Sean Wilson chats to filmmaker David Lowery about his acclaimed Disney remake, the power of movie magic… and the results of a certain American Presidential election…
Few could have anticipated back in August that in a month dominated by the overhyped and underwhelming Suicide Squad, it would be a comparatively unheralded Disney reboot that would steal audiences’ hearts across the world.
The movie is Pete’s Dragon, an engrossing and emotionally powerful update of the company’s 1977 live-action/animation crossbreed, and the director is David Lowery, who adds to an eye-catching resume that also includes atmospheric 2013 drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.
With Pete’s Dragon out on DVD and Blu-ray on December 5th, I spoke to David about the challenges of communicating to a young target audience and how, on a day of upsetting political news (this interview was recorded on 9th November), his role as film director is now more vital than ever before.
Well David, it’s delightful to talk to you. Firstly by way of introduction, I just want to say that Pete’s Dragon had a powerful, profound impact on me when I saw it – so much so, I had to compose myself when the lights went up at the end!
That means a lot, thank you!
So just to put things in context, what was the lighting rod moment for you in terms of deciding to become a filmmaker?
It’s going to be a boring, clichéd answer, but Star Wars. I was too young to see any of them in the theatre but my parents got the story books out of the library for me and I had all the action figures, but I didn’t see the movies until I was quite a bit older. I had become completely hooked on the stories and the imagery and the toys and I knew the whole myth backwards and forwards, so when I finally saw the movies, instantly I thought, that’s what I want my life to be. It was a very quick thing. [laughs]
There was much made in the press about your apparent shift from the relatively gritty Ain’t Them Bodies Saints to the more family friendly Pete’s Dragon. But you’ve dealt with themes of family before in your 2009 feature St. Nick and also your short film Pioneer, so did you personally see the transition between the two features as a dramatic one?
No, I knew that it would be perceived as such but I didn’t think there was that much of a difference, thematically speaking. That was one of the reasons I was so excited to make Pete’s Dragon and why I felt so comfortable making it. It was very much in the wheelhouse of what I’d done before.
Even Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, which was technically a gritty movie with guns and violence, had a very childlike, fairy tale perspective to it. I always wanted that movie to feel like a fairy tale. I told Casey Affleck that his character was like a 7-year-old; I described him as a 7-year-old who didn’t realise he grew up. So the through-line of a little kid trying to find their home or where they belong has been present in everything that I’ve done. And because that was coming out very naturally in the Pete’s Dragon script, it was very easy for me to get excited and feel very personally connected to it.
Pete’s Dragon is a family adventure yet it opens on an uncompromising and very dramatic note. Can you describe the challenges of engaging a younger audience without either patronising them or stepping over the line into material that’s too dark?
Absolutely. There’s always a cliché when it comes to the death of parents in movies and we knew we were playing into that – it happens in pretty much every Disney movie. But it’s usually off-screen and somewhat removed. I wanted the opening of this movie to function as a roadmap for the rest of the drama.
All of the films I grew up loving the most were the ones that scared me, or made me uncomfortable or made me sad, before ultimately reassuring me that, as dark as things get, everything’s going to be OK in the end. E.T. is the obvious example: that is a movie that no child is going to watch without going through every possible emotion. You know, it gets very intense but that makes you love it more because when it bounces back and gets happy again, that sense of joy is all-the-more powerful. It’s important for kids to have those feelings, and to go through them, and to be told stories or see films that engage them on that emotional level.
So with the opening of this movie, I wanted to make sure that we were doing justice to the emotional maturity that children do have, whilst at the same time not traumatising them. So it’s a very careful line to walk and we pre-visualised that sequence. I was very careful about how I wanted it to be entirely from the perspective of Pete, and it was also important that he be of a certain age. I thought if he was 4 years old, he’s just young enough to not fully know what’s going on; he’s old enough to get scared and run off into the woods but he still has that slight veil of naiveté to him that prevents him from truly grasping what is happening. Whereas if he’d been 6 or 7 years old, the scene would have been far more traumatic because he would have known exactly what was happening.
So he goes through this accident, the wolves show up, which is of course a fairy tale element akin to the wolves that chase Belle in Beauty and the Beast, and he runs off into a dark and scary woods that are somewhat heightened and exaggerated, before the dragon shows up. And by the time the dragon arrives, we’ve paved the way for him to have this moment where there’s a hint everything’s going to be OK. Then the title comes up and in that process we have explained to the audience, especially children, that here is what you’re in for, here’s what you’re going to feel, and just sit tight because things are going to get dark but ultimately it will all work out fine.
I must bring up your collaboration with composer Daniel Hart with whom you’ve worked before and whose music for Pete’s Dragon I thought was beautiful. It’s one of my favourite scores of the year, actually. As a filmmaker, how important is it for you to tell a story through music as well as the visuals?
It’s all part of the sonic landscape and on both Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Pete’s Dragon, it became increasingly important. With this movie, I wanted the music to be an essential part of its fabric, to heighten the experience of both watching and hearing it. The earlier films I made had a much starker quality with very little music, it was much more about the ambience, and I was concerned about not manipulating the audience too much with music.
However with both the aforementioned movies I felt there was a level of drama that required an all-encompassing musical score. There are very few times in Pete’s Dragon when the music isn’t there, and when it’s absent the impact is all the more apparent because of how much music there is elsewhere. It’s a very important part of the storytelling process for me. It’s funny because I always cut my movies without any music whatsoever, I don’t use a temp score until after we’ve had our first full cut. I want movies to come into their own visually and to develop their own pace and rhythm. Then Daniel comes in on top of that and starts to work the music in, very subtly and in a very unique way because we resist the temptation to lean on a temp score that you’ve heard a million times before.
You’re set to return to live-action Disney territory with Peter Pan. Can you tell us anything about that?
I can tell you that I’m on page 87 of the script [laughs]. I’m looking at it right now! You know, it’s a ways off and we’re working on the first draft at the moment, just trying to figure out the best way to get into that project and how to make it as fresh and personal as Pete’s Dragon felt to me. I’ve also got another movie I’m going to make in the spring with Robert Redford, another weird little project, but hopefully we’ll get into it sooner rather than later. I think that if we fulfill the promise of these first 87 pages, we’ll have something pretty special.
Fantastic. Last question – and this is unavoidable, sadly, given what’s dominating the news headlines today…
Oh my god! [laughs]
Yeah, sorry to have to ask this but as a filmmaker, what’s your response to America’s new President-elect, Donald Trump?
I’m aghast. I’m completely flabbergasted and depressed and to be honest, talking about this movie today is the only thing I had to look forward to. This upbeat, happy children’s movie that I’ve made.
That plays into my responsibility as a filmmaker too. I’m just going to quote something that I’ve just pulled off my bookshelf: it’s from Roger Ebert who is of course one of the reasons why I got obsessed with movies. I read his books obsessively as a kid before I’d even seen the movies and he said the following: “I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do”.
I really take that as my life mission. There’s not a lot I can do personally to change the world but if I can make someone happier, if I can create something that makes them feel better. I’m not going to go out there and make a political movie because that’s not who I am, but I do want people to feel better about the world. Right now, personally I feel terrible about the world I live in, so the most I can do is to make myself feel better through my art, and hopefully that will carry over for audiences as well.
Hear hear, frankly. I completely agree with you that movies are the perfect tool for both escapism and education, and Pete’s Dragon certainly brought happiness to me.
Thank you – perfect note to go out on! [laughs] Hopefully this movie makes someone’s day a little better and picks them up, in the midst of whatever darkness may befall us.
Well it’s horrible and gloomy over here in the UK in addition to the news headlines, so I needed this conversation to perk me up! David, thanks for talking to me.
Same here! Thanks so much.
Many thanks to David Lowery for taking the time for this interview.
Pete‘s Dragon is available now to purchase on Digital HD, Blu-Ray and DVD.