Pete’s Dragon Director David Lowery: ‘We Were Given Free Rein’

Indie director David Lowery talks getting to redo Pete's Dragon his way.

The new version of Disney’s Pete’s Dragon, which comes out this Friday, has little to do with the original 1977 movie. There are no musical numbers and the dragon, Elliott, is not an animated cartoon; in this version, directed by David Lowery, Elliott is a vast, furry, gentle but still intimidating CG creature who bonds with Pete (Oakes Fegley), a little boy left orphaned by a car accident who learns to live in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest with his gigantic best friend and protector.

Pete’s Dragon, which stars Bryce Dallas Howard, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban and the legendary Robert Redford (with whom Lowery is working next on a film called The Old Man and the Gun), is a more lyrical and almost meditative family film from Disney, and a good part of that is due to the influence of Lowery. His last feature, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, was reminiscent more of something you might see from Terrence Malick than the Mouse House, but the same poetic quality and gorgeous imagery has carried over to Pete’s Dragon and made it one of the most unusual children’s films of the year.

Den of Geek spoke with Lowery at the film’s Los Angeles press day about doing a Disney remake, adapting his style to the material, designing Elliott and working with Redford.

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Den of Geek: What was the lure of doing this for you? Pete’s Dragon isn’t one of the great classic Disney titles. What appealed to you about taking this on?

David Lowery: The appeal to me had nothing to do with the original film. It purely had to do with the fact that Disney wanted to make a version of it that was, for all intents and purposes, an original film that used another movie’s title, which technically is still a remake, but they didn’t want to remake the original. They wanted to have nothing to do with the original, for better or worse. I think that they recognized that the movie is not one of their classics and saw an opportunity to tell a new story with it and to use that title as a little way to get a little bit of that intellectual property value to come through. But, at the same time, it would provide a jumping off point rather than a touchstone to anchor us down.

So getting to tell a brand new story was appealing, but also getting to make a children’s film was appealing. That’s what really drew me to it. I saw this as an opportunity to make an original children’s film and to make something that, if we succeeded, would be a classic children’s film. And it happened to share a title with another film. And it had a built-in narrative, which was the boy had to be friends with a dragon and that boy had to be named Pete. And beyond that we were given free rein to do whatever we wanted, and that was great, because, you know, I don’t have any problem with remakes, but I don’t like movies that don’t offer anything new or don’t provide anything new. The fact that Disney would recognize that this was an opportunity to  do something that would provide a new experience for audiences was really meaningful to me and was the reason I was excited about pursuing it.

Was it easy to take your filmmaking style, which is a little more esoteric in a way, and mesh it with a big Disney family film?

It totally was. I was worried that it wouldn’t be. I was worried that there’d be pushback from the studio on certain things or just micromanagement. I don’t deal well with micromanagement, as very few people do. And I was worried that this would be one of those instances where an indie director goes and makes a studio film and it’s a disaster. We’ve seen a lot of those. We all know the movies that have suffered for the reason.

So it was a little trepidatious. But, at the same time, my goal in making this was not to go make a dark, gritty indie Disney movie. I just wanted to make a classic Disney film that…I think my goal going into it was to make a movie that I would have loved when I was seven. And I loved Disney movies when I was seven. I was obsessed with The Little Mermaid. I love Fox and the Hound. Pinocchio was the very first movie I ever saw. So I didn’t want to do anything that would step on or tarnish the Disney brand. I wanted to support the Disney brand, but I also wanted to make my movie.

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In that, there was a perfect marriage of intent that I think the studio trusted me to make a great Disney movie. They also wanted my perspective on a Disney movie. I wanted to make a classic Disney movie and I wanted to make that Disney movie mine. So all those things came together in the perfect blend of intention and resulted in a really positive, harmonious, creatively satisfying, and, ultimately, very…It resulted in a movie that I feel like everyone can be proud of. The studio can be proud of it. They can set it next to all of their other movies in their current slate and be proud of having another potential classic. And I can be proud of it because I made a very personal movie and did so under the auspices of doing a film I think children will value and get something from and be entertained by.

I read that you sort of based the dragon on your own pet?

I’ve got two cats. Well, at the time I had four. Two of them were old, so they’re not with us anymore. But I’ve still got two little guys who we fostered when they were born and ended up adopting a few months later. That was right when the movie got up and going as a screenplay, right when I got this job to write the screenplay. So just kind of naturally, my affection for them worked its way into the affection Pete and Elliott have for each other.

When I went and pitched the studio on the movie, I described the story, and how the tone would be, and what the characters would be, and included the details — the dragon would be furry. And no one raised an eyebrow at that. They all thought that sounded great. That was very important. I really wanted the dragon to be furry because I relate to furry creatures immensely. My happiest moments are at home cuddled up with my cats. I just wanted to represent a 20-foot tall version of that relationship as best I could. But every animal is in there. We’ve got bears. We’ve got tigers. We’ve got obviously a lot of the dog. Hopefully, anyone that has ever experienced a bond with another animal will see that relationship represented onscreen.

Did Elliott actually go through a lot of iterations, furry or not? Was he kind of set in your mind early on?

He was pretty much set in my mind from the beginning. He did not really change that much. I drew this picture that was a really rough pencil sketch of his general size and shape and feel. My brother is an illustrator, so he did a lot of the concept art for us. Then we hired a bunch of other concept artists just to go exploring. We basically hired some of the best folks in the business and the people that I admired, like the gentleman who did all the creatures for Pacific Rim came onboard for a little bit. We got Brian Froud, who did Labyrinth. We kinda just let them run wild with the concept, read the script and kinda just come up with some designs, just to see what else was out there.

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We have a library of really cool designs, but none of them were right. And a lot of times we found that dragons would cease to become dragons very quickly and become other mythical beasts. They’d become chimeras or griffins very, very quickly.  So ultimately, we dialed back and I found that this drawing that I had done was probably still the best version of it. So then I just gave that drawing to some designers and had them base the design off that. Right away they kind of hit a homerun. We got the design nailed down very, very quickly from that point forward, gave that to Weta and Weta did their thing where they build a skeleton and adjust to make it work to address the design and make sure it can work in the physical world. And then he was done.

It really went very quickly once we decided that that original concept that I had was the right way to go. It was reassuring in my heart to feel like my instincts were pretty spot on. When you are directing a movie, you are always looking for signs that your gut instinct does, indeed, lead you in the right direction, because so many times that’s all you have to go on. So any time you have a little moment where you’ve been proven right, it validates you and gives you the support you need to make it through the rest of the shoot, which will often be grueling and testing you on so many levels that you lose confidence. So any little thing like that I think can keep you feeling like you do know what’s going on and you do know what’s best for the movie is always helpful.

Let’s talk about Robert Redford, because you have a bit of a history with him before this and it’s always a big thing to get Robert Redford in a movie.

It definitely was. We’ve been developing this other project which we’re hoping to make this year. I’ve only met him at that point like three or four times, maybe. Obviously, at Sundance you see him, but as a filmmaker going there, you don’t often get the chance to just go up and talk to him. So I didn’t really meet him until after I had a film there. And I went in to meet him about this other project. So we spent a while developing that.

And when Pete’s Dragon reared its head and became the project that I was going to do next, there was this character in it who was the old-timer who had seen a dragon. At that point in the movie he was sort of crazy. He was sort of a goofy comic relief character. We were talking about casting, who would best be fit for that part. You’ve got your list of actors of a certain age. You go through them and some of them feel right, some of them don’t. Suddenly, I realized that I’d already been working with an actor who should be on that list but wasn’t.

I’ll be very upfront in saying the part at that point was not appropriate for Robert Redford. But suddenly, considering him in that role made me very excited because I saw a lot of potential and knew we had to do some rewrites, but there was a ton of potential. So we just sent it to him and he read it and liked it. But I think, initially, he felt that the project wasn’t for him. I told him that I wanted to rewrite it for him and to make it right for him, and if he would read it again in a couple weeks I would have a new draft.

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So we went off and wrote it with him in mind. That’s always a great thing as a writer to do, to write with an actor in mind once you know that they are going to play that part, because if you’ve seen them in other movies, you can tailor it to what you know their strengths are. And you don’t have to box them into something they’ve done before. But nonetheless, you just tailor it specifically for them. I always try to do that once we start casting. So he read that draft and said yes and came aboard and really gave the movie a gravity that it never had before. I think people started taking it seriously. It wasn’t just the goofy remake of the 1977 Pete’s Dragon. It was suddenly a movie starring Robert Redford. And that was a feather in our cap that I will wear proudly.

It was also wonderful to develop a working relationship as a director with him, because at that point I hadn’t, and now going into the next film we have a rapport. I know how to work with him. I know all sorts of little things I wouldn’t have known before. So it was great to have that month with him on set to sort of mentally prepare of the next film we’re going to do together. As a bonus, a pretty big bonus, we get him in Pete’s Dragon giving a really fun performance that I don’t think anyone’s ever seen him do before.

Pete’s Dragon is out in theaters this Friday (August 12).