The lobby of the historic Paramount Theater in downtown Austin was bustling on a recent Sunday afternoon. Kids of all ages waited in line for snacks before taking their seats. The star of the day was “Pete’s Dragon” director and co-writer David Lowery. He was giving out hugs and handshakes.
The movie is technically a remake of the 1977 Walt Disney movie about a boy, his green dragon and what happens when adults get word of it.
But unlike the original, the modern version isn’t a cartoon or a musical.
After the movie screening was over, kids roared their applause while the credits rolled – it seemed to be a huge success. But it wasn’t all cheers throughout. There were also more than a few laughs, and quite a few tears, in the dark theater – including from yours truly.
That visceral reaction was exactly what David Lowery was hoping for.
“We wanted to make it a really emotional movie. We wanted to engage audiences – specifically children – on an emotional level that not a lot of children’s movies do,” he says.
I sat down with Lowery at the Four Seasons hotel in Austin after the premiere. He admitted that having his film shown in Texas was also emotional for him.
“I should mention that – if Disney’s listening – this isn’t the official premiere. But for me it is,” Lowery says. “Because for us, as Texans, we always want to bring our work home. To be able to show it here for the first time – it’s the first time I’ve seen it with an audience – it really means a lot.”
This was the first Texas screening in seven years for the Dallas-born filmmaker. Over that time he’s soared from little-known to Disney’s go-to guy. That’s in part thanks to his Sundance darling – the slow-moving, romantic crime drama, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.”
But this movie is big time. And that’s not escaping Lowery or his longtime collaborator Toby Halbrooks.
“It’s very strange,” Halbrooks says. “Whenever we have a moment to step back, we definitely don’t take it for granted, but at the same time, it is work, and we’re just doing our best work I suppose.”
“We’ve made this movie the same way we’ve made all of our movies, just by doing our best to tell a good story and to make a great film,” Lowery says. “The fact that it’s Disney is just a surprising element that we’re reminded of every now and then.”
Lowery admits it may seem like a strange turn to go from crime drama to kids movie – but he’s says there’s actually a consistent theme. His past films might not literally be about magic – such as a giant green dragon living in the forest – but he says they do exist in a slightly heightened reality.
“I always have looked at all of my other films as fairy tales,” he says. “Getting to make one that was a literal fairy tale – so to speak – with literal magical creatures in it, didn’t feel that far-fetched given the works I’ve done before.”
The storytelling in the film is beautiful, and so is the scenery. There’s hardly a moment in “Pete’s Dragon” that doesn’t highlight the splendor of a place that’s supposed to be the Pacific Northwest but is actually New Zealand. And yet – amidst those big, roving shots of endless piney woods, and a dragon and his friend riding high above the clouds in a magical sky – Lowery says Texas still comes into play.
“That rebel spirit that sort of pervades the state – and that extends to the landscape itself – it’s something that I always turn to, and will always return to, no matter where I’m shooting,” he says. “That big sky and that open landscape are things that consistently inspire me.”
So, what comes next? For one, the Dallasite will reboot another beloved Disney story – “Peter Pan.” Other than that he says he’ll be in the great state.
“Texas will always be home,” Lowery says. “I’m looking forward to spending the fall in Dallas after spending a good 13 months in Los Angeles finishing this movie.”