From director David Lowery, the fantastical and magical story of Pete’s Dragon tells the tale of an adventure of an orphaned boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley) and his best friend Elliott, who happens to be a dragon. When a forest ranger (Bryce Dallas Howard) comes across a mysterious 10-year-old with no family and no home, who claims to live in the woods with a giant, green dragon, she turns to her father (Robert Redford) for help in determining where Pete came from and the truth about this dragon.
At the film’s press day, actress Bryce Dallas Howard did a roundtable interview, in which she spoke about being a fan of the original Disney film, although very different from this one, how she got involved with the project, what she wanted to achieve with this character, looking at scripts with a director’s eye, how Pete’s Dragon compared to Jurassic World, and the experience of working with Robert Redford. She also said that she would be doing the Jurassic World sequel in 2017, with the promise of #NoHeels2018.
Question: How did you get involved with this? What attracted you to this project?
BRYCE DALLAS HOWARD: I first encountered this because I heard that it was happening. I loved the 1977 version, which is so different from this. They’re not even related. I was just curious about how they were doing it. So, I got the script and I was really surprised about how different it was and how moved I was by this story. Immediately, it felt very sentimental to me and very emotional. I was just like, “I would love to be a part of this.” And then, I eventually got to be a part of it, which was fantastic.
What did you most identify with, with this character, and what was it like to play a forest ranger?
HOWARD: The thing that was my primary focus, in this movie, was that I didn’t want to over-complicate things because I’m an adult character. When I was a kid watching children’s films, and even now when I watch children’s films, and it’s a scene between two adults, I’m like, “Come on, get to the dragon!” It was this balance of wanting to be of service to the primary story, which is about a boy and his dragon, but I also want to think about my character and figure everything out. So, I was twisting myself up about it until my husband said something that was really helpful, which was, “Bryce, I think it’s simple. I think you speak to Pete like you talk to our kids.” It seems like such an obvious thing, but moment I was doing a scene with Oakes [Fegley] in that frame of mind, I was like, “Oh, okay, she’s his mother!” We don’t know that, in the beginning, but she is his mother. It was really my first time playing a mother. For me and for Grace, the story is really about becoming a mother and her stepping into that role, and not in a way where she’s resisting. She is a complete character, and yet something else is fulfilled within this story. And the ranger stuff was really cool because I love going into the forest. I spent my entire childhood in Connecticut outdoors, except the beauty of New Zealand is that there are absolutely no predators. I was like, “I don’t need to look down! There’s no snakes! There’s hardly any mosquitos! This is perfect!” It was really, really lovely.
When you get a script, do you read through it with a producer’s eye or as an actor?
HOWARD: I’ve been told more like a director. Even when I’m in a scene, as an actor, or I’m watching playback, I refer to the character in the third person. I think just growing up on set around my dad, and always reading his scripts from that perspective, I read things objectively and a little distant. It takes a little while to then pull out the character and figure out who this person is. I’m an outside in kind of person.
Do you have a desire to direct, yourself?
HOWARD: I’ve never directed a feature, and I would love to direct a feature. I’ve been directing short films for the last ten years. I love both the technical side and the storytelling side. I didn’t think I understood the technical side until I started working with Canon Camera and I got the chance to test out their prototypes of their emerging technology, for the last four years. I got to be the first filmmaker to direct on the C300 and the C500, which is really cool. My last little very, very short film that I shot, I shot on a 5D with Canon Prime lenses. In the ten years that I’ve been directing things, my first short film was shot on film, and then my last one was on a 5D. There’s been so much that’s changed and evolved, in the last ten years. It is exciting. Our business is still very, very, very, very young, but the business of storytelling is ancient. What’s exciting for me about filmmaking is that it’s merging these very new tools with this very old, ancient, tried and true thing that is storytelling, essentially.
They’ve both big effects films, but were there differences between filming Jurassic World and Pete’s Dragon?
HOWARD: They were comparable, I think. They both are intimate ensemble pieces, in a way, and yet there is this heavy visual effects component to both of those worlds. Interestingly enough, both Colin [Trevorrow] and David [Lowery] come from a background as independent filmmakers who, in the scheme of things, are still relatively early in their careers. Both sets felt like we were making independent movies. For Pete’s Dragon, I kept turning to the Disney exec and asking, “Are you absolutely sure we’re making a studio movie?” It felt so personal, for David, as the filmmaker. Disney was really supporting that. And I love that we’re not all in primary colors. There was a very mature, sophisticated sensibility that David lent to this story, and I think it was really beautiful. I feel, very similarly, that Colin brought the same energy to Jurassic World.
Are you already working on a sequel for Jurassic World?
HOWARD: Next year.
After everything that was made of your character wearing high heels throughout the movie, will you get to have any input on that?
HOWARD: The way Colin told me there was going to be a sequel is that he texted me, “#NoHeels2018.” And I was like, “Yay!”
What was it like to work with Robert Redford, after having a short that you directed at Sundance?
HOWARD: It’s the duality of Robert Redford. There’s the cool guy that you’re chilling with, and it feels totally normally. And then, he’s this rarified demi-god and titan. On set, it was this cool, relaxed, collaborative, fun, amazing experience. And then, when I went to Sundance and we had our official directors’ gathering and we were sitting in this very special lodge that no one knows where it is because it’s in the middle of the mountains, everyone was lining up to see him and I wanted to say hi, but I was nervous and there were security guards. I was like, “Hey, I don’t know if you remember me.” And he was like, “Bryce!” Sometimes when you do a movie with someone – and I don’t know if I’ve ever worked with anyone as iconic as Robert Redford – you have this experience with them that’s this very regular, human experience. But then, when you see them in the context of everyone else, it’s suddenly very intimidating. For instance, for the first three days, I didn’t know what to call him. He’s Robert Redford, so I felt really weird saying Bob. Finally I was like, “What do I call you?” And he went, “Bob.” Still, I have to say ‘Robert Redford because it feels really weird for me to say Bob. He’s these two people, at all times. It’s crazy!
What do you think you’ve learned about directing from the directors you’ve worked with?
HOWARD: Since I fetishize directors, my thing is to learn what they’re doing and what they know, and to absorb their particularly genius. The gift of being an actor who has an interest in directing is that you get to see a lot of different directors direct in a lot of different ways. I can’t believe the people that I’ve had the chance to work with and that I’ve had the chance to learn from.
Of the directors you’ve worked with, who would you say has been the most influential?
HOWARD: This is going to sound like a cop-out answer, but there are lessons from everyone, and it will change. Depending on the kind of material you’re working on, you’ll call upon these different memories or these different lessons. You’ll be like, “How did [Clint] Eastwood do that?,” or “How did Kenneth Branagh deal with this?,” or “What’s [M. Night Shyamalan’s] process like?” Because they are so different, there are all these different tools that you learn and absorb, and it’s really cool.
Pete’s Dragon opens in theaters on August 12th.