Dean DeBlois interview: How To Train Your Dragon 2 & 3

Dean DeBlois on his How To Train Your Dragon 3 plans, Don Bluth, DreamWorks, animated movies and more...

Now out on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK is How To Train Your Dragon 2, the impressive sequel to one of DreamWorks Animation’s finest films. It’s directed by Dean DeBlois, who steered the first movie alongside Chris Sanders. And as he embarks on How To Train Your Dragon 3, he spared us some time for a chat about the films, and his early days working with Don Bluth. Here’s how the chat went…

What’s your day-to-day these days? Between knowing what the next project is and this one being finished, what have you been doing?

Well, up until Thursday I was working on the outline for the third film. I pitched that to Jeffrey Katzenberg last Thursday, then I got married on Saturday.

Congratulations.

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Thank you. I’m headed off on Honeymoon tomorrow, until the end of the month, and then I’ll be back to writing the screenplay until the end of the year.

So you pitched the outline last week, but the film was, effectively, always going to happen?

Yeah, I think from the moment that they agreed to my pitch that the second film should be the middle act of a trilogy then we always knew that there would be a third film.

Surely you told them something about where it’s all going?

In fact, I’ve been pitching an in-progress outline of the third film for the last two and a half years. There were a lot of questions. “Okay, if we’re introducing this character here, how does that play out in the final chapter?” There was always a sense of where everything was headed but the specifics of that had not really been nailed down until… well, they’re still being nailed down.

But a version of the specifics are on paper now.

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Exactly.

So, without having to give anything about the story away, put me inside that pitch meeting. What really happens in a meeting like that?

There were two meetings. The first one, I gave a list of ingredients that I was thinking about, without any real placement in terms of a story structure. New characters, new plot lines, just for me to get a feeler as to whether they were reacting negatively or positively to some of the new content. Once I had that feeling I went away and spent time working out a forty beat outline of the new movie, describing where everything would lay into its act structure.

That’s what I pitched on Thursday. I pinned it all up on a big cork board and walked them through what the movie would be in a miniaturised version.

You say a forty beat structure. So were you working to some sort of paradigm there?

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I do believe strongly in a three-act structure with the second act being split up, essentially, into two acts so it’s really four. There is a book called Save the Cat written by Blake Snyder…

I know it well.

He managed to summarise, for me, a lot of the truths I had discovered prior to having read that book. Looking back at Lilo And Stitch and Mulan, movies that I had been a part of, by the time we got things right and working in the right order, intuitively, we were essentially lining up to a lot of the principles that Blake had mapped out in that book. It’s a nice way of being able to communicate ideas, to problem solve and find the things about your story that aren’t working.

So do you literally sit down with Blake’s beat sheet, the actual one that’s in the book, and work through that?

Yeah, yeah. That’s how we structured the first movie… I do it with everything I work on. I kind of have it… I have taken what Blake has in his books and I’ve added my own philosophies about character and certain beats in the story, grafted them onto that.

The idea that gave Blake’s book its title is this beat of the hero saving a cat to establish his good-guy, cat saving credentials or empathy. When you’re doing a sequel, maybe you don’t need that beat any more. Did you still want to include that?

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You’re right, I think there’s already empathy there for the character, but a lot of sequels forget that you still have to open up with a character who has a sympathetic or empathetic problem. It was a big problem for me on the second film, in fact. How do you take a character who has achieved everything he wanted in the first film – he has his dad’s admiration, the town’s respect, the girl he was pining for, a supercool dragon, and he ended a war, he’s really now a character without a problem – then re-introduce him with something that’s universal and sympathetic.

This was part of the decision why we opened up this movie five years later in Hiccup’s life. He’s at a different rite of passage. Most of us should be able to relate to that moment where you step with trepidation into adulthood but are still unsure of who you are, feeling the pressure of parents or your environment to assimilate and become what they want you to be. I think that’s what Hiccup is really dealing with here, the demanding pressure to assume the mantle of his father when he doesn’t feel cut out for it.

I think I can just about remember back to feeling felt like that. Were you able to get back into that headspace quite easily?

I think so. I remember it being a moment in life where… well, the uncertainties of that time still linger, and the pressure of people judging for you just what you should become. I remember the feeling “Hang on, hang on, I need a minute to figure things out.”

That’s really what Valka means in the story. At first glance she is the personification of everything he’s pining for, this wild abandon, a life that’s very dragon-centric, important but without any of the restraint that his life on Berk would seem to represent.

Conversely, though, this story seems to put us in a position where the conflicts for a third film are fairly apparent at the end of the second film.

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Having read Cressida Cowell’s first book, the element that were most compelling to me were the opening lines. It was Hiccup, as an adult, reflecting back on a time when there were dragons. Just by concept there’s something really compelling and emotionally powerful to the idea that this trilogy will complete with the dragons somehow going away, why they went away, and what the mystery is that surrounds that. Could the come back? Who caused it? What transpired? All of that is very compelling to me.

I didn’t know you felt so committed to that.

I love it. I think there’s something bittersweet and powerful about it. I think my job is all about how I should deliver that story in a way that is palatable and right.

It’s quite upsetting just thinking about it.

It is, but that’s what’s compelling. Can that story be satisfying? Nobody wants to tell a disappointing story. There are great examples out there of stories like this.

I’m a great lover of stories where unlikely characters cross paths and have such a lasting impact on each other’s lives that they are changed and the trajectory of their lives have been altered, no matter how brief that intersection was. I think that element is very compelling to me as well.

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I really have to ask you this. There’s a concept, a meme really, that’s all over the internet, and it suggests that character design in Dreamworks very often offers very similar faces with very similar expressions.

Is this in reference to the posters?

They often use posters as reference but you’ll also see people pull stills and there are definitely people out there banging a drum, repeating the idea that every character in Dreamworks animation makes the same face. It’s as if there’s some kind of institutional bias in how the studio approaches its animation. Do you know what I mean?

I know what you mean. Are we included in that as well? Is that a How To Train Your Dragon thing?

I’ve seen images from Dragon in this.

I haven’t seen these particular postings, maybe, but I have seen some about the posters, about how everybody has the same, generic, goofy face as they’re either running towards camera or mugging at the camera.

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That would be a question for marketing, though, wouldn’t it?

It would. Maybe they want to freshen it up a little.

But the idea of an institutional bias is a bit of a reach, isn’t it?

Well, it could exist. I remember that when I worked for Don Bluth we couldn’t get away from this idea that anything cute had to have crossed eyes. Maybe it’s the same thing.

How did that come up? Did Don enforce that, or did he just cast certain designers who for some reason always put that into the model sheets or what?

I don’t know. It’s been there since The Secret Of Nimh, though, or maybe even Banjo The Woodpile Cat. We couldn’t get way from it.

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How did you shake this? Did it just fall away naturally when you went to work somewhere else?

Well, eventually, these things become cliches and as soon as you’re aware of it, you avoid it. I’d hope that a lot of people at Dreamworks read these responses on the internet and hearing the drums being banged because I certainly don’t want to fall into the trap of repeating a cliche.

Was there anything in the development of How To Train Your Dragon 2 that got thrown out because it was a cliche or maybe just a little too familiar?

No, not really. There were things that got thrown out because they were too challenging. One of these was that Valka was originally the villain of the film, a sympathetic antagonist in the sense that she represented everything that Hiccup seemed to be pining for but the moment he made that connection and Valka realised that they were one and the same, they came to an impasse: Valka believed so firmly in co-existence and she was so firmly on the side of segregation, being that she had seen so much hostility in the ways of mankind, the only way to protect the dragons, who she also deeply loved, was to hide them away.

When Valka heard that there were dragons on the island of Berk, she thought the only way to really keep the dragons safe with Drago on the move, was to fly there and extract them. That third act was about Hiccup trying to defend the Berk way of life and the dragons that were there from his mother.

And why did that go away?

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With Valka being a mother and mothers being quite a sensitive issue with our audience, this was a little too challenging for the young viewers. Ultimately, as one of my bosses put it, we wouldn’t be able to escape the reality that there will be kids turning to their parents and asking “Why is Hiccup fighting his mother? Why is his Mom taking away the dragons?”

As interesting and Shakespearean as that sounds in concept, and in the first few drafts, that was ultimately something we decided to cut down. We had to have Valka arc earlier and come to see Hiccup’s way of life be something that she can come to understand. That allowed Drago, who was always supposed to be the villain of the third movie, come into the second movie. That’s why he’s introduced so late, you see?

I can’t resist a political reading of anything, your film included.

[Laughs]

Do you think your film is political?

I’m always very conscious of not being didactic. I don’t like being preached at and I don’t want to be preachy. But, well, in this time of strife, I think a message of peace, with a peace-loving hero doing his best to usher in an era of peace when the world is full of conquerors and people who would like to control and abuse power, is a nice message to have in a film.

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I do too. Thank you very much, and congratulations once again. Enjoy your honeymoon!

How To Train Your Dragon 2 is out now on Digital HD, 3D Blu-ray, Blu-ray and DVD from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment