Bonnie Arnold interview: Dragon 2, Dances With Wolves, DreamWorks

Producer Bonnie Arnold on the challenges of the How To Train Your Dragon movies, and looking back at Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves.

Bonnie Arnold has had some career. As the latest film she’s produced, How To Train Your Dragon 2, arrives in UK cinemas, she chatted to us about the movie, about the big problems making the first, and her earlier days helping to bring Dances With Wolves to light. And she didn’t touch a drop of her tea while telling us all of this…

Digging into your background, from what I can tell you started as a writer? Can you fill in some of the blanks there?

Well, it wasn’t really a writer as such. I studied journalism, but I actually started in publicity. I did unit publicity writing, so that’s how I started really. Really it was in film, film production stuff. But I was writing press releases, bios, that kind of thing. But it served me in good stead! I don’t consider myself a great writer, but I can recognise great writing!

Isn’t that effectively part of a producer’s job?

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You’re right, right.

To recognise the brilliance in others, and then to recognise when others aren’t being so brilliant?

That’s the hard part.

It’s only now, for instance, that’s it’s coming to light just how tricky the first How To Train Your Dragon was behind the scenes. From our side of the fence, it looked a breeze!

But that’s what we’re good at! Making it look like a piece of cake!

The story as I understand on the first film is that you had the awkward situation of changing your director when the narrative and the visuals weren’t quite gelling. That can’t have been an easy day, and I assume that was on your plate?

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Yes. Yes.

The consequence of that too, of course, was the speed of turnaround needed to get such a big film into cinemas in time. Can you talk a little about that time, and going through it?

I think two things. It feels like it definitely is history. There was another personal issue with the earlier director that they went through, so there was a lot involved in that. I don’t want to put across that we got rid of him.

I tell you what the challenge was with the story though. We had this amazing book from Cressida Cowell. We loved the book, loved the characters, that’s why I came on board the project. I just loved the story. Sometimes a book isn’t always exactly the film.

Should it ever be though?

Well, there’s the Harry Potters. I think people were pleased with those because it felt like Harry Potter was true to the books. Cressida’s books are lovely, amazing stories, but the things we tried, it felt like we needed a bigger departure from the book. That’s what the discovery process was.

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The initial scripts and things that I had read, there were two versions of the script by the same author, Will Davies, when I came on. And they were more true to the book. But then at some point we decided… with the animation process, we really edit the film before we shoot it, to use a live action analogy. When we looked at it in story reel, it just felt like, again, based on what DreamWorks was looking for, we needed to go beyond. We loved the characters still, but we needed a little bit of scope beyond the book.

That’s the struggle of the first movie. And I think that Dean DeBlois, who is now writing and directing films two and three, and Chris Sanders, who worked with him, they really came in and seemed to crack that nut.

Quickly, too?

Yeah, pretty quickly. I think sometimes when you have a limited time, you kind of get down to it. I think also based on… there were some financial concerns. If we had to completely reinvent the wheel, we would have had to change release date. With those constraints, I think Chris and Dean did a great job of smartly working within those parameters. I’m not saying they didn’t change anything – within the limitations, we could do this much – but we were able to get movie one relaunched, and fortunately, be very successful. And tell a good story, which was the most important thing.

I wasn’t, in truth, expecting too much from How To Train Your Dragon. At that stage, DreamWorks seemed more concerned with Shrek sequels that I thought it was moving away from what made the first Shrek film so individual. The sea change of How To Train Your Dragon for me was it didn’t talk to kids as kids. It didn’t dumb down to them.

Kids are so much more sophisticated. Even my daughter, who’s 20, even now you can tell with everything. She’s on it. Kids’ attention span has changed, they’re on this and then on that. You have to be able to move at their pace. My husband and I are big film fans, we have a daughter, and we’ve shared films. We were like ‘we have a daughter, we’re going to let her watch all our favourite movies!”. And I realised some of these movies that we liked, the pacing was so different. Sometimes it was hard for her to adjust.

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I agree with you. It’s interesting, the nature of how kids… you have to do it at their pace, and I feel like with Chris and Dean, they have a nice connection with their younger self. Dean was a part of Mulan too. They were involved in really classic movies. More than anything, with good storytelling, a lot of heart, humour, and you could tell it’s a work of passion.

There are two animated movies you’ve been involved with in the past that feel monumental looking back. The obvious one is the first Toy Story, and number two was Tarzan. I think Tarzan never gets the credit for some fairly pronounced technological advances that are buried in that film. That Chris Buck and Kevin Lima, the directors, married up hand drawn work to some strong technological techniques.

I’ve a lot of time for Tarzan, and my understanding of that film is that it was part done in Los Angeles and part done in Paris. My understanding of DreamWorks now is that some key sequences are done in India, with most done at your California base.

But we also have California North. We have two units! Thank god for video conferencing! We have unbelievably sophisticated video conferencing, where our artists can actually draw over work, to give them notes.

All the departments, in India and Northern California, in real time – a lot of our key animators were in Northern California, and not with us every day – we could see them, and interact with them. Very specific notes too, right down to a small head movement here. Good notes, that they could understand, and with our new tools, re-render these things. By dailies in the afternoon, the note was done. I find it pretty amazing, because on Toy Story, everything was harder to watch, slower to realise…

How was the geography on Tarzan then? How did you keep hold of it all when you didn’t have such sophisticated tools?

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We did have some form of early video conferencing. We had this unit in Paris, specifically Glen Keane, the guru of all animators. We wanted him to do the character of Tarzan, and he wanted to do it living in Paris. From the Paris studios, with that team. It was an amazing team of people. One of the biggest problems with that one was the time of day. We were leaving and exhausted, and Paris was arriving at work, and vice versa. Someone was always half asleep, someone was more awake!

Chris Buck was one of the co-directors of Tarzan. You’ve worked across your producing career with an extraordinary collection of first time directors, Chris Buck, Kevin Costner, John Lasseter, Barry Sonnenfeld, Karey Kirkpatrick… three of those have gone on to win Oscars! If you give someone a tap on the shoulder, do the Academy just save a bit of time and get in touch?

I’m very flattered, but I have to say they are very talented people!

So going back to how you approached coming into producing in the first place. You said before that you can spot brilliant writing. But how does that transfer to directors?

First of all, I love movies. I’ve loved movies since I was a little kid. When I was growing up, and I don’t want to date myself too much, there wasn’t film school as such. I lived in Atlanta, Georgia. Los Angeles, even New York, was way far away.

But I just loved film, and when I really discovered that you could have a career in the movie business, I gravitated towards that. I don’t consider myself an artist at all. But I do feel like I’ve seen tons of movies, I love movies, and at least for my taste, I feel like I know what a good movie is. I can recognise good movies.

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I think that has translated. And what I actually enjoy is that I love working with artists. I love creative people. I try to tell students that I spent a lot of time early in my career fortunately working with some great producers and directors, and I spent a lot of time being on the sidelines and watching what they did.

I think I’ve taken the good things that they did, and learned from them. You learn you’re not going to do that, that that doesn’t work, and that’s how it does work. I hope I’ve brought that, and I feel I have a sense of being able to recognise quality, and a good leader, and a person who makes good decisions. That doesn’t just work with the director, but with the art director… I can help guide them, and suggest how to handle a situation.

But I have a dual job in that my job is to help the director get their vision of the movie on the screen. And I feel that I am the protector of the movie. To protect the integrity of it. Because in animation, you’re creating every element of every frame. So many of the artists you’re working with every day are trying to create every little element. It’s very micro. I don’t try to go to every single dailies session, because I feel like I lose perspective. I feel like I need to step back a little bit. They may go in once a day, I go in once a week. I feel like that way I can say hmmm, I know what we were talking about, but that doesn’t seem it. And Dean and I will talk about that.

The other part of my job of course is that I’ve worked with Jeffrey Katzenberg, who runs DreamWorks, for 20 years now. From Toy Story. I feel like my job is also looking out for what the studio is looking for. The movie we’re making, they’ve investing quite a bit of money into. Is what we’re doing day to day connecting with what they feel like we need to achieve, in terms of the expectations of the studio.

It’s interesting times for DreamWorks at the moment too. The studio took a lot of criticism a few years ago for appearing to be sequel after sequel after sequel. But it’s not quite been that way. Of late in particular, lots of films are coming out with very pronounced, different styles. To the point where the marketing of every film was having to start from scratch, such were the differing beasts that DreamWorks was making.

But I have to say that’s what makes us different. I feel like – yes, there are some movies that feel DreamWorks. Shrek, Madagascar, comedies. But then I feel like there isn’t a real studio style, otherwise we wouldn’t have Dragon. I mean I think How To Train Your Dragon and what we’re doing now is starting something. Then we had Rise Of The Guardians. We have other movies where our directors have different sensibilities. Some from animation, some from live action, some from theatre.

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There were four non-sequels on the trot for DreamWorks before How To Train Your Dragon 2, each of them different in some way. It’s fair to say that they’ve not done, commercially, what the studio would hope they would. Your role, as a producer on this film, with the first Dragon film the expectations were lower, it was put together heavily on instinct. This one arrives at a point where DreamWorks films aren’t the absolute sure-fire 100% hits they once were. Also, it’s the sequel to the studio’s best film.

[Laughs] No pressure!

Well, exactly! Your role as a producer, as you’ve said is twofold. Number one, this is your film to protect. Number two, you are a producer within the DreamWorks empire, and thus can’t be oblivious to everything else that’s going on. How do you marry those sides up, especially when making two Dragon sequels back to back?

The thing is, I’d be not telling the truth if I said we didn’t feel the pressure. I mean from the fans! We see it online, and I’m not talking about seven year olds, I think the amazing thing with Dragon is – and I’ve been very fortunate – the movie is continuing to be discovered. You can say that people don’t go to theatres as much as they used to. But I think with all these different ways that people now see movies, people are still finding out about Dragon, even up to the release of the second film.

The point is that I think what we do at DreamWorks, and with How To Train Your Dragon in particular, you try to put some of those pressures aside. For Dean and I, it’s making a movie that we feel good about. We know that there’s an expectation. Believe me, we’re completely aware of it. There’s expectation on the studio, there’s expectation by the fans.

But there’s expectation from us too. We love the material. We love the characters. We feel a loyalty to making it a good story for us, our creative team, and that we feel good about it. I can’t predict how it’s going to be received, but I’m feeling good and very proud of it. And we ran out of time! [Laughs] You never finish it, you just have a release date!

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Can we finish by going back to your work on Dances With Wolves. I’m curious how that film would exist now in the internet world, with the level of scrutiny that comes with that. Because even in the print world, it was fairly snooty, some of the stuff being aimed at it. But talking to people who worked on Dances With Wolves, they talked for the cast how they were off for weeks, they watching movies in the evening, it was a real community experience.

Your job, though, was more outward facing than inwards facing. That you were fighting the logistics, and were far more aware of what was going on outside the production. How did you sit in the midst of that – that was your first huge film as producer?

Well, I had worked on huge films, but I didn’t have the responsibilities of a producer. Also, we had very little money. So elements were definitely different. But the good news was that even though Kevin Costner was a first time director, and I’ve worked with seasoned directors who never did as well at this, Kevin did a great job of communicating to people what he was looking for. This is what I want to accomplish. And I think that sometimes you have to slightly block out what you’re hearing, because [the negativity] wasn’t coming from the people who were working with us.

You have to put on noise cancelling headphones – which didn’t exist then! – and do the best job you can do. And I think Kevin was very clear about here’s the script, here’s what I want to do, and he brought in people who were good at what they did.

It was like a family. We lived there for six months through every type of weather, with very little money, and we made it work. And I think people were shocked in a good way, that we pulled it off.

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People still ask me, did Kevin really direct that movie by himself? Absolutely.

Bonnie Arnold, thank you very much.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 arrives in UK cinemas on Thursday.

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