How to Film Pete’s Dragon: Director Shares Highs & Lows

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Dallas based indie filmmaker David Lowery recently directed a big-budget remake for Disney. He spent couple of months in New Zealand directing the film, and here he shares his experiences.


I’m writing this on January 21, 2015, the eve of production on this big studio movie I’ve somehow found myself at the helm of.

I started a blog about my experiences making films 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.

David Lowery
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. 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.

There was a point last spring when I had to choose between directing this movie and another script that I’d written. In terms of budget and theme and content and scale, that other script was a natural choice. But this big kids’ adventure movie (that happened to be a remake) felt personal.

So I went with my gut, and now we’re a few hours away from rolling cameras. I made the right choice. I’m very proud of the fact that Toby Halbrooks and I are the only writers to have touched this script, that it feels like our film as much as it is the studio’s, and that we’ve managed to keep it personal and strange and weird and fun. I’m excited for people to see it. I’m even more excited to make it.

DAY 1 OF 70
Call time today was at 6, which means I had to get up at 4, which means I’m extremely tired at the moment, which is nothing out of the ordinary. What is out of the ordinary is that we wrapped 30 minutes after lunch. If that’s a precedent, I’m happy to set it.

We shot a lot of stuff of the kid running and splashing in the river, and also a scene of a car pulling into a driveway. It was a ton of fun. It’s to my crew’s credit that it all felt effortless, pressure-free, and simple. It didn’t feel all that different from when we were shooting St. Nick six years ago (six years!).

Tomorrow we’re jumping back into prep for one more day. We start shooting scenes with dialogue on Monday.

DAY 3 OF 70
Today was the first day of many, many days in the woods. There are lots of trees in this movie and, as the saying goes, a tree’s a tree’s a tree, which we endeavored to prove today by shooting in every possible direction to chase sunlight over the course of a single scene.

We’re doing big-screen dailies every night for the crew. That’s a whole new thing for me. My natural instinct when it comes to raw footage is to curl up in bed with Pix and watch it all alone with the sound off and my eyes halfway shut. Getting over that inclination took a little getting used to, but hearing reactions in a theater is fun, and it’s easier to see how awesome everything looks. As with anything I’ve ever shot, it still doesn’t look like a real movie to me, but everyone else assures me that it’s great. I’m mostly more than happy to trust them.

DAY 6 OF 70
This one was a big one because it came so early in our schedule, and because it involved children doing very dangerous things. Our stunt team has been adamant that the best way to simulate kids in peril is to not simulate them at all; rather, their tactic has been to help the kids steel up their courage and do the action for real (with lots of assistance, training, and judicious usage of wires and harnesses). By the end of prep, our young stars were fearless. I could (and did) ask them to walk out onto a branch 65 feet above the ground, and they wouldn’t bat an eyelash about it. It looked like the funnest thing in the world. Judging from how many times I caught them grinning gleefully in the middle of a take in which they were supposed to be terrified, I’m pretty sure it actually was.

Thus our first full week of production comes to a close. These early days will be full of such milestones. Today it’s the end of the first week. On Monday we’ll be a tenth of the way through, but I’m trying not to think about the production in those terms. It’s going to be a marathon, yes, and some days will surely be a grind. I’m going to dig in my heels and enjoy it.

DAY 7 OF 70
Gray skies and heavy winds this morning as we set up shop for three days on our greenscreen backlot. We plunged ahead with our scheduled shooting in spite of the threat of rain. We had to take cover twice, which led to a pleasant, lollygagging sense of togetherness as everyone huddled under tents and oversize raincoats and made their way to and fro through the horizontal downpour.

I also shaved my legs so that my wife and I could see whose skin was paler. I won. Then we jumped off the wharf as a storm rolled in.

DAY 10 OF 70
Today was full of exuberant childhood adventure. Calvin and Hobbes stuff, with a touch of The Black Stallion. We were back in the woods, which lifted everyone’s already indomitable spirits after three days on the backlot. The light was beautiful, there were ancient trees rustling in the breeze, and everything worked just right.

Why this film, and why now?
I can’t speak in a cultural sense, but, for me, it came along right at a time when I just really wanted to make something fun. Emotional and sincere and personal, but fun. If the timing had been different by even a few months, maybe I’d have felt differently. But it was exactly the right film for me to make when I made it.

Did you grow up watching the original?
I saw it when I was 6 or 7 and really liked it, although I recall thinking it was a little long. I haven’t seen it again since then.

Why did you write the script?
Disney hired me and [producer and Dallas resident] Toby Halbrooks to write it. The project came our way, we came up with an idea almost on a lark, and the day after we pitched it, we got the job.

What were the projects that you put aside to work on this?
I was working on a film called The Yellow Birds, which I had adapted from a novel of the same name. I was very proud of the script but just felt like I wanted to make Pete’s Dragon instead. It was ultimately made last year with a fantastic director at the helm, and I think it’ll come out this fall.

What films did you watch to prepare for shooting the film? Do you try to steer clear of films that may influence your approach?
I watched a few films, like The Journey of Natty Gann, but I most often wind up finding inspiration in unexpected places. I saw The Witch right before we began, and that gave me some ideas about how to shoot the woods in our film.

For fans of the original Pete’s Dragon, what can we expect from your remake?
A brand-new story about a boy and a dragon in which some of the names may seem a little familiar.

What were you hoping to achieve with the film?
More than anything, I wanted to make a film that I’d have loved when I was 7.

Now that Pete’s Dragon is done, what next?
I’m back in Texas, and I’m going to make a film or two here, and then go make something else with Disney. I loved working with the folks there and am excited to collaborate again.

—Peter Simek

The scene we were shooting involved the dragon—cast member No. 20 on the call sheet—who at this point in principal photography is still something of a learning curve. We might set up a shot and think it looks amazing but then realize that we’re not leaving room for the creature that will be running through the other side. We have a big head on a stick, and we have a life-size inflatable dragon for reference, but nine times out of 10 it’s that old trick of accommodating for something that’s not there. Our Weta team, the digital effects company from Wellington, New Zealand, is on set helping us figure things out, and I always keep in mind something the director David Fincher said in regard to Benjamin Button, about how as soon as you treat your special effect like it costs 60 grand per shot, it stops being special and starts calling attention to itself. The way to make it work is to bury it in the frame and let it go out of focus. It still costs the same, but it ceases to be precious and therefore feels more real.

DAY 11 OF 70
Our partner in crime, the producer and writer James M. Johnston, flew in from Texas to visit the set; unfortunately, he landed on Waitangi Day, which is the Kiwi equivalent of the Fourth of July, and so there was no set to visit. We had ourselves a three-day weekend, which in retrospect I think I mostly spent in bed. I watched four movies.

DAY 15 OF 70
A clear sign of professional maturity: when you’re no longer overcome with the spontaneous urge to giggle during the 30 seconds of room tone at the end of the day, when the sound engineers record nothing but ambient noise.

DAY 16 OF 70
Last night I had a near-recurrence of hypnagogic sleep disorder. I used to suffer from this quite regularly (and genuinely believed it to be supernatural until I learned what it was), but it’s tapered off in the past 10 years. Last night’s phenomenon wasn’t full sleep paralysis, but the throbbing mantle of psychic sound that used to accompany such waking nightmares rose to deafening levels over and over, waking me but not quite waking me. I eventually shook it all off at 5:26, two minutes before my alarm went off. It left me with a crick in my neck.

DAY 18 OF 70
On Monday, I walked onto the sets that had been going up around us for the past few months. They were things of beauty. Jade Healy started laying the groundwork for them way back in September, and now we had a week to shoot them out. The disparity between what had gone into them and what we’d use them for seemed massive. On the bookshelves on one of those sets, coincidentally, I found a copy of Of Human Bondage. I’m going to keep it as a souvenir, with a strip of wallpaper for a bookmark.

DAY 19 OF 70
Last week I had a dream about a new piece of a scene, and today we filmed it. First time any dream of mine’s ever really paid off. At least in a tangible way. Although I did have a dream about a new script a few months ago, which, should it ever emerge into anything more than a series of notes scrawled upon waking, might take the cake.

DAY 20 OF 70
There’s a particular mood on set when the end of a production is nigh that reaches its apex on the last day of the shoot, where a sense of fun and celebration seeps in between setups. Each shot brings you closer to wrapping, and spirits rise a little bit more with the end of each take. All around, trucks are being packed up, sets are being torn down. A sense of completion is everywhere.

This is the first time I’ve been on a movie where that feeling comes well before the production ends. It was there all day today, as we finished up our Wellington leg of the shoot. I can’t believe we’re all done here. After we wrapped, I packed up my desk, shredding old schedules and sketches and costume designs (I kept all my badly drawn storyboards for posterity’s sake). Toby took down all the Morrissey posters that have thus far decorated the production offices of every movie we’ve made. This weekend we become mobile, decamping for the deeper forest in the upper regions of the North Island.

DAY 26 OF 70
dragon_Petes_movie_posterRelease: 1977
Director: Don Chaffey
Animation: Don Bluth
Starring: Helen Reddy, Mickey Rooney, Red Buttons, Shelley Winters

Set in the early 1900s, the original Pete’s Dragon tells the story of a 9-year-old orphan, Pete, who escaped from brutal adoptive parents. Pete befriends a magical cartoon dragon named Elliott, and the two flee to coastal Maine, where they meet the daughter of a local lighthouse keeper. When the town discovers Elliott, chaos ensues, and an evil doctor attempts to exploit the dragon for profit. Featuring a mix of live action and animation that was revolutionary at the time, Pete’s Dragon is a story about childhood innocence and relentless imagination. When it came out, the film received a tepid reception, with some critics dismissing it as a failed attempt by Disney to re-create the magic of Mary Poppins.

Every morning I wake up thinking that, 12 hours from now, we’ll be over the hump. Then I think—oh wait! There’s that scene on Thursday that we still have to get, and then we’ll be over the hump. Then I look at the schedule and see that Friday is yet another tough one, and then next week there’s that other big thing that I forgot about and then ….

Sometimes it’s an emotional beat, other times it’s a tough bit of blocking, often it’s just a scene with two or more people in it (always a challenge for me), every now and then it’s a musical number. There are no easy days. Remembering this is important.

DAY 28 OF 70
This is a day I’ve long been anticipating: the 28th day of production, which marks the same number of days we spent shooting Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Toward the end of that shoot, I wanted to die and/or quit making movies. I remember finishing Day 10 and wondering how I could handle 18 more demoralizing beat-downs. Of course, the moment we actually wrapped, the rose-colored glasses came on, 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 I was looking forward to having enough time to shoot things properly for once.

Now, on Day 28, I feel 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 scalable. 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 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’d had 150 days, we’d still be running out of time.

And as for how I’m handling it: allow me to delve once more into the marathon metaphor that I find so consistently applicable to every stage of the filmmaking process. When I ran my first marathon, back in 2011, I’d never made it past Mile 15 in training. That was about two weeks before the race, and it was agonizingly difficult. It filled me with despair. I considered withdrawing from the marathon. But then I remembered what everyone always told me about adrenaline, how it picks you up and carries you, and decided I might as well give it a go. That morning of the race, the miles just blew by, and I remember realizing I was at Mile 16 and feeling totally great. The last 10 miles were hard but never painful. I knew they were coming, and on some deep, internal, unconscious level, adjusted accordingly. I imagine that’s exactly what’s happening now.

DAY 30 OF 70
Of note today: Toby, who co-wrote the script with me, played the dragon for one scene. Make a note now to try to guess which one when you see the finished film!

DAY 35 OF 70
The halfway point! Would it be psychologically beneficial to start the countdown over tomorrow with another Day 1, or should I plunge forward into the unknown? Would I sleep better counting backward? I should probably just stop counting altogether.

We also had a new member of the cast join us today. Before we started rolling on his first scenes, our boom operator turned to me and said, “Just stop for a second and think: you’re about to direct Robert Redford.” It was good advice.

DAY 39 OF 70
Spent the day shooting on a nonexistent bridge. I will now amend a previous statement: action scenes are easy to shoot so long as you maintain some level of continuity. Once you start jumping around, it gets pretty sticky. I’ve backed myself into two or three corners so far that I’m not completely sure how to get out of.

DAY 40 OF 70
Make that three or four corners.

DAY 45 OF 70
I woke up feeling supremely awful, but heavy doses of oregano, garlic, ginger, apple cider vinegar, and various other oils and tinctures (plus some Sudafed for good measure) made the day manageable, as we tried to finish what we’d started and then pushed ahead. What happens when you get seriously ill on a movie? Do they actually shut things down if the director gets the flu and is wracked with fever? I don’t want to find out.

DAY 46 OF 70
This morning I accidentally took two nighttime Sudafeds instead of the daytime option. I briefly wondered if it might cause me to drift off during a take, but our medic assured us that it would do nothing of the sort. I usually never take pharmaceutical medication for anything, so I have no idea how this stuff works.

DAY 47 OF 70
The highlight of today was introducing Robert Redford to the gaggle of kids he’d be performing with—all non-actors, all under the age of 10 or 11. One particular 9-year-old sized him up with very put-upon swagger and then, moments later, noticed his boots were untied and volunteered to lace them up for him. This wasn’t necessarily a kindly offer. There was a bit of one-upmanship to it, a “need someone to fix your shoelaces for you, bud?” sort of move. Moments later, a handful of kids had gathered around to see who could best knot this bemused movie star’s laces. If I can only hang onto one memory from this movie, this would rank pretty high on the list of candidates.

DAY 48 OF 70
I had my most common recurring nightmare last night—a zombie dream. The specifics always vary, but the threat and accompanying sense of futile dread remain consistent, as does the fact that at least part of such dreams always takes place in my childhood backyard. I also sometimes have nightmares about the same backyard being overrun with snakes, but the zombie dreams are always worse. In last night’s iteration, I was trying to dismember some revenant that wouldn’t stay dead. The pieces kept coming back.

DAY 52 OF 70
We based out of our lumber-mill location, but we were shooting on various car rigs all day long, shooting little pieces of people going to and fro at various speeds and levels of intensity. Mr. Redford gave us a glorious R-rated outtake that, this being a Disney film, will likely never see the light of day.

DAY 55 OF 70
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 re-attributed 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 if 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 were different?

Either way, this is how I’ve figured out how to work. Maybe someday I’ll do it less, but at the moment I don’t know how to handle a script that’s not in at least some state of flux. There’s a risk to it, absolutely; you spend months working on something, and when you throw a bunch of it out the window at the last second, maybe you do lose something that was once important to you for a legitimately valid reason that you’ve temporarily overlooked. On the other hand, what was really important in a scene usually tends to stick around, and whatever I react to that compels me to rock the boat is usually something I’d never have predicted when I was sitting at my computer six or 12 months earlier.

In today’s case, the actors came in, and we read through the dialogue and made more changes, together. Because at the end of the day, they’re the ones who have to say all this stuff. Then we shot it. It was terrific.

DAY 60 OF 70
Internal directorial crisis of the day: you’re working on a visual gag when someone suggests a different approach. You stick to your version, because you like it and you settled on it ages ago. You’re halfway through shooting it, and the way the day’s going, you can’t shake things up at this point. All the while getting sick to your stomach thinking that maybe this other version actually is funnier, and you screwed up. And if you screwed this up, what other mistakes have you made? And these are all feelings that are exacerbated when your version doesn’t work at first, because humor is hard to get right.

The kinks get worked out, and the shot eventually works great and is exactly as funny as you’d been planning, and you remember that humor is subjective, but, man—sometimes you’ve gotta stay in your bubble.

DAY 66 OF 70
Today was the first day that I teared up while watching a take. It was a simple shot of a character in a car. In the script, he’s listening to music, and since there’s no dialogue, our sound recordist piped in the song I hope to use in the film. It worked, and everyone felt it. Our camera operator Drew said it was the first time he felt like he was in the movie.

dragon_david_lowery_Aint_Them_Bodies_Saints_posterIn addition to writing and directing his own films, Lowery is a prolific editor who has worked on Amy Seimetz’s Sun Don’t Shine and Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, as well as co-writing Pit Stop with director Yen Tan. Here are the films that got him on Disney’s radar.

Lullaby (2000)

He wrote and directed this movie with a $10,000 budget at age 19, just after graduating from Irving High School. Though Lullaby is technically his first feature film, Lowery has never released it and has written that, although he remains proud of it, “there’s no need for it to exist in the public eye.”

St. Nick (2009)

Lowery has said that his breakthrough feature is a “distended version of my memories of childhood.” Set against a stark East Texas landscape, it offers a portrait of two runaways who flee an unexplained family trauma. When it premiered at South by Southwest, it garnered Lowery comparisons to filmmakers like Terrence Malick and FranÇois Truffaut.

Pioneer (2011)

More than St. Nick, this 16-minute short may have put Lowery in the company of rising, young independent American filmmakers. Set entirely in a child’s bedroom, Pioneer shows a father spinning an elaborate, magical bedtime yarn for his young son about how he met the boy’s mother. The film is a powerful statement of pure storytelling and won the Grand Jury Prize at SXSW and helped earn Lowery an invitation to the Sundance Institute.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013)

Lowery’s first major film is a romantic crime drama that stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara as love-crossed outlaws who are separated when Affleck’s character takes the fall for a crime his lover committed. Told in a style that includes plenty of nods to the greats—Malick, Robert Altman, and Arthur Penn, to name a few—the film was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

There was another wonderful moment—a shot of our young heroine, played by the amazing Oona Laurence, asleep in the backseat of a car. Within 30 seconds of hitting that road, Oona had actually fallen asleep. She ceased to be acting. When we reached the halfway point of our locked-off stretch of Highway 90, we pulled over for a bit to release traffic. Big trucks roared by, and, from the monitors on the back of our trailer, we watched this girl slumbering in the backseat and kept rolling. It took me right back to all those childhood road trips, the long night drives home from my grandparents’ house, listening to the highway as I drifted off to sleep. Turn signals and 18-wheelers and the pitter-patter of rain; the occasional muttering of my parents to each other, their words unimportant, just more sounds.

DAY 67 OF 70
At the end of the day, I was handed my contract for this movie to sign. I’m almost officially hired to direct this movie!

DAY 70 OF 70
Well, first things first. This wasn’t our last day of production. The writing was on the wall last month, and we added a few days to our schedule.

But even so, if it had been our last day, it would have been a heck of a note to go out on. It was Anzac Day, and the morning started with a beautiful memorial service against a blood-red dawn. Peter Hayden, the wonderful actor who’s been doubling for Robert Redford on this film, read a tribute to the soldiers who died at Gallipoli, and within just a few words, I was in tears.

DAY 73 OF 70
The weather is not going to let us wrap up without a fight. We were beset by arctic winds, sheets of horizontal precipitation, raindrops so big they felt like hail, and other inclemency all day long, and by the end of the night, I was consolidating coverage and block shooting in an attempt to get the actors and crew (and, selfishly, myself) out of the cold and the wet. I am now in bed, trying to thaw out. I love cold weather, but even with thermals and heat packs and extra socks, I wasn’t ready for this.

We wrapped a few more actors today. It seems like only yesterday that our magnificent trio of lumberjacks—Phil Grieve, Marcus Henderson, and A.J. Jackson—were singing amidst the redwoods, but tonight they drove off into the distance, never to be seen again. And Steve Barr, who played Deputy Pat Smalls, wielded his notebook for the final time. It’s all coming to an end.

I am still freezing.

DAY 74 OF 70
We wrapped around 8 tonight with a shot of two hands clasped tightly together. Endings are hard to get right, but I think we did pretty well.

I’m writing this on an airplane back to the States, which is just about as sentimental a spot as you might ever find me. This comes after two days in Wellington in which we wandered about, ate at our favorite haunts, watched It Follows at the Paramount Theatre, and packed and repacked six months’ worth of stuff.


The wrap party began almost as soon as we called cut. It went down at our unit base in Tapanui, which I think was a school or at least a school-like building. I never went to my high school prom, but I imagine it was something like this, full of purple lights and music and people sneaking off into the dark. The whole town of Tapanui was invited. In the school auditorium, a few speeches were made, first by our wonderful producers, Barrie Osborne and Jim Whitaker, and then by me, as I fumbled my way through a thank-you that couldn’t come close to expressing how grateful I really was.

The next morning, we did the best thing I could think of to celebrate wrapping: we went and jumped off the Kawarau Bridge, the birthplace of bungee. It was as awesome as I’d hoped. My wife Augustine loved it so much that she went twice.

We’re three hours over the ocean now. Inherent Vice is playing on my little screen, and we’re rolling through some heavy ups and downs. I keep looking back for little moments to make a big deal out of. 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. 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 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 leave you sitting in the same pretty-okay boat. There was an evening last month, after a particularly grueling week, when I was chatting with Jim, our producer, 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.”

I took a 6-mile run around the Bay, boarded my plane, and, as of this moment, I’m back in Texas, surrounded by cats who seem to actually remember me. Post-production starts in full force on the 18th. Time to catch up on some movies.