Dean DeBlois has returned to the director’s chair for How To Train Your Dragon 2, which has already grossed over $600 million at the global box office since the release earlier this year.
We caught up with the director to chat about the new film, reuniting with familiar and new members of the cast, and the development of new technology that has allowed them to really push the look and feel of the film forward.
- How To Train Your Dragon 2 is set to be released on DVD, so can you tell me a bit about the film?
How To Train Your Dragon 2 is set five years after the first one: Hiccup was fifteen in the first film and is now twenty years old. He is now facing a new rite of passage in his life, which is the moment when he is stepping into adulthood and he is still no sure who he is. The adventure takes on him in pursuit of a developing situation where he hears about a conqueror who is acquiring a dragon army and a vigilante who is rescuing the dragons and whisking them away to safety.
In pursuit of that, he discovers that the vigilante is actually his mother: who has been missing for twenty years, is a dragon whisperer herself, and has been living among them ever since learning their ways and becoming their protector. How To Train Your Dragon 2 is very much about Hiccup learning about the other half of who he is on his road to becoming the chief that he is destined to be.
- You are back in the director's chair for the film and have penned the screenplay, so what made you want to return to these characters and explore them further? You are dealing with different issues and problems this time around.
Yeah, I think that is what is exciting about it for me. The characters themselves are really rich, interesting, and identifiable, I find that being able to carry their stories forward, and meeting them at different points in their lives just makes for a story that keeps going and going.
Also, the fact that Hiccup, in his spare time, has become and explorer and that he is out finding new lands, new dragons, and new conflicts, it continues to expand the world in every way. It is kind of like Star Wars, for me, it makes me want to spend time in all of those places that he discoverers.
- This movie comes four years after the first, what was it about Cressida Cowell’s books that originally drew you to the material in first place?
I received a phone call from one of my frequent collaborators Chris Sanders, who had been working at DreamWorks while I had been off writing screenplays for live action films. He had been developing a film called The Croods, but he was pulled aside by Jeffrey Katzenberg - the CEO of DreamWorks - and asked to take over the project How To Train Your Dragon, which was based on Cressida Cowell’s books.
I think the problem had been, while doing a very faithful adaptation of Cressida’s books had discovered that the story was a little too small and a little too young for the audience that they were looking for. So Chris called me up and asked me if I wanted to be part of it. Together, we were tasked with revising the story in such a way that it had bigger fantasy/adventure tropes to it, while retaining the spirit of Cressida’s books.
- Four years on and the sequel is here, so how has technology developed between now and then? And were there things you were able to do and achieve that perhaps were not possible when you made the first one? The characters seem to look and move differently this time around.
As is always the case with computer animation, the tools get better as time goes on and we are able to do things that we were not able to do even a year ago. It was a bit of a quantum leap for us on this film, as DreamWorks had been a complete overhaul on all of the animation and lighting software that we use - so there is a brand new suite of tools called Apollo that we were made available to us, and we were the first film to debut them to the world.
It means that we are able to but so many more characters on screen and with so much more subtleties. We have controls in the face and it allows for richer performances and allows the animators to see their work immediately, instead of having to wait for it. They get to work in quite an intuitive way, whereas before it was quite laborious and based on spreadsheets and numeric controls - now, they get to manipulate characters live and they get to see everything that they are doing. The process is very creative, intuitive and innovative.
- How exciting has to been to debut these new programmes?
It was very exciting but it was also a little nerve wracking because we had a set budget and a set amount of time, and we were already too ambitious for those ingredients.
We were worried that if it was a tool that had a lot of bugs in it, that could really slow us down and we would have to compromise. Luckily, it was really we designed and encountered very few problems.
- Roger Deakings is also back to work on the visual side of the film. He comes from a predominately live action background so how do you think that experience has impacted on the look of the film?
Roger is really a hero among many of us and his prolific career has created some of the most indelible images out there. A lot of what we were doing with How To Train Your Dragon was to try and emulate the light and the feel of a live action film, so it felt that much more believable that these dragons could have actually roamed the earth and been a part of our natural world.
In the first film, I think he really helped define a look that had - until How To Train Your Dragon came along - never been seen: it had a gritty realism to it, even though there was caricature in the design of the dragons and humans. I think in this film, he took it that much further.
Roger and I took a trip to the remote arctic - we went to Svalbard - and spent six days riding around on snowmobiles, photographing the light and bring back as much of that reference as we could. I think that it has a beautiful, majestic and almost magical feel to it, but it is all based in reality.
- So often animated movies record the actors alone and yet you brought them together for this film, why did you decide to record like that?
We did when we could - it all depended on the actor’s schedules as they are often off busy making movies of TV programmes in different parts of the world. Wherever possible, I like to bring actors together because it allows them to really work the scenes: I always allow them to go off script if they have a strong idea or an inclination.
They know the characters better than I do sometimes, so the ability to run the lines together and let a scene develop with all of its pauses - even allowing them to step on each other’s lines so there are interruptions - it feel so much more natural. There is also a spontaneity that comes from that that we are able to use in the movie.
- Cate Blanchett and Kit Harington were two of the big new additions to the cast list, can you talk about bringing them on board and what you saw in them for Eret and Valka?
In the case of Cate Blanchett, I have been wanting to work with her for years. A lot of it had to do with the first impression that she really made on me, which was with her portrayal of Elizabeth. I love that she can play a character that is strong and authoritative, but at the same time, is vulnerable - that is something that I needed for the character of Valka.
Valka is a very independent and tough vigilante but at the same time, she is filled with remorse and regret for the decisions that she made - especially when she realises that she was wrong, people could change, and that Hiccup had managed to change everyone back on Berk and all that time she wasn’t there for him. Knowing those two aspects of that character, Cate was the perfect casting.
I saw her at that Oscars in 2011, when we were nominated for Best Animated Feature - and I walked up to her and told her that I had written a part for her. She actually replied by saying that she and her sons were huge fans of the first film. When I went on to describe the character, she seemed enthused and told me to send her the script. So that was very fortunate.
As for Kit Harington, I was a huge fan of the first season of Game of Thrones and I thought that his character of Jon Snow had both a youthful charm in his voice as well as a sense of strong integrity - that is something that I wanted for the character of Eret.
When I described him as being a but rough and tumble and cock-sure, he really went with that and added a certain amount of caricature to make that character both arrogant and charming, as well as a sense of displaced loyalty.
- Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, and Jonah Hill are just some of the actors returning to the franchise, so how did you find reuniting with these actors? It sounds like it is a very collaborative process.
It is. I absolutely love working with the whole team. They are all great people and it really has become like one big family, we are almost a travelling troupe of performers (laughs). They know the characters so well that it makes my job easier because I can write a scene and generally lob the dialogue in a direction that suits the scene, but I am always open to any of their suggestions and ad-libs: I often use those rather than the dialogue that I had written.
- How To Train Your Dragon 2 has been a box office smash, how have you been finding the response to the film so far? This is now a billion dollar franchise.
(Laughs) I think it has been phenomenal. It started as a bit tepid but then it has taken off and the global box office has been surprising to everyone. At $615 million, we are all really happy.
- Finally, a third film is in the pipeline, so where are you on that? And is this third film going to be your next project?
Yes, it will be next project and I have just pitched the outline to the film. I will be starting on the screenplay when I return from a short vacation to New Zealand. I think by about Christmas I will be ready to turn in the first draft of that screenplay, and we will be well on our way.
How To Train Your Dragon 2 is out now on Digital HD, Blu-ray and DVD from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment