How Disney outsider David Lowery turned ‘Pete’s Dragon’ into a hit
At first glance, director David Lowery was an unlikely choice to revive Disney’s 1977 animated classic “Pete’s Dragon” as a live-action movie. The oldest of nine brothers and sisters, the 35-year-old Lowery was raised by parents who didn’t buy into the world of Walt.
He’d never even been to Disneyland or Disney World until last year.
“My mom has been always very anti-authoritarian,” Lowery explains. “I think she perceived Disney as sort of a necessary evil.”
Despite co-writer Toby Halbrooks’ affinity for the original film — he wore out at least one VHS copy during his childhood — Lowery described his first experience with ‘Pete's Dragon’ as more of a “memento of a memory.” Or to put bluntly, the director watched it once at age 6 and “never watched it again.”
Suffice to say Lowery is not a Disney diehard (although he does confess to starting an “Under the Sea” club with his “one friend” due to his mad love of character Ariel). But Lowery’s indifference to the “Pete’s Dragon” legacy is exactly what the Mouse House wanted.
“Disney, from the very first time I heard about the project, was very clear that they did not want to remake the original in any way other than having a character named Pete and a dragon,” Lowery says. “We kept the name Elliot for the dragon, but beyond that they recommended that we not watch it. That's how much they weren't concerned.”
The strategy seems to have worked. Already the movie is amassing serious praise. Critics are calling Lowery’s film “poetic,” “warm” and “whimsical.” Perhaps what Disney needed was someone with a keen outsider’s eye.
From a back booth at the Bigfoot Lodge in Los Feliz, an admittedly on-the-nose location selected in an attempt to conjure a bit of woodsy shtick from this reporter, it becomes clear that Lowery’s work and thoughts are infinitely more layered than a bit of taxidermy window dressing.
One minute he’s discussing the ever-changing brain patterns of the modern-day audience and how he plugged his discoveries about faster pacing into “Pete’s Dragon,” the next he’s handing over his phone to show off a picture of his cats (he has two), one of the many animal inspirations behind Elliot the dragon.
“There's a scene where [Elliot] wakes up in his cave, and it's like a 30- or 40-second shot of just him waking up, and every bit of behavior in that shot is based on one of my cats,” Lowery says with pride. “So much of the rest of it is dog behavior, because that's what you want this character to be. You want it to be a giant puppy dog.”
Extolling praise on Weta (the visual artists behind the big, green puppy dragon), Lowery excitedly describes how he could pinpoint the exact frame in which the giant CG dragon was going to blink.
Lowery delights in the details, but there was always one goal in this director’s mind.
“This is a movie that's made specifically for 7-year-olds,” the director says.
That meant stepping away from the overly complicated plot lines of modern filmmaking, keeping it simple. It’s a story about a boy and his dragon.
“It doesn't have that many wheels turning in terms of the plot, but I do think it is a very emotionally complex story,” Lowery says. “I think there's not a huge precedent for that in modern children's entertainment. I feel that that is something that will engage kids in a way they don't expect, I hope.
“I think it respects [children’s] emotional intelligence. I didn't want to make them feel that everything was going to always be OK. I wanted kids to go into this movie and see that things can get pretty dark at times in the world, and see that there are things in life that can be pretty upsetting, but that at the end of the day it is possible to get through them. I find that children's entertainment usually sidesteps that in favor of comedy, or goofiness, or just very reductive emotions.”
In the 2016 “Pete’s Dragon,” the new Pete (played by young actor Oakes Fegley) and the new Elliot have vacated the fictional New England fishing town of Passamaquoddy. Today’s dragon lives in an unnamed forest of the Pacific Northwest.
But while Lowery can probably tell you with great specificity where each strand of fur was placed on Elliot’s muzzle (side note: fur on the dragon was another specific stipulation Lowery asked of Disney in his initial pitch), the director can’t tell you the place or time period in which his “Pete’s Dragon” is set. And that’s intentional.
He is deliberately misleading. The oldest car on set is from 1987, but the characters’ clothes are from the late 1970s and early ’80s. Indie folk band the Lumineers and singer-songwriter master Leonard Cohen both share space on the soundtrack. It creates the feel of nostalgia without forcing a character to bust out a Rubik's Cube.
Lowery used a similar timeless aesthetic in his award-winning indie "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," which made a splash at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Setting a film’s action in the hazy ether of an distant past has a very specific purpose, Lowery says. It brings the magic.
“It makes everything feel a little bigger, and it makes everything a little bit more fantastical, even in very realistic stories,” he says. “I like little touches of magical realism. I find that, for me, it's a little bit easier to accept magic when it occurs in the past. It's very hard for me to believe in it in the present. It's very hard for me to look at the world around me and see the magic that might be there, or might not be there. But if it's set in the past, I can accept it whole-heartedly.”
In “Ain't Them Bodies Saints,” he says, “We had a guy who breaks out of prison and doesn't get caught. The idea that he could get away with what he gets away with in that movie and just walk around a town without being spotted makes sense to me if it was in the past. But if it was in the present I wouldn't buy it.”
This magic is what drew actor Robert Redford to the project; he plays Meacham, the only man in Lowery’s town who still believes in the mystical.
“The timing of the film is very much a part of the overall picture here, which is, we’re living in such dark times,” Redford says over the phone. “Darkness is all around us and a lot of the entertainment reflects that darkness. There’s a lot of violence, most of it coming from video games. It’s a very dark, somewhat cynical and depressing [time]. But to have a film that’s so uplifting come out at this time is kind of a wonderful idea.… The kid never leaves us completely and we can all remember when we were children and when words meant something to us, like the word ‘magic.’ I think that it’s also really important to have an uplifting, upbeat film at this time. And even though it’s centering to children it’s also a film that applied to adults.”
As for Lowery’s vision as a director, Redford says, “He knows what he wants, he’s very, very strong-willed.” At the same time, Redford was equally excited and surprised when Lowery let him expand his character beyond the original script, “[Lowery] was totally open to that and he allowed me to step in and open the character up a little bit and make him a little more part of the overall picture,” Redford says. “That ability I think is extraordinary.”
When asked what it was like directing the film legend alongside an imaginary CG dragon Lowery jokes, “Working with Robert Redford minus the dragon is an experience in and of itself.
“It's impossible to separate him from the legend that he is,” Lowery continues. “He is remarkably adept at disarming you, and letting you know that he is just one of the dudes. He is a hard worker, and he comes ready to work. He rolls up his sleeves and gets to work, and is very respectful of his role as an actor, and my role as a director. He never overstepped his bounds, even though he's directed so many amazing movies.”
Whether it came to imaginary dragons or attaching a stuffed cat to the end of a camera mount to get the younger actor playing Pete to pay attention, Lowery kept his vision intact. He says that the finished product is pretty similar to the movie he pitched Disney three years ago, deep in a sea of remake possibilities (neither the “Magnificent Seven” nor “Highlander” remake interested him).
Lowery went after “Pete’s Dragon” because he always wanted to tell a children’s film that could be more than a juvenile picture. Something akin to “Black Stallion,” “E.T.” or even “Ernest Scared Stupid” (a film unafraid to go dark and another big influence on this movie).
But will his folks like it? The parents who didn’t keep a television in the house and made him read three books before they would allow his 10-year-old self watch “Terminator 2” (so he consumed “A Tale of Two Cities,” “The Cay,” and “Henry V” all in one day).
Lowery is confident, “When I broke the news I was making a Disney movie, I think there was a little concern that I was just becoming a corporate stooge of some sort. But I think they're going to really love it. They're going to watch it, and they're going to recognize me all through and through.”
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