A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be invited along to a super early screening of How to train your Dragon. The movie wasn’t in it’s finished form but was 90% complete with a few wire frame models with shading in some parts. The audio wasn’t 100% complete either, in fact they were busy recording the finishing touches to the score while we were watching the movie. Even though the film wasn’t completely finished, I absolutely loved it. I cant say too much about it yet as I’d like to see it again in it’s complete form before bringing you a full review.
What made this screening special, was that we were joined by the Author of the books in which the movie is based, Cressida Cowell, the directors Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders and producer Bonnie Arnold who was very kind to give her time to us as the premiere of her movie, The Last Station was set to premiere in London’s Leicester Square that very night. I had a great introduction to Dean DeBlois as I had to literally run from one screening to make this one. As i thought i was late, i jumped in the lift down to the screening room and heard someone coming in behind me. Realising he was too coming to the screening, I made some small talk about being late for him to reply, “don’t worry, I’m the director!” My response was something like “well, I guess they can’t start without you!”. Turns out i was right and made it in good time.
Following the screening, we were treated to a semi impromptu Q&A in which Cressida, Dean, Chris and Bonnie all shared their thoughts on the film and we have transcribed the Q&A below.
How to Train Your Dragon is released in cinemas 31st March.
Chair: Welcome the creator of the fantasic world into which we have just been plunged, Cressida Cowell, the directors and with her are the two directors Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders and the Producer of the film Bonnie Arnold. Cressida? If I start with you. We don’t expect a young lady to create a world of fire breathing dragons and Vikings, so what inspired you?
Cressida: OK, I know this sounds very unlikely but in fact this is an autobiographical account. It sounds deeply unlikely as i am not a Viking or a dragon. But i spent a lot of time as a child on an uninhabited island of the west coast of Scotland…”
Cressida: “I am not allowed, the name is a secret! My dad said you are not to say the name! My dad is a wilderness nut basically, he loves the wilderness and we would be dropped off on this island so small, that when you stood on the top of it you could see sea all around you. You could see sea all around you and you would be dropped off by a local fisherman and picked up again two weeks later, yeah, nothing on it at all absolutely desolate, just us, and a tent. Total wilderness. My parents were crazy! No mobile phone, no way of contacting anybody if anything went wrong. Even then, as a small child, I had a sense of how mad it was but it was an incredible experience as a child. A whole island to explore and as I got older, there was a house built on the island, when I was about nine, and you could stay out there for the whole summer, and my dad got a boat… The whole thing is inspired by that, the kind of place where dragons could have really existed. And of course it was the first place Vikings came to and the last place they left”
Chair: “It’s not one of the islands in the west that has the Viking Cairns on it and the burial site that inspired you?”
Cressida: “no , it’s not..all that whole area has the Viking heritage as it’s the last place they left, so no not that one”.
Chair: “OK, right, trying to trip you up on that one!” Bonnie, you have two very different films on the go, you have this one which is I think one of the best 3D animations we have seen to date, and also you have the Last Station which you can’t plug but i thought i would give it a mention, how on earth did you get involved in that? I can see why you got excited about that, but tell me the process of your involvement”
Bonnie: “Well I have been working with, I first met Jeffrey Katzenberg when I produced Toy Story at Disney when he was working there, and so we had a relationship for quite a while, and I came to Dreamworks about 7 or 8 year ago actually to produce Over the Hedge, to work again with Geoffery Harvey and actually about a year , the last year that Over the Hedge was getting finished, we were there working on a Saturday (not unusual for Dreamworks) and he called me into his office and we sat down and he said ‘What do you think you might want to do next?’ And I had read Cressida’s book, I knew Dreamworks had acquired it, and after he said that, I said “I am not sure, do i have a choice?’ and he said ‘Anything you want that we are developing, you chose, you tell me what you want to do’. And i said ‘Well i love that how to train your dragon book, and it’s my sensibility and I love the story and i really want to be involved in that film’. So that was it, as of Spring I will have been involved in the film for 4 years”
“more or less the normal?”
“Dean: the 3D animation, as I have said, in this film is incredible, I imagine you guys are incredibly proud of the flying sequences in particular and I wonder if those were the toughest to get right and meant the most hours spent slaving on perfection”
Chris: “Strangely, 3D as a process has been integrated in to the studio so well, it’s not something that we have to spend a whole lot of time integrating on a scene by scene basis, there is a group of people whose sole dedication is to see to that. But it is almost seamless in our process. Really the only question we had from the beginning, was whether we were going to be saddled with..were there 3D concerns that were going to dictate a pace or length or shot or composition, and very early on into the process, as soon as Roger Deakins became involved in our film, we all went to see Coraline. Because we had all heard that it was a very tasteful use of the technology and we watched it and said ‘Oh you can have soft focus, you can pick your compositions and shots as you would any film and dial the 3D up and down according to what the story was, and never let it be gimmicky’. And from the outset we decided never to let 3D be the cart that leads the horse. We will use it to dial up the dynamic, say for instance the flying sequences, but never to go for the gimmicky route”.
Chair: “Chris, just before we start hearing questions from colleagues, Casting is a particular interest to me, how come you decided to go for GerardButler and Craig Ferguson, as Scottish Vikings (?)
Chris: “We were not the first directors on this project, we were the last of all the people in this room, we were the last to come on to this project. We came on as late as last October, the October before last, and i was working on another film at Dreamworks, and Bill asked me to come onto this one, they wanted to change direction and they wanted to get it done. The casting, except for Craig Ferguson, was already done. We kind of went for Gerard Butler we wanted him to not put on any other accent, we wanted to let him be him, and let his Scottish accent be out there, and it kind of helped us decide that Craig Ferguson would be a great addition because we hadn’t quite yet cast Gobber, and it just seemed fit that the older Vikings would have this Scottish accent. And the younger generation might have lost that accent a little bit”.
Chair: “You have probably just created Hollywood’s first successful Dragon film so I wouldn’t worry! Chris, not to give away key top points but there is a sense of peril and consequene to the action, and there must have been discussion about how violent you were going to depict violent events. How did those decisions come about?”
Chris: “That came from the very day that we started on the film. Part of the reason why Geoffery brought us into the mix is that the project had spun its wheels a little bit trying to adapt Cressida’s plot line. It’s very whimsical and its great and I love the book and I love the way you write however what Geoffrey kind of wanted out of it. However whatever Geoffery wanted out of the world was not necessarily satisfied by the plot of that first book. He just wanted something that had more breath, more action, more adventure. So when we came onto the project he kind of said ‘Well look at it with fresh eyes, keep the spirit of what is going on keep the world absolutely, but take the fact that you have multiple fire breathing dragons and big burley Vikings, and this larger than life world and give us something that has the scale and jeopardy and peril and real world stakes , and animalistic behaviours that you would see in what we would consider the best of the fantasy films out there. That was our mandate from the start. He wanted a father son relationship. He wanted a David and Goliath ending, which was present in the book, and he wanted to take it and expand it. And we decided from the beginning that we should stick to something that we could draw parallels with the animal world. This was going to be like ranchers and wolves, this was going to be the one. Two very distinct clans that are at odds with each other for eons and this is the story of the one who bridges that divide. He takes a chance and befriends a wounded enemy, and in doing so kind of steps beyond the line that his clan would have ever have done. What that did was not only give us real world stakes in which we would need a hero who would not ultimately escape un-scathed, but it meant that if you get blasted by fire you will die. You know, this is not a cartoon universe and if you fall from great heights you will die. It elevated it to a sense of reality that i think colours the entire film. And added to Roger Deacon’s cinematography it really does elevate it. So I think that is what we aimed to do”.
Audience: “Two part question really. The first to Cressida. I just wondered how far the final film visually matched what you imagined when you wrote the book. And the second to Chris and Dean as to how you brought the various characteristics to life. Well he reminded me of my black cat! And I thought his movements were very cat-like”.
Cressida: “Well yes and no to that question. The island is very close to my vision in the book. It would not make sense that it is Scotland, but is very, very similar in the wildness of it, beautiful wildness. Of course in a book you can only describe, that is what is so wonderful about having the movie, is that it can paint the picture that you can only really hint at in the book. Particularly Hiccup is wonderful, is a deeply satisfying performance, both acting and animation wise and I think it is quite unusual now, there used to be a distancing with cartoons, they used to feel like drawn characters but he for me feels like a real little boy, you can identify with him and that just gives the story such emotional power, with him and Stoic and I think their relationship. Beautifully done. You know the conversations between father and son. They can’t quite communicate but you know they still love each other. I think it’s amazing, thank you to you guys”.
Chair: “And the question for you guys, the feline features of Toothless?”
Directors: “The dragons in general were exciting and really, really fun and those characteristics we were able to give them, they really all came out of the book. The unique thing about this story as far as the dragons are concerned, in any dragon movie or book I have seen there is always has either one dragon or multiple dragons built up around that one model. In this world, it has different species of dragons, so from the get-go, everyone was really inspired by that. One of the dragons was like a walrus, kind of lazy, we actually wrote these detailed descriptions of them, who knows if we ever get to use all of them. We thought that maybe Dronco falls asleep when he is flying and falls in a giant heap like walruses and stuff like that. Each dragon has a unique set of characteristics that come out of the book. Toothless is actually animated by an animator that did not know he was a cat person until he bought a cat and he actually loves his cat and observed his cat very closely. So there are actual moments in there which are very cat-like, and a few moments where he is very dog-like, and moments where he is like a horse. But those are characteristics which were all very deliberately built in”.
Directors: “His design was partially based on a Black Panther, in the early days, most were very reptilian, so this one was a little different, smaller, blacker, tougher, faster, you know the ghost of the Viking world”.
Chair: “Why do you think up until now Hollywood has struggled to make a success of any dragon story?”
Directors: “Well you know the thing that has always been the same in all dragon movies is that there are many dragons, but they are all the same, and I think it is better to have lots of different dragons…”
Chair: “Like evolution”
Directors: “yeah, yeah absolutely. We debated early on about should the dragons talk or not, I know Chris and Dean wanted ot make them more animal like, and make the relationship the basis of it. I think on so many levels there are people who like dragons, kids who like dragons and hopefully this will open up a whole new world of that”.
Audience: “Cressida, you said it was autobiographical in the location, i wondered if you also saw yourself as Hiccup when you were on that island? Did you go exploring?
Cressida: “Well, I suppose so. I adore my dad, absolutely love my dad and he is a wonderful man, but he was somebody who was a little bit hard to live up to. Maybe I was different, I was creative kind of person, nobody was like that in my family. There is a lot of that in there”.
Audience: “So you had your own end of the film moment?”
Cressida: “Yes, I guess yes”
Audience: “I don’t know how many books there are Cressida…”
Audience: “Oh right, so does that mean we are talking about possible sequels? So what happens with Hiccup’s disability? Does he still have that at the end?”
Directors: “So certainly the movie departs from the book, at least in the book the dragons speak, or at least Hiccup can speak to the dragons. However I don’t think we can be so presumptuous to think it will be a hit, however if it is, there will be more”.
Chair: “Are we talking franchise here?”
Bonnie: “Well I think I mean, it would be nice, I think we tried to make the best film that we can for us, we worked hard to make it the best for all the folks at Dreamworks who worked so hard, they put a little bit of themselves into it, it’s so wonderful to see that. If we are so fortunate I hope there would be a franchise. There was so much material that did not make its way into the movie that we have, and all the things that Cressida has written. It depends; you never can tell how the audience will respond.”
Chair: “Cressida, dream come true if you are blessed with a franchise here on the big screen?”
Cressida: “yeah, I am already in a bit of a dream come true. That would be wonderful. It already is wonderful!”
Audience: “Gentleman, I am amazed you are as calm and laid back as you appear. As you have just told us you have spend a very short space of time bringing a 3D animation to fruition, you must have been working non-stop hours! There must have been some moments of tension along the way”
Directors: “There was a bit of suspense to it, it was really cool, there are some up sides to being on that kind of a schedule. You make decisions and you have to move on. We only had time to make this one more time. Everybody knew it, we all knew it, and everybody was on their game. We made decisions and moved forwards and it was a lot of hours. But the up side was that it seemed that it went so fast”.
Bonnie: “There will always be great elements at the start of any movie. When Chris and Dean came on the film I had known them at Disney, we had not worked together but they are such great storytellers. I would liken it to having a fabulous sports car but no one could drive it, and we had Chris and Dean, and they knew what they knew, they took us down this great path”.
Directors: “We have to credit the crew here. We benefited from an amazing staff at Dreamworks had put a great deal of work into it, most of the characters were made, the environments were made. We made some adjustments on the further changes we made to the story, but these guys can really bring it home, and it was a very powerful crew we had. It was a lot to worry about but we just worried about the story. We didn’t have to worry about the story. They had thought about it and worked on it until it was ready to go, so it relieved us of a huge amount of work. We jumped into the story, we jumped into the characters, we started editing this thing and it actually left the ground pretty fast. You were taking about the flying sequences, those were actually some of the most fun scenes to do. That is when Dean and I got to be 10 year old boys again. I actually found the best thing to do was to have a couple model airplanes on hand and say, ‘OK we are going to fly psat the camera like this and break loose and go like this’ and the other one would say ‘I get it, I get it’ and we would fly around and stuff like that. The hardest sequence in this film was the one where the teams go to bat when the big dragon is about to toast Stoic, and the explosion from the back of his head. The next couple of minutes were the hardest ones to get, I don’t know why”.
Directors: “I think the flying sequences were some of the first. We knew that we wanted Hiccup to fly on the back of the dragon and Chris and Dean had a bunch of ideas on that”.
Directors: “It was one of the first images we had when we came on board. We were able to look at it with fresh eyes and say ok, in Cressida’s book Hiccup is younger and he raises this dragon from an egg, like a runt Viking with a runt dragon and we thought a point of departure might be that if we have two worlds at war and we have one character that crosses that divide, wouldn’t it be great if it was the most dangerous dragon, the one he could climb onto the back of and fly. I think we were both in love with this image of him flying on the dragon, but it has been partially re-constructed, early mechanics coupled with organic, something that was very exciting. The first image of him was cobbled together dragon with pebbles and leather saddle”.
Chair: “Finally you are here to do the score, did I hear on at least a couple of occasions, the sound of the bagpipes?”
Directors: “Yeah you did”
Chair: “So is that going to be a theme?”
Directors: “Yeah it is Scottish but more Celtic. But it does have a nice flavour. We had our lead animator on Hiccup, who is Danish; he brought a CD of traditional Danish music which is very similar to old Irish music. You know laments and fiddles, so those worlds blend together quite a bit. Obviously there is cross-pollination with the Vikings cruising into Ireland and Scotland and so it puts you in a certain part of the world and i think that is the most important part of all.
Chair: “Thank you ladies and gentlemen”.