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.
Back on June 7th, Collider (along with a number of other outlets) was invited to the El Capitan in Hollywood to preview some scenes that showcase the beautiful friendship between Pete and Elliott, and the outside threats that could tear them apart. In discussing the process of making the film, David Lowery and actress Bryce Dallas Howard talked about why this is a reimagining and not an homage or remake of the original, giving the film a timeless quality, the worldwide casting search for the perfect Pete, the great legacy of films about children, how Robert Redford adds a certain gravitas to the story, shooting in New Zealand, going as practical as possible, aside from the dragon, and designing the look of Elliott. We’ve compiled a list of 13 things that you should know about Pete’s Dragon. And for more no the film, watch the new trailer and check out my interview with Howard.
For director David Lowery, Pete’s Dragon seemed like a natural next step in his career because the tone didn’t feel that much different from Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. With all the movies he makes, he makes them incredibly personal, no matter the size, the budget, or the amount of CGI. As he finished the first draft of the script for Pete’s Dragon, he realized that it wasn’t just a movie that he was writing for Disney, as his next film, but it was a movie that he actually really wanted to make.
- Lowery considered his previous films, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Nick, as fairy tales. While Pete’s Dragon is a literal fairy tale, it falls into that same zone for him.
- Actress Bryce Dallas Howard had been chasing Pete’s Dragon for quite awhile, so being a part of the film was an immediate yes for her. Prior to reading the script, she had heard it wasn’t a straight up remake, which was the appeal for her. Howard is a longtime fan of Pete’s Dragon and even reads the story to her kids, all the time. Because of her love, she didn’t want to make a carbon copy movie, but instead something that followed the same themes. Seeing Elliott come alive and be everything that they wanted him to be has made things exciting and real for her.
- It was important to Lowery to make sure the film has a timeless quality. He said, “I just feel when you have a movie that has a fantastical concept in it, you’re going to accept it more easily, if it has the veil of time hanging over it. To set something in the past, you’re just a little bit more accepting that maybe there was magic there that you might have overlooked, in your own past. I also find that the movies that I return to and that I love the most are the ones that don’t feel dated. If you want to go see a historical epic, great. I’m glad that they’re so specific. But, there are other films that endure because they don’t root themselves in a specific time. I wanted this film to feel like that. I didn’t want this film to feel contemporary. If someone pulls out an iPhone, you put that up against the dragon and you get this weird disparity that doesn’t quite work. That was part of the look of the film and the production design that we did. It all congeals into this cohesive whole that doesn’t have a literal date on it, but feels like yesterday.”
- They did a worldwide casting search and saw thousands of kids to find Pete. The casting director, Debra Zane, brought about 150 kids to the attention of Lowery, who said that every kid was great, in their own way. For Pete, he was looking for someone who was a little unvarnished and not perfect, and who didn’t have a training quality to him. He’s usually not looking for a child who can cry on cue. He prefers to create a context for them to be themselves, and then just sits back and lets them do that. When Oakes Fegley walked into the casting room, Lowery knew immediately that he met that criteria. He had the sensitivity and the resilience, where you could believe that he survived in the conditions that Pete had to survive in.
- Even though Lowery has child actors read some dialogue, he also likes to come up with things for them to do, like taking every chair in the room and building something with it, or finding someone in the room to sneak up on.
- There is a great legacy of films about children that inspired Lowery, like T., The Never-Ending Story, The Black Stallion, The Red Balloon, or the films of Hayao Miyazaki. With the lead character being a child, he wanted to be respectful of children and their feelings, and to be accurate to his memory of what it was like. He wanted to present that version of wonder that you have, as a child, that makes everything seem bigger than it really is.
- Robert Redford, who plays Mr. Meacham, a wood carver whose daughter, Grace (Howard), works as a forest ranger, got involved because he’d been working on something else with Lowery. When he went to a script reading for that other project, he mentioned Pete’s Dragon. By accepting the role, it brought a lot of gravitas to the story. And on set, he was so laidback that he had all of the cast and crew relaxed. He even hitchhiked to set one day, and rescued a horse on the side of the road that had been in an abusive situation.
- The film is set in the Pacific Northwest, but because it’s a slightly elevated, more magical version, they shot in New Zealand, which has the forest and the weather they needed. WETA Digital is also located right there, which was very convenient. They would get up at 4am, every day, and drive two hours, so that they could shoot in remote redwood groves in the forest. They wanted it to be the best version of being out in the woods and running through the forest.
Shooting as practical as possible and with as little CGI as possible was a result of the fact that Lowery always likes things to be as real as possible. Since there would be a giant CG dragon, he wanted everything else to be real with as little green screen as possible.
- They didn’t have an actual pitch for the movie yet, but Lowery knew that for the design of the 20-foot tall dragon, Elliott, he wanted him to be furry. He said, “That’s because I love my cats. I was petting my cat and being like, ‘I wish this guy was 20-feet tall.’ He’s really my cat. They have their own Instagram account. So, I wanted him to be furry. If you put a Game of Thrones dragon in this and had him be scaly and cold, it would be cool, but I wanted it to be the kind of dragon that you really wanted to give a hug to and snuggle up with. The best way to do that is to make him furry. As soon as we tried to do things differently with the wings, it felt like other mythical beasts. But if you keep the wings, the tail and the ridge on his back, you can have fun with the rest of the design and still have it feel like a dragon, and the fur was an integral part of that.” Elliott also does breathe fire.
- Lowery wanted to avoid winks and nods to the original film, not because that film isn’t great, but because he wanted this version to exist in its own realm. “The best thing is for audiences who love the original to see this and say, ‘This is a great new film about a boy named Pete and a dragon named Elliott.’ If kids have not seen the original, this will be the first time they’ve seen it. There won’t be that moment where all of the adults go, ‘Oh, yeah,’ and the kids are like, ‘I don’t get it. What is it?’ We avoided that. We talked about having references, but ultimately we felt like it was the purer tactic. I’ve seen a lot of remakes that do that, but it always takes me out of the movie to have that little wink.”
- There are also no homages to the original film in the musical score. They do have a song in this film, but it plays into the plot.
Pete’s Dragon opens in theaters on August 12th.