david lowery

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.

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