“To me now my Pete’s Dragon is the Pete’s Dragon” - David Lowery talks remaking and reinventing the children’s cult classic
Directors working across multiple genres is nothing new in Hollywood, lots will move from thrillers to romances to superheroes and back again throughout their careers, but some jumps do seem more like leaping across a mighty chasm.
It certainly felt like that when David Lowery, director of dark drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, producer of quirky indie comedy Listen Up Philip and owner of a spectacular moustache, was given the gig of directing the remake of beloved 1977 children’s fantasy Pete’s Dragon.
Remake is a loose term here, unlike the 1977 movie this isn’t a musical and moves the action to the 1980s rather than the early 1900s.
In Lowery’s take we follow Pete, a five-year-old boy who is on a road trip with his parents when their car flips off the road trying to avoid a deer and both his mother and father are killed instantly.
After he survives Pete is chased into the forest by a pack of wolves, only to be rescued by a dragon with green fur, yellow eyes, and huge wings. Pete names the dragon Elliot and for the next six years they make a life together in the woods. But, six years later, Pete is discovered by a lumberjack and his life with Elliot is immediately under threat...
We spoke to Lowery about how he got the job, how he found being handed a much, much bigger budget and his plans to reinvent Peter Pan for Disney...
How did you get this gig? It’s quite different to what you’ve done before...
“It’s completely different to everything I’ve done before, but somehow it felt similar enough that I got very excited about it very quickly. It had a kinship to all my little independent films. I first found out about it when I was editing Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and my agent got in touch and told me that Disney wanted to make a new version of Pete’s Dragon. He said they didn’t want a remake, just to use the title to tell a new story and he asked me if I was interested.”
Were you interested in making a movie for kids?
“I’ve long wanted to make a children’s film, it was right at the top of the list of genres I wanted to explore. I love Disney movies and I knew I could use this title to tell a new story. I met with the producers and we talked about visions for the story. Then my co-writer and I went away and came up with a pitch for where we would go. I thought that would be it, I thought we’d pitch it and then someone else would get the job and I’d go off and do another independent film. But I got the job and here I am.”
What was your relationship with the original movie?
“I decided to not re-visit it. The studio didn’t want a remake and they encouraged me and my co-writer not to watch it. I was excited by that, I’m not a fan of remakes, I don’t want to do the same thing again, so I didn’t think about it that much. I hung on to a few things, the dragon is still called Elliot and he can still turn invisible, I liked some of the design, but I didn’t go back and watch it and I still haven’t. To me now my Pete’s Dragon is the Pete’s Dragon. I know that may not be the case for everyone, but it is for me.”
How did you find the step-up in scale and budget? What’s it like to handle a $65 million budget?
“I was expecting it to be very different, but it really wasn’t. Making a big summer adventure movie turned out not to be that different from making an independent movie. I brought a lot of my crew with me so I always felt comfortable and at ease. The special effects were new, I’d never done anything like that, but at the same time I’ve grown up watching a lot of behind the scenes documentaries and I’ve picked up a lot of tricks on how they do things. I got to work with Weta, the guys who did Lord Of The Rings, they were great and we had a lot of fun figuring out how to deal with a creature that isn’t there.”
How did you find casting the movie? Your budget must have given you a lot more options...
“Bryce Dallas Howard was right at the top of my list, even from my earliest plans, I wrote that part for a redhead for a reason. I had a few scheduling bits with casting, but we ended up with exactly the right people.”
How did you get Robert Redford involved?
“I’m developing a script with him and we’re going to shoot it next Spring. I told him about Disney and I gave him the script and he signed on, it was very lucky.”
The child actors you’ve got in the movie are fantastic, how did it feel when you got them in place? It must be a huge relief knowing you’ve got good kids to work with...
“It does. Once you get the right kid it really feels like half the movie is already made. When we got all the kids in place I just felt this huge weight lift from my shoulders.”
You shot in New Zealand, why did you decide to go there?
“Partly for practical reasons. We were on to shoot in January and anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere would have way too cold, so we went South and very quickly gravitated towards New Zealand. It has this fairytale quality and it’s quite like the Pacific Northwest in America, but with more magic. We also were working with Weta and that’s their backyard, it gave us access to a lot of amazing people.”
Finally, you’re directing Peter Pan next for Disney, how’s that going?
“We’re writing it right now. It’s a lot of fun, obviously a story we know well so digging in and trying to find a new angle and new insight is a total joy. It’s coming together really well.”