Interview: How David Lowery's 'Pete's Dragon' Was Inspired By A Bank Commercial

Director David Lowery's reimagining of Disney's Pete's Dragon is a very, very loose remake. It's more detached from the original film than any of the other live-action Disney remakes. For Lowery and co-writer Toby Halbrooks, a boy, Pete (Oakes Fegley), and a dragon, Elliot, were all they needed to take from the 1977 musical.

Halbrooks and Lowery's tale of friendship is character-driven and sparse. Unlike most films we've seen this summer, it's not driven by set pieces or conventional spectacle. Pete's Dragon is basically a big budget drama. At the film's press day, Lowery was kind enough to discuss crafting his latest picture with us, how the story evolved, working with Robert Redford, and how a bank commercial inspired him.

Below, read our David Lowery interview.

At the preview event, you joked Pete's Dragon is Ain't Them Bodies Saints with a dragon, but now I see what you mean because it's a very sparse story driven more by character, mood, and has that sense of longing. It doesn't feel that different from your past work. 

It doesn't and that's why it was easy for me to say yes when the possibility of directing came about because over the course of writing it, it really just seeped into that space where it became one of my movies; and for better or worse, I kind of make the same movie every time. Some day I'll shake it up, but I've got my interests and my aesthetics and the themes I'm interested in.

It really hit home for me in that scene where Elliott is looking through the window at the family and I was like, "Oh man, I did that scene in Ain't Them Bodies Saints too. I think shot for shot it's the same thing." I was like, "Where did that come from? Maybe Catch Me If You Can." Leo [DiCaprio] looks through the window, and it must have had a big impact or maybe some other movie. Now I've done it twice, but yeah, it's also got this idea of trying to find your home, which has been in every single thing I've done.

I try not to self-analyze myself too much, so I don't know why that's the theme I keep going back to because I come from a pretty happy solid family, but I definitely always found the search for domesticity appealing. That idea that you have an idea of what your life should be, and letting the home represent that life. That is something I just keep coming back to. This film is full of it as everything else I've done.

How did your first meeting with Disney go? What was your pitch?

The first meeting was while I was editing Ain't Them Bodies Saints. It was December of 2012, and it was just a Skype call with the producers. We just talked and got to know each other. My co-editor and I, in preparation, came up with some ideas for what we would do if we were to do this film. It was fairly different from ... It was completely different from the [original] movie.

Other than the time period, some of the character ideas were the same and I think at that point, we talked about setting it in the South. It was very loose, we didn't really have much of an idea, though. We were just like, it would be great to have a dragon in the woods with a little kid and have a lot of it set in the woods and make it a period piece. Then right after Sundance, we went to LA and met with them again and by that point, I had this commercial. You can find it on YouTube. It's an HSBC commercial about lumberjacks, and I love it. It's like an amazing short film, it has Joanna Newsom on it, which makes me love it because I love her to death, but it's like a minute-long commercial. It's bizarre that it's a banking commercial, but it's about lumberjacks, it's about ... I won't say what it's about, you'll watch it. I'm sure you can look it up.

I'll put it in the interview.

Put it in the interview. You can put a link into it. I love this commercial, it's a great short film and I was like, I brought that in and I was like, "I'm going to play this for you guys and now I just want you to imagine this commercial with a dragon in it, and that's the movie I think we should make." That's the movie we made. That was it. That's the movie we made and it's so funny to look at that now and be like, yeah, we just made, that's exactly what it is. It's that commercial with a dragon in it.

At that point, that was the story. The lumber mill story was there. We had the little kid living in the woods for a long time. If we'd known The Jungle Book was coming out, maybe we wouldn't have been so excited about that, but at that point, it felt like a great idea. [Laughs.] The relationship between the characters was all there. We spent some time developing some more ideas and then ... That was like a week after Sundance and then a week later we pitched that to the studio and then they offered us the job to write it.

What we wrote, what we pitched that day is pretty much the movie you saw. We have not changed it that much. At one point it did have a slightly bigger climax, but we wrote that for the first time ... The very first time we wrote that we realized the film didn't need it and we pulled it out and made it really small and intimate. We spent a year writing it, but it was a lot of finessing. I think those building blocks have pretty much remained the same.

Pete's Dragon

What happened in the bigger climax? 

When he breathes fire, the fire spreads because the woods catch on fire and Elliott has to go save the whole town because the town was threatened by the fire. We could not figure out a good way for him to stop the fire. It was like, oh, the forest fire is raging, so I guess that's kind of the end of it. It was unsatisfactory in that regard because it wasn't a good way for a fire-breathing dragon to breathe the fire and then to stop the fire that he started.

Also, it was just unnecessary. It was just too big. It felt like it was one of those easy lifts, where you could just take pages 97 to 102 out, and it doesn't hurt the story at all. That was it. There was a little bit more magic in the movie too at one point, where when the dragon would leave the forest, the forest would respond and we pulled that out as well because it just felt a little too unnecessary. We already have a dragon living in the woods; we didn't need any more magic than that.

Did you watch the original film again before you and Toby started writing?

We decided not to. The studio from the beginning was, the very first thing they said was, don't watch the original. I had seen it a few times as a kid. Toby watched it religiously as a child, so he had a much better memory of it than I did. We looked at a clip on YouTube with the scene where he was eating the apples, which is one of the few scenes I remember very, very clearly.

I thought about including a scene like that, but ultimately, I just felt that when you see a remake of a movie that has a nod to the original in it, it pops you out. Whether that's the Poltergeist remake, or Robocop remake, or Clash of the Titans. I remember Clash of the Titans has that moment where they find the little golden owl and he throws it in a trash bin. I was like, why did you do that? That owl was awesome. I love Bubo. That was great. Regardless of the quality of the rest of the film, that makes me respect the remake a little bit better because it's saying, that thing you loved as a kid was dumb. I didn't want to have anything in this that did that. The octopus in the Oldboy remake was like, come on.

And all it does is make you want to watch the original film, especially if it's the better version. 

Yeah, it makes you think of something else that you like. I always wanted to cast that out. We did name the dragon Elliott, he does disappear. Those are things that I felt were fine to hang on to, but we didn't have to. The studio was like, you don't have to name him Elliott. It just felt like a good name.

The original, if you love the original, just go enjoy the original. That's what I would do. With any movie that gets remade, whether I like the remake or not, I'm glad that I can still go watch the original that I love. If the remake is offering something different, I really value that because I'm having a new experience and adding something new to my life. I know it's not going to float everybody's boat.

I know some people will go and be upset that it doesn't have the songs or the characters, and that's fine. That's totally fair, and I get it, but for me, it's not. If I'm making a movie for myself, this is what I would want to see. As far as the original, I had an opportunity to actually present a screening of it a couple of weeks ago and chose not to because at this point, now this is my Pete's Dragon and it's almost weird to think about the other version.

I've got it on DVD at home, and I'll watch it one of these days, but right now I love this version, and I want to just let this be my version of it that exists in my head and not think about the original as much. Hopefully, people like both. That's my hope. They're both good. I hope everyone likes both of them.

Casting an actor who's also an icon like Robert Redford, did you think that would add to the majestic quality of the film? 

Totally. When we wrote it, we didn't have him in mind. We wrote the part as a crazy old man who was a little bit goofier. That was the way we were initially. There was crazy old Mr. Meacham, and that was basically the character. As we were starting to talk about casting, you had a list of actors in that age range who would be appropriate. You've got Robert Duvall, and we felt that he probably ... [But] the idea of getting him down to New Zealand and, you know, he's getting pretty up there in age.

Bruce Dern would be the crazier version. Nebraska had just come out. I thought okay, he can do that, but I had already been working with Redford on this other project, and suddenly the idea occurred to me, what if we got Redford in this? At first, it was a reaction like, 'Oh yeah, keep dreaming.' I was like, 'No, I'm working with him on this other thing. I bet he can read it.' Sure enough, he did. At first, he wasn't sure, because it was still the crazy old character. I was like, look, let's rewrite this for him.

Let's rewrite this part for Robert Redford and see what happens. We did and that point it became exactly what you said. You write a part knowing that an icon is going to be playing it. There is no sense in trying to have him get away from who he is. You just lean into his status as a cinema legend and let that do some heavy lifting for you.

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Pete's Dragon is now in theaters.