Elliott the dragon is about to fly again. The sweet green pal of the orphaned Pete made his debut in Disney’s 1977 film Pete’s Dragon, a memorable blend of live action and 2D animation. The modern remake, also from Disney, mixes live action and computer generated imagery. Directed by David Lowery, the new Pete’s Dragon stars Robert Redford, Bryce Dallas Howard, and young Oakes Fegley as Pete.
Nerdist attended a preview and took a look at a few clips from the film. Redford was positively endearing in the role of an optimistic elderly man who has seen it all, and the updated design for Elliott makes him extra cuddly and sweet. The affection between Pete and Elliott was apparent, even in the brief footage we saw; Elliott’s eyes are gentle and convey so much. In addition to showing off glimpses of the movie, Lowery and Howard shared some behind-the-scenes information.
No Winks and Nods
The original Pete’s Dragon had some memorable songs—including “Candle On the Water”—but you won’t find any traces of those in the new film. In fact, Lowery isn’t about homages to the original. He said, “We do have a song in the movie, [and] you’ll find out how it plays into the plot when you see it, but I really wanted to avoid the winks and the nods. Not because the original’s not great, but because I wanted this to really exist in its in own realm. The best thing is for audiences who loved the original to see this and say, ‘This is a great new film about a boy named Pete and Elliott.’ And the kids who have not seen the original, this will be the first time they’re seeing it and there won’t be that moment when all the adults go ‘Ohhh, yeah,’ and the kids will go, ‘I don’t get it, what is it?'”
Though Lowery said they did discuss the possibility of including references, the team ultimately went with a “pure tactic.”
Casting Pete was obviously a key part of a movie titled Pete’s Dragon, and Lowery was looking for something special. He gave credit to the casting director Debra Zane for seeing thousands of kids and finding what he wanted. “I was looking for—I don’t want to speak poorly of child actors who are incredibly talented and capable of doing great things—but I wanted someone who was a little unvarnished and not perfect and didn’t have a trained quality,” Lowery said. He tested Fegley and others during their auditions by asking them to build random things so he could see them processing and being themselves rather than just reading lines.
Howard said Fegley was wonderful to work with; she often asked him for directions and about what he thought. “[Fegley] is a self aware person, but he’s not aware of the extent of his talent and is really relaxed about it,” she said.
The Where and When Isn’t Set
You shouldn’t be able to pin down an exact location and time for Pete’s Dragon, as Lowery crafted it the story to be timeless. That said, it’s vaguely set somewhere in the Pacific Northwest and in the past, around the ’70s or ’80s. “I feel that when you have a movie that has a fantastical concept you’re going to accept it more easily if it has the veil of time hanging over it,” Lowery said. “And to set something in the past, you’re a little more accepting of the idea that there might be magic there you might have overlooked in your own past. I also find the movies I return to and love the most are the ones that don’t feel dated.”
To sell that concept, production design was vague. They pulled some cars from the ’70s and the ’80s. Lowery added, “You make everything congeal into this cohesive whole that doesn’t have a literal date on it but feels [like] yesterday.”
Practical as Possible
Given that one of the central characters of this film is obviously a digital creation, Lowery wanted to shoot whatever he could practically. “I like things to be real, and I’m always going to gravitate towards that,” Lowery said. “When we were planning this, I was like, ‘We’re going to have a giant CG dragon, let’s make everything else real and have as little green screen as possible.”
That decision played into why they shot the movie in New Zealand. Lowery explained, “It’s set in the Pacific Northwest but it’s a slightly elevated more magical version of the Pacific Northwest. And New Zealand’s got plenty of magic on hand and it had the forest we needed, it had the weather we needed, and it also had WETA Digital, which was very convenient.” He added they wanted it to feel like the best version of being out in the woods.
Robert Redford Story Time
Redford might be the one telling stories in the movie, but stories could be told about him. Howard said about Redford, “He’s disarmingly relaxed and cool and game for things.” Then Lowery casually added, “He hitchhiked to set one day.” Howard chimed in and said Redford walked every day for miles. It gets better. “There was a horse on the side of the road one day that he rescued, like the second day of shooting,” Howard said. It turned out the horse was in an abusive situation, and now the horse is in New Zealand and fine.
Pete’s Dragon will premiere on August 12, 2016. Do you have this remake on your must-see list for the summer? Let me know in the comments.