Interviews · Movies

How to Remake a Disney Classic

David Lowery on ‘Pete’s Dragon’ vs. his upcoming ‘Peter Pan’ redo.
Petes Dragon
By  · Published on November 29th, 2016

In the rising sea of Disney remakes, Pete’s Dragon is an outlier. Neither literal translation from animated feature to live-action nor a close retelling of a familiar story, this year’s redo of the 1977 musical integrating a cartoon character with real settings and actors is almost completely unrecognizable. Ahead of the new version’s home video release, I talked to director and co-writer David Lowery about what it was like to have unusual freedom with the remake and how it compared to his current work developing a totally faithful live-action remake of Disney’s animated Peter Pan. We also talked about the precise casting of the child stars of Pete’s Dragon and why it plays so well to audiences of all ages.

Film School Rejects: As far as I know, you weren’t a diehard fan of the original Pete’s Dragon (like I was), so why’d you take this on?

David Lowery: Remaking a movie because you love the original is a perfectly valid reason to do it. It wasn’t a case of me being a fan or not being a fan; it just wasn’t really a movie I grew up with. I saw it once when I was very young, like seven years old, and I liked it, but it didn’t make a big impact on me. It wasn’t one of those movies that I always carried around with me as I grew older, that I thought back to a lot. That is not to speak badly of that film because, as I recall, it was great. I thought it was terrific, and I have fond memories of watching it, even though I don’t think about those memories that often.

What appealed to me about this was that Disney was very open from the very beginning, the very first conversations about the fact that they wanted to make this a movie that stood apart from the original. They didn’t want to use the original in any way, shape, or form, other than to maintain the title and the fact that a boy named Pete has a dragon. They didn’t even need us to make the dragon named Elliot. That was just something I thought we would do because it was a good name. So the reason it appealed to me is I always wanted to make a children’s film. I love the fantasy genre and the adventure genres. I wanted to make a movie that would have delighted me as a seven-year-old audience member. And I saw in this project the potential to do all of those things under the auspices of remaking a classic Disney movie. I kind of was using the original as an excuse to make my own film.

Because the original is not one of the crown jewels of the Disney library, I felt it was safe to do that. Disney certainly felt it was safe to do that. I am very conscientious of fandom and what fans think of films, what their expectations are, what they want out of a movie, especially when you’re dealing with a remake. I felt this one, in spite of folks like yourself ‐ and I have a lot of friends who grew up with the original because I think it was the very first Disney movie released on VHS. A lot of people ended up watching it because it was the only thing available. So, there are a lot of people who love it ‐ I wanted to respectfully say, “Look, we’re not trying to ruin your childhood. We’re not going to try to trounce on your memories of what was a perfectly good Disney film. But we are going to take that title and use it to tell a new story.”

So, Disney really didn’t consider the original something sacred to a fanbase like, say, Beauty and the Beast is?

I don’t think they did. To be quite frank, when we did our first and only preview screening, one of the questions for the focus group was, “How many of you have seen the original?” And almost everyone raised their hand. And I think everyone at the studio was a little surprised. I don’t think they expected as many people to have seen the original as turned out to be the case. That was an interesting discovery, but at the same time, we never really wavered from that initial course of not putting in any nods to the original in there. One of the things I think about is in the Clash of the Titans remake, there’s a brief moment where they…


Yeah, the Bubo moment! Regardless of what I think of the rest of the movie, I was so put off by that moment, because they’re referencing the original in a disparaging way. And I felt kind of insulted, as a fan of the original film. I just felt it was safest to just not do anything, not stick to the original at all. And that extends to music. You know, we recorded a version of “Candle on the Water.” One of my favorite bands, Okkervil River, did a cover of it, and it was down to the last second whether we would put that in the credits or not. I was all for it, because I was like, look, let’s just put it in the credits, it’ll be the third song in there, it’ll be at the end, if people stick around they’ll hear it. And ultimately the studio decided let’s not. We’ll put it on the soundtrack but not put it in the movie so we can have the movie exist entirely on its own, separate from the original.

I really admire their confidence in that and their steadfastness in that, because that appeals to me. I don’t think you can do that with most Disney movies. I think that when I go see Beauty and the Beast, there are going to be things I want to see in that movie, and if I don’t see them I’ll be disappointed. The same with the Pinocchio adaptation that I’m sure is going to happen. It’s a rare case when you have a movie that you can actually run wild with the way we did with this one and still feel you’re making a film that doesn’t disparage the original, that allows the original to exist right alongside it.

One thing I find interesting, as someone with small children, about the move from animation to live-action, is things get scarier.

Especially with so many of these classic Disney films being based on fairy tales, which are in of themselves incredibly dark, the animation allowed them to be a little lighter than they would otherwise be, so when you translate them to reality, you know, these fairy tales were pretty grim. It’s interesting to see how they handle that, how they handle making them still palatable to younger audiences.

Your Pete’s Dragon appeals much more to both kids and adults. Is that something you thought about or aimed for?

You know, I went into the movie with a very clear mindset, and that was to tell the movie entirely from the perspective of children. I never wanted to waver from that. It was always going to be from their perspective. And I went into the studio with a bunch of illustrations and paintings and photographs that adhered to that perspective. I really felt that that was going to be how I was going to put my stamp on this movie. I wanted to just stick to that. But as we started developing it and casting it, you bring in an actor like Bryce Dallas Howard and you bring in an actor like Rob Redford and all of a sudden you feel like, I as an audience member want to spend some time with them as adults. So, it became important to kind of create some scenes where they could express their own thoughts and feelings separate from the children.

It all happened organically, but the seed of the project was rooted in the perspective of a child. And by having that perspective from the beginning, I think it gave the film an adhesiveness so, even when we branch out to the adults, we still always return to the kids, and ultimately it is a movie from their perspective. We have little detours into the grownup drama that allows the hooks to sink into the adult audience members, but ultimately what I would love is for those hooks to then pull the adults back into the kids’ perspective and really see things through the eyes of a child once again.

What was the casting like for the two children? Did you intend to have the characters played by such distinctively different kinds of kids?

The first step was finding Pete, just because we knew he was going to have to carry the movie. He’s in almost every scene, and it’s a really big responsibility and a big task for a young actor to carry on their shoulders. He was someone whom our casting director saw fairly early on, and she told me he was exactly what I was looking for. I flew to New York, he walked in the door, and it was one of those lightning strike moments where you realize this is the kid who is going to carry your movie. It was so clear he was the perfect Pete, and I think part of that was body language. And the way he would listen to me when I spoke.

I knew Pete was going to be mostly a physical performance. He doesn’t have that much dialogue in the movie. He needed to convey so much through the way he moved, the way he existed in a given space, the way he turned his head, the way you could see the wheels turning behind his eyes when he’s listening to someone speak. It was all right there immediately as soon as Oakes [Fegley] walked in the room. I put him on video, sent that video to the studio, and they instantly were like, yes that’s Pete, tell him to stop cutting his hair. It was a very quick discovery, in some regards, but also one of those profound moments where you realize this is the kid who we’re going to base an entire movie around.

We were simultaneously looking for Natalies. We saw a lot of wonderful young ladies, and Oona [Laurence] just had something about her that was unusual. She felt different. She felt sort of like the outsider, the kind of kid who would feel more comfortable reading a book in their room by themselves than playing with friends. That right there describes my childhood. It really felt personal to me. I really felt like I could relate to how she was going to play this character. We had her come in and do a scene with Pete, the scene where they fall out of the tree where she asks him his name and he’s playing with her hair, and we did that scene a couple of times. And we did the scene where they’re drawing with crayons, and they just had such a wonderful chemistry and played off each other so perfectly, and they both felt like real kids.

It’s so important to me, in all of my films, to have children who don’t feel like child actors. That’s not to disparage child actors, because they’re an incredibly talented bunch, and there are all sorts who are good at different things, but I really wanted kids who felt like my brothers and sisters when I was growing up. I’m the oldest of nine kids, so I have a lot of experience to draw from in terms of being around children. I just had this idea of Pete and Natalie feeling like my siblings. We spent a lot of time as kids running around outside, building forts, getting dirty, and not talking very much because we were all a bunch of very quiet children in spite of how rowdy we got. I was looking for that with Pete, and with Natalie I was looking for that bookworm creative type we ‐ all my siblings and I ‐ also were. There’s a lot of me and my family in the casting of those characters, and that goes for any time I make a movie with kids, which thus far has been every movie I’ve made. I’m always looking for kids who feel like the kids that I knew or that I still know or that I grew up with.

How different is it to be now taking on Peter Pan?

That’s a fun challenge because it’s a movie that, unlike Pete’s Dragon, you don’t want to mess around with too much. It’s a classic for a reason, and you want to sort of honor the legacy it has. It’s probably one of the five most famous Disney movies, if not more than that, maybe the top three. I love the original. I love the original book. I love the 2003 version of that movie. So, it’s an interesting reversal of the situation on Pete’s Dragon, where I had no sense of preciousness about the original, but now I do. So, I’m getting to see that side of things.

What other Disney movies would you like to remake next? I hear that like me you love Swiss Family Robinson…

Swiss Family Robinson is great. I think it’s due for a remake. It’s been a long time since there’s been a Swiss Family Robinson movie. I think it depends on the project. If it speaks to me, if I feel there’s a way into it for me, I totally would be open to it. I don’t begrudge any remakes. I think that film is intrinsically a flexible medium and it can support any number of ways of telling the same story. It just matters how you tell it. So, if I have a way to tell a story that feels personal to me, and it makes me feel like I’m telling it for the first time, if it makes me feel like it’s a unique film, I’ll totally go for it. There’s nothing immediately pressing that I would want to do, I don’t think. There’s nothing that comes to mind. But I’m sure if the right property came along, I would totally do it if it felt right.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.