Interview: Bryce Dallas Howard of “Pete’s Dragon”

Posted on November 28, 2016 at 3:09 pm

Copyright 2016 Disney
Copyright 2016 Disney

Bryce Dallas Howard stars in “Pete’s Dragon,” out on DVD/Blu-Ray this week. I had a lot of fun talking to her about making the film.

Your character’s deep love for nature is a very important part of the film. Tell me about her.

I play a woman named Grace and she is a Park Ranger. You don’t really know exactly when it takes place but it takes place before cell phones were around certainly, maybe in the early 80’s. And I find a little boy in the forest who inexplicably is alone. And he looks like he has been living there for a long time and it is my character’s job to figure out what happened and to simultaneously protect this boy. And what was amazing about shooting this film kind and the tone of it overall is that because it did take place a while back before we all were so attached to devices and because so much of it was shot in the woods, it was a really healing experience for me personally and I think when folks watch it it’s soothing. It is a very emotional film and a beautiful film but it is very soothing as well and I think it is because so much of it takes place in nature.

Talk to me a little bit about working with Robert Redford. That must have been pretty magical too.

Oh my, it’s awesome. He is the real magical creature of this movie. Okay, Elliott is magical and Robert Redford is maaaaaagical. I’m always going to think back to and kind of pinch myself. He is a very cool guy and I would’ve been super intimidated being around him but he is just so chill and pleasant that you are immediately put at ease in his presence. And he himself is, as you would imagine, an incredible storyteller and so it endless fun talking with him because he’s the most interesting person I’ve probably ever met.

Copyright 2016 Disney

In that early scene, where he is telling the children that story, I thought you couldn’t find a better way to completely captivate the audience.

Exactly right! I know. I know. When I first started watching the movie I had kind of that same reaction. I was like, “Oh my gosh it’s Robert Redford telling a story to the children!”

I know you spend a lot of time on movie sets when you were growing up. What did you learn from that that really has helped you as an actress and. now that you are directing too, as a director?

Honestly everything. Because in most art forms there is some system of kind of mentorship, and apprenticeship and that is how it’s been going on for thousands of years. When it comes to a medium of arts. I think that tradition is — not that it’s lost but it’s not something that’s a huge part of this industry anymore. And I feel like I am so lucky, given that this is now what I do for a living, when I act and direct and write, I feel so grateful that I got to just spend all this time growing up on set, doing odd jobs, watching and learning, asking questions. I had over 20 years of that before I was in a movie and I remember all of it. So, it was something that I feel so lucky about because there is so much trial and error when anyone is creating anything. And to have been able to observe my dad at work and the folks that he worked with and see such a great example of collaboration, teamwork and work ethic, that is something that I definitely apply to everything that I do. At the end of the day that is what a director’s role is, to see the big picture and to create an environment where everyone is going to be able to bring all their talents and abilities to the table and then they go away and they kind of build the house. And I think that is part of what is so exhilarating and exciting about the creative process. As it’s coming together you don’t necessarily know what the end result is going to be like and yet you’re with a group of people you trust and admire and look to to contribute. That’s what is so electrifying and that’s the magic of the creative process.

So, you were in two movies this year where you were essentially pretending to interact with imaginary green lizards. What have you learned from “Jurassic World” and “Pete’s Dragon?”

What I took away from both experiences is that technology is getting better and better, more and more rapidly, especially visual technology. It’s so exciting to get to be privy to these huge strides forward. The first “Jurassic Park” was game-changing in a world of visual effects and practical effects and really ahead of its time, but nowhere near what we can do now. We are in such an exciting place right now because there are these leaps like that being taken all of the time and new technologies that are getting integrated into the creative process and new approaches. For someone who is curious and likes to learn new things, which is who I am, this is the best time to be around. I am so excited.

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Actors Interview

Interview: “Pete’s Dragon” Screenwriter David Lowery

Posted on November 15, 2016 at 8:00 am

Pete’s Dragon” screenwriter David Lowery answered my questions about updating and transforming the Disney classic for a live-action 21st century remake, and how being the oldest of nine children helped him learn how to tell stories. The movie is available on DVD/Blu-ray November 29, 2016.

How did you decide what elements of the original were important to you to keep and what new elements you wanted to add?

The only elements I wanted to keep from the original was a dragon named Elliott who could turn invisible and a boy named Pete who was an orphan. And I took those elements and thought that if I just maintained those and kept the title I would have the flexibility to tell a completely new story that would stand alongside the original on its own two feet. And that was it, I took those elements, I didn’t go back and watch the original. I just really wanted to focus on telling a new story and creating something the audience could appreciate and love just as much as they loved the original.

How did growing up with so many younger sisters and brothers help you become a writer? Did you read to them, tell them stories?

Copyright 2016 Disney
Copyright 2016 Disney

Oh man, that is a great question. I have eight younger brothers and sisters and it really taught me how to tap into a childlike sensibility. I definitely read to them. We wrote stories together, we wrote comic books together, we made movies together. Whenever I made a movie, my siblings were the actors. So we were creative together all the time. My parents encouraged us to always be expressing ourselves creatively through the arts, whether that be through movies or music and books, or drawings or paintings. And it really, I think, has had a big effect on who I am today as a filmmaker, not only in terms of my sense of collaboration but also in the way I approach storytelling. I always approach every movie I make whether it’s for adults or families with a very childlike sensibility and I think that’s because I spent so much of my life growing up around so many other kids and it really has an effect on how I see the world, how I want to see the world and how I feel I can best tell a story.

When you began working on the film what did you learn about the capacity for special effects or technology that inspired some of the storyline?

One of the things that was fun about this movie was getting to do visual effects on a scale that I never had done before. I knew a little bit about how CGI worked and how visual effects worked and I knew that Elliot would be entirely created on the computer but there was a lot that I had to learn, especially once we got done shooting and were in post production and I saw all the work that went into making him do anything. If they wanted him to blink his eyes it required a lot of steps to get him to blink his eyes right. It is an incredible team at Weta who brought him to life. There are modelers and sculptors, there are animators, there are people who are in charge of putting the 20 million hairs of fur on the body and making sure that that fur moves right if the wind is blowing. It’s just really incredible and so I learned a lot. There is no shortage of boring technical details that I could fill in here but it’s really amazing what is possible with modern digital technology. At the same time it’s important to learn the limits of it. You don’t push it too far because at the end of the day you want the movie to feel real. You want to feel like it is really happening. You want actors to feel like they belong in this world and so you have to find the right balance with it as well.

Your work often focuses on children who are on their own. Why is that a good basis for a story?

If a child is on their own they have somewhere they need to get, there is somewhere they need to be and that automatically gives your story a narrative arc because all of a sudden you have a journey that must be embarked upon. Whether it is a little kid that has run away from home or a little kid like my first film “St. Nick” or a little kid who is lost in the woods like “Pete’s Dragon” or even a grown-up who thinks he’s still a little kid like in my last film “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” where the Casey Affleck character in that movie a full grown man who is on the inside just a 7 year old playing with a gun and trying to find where he belongs in the world — I have gradually realized it is one of the key tenets of all my movies. It wasn’t intentional but I think part of it comes from having such a strong home life, of having such a strong family that I’m coming from that the thought of not having that has been the basis for so many of the stories I have sought to tell on the big screen. You tell stories of what you know but also you imagine yourself in different circumstances and how you would react to that. And I try to imagine myself in a world where I didn’t have the things I had growing up or I wasn’t surrounded by such a strong family that cared for me. That is great food for thought but also a great basis for exploring various stories.

Okay this is a two-part question, do you remember the first Disney movie you saw?

The very first Disney movie I saw was also the very first movie I ever saw, period. and that was “Pinocchio.” It was re-released in theaters in the 80s and my parents let me go see it and I just was spellbound. I had a huge crush on the Blue Fairy. There was a big cardboard stand of the Blue Fairy in the lobby of the theater and I wanted to take it home. I was just madly in love with her at the age of three or four, however old I was. I guess my favorite Disney animated character would probably be Ariel from “The Little Mermaid” because I was just obsessed with that movie. I really love that I really connected to her character and I still love it. I remember when we were shooting “Pete’s Dragon” when we moved locations as I got to another hotel and turned on the TV and “The Little Mermaid” was playing and I just sat down and watched the whole thing and that was one of the happiest moment in the entire shoot.

One thing that I loved about the film is that the bad guy is not entirely bad. What do you think makes a good movie villain?

David: You know a really good movie villain is someone who you love to hate, who is very enjoyable to watch even though you don’t like him but also one who you understand. You might not agree with him but you understand where he is coming from. With the character Gavin, I think the character is kind of a big dummy, he’s not the brightest, he is not the sharpest tool in the set but he doesn’t want to be a bad person, he thinks he is doing the right thing, he thinks he is protecting the town or protecting the kids and I think that’s important. I think it’s really important especially in this day and age to have empathy for people you don’t understand and you don’t agree with. And to understand they are not necessarily evil even if you strongly disagree with what they’re doing. So Gavin does some horrible things in this movie, he does some really bad things, but I wanted to make sure he was someone who can learn, who can grow because I believe that all people can and who ultimately isn’t that bad of a person because I do believe everybody has goodness in them and I wanted that to be present in this character.

There are some great movie villains who are just purely evil, I certainly enjoyed a lot of them over the course of movie history and sometimes it’s really fun to see someone you just purely hate and you’re happy to see die at the end of the film but I personally wanted to make a movie where the bad guy was someone who wasn’t purely bad but who got better, who grew as a human being. I really think that it’s important, especially for children, to see that there is more than one side to every story. There are perspectives that you are going to have to learn to adjust to as you grow older and as you meet people of different beliefs and different values and to understand that people make mistakes and come back from them and be better for it. I think that all those things are important for kids to understand and I wanted to just touch on that a little bit with the character of Gavin.

The forest in the story feels magical all on its own. How do you see the role of the natural world in the film and why is that important?

I think nature is spectacular, I really think it’s full of mystery and wonder and so many amazing things that we don’t even, we can’t even see. The ecosystem in the natural world that is beyond our comprehension is proof that magic does exist in the world. I don’t think that magic exists in terms of spells or witchcraft or anything like that but I do think that magic exists in the natural world and the forest. And I wanted the forest in the film to convey that sense of wonder and awe and mystery and magic because I do believe that that’s what you find in the real world.

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Behind the Scenes Interview Writers

Pete’s Dragon

Posted on August 11, 2016 at 5:24 pm

Copyright 2016 Disney
Copyright 2016 Disney

Disney has wisely jettisoned the songs, the plot and the cartoon for the remake of the Helen Reddy musical with live-action boy befriended by a cartoon dragon. It’s still about Pete and his dragon friend Elliott, and the entirely new story that is genuinely enchanting.

This seems to be a year for stories about children who make friends with giant, magical creatures. We’ve already had “The BFG” and have “A Monster Calls” coming up. And this reworking also owes quite a debt to another live-action 3D Disney remake of just a few months ago, “The Jungle Book.” But hey, it is a lovely fantasy — a child left alone finds a devoted protector. Pete (Levi Alexander), age 5, is reading a book called Elliott Gets Lost in the back seat of the car with the encouragement of his parents when there is an accident. The parents are killed (very discreetly handled off-screen), and Pete is left alone, like Mowgli and Tarzan, but instead of being raised by wolves or apes, he is taken in by a furry green dragon he dubs Elliot.

Six years later, Pete (now played Oakes Fegley) is living a life of Rousseauian paradise in the woods. We don’t waste time on how or what they eat or why his teeth are so white and even. It’s just racing through the Edenic forest and, in the film’s most exhilarating scene, leaping off a cliff in the sure knowledge that Elliott will be there to catch him and take him soaring through the sky in gorgeous 3D. They are very happy together.

But a logging operation is moving very close to the cozy cave where Elliot and Pete live. Two brothers, Gavin (“Star Trek’s” Karl Urban) and Jack (Wes Bentley) are cutting trees in the forest under the watchful eye of Jack’s girlfriend, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), a forest ranger who considers the woods her home. Her father Meacham (Robert Redford) likes to tell local children the legend of the dragon in the woods and boasts that he once fought the dragon with a knife. But Grace insists that she knows every inch of the forest and does not believe his story.

Gavin is reckless and greedy. When Gavin’s crew goes beyond Grace’s limits, Jack’s daughter Natalie (“Southpaw’s” Oona Laurence) discovers Pete, who has not seen another person in six years. He goes home with Jack and Grace and begins to learn about the human world. But he misses Elliot terribly. Gavin discovers Elliot and thinks he can make a fortune by capturing him.

The movie is disjointed at times, likely due to recutting, leaving unanswered questions about Grace’s relationship to Jack and Natalie and oddly having three main characters motherless. I never quite got used to the idea of a dragon with fur instead of scales. But it is thrilling to see Pete and Elliot soar together and the love between them is genuine and heartwarming enough to make this one of the year’s best family films.

Parents should know that this film includes fantasy/action-style peril and violence, sad death of parents (discreetly shown) and references to other absent parents, and brief mild language.

Family discussion: Why did Gavin and Jack have different ideas about their business? If you had a dragon friend, what name would you pick?

If you like this, try: “The Jungle Book” and “Free Willy”

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3D Action/Adventure Fantasy Remake Stories About Kids

More Movie Dragons

Posted on August 9, 2016 at 3:37 pm

In honor of this week’s release of Disney’s remake of the 1977 film, “Pete’s Dragon,” here are some other classic movie dragons.

1. How to Train Your Dragon This was the first of the terrific series which has produced two films (a third coming in 2018) and a television series.  It is the story of a Viking boy who learns that dragons are not as scary as the people in his village believe.  The variety of dragon species is endlessly entertaining.

2. Pete’s Dragon Disney’s live action/animated musical about a boy and his dragon friend features 60’s pop star Helen Reddy and Jim Dale, best known today as the narrator of the Harry Potter audiobooks.

3. Dragonslayer Peter MacNichol plays a young apprentice to a wizard who is sent to kill the dragon that has been devouring girls from a nearby community.  The setting is at the end of the era of fantasy, as Christianity takes hold.

4. The Reluctant Dragon Humorist Robert Benchley visits the Disney animation studios to persuade them to make a cartoon from his story of a dragon who would rather write poetry than fight.

5. Mulan Eddie Murphy provides the voice for a small dragon named Mushu in this classic Disney story based on the legend of a girl who disguised herself as a male soldier to save her people.

6. Shrek In this delightfully skewed fairy tale, not only is the ogre the hero, but the dragon falls in love.

Maleficent-sleeping-beauty-dragon7. Sleeping Beauty When the evil fairy has to fight the gallant prince, to keep him from waking the princess, she transforms herself into a fire-breathing dragon and they have an epic battle.

8. Spirited Away Hayao Miyazaki’s story about a girl who finds an enchanted land where she meets a dragon and recognizes that he is really a boy who has been transformed.

9. Dragonheart Sean Connery provides the voice of the last dragon, who must work with a knight (Dennis Quaid) to defeat an evil king.

10.Enchanted Susan Sarandon plays the evil queen who transforms herself into a dragon.

And here’s a list from Leigh Singer.  How many can you name?

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