“Just because you don’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there.” This line, delivered by Mr. Meacham, an old man who spins seemingly tall tales about dragons, pretty much sums up the theme of Disney’s new live-action Pete’s Dragon. Director David Lowery and actor Bryce Dallas Howard, who plays Grace, recently sat down to show off a few clips and discuss the film.
The first clip dealt with Mr. Meacham, Grace’s father, played by veteran actor and director Robert Redford. Mr. Meacham holds the kids in his northwestern logging town spellbound with stories about the dragon that lurks in the nearby woods, one that hasn’t been seen by anyone other than himself. Grace should know, since she’s the town’s forest ranger. Howard admitted she was unsure about working with Redford the first day. But by the end of it everyone realized he was just one of the crew. She described him as, “Disarmingly relaxed and cool and game for things.” Director Lowery felt that Redford brought a necessary gravitas to the role, saying he was “Glad he took this part.”
Lowery brought the script for Pete’s Dragon to Redford, certain he would find nothing daunting about working with the legend. However, while working on some daily footage, the editor pointed out to him that after giving direction to Redford, Lowery would invariably add, “If that’s OK with you.”
Clip number two was an extended look at Pete and Elliot. Despite the fact that Pete is a little boy and Elliot is a twenty-foot dragon, their bond could be seen as they played together in the vastness of a Pacific Northwest wood. In finding the right performer to play the role of Pete, Lowery gave credit to his casting director. His desire to find a child who was not perfect, a little “unvarnished,” and without a trained quality was met when he saw young Oakes Fegley. “That’s him. Done,” was his reaction. Howard spoke of the young actor’s quiet confidence and self-awareness, an awareness that did not extend to his own talent.
As for Elliot, fans of the original Pete’s Dragon will immediately note that this dragon is covered with green fur. Lowery made this design decision even before his first script pitch. The reason? He loves his cats. And he couldn’t imagine anything more wonderful than snuggling with a twenty-foot version of his beloved fur-covered pets. (His cats even have their own Twitter account.) While there are some very popular scaly dragons in Game of Thrones, Lowery admitted that as long as they had the right wings and tails there was no reason they could not be furry. Besides, he concluded, this made Elliot a dragon you would want to hug.
For the third clip showed Elliot’s quieter side. The scene, set deep in the forest, revealed Elliot to Mr. Meacham, Grace, and Pete’s new friend Natalie. Because Elliot has the ability to turn virtually invisible through mimicry, he and Pete have been able to evade detection. But with Pete’s coaxing, Elliot is finally introduced to the trio. The forest scenes were shot on locations in New Zealand, despite the fact that the movie is set in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. Lowery felt that the New Zealand forests had a more magical quality, describing it as, “The best version of being out in the woods.”
The time period for Pete’s Dragon has been deliberately manipulated to give the film a timeless quality. Set in the “near-past,” everything is familiar, but not tied into a specific period. Because the concept is fantastic—a boy with a pet dragon—the setting needed to be realistic, but not as mundane as the present.
The final clip was drawn from a scene near the climax of the film. Elliot has been captured by an evil local (we know he’s a bad guy because when he appears on screen, crows screech in the background), and Pete and Natalie are determined to rescue him. Mr. Meacham joins them just in time to help them out, and a wild car chase with a lumber truck, pickups, and police cars ensues. And how does it turn out? We will just have to see the movie to find out, (But apparently it does involve some good old-fashioned fire breathing.)
Following the presentation of the clips, director Lowery and actor Howard answered a few questions. Howard spoke fondly of working with the children in the cast, particularly Oakes Fegley as Pete and Oona Laurence as Natalie (“Our young Meryl Streep.”) Howard noted that after seeing Pixar’s Up she wanted every movie she worked on to begin with the characters starting out as children.
Lowery was asked if any of the familiar music from the original Pete’s Dragon would be heard, either in the form of songs or in background themes. Noting that there would be a new song in the film, Lowery said there would be no “winks and nods” to the original. This Pete’s Dragon would be a completely new film for a new generation. Musical cues from the previous movie would take audiences out of this moment and into another.
Both Lowery and Howard expressed great admiration for Disney’s original Pete’s Dragon. Howard watches it with her own children, who are eagerly anticipating the new one. (They do alternate between wanting the dragon to be scary, and wanting it to be not too scary.) Lowery’s love of the original extended to championing this project. Working with the script, he said, he wanted to create a new movie not just for the studio, but one he wanted to make himself.