Bonnie Arnold interview: How To Train Your Dragon 2 & 3

Producer Bonnie Arnold talks to us about the How To Train Your Dragon films, and the culture of DreamWorks Animation,

Producer Bonnie Arnold has an incredible track record. Her credits stretch from Dances With Wolves, The Last Station, Toy Story and Over The Hedge. More recently? She’s produced the two How To Train Your Dragon movies to date, and is overseeing the third with director Dean DeBlois. We caught up with her for a chat, as How To Train Your Dragon 2 arrives on DVD and Blu-ray…

It’s been all-Dragons all-the-time for quite a long while now.

It has been, but I’m not tired of it at all. I love it, I love my team, I love the story.

What’s the appeal?

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From the first time I read the first book of Cressida Cowell’s series there was just something about it that appealed to me. I liked the world and I felt like I hadn’t seen it in animation. I really loved Hiccup too, I have to say. There was something about Hiccup, what he stood for, who he was, that I found very appealing. But I have to say that we’ve given him an amazing life beyond the book, with the amazing work of Dean DeBlois, with Chris Sanders on the first film, and Jay Baruchel’s voicing of Hiccup.

I had a large part in choosing Jay, and to me, he sort of is Hiccup and he feels like part of my family now.

Well, after all you’ve been through I can believe it. It’s been what… five, six years?

I started working on it around 2006.

Eight years.

Isn’t that crazy? But it doesn’t seem like a long time to me. I have a lot of respect for Dean who really wanted to make sure the sequel wasn’t just another version of the first movie. I feel like the second film stands on the shoulders of the first but it is its own movie. You can watch this film and you don’t need to have seen the first one to understand it.

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I think a lot of adults come to me and say “I haven’t been able to take my kid, or my nephew” and I say “You don’t need an excuse to go see this movie.”

Why do people think that way about animation?

I don’t know, but I do wish we could rid them of that prejudice. The greatest compliment that people can give to me is when they say they forget they’re watching animation. They get so wrapped up on the storytelling and then they’re just watching a “good movie.” That’s the highest complement to me on the success of the film.

But I love it because it’s animation and I love the craftsmanship in the animation.

I think that animation is just another way to paint a picture. It’s a tool for storytelling. The sophistication of our brand new software package, that Dreamworks had developed for quite a while and which we were able to use on this film all the way from animation through colour and lighting. I don’t want to say it’s realistic because we’re not going for realism, if you’re going for realism you make a live action film. But the believability of this software, and because it’s way more artist friendly and the things it enables us to accomplish, made the storytelling that bit better – because it was believable, because you could forget what you’re looking at. And we could use less words because the audience could better see what was going on between Hiccup and Toothless, it’s in there in the animation.

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Toothless in particular has always been incredibly expressive.

I have to give a lot of that credit to Randy Thom, our sound designer. He particularly worked hard on creating the voice of Toothless. He’d have Dean write out in English what, if Toothless could talk, he’d be saying to Hiccup in that moment. Randy would try to create sound design that would convey that and feel emotional. Maybe people don’t understand the amount of work and thought that go into the sounds he’s making.

There’s a lot of thought, particularly with someone like Randy.

He’s one of the best, and a great collaborator. He also worked with us on movie one, and he’ll be working with us on movie three. The people that I work with is what makes my job great. I love working with Dean, we have a great relationship and mutual respect. And we have John Powell, our great composer, and he continues to out do himself, and Roger Deakins our consulting cinematographer. And then there’s another whole group of people, our production designer, the head of visual effects, the head of character animation. We just have some great people.

Who hired this team? Was it you? Or were they originally chosen by Chris and Dean?

Well, to be honest I did have a lot to do with it. There were people working on different films that we wanted, we had the option to bring people in from the outside too, and we took a lot of care in assembling a team who understand the movie that Dean is trying to make. I guess it’s my job to lead the charge on that, to get the best version of Dean’s story on the screen, and there are four hundred people working every day to try to do that.

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We have to create every element of every frame, there’s a lot of detail, but I feel like I get to step back a little from that. Dean and I will have a lot of conversations in the beginning to agree what we want the movie to be in the end, and then my job is keeping my eye on the big picture. “Here’s where we need to be on this date, because here’s when we finish, so how are we achieving that?”

I can’t get too waylaid by details, I must pay attention to the end game. It’s challenging, sometimes. And I don’t do the same thing every day.

Unlike in live action, we don’t see the voice cast all of the time and sometimes there will be a few months between sessions so I’ll call them, update them, show them some things and keep them in the loop so they feel like we’re progressing as the movie goes forward.

I don’t like the term “corporate culture” but I can’t think of a better one right now, so please excuse me. You’ve worked on a film at Disney, you’ve worked at Pixar and you’ve now worked on many Dragons projects and other things at Dreamworks, so how is the “corporate culture” at Dreamworks unique?

I can only speak for myself. The good news is that I’ve worked with Jeffrey Katzenberg now for more than twenty years, since we worked on the first Toy Story movie together. I have to say that I think he has a lot of trust in me.

We have an amazing campus and buildings to work in, a lot of support and I feel like we have a lot of lee-way to be there, making the movie. The studio helps us as we go along but we have some freedom. The great thing about Dreamworks is that there isn’t a certain style of movie we do. You can be an artist and if the Shrek movies, or the Puss In Boots projects that are coming out are more your style, you can work on that, or if it’s Madagascar that’s more for you, or Guardians, or if you feel that you love How to Train Your Dragon, you can be a part of any of those.

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Different filmmakers at Dreamworks have different styles and the studio supports that. Jeffrey told me yesterday that there are thirty six different languages spoken at the studio. We really have an international crew, literally from all over the world. On Dragon we have John Powell who is British, Pierre Olivier Vincent who is our production designer and is French, Simon Otto is our head of animation and is Swiss, Dean is Canadian. We really have the gamut of different nationalities and voices.

All of those different cultures to draw on.

Yes. Put all of that together in the recipe for the cake. Like I say, we do get support and guidance at Dreamworks, but also freedom.

So, at this point in the process where Dean has just done the outline and is about to write the screenplay, and he’s having a honeymoon, but he’s doing all of these non-production things, what do you do? What’s your duty at this time?

Well, I definitely get a little bit of a break. After the movie came out I spent some time with Dean, promoting the movie, and we were able to go to some film festivals. I do have some down time, though, which is nice, and actually, I do have a lot of input into the creation of the DVD and those materials. I’m not s busy as I was but there are different things going on with the franchise that I’m a part of.

And we’re also doing lot of planning for movie three. Even though Dean has been working on the outline and now he has to write the script, we’re going to be busy right from the first of the year. We definitely have a release date, June 2017, and there’s a lot to do.

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On the DVD there’s a great commentary with myself, Dean, Simon Otto, Pierre Olivier Vincent. It’s a fun piece. And Dean takes a camera wherever he goes and he has tons and tons of footage from the making of the movie, so we cut together 50 minutes of behind the scenes.

That’s a good chunk.

A lot of the time you see behind the scenes stuff on animated DVDs but this all Dean’s story.

A director’s eye view.

Of certain milestones in the making of the movie. It’s a really nice piece and there’s other fun things on there – a short about dragon racing, a tour of Berk, Fishlegs talking about the statistics of the different dragons.

I’m also planning the art book for the third movie.

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I should hope so too. Those books are very good.

I’m just setting up little things that we’re going to need once we get going.

When do you start casting for the new characters?

That will have to wait for the script.

You must have some ideas already?

I actually don’t. Dean talked a little bit about a couple of characters but I’ll have to read a little bit about what they’re like before I can even start to think about casting. We have a great casting director and she and I talk about it, come up with ideas then talk to Dean about it. We’ll be waiting for Dean to get on that once he gets done with the script.

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Casting must be one of the more exciting parts. It’s when you can see something start to come to life, in some sense. There’s a long process before you get the image locked down but you might start hearing the voices quite early.

Definitely, but it has to take place in Dean’s mind. I’m holding back for now. Sometimes I have an idea but he has a more definite idea. For example, he specifically wrote the Valka part for Cate Blanchett.

I can’t imagine who else it would be.

I know. And he didn’t want to hear anything else I might say. He told me specifically “I’m writing this for her, let’s try to get her.” Fortunately for us, it worked out.

So how did you end up being the keeper of the dragons? Did Jeffrey put you on this?

At that time we were a lot smaller studio and we didn’t have that many projects. I knew about this because the producers regularly meet, a development group where we’re looking for material. To be honest, one of our development guys went to a children’s book fair and found this book, brought back copies for us to read.

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I was three or four months from finishing Over The Hedge, I remember it was a Saturday and I was working, I bumped into Jeffrey and he said “Come and talk to me. Have you thought about what you want to do next?”

I said “I’m not sure.”

“Well, you tell me. Whatever you want to do, you’ll let me know.”

“I’ll be honest, I love that book we optioned, How To Train Your Dragon. I love the world, there’s something about the main character, I think there’s a good movie there. I know you want to move forward right away and I’m unavailable for probably six months.”

“Well, that’s okay. If that’s the one you want to do, we’ll wait for you.”

Isn’t that flattering!

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I was very flattered and I have to say that I feel like Jeffrey entrusted me, and I feel a lot of ownership, in a good way.

Then you chose Chris and Dean?

Yes, I did. We were looking for the right directors. We tried some different avenues. One was a more straight adaptation of the book and it’s not that it didn’t work, it’s just that it wasn’t exactly the movie that Dreamworks wanted to make. We wanted something with broader appeal. Chris was there developing The Croods at that time, and I knew Chris and Dean from Disney, though we didn’t work together there, they were doing Lilo & Stitch as I was doing Tarzan.

Chris immediately said “I have a great idea of how to do this, and I think it’s how you’re thinking, but I need to call my partner, Dean, and I think it’s his sensibility.” So Dean and Chris came in, and I shouldn’t say I chose them but that we found each other. We found the right match for the material.

Was it then considered a complete no-brainer to keep you and Dean on the sequel?

They put The Croods on hold during Dragon one and Chris was obligated to go back, and he wanted to, he had a script, they had a team standing by, so Jeffrey came to Dean and I and said “How do you feel about continuing this on your own?”

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And Dean said “I’m not interested in a sequel that is just another version of the same story” and he then pitched a trilogy, the coming of age of Hiccup and Toothless in two movies that could stand on their own but really complete this journey. It sounded interesting and different.

How does it affect the pipeline to know that when you’re making a film, a further one is guaranteed?

Well, one of our fantasies was to make two and three together, like they sometimes do in live action. I think they made a couple of the Pirates Of The Caribbean films that way, but it just wasn’t realistic at Dreamworks and the way we do things. And we were already creating a whole new pipeline because we had this new software.

So, just so I totally understand, why couldn’t you do it that away? Why wasn’t this a way that Dreamworks could do things?

Honestly, we felt like it was… well, you know, I don’t have all the answers. We had the outline for a second movie and a third movie, Dean proceeded to write the second movie’s script but not both scripts at the same time. Then we had to get started because we had a release date.

He was contemplating going on to the third script, but it’s hard when you have the writer and director as the same person. We thought it was more important to make sure the second movie could stand on its own. We did end up taking a few ideas from the third movie pitch and incorporating them into the second movie, so we thought we better put a pin in the third movie, finish the second, make that work in and of itself.

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It was more of a creative choice. It was better to make this movie, again, stand on its own especially because in animation, where it takes time to finish a movie, it would be weird to leave people hanging years to see how the story ends.

Dean then went back to the outline, kept the overarching story he first pitched, but filled it out with some new plot ideas.

We’ve all got a new chance to look at the movie again now, on DVD and Blu-ray, and now we can pause it and rewind. Is there something in there, something small or subtle, that we should keep our eyes peeled for?

Every scene is interesting, and if you listen to the commentary and watch Dean’s documentary, you’ll appreciate the film more. Some of the fun things to do are to watch the film and listen especially to the sound design, or listen especially to the music.

Or maybe you could appreciate all the different dragons. We have a system of changing up the dragons; change their colours, change the heads out and put them on different bodies, make them look different.

Modular dragons.

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Yes, a modular system. So you can look out for that, or some of the details in the background. Those are always fun to watch.

Thankfully, I’ve got a pretty big TV set. I’ll go take a good, close look. Thank you, Bonnie Arnold.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 is out now on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital HD.