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Director David Lowery Talks About Making ‘Pete’s Dragon’ For a New Generation

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In my mind, Pete’s Dragon is the most successful live-action reimagining that Disney has made to date (read my review here), and a large part of that credit must be given to director David Lowery, who comes from some serious indie roots with some of his previous films like Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and made a movie which feels like the most expensive independent film in years. Featuring an all-star cast and some gorgeous visuals, Pete’s Dragon has emerged not only as one of the year’s biggest surprises, but also what I believe to be a new, instant classic for the studio as well.

I recently got the chance to sit down and talk to Lowery about the movie too, including how he first came on board, what his feelings towards the original 1977 film were when he first signed on for it, all the way to dissecting the film’s unique almost structureless feel, and the use of folk music in the movie’s world-building.

I may or may not have gotten him to talk about the new live-action Peter Pan film he’s working on with the studio next as well. Check out our full conversation below:

My first question is – why Pete’s Dragon? Because out of all of the Disney classics to remake, it seems like one of the less obvious ones.

That really was the reason because I didn’t really have a goal in my mind to make a Disney movie or to make Pete’s Dragon, if I was going to make a Disney movie, but I do love children’s films and I’ve always wanted to make one. So when I got the email from my agent saying that Disney was interested in doing a remake of Pete’s Dragon that wasn’t a remake, but a new story using that title, I saw an opportunity to tell a new story and make that children’s film I’ve always wanted to, and I love movies about kids and their relationship with animals or with creatures, or magical beings. You know one of my favorite Disney movies is The Journey of Natty Gann, where the girl is trying to find her father and for about half the movie she’s accompanied by a wolf and that relationship was just so meaningful and impactful to me as a kid, so I saw this as an opportunity to tell one of those stories.

It wasn’t as important to me at the time that it it had a legacy attached to it, being the 1977 film.I’d seen it as a child, and I had not gone back to watch and Disney did not encourage me to go back and watch it. I now know that it’s beloved and people love it and still watch it and show it to their children and kids still love it, so I want to make sure that I don’t want to replace the original, but this was a chance for me to make a movie that could at least stand by it, so if audiences love the original film, hopefully they’ll love this one. If they don’t, the original’s still there and we haven’t stepped on its toes in any way cause it’s a new story, and the best case scenario is that everyone loves both and I hope they do.

Well, I remember watching the second trailer when you premiered it at the El Capitan, and thinking at the time about how different it looked from both the original and what Disney is releasing nowadays. It seems like they’re striking a really interesting balance now though with these new reimaginings…

Here’s what my perspective is on it with Disney is that they have a certain type of movie they know that they can make into home runs, and it’s a fairly narrow corridor. You know you’ll have a movie like Finest Hours which came out earlier this year or Queen of Katwe which is coming out later, which is a little bit more out of left field because they’re original films, not based on any existing properties. But what Disney does best is telling these classic family stories, which often have a fairytale or magical quality to them, and they’ll make these movies and they’re gonna be great, but I think what they have realized is that they can make them even more great if they get great filmmakers to make these films for them, and you can see that in the filmmakers they’re hiring.

The ways that they’re doing it too, like with Jon Favreau doing Jungle Book, that was an opportunity not only make a new version of the story, but to also push the boundaries of technology so far that I think it’s gonna change the way movies are made. With the case of Pete’s Dragon, I think it was getting me, someone who does not make Disney movies, but grew up loving them, to tell a story and make a film that doesn’t feel like anything else in the marketplace at the moment. That was important to me, I said, ‘I’m just going to make the movie I want to make, the movie I’d want to see, and that I would have wanted to see as a seven year old, and hopefully what everyone else wants to see too. But I can’t make it not my own thing. I had the full support from the studio to make my own movie, which I thank them enormously for, and there was never a moment, ‘Alright, I’ve tricked them, I’m gonna make something crazy and weird,’ I still want to make a classic Disney movie, but I can filter it through my perspective and they supported that 100%.

It really isn’t like anything else out there right now, and something I really loved about the movie was its structure. It doesn’t have a huge climax like so many other blockbusters nowadays because it’s all really just one long act. Where did that come from?

It is, you’re right, exactly. It sort of just came about naturally, I often find when I’m writing that I generally know how a movie begins, beginnings are pretty easy for me, I have an idea of how it’ll end, but then I usually get to that ending before I get to the end, and that was the case with this. We thought we were going to have an ending be a giant climax with lots of action, because I thought, ‘Well, it’s a blockbuster, it’s gotta have that stuff,’ but then we reached the end and we hadn’t gotten there yet.

We did have a little bit more of that at one point with the bridge sequence where the fire rushes out of control and he has to save the town, but we lifted it all out, it didn’t need it. It was like six pages of the script, where we were like, ‘yeah, we don’t need those, just take it out.’ I got really excited by the idea of making the climactic set piece the same size as what would normally in a summer movie, be the opening action sequence. So if you set that as your climactic action moment and just dial it back from there, you  start off from an extremely intimate place and it never feels small, but it feels appropriate to the story.

And it still feels big for the characters themselves.

Exactly, and then it also allows, on a character front, it allows for the emotional arcs to take a precedent over the spectacle. That really is where the structure comes into play too, because it’s an odd structure like you mentioned because the movie really doesn’t start from in narrative terms, until about thirty minutes in.

Yeah, it’s like a prologue and then one act.

Yes! It’s like a prologue, and then a second prologue, and then Pete sees the people, which would in another movie, either be the ending if it’s like The Jungle Book or you would have started off with Bryce and let her discover the little boy and that’d be the opening. I just loved doing something different. I love like messing with structure, and its still structurally, completely sound, but it’s never predictable. It’s also helpful because the story itself, if you break it down, it’s not reinventing the wheel. It’s hitting all the beats you expect it to hit, but it’s doing it in a way that’s off the beaten path, which I think is valuable to me as an audience member, when I see movies that are not suprising me or pulling the rug out from under me, but are approaching something familiar in a new way.

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Well, I noticed that you used music a lot too throughout, to help keep the pace moving as well, which helped to give the movie a really nice flow. What was your decision process like finding the right musical choices and also choosing where to put it in over score?

Well, the score, which is done by Daniel Hart who’s done all of my films. We kind of just watched the movie, and we talked about where we should probably have music, but he would kind of instinctually would do stuff, and it’s usually 99% of the time right. I don’t think there’s a single cue that we removed, there’s a few that we dialed back on or moved, but I trust his instinct immensely. Then when it came to the songs, that was an unexpected development. About a month before we started shooting, we felt that we needed to have a little bit more mythology for the dragons added into the movie, but I didn’t want a scene with the characters just talking about it. Like we already had a scene with Redford’s character talking about the dragon, I didn’t want a scene where all the characters are talking about the lore. I thought to myself, ‘What’s the best way to communicate folklore? Well, music.’

So we wrote this song, my co-writer and I, wrote this song about dragons and we described it as being, in the script, it’s going to play at the beginning when we introduce the town and then again when the little girl sings it in the middle of the movie. But it was going to be a part of the folklore of the town. Once we did that, it sort of became clear to us that we might have more room for songs in the film, and then as we were nearing the shoot, my editor cut together that scene where Pete is running around downtown.

Which is one of my favorite scenes in the movie.

And I was just like, ‘You know what, can you throw in “Fare Thee Well” from ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ in that scene?’ and so she did that and that song was in the movie up until about two months ago.

I love that soundtrack so much.

Oh, it’s one of the best soundtracks and so we like, we showed it to everyone and they were all like, ‘Well, that is the movie.’ And it was to me too, that was what the movie needed to feel like. But that song was just too defined by that movie that we couldn’t use it, so Toby wrote a new song and The Lumineers performed it so that’s what’s there now. So from there, we were like, ‘Where else can we put in music?’ The scene where the characters are driving back to the house, I wanted them to be in a certain mood so I turned on that Leonard Cohen song and I was just like, ‘You know what, let’s leave it in,’ and I have to say, one of the benefits of working on a studio movie, is that you can say you want to keep a Leonard Cohen song in your movie, and they can afford it. 

Then the one where he’s going back to the woods is St. Vincent covering “Something On Your Mind,” the Karen Dalton song, which is one of my favorites. I was like, ‘I wanna get that song in the movie,’ and I don’t know if you know who Karen Dalton is, but her voice is very distinctive, she’s from the 60s and was in Bob Dylan’s scene back then. She has a beautiful voice, but it’s very weird, and so every time we tried to put it in it would kind of throw you cause you just were not expecting that voice. So I was like, ‘Well can we get someone to cover it?’ and I know St. Vincent, we were all from Dallas, and so we asked her to do it and then Will Oldham from Bonnie Prince Billy, he was in one of my other films and for the Dragon song, I knew from the beginning that I wanted Will to do that. So I asked him and he said yes, so it all just kind of came about organically, in terms of just what we wanted the movie to feel like and what we wanted it to be, all the music choices were predicated on that, but then some were just happy accidents, like seeing that Inside LLewyn Davis song matched up with that scene, and I realized, that yeah, that’s the movie we were making.

That whole movie, is one of my all time favorites. My favorite Coen Brothers movie.

Same, I love that movie. In my top three Coen Brothers movies.

Now, my last question is – I love Peter Pan, that story got me through High School – what are you going to be doing with the new film?

It got me through life basically [Laughs], so when the studio approached me for it, my immediate answer was ‘No,’ just because I didn’t want to mess with something I loved. With Pete’s Dragon it was great because I didn’t feel precious about it. Here was something that I love, and not only do I love it, but I love all the other versions of it too. The Disney movie is great, the 2003 version is great.

You know, I really like the 2003 version too.

I love it, I think it’s just a masterpiece, and so my initial answer was no because I just didn’t know what else you could do with it. What could you do differently about it from the 2003 version? But then of course, I go home and start thinking about, ‘Well HOW would I do it differently?,’ and the minute you start asking yourself those questions, and giving yourself some answers, you’re hooked. So I don’t want to say too much about it, it’s not revisionist – we’re going to do the movie, we’re going to do the story that people love and we’re going to do justice to it. But when I talk about the textures and the tones and the feels that Pete’s Dragon has, all of that has to do with that a lot of it was real.

As magical as it may get, we wanted to shoot in real places and make it all feel real, make it all feel grounded. Not in terms of like gritty grounded, but more like you can feel the dirt under your feet, I thought if I could do that, if I could make Neverland feel like a place you could actually go, because if you watch all of the previous versions, they’re all sound stages, and I was like, ‘There are beautiful places in this world that I would love to see a person flying through,’ and if I could make a movie in those places, I think that’s what I can bring to it. So that’s where we’re starting from and we’re twenty-seven pages into the script, so I’ll see you back here in two years and we can see how it went!

Pete’s Dragon is set to hit theatres on August 12th.