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David Lowery’s Production Diary for ‘Pete’s Dragon’: Transitioning from Indie to Hollywood

David Lowery's Production Diary for 'Pete's Dragon': Transitioning from Indie to Hollywood

We’re grateful that David Lowery, one of our favorite indie directors, has been keeping a production diary for the upcoming Disney remake of “Pete’s Dragon,” his first studio film after achieving critical success with “‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.” Reading through his journal gives an idea of what the transition from indie to studio film must have been like.

Production on the film, a reimagining of Disney’s 1977 “Pete’s Dragon,” took place in New Zealand and follows the bond between an orphaned boy, Pete, and his best friend, Elliott, who happens to be a dragon. The film stars Oakes Fegley as Pete, as well as Bryce Dallas Howard, Wes Bentley and Robert Redford.

“Pete’s Dragon” is scheduled to be released in August 2016, three years after “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” hit theaters. That film, which was released by IFC, grossed just under $400,000 — which we’re guessing was the budget for pizza deliveries on the “Pete’s Dragon” set.

Lowery began chronicling the production back in late January on the eve of production of “Pete’s Dragon.” Even he seemed surprised at where his career had led him. Just two years after “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” premiered at Sundance, he was behind a big-budget Hollywood sequel.

I started this blog the summer after I got out of high school. Back then, I’d have been surprised and thrilled to know this is where I’d wind up. A handful of years later, I was so entrenched in auteurism and fierce independence that I’d have been surprised and mildly aghast at the suggestion that I’d be directing a Disney film a little ways down the line (and a remake, no less)!

A few years after that — two years ago this very day, in fact — I was packing for Sundance, where my latest attempt at a fiercely independent film was about to premiere. “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” was meant to be an estimable cinematic declaration; it didn’t quite wind up that way. My feelings about it remain massively conflicted; most days it’s best if I don’t think about it at all, and in its wake I found myself unsure of what exactly I wanted to do next. I wrote a bunch of things. One of those things happened to be “Pete’s Dragon.”

One thing lead to another. There was a point last spring where I had to choose between directing this movie and another script that I’d written. That other one might have made more sense on paper, in terms of budget and theme and content and scale. It was a natural choice. It also didn’t feel completely like it came from me — which strangely, maybe ironically (although not really), this Disney movie did. This big kids’ adventure movie (that happened to be a remake) felt personal. It also felt like a good challenge, and a lucky opportunity.

And it felt like fun! That’s something I care about more now than I used to.

By the 28th day of shooting, Lowery paused to consider that it had taken 28 days to finish production on “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.” For “Pete’s Dragon,” he was in for the long haul. Lowery wrote:

Towards the end of of that shoot [on “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”], I wanted to die and/or quit making movies. I remember finishing day ten and wondering how I could handle 18 more demoralizing beat-downs. Of course, the moment we actually wrapped the rose-colored glasses came on, which is why I’m here now, but still — in the months leading up to this gig, the sheer duration of the production grew increasingly daunting. I’ve never focused on just one thing for anywhere near this long, mentally or physically, and I wasn’t sure how I’d handle it or if I could pace myself — although, on the plus-side, I was looking forward to having enough time to shoot things properly for once.

Now, on day 28, I feel fairly certain of two things: one can adapt to anything, and no movie ever has enough time to shoot things properly. Filmmaking, I now suspect, is infinitely scaleable. How else to explain that we are scraping by each day by the skin of our teeth, rushing like mad to complete scenes that demand at least twice the time as we have for them? In the moment, our schedule feels ridiculous and unfair and sometimes comical and often just wrong — but we buckle down and somehow we finish the work. And although I have no idea how we’d do it, I know that if we only had a few weeks to shoot the same script, we’d be finishing it too – just as if we had 150 days, we’d still be running out of time.

Though he occasionally expresses how tired he is (and who isn’t when shooting a movie?!), Lowery seems surprisingly chipper through the production — and even manages to find time to go parasailing on his days off and to watch films, including “Selma,” “Ned Rifle” and even “Dumb and Dumber To.” Of course, he encounters some minor challenges during the production, including ones he admits creating, as you can see below in his diary entry from day 55 of production:

We had to cover a heck of a lot of dialogue today and, as is my wont, I decided to rewrite a lot of it two days ago. I always do this. It always causes the usual minor challenges to the production — sometimes a scene gets longer, sometimes a character appears or disappears, sometimes lines get reattributed and the sound recordist isn’t ready for them. I usually ignore these growing pains, but yesterday, sensing weariness on the part of my compatriots at my latest round of revisions, I wondered I was just being compulsive. Maybe it wasn’t so much a case of me trying to improve upon something as it was an obsessive inability to let things stay fixed. Were these changes actually making the scenes better? Or did I just feel better about them because they was different?

In his most recent post, Lowery muses upon his time spent in New Zealand during production — as well as on the differences and similarities of low-budget and studio productions. On April 30, Lowery wrapped after 74 days of production. “Endings are hard to get right, but I think we did pretty well,” he wrote. He continued:

READ MORE: David Lowery’s Acclaimed 2011 Short Film ‘Pioneer’ Now Available to Stream
Making movies is so weird! Half the time when you’re in the middle of it you think it’s the stupidest thing in the world (and I don’t mean that facetiously — you literally wonder why in the name of all that is holy anyone would want to do this) and then the moment it’s over you get all mushy.

You’ve got this team of people working incredibly hard, together, under incredibly close circumstances — and then it all just stops, as it must, and everyone goes their own ways and that’s that. It’s tempting to try and swallow the sentimentality of it all, to look at it as a necessary step in the long process of trying to make something great; it’s just as easy to luxuriate in the same, to hang on tight to the feelings and hope they won’t diminish before you’re through with them. That tact is all your own; the other will one day be inclusive of everyone else, an everyone else that in full-circle fashion will include all those folks who at this moment you’re having a great deal of trouble getting used to not seeing at breakfast every morning. Moving from this step to the next gets a whole lot easier when I think about making this great for them.

What I said early on remained true: shooting this movie felt just as small and handcrafted as any I’ve ever I’ve ever made. It just went on for a whole lot longer. On indie movies you have to search for financing and on studio movies you have to manage notes from upstairs – both necessary travails which, once set aside, still leaves you sitting in the same pretty okay boat. There was an evening last month, after a particularly grueling week, when I was chatting with [producer] Jim [Whitaker] about how much it felt like we were flying by the seat of our pants. “I used to think,” I told him, “that on a studio movie you wouldn’t have to worry about being rushed or not having enough time or not being able to get the things you need to make the movie work; but it’s starting to seem like those things have less to do with whether the movie is big or small and more like they’re just part of making a movie.”

A momentary pause, and then…

“Yep.”

READ MORE: The Movies That Changed My Life: ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ Director David Lowery

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