Robert Redford on Pete’s Dragon: ‘To Me, It Was Brand New’

The legendary actor and director discusses Pete’s Dragon, the Sundance festival and more.

Attach the name Robert Redford to a film and it automatically brings a certain gravitas to the project — you sit up and take notice and think that this must be something special if Redford is lending his name to it. Remember what a coup it was when Marvel landed the celebrated screen legend for a major role in Captain America: The Winter Soldier? Well, Disney and director David Lowery have scored something similar by casting Redford in Pete’s Dragon, the new mostly-in-name-only (they both have a boy named Pete who bonds with a dragon named Elliott) remake/reboot of the 1977 Disney film that was half live-action, half animation and all-around second or even third tier for the studio.

Not this time, though. The new Pete’s Dragon — all live-action except for the huge, furry, green beastie of the title — is a different animal entirely, pardon the pun. Under the direction of Lowery, whose previous film Ain’t Them Bodies Saints was a somber, meditative crime drama, Pete’s Dragon is lyrical, even poetic, heightened by beautiful imagery and the moving relationship between young, orphaned Pete (Oakes Fegley) and gentle, lonely Elliott. Then there’s Redford as Mr. Meacham, the old-timer who claimed to have seen the dragon once before in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, and whose daughter, forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) turns to him to help solve the mystery of Pete and his “friend.”

“It started with the diversity,” said Redford in a recent roundtable interview when asked what appealed to him about doing the movie. “It was very diverse from anything I had done, up until that point, and have subsequently done. And there was the idea of going back to my own childhood, which was based on storytelling. I grew up very near here in a very lower working class neighborhood where there’s not much to do, so storytelling became something to keep you alive. Storytelling was a way to see the world bigger than the one you were looking at, and that had great appeal for me. I think since that was part of my upbringing, it became part of me, and I wanted to pass it along to my kids and my grandkids. I thought, ‘If you could ever do a project that really has magic in it, and justifiable magic, you should do it.’ This was it. I didn’t see the other iteration of Pete’s Dragon. To me, it was brand new.”

Asked what he enjoyed about playing Mr. Meacham, the star of movies like All the President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor responded, “Small things. He’s a wood carver, and he seems to be a man who’s totally alone in his very small sphere of operating, in this dark room. He’s carving wood and suddenly he hears something outside, and it’s children, so he bursts out. I love that moment, being able to scare them, and then pull them together to tell them a story. He tells a story that no one really believes, but they like hearing it anyway. And then, they find out that it’s true. I love that angle on it. I thought it was fun.”

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Redford was familiar with Lowery from Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, which screened at Redford’s iconic Sundance Film Festival a few years ago. “We loved that film,” he recalled. “It was in the festival and I really liked it. I thought it was really well done and an intimate story. So, when (Pete’s Dragon) came up, I thought it had a weird sense of intimacy, but not in a way that took on a whole other thing. I was curious about it. The part was narrower in the beginning and not totally fleshed out. It didn’t need to be because it was about the dragon and about the boy.”

Working with Lowery as a director was also a fruitful experience for Redford, who of course is an acclaimed director himself. “David Lowery was very welcoming, in terms of saying, ‘Here’s the character. Do you want to add something? Do you want to shift anything? I’d like your input,’” Redford said. “He allowed me to enter the character and have my own way with him. That drew me even further into it. I got to design my own character, a little bit, in addition to what was written. That allowed me to get to know him more and, as a result, we’re doing a film in the fall.” (The film they’re doing is The Old Man and the Gun, based on a true story about a bank robber who was caught and escaped 17 times.)

Speaking of the Sundance Festival and the Sundance Institute, both of which have been breeding grounds now for untold numbers of talented filmmakers, Redford was asked if he thought Sundance would be considered the most important accomplishment of his storied career. “The Sundance Institute is just an extension of something I believed in, which is creating a mechanism for new voices to have a place to develop and be heard,” mused the actor. “I wanted to just keep giving them more opportunities and hope that they reach broader audiences. It’s not like it’s going against the film industry or the Academy. It’s just about trying to enhance it and add more to it.

“I think that was misconstrued, for a long time, when I started Sundance,” he continued. “First of all, it was in Utah and not (Los Angeles), so I was treated like an insurgent in the hills that would come down and attack. It was simply because the land I had in Utah was the only thing that I could afford. I couldn’t have afforded to do something like that in an urban environment. So, I thought, ‘What if we do it in nature? It might add something to it.’ It took a while for that to get through, but I had good intentions.”

The initial idea, the non-profit Sundance Lab, was the first thing that Redford got off the ground with the help of friends in the business. “I depended on colleagues of mine, who were writers, directors, actors, cinematographers and editors, to come up and give two to three weeks of their time,” he said. “I was dependent on the generosity of my colleagues. That’s how it started. And then, once we realized that we were helping them develop their skills so that they could get their films made, suddenly I realized that there was nowhere to go. The mainstream studios had a relationship with the theaters and they didn’t allow any space, so there was nowhere to go, which led to the idea of a festival.”

Because he didn’t have room for a theater at the Sundance Institute, Redford looked to nearby Park City which had “just one theater and maybe four restaurants,” he recalled. “When we first started, we thought it would never work. No one cared about independent film, and we were doing it in Utah, in Mormon country. We were really asking for it. We had the one theater and maybe 30 films, with 12 or 14 documentaries. I would stand outside the theater trying to get people in, like some guy outside of a strip joint. That’s how it started.”

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The festival has grown into an international event now, with scores of films and as many as 70,000 people attending each year. The festival’s growth and the development of Park City itself has led to a situation where there might not enough room for Sundance in the mountain town for much longer. “That’s a problem,” admitted Redford. “For whatever reason, people associate the festival with Park City. A lot of people think Sundance is Park City, but it’s not. It’s about 30 miles away. It’s going to be a problem. I don’t worry about Sundance because we have control of that land there. The Institute develops there, and it exhibits in Park City.

“I think Park City realizes that we bring a lot to that city, in a short amount of time,” Redford continued. “We bring not only multitudes of people from all over, and it’s put it on the map, but they also make a lot of money. We bring 60 to 80 million dollars into the economy. That’s a lot. Money speaks in Utah. So, the question is, how are they going to accommodate us? They’re going to have to create some space for us. They’re going to have to do something that allows us to stay, and I think they realize that. The mayor certainly does. So stay tuned.”

With his 80th birthday looming next week (August 18th), Redford remains as active as ever with the Sundance Institute and Festival, his own directorial projects (he prefers to act in the fall and direct in the spring, so watch for something starting up next spring) and acting in films like Pete’s Dragon and the upcoming science fiction drama The Discovery. Asked if he feels a new vitality in his career, the actor said, “I think you just keep going. I’ve been that way my whole life. I’m always moving forward and trying new things. It helped that I was in athletics ‘cause I could always do new sports and keep very physically active. I think that’s just passed through my life, in general. I’ve always wanted to try new things because it’s exciting and it keeps you active and alive. That’s just the way it is.”

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