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In Dark Trees: David Lowery on Pete’s Dragon

David Lowery and DP Bojan Bazelli on the set of Pete's Dragon (Photo by Matt Klitscher, courtesy of Disney Enterprises Inc.)

David Lowery has directed love stories about siblings, spouses, parents and children, so it follows logically that his next film would be a love story between an orphan and his dragon.

Pete’s Dragon, Lowery’s nominal remake of the 1977 Disney film, lives in a tender, magical world that exists outside of time, in the wilderness of childhood imagination. The wonder, lack of cynicism and strong imagery of the natural world evoke cinema of the late ’70s and early ’80s; The Black Stallion and E.T. come to mind.

Lowery seems fascinated by the stories we tell ourselves, the tall tales, the narratives that are passed down through generations, and Pete’s Dragon is a doozy. In Lowery’s 2011 short film, Pioneer, musician/actor Will Oldham told his son a bedtime story for the ages. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013) wrestled with an outlaw mythology sung about in classic folk songs. And in Pete’s Dragon, Robert Redford plays a fabulist who spins (not so fictional) yarns about a dragon in the woods to the delight of local children.

One of the many beautiful qualities of Lowery — as a person and a director — is a rigorous attention to both his craft as a filmmaker and his ravenous and democratic appetite for consuming films. He really knows the films he cares about, thinks deeply about them,and meditates on their DNA. Lowery’s love and encyclopedic knowledge of film history — hell, even shot construction — might be intimidating were he not so pure in his creative desires and incredibly generous, constantly collaborating with other storytellers.

Whether he works with his friends on a low-budget, self-financed palate cleanser short film in his Texas backyard or develops the next Peter Pan, Lowery inspires not just through the (gorgeously rendered) images of his films, but through the vulnerability of his characters’ hearts.

So you’re down in Texas. Can you tell me what you’re doing there? I wanted to make something small and tiny and handmade. I don’t know what it is yet, I’m kind of figuring it out. I had the urge to just go make something spontaneously, like I used to do. I would have an idea and go make it, either a short film or an experimental idea. Over the past few years I stopped doing that as much, and I really wanted to get back in the habit of getting some friends together and shooting something. It’s a good habit to be in as a filmmaker. I basically wrapped [postproduction] on June 10th and the next day flew to Dallas and started working on whatever this thing is that we’re making.

Most people would presumably take a long, well-deserved vacation at the end of making a giant studio film. Is this a vacation or do you believe in trucking along and just keep doing the work? Oh, it’s a vacation. It’s a stressful vacation, because making things is stressful, but there’s no stakes. It’s a bunch of friends hanging out for the summer and we have a camera with us. We’ll do that for a week or two and then maybe after that, I’ll take a real vacation, but probably not. I find myself to be in the workaholic zone pretty regularly.

There you go. So can you tell me how Pete’s Dragon initially came about? I was in the editing room on Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, wrapping things up. My agent, Craig Kestel, was sending me open writing assignments, movies that studios were talking about making — anything to get a feel of what I was interested in, because at that point my tastes were still sort of a mystery. Usually, I would say no to pretty much everything. And that [email] said something along the lines of, “Disney is interested in making a new version of Pete’s Dragon. It has nothing to do with the original other than the title.” I thought, “That could be cool. You could make a cool film about a kid with a dragon that is its own thing, using the title as a means to get it made.” I don’t love remake culture, as it were, but I do think there are opportunities to do cool things if you find the right property, where the original’s not so beloved that you can’t just completely do something different. A week later, Toby Halbrooks and I got on the phone with the producers of the film, Jim Whitaker and Adam Borba. [We] talked about our ideas for it: what we would do if we had the opportunity to write it, what kind of story we would want to tell, and what the tone would be. They were very interested in the tone; they didn’t care so much about the plot points.

How did you describe the feel? I mean, basically, (laughs) we described Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and talked about how we would want to make a children’s film that felt the same way. I always saw that film as a fairytale, and St. Nick, my first film, is also a fairytale. And I felt that that translated into this type of children’s film that we were describing. It had a very deeply rooted sense of Americana and a very old-fashioned folktale quality to it, which again, is very similar to what we were doing with Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. A couple of weeks later they scheduled another phone call, which happened to be right when we were at Sundance, and [we] came up with a more concrete plot. We wrote a treatment that was just a page or two, and as soon as Sundance was over, we flew to L.A. and worked that two-page treatment into an eight-page treatment, rehearsed the pitch a couple of times and then went to the studio and presented it to the executives in charge. The next day, we heard that we had gotten the job to write it. The entire time, we completely were under the impression that there was no way on earth they would ever hire us. The benefit of that perspective was that it gave us the freedom to pitch the idea that we wanted to pitch. We didn’t want to fall into the trap of trying to figure out what Disney wanted, and trying to make it feel more like a Disney movie.

Once you and Toby sold the film, what was the writing process? We began writing as soon as we got the call that we got the job. We had a first draft done in a little over six or seven weeks, which for me is very fast. The first draft was 140 pages, which we all acknowledged was far too long. And the first note that they gave us was, “It’s really good, but the first 30 pages, where it’s just the kid and the dragon hanging out in the woods with no dialogue — can you make the whole script feel more like that?” I was like, “Yes, absolutely. We can do that.” Earlier, when I said that we were pitching the movie we wanted to make and not the movie that you would assume Disney would want to make — we sort of went the opposite route with that first draft. It felt like that’s what we should do, now that we officially had the job. Against all odds, they encouraged us to not do that, to take out the characters that are in there only to provide one line of comic relief, or the zany little kid with the firecrackers in his backpack who always shows up just at the right time to light a firecracker.

There was not a lot of incident in the movie. It took place over a very short period of time, and it was purely an emotional journey. I love movies that don’t have a lot going on in them, that aren’t that complicated and that have an ending that is kind of preordained. This is something Robert Altman said once: that if you know where the movie’s winding up, as an audience member you don’t have to worry about the plot. You can sit back and enjoy the journey in a different way. That’s sort of what we wound up doing with this film. We came to the collective realization that this movie didn’t need to end big, that our climax could be as small as the first action set piece in a normal studio film. By resetting things that way, everything else prior to that climax could get even smaller.

What were, for you, the most substantial ways that doing an independent film versus a studio film differed? Time is something that you never have enough of when you are making an independent film, and it turns out you don’t have enough when you’re making a studio film, either, but you have more that you run out of. You have to really prepare yourself for a long journey. We spent a year on the script, and then almost another year in soft prep, followed by 13 or 14 weeks of solid prep, which is a wonderful luxury. Then you have four months of shooting, an intense experience that never feels like it’s going to end. Then you have however much time you have for post — in our case, 13 months. I realized as we were getting into production that I have never focused on one project for longer than six months. Everything is usually done from beginning to end in an eight-month period. With Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, obviously I’d been working on the script for a little while, but from the time that the script got out to actors to the time that it was premiering at Sundance was exactly a year.

There’s also the new elements that come into play. You don’t have quite the authority that you would normally have on an independent film. Even if you don’t have final cut on an indie film, you sort of have a level of authority that suggests that you do, because everyone wants the director — unless the director goes crazy or something — to be the person that has the vision, and that vision to be executed. On a studio movie, you still have that, but you get notes and feedback, and you can’t just say, “Yeah, I don’t feel like doing that.” You actually have to engage and try it out. And that is not a bad thing.

On an independent film, you have to deal with finding the money. That’s always a pain. Then you have to deal with trying to convince financiers that this thing is going to work and that the actors that you want are actually worth something, and all of the usual bells and whistles. And then, when you’re done with it, you have to try to find distribution and [get] a deal that will make your financiers and everybody happy that the movie got made. All of that is gone on a studio film, because all of that is taken care of by one single entity. In exchange, you need to engage with that entity on a creative level that you might not do on an independent film. To me, that’s a pretty fair give and take. At the end of the day, I think that I ultimately am more creatively satisfied with Pete’s Dragon on a personal level than I was with Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. I didn’t have final cut on either one of those movies, but I feel like I had more control at the end of the day over Pete’s Dragon than I did over Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and that was, to be frank, completely unexpected.

How many days did you shoot for Ain’t Them Bodies Saints? 28.

And you said Pete’s Dragon was how many days? Ultimately it came out to around 89.

Wow. Can you describe the physical experience? I don’t know what the analogy is — some sort of endurance race? A marathon? I think a marathon is probably the best example, and I can talk from experience because I’m a runner. When I do a half marathon, which I’ve done lots of, you really feel like you’re pushing yourself to the limit. The last mile you feel like you might not make it, but you do. And then, when you run a full marathon, it’s exactly the same thing. You don’t feel like you’re going to make it at the end, and it’s double the length, and the experience is almost exactly the same — although the reward at the end, the feeling of accomplishment is much higher.

I think what happens is, your body adjusts in advance for an understood expenditure of energy. So you’re going into a 28-day shoot — you subconsciously figure out how to deal with that. You go into a 74-day shoot or an 89-day shoot, and you do exactly the same thing. You know that on day 10, you’ve got this many days left. I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but generally speaking, on every project I’ve made, right after we wrap I get sick. I think that’s because subconsciously speaking, my body knows that it needs to maintain for a certain period of time, and once that time period is elapsed, it’s okay to shut down for a little while. You just have to trust your body to make it. Certainly, you try to sleep as much as you can. That doesn’t always work. Six hours a night is a good night on any movie. I try to eat healthy. I try to do all the things that would prepare me for it, but at a certain point, especially on Pete’s Dragon, we were doing six-day weeks the entire time.

Oh gosh. After 13 weeks of six days a week, you are on empty and have nothing left. At the same time, you have to find something in there to give to the crew, to give to the cast, to give to yourself on a creative level so that you can finish the movie.

At the end of the day, a film is roughly 100 minutes, and one day of production is one day of production. But when you’re in the middle of a shoot that’s in the high 20s, in terms of number of days, versus into the 80s, there are, proportionately, so many more days. Does one get punch drunk at any point, where you lose a sense of the whole? The first five or six weeks were in one place, and it was a lot of sound stage and back lot stuff in Wellington. We did 20 days of that, which was almost two thirds of what Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ entire shoot was. I remember at the end of that thinking, “Holy cow, how do we have more movie left to shoot? It feels like we’ve gotten almost everything at this point.” And we had. We shot the end of the movie. We shot the beginning of the movie. We shot a lot of it. And yet, we were not even a third of the way through. That was the one time where I really felt discombobulated about how much movie we had made. You wonder, “Why do you need 74 days?” But then, you do another day that’s bigger and you get two-eighths of the page because there’s a stunt that takes forever, or you have to drive three hours to a location to get the half a page that you’re scheduled to shoot that day.

Can you talk about the pre-vis and the VFX process. Did you feel prepared for it? The VFX process was somewhat new to me. I’ve always been a big fan of the invisible work you can do, such as painting out telephone wires or adding this or that or doing split screens to combine takes. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is full of little tricks like that. But I’ve never done anything with CG before. Part of the process of getting the movie greenlit involved doing pre-vis for some of the bigger dragon sequences. I’d do little storyboards and hand them to the creative artists, and they would refine them into sequences. I wanted the pre-vis to be very rough and loose and somewhat ugly, so that no one would fall in love with it, because I assumed that once we shot the movie and found the locations and actors, all of this would change. There are shots that I came up with in that process that are definitely in the movie. There’s a sequence where Pete jumps off a cliff and Elliot swoops down. I mean, that was a shot that I was ready to go to bat for. If anyone came back at me and said, “Oh, we should see Pete falling off the cliff and do a big 3-D aerial sequence” — I had a very clear idea of how I wanted that cliff jump to work, and that was in the pre-vis. It helped out on set, too. The biggest benefit was getting to show an actor like Robert Redford, who has [done few] big special effects movies like this before, what the finished product might be like. So often he’d be staring at a tennis ball on a stick or into thin air and not really understand what he was supposed to be reacting to. Being able to show him the pre-vis really helped with that.

One of the really great innovations that I think people are already talking a lot about is that your dragon has fur. That was part of my very first pitch. We went in there, and I had done a bunch of little sketches of a furry dragon. I am a big animal guy. I am a long-time vegan. I love all of my pets. I really wanted this dragon to feel like a giant pet. And I’m not going to lie, I definitely also thought that the marketing team would probably love it because then they could sell some plush dolls. And I was okay with that, too, because I really wanted one. I was like, “You know, if I could get anything out of this movie, I’m going to get a really nice stuffed dragon that’s going to be really cuddly.” I’m not above liking things like that. I also really love my cats, and I love cat videos on YouTube. I wanted to play into that sort of affection. Even on a very literal level, you’re like, “How does he keep warm in the winter?” That’s exactly why he’s furry.

It’s a wonderful detail, one of many wonderful details. Elliot has a broken left tooth. People would always ask how that tooth got broken, and expecting the answer to be that he had been in a huge battle or something like that. And my answer was always that he was chewing on some rocks some day and one of them broke. He’s the kind of character that would just chew on a boulder for a snack and break one of his teeth.

That’s great. Can you talk about your process working with your editor, Lisa Churgin? I’m not serious, but my films are usually very serious, to a fault perhaps. I’ve often found that I wish I could figure out a way to get more humor in there, but I unfortunately don’t have that knack all the time. Lisa had cut Pitch Perfect, which I love. She had done a couple of other comedies, and she’d also done Dead Man Walking and all of Tim Robbins’s early films. So she had the gravitas that I would naturally respond to in her work, as well as the lighter touch that Disney was looking for. Here’s the important thing: she didn’t care if I was also cutting, because as an editor myself, having cut my own movies in the past, [she understood] how difficult it is for me to not get my hands dirty in the edit. That created a lot of problems on Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and I didn’t want to have that come up again, so I was very clear at the beginning of this process with any editor I was talking to: “Look, this is your movie as an editor, but I can’t not touch it. There’ll be things that I’ve shot on set that are just too hard for me to try to explain and the best thing for me to do is cut it myself and show it to you.” And also, I enjoy it too much. But Lisa was totally fine with it and saw it as a really great way to collaborate together. I could go work in my office for half a day, and then send her everything I’d worked on, and she’d send me everything she worked on. As the process went on and we became aware of each other’s tastes and each other’s creative proclivities, I would spend less time working on the cuts myself and more time hanging out in her room as she did it. That was a beautiful thing for me, to really be able to relinquish my usual over-controlling side in the postproduction process and sit back and watch a really great editor do their thing.

Great. Can you talk about the discussion about style and format and all those things with your DP, Bojan Bazelli? This was, again, a situation in which the studio wanted to make sure that they had a security blanket of some sort. I obviously got to bring on a lot of people from Saints. I had wanted to get Bradford Young to shoot it, and everyone was excited about that, but he was busy on another film. Other [cinematographers] that I knew, most of them had not done anything of this scale. It was a big movie that had a lot of special effects and needed someone who knew how to shoot that stuff. Regardless of what you think about the movie, The Lone Ranger looks absolutely spectacular. When I was looking at his résumé, I realized he’s shot some of Abel Ferrara’s early movies, which I love. I love the fact that he would start there and wind up doing Sorcerer’s Apprentice or other Jerry Bruckheimer movies. I felt a kinship because of that, because obviously I am coming from doing tiny, little gritty indies, and all of a sudden I’m going to go do something that’s relatively glossy and big and more spectacle driven. He had a really enthusiastic, happy quality that was infectious. He also gets mistaken for Howard Stern or Slash from Guns N’ Roses. He’s the kind of guy you would recognize if you saw his silhouette. I’m very quiet. I don’t talk that much on set, or I try to talk as little as possible, to save my own energy and because that’s my natural disposition. I felt that having a DP who was a bundle of energy would be really helpful in terms of keeping the train moving. And that was absolutely true.

In terms of how we prepared, we didn’t really look at other movies. And we didn’t talk about all the things that I’ve talked about with DPs in the past in terms of references or photographs. We took a camera out to the woods and just started shooting and came up with a general set of rules about how best to shoot the movie. That involved as much natural light as possible and shooting certain directions at certain times, and the type of lenses we were going to use, how close those lenses could get to people’s faces — things like that. From there, we kind of went in and improvised every day. I storyboarded almost the entire movie myself, but once you get to a location, you get a lens up, and all of a sudden you have new ideas. I’d have an idea of what the first shot would be. That was always my rule: go home every day knowing what your first shot the next day is going to be. Sometimes we would do that shot, and other times we wouldn’t.

Can you talk a little bit about [production designer] Jade Healy’s work, the leap to a film of this size for her? She, I think, came away so unscathed in the process of making this movie that I feel like she’s sort of sold on the entire studio side of things.

Really? Every visual creative department got notes at some point. I got notes on the script. The costume designer got notes on the color of character’s pants. Everyone got the little bit of that feedback from the studio that makes you think, “Oh, I had a reason I was doing that, but I guess we’ll change it.” Jade, not a single comment other than, “Love it,” from every single thing she did. She also didn’t have to do as much herself. In the past, she had to wear so many hats. In this case, she was the designer, but then she had a team of art directors under her, and then she had a construction supervisor who could build the plans to build the sets and make them sound in the engineering sense. At the same time, there was lots of last-minute problem-solving that she’s always been so good at on the tiny-budgeted films she cut her teeth on. I think she really got the best of both worlds in this project.

And composer Daniel Hart has done all of your films now? He grew up with Toby Halbrooks. Toby introduced him to me when I needed a little piece of music for [St. Nick]. And then, I made Pioneer after that, and he wrote the score for that. That was the first real score for a film he’d written. A year later, we made Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and he was the only person I would consider for the job. With Pete’s Dragon, it was a little bit more of an uphill battle, because again, he hadn’t done a movie of that scale before. At the end of the day, everyone collectively agreed — from the studio heads to the producers to the head of the music department — that this movie needed to sound like one of my films. And the way to do that is they hired Daniel Hart to do the score. Getting to go watch him write this score and then getting to go to London and watch him sit back and produce his own score for the movie in a studio there with a 96-piece orchestra, it’s sort of like — if I can give my friends opportunities to excel and to succeed, that’s one of the best benefits of this process. I hope [all of my movies] will always be good and make me happy. But even if they don’t, for whatever reason, I hope that I am able to give friends chances to really shine in their own right.

Speaking of talented people that you’ve worked with before, as far as the other music in the film, can you talk a little bit about Will Oldham? He’s always been one of my favorite musicians. When I made Pioneer and was thinking about who I would love to have tell the story that comprises that film, he came to mind very quickly, because [his music] has the presence and the quality and the tone that that film has. I didn’t realize that he was in fact a classically trained actor, who had gone to drama school prior to becoming a musician. He had exactly what I wanted for that film, and I wanted to get him in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints in some way, but that didn’t quite work out.

When we were pretty close to production on Pete’s Dragon, I was trying to crack something in the story that I hadn’t quite figured out yet, and that was a way to introduce some of the folklore behind the dragon in a way that wasn’t expository. And I thought that maybe the best way to do that would be to have a song that appears periodically throughout the film. I wrote some lyrics and gave them to Toby and he rewrote them and set them to music. The whole time I was doing that, I was thinking to myself, “It would be amazing if Will Oldham could sing this song in the beginning of the movie and be the artist that does it.” I didn’t want to bring it up, because I didn’t want to get that ball rolling too early, only to have it shot down. We finished the first cut of the movie last summer. At that point, I sent a bunch of his tracks around to the folks who needed to know who he was. Everyone was new to him — no one at the studio had been familiar with him at all — but they all liked the songs. So I just wrote him an email, much like I wrote him an email a few years ago to see if he would do Pioneer. And he was into it. Every time I hear it, I’m just so delighted that we were able to have a Bonnie Prince Billy song about dragons at the beginning of this movie.

What do the next couple of years of your life look like? Obviously Peter Pan was announced, which is really exciting. Yeah, I’m only going to make movies about people named Pete or Peter for the rest of my life. I don’t know. The thing I’m making right now, again, I don’t know what it is yet. The next thing I’m going to make, hopefully, is another movie with Robert Redford called Old Man and the Gun that I had been writing. In fact, I met Redford for the first time to talk about this project the day that I pitched the studio on Pete’s Dragon. It was a pretty big day in hindsight. Hopefully, that’s going to shoot this fall. We’re currently working on the shooting schedule, and we’ll start prepping in September for that, if all goes according to plan. It’s a much smaller movie than Pete’s Dragon, obviously. After that, I don’t know. I’m writing Peter Pan for Disney. We just got started on that, and that will take the time it takes. It could be a process where I write it and it doesn’t feel quite right, but I think it will. I think the reason that we all agreed to do it was because I wanted to make another Disney film because I enjoyed the process so much, and this one felt like something that I could bring something to. But I don’t ever want to book myself too far in advance. I’ve got a couple of other things I’m working on, too. I’ve got the science-fiction movie that I’ve been writing for three years at this point that I want to make with Casey Affleck, and hopefully at some point soon that’ll actually happen. And I’ve got a couple of other ideas I want to do as well. There’s not enough time to make all the movies I’d love to make, basically.

I always want to make sure I’m making the right movie for the right reasons. I don’t think artistic growth has anything to do with scale or budget or any of the trappings that get in the way of people’s perception of what you’re making. I look at Pete’s Dragon, and to me, if I set aside the CG and the studio that’s putting it out, I see a movie that is no different in tone or size or heart than Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. It’s a movie that I made that I wanted to make that I made to the best of my abilities because I felt strongly about it. And I won’t make a movie that doesn’t have those qualities, that doesn’t feel like it’s worth saying by me and not some other filmmaker. I’m just going to keep making them. That’s all I could do.

Well, there you go. I should let you get back to making a film with your friends. Yes. (Laughs)

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