Dean DeBlois on How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World and what he wants to do next!
I had the pleasure of seeing How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World at a special fan event at the AMC in Universal Hollywood. This third and final installment of the How to Train Your Dragon franchise is my favorite of the three. While each one of these films are unique in their own ways, in this film, you really get to see how these characters have grown and how there lives have changed. It is a film that will leave you wth tears in your eyes but a huge smile on your face. It is a near perfect conclusion to a near-perfect trilogy.
That being said, even though I was a big fan of these films, I never had the opportunity to sit down and chat with anyone about them. However, this time around, I got to chat wth Jay Baruchel who voices Hiccup as well as director/writer Dean DeBlois who is not only responsible for bringing to life this incredible film but all three. This is my complete interview with Dean DeBlois where were talking all things How to Train Your Dragon from the story to the music.
Dean DeBlois: Hi, Scott! Nice to meet you
Scott Menzel: Hi Dean, it is very nice to meet you as well. So, your journey has been interesting. You started over at the Mouse House where you worked on Mulan, and then you did Lilo & Stitch, and then you came over here to DreamWorks to work on the first film in this franchise. I must say that it’s very rare to see a director return after the first film for two sequels. What was that journey like for you? From the launch of your career to this moment?
Dean DeBlois: Well, it started off kind of frenetic, and full of uncertainty. I’d never worked at DreamWorks, but I got a call from my Lilo & Stitch collaborator, Chris Sanders, who had been here working on The Croods, well, very early development of The Croods, and he called me up one weekend. He said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m kind of waiting on feedback from this script I turned it to Universal, but I haven’t heard anything.” He said, “Can you be here Monday and jump onto this movie with me? I just got thrown onto it over the weekend, and it has 15 months to its premiere date in theaters, and it needs a complete re-conceive.” So, it was really challenging. I mean, we did not have any time to spare. 15 months in animation terms is a blink of an eye, and we had to re-craft the story from page one, using elements, character designs, and set designs that had already been done. So that was a rush. It was a rush through to the end, and before you know it, we had a movie in theaters, and luckily it was well received and made money for the studio.
So then I was presented with the opportunity of developing a sequel, and I’m sort of generally allergic to sequels if they lack a purpose, if they feel like they’re just random next adventures with the same five or six characters. Doesn’t interest me, but I thought this world and its occupants has this kind of naturally expansive feel to it, and I grew up a Star Wars kid, and so I saw this opportunity to maybe craft a trilogy here. Three acts of one story, tracking this tenacious ne’er-do-well Viking runt through to his ascension to chief in this sort of wise and selfless end, and concurrent with that, have dragons disappear in some sort of mysterious and emotional way that returns us to the history we know. It just seemed like an ambitious and potentially lengthy commitment, but in the end, an opportunity that rarely comes along. So when they bought into this idea of a trilogy instead of just a sequel, then I jumped on board and committed myself for however long that would take.
Scott Menzel: Very cool. Going off that, obviously, based on that story, you didn’t have any idea what you were jumping into initially, but when you were writing the second one, did you have the full idea of how this whole thing was going to end when you were writing that or did the second one have to happen first and then you thought of the third one?
Dean DeBlois: In my initial research when I jumped on with Chris Sanders in the first film, I read the book upon which the early iterations were based. They were trying to do a rather faithful adaptation of Cressida Cowell first book, and I understood that they wanted bigger fantasy adventure tropes brought to it and to broaden the audience, but I really loved the opening line. I remember just opening it up, and it was this character reflecting back on his youth as an old man. The opening line was “There were dragons when I was a boy.” I thought that was … it had this kind of emotional quality baked into.
So when I met Cressida as we were finishing up that first movie, she said, “Oh, I’m working on the 12th book in the series, and I’m going to explain what happened to dragons and why they aren’t here anymore.” So the combination of that kind of gripping mystery and the emotional sentiment of “There were dragons when I was a boy” for me dictated the path of these two subsequent movies. That would be the goal we aimed for, even though the narrative of the books and the films differ quite significantly.
Scott Menzel: When watching these three movies, and it’s so rare to see this but the quality of these films just keep getting better and better. And what’s even more remarkable about them is that the characters grow, like you pick up right where you left them when you watch another one of these movies, and it feels like you left your best friends behind, and are just joining them again, and learning about what is happening next. I feel like that’s so rare, and everything is handled with such love and care so when I watch this movie or all of these movies, and it seems like the animation gets better, the story gets better, and the characters get more depth. All of this is so rare to see, so kudos to you for constantly achieving that.
Dean DeBlois: Thank you very much.
Scott Menzel: Speaking of the animation, which again, certain scenes especially when they go into the Hidden World are just absolutely stunning. I want to screenshot those scenes and save them as my desktop background. How has the technology changed with animation over the years since you’ve started on these projects?
Dean DeBlois: Well, it has improved every year, and it’s kind of the fun thing about this medium is that the technology team wants to remain competitive with the other studios, and so they’re always pushing themselves. Things that were not possible even last year are now made available now. So, I think back to arriving here and this being the original How to Train Your Dragon is the first CG movie I had worked on, having come from a 2-D animation background, a hand-drawn background, I was … it was such a marvel, like the amount of detail we could have on screen, and it was also credible, and kind of palpable, the sense of sort of leather, and fur, and hair, and it was such a marvel to me, but now to look back at it, it looks very dated and a little archaic. So each one of those things just continued to evolve to have so much more subtlety, and the influence of Roger Deakins on our lighting was able to render it with not just credibility, but this sensibility that straddles the line between animation and live action.
But I think the biggest changes were just scale, scale, and scope. We have many more controls under the skin of our characters, allowing much more subtle expression, but the big arrivals were a scene like the Hidden World, where we have hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of dragons on the screen in this very complex environment that is filled with all sorts of subtle light sources. We would’ve had to treat that as matte paintings and limit the number of characters in the past. There was a point where we could put eight characters on screen. The ninth one would crash the system, so it was having to composite groups of characters to get a sense of a crowd. We couldn’t tamper with water. Water interaction with objects like ships or people was very difficult. We couldn’t have a dragon fly through a cloud and disturb it without breaking the bank, and so all of these things are just … they’re so successful now, and so very credible that some of our shots, like orbiting around the entrance to the Hidden World with the waterfalls pouring in, it almost looks like it came out of a Planet Earth documentary.
Scott Menzel: It’s pretty spectacular.
Dean DeBlois: And that’s all ones and zeroes. It’s really impressive.
Scott Menzel: It’s truly spectacular. Going back to your career, it’s fascinating, because you didn’t do really anything in between these three films. There wasn’t a lot of stuff in between. Now that you confirmed that this is the final chapter of this franchise, what is your next big dream? What would you love to do now?
Dean DeBlois: What I’d love to do is get one of my pet projects off the ground. I get really close with one a few years back, between Lilo & Stitch and the first How to Train Your Dragon. I set up three live actions projects to write and direct, and one of them, at one point had a green light, and a start date, and an approved budget and everything, and then each one of those projects fell victim to the same thing, which is a turnover in studio presidency, and that’ll kill a project faster than anything. So, I would love to get back to some of those, because I really believe in them, and I would love to do live action. Those were all live action films, so that’s something I would love to add to the toolbox if possible. But I’m open to anything, and it’s a really nice place to be where I feel the satisfaction and pride of finishing off this trilogy with a team of 350 people who, some of which are the most prolific and talented artists I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. But we bid it farewell. It’s like a little feather in the cap, and now we get to take on something new, and that’s exciting in itself.
Scott Menzel: Yeah, you really can’t leave this movie without having few tears in your eyes, but a smile on your face, too.
Dean DeBlois: I’m so happy to hear that because that was the goal, but it’s a subtle goal. The idea of separating dragons and humans who our fans have come to love together, and it’s sort of the basis of the fandom, in such a way that they won’t resent us for it. To take them to that bittersweet place of yes, it’s sad, but I feel emotionally satisfied. That’s a small moving target in a huge canvas, so I’m glad to hear that we got close.
Scott Menzel: I think so. I mean, it just becomes so emotionally effective in that last 10 to 15 minutes where you’re like, “I don’t want them to say goodbye!” And then you’re like, I love that you went there but I don’t want to ruin it, but you went that extra step, and then you get to show the future, and that’s it. It was really nice and heartwarming, but it kind of leaves open, if someone wants to tap into this later, but it’s a very nice ending where as a viewer you feel like you can walk away and be 100% satisfied.
Dean DeBlois: Yeah. It feels complete and hopefully filled with optimism for the future, as well. I don’t mean for the franchise. I just mean when I saw Born Free or Christian and the lion or whatever it is, there’s an element of revisiting something that was left behind in the past. To have that heartwarming confirmation that you did the right thing.
Scott Menzel: So, a curious question that I have for you is that you’ve poured your heart and soul into three of these movies, and as I said earlier, they each get better and better. Do you have a favorite scene or moment from the three?
Dean DeBlois: I’m proud of the end, the end that we’re talking about, and so we’re talking around spoilers, and we should be careful about that, because it was a very specific emotional goal, I wanted to get it just right, and so I’m proud of how that took shape, but I also really like the courtship on the beach, because that’s like a bookend in terms of the trilogy truly acting like a trilogy. It’s a bookend to a forbidden friendship in the first movie. They’re on a beach, it’s isolated, it’s a bit of a dance, it’s set to beautiful music by John Powell. It’s a getting to know you sequence that ends up with a moment of communion between two very touch and go.
Scott Menzel: For you, coming back to this and doing all three, from your own personal perspective, what do you think it is about these films, this story that makes it so universal? I heard parents coming out of the movie telling their kids “I loved it.” What is it about this universe where kids love it because of Toothless and the cute dragons, and then you have adults loving it too. What is your takeaway? Why do you think it’s so effective for both audiences?
Dean DeBlois: Maybe simply because the people making the movies are adults, and we want to make the movie that we want to see. None of us are sitting around second guessing a young audience. We’re just saying within this medium, and within this sort of construct of a family film, what are some images, what are some moments that would move you, and fill you with wonder, and excite you. We put that onto the screen. We want to be proud of it, we want to be entertained by it. We want to pay our money and feel like it was a validating experience, and with that, we’re just conscious of not leaving behind the young audience and making sure that there’s plenty on screen to entertain the young audience, that will speak to them, but we do focus on some more mature themes and some subtle moments, and strive for authenticity with the characters and their interactions.
Scott Menzel: Is that why you introduced those characters? I’m just curious how certain of the characters seem a little bit more child-like. Is that why those are introduced to more appeal to the younger demo?
Dean DeBlois: Sure, yeah. I think there’s an element that’s almost a requisite within these big studio films that it has to appeal on kind of a purely comedic level, as well, so we have our clowns that are interspersed with the moments of meaning and sincerity. I think there’s always a desire to have all of the boxes checked. And for me, the most important elements are wonder and emotion, you know, earned emotion. Beyond that, comedy’s a few rungs down, but I recognize that it needs to be in there, and so yeah, you put on that hat some days, and you come in and say, “Okay, how do we spice this up with some silly humor?” And it may be sort of juvenile and slapsticky, but it’s also part of the mix.
Scott Menzel: Okay. My very last question and one that my wife would kill me if I didn’t ask. She pointed out last night, and I actually didn’t even think about it but were you ever told that you had to put some sort of pop music into these movies, because one of the things that’s somewhat shocking yet refreshing about these films is that there’s no pop music in it. There’s no catchy song like where they’re just thrown in for the soundtrack so the kids can sing. Were you ever approached with having to put a song in the film and you saying no or did that never come up?
Dean DeBlois: Yes, it did come up, and yeah, I’m happy to say that just sheer tenacity kept away inappropriate music that … I had the experience on Lilo & Stitch where we had just nonsensical bands coming in and doing an end credit song, and it just felt so … I don’t know. Inauthentic for what that was. I’m a big music lover and I’ve made connections with some artists. This band Sigur Ros being one of them, and so the idea that Jonsi could write music for us. He’s Icelandic. He’s of the Viking world. His music is beautiful, and his own personal music is just so kind of euphoric and filled with energy that in asking him to write an end credit song in the first movie, I sort of set something in motion that brings my two worlds together, and luckily he and John Powell get along so well, and they’ve continued that collaboration. So I think I was able to fend it off just based on precedent, and just say Jonsi is a part of, he’s a voice of this world, and therefore I don’t want to part with it just for some random pop star.
Scott Menzel: Yeah. A very smart move indeed. Well, thank you very much, it was a pleasure to meet you.
Dean DeBlois: Thank you so much. Good talking with you.