Why Pete’s Dragon and Other Disney Family Films Are Getting Buzzier Directors

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Bryce Dallas Howard is Grace and Oakes Fegley is Pete in Pete's Dragon. Photo: Matt Klitscher/Disney Enterprises, Inc.

If you didn't know better, recent news might make you think that Walt Disney Studios has turned into an alumni-placement program for the Sundance Film Festival. The directorial hires made of late in the studio's live-action department have carried with them a brand-new whiff of indie cool: To reboot its family film Pete's Dragon, Disney made the unlikely pick of David Lowery, who had just directed the R-rated romantic Western Ain't Them Bodies Saints. Not long after that hire, the studio asked Alex Ross Perry, best known for misanthropic movies like Listen Up Philip and Queen of Earth, to shepherd a new version of its gentle classic Winnie the Pooh. And for the movie's big-budget take on the book A Wrinkle in Time, Disney has snagged Ava DuVernay, a Sundance winner for Best Director who made her first foray into studio filmmaking with the acclaimed Selma.

How did the Mouse House get so hip? Last week, we sat down with Lowery, who had just presented several scenes from Pete's Dragon to the press, and asked him just that. Even though Lowery's family-film comes out this August, he still seemed shocked to have made it.

All right, fess up. Who at Disney is making all these cool hires, and why?
Sean Bailey, who’s the president of the studio, and Louie Provost, the vice-president of production. They’re savvy film fans — Sean is on the board of Sundance. Obviously, Disney has a renaissance going on right now. They’re remaking the originals, they’re doing these live-action interpretations, and they’re defining themselves in a very specific way. You could say it’s a narrow corridor: Here are the titles that we’re going to revisit, or, if you wanted to get crass about it, here is the IP we’re going to exploit. But if you bring in filmmakers who have a point of view to do that, you end up with the best of both worlds. Not only do you get a product that you can market with great success, as we saw with The Jungle Book, but they can also function as really great movies that have a unique and exciting point of view.

How did this job even come to you? Was it an open assignment?
In the process of putting together Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, I acquired an agent who’s now a great friend of mine. At that point, he was sending me random open assignments just to figure out what I liked, and one night, he sent me the Pete’s Dragon thing and said, “Disney is interested in doing a remake that’s not a remake: They just want to use the title to tell a story about a boy and his dragon.” I was like, “Cool, we can do that.” I initially misremembered it as "Puff the Magic Dragon." [Laughs.] Which I loved! My dad used to sing that to me every night, but of course as an adult, then you realize what that song is about. I think I responded to that email with a joke about LSD.

Did you have any expectations once a meeting was set?
I thought, They’re never gonna hire us in a million years. And by us, I mean Toby Halbrooks, who produced Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and co-wrote this with me. We just thought, Let’s go in there as a lark and pitch an idea, which we did right after Sundance. That was with the producers, and then they asked us to come back and pitch to the studio, which was Louie and his executives. And they said, “That’s great,” and the next day, they hired us to write it. We were like, “Okay, it’s not a joke anymore.”

Because you thought you wouldn’t be hired, I wonder if your vision for the movie was actually the clearest.
Totally, because I wasn’t in that desperate stage of “What do they want?” I thought, If I’m going to a movie called Pete’s Dragon, here’s what I would want to see. That’s what we pitched.

Originally, you were brought on as writers. At what point did you think, I want to direct this big studio movie?
It was very sudden. I didn’t think it at all in the beginning, and I assumed there was no reason they would hire me to direct. Then one day last March, Jim Whitaker, who’s one of the producers, said, “I think the studio would be interested in knowing if you want to direct this.” I was like, “Holy crap, do I?” Because literally, I had not thought about it. I had written it off, thinking, Someone else is gonna do this.

Why wouldn’t you have directed it? What was the downside?
The only con was that classic worry about getting into the studio system and not getting to make the movie you want to make. This was right around the time that Edgar Wright left Ant-Man, and I didn’t want that to happen. That was a passion project of his, and look what happened. But Jim said to me, “Look, how has the writing process been on this movie?” I’d been in it for a year at that point, and it was great. And he said, “I promise you that the process of directing it will be the same.”

When the movie was announced, did you take a certain amount of perverse pleasure in confounding people’s expectations of what you would do next?
Yes, there was a little bit of that. I’m always sensitive to the idea of “selling out,” and there’s always going to be people who accuse you of that, but at the end of the day, I would have loved to have seen Paul Thomas Anderson make Pinocchio. I want to see that movie! So ultimately, I was like: If I was on the outside and I was a fan of my own movie, which of the movies I have in development is the most exciting? To be honest, this one was. I knew it was the best choice I could make.

In the same way that actors get typecast, you were probably getting typecast, too. After Ain't Them Bodies Saints, any sort of outlaw love story or western must have been pitched to you.
One-hundred percent. Any Western. Magnificent Seven came my way. And I thought back to when Alfonso Cuarón did Harry Potter after Y Tu Mamá También. What an awesome combo of movies! They’re both so beautiful, and so personal. It was a bold choice for the studio to go there with him for Harry Potter, and how lucky we were as audience members to get that version of that movie from him, and how you didn’t know what he would make next because it could be anything. I know what movies I might make next, but I like that no one else can put a finger on it.

So, you take the job directing Pete's Dragon. Did you ever feel like you were waiting for the other shoe to drop?
Every step of the way. Certainly in the post-production process, after we had finished our first cut of the movie. But everyone loved it, and there wasn’t that sense of, “Alright guys, you screwed up and now we’re going to take over.” When you hear about conflicts between directors and studios — particularly directors coming from smaller movies and going to bigger ones, and we all know those stories and have seen them a lot lately — I think there’s a difference of opinion on what the movie’s gonna be.

But I was very clear from the beginning: Here’s the movie I want to make, here’s exactly what’s going to happen on a scene-by-scene basis, here’s the feeling of it, here’s the world. If there had been a point where they were all, “That’s cool, but what we really want is this,” then the smart thing to do would have been to not make the movie, to either figure this out or part ways. Instead, every step of the way, we were on the same page as far as what the movie was, and that’s the movie that will be released.

Is there anything in the film that you expected studio pushback on, and it never came?
There is a song in the movie that’s an important part of the storytelling, and the artist who sings it will be revealed at a later date, but it was a very important thing to get him onboard. I was expecting Disney to shut that down. I just thought, This is never gonna happen. But they were like, “Great. Not only does that fit into the movie, but let’s make the whole soundtrack sound like that.”

And to be honest, there was never a sense like I was trying to sneak something by them. I wanted to make a classic Disney movie, a good family film, the kind I would have loved when I was 7. I’m not trying to do anything crazy or make an “artsy” Disney movie. At the same time, this is still my version of the movie, filtered through my perspective.