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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.

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‘The BFG’ Interview: Steven Spielberg, Mark Rylance, and More Talk About This Summer’s Friendliest Film

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Steven Spielberg’s The BFG is open in theatres everywhere today, the filmmaker’s first film with Walt Disney Studios, and features the legendary director creating an almost entirely CGI world, with mo-cap characters of varying sizes (and accents), based on the beloved book by Roald Dahl. Equipped with a script from the late great Melissa Mathison as well, Spielberg has created one of his most lovable and unique films of his career here.

We recently got the chance to speak with the film’s cast members Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, and Steven Spielberg himself about the movie as well, who discussed what it was like working with motion capture in the film, Melissa Mathison’s unique script, and even why it took Spielberg this long to include a fart joke in one of his movies, to which the director replied embarrassedly:

“It took me a long time. I don’t know. I guess I’m kind of modest when it comes to flatulence. Except when it’s being done by either giants or corgies [the Queen of England’s famous dogs in the film]. I guess I’ve gotten over my modesty.”

Though Penelope Wilton had quite a lot of fun with the movie’s climactic “whizpopper” scene, and discussed how much fun it was shooting that day:

“Do you meant the farting scene? It was hard work, that scene, because each of us had to do our own take on the farting and mine went on forever! I can’t think why he kept holding it, I mean he never said ‘cut’ for ages! At the end, I was practically pink in the face under the table, but actually it was very funny that day!”

Of course, the mix between practical effects and CGI effects in the film is stunning to behold, and though the visuals are breathtaking, Spielberg’s main goal was to be able to marry the visuals and the heart of the film’s story together:

“Well, I think that the whole nature of my approach to The BFG was to be able to do both. Was to be able to use technology to advance the heart and create a flawless transposition between the genius of Mark Rylance to the genius of WETA, as they were able to digitally translate Mark’s soul onto film in the character of The BFG. And so all the work we did was to get back to basics. I knew Mark was going to really knock this out of the ballpark, but I didn’t want the ball to land at the end of a motion-capture volume. I wanted the ball to land in the lap of the audience. I think WETA paid more careful attention to how to preserve what Mark had given us on the day. Their artists did an amazing job translating Mark. There’s about 95 percent of what Mark gave me and Ruby on the screen now. And that’s because technology today allowed us to do it. Five years ago, we could not have made [The] BFG this way. The technology wasn’t there for it.”

For Rylance as well, getting to perform with motion-capture was one of the most interesting aspects of the film as well, especially since the actor usually doesn’t like seeing himself on the big screen, but this time, found the transformation exciting:

“I had no idea what this would look like and I thought a lot about whether or not I should ask Steven whether I should be involved in the input, but I thought, well no, he’ll know what’s right.But it wasn’t uncomfortable as seeing myself normally on film, which I usually can’t bear, and I can’t see what other people to see. This was different enough because there was a little more distance, and it was a little more comfortable watching it.” 

Rylance even tried to get advice from some of the other mo-cap vets in the business right now, including Andy Serkis himself, but revealed that he was unable to get through to him:

“I tried to, but they’re all so busy you can’t get through to them! I tried to get through to Andy Serkis, but it’s obviously such a big thing right now, so he’s so busy. Even his friend, who was trying to get through to him for me said, ‘He never calls me back!’ So I couldn’t get through, but that’s alright. It made sense after awhile.” 

The Academy award-winner even revealed that he based The BFG’s walk in the film on his step-daughter’s father, a runner who usually swings his arms with his legs. Though, Rylance’s excellent performance in the film might be for naught, if the lead actress wasn’t able to communicate well with him onscreen, something that Ruby Barnhill manages to do with ease.

Spielberg talked about finding the young actress while filming last year’s Bridge of Spies:

“Casting Ruby was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, because she’s just so impossible! But Nina Gold, my casting director, looked at about 300 girls from different English-speaking countries, and I looked at about 150 myself, and when I saw Ruby’s reading, I went crazy. I’d been looking for over half a year, actually longer throughout eight months, and we got the Ireland tapes and the Australian tapes in, we get the Wales tapes in… and I was shooting Bridge of Spies and I thought that I was never going to find my Sophie.

Until I was about halfway through the Berlin shoot, which was near the end of the movie, when I was Ruby’s reading and I immediately went crazy, and I showed it to my wife who’d seen a lot of the tapes and she thought Ruby was glumptious (a gobblefunk word from the movie that means “scrumptious”. So we flew Ruby to Berlin, and my wife interviewed Ruby while I videoed on my iPhone. I didn’t talk to Ruby at first, my wife did as well, cause I wanted to stay out of it and just let them get into a conversation and I cast Ruby before the day was over.” 

For Barnhill’s part as well, meeting Spielberg was not only a surreal experience, but meeting his wife, Kate Capshaw was as well, remembering her from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom:

“Well, I remember being on the plane with my dad and thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m gonna meet Steven Spielberg!’ But at the time, I didn’t really know how famous Steven was. Obviously, my dad did though and was so excited, but I’d only seen like the Indiana Jones films and E.T., so they were kind of like my main ones that I’d seen. But I was still really excited to meet him, but first when I met his wife Kate, I recognized her from Temple of Doom and I was like, ‘oh my gosh!’ We had a really long conversation and I talked to her about the snakes on set because I’d heard about that, so I talked to her about it. Then, eventually Steven came in and I was literally shaking at this point. My dad was there and told me to take some deep breaths, but when I met Steven, the great thing was that he made me so comfortable and so relaxed because like, when you’re feeling nervous, so it’s really nice to have someone there to calm you down and help you stop feeling nervous. It kind of felt, when I met him, like I’d known him for a long time, which was quite nice because I was like just completely relaxed by the end of everything.”

When it comes to Spielberg’s filmography though, the relationship between a creature and a child seems to be a recurring theme in his movies, with the most obvious reference being E.T.. For the acclaimed filmmaker though, the biggest draw for this film, was in its protagonist:

“What really appealed to me was the fact that the protagonist was a girl. Not a boy. And it was a very strong girl. And the protagonist was going to allow us at a certain point to believe that four feet tall can completely outrank a twenty-five feet tall giant. I got very excited that this was going to be a little girl’s story and her courage and her values were going to, in a way, turn the Cowardly Lion into the brave hero at the end, which is what she turns The BFG into. I saw all kinds of Wizard of Oz comparisons when I was first reading the book, and I saw it as a real chance to do a movie about Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion. Just the two of them.”

A lot of that credit most also be given to the film’s script as well, written by the late great Melissa Mathison, a reunion between Spielberg and his E.T. writer, which not only allows for special effects, but takes the time to find the real spectacle in conversations as well, something Spielberg was at first worried about balancing:

“When I first read the script, Melissa had already done about four drafts of it before I’d read her work, and one of the things I said, aside from that it needed more plot, which Melissa agreed with it the permission of the Roald Dahl state, we were allowed to add more story and make it a three-act story. But one of the things about the film that was I was complaining about it a little bit to Melissa was,  I said, “It’s gotta go faster. It’s gotta go faster.” And Melissa, if you knew her, she was very patient and she was very spiritual and she kept saying, ‘Now, Steve,’ she called me that like everyone else did before it showed up on the big screen, she said, ‘you know that this isn’t one of your Indiana Jones movies. You should just relax because this is going to be a story where pauses are  as important as the words I’ve written and words Dahl’s written. The pauses, the spaces, the patience of the story telling, don’t rush it, because it doesn’t work rushed. It only works unfolding the way it’s unfolding.’ And that was the best advice she could give me, and she was absolutely right. Film has its own biorhythm, and you can’t push it. You just can’t.”

And indeed, it isn’t rushed, and because of those pauses and Spielberg’s willingness to let the film breathe, The BFG is a movie with a structure unlike most other films and stands out as one of the most unique additions to his filmography over the past few years. Certainly also, one of the most unique film-going experiences you’ll have in the cinema this summer as well.

The BFG is in theatres everywhere now.