Director David Lowery’s reimagining of the much-loved and cherished Disney family film 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.
After a presentation of scenes at the El Capitan that gave a first look at the beautiful friendship between Pete and Elliott, Collider got the opportunity to chat with filmmaker David Lowery for this exclusive interview about how he felt most prepared to take on Pete’s Dragon, what he found most challenging, the length of his first cut, just how close the film has turned out like his initial pitch for it, always knowing that he’d find the right child actor to play Pete, and what makes the bond between Pete and Elliott so special. He also talked about being on the same page with everyone on Disney, why they wanted to make another film together right away, how he’s approaching a live-action Peter Pan, and why there’s still room for another taken on the popular fairy tale.
DAVID LOWERY: In terms of being prepared to take it on, I think that my expectations were in check and, ultimately, I approached it as nothing more than doing what I do with any movie, which is trying to tell a good story, as thoroughly as possible, and to use the tools I have at my disposal. On the one hand, you’ve got more cameras on a big-budget movie, you’ve got a crane, and you’ve got bells and whistles, but ultimately, the tools I rely on the most are cinematic language. That’s the thing that matters to me, when it comes to movies, and the actors, directing the actors and getting the performance out of them. I felt very prepared for that because I didn’t expect there to be any difference there, and indeed, there wasn’t. It was very similar, in that regard, to every other movie that I’ve made, including the $12,000 movie that kicked off my career. The very first day of principal photography was shooting Pete and Elliot running in the river, and I remember doing that and thinking, “Yeah, this is exactly like how I would have done this six years ago, when I was making St. Nick,” which my first film when we had no money. There really wasn’t that big of a difference, in terms of the process. You could look over your shoulder and see the army of crew and all of the trucks at base camp, but when it comes down to the creative process, it’s pretty much exactly the same.
The areas that were new to me were, of course, the special effects, but we wanted to have very little of that in the movie. Aside from the dragon, there was very little CG. There’s the usual clean-up, like painting telephone pole lines out, but I did that on my indies and I did that myself. This time, it was other people doing it. Post-production was a little different. That was the surprise to me, that that was a different beast. We had a lot more time, and we needed more time to get all of the effects ready. Just learning how to work with effects in post was a different challenge, and that was a learning curve. You really have to learn how to see things differently to get them the way you want because you’re talking to an army of WETA technicians and artists, and you have to communicate to all of them to get them to give you not just a performance, but the cinematography. They have to light the dragon . They have to do the special effects for when his footprints touch the ground and clouds of dust come up. Making a smaller movie doesn’t give you the language you need to talk about those things. Figuring that out and learning to see things differently was a big learning curve, but a really exciting one. It definitely is one of those things where I can go make a smaller movie now, and even if it doesn’t have any CG at all, I’ll use the tricks I learned in that process, just in terms of photography. Just going and shooting an actor in a chair, I’ll have a different idea of how to visualize that, based on the tools and abilities I gained in the process of going through post-production on this.
How long was your first cut of this film and how much have you had to cut it down?
LOWERY: Not much. It’s really not different from my first cut. When I got back from New Zealand, my editor had made an assembly of every scene and it was two and a half hours long. I don’t count that as my first cut because she just did that while we were shooting. So, I watched it and I’m so used to assemblies being bad because they are every scene. But I watched it and I was like, “That’s really good. It’s an hour too long, but it’s really good.” So, we cut 50 minutes out of it, and that was really the first cut. The version now is 94 minutes, so we cut another six minutes after that. It’s not that different. The great thing about this process was that I had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted the movie to be, from the very beginning, when I went into the room to pitch it. Certain things changed in the script development, but not that much. In fact, the first 30 minutes of the movie are exactly what we pitched in the room, including the editing of it. How the scenes cut together, it’s shocking how much it adhered to that.
The studio liked that initial version of it, they liked what I wrote and they liked my goals, my aims and my creative vision for it, so when they saw the first cut, “Well, you made the movie you said you were going to make. This is great!” They some things they wanted to try out, and I had things I wanted to refine, but by and large, that cut is what is going to be released. It remained consistent, through the whole thing. There were never any plot holes where we were like, “Crap, we overlooked that.” And there wasn’t any photography that we thought we could do better. We did pretty good, in terms of making the movie we wanted to make. It’s been a pretty smooth process, but it has been long because of the visual effects side of things.
Is that what led to Disney coming to you to do a live-action Peter Pan?
LOWERY: I think so. We also just really got along. Everyone at Disney, from the executives to our producers and everybody there, I just really love and get along with. They all have similar taste to me, and wonderful taste in films. Obviously, they’re in the business of making Disney movies. I’m not going to go to them to make some weird horror film. I want to make a weird horror film, but I’m not going to make it at Disney. But I loved working with them, and they, thankfully, loved working with me enough to say, “Let’s make something else together, as quickly as possible.” They’re very excited about taking their animated films and making them live-action, and they brought me the idea of making Peter Pan and asked if I had any ideas about how it could be done. I love Peter Pan to death. It’s one of the most influential pieces of storytelling in my life. It made a huge impact on how I grew up. I love the cartoon. I love the 2003 version. I didn’t know how I would do it better. Then, I started thinking, “Well, how would I do it, not better, but differently?” As soon as I started thinking that, I started getting ideas and it seemed like a good fit. We’re writing the script and that will come along, at some point.
Does the fact that another one recently came out that didn’t have the success they’d hoped, like what happened with Pan, make it easier, or does it make it more of a challenge to get audiences into the seats again?
LOWERY: I didn’t see that version, but I get the impression that not many people did. I don’t want to disparage anyone who does it because it’s a noble quest, but I don’t like going and finding the origin stories. That’s nothing something I’m interested in. I don’t want to know how someone got to where they are. I’m more interested in seeing them in the moment. That’s just my personal taste. And so, I just wasn’t interested in that film, and maybe audiences weren’t either because of that fact. I have a friend who loved it, so I think it reached the people it needed to reach, but it probably wasn’t the Peter Pan that people wanted. And maybe people don’t want Peter Pan. I don’t know. We’ll find out. But, I think it’s timeless for a reason. People do love it. I just know my own siblings love it. I know people love it. I love it. So, I think regardless of the fact that there was a version of it in recent memory, I don’t see that as a problem. I wonder if the 2003 version was too recent. I don’t know how the Universal one did at the box office, but I love that movie. It’s beautiful. But I look at that and think, “Yeah, there’s room for more. I’d go see another version of it.” So, that’s where I’m coming from with that. I’m working on the script right now, and I’ve got some other movies to make before that, but by the time we get around to making it, which will be in the relative future, I’m hoping that people will be ready to see new life breathed into that character.
So much of a film like Pete’s Dragon depends on finding the right child actor. Did you have any nights where you lost sleep, wondering if you would find the right kid, or were you too determined to make that happen?
LOWERY: No, because every movie I’ve made has had kids in it, from the shorts to the features, and I’ve always managed to find the right kid. This one was obviously bigger. In my other films, they didn’t have to do as much as they do here. Here, the kid would have to be on camera for 75 straight days. It’s a big challenge, it’s a big role and it’s a big responsibility. He has to act with something that’s not there, and he has to be incredibly emotional with something that’s not there, so there was a lot more heavy lifting that he had to do, but I was never worried that we wouldn’t find him. In the grand scheme of things, we found him pretty quickly. It really was one of those moments where we had seen a bunch of kids, and our casting director had seen far more, and [Oakes Fegley] walked in there and it was just like, “Oh, great, now we have him.” It was a very instant reaction that this was the kid that was going to play the part, and the studio felt the same way. We sent them the tape and they were like, “Tell him to stop cutting his hair,” ‘cause he was just so right. I’ve found that happens. If you look far enough, you don’t even have to look that long, you just have to be open to things and you’ll find those kids ‘cause they’re all out there.
What do you think it is that makes the friendship between Pete and Elliot so special?
LOWERY: One of the beautiful things about it is that it’s a purely emotional friendship. There’s no words to get in the way ‘cause Elliot can’t speak. I love communicating non-verbally. I find great value in it. In dialogue scenes, my favorite moments are when people aren’t talking because you can cut to the heart of the matter much more quickly, often with a look. People hide things in words. When you don’t have words to hide things in, it becomes much more direct and much more immediate of a connection. So, by having this fantastical creature, who is like an animal but maybe a little smarter, like on the level of a dolphin or maybe even more than that, in terms of his empathy and connection, but because he doesn’t communicate verbally, there’s so much more immediate connection between the characters. They just are able to form this bond that words would get in the way of.
That is the bond that I remember sharing with pets, but to a much greater degree. You always get the feeling that, at least with cats because I’m a cat person, the cats could pretty much do well without you. They don’t really need you, but they’re happy you’re there. We wanted to present Pete and Elliot’s relationship as completely symbiotic. They both get things out of it. They both learn from each other, they both benefit from each other’s presence, and they both care deeply about each other. To that extent, it’s an elevated version of a relationship with an animal. The relationships I’ve had with animals are often some of the most profound. That’s why you cry when a dog dies in a movie. The connection is so deep and so profound, and it isn’t cluttered by humanity.
Pete’s Dragon opens in theaters on August 12th.