Director David Lowery explains why his 'Pete's Dragon' is so intentionally gentle
It seems very strange to me that it took until 2016 for me to meet David Lowery face to face.
Not because I expect I should meet every single working filmmaker. That’s just silly. I’ve met a staggering number of writers, directors, actors, and people working at every other level in film and television over the years, but there are are plenty of people I’ve never run into, and I’m fine with that. With David, though, I have a history. You see, he used to be a spy for me.
More accurately, he was a regular reviewer at Ain’t It Cool under the name “ghostboy,” and his beat was the festival circuit. I edited dozens and dozens of his pieces over the years, and I came to rely on him as a guy with a very strong sense of what he does or doesn’t like, and a real fondness for quiet, thoughtful filmmaking.
But that entire time, I never actually met him. And in the time since he released his first feature, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, we still hadn’t crossed paths, which made my recent interview with him extra-strange as I walked into the room.
“Hello, strange person I have never met or spoken to in any capacity,” I said, prompting a very confused look from the publicist who walked in with me.
David laughed. Head closely shaved, his blue eyes piercing like he was part Husky, he stood up and shook my hand. “It’s so weird that it’s never happened.”
Still not sure what was going on, the publicist said, “This is so awkward, you guys.”
That broke the tension, and laughing, we both sat down. “First, I thought you pulled it off, and I mean, pulled it off completely in the sense that it’s your film and it’s going to stand on its own. I think people may walk in with one set of expectations, but they'll forget them completely.”
“Hopefully that's the case, yeah.”
“The movie’s beautiful, man.”
“Thank you. Thank you.”
“Let’s talk about when you first found out this was even available or a possibility. What were your thoughts on it? What made you say, ‘Yes, Pete’s Dragon. I know what the answer to that is’?”
“My first reaction, when my agent sent me the email asking if I was interested, was to forget what Pete’s Dragon was. I thought he was talking about Puff, the Magic Dragon. So I responded with an LSD joke or something like that. Like, ‘Yeah, I'd love to. We can introduce a new generation of kids to the wonders of marijuana.’ But then I remembered Pete’s Dragon is the Disney one. What really got me interested in it was when I was told that the studio had no interest in remaking the original. They wanted to use the title and tell a new story with it.
That amount of freedom and flexibility was what gave me the ... well, just made me interested in it. I felt that I could walk in and tell a pretty convincing version of a story of a kid with a dragon that would be something I'd want to see as an audience member. If there was no preciousness about the original, then I could also kind of set aside my general distaste for remakes, because… I have no problem with remakes, but when they're just rehashing something or providing an experience that's not new…”
“The audience sits waiting for their favorite things to show up…”
“That's like going to a karaoke bar or like a cover band’s version…”
“Yeah. And if you're a cover band, you're constantly going to be reminded of something you liked that was better. Like, if you're just rehashing it, it’s never going to be as good as the original. So when I heard that they were completely onboard with setting the original aside, I was far more interested in the idea of it. So then I met the producers, Jim Whitaker and Adam Borba, who were developing it, and just fell in love with them. They were just the most wonderful, nicest, supportive folks you could imagine working in a major studio. And they were… what really got me there was they wanted to make an emotional film. Jim had made The Odd Life of Timothy Green, which I think is famous for the YouTube video, the child like crying profusely upon exiting the movie, and he’s proud of that.”
“I hope so. When you make a movie, you hope it will punch a switch in somebody. I'm going to go ahead and tell you upfront that Pete’s got me like five times. There were five different little things, and it was Ebert who said that as you get older, it’s not acts of sadness that make you cry in a movie, it’s acts of kindness. There is something to that, because for me, it’s seeing the human things in the movie. Seeing Pete in the alley howling…”
Lowry smiled, just slightly, knowing which moment I meant. “Yeah.”
“… it’s enormously moving, and I’m not sure how anyone wouldn’t just relate to this child who can’t express…”
“He’s feeling so much distress, but doesn't know how to put that in words. It just comes out in this sound.”
“It’s terribly moving. It is ultimately the accumulation of all the character stuff between them and how convincing Elliott is. If I don’t believe Elliott, none of your movie works.”
“Of course. Yeah.”
“And, man, Elliott’s one hundred percent convincing as a character.”
“He was... you know, I think you read the script, and we would describe him as a human character in the script. We would describe what he was feeling and we would describe what he was going through emotionally because we wanted to make sure that we were never forgetting about him. There’s a huge portion of the movie where Pete and Elliott are separated, and that was a tricky one because you want those characters to get equal amount of screen time. So we really spent a lot of time figuring out, like, 'Okay, what's Elliott doing? When we see him, what's going on?’ So we definitely are following his journey just as much as Pete’s.”
“Yet it’s a non-verbal journey and you communicate everything he’s feeling.”
“My eight-year-old understood exactly, to a nuance, what you were doing with each of the scenes dealing with Elliott, and it broke his heart that Elliott felt like he had been left and that Pete didn't care as much or that Pete didn't need him. For him to be able to pick that up, and for the film to clearly communicate what it was that Elliott was feeling, it reminds me of that first 30 minutes of The Black Stallion.”
“I mean, that is one of the great nonverbal pieces of storytelling I've ever seen in the theater. I even notice that you have a red balloon at one point in your movie and I can’t help but wonder, are you nodding to another of the great nonverbal pieces of children’s storytelling?”
This time, it was a much wider smile, and David started to nod. “Completely. Yeah. That was probably the biggest nod to anything in this movie. Yeah.”
If you haven’t seen The Red Balloon, you really should. It’s a French film from 1956, but it really doesn’t matter where it was made. Anyone who sees it will understand it, because it’s pure cinema. All you have to speak to get it is film. “Well, then, bravo. I love that you snuck a red balloon in because I think this is clearly in that tradition. Which raises a point, which is that we don’t live in a gentle world anymore. And I think that there is a gentleness to your films that is uncommon. I feel like that’s behind why people didn't get The BFG this summer, which I felt was also beautifully gentle.”
“It’s so gentle, yeah.”
“I really respect and value that, because we don’t get a lot of it in our films.”
“That was really important to me. I like movies that are simple and that are about interactions between characters who are good. Even with Gavin [the Karl Urban character] in this movie, I didn't want to have a bad guy who was like truly evil. I wanted to have him be like a bad guy, but at the end, I hope you’re, like, ‘Aw, shucks, I still like that guy.’”
“I talked to [Urban] yesterday. I walked in and said, ‘You bad man, why did you make me cry?’” David laughed at the idea of that. “And he’s like, ‘What, what did I do?’”
“Yeah, he hits some low points. But at the end of the day, he doesn’t want to be evil. I really didn't want to have guns in the movie because I just hate guns. There are tranquilizer darts because how else are you going to take down a dragon? There’s a point at the end where he’s like, ‘Get those guns out of here.’ I wanted this movie to sort of represent a ... a softer side of the world. And whether that's because it’s a period piece and things were better back then, or just because that's me… I think it is. I think that's me. That's me as a filmmaker. I just don’t want to hate things. I don’t want to feel distress. I want to feel like the world’s going to be okay, as dark as it might get. I want that tenderness to come through. I want that delicacy of human interaction and the tenderness that humans can show each other to take a paramount place in the stories I tell. So that was a big deal for me. Every step of the way, it was like, ‘Let’s not go for a thunderous climax with lots of, uh…’ You know, we wrote a version that had a bigger climax. We wrote a version where the military shows up. It was a little Iron Giant-ish. But also it just was the wrong feel for this movie. To keep it intimate, to keep it delicate, to keep it gentle, and to keep that sweetness and tenderness that is an intrinsic part of humanity front and center was really important to me. You read the news every day. Something terrible is happening. And it’s…”
Here’s what struck me as Lowery searched for the right word. He was emotional. Not overly so, and not out of control, but what he was saying wasn’t some rote answer he just fired off. He was trying to communicate something to me that is essential to who he is and why he told the story the way he told the story. He was being as open with me as he could, and it just underlined what he was saying to me. “It’s very hard to communicate all of that to your kids,” I said.
“Look, you know that one of the things that I've become very avid about and adamant about is the idea that we use these things, films and television and art, to communicate with our kids, to help them understand the world. I think within the space of a movie theater, you can have a safer conversation knowing that it’s about the larger things.”
“Exactly,” David said.
“Let’s shift gears a moment,” I said to him, and he seemed relieved. “My eight-year-old just had his first pet experience. I just moved in with my girlfriend. She has a cat. We've never had a pet before. He just spent his first week with her. Took over all the feeding, all the care. He wanted to. And then the last night of his first weekend bonding with her was when we went to Pete’s Dragon. At the end of the movie, he came out and he was like, ‘That was me and Josie, that was me and Josie.’ And your movie really speaks to how that bond is important, and how it improves everybody in that equation.”
“It does and it also goes back to what you were saying earlier about being nonverbal. Like the relationship that I have... I have two cats now that I'm, um, obsessed with, but all through my life, I've been a pet person. And I think because you're not cluttering that relationship with words, it has a profundity and a spiritual side to it that wouldn't exist otherwise. And that is something I definitely wanted to capture, because I think Pete and Elliott’s relationship is profound because they don’t have to talk to each other. Pete does every now and then, but most of their relationship is silent. Like Pete doesn't have much dialogue through this whole movie, which is important to me as well. That last scene between him and Elliott has two lines and it’s like a four minute scene and that's probably the scene I'm proudest of in my entire career, because it’s two lines of dialogue. It’s all just done through blocking and body language and… and it gets me. It gets me, even as the person who wrote it and directed it. It still gets me every time. I think because they're not being burdened by words, it’s… that's what makes it so effective. That's part of what I respond to with my animals. It’s like we have this… there’s a stillness to our communication that is so profound.”
“Okay, then, can we talk about watching that performance come into focus? First of all, there’s a relationship that you had to develop with your young actor on the set…”
“Can you discuss how you directed him and how you got him to the place where he’s having this imaginary relationship with such conviction, and can you describe watching the dragon come into focus over the entire technical process, and how it felt to see the life start to come to it?”
“I want to give a huge amount of credit to Oakes [Fegley, who stars as Pete in the film] for both of those things, because he was able to envision that dragon from his very first audition. It was the ... one of those, you know, those moments you hear about all the time, where the kid walks through the door, does one thing, and you're like, ‘Oh, that's our kid.’ It was one of those situations. He made us believe in the dragon. He didn't need me to help him get there. If directing is 99 percent casting, then… we cast him and the movie works. If we'd cast someone else, maybe it would have, maybe it wouldn't have. But he made us on-set believe that he was relating to, interacting with, missing, loving a giant 20 foot tall furry creature. And I would help him a little bit, like on the emotional side of things, but it would be more like when I'd be talking to him, I would just change the volume of my voice.” He got real quiet and leaned in towards me. “Like if it was a sad scene, just to make sure we were in the zone. I would just start talking a lot slower, more quietly.” Then he leaned back again and spoke loudly, arms crossed. “Or if it was exciting, I'd be shouting at him from across the room. That would help him get in the right head space, but he really zeroed in on the dynamic between them and it’s something that I think kids have that adults can’t. Because I can say, like, ‘All right, there’s a dragon back there. Let’s tilt the camera a little higher to make sure we see him.’ But Oakes is the kind of actor and the kind of child who also knows that he needs to get a little bit closer and reach out this far to scratch the underside of the chin, because that's where the dragon likes to get scratched. I could have tried to figure that out, but I didn't have to.”
He continued, “What we did a lot of the time would just be like… I learned within the first ten days of shooting that all I had to do was kind of describe… he would come, he'd know the sides. He'd seen the scene. I'd sort of describe to him where the camera was and what I wanted to have happen and where I was going to start the scene and where I was going to call cut. That was important to say. ‘I'm going to let this go to this point, but beyond that, you don’t have any marks you have to hit.’ The cave was the first big scene I think he did with the dragon, where he’s reading the bedtime story. I would tell him, ‘Just start reading the story. Make it up as you go along.’ We shot a much longer version where he told this crazy, wonderful story. It was as simple as ‘Do whatever feels natural with this dragon who is sitting right behind you. Elliott will walk around you and he’s going to sit down. And from that point forward, he’s sitting there and you just do whatever you want.’ That wasn't always the case, but by and large, we tried to treat the scenes with him and Elliott like that so that he could sort of direct how they were interacting. And so I want to just give all the credit to him. When it comes to the animation, I also have to give all the credit to WETA. Obviously, you go to WETA because you want a creature that has soul, and that's what they can do better than anyone else.”
“That's exactly right. Soul is their signature at this point.”
“Yeah. And they know how to do it. You tell them, ‘I want a creature that is going to elicit an emotional response,’ and they say, ‘Great, how big do you want the eyes to be?’ You give them a ballpark and they go from there. The only learning curve we really had was, again, with the eye size, which changes from scene to scene depending on the emotion, but that was something where we wanted to get the surreality to come through a little bit. We didn't want to be too realistic. We also didn't want it to feel too cartoony. Also finding the line where his behavior might be too human or too animal, you want it to be right on that line, to where you believe that he is not an anthropomorphic creature, but also so that his emotional intelligence is slightly higher than a dog or a cat. That was amazing to watch that come into focus. And it came pretty quickly. At a certain point, you realize here’s what works, here’s what doesn't. And then you just kind of go from there.”
As the publicist peeked in to let me know our time was winding down, I said, “So finally, Robert Redford’s work in this movie is… the best word for it is magic. He just comes in and kills…”
David got a big smile on his face. “Yeah.”
I continued, “… and kills and kills.”
By now, David was laughing.
“And it’s strange because not a lot of filmmakers have ever used him like this. He’s not really Mr. Warm and Cuddly, and it’s strange to see him use as this sort of warm human thing that anchors the movie. Yet it feels perfectly natural, like this is what he’s been doing his whole career. Why him?”
“Well, I'd been working on this other film with him called The Old Man and the Gun, which hopefully we're shooting this fall. I’m going to see him later today and catch him up on where our location scouts are for that. But we wrote that character originally to be someone that you would imagine Bruce Dern playing, the crazy old codger who has kind of like lost his marbles. And as we were starting to cast the part, we're going down the list of actors in a certain age range. And we knew we were shooting in New Zealand and there was going to be a lot of physicality to it. So there are certain actors you just take off the list, because you're like, ‘Oh, they just wouldn't be up for it. Their health isn't in great shape or whatever the case may be. Then all of a sudden, it occurred to me. ‘I’m already working with Redford on something. I bet he'd read this.’ And he did. And at first, he wasn’t really as into it because it was still that crazy old coot. But I was like, ‘Look, let me rewrite this for you.’ And so we did, and then he said yes, and then he got to New Zealand and walked on set with all these kids, and the kids have no idea who he is because they sort of recognize him from Captain America, so that's all they know… I think that was so fun and liberating for him, acting with all these children, whether it’s the opening scene or with Pete and Natalie, who just don’t have that sense of heaviness about their interaction with him. Because they're not walking around with a legend. I go up to Redford and I'm still a little nervous, because I've seen every movie he’s done and just like know his history. But to them, he’s just this cool guy who their parents knew who he was, but they had no clue. I think that brought something out in him that we've not seen, both just acting with children, but also the fact that it wasn't beholden to the legend of Robert Redford. And so we leaned into that, like obviously we're going to give Redford a monologue, because he can deliver a great monologue. We're going to let him and Bryce lean into that in that scene, but the rest of the time, let’s let him have some fun and let his eyes come alive. When he drove that truck through that wall, which he really did, you see it on his face. ‘This is pretty fun.’”
That wrapped things up, and as I stood up to leave, David brought his shoulder bag out. “Thank you so much,” he said. “It was such a pleasure.”
“Good to see you,” I said, gathering my phone.
He brought something out of the bag and handed it to me. “Also, I know your kids are probably too old for it, but I got them one of these, in case they like movie props.”
I started laughing when I saw what it was, genuinely moved by the gesture. “Oh, that's awesome. Yeah. Thank you, man.”
You’ll really only understand what it means to the movie itself once you see it, but Allen’s been absolutely obsessed with this since we got it…
… and in particular, he flipped out when he saw the inscription that David made to the boys.
My review of the film will be up later today. I don’t think anyone who has read this interview will be wildly surprised by my overall response.
Do yourself the favor. Pete’s Dragon flies into theaters this Friday, August 12.