It takes the 1977 original — a rather flat film about a young boy and his animated dragon pal — and turns it into a surprisingly meditative story about finding family and learning to grow up.
And a big part of that is thanks to the adults surrounding the kids in the film’s story. The cast’s biggest name is Bryce Dallas Howard, an actress who seems drawn to stories about humanity confronting the unknowable. After all, her breakthrough role was in M. Night Shyamalan’s strange, mysterious, horribly underrated The Village. (Her last big role? Jurassic World.)
The movie also wouldn’t work without the direction of David Lowery, an unusual choice to direct a kids film (given that his breakthrough film was the indie crime drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints), but ultimately an inspired one.
"I love conflict. I love people screaming at each other, but I also get great value from peace, and from gentleness, and from tenderness, and sweetness," Lowery told me. "Making a children's film, I saw an opportunity to avoid most conflict altogether."
I chatted with both Howard and Lowery about how they came to the film and why Pete’s Dragon is such a special release after a largely disappointing summer. Howard’s interview proceeds immediately below. To jump to Lowery’s, click here.
These interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
You’ve spent much of your career acting opposite special effects that aren’t there on set. How has your technique changed over the years?
Bryce Dallas Howard
It’s always been fun for me. My background is in theater, and in theater, you have almost nothing. You have just a stage, and you’re looking out, and it’s like, "Oh, there’s the forest, and there’s the kingdom!"
The imagining part of it isn’t something that feels strange. But there’s definitely little tricks that I’ve learned over the years that help me to understand how to fulfill the director’s vision in those kinds of circumstances.
For example, there’s often something called a "pre-vis," where you get to see the live-action storyboards. It’s like a map of what the director is intending for the sequence to be. I started asking to see the pre-vis for Jurassic [World], and I realized it makes such a huge difference. I could see and understand what the action was of the scene.
This seems kind of obvious, but sometimes, you’re shooting so quickly, and you’re told, "Okay, there’s the [creature] that you’re looking at! Okay, go!" If you’re in a scene with other people, sometimes, different spots have been communicated to different people in the scene! I’ve seen cuts where we’re all looking in different directions!
Getting on the same page as to where it is, and when it happens, and what the sounds are off-camera that can help guide us as actors, those are little tricks of the trade.
I read an interview with Steven Spielberg recently where he said that children can’t draw on the same level of experience as adult actors, so it’s up to the adults on set to help them create that reality and protect them. I know you’ve worked with a lot of younger actors, so I’m wondering what your approach is.
Bryce Dallas Howard
That’s really insightful, what Steven said, because the challenge sometimes with movies is that you get so comfortable with the folks that you’re working with, and in the circumstances that you’re working with, that when there is a world that you’re meant to be imagining, you can forget the vastness of it.
With kids, they have that so innately. I remember, when I was a kid, I had a crazy imagination. I could instantly be thrown into a world that was epic, just in my living room. Even with my kids now, I’ll be, like, "There’s lava!" and they’re, like, "Oh my God!" You can instantly go there.
For me, with the kids, it was more me learning from them, and staying with them, and me, as an adult, consciously not taking them out of the world that they were already in. It was me becoming a part of it.
I think working with kids can be really refreshing. There isn’t that same kind of, "Cut!" [and then you] talk about whatever drama, whatever thing, whatever gossip, and then, "Action!" And you’re, like, "Wait, where was I?" With kids, you can really stay in it the whole time.
You and Wes Bentley really have to play the strong, stable ones. You don’t have a big emotional journey like some of the other characters. How did you find that arc anyway, even if it was from point A to point C, instead of point A to point Z?
Bryce Dallas Howard
I tried to be really conscious, when we were making this movie, of the fact that I was the adult character in a children’s film.
I didn’t want to over-complicate things; this isn’t the journey of Grace. It’s not like the character of Claire from Jurassic World, where she starts off one person, and she ends the movie a completely different kind of person. It’s something where, really, what this movie is about is a boy who has lost his family, whose best friend is a dragon, and what it takes to find your family. And I’m in it, too! [Laughs.]
When you watch children’s films sometimes, and there are adult scenes, you’re like, "Come on, let’s just get through this scene, and get back to the dragon!" I felt that I really didn’t want to over-complicate the character of Grace, and build in a journey, and all this kind of stuff, because that really wasn’t what was central to the story.
In this story, she is a woman, she is a protector, and she discovers Pete. She feels a responsibility to protect him, and what she didn’t realize all along is that this is her son. She is his mother. That’s her journey! It’s something she knew all along. It’s stepping into that knowing, and allowing that knowing to come to be.
When I was prepping for this, I was like, "What’s the thing that’s going to ground me in this person, if there isn’t that sort of arc that I’m leaning on?" My husband said, really simply, "Just talk to Pete the way that you talk to the kids. You’re Pete’s mother; you’re Theo’s and Beatrice’s mother. You know what that’s like. Just do that!" That just locked me in. From that moment forward, when I saw Oakes [Fegley, who plays Pete], I just saw my son or daughter.
You’ve built a really eclectic career. What is it that still draws you to a role?
Bryce Dallas Howard
It’s obviously a balance of things; sometimes, there’s one element of a story, or one element of a project that kind of [tops] everything else. You can’t not do a project, because this person is involved, or it’s telling this story, or it’s this filmmaker.
But almost nonnegotiable for me is the filmmaker. That is the storyteller at the end of the day, and if I trust the filmmaker, then I’m going to have an amazing time, and if I don’t trust the filmmaker, then I probably shouldn’t do that movie.
David getting hired to do Pete’s Dragon is very different than another director doing this film. I believe in the David Lowery version, and that was really exciting to me. I wanted to know what that version of the film was going to be, and I wanted to serve that version.
What makes David a filmmaker you trust?
Bryce Dallas Howard
There are fancier ways that I could answer this, but the truth is, I trust who he is as a person, and his point-of-view of the world. There’s a kindness that David has, and a sensitivity, and a trueness.
He’s just a true, honest, open beating heart, and that is the right filmmaker for a Disney movie. He himself is not an ironic person; he’s not somebody who walks around trying to be clever. He’s a kind person, he’s a sweet person, he’s a genuine person.
Then, in addition to that, he is a magnificent visual storyteller. I trust his worldview. I really do.
This movie’s really interested in process, in how things get done, especially through physical labor. What drew you to that?
I love watching people do things, especially when they know how to do them.
I don't know if you've ever seen any of Matthew Barney's films. He makes these bizarre art films, but they're very concerned with process. You'll spend 10 minutes watching someone wrap a present or build something.
Watching someone do these things, these processes that are so unique and specific, can tell you a lot about the character. I would love to make a movie entirely just watching people do things without talking. That's not this movie, of course, but that comes through. It's something that I’m sure will be a part of everything I ever do.
This is a really gentle movie. Even the villain's plan is, like, "I guess I want to put the dragon on display?"
He doesn't even know his plan! What are you really going to do with this thing? When [Robert] Redford [says to the villain], "You have no idea what you're going to do, do you?" I'm like, "That's true!" [Laughs.]
Lots of kids films nowadays feel overstimulated and too busy. How did you get back to that more gentle feeling?
I'm the oldest of nine kids, which you would think would be an incredibly hectic childhood, but we were all very, very quiet and just read a lot of books. It was a very peaceful upbringing, and that is something I always strive for in my movies.
I love conflict. I love people screaming at each other, but I also get great value from peace, and from gentleness, and from tenderness, and sweetness. Making a children's film, I saw an opportunity to avoid most conflict altogether and to do something that really was indicative of all those traits that I value. Even with the bad guy, as you said, he's not that bad. He's kind of just dumb and makes some bad choices from a limited perspective, but he's not a bad, bad guy.
I don't like hating people. In other movies it can be fun to hate the bad guy, but when I'm writing the movie, I often feel very tenderly toward the characters. I always hate watching my characters make bad choices. With the bad guy in this one I was like, "Let's have him be just a dunderheaded guy who ultimately turns out okay."
This movie has a real empathy for everybody on screen. What tricks do you have when writing to get into the head of even the characters you might really disagree with?
It’s a pretty boring answer! I ask myself what I would do, and every character is a different version of me. That just naturally happens when I write. I can't help it.
I try to break outside that box sometimes, but they wind up coming right back to what I would do. That doesn't mean that every character is doing the same thing or feeling the same thing because depending on my mood or what's going on in my life, I may have a different reaction to things.
I try to tap into whatever multitudes might be within myself when I'm writing these characters and think, if I was in the circumstance of this character, how would I react? Or if I were this character, would I react differently?
There's warring factions in my personality that I try to exploit, but it does come down to me. The benefit of it is that every character does get due consideration from me as the writer, and every character gets a perspective and a point of view that I at least relate to. Hopefully it allows the audience to do likewise.
The movie feels set aside from reality in a way, like it takes place in our world, but not quite. It’s a little bit timeless. How do you achieve that effect?
I'm really interested in the temporal quality of films. I love movies where you can't quite put your finger on when they take place and movies that mess with time. Like Inside Llewyn Davis, the fact that it ends where it begins, and at the same time isn't a loop in a literal sense, I love that.
That type of thing really appeals to me because movies are all about time. That's what differentiates them from photographs or from other art forms. You're imposing time upon imagery and sounds.
An extension of that is I love to unstick my movies in time, to borrow Kurt Vonnegut's phrase from Slaughterhouse 5. I like doing it because on a practical level, it removes certain things like cell phones or the internet that would get in the way of the storytelling. But I also just like the idea that these are stories that have been told, and that have happened. You don't know when or where, or how long ago it might've been, but they are in the past. That rear-view perspective adds something intrinsic.
Were there movies you looked at when you prepared to shoot this one, as examples of what you wanted to do?
The only literal nod in the whole movie is in the hospital, there's a red balloon on the bed, which is a literal nod to The Red Balloon, which is a great movie about a kid with a relationship to a being who is nonverbal.
I watched The Journey of Natty Gann, which was a Disney movie set in and around lumber camps and involved a girl with a relationship with a wolf. That was something I loved as a kid. I hadn't seen it in a long time.
The Fox and the Hound was another Disney movie that I treasure dearly, and I wanted the relationship between the boy and the dragon in this film to have a similar quality to the fox and the hound having a friendship. I watched My Neighbor Totoro, another great movie about a child and a fantastical creature.
I never wanted to overtly nod to anything, because I wear my influences on my sleeve, and I feel like if I do anything too overtly, it'll be way too obvious. I like to let things trickle through.
Another one that we watched right before we began shooting was The Witch. That had a big impact on how we shot the forest scenes. There's a lot of things that come through that aren't obvious references, or obvious inspirations, but nonetheless provide a great amount of perspective.
There’s less dialogue in this movie than a lot of people might suspect, especially since your dragon doesn’t "talk" like the one in the original. Do you like working with that sort of quiet?
That's my comfort zone, to be honest. I like writing dialogue. I love writing long monologues. I have a weakness for long monologues, and I tried to give Redford a good one. But I love silence in movies. I love watching characters communicate without saying anything. If I could have put more silence in this movie, I would have, if it didn't have a plot that needed to be moved along. We wrote more dialogue than we shot, and we cut a lot of it out. So there is much less in there then there could have been.
Generally speaking, I've found that silence speaks volumes. When you have a relationship between two characters who don't need to talk to each other because one of them can't speak, I think you can communicate so much more clearly.
I'm always going to veer toward the silence between words rather than the words themselves. When you have no need for words at all, you can cut to the chase and get to the heart of the matter so much more efficiently and meaningfully.
Pete’s Dragon is playing throughout the country.