From director David Lowery, the fantastical and magical story of 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.
At the film’s press day, filmmaker David Lowery spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about what his ideal Disney theme park ride for Pete’s Dragon would be, how he originally only approached the project as a writer, before ultimately also signing on to direct, and why it became such a personal project for him. He also talked about how he came to also be writing and directing a live-action Peter Pan for Disney, why he initially said no, already having an ideal cast in mind, why he wants to stick closely to the classic story, reuniting with Robert Redford for The Old Man and The Gun, and why he likes to continue to work with the same people.
Collider: If you could have a say in creating and developing a Pete’s Dragon ride for one of the Disney theme parks, what would your dream attraction for this film be?
DAVID LOWERY: That’s a great question. At the point at which we introduced the idea of a treehouse, my co-writer, Toby Halbrooks, who grew up going to Disneyland – I had never been, up until last October – was like, “They’ve gotta turn the Tarzan treehouse into the Pete’s Dragon treehouse. They just have to! It would be a foolish thing for them not to do that.” That’s been his goal, all along. I don’t know if it will actually happen. I’m a roller coaster junkie, so I would love to do a dragon roller coaster, maybe one of those where you dangle a little bit to create the feeling of flying. I like the VR rides that exist now, whether it’s Soarin’ at Disneyland or the Harry Potter one [at Universal]. That one is probably the best one ‘cause it gets both. You get the roller coaster, but the VR stuff, as well. So, maybe if we could take that model and do a real roller coaster that moves into occasional virtual reality stuff, and do it even better than the Harry Potter one does, which is exemplary, that would probably be my ideal theme park ride. And it would have to have one big drop. I like roller coasters that have the one 70-foot drop. And then, I’ll be happy.
It seems like the ideal movie for a ride, especially with the dragon flying.
LOWERY: Well, here’s hoping that when they get done building Star Wars Land, they’ll still have some energy to open a Pete’s Dragon attraction, as well.
Had you always set out to both write and direct this, or were you hired to write the film, and then hired for the job as director, after you handed in a script that Disney was happy with?
LOWERY: That’s a really good question. I have always thought of myself as a writer, only because I need things to direct, and I can’t not write the things that I direct. I would love to go get a perfect script that is done and fits everything I want to do and that feels like my voice and I don’t have to touch it ‘cause that would save me a lot of work, but that has not happened yet. I’ve read one book that I would have directed without touching a word, and somebody else was already going to direct that, so I ended up helping to make it. That was a perfect script. So, when we came on board this project, Toby and I were approaching it just as writers, but that was the first time we’d ever written something without intending to make it. It was a different mind-set. We really had to rethink how we were doing things because we were trying to satisfy the needs of a studio who wanted to make a movie, and yet we weren’t considering ourselves as integral to the process of making it. We were going to write it, so I guess we were integral to that, but we weren’t thinking, “Oh, this is the vision that we’ll bring, all the way to the screen.” We were thinking that our process would end in about a year, and then they would go off and make the movie, and we couldn’t wait to see it.
And so, our first draft was different than anything else we’d ever written because we wrote something that we just thought that the studio would like. We were like, “What would Disney like? Let’s just write that and let’s impress them with how much we can nail exactly what they want.” And we wrote 140-page draft, which was way too long. It was still the same story with the same beats and the same characters, but it was just jam-packed with a lot of extra stuff. A lot of it was goofy comedy beats. Basically, every character in town had a scene. There were so many characters in the town of Millhaven. And our producers read and, but didn’t send it to the studio. They said, “You know what, we need another draft. This is all good. But the stuff in the first 20 pages where the little boy and the dragon are hanging out together, and there’s no dialogue, was great. What would you think, if we asked you to make the rest of the movie just like that?” We said we would be delighted, if the rest of the movie was just like that, ‘cause that stuff is exactly within our wheelhouse. It was a really wonderful awakening for me to realize that they wanted us to write our version of the movie. Not what we thought Disney wanted, but what we wanted to do. And so, we did.
So, we turned that draft in, in May of 2014, and over the rest of the year, we worked on other drafts and kept going. We finally turned it in to the studio right before Christmas, and right after Christmas, the studio gave us notes and we did another little pass. By that point, Jim Whitaker, our producer, told me that they were going to start budgeting it, wanted to talk about making it soon, and they were going to talk about directors. In the back of my head, I was already planning what my next movie was going to be and I assumed that my journey with Pete’s Dragon was nearing its end. And then, about a month after that, he asked me if I wanted to be considered for directing it. It was one of those weird moments where I wondered, “Why have I not thought of this before? Why did I never consider the idea of me directing it?” I suddenly realized, when I considered the possibility, that this was something that I absolutely wanted to direct. I had just assumed they would go to a different director. I assumed they would go to a bigger studio director who has handled visual effects before, in the same way that I assumed they would want that 140-page draft, crammed with big, goofy moments and a fiery conclusion. I was wrong that time, and I was wrong this time.
They wanted to hear what I was going to do, if I was going to direct it. So, I went in to meet with Sean Bailey, the president of the studio, and sat down, had some pictures, and talked about how I would do it and who I would want to cast. Bryce Dallas Howard was on that list. We just talked about what my vision for it was, and it was very easy for me to do that because, after spending a year working on the script, it had become incredibly personal to me. Somehow, I just didn’t realize that. It happened without realizing it, but I put more and more of myself into the story. And so, it was at that point that I started to think about it in directorial terms. The day after I went in for that meeting, they offered it to me. Apparently, there was no one else they were thinking of for it. So, it went very quickly from being a writing job to a movie that I really wanted to make.
After doing Pete’s Dragon, was the conversation you had with Disney about making Peter Pan always hand-in-hand, as writer and director?
LOWERY: Now, that is very much the case. They like the way I direct. As soon as we finished shooting Pete’s Dragon, we had an initial conversation about other projects they had going on at the studio, that they would be interested in me looking at. It was very important to me that we find the right project to do next together. I had a great experience with them on Pete’s Dragon, and I wanted to make sure the next one was just as great. At a certain point last spring, they asked me about Peter Pan, and my initial answer was no because I love Peter Pan too much. It wasn’t the same situation with Pete’s Dragon, where I didn’t have a connection to the original, and that lack of possessiveness and preciousness allowed me to do whatever I wanted.
Peter Pan is very different because not only is it one of the most famous Disney movies, but it’s very important to me, as a story. Initially, I didn’t want to have that responsibility on my shoulders. Also, I felt like there are a lot of Peter Pan movies. We’ve seen quite a few. But the second I started to think about what I would do differently and how I would handle it, I got hooked and had to say yes. But it is very different this time ‘cause I am going into it, writing it and thinking, “How am I going to shoot this scene? What will be the camera angles? How will we light it? How will I direct the actors? Who will I cast in this role?” That is a very different process than the way we wrote Pete’s Dragon, but at the same time, it’s how I’ve written everything else. It’s very familiar, and at the same time, very different.
Do you already have a dream cast in mind?
LOWERY: For one role, we do, but I’m not going to say who it is. I don’t want to jinx it. It’s the most impossible casting in movie history, and we’re gonna try for it, but we’ll see.
Do you have just as different a take on Peter Pan, or are you sticking closer to the classic story for that?
LOWERY: It’s going to be very similar to the original. We went back and looked at the original animated film, which I hadn’t seen in quite a few years. I had forgotten how short it was. It’s 76 minutes, or something. And then, we read J.M. Barrie’s story, which I also hadn’t read in a long time. And we looked at the play that he also wrote. They’re quite similar. The Disney movie was a very clear adaptation of the original. So, I think we can do justice to both by just telling the original story. We don’t want to do anything revisionist. We don’t want to do anything where we are changing what people love about it. I have zero interest in presenting an origin story for Peter Pan. We just want to stick to what is great about it, but at the same time, filter it through my perspective. There are things that I do well and things that I am interested in, and there’s an aesthetic that I value, that I think will allow us to make this film feel fresh, new, bold, wonderful and familiar, all at the same time. Hopefully, we’ll be back here, in about two years, talking about that, and it will be great and everyone will love it. But it’s a big journey ahead of us, on that one.
You’re working with Disney again and you’re also working with Robert Redford again, for The Old Man and The Gun. What can you say about that film and what we might get to see from Robert Redford in that?
LOWERY: I think it will be a chance for both him and for audiences to reflect on the movies he’s done in the past. It very much fits in line with Butch Cassidy, The Sting and Jeremiah Johnson. It’s not like those films, at all, but because it’s the story of an outlaw, it fits into that legacy of his. It’s a great way for him to return to that type of story, but also to return to it at the age he’s at now, and look back at where he’s come from and where he’s going, and for audiences to do the same. I’m really excited to have the opportunity to tell that type of story with him.
I love working with the same people. When I find someone I love and that I like working with, I don’t want to stop working with them. That’s why I work with Toby on everything. He either writes or producers, or both, on everything I do. The same composer, Daniel Hart, does all of my movies. The same production designer, Jade Healy, does all of my movies. These are people that I would delay production for, to make sure they’re there, because I just can’t imagine doing it without them. They’re all co-directors, in their own way. And when I find an actor I love, I want to keep working with them. Casey Affleck is someone I want to work with again. We almost had him on Pete’s Dragon, but his scheduling issues didn’t work out. I just did something in Texas with him, and he’s going to be in a couple more movies I’m doing.
When I find people I love, I hold on tight, and hopefully they don’t get sick of me. I just want to keep employing them and learning from them. I think we all bring out the best in each other. So, when I find someone where I feel like I can give them something to work with that they’ll appreciate, and they can bring something to the movie that I wouldn’t have been able to get from anyone else, I definitely try make that movie with them, and then make more with them. One of the great things about having a shorthand with people is that you don’t have to talk to them that much. Directing involves so much talking and so much communication that, if you have someone you can exchange five less words per day with, it makes the job that much better. And when you get to that point where you have a psychic connection with them and you don’t even have to talk to them, and they are going to do exactly what you’re hoping for without ever even consulting you, that’s when you know that you can never work without that person.
Movies are such a labor of love that you want to be there with people you actually want to spend time with.
LOWERY: It’s so hard that it’s not worth doing it with people you don’t like.
Pete’s Dragon opens in theaters on August 12th.