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How Indie Filmmaker David Lowery Embraced ‘Pete’s Dragon’ at Disney

The indie director discusses making the transition to studio player at Disney and why he's tackling "Peter Pan."

Pete's Dragon

“Pete’s Dragon”

The first thing that indie filmmaker David Lowery will tell you is that it wasn’t such a great leap going from “Ain’t Them Body Saints” to “Pete’s Dragon.” Other than taking longer to make, the result’s still small, personal and hand-crafted.

“One of my favorite movies growing up was ‘The Black Stallion’ and I watched that again in preparation for this movie,” Lowery told me after sneak-peeking some “Pete’s Dragon” footage at the El Capitan last week with star Bryce Dallas Howard (who revealed that she pursued the project for years).

“And I was thinking if [‘Black Stallion’] was made today it would be an arthouse movie,” he said. “But when I was growing up, that was family entertainment. I do wish those lines weren’t so clearly drawn. I wish there was a little more art in the mainstream and a little more mainstream in the art sometimes. And I obviously like the far reaches of art and the far reaches of mainstream [including “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows”]. And I think you can get away with introducing people to new ideas, new concepts, new flavors and new tones in the mainstream.”

READ MORE: ‘Pete’s Dragon’ Trailer: David Lowery’s Reimagination of the Disney Animated Classic Takes Flight

In Lowery’s live-action updating of the ’77 Disney cult classic, a 10-year-old orphan (Oakes Fegley) and a cuddly dragon help bring a disbelieving forest ranger (Dallas Howard) and her elderly, loquacious, woodcarving father (Robert Redford) closer together.

“Being open to incomprehensible possibilities is a wonderful facet of existence,” said Lowery. “And so with this movie, the magic to me is that there’s a creature in the woods that obeys the laws of physics, for the most part, but has managed to avoid detection, like Big Foot or the Loch Ness monster. I respond incredibly strongly to cuddly, furry animals, and I wanted him to be distinct, fairly iconic and to be remembered well. And I wanted to love him.”

Shot in the bucolic woods of New Zealand, Lowery had the added benefit of working with nearby Weta Digital on the furry, green dragon, Elliott. The animation hit that sweet spot between photoreal and caricature— a far cry from “Game of Thrones.”

“The fur led me to Weta because of the ‘Apes’ films and because they add soul to their characters,” said Lowery, who found it an odd coincidence that Weta was also working simultaneously on Steven Spielberg’s “The BFG” and that both movies have children befriending 20-foot creatures confronting xenophobia.

Bryce Dallas Howard and Oakes Fegley in David Lowery's Pete's Dragon

“Pete’s Dragon”

Walt Disney Productions

Like Weta’s King Louie in “The Jungle Book,” Elliott is totally key-frame animation, and has a decidedly stop-motion vibe. “What I love about stop-motion is that your brain instantly tells you that this isn’t real and sets that worry aside so that you just accept what you’re seeing as real,” said Lowery. “Obviously with CG you’re aspiring for a higher degree of reality. But even though we wanted his weight to feel real in the world and he really belongs there, we wanted to exaggerate certain things so he would have that slight edge of surrealism to him.”

On “Pete’s Dragon,” the editor-turned director learned not to overuse close-ups. For an intense conversation on a front porch, it was more effective to back off for a medium shot. “Let’s let the geography tell a little bit more of the story,” decided Lowery, who will next direct Redford in “The Old Man and the Gun,” an indie about an elderly bank robber that begins shooting in October.

After that Lowery wants to go even smaller for a $1 million movie. “The cinematic language binds them all together,” he said. Then Lowery tackles a live-action re-imagining of Disney’s “Peter Pan,” a project he initially declined because he’s too much of a J.M. Barrie enthusiast. “But after some nudging, I realized that ‘St. Nick,’ my first movie, was about two runaway kids that don’t want to grow up,” he said. “It’s about lost children, so this is something that is near and dear to me and it’s not hard finding a way to make it personal.”

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