is because you shoot a scene in the woods all day long and the light’s going to change, and so it’s changing from shot to shot and you kind of even it out a little bit in the D.I. [digital intermediate] but I was like, “Let’s not perfect it. Let’s not try to make this feel perfect.” And that went through everything. There’s one point in the movie which people may or may not notice where Pete looks right at the camera, and we could have painted that out but I was like, “Let’s leave it in. Let’s let this film feel a little bit more hand-made.”

And so that, you see [Robert] Redford at the beginning carving out of wood, I wanted the whole movie to have that feeling, of like what he was doing in that scene. So it’s got a lot of little mistakes that we left in. It’s got a lot of little imperfections, and the feel of it, the tone of it, the look of it, all hopefully falls into line with that.

Top Photo: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

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.