Watching the moody 2013 indie crime drama “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” you probably wouldn’t say, “The guy who made this should make a Disney movie about a flying, green monster.” And yet that’s what happened. Director David Lowery wound up going to the big leagues with “Pete’s Dragon,” which is not only a very, very loose take on the 1977 Disney original; it’s also an atypically modest and intimate summer movie.
In Lowery’s latest, young Oakes Fegley plays an orphan mostly raised in the deep woods with his giant winged pal. The cast includes names like Bryce Dallas Howard and Robert Redford, and yet it still has the hand-made feel of an indie, not a soulless blockbuster. (Lowery will repeat the process by next tackling “Peter Pan.”) We talked to the filmmaker, 35, about how, even with some special effects, hitting the big leagues wasn’t a total gear-shift.
I don’t want to assume making a big studio film was much different than making an indie, especially if it’s this modest. How did it feel for you?
You know, it didn’t end up feeling different. I was expecting there to be that moment where you think, “Oh, now I’m making a big studio movie.” And that never actually happened. It was exactly the same experience; it just lasted longer. [Laughs] You have a lot more time for prep — that’s always a good thing. And then you have a much longer shoot, which is also a good thing, though it also wears you down. And then there was 13 months in post-production, which was a bizarre experience for me. To focus on one thing for that long, that was new to me. I’m a short-attention span kind of person. I remember thinking in the fourth week of prep, “I’m going to be focusing on this project for a year-and-a-half to two years.”
What about graduating to directing a big special effect as well as your actors?
I think that filmmakers of my generation and especially generations after me will have a much better facility for that kind of thing because they’ve watched behind-the-scenes documentaries on DVDs. That was certainly the case for me. I was so familiar with how that stuff is done because I watched all these “Lord of the Rings” documentaries on the special editions, which totaled about 14 hours.
That’s interesting. How was it specifically for you, dealing with mostly one big effect, i.e., the dragon.
You show up [on set] knowing you’ll be framing for something that’s not there. You point the camera and you might have a tennis ball on a stick or maybe a giant inflatable creature that’s roughly the size of your dragon. And then you have to work with the human actors, to make sure they’re responding appropriately to what’s not there. But that’s not that tricky.
The hard thing to do is when you’re shooting on a green screen, which we had to do sometimes. You’ve got to figure out where you are in that space. That is tricky. On one hand it’s something I hope I can get better at in the future; on the other, it’s something I hope I don’t have to do, because I like to shoot in the real world. With this movie I tried to shoot everything in the real world, but every now and then we had to use a green screen.