On the surface, David Lowery looks like the latest independent film wunderkind to be plucked by a major studio and thrust into the blockbuster machine.
But the journey Lowery, 35, made to directing this weekend’s “Pete’s Dragon” — Disney’s reimagining of the 1977 live-action/animated musical about a boy and his best friend, who happens to be a flying dragon named Elliot — is a little different from filmmakers like Colin Trevorrow (“Jurassic World) and Gareth Edwards (“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”).
Those other director made low-budget calling-card movies to prove their competence, but Lowery’s indie roots are deep. He’s made movies ranging in budget from $12,000 (“St. Nick“) to a few million (“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints“) and has over 30 editor credits.
“I felt I had found my niche,” Lowery recently told Business Insider. “If I had spent the rest of my career making movies like ‘St. Nick,’ I was ok with that.”
But sometimes opportunities arrove and seem more like fate than good circumstance. For Lowery that happened when he got an agent off “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” a Sundance Film Festival award winner.
After giving his agent a lot of nos on writing and directing jobs (mostly remakes), in December of 2012 the agent finally struck gold with an idea Disney had for one of its older titles.
“I wasn’t interested in the remake game,” Lowery said, “but I remember while editing ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ my agent emailed me that Disney was interested in remaking ‘Pete’s Dragon’ using only the title. Outside of that title they didn’t want to have anything to do with the original and they definitely didn’t want it to be a musical. If Disney truly wanted to use the title of the original as a means to get an original movie made, that appealed to me.”
While at Sundance in January of 2013, Lowery and producing partner Toby Halbrooks got on Skype at their condo with “Pete’s Dragon” producers James Whitaker and Adam Borba about the potential of being screenwriters on the project.
“We found Jim and Adam were far more interested in hearing about the tonal aspects of it than plot or story,” Lowery said. “But I remember a big idea from that call was that Pete would spend a lot of time with the dragon in the woods.”
Disney was impressed and hired the two to write the script. After Sundance, Lowery and Halbrooks began making trips to LA to start an outline. Lowery wanted the movie to have a mythical quality that he successfully pulled off in “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.” (Lowery admits that no one at Disney had ever seen “Saints” until months into he and Halbrooks writing the script.)
They placed the movie in the Pacific Northwest and, in one early draft, during the Great Depression. They later changed that to a more 1970s feel (it’s left open when exactly the movie takes place).
But one thing Lowery drove home in the early drafts is that Elliot the dragon would be furry.
“I drew pictures of a furry dragon and brought them in and said, ‘This is what he’s going to look like,'” Lowery said.
He felt the only way a kid would gravitate to a large dragon and create a bond is if the dragon looks like something you’d want to cuddle up to, grabbing inspiration from the luck dragon Falkor in “The NeverEnding Story.“
By Christmas 2013, Lowery and Halbrooks handed in the script and Disney couldn’t have been happier.
The new “Pete’s Dragon” is a tearjerker family movie that doesn’t try to be anything more or less than that. Pete survives a car crash that kills his parents deep in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. The dragon, also displaced from his family, comes across Pete and the two live in the woods for years. (Are you crying yet?) Then one day a park ranger discovers Pete in the woods while at the same time workers at the local mill discover Elliot the dragon, leading to a journey to find who Pete really is and a race to help save Elliot.
Eventually the cast would include Bryce Dallas Howard as the park ranger, Robert Redford as her father who has a past experience with the dragon, and Oakes Fegley as Pete.
Disney was so impressed by Lowery’s script, the studio asked him to come on and direct the movie.
Lowery immediately turned down the offer.
“I thought it wasn’t the right idea,” Lowery said. “I didn’t think it was going to be a movie that I could excel at and I didn’t want to wind up being one of those indie directors who makes a big studio movie and find it’s compromised.”
But after some talks, Lowery realised he had put too much into the project to hand it off to another director.
“The script had become incredibly personal and something that I felt was mine and something I should make,” he said.
By the middle of 2014, Lowery and the cast and crew of “Pete’s Dragon” were off to New Zealand to shoot the movie.
Most indie filmmakers who make the jump to studio movies assume that all the hardship and struggle of making a movie suddenly disappear thanks to the embarrassment of riches that comes with being backed by a Hollywood heavyweight. Lowery certainly thought that would be the case.
“I expected there to be a moment where the magic of the studio process revealed itself and the largeness of the entire machine kicked into gear,” he said.
But that turned out not to be the case. Though Lowery had crane shots and could helicopter at any moment to get the right shot at a far-off location, the process was generally no different than on his earlier low-budget movies.
The biggest difference, and what took the biggest toll on him, was the length of production.
“‘St. Nick’ was 14 days, ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ was 28 days, this turned out to be 89 shooting days,” said Lowery, who compared the experience to a sprinter transitioning to a marathon runner.
“You just have to physically and mentally prepare for the endurance test that making a movie on this scale will be,” he said.
For every good day, Lowery was hit with a slew of challenges the next.
But that hasn’t turned him off the studio system.
“It was gruelling. It was really, really tough,” Lowery said. “But the second the movie wrapped all that pain and early mornings and cold nights all fell by the wayside and I felt a great sense of peace. If they had asked me to shoot another 10 days I would have said yes.”
Now he’s ready to do it again.
Lowery has signed on to direct Disney’s latest live-action version of “Peter Pan.” Like “Pete’s Dragon,” he and Halbrooks are taking their time writing the script with no plans of making the movie any time soon (Lowery will likely make two independently financed movies before “Pan”).
But Lowery insists he’s going to deliver a “classic Walt Disney Pictures version” of Peter Pan.
A filmmaker who was content with an audience much smaller than the one that will see “Pete’s Dragon” this weekend, Lowery has taken time out in the past few years to reflect on his career. And he’s confident that he’s right where he should be.
“The reason I got into making movies was I fell in love with ‘Star Wars’ and wanted to know how lightsabers worked,” Lowery said. “Then my interests expanded and I saw myself as an independent filmmaker, but I still carried that flame of wanting to do something big that would set imaginations the same way mine had been watching ‘Star Wars.’ So there is part of me that always wanted to do this.”
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