Nine years before he completed production on the multi-million dollar Disney remake of “Pete’s Dragon,” David Lowery was living out of the back of his car, editing corporate videos. The Dallas native directed his first feature, the little-seen “Lullaby,” at age 19. The ensuing years found him collaborating with a close-knit group of local film-savvy friends, but little in the way of upward mobility. “I never put a premium on making a living,” he told me in a recent phone conversation. “It was never one of those things that was important to me.”
Lowery’s work at the time suggests as much — it’s anything but commercial — and yet it provided him with an ideal platform for a massive career move as one of Disney’s newest secret weapons. “Pete’s Dragon,” a $60 million re-imagining of the 1977 live-action-animated musical film, has all the hallmarks of Lowery’s earlier work: a serene, parochial vision of lonely characters chasing their dreams in a vast countryside tinged with magic realism.
Opening this week, it’s a welcome antidote to the louder, messier spectacles that dominate the blockbuster market. Lowery, now signed up to write and possibly direct a reboot of the company’s “Peter Pan,” has gone from DIY survivor to a rising star of the studio system. A bald, soft-spoken thirtysomething with piercing green eyes and untamed facial hair, Lowery looks a bit like the Disney version of a Williamsburg bartender, which is exactly the kind of upgrade the studio has been chasing in its latest bid to give old properties a hip new spin.
Lowery’s into the idea. “I think you can get away with introducing people to new ideas, new concepts, new flavors and new tones in the mainstream,” he told IndieWire’s Bill Desowitz earlier this year.
“Pete’s Dragon” may indeed offer younger viewers a gateway to themes much deeper than anything they’ve encountered before. The story finds a young boy (Oakes Fegley) whose parents die in a car crash befriending a gigantic, benevolent creature in the woods. The delicate effects work capably bring the fantasy to life, but the film maintains a tactile quality grounded in a handful of finely-wrought characters. Pete’s ultimately befriended by a local park ranger (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her dragon-obsessed father (Robert Redford) as the movie careens toward a showdown with local authorities eager to contain the beast.
It’s not groundbreaking territory, but in its understated way, “Pete’s Dragon” resembles Lowery’s mystical visions of rural America more than anything in the Magic Kingdom. “There was no gloss to this process, no sense that we had this giant safety net from Disney if we screwed up,” Lowery said. “It felt very true to me.”
Growing Into It
Lowery’s low-key, almost sleepy demeanor makes it hard to imagine the director juggling the large-scale demands of an effects-driven production, but that’s exactly what made him a good fit. “David never complains,” said the actor-director Amy Seimetz, who made the taut lovers-on-the-lam thriller “Sun Don’t Shine,” which Lowery edited. “He is the most zen, results-oriented, diligent motherfucker I know.”
Still, Lowery acknowledged that “Pete’s Dragon” challenged him harder than any of his previous efforts. “You have to get used to a style of filmmaking that is very different from the freedom of making no-budget movies,” he said. “It’s ridiculously hard.”
Lowery’s personal blog stretches back 12 years and chronicles his meticulous investment in crafting one intricate project after another with a grand, novelistic sweep. On several occasions, he makes vague references to unnamed projects in various unfinished stages. “Some rough drafts,” he wrote in his first post from 2004, wrestling with an early script. “It’s getting there.”
In other entries, he delves into art galleries, books and movies in a never-ending quest to find his place in a vast sea of creativity. “The version of Franzen that emerges in his writing is intensely curious to me,” he writes in one passage. In a 2005 post, after discussing a series of recent moviegoing experiences that included Terrence Malick’s “The New World” and Orson Welles’ “The Trial,” Lowery confessed: “Everpresent in my mind while I’ve been watching all of these films is one of my own, sitting in the refrigerator back in Texas.”
There were a lot of those. Lowery speaks of the “Pete’s Dragon” experience as if it were a big parade at the end of an epic journey in part because he’s spent a long time on the road.
A few months after making the backseat of his car into a bedroom, Lowery made his inaugural trip to Park City to screen his short film “A Catalog of Anticipation” at the Slamdance Film Festival. The nearly-wordless 10-minute short follows a series of fantastical events, including Lowery himself waking up from the roots of a tree, and culminates with a girl discovering dead fairies lying around her property. From its grimy video opening, the film builds to a crisp stop-motion finale. Both awe-inspiring and melancholic, “A Catalog of Anticipation” justifies its title by anticipating the imaginative Lowery projects that would soon follow.
Not long after his Slamdance trip, Lowery made his second feature, the minimalist drama “St. Nick.” Shot in and around a single location, the film follows a pair of young siblings on the run from some undefined threat and living in isolation. A poetic look at the mysterious nature of childhood perception, “St. Nick” lingers in its young protagonists’ expressionistic surroundings. Shot for a mere $12,000, “St. Nick” screened at the SXSW Film Festival and other smaller American gatherings but never received a proper theatrical release.
Lowery began couchsurfing, at one point staying with Malaysian-born filmmaker Yen Tan, with whom he co-wrote the anthology drama “Pit Stop,” which would later premiere at Sundance. As Lowery became more entrenched in the community of independent filmmakers traveling the North American festival circuit, he began editing more features (Kris Swanberg’s “It Was Great, But I Was Ready to Come Home,” “Bad Fever”) and figured he was leveling off.
While “Star Wars” first inspired his mainstream filmmaking ambitions when he was seven years old, Lowery’s collaborations with the likes of microbudget directors Joe Swanberg and Frank Ross led him down a different path. “I’d gotten used to the idea that this might be my field — making vaguely obscure movies that play at film festivals and maybe get some acclaim,” he said. “At that point, my goal was maybe to make a movie for a million bucks.”
Instead, he moved out to Los Angeles with his producing partner Toby Halbrooks, worked briefly on a television pilot that didn’t get picked up, and returned to Texas. Then he made the short film that would change everything.
A Rapid Rise
At first, the 15-minute “Pioneer” looks almost too simple to hold much interest. The premise finds a benevolent parent (Will Oldham) telling a creepy bedtime story to his young child. However, from this basic starting point, Lowery delivers a remarkable dose of cinematic minimalism. As Oldham’s character recounts the 100-year quest to find his missing son, the gold-tinted lighting and thundering sound design generate an eerie and magical effect. In 2011, “Pioneer” went to Sundance, where Lowery signed with WME’s indie agent superstar Craig Kestel. In short order, Lowery was taking meetings around Los Angeles for his next feature, the expressionistic tale of a passionate outlaw and the lover who motivates him to escape prison.
Produced for around $3 million, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” would star Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara in their best performances, and premiere two years later in competition at the Sundance Film Festival. When the movie arrived there, Lowery was at the tail-end of an editing blitz, having also edited Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color” and Seimetz’s “Sun Don’t Shine” a year earlier. But it was “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” — which would head to Cannes a few months later — that demonstrated Lowery’s unique ability to combine lyrical sensibilities with broader genre components. It was a shrewd attempt to smuggle arty cinematic devices to broader audiences. “I hope it feels like a film people have seen before but they’ve never seen this way,” he told IndieWire at the time.
Disney took note. The possibility of relaunching “Pete’s Dragon” came to Lowery by way of Hollywood producers Jim Whitaker and Adam Borba, who saw Lowery’s previous work and set him up to pitch the project to Disney executives. Lowery brought Halbrooks, his co-writer, along for the ride. “David knocked it out of the park,” Halbrooks recalled of the initial meeting. “I think he spoke for about 45 minutes straight, which at that point was the longest I’d ever heard him talk about anything. I was spellbound. Looking around the room, it was clear that everybody else was, too.”
Lowery’s not the only filmmaker plucked from the Sundance arena to join the Disney ranks. Alex Ross Perry, whose festival favorites “Listen Up Philip” and “The Color Wheel” present unsettling portraits of anxious young adults, recently signed up to write a live action “Winnie the Pooh” movie centered on a grown-up Christopher Robin. (He’s also repped by WME’s Kestel.) James Ponsoldt, best known for the teen romance “The Spectacular Now” and last year’s David Foster Wallace portrait “The End of the Tour,” will soon tackle a “family adventure film” called “Wild City,” an original story that combines CGI and live action as it follows several animals living in the Los Angeles zoo.
Of course, the fate of Disney’s rejuvenated “Star Wars” franchise now lies in the hands of film festival-certified directors Rian Johnson, Gareth Edwards and Colin Trevorrow. And now Ava Duvernay, who won the Sundance directing prize for 2012’s “Middle of Nowhere,” will adapt “A Wrinkle in Time.”
Lowery, who worked closely on the production of “Pete’s Dragon” with Disney president Sean Bailey and production head Louie Provost, positioned the studio’s interest in hiring filmmakers with singular visions as a canny form of quality control. “They’re really solidifying the type of movies they want to be associated with,” he said, citing Jon Favreau’s remake of “The Jungle Book” and next year’s “Beauty and the Beast” as other examples. “They want to make movies that exemplify the brand…From one type of perspective, that limits the kind of movies they can make. But if you’re taking the movies that fit the brand and applying them to an exciting perspective from a filmmaker who has interesting ways of looking at things, that narrow corridor expands.”
Viewed in those terms, the tactic strikes a dramatic contrast to the war stories of individualistic young filmmakers hired by studios and infuriated by their loss of autonomy. Recent cautionary tales include the scandal of “Fantastic Four” director Josh Trank, who went from his breakout “Chronicle” to launching a tirade on Twitter about why his superhero reboot had been destroyed by Marvel. Marc Webb followed up his Sundance breakout “(500) Days of Summer” by directing two forgettable “Spider-Man” films.
But Lowery claims that Disney made sure he felt like he was making a movie in his own voice. “They never referred to it as a Disney movie,” he said. “They referred to it as a David Lowery movie. It was weird to hear those words uttered on the Disney lot.”
While some filmmakers hold tight to the comfort a big studio paycheck, Lowery will take a break from the Disney game soon to work on “The Old Man and the Gun,” which stars Robert Redford as an aging bankrobber. “I have so many aspirations and interests that would not fit within the Disney brand,” Lowery said. “I need to make sure I’m engaging those proclivities as well.” Nevertheless, he added, “I’m happy to keep making Disney movies.”
Lowery struggled to address whether his longtime peers, many of whom remain tethered to the microbudget realm, could handle the pressure of a big budget endeavor. “I would tell anyone not to do it, quit while you can,” he said. “You have to enjoy it enough to put with all the trials and tribulations.”
A few minutes after hanging up the phone, he emailed a clarification. “If I had gone down this path and realized halfway through that it wasn’t for me, it would be disastrous,” he wrote. “If there’s a filmmaker out there who wants to go down this path, I would encourage them to do it, and enter the fray knowing that while it’s not easy, it is possible to maintain your voice and vision in the studio system.”
“Pete’s Dragon” opens nationwide on August 12.