The last time Dallas filmmaker David Lowery had a movie in theaters, it was the 2013 R-rated indie crime drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, about an outlaw on the lam across the Texas back country. Made for a slim $3 million, the film signaled “the arrival of an immense talent,” according to Salon.com’s Andrew O’Hehir, but relatively few saw it.
Flash forward to 2016 and Lowery’s follow-up is an updating of Disney’s 1977 children’s flick Pete’s Dragon, a special-effects-saturated, PG-rated tale about a young boy who befriends an elusive dragon who can make himself invisible to adults. The film, with a reported budget of $60 million, stars Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford and Karl Urban, and opens Friday with high box-office expectations.
But Lowery insists that the yawning gulf between the two movies may not be as wide as it seems.
I remember liking the general concept of [the original ‘Pete’s Dragon’]. When you’re 6 or 7, you’re going to love any movie about a little kid because you see yourself as that kid.
“[This] showed that our tastes go beyond just the gritty, dramatic, adult indie sensibility, yet still feel like our sensibilities,” he said in a phone interview, referring to his writing partner, Toby Halbrooks. “I feel like this movie is made very much by the same people. But it’s in a completely different genre and for a much wider audience.
“I’ve always wanted to make a children’s film. I’ve always wanted to make a film that appealed to audiences in the same way that the movies that appealed to me when I was 6, 7, 8 years old.”
For many in Lowery’s age range — he’s 35 — the original Pete’s Dragon, a musical starring Helen Reddy, Mickey Rooney and Shelley Winters, was a childhood favorite even though it’s not considered a Disney classic. In fact, it only has a 48 percent rating on the review-aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes, and critic Leonard Maltin derided it as “another try for Mary Poppins magic that doesn’t come close.”
“I remember liking the general concept of it,” Lowery said. “When you’re 6 or 7, you’re going to love any movie about a little kid because you see yourself as that kid. And I do remember how ramshackle the movie was and how crazy it was. To me, what I saw in it was the story of a little kid who reminded me of myself and a giant imaginary friend, which is something I certainly aspired to have. There’s a lot of those aspirational qualities to it that will probably carry over for audiences of the same age who watch this new version.”
So there was interest when Lowery’s agent arranged a meeting with producers.
“It was sort of a meet-cute set up by my agent who felt that this was something that my writing partner, Toby, and I would be good for,” Lowery said. “[If I were Disney] I wouldn’t think of me [for this] nor would I have thought that I would make this movie. But it seemed to be perfect. It was the right movie at the right time with the right people.”
As much as Lowery likes the first Pete’s Dragon, he and Halbrook shook the story to its foundations.
“There were certainly aspects of the original that I was going to hang on to,” he explained. “A character named Pete and a dragon, and I decided to keep the dragon’s name [Elliot]. But, by and large, I really looked at it as an opportunity to tell an original tale under the auspices of remaking an older film.”
Everything else — the setting, the characters — has been changed, and there’s an environmental message, too (Elliot’s forest habitat is under threat from loggers). While Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon has quite a bit of music, it’s not a musical like its predecessor. The music — much of it from such North Texas musicians as Daniel Hart (who provides the score), St. Vincent, Bosque Brown and Okkervil River, as well as non-Texans such as Leonard Cohen and the Lumineers — is integrated more organically.
“It wasn’t so much that I wanted to emphasize North Texas musicians as much as I wanted as many friends as possible to be involved with it. And all of my friends just happened to be from North Texas, so it worked out that way,” he said. “The Leonard Cohen song [So Long, Marianne] is just a favorite song of mine. … One of the benefits of making a Disney movie is that you can actually get the songs you want.”
While Lowery deviated from the first film dramatically, there was a sense of feeling that he wanted to maintain.
“That ramshackle aspect of it,” he said. “That’s a texture that really interests me a lot about movies from that era, whether it’s children’s films or films for adults. … There’s a certain quality to them that doesn’t feel quite as varnished as current films.
“Another film that has that and was an even bigger influence on me was Robert Altman’s Popeye [from 1980],” he continued. “It has this crazy, anything-goes vibe and everything feels cobbled together, rusty and worn-down. … If you’ve seen [Ain’t Them Bodies Saints], you know I love things that feel old.”
Logistically, Pete’s Dragon — which was shot in New Zealand with the assistance of Weta Digital, the special-effects firm launched by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson — is by far Lowery’s most complex film. But he says he never felt overwhelmed.
“The studio wants to be involved in the same way that producers or financiers on an independent film want to be involved, so there’s not really that much difference there,” he explained. “But it was a pretty creatively satisfying environment in which to make a movie.
“As far as the scope of it, the biggest difficulty was the length of time it took to make. That goes from the year we spent writing the script — that wasn’t different from most projects — but the production itself took a good part of a year.
“Then the post-production process took 13-14 months, and that’s a haul as well,” he said. “Being focused on one thing so thoroughly for such a long period of time was a new experience for me.”
‘Pete’s Dragon’ to ‘Peter Pan’
On Lowery’s to-do list is a remake of another Disney title, Peter Pan, and this raises the question of whether he will become stereotyped as the Disney-reboot guy. That’s why he says he will probably make a very different film — a drama, The Old Man and the Gun, also starring Redford as the world’s oldest bank robber — first.
“I signed to do Old Man and the Gun and Pete’s Dragon the very same day, and we were never sure which would get made first, so you end up with many different irons in the fire,” Lowery said. “I would hate to be considered [a Disney remake director] in the same way I didn’t want to be considered the indie, gritty, Western guy. … At the same time, I loved making this movie with Disney and want to make another one.”
Lowery’s career began in the Dallas film scene as the Irving High grad and University of Dallas attendee churned out 13 shorts and features between 2000 and 2011.
The constant in both films, though, is Redford. He may play very different characters in each — in Pete’s Dragon, he’s a lovable granddad who says he too saw a dragon as a youth — but the role he’s playing in Lowery’s career remains important.
That career began in the Dallas film scene as the Irving High grad and University of Dallas attendee churned out 13 shorts and features between 2000 and 2011 and acted as editor, cinematographer, writer, camera operator and all-around go-to guy for other area filmmakers.
“He’s very pragmatic, easy to get along with, very cooperative and very collaborative,” fellow North Texas director James M. Johnston said in a Star-Telegram interview in 2013.
A couple of his films, St. Nick (2009) and Pioneer (2011), picked up prizes at film festivals.
But things really changed for Lowery when his script for Ain’t Them Bodies Saints was sent to Redford’s Sundance Institute as part of a fellowship application. Sundance organizers were so impressed that some became producers on the movie. Now, Redford is starring in two of his films.
“It’s still kind of amazing to me that he not only would do one movie with me but sign up for a second,” Lowery said with a laugh. “I think he just enjoys the way I like to approach movies, the room I give actors to develop the characters themselves.
“The character he plays in Pete’s Dragon was much different on the page and, as soon as he said he wanted to do it, I said, ‘I want to rewrite this part for you and I want your input.’ … It’s still very surreal to me that I’m making movies with Robert Redford.”
Moving up, not out
Reviews of Pete’s Dragon generally have been good so far — Variety called it “one of the year’s most delightful moviegoing surprises,” though The Hollywood Reporter dismissed it as “a moody, lumbering thing that seldom takes flight.”
But, if it is a critical and box-office hit, it could put Lowery on the path to reach the level of such other notable Texan directors as Richard Linklater, Wes Anderson, Robert Rodriguez, Jeff Nichols and Terrence Malick.
If this next movie with [Robert] Redford happens, I’ll probably be on the road again, but I always aim to have a home base in Texas.
Certainly, despite the fact that his career has taken him a long way from home — filming in New Zealand (a country he calls “extraordinary”), spending lots of time in Los Angeles, getting chummy with Redford — Lowery says he still considers North Texas the place to which he returns.
“I was [in Dallas] for much of the summer,” he said. “If this next movie with Redford happens, I’ll probably be on the road again, but I always aim to have a home base in Texas.”