How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World swoops into UK cinemas tomorrow, and it’s definitely worth braving the cold snap to see it.
Of course, the last time we saw one of these movies, there was a puff of fiery controversy threatening to engulf the release, with director Dean DeBlois criticised for making the first non-white character in the franchise, Drago, a villain.
We spoke to DeBlois about the controversy, and his plans for the character to return for The Hidden World – until Steven Spielberg (genius director and DreamWorks exec producer) shut the idea down.
“It was going to be kind of a subplot that revealed that Drago had survived the conflict at the end of Dragon 2, and that, you know, barely alive, had washed ashore with the wreckage, upon a thought-to-be-deserted island,” DeBlois reveals. “But it was actually occupied by a rather territorial dragon that had it in for him.”
“And while he was trying to survive on that island, he came to realise that he’d been replaced within his own fleet, and was determined to get back there and reclaim his position as the head of this world army that was being assembled. He realised he would have to befriend the dragon in order to make his way off of the island.”
But Drago didn’t make the final edit, thanks to an intervention by Spielberg.
“It was actually Steven Spielberg who said, ‘It’s an ambitious and noble notion to try to bring dimension to this character – but you just don’t have the screen time to do it convincingly.’”
“He said, ‘You have so much story to tell, and the emotional weight is in this Hiccup-and-Toothless transformation. You would be better served to lean into that, and leave Drago alone.’”
But that wasn’t all DeBlois revealed to Yahoo Movies UK. We chatted about everything from his plans to make a live-action horror movie, to who he wants to see on the Iron Throne in Game Of Thrones (spoiler, it’s exactly who you think it is).
So, saddle up your dragon, pull on your fire-proof armour and enjoy our in-depth interview with Dean DeBlois.
Yahoo Movies UK: The Hidden World has been a long time coming. It was delayed from 2016. What were the behind-the-scenes discussions around that delay?
Dean DeBlois: Originally, when I signed my contract, it was going to come out in the summer of 2016. So I was… you know, I was originally committed to that date, too. Part of the original concept was, we were going to do instalments 2 and 3 of the trilogy simultaneously – and kind of in the model of Lord of the Rings, when they shot them together.
And then we realised quite quickly that that was just unprecedented and a little naive on our parts [laughs], that it was just too involved. And the technology was continuing to evolve in step with the ambition of the movies.
So that was probably the first cause for delay. I think it moved to 2017 at that point.
And then there were just a series of stalls due to the studio recalculating its output. Originally, we were doing three movies a year, and then they scaled back the crew. There were a bunch of people laid off, and then we committed to two movies a year. So that pushed us back another year.
And then the studio was sold to Comcast, and that was sort of a period of readjustment of something like nine months where, you know, the… It’s all kind of boring, but the government has to weigh in on an acquisition of that size. So there’s a period in which nothing can happen, and it just meant that we were spinning our wheels a bit until Universal came into the mix, and we started meeting new bosses and readjusting.
So luckily, the idea of the trilogy and the path we were on, never changed. It was just that there were delays in actually getting the work underway.
There’s moments in this movie that will make audiences cry. What movies had that kind of emotional impact on you? And how did they influence The Hidden World?
Good question. Well, I was a kid, I was primarily motivated by sad moments in movies. So when I look back at, say, the Disney canon, the moments that stick with me most are Dumbo’s mother rocking him to sleep through the bars of the cage. Or in The Rescuers, there’s a scene where the orphan, Penny, was sitting on her bed, dejected, because a family had come to adopt a girl, and they picked the pretty one. [laughs]
You know, it’s those sort of moments that had this unique ability to move me in a way that live-action movies did not. And so I always carried those close to the chest. I thought, ‘If I ever got an opportunity to influence the story direction of these movies, I’d love for them to… more than make people laugh, move them to tears.’ That seemed like a greater accomplishment to me.
And I’ve always loved stories in which you have disparate characters that come together for a period of time, and they have such a profound effect on one another’s lives that even should they part ways in the end – whether it’s E.T. or Born Free or The Fox and the Hound or Titanic – that they’ll never be the same again. They are changed people.
I think that that’s really life-affirming and transformational, and the stuff of indelible storytelling to me. So it was part of the ambition with this movie, and this trilogy, to bring characters together that you wouldn’t associate with one another, to develop bonds that are strong, and then find a way of separating them in a way so that the audience doesn’t hate us. [laughs]
This film is very much an ending. But, as we saw from Toy Story, just because the third film has a perfect ending, it doesn’t mean there won’t be a fourth film. Would you do a fourth?
Yeah, I’m done, because this is a decade of my life, and a decade of the lives of nearly 300 people who worked on these movies. Each instalment, altogether, is one family. So as we go our separate ways and embark on new projects, I think we do so with, you know, an affection for one another, and a sense of accomplishment for what we achieved with the trilogy.
It’s a real feather in our caps. And at the same time, I think every one of us is ready for something new. So I hope that what I do next is influenced by this, but is a new world with new characters and new… maybe even a new medium. Maybe it’s something live-action.
I know you’ve done music stuff in live-action, but not a movie, as yet.
Yeah. There was a period between Lilo & Stitch and the first How to Train Your Dragon where I had sold several live-action projects to write and direct, and each of them hit the rocks because of changes in presidency.
What kind of stuff?
Well, I had… at Disney, I had a psychological thriller called The Lighthouse, and there was one… It was a project based on… It was basically an Irish ghost thriller set during the famine, and it kind of takes advantage of a lot of Irish mythology brought to life. It was called The Banshee and Finn Magee.
And then the third project over at Universal is called Sightings, and it was meant to be a series of films about a group of crypto-zoologists who are in search of some of the world’s most famous and elusive monster legends.
So you might revisit those? Or have you got new ideas?
I could revisit them if there was any interest. I really love the Irish ghost story. That was one of my favourite projects. It’s reflective of four years that I spent there, in my early 20s, working for Don Bluth. I spent a lot of time in the countryside being steeped in Irish legends.
What’s interesting about that is, the Dragon films – there’s a lot of silent cinema influences in there, and I feel that that could translate well to horror. It’s often the silent moments that are the most tense and scary. What is it about the visual elements of cinema that interest you so much? Why is it so important to have those silent sequences in the Dragon movies?
Yeah. I think… We learned this back on, I’d say, on Lilo & Stitch. Both Chris Sanders and I became very aware of the heavy lifting that music can do in a film. And given the space to work its magic, music can transcend words. It can touch upon an audience’s emotions in ways that dialogue scenes cannot.
So we tried to actively create space for music to do not only the heavy lifting, but to allow the pantomime of animation to really carry the story. And those tend to be, in our experience, the sequences that we’re most proud of, and the ones that are probably the most indelible – you know, the ones that audiences cite as their favourites.
So they become a conscious planning in the beginning. We always try to isolate at least, you know, two or three or four moments in the movie that we’re going to protect and avoid… Try to keep them dialogue-free, and avoid any cost-cutting measures that get applied to the movie from impacting those particular scenes. Because they tend to be the ones that elevate the medium.
The plan was to bring back Drago from How to Train Your Dragon 2. He was going to have a redemption storyline. What would that story have involved? What would the arc be there for that character?
Yeah, there was… So, it was going to be kind of a subplot that revealed that Drago had survived the conflict at the end of Dragon 2, and that, you know, barely alive, had washed ashore with the wreckage, upon a thought-to-be-deserted island – but it was actually occupied by a rather territorial dragon that had it in for him.
And while he was trying to survive on that island, he came to realise that he’d been replaced within his own fleet, and was determined to get back there and reclaim his position as the head of this world army that was being assembled. He realised he would have to befriend the dragon in order to make his way off of the island.
It sounds pretty fun.
It became this sort of challenging relationship where these two had to learn to trust one another, and ultimately, in doing so, he developed this kind of respect for – and affection for – the dragon that saves his life.
It’s almost like a bottle version of the franchise…
Yeah. So in the original version, when Drago did appear in the climactic end, he ended up sort of landing on, and fighting for, the Dragon Riders.
There was some controversy about Drago being the only non-white character in Dragon 2. How did you feel about that controversy? Did it factor into your decision not to bring him back?
I’ll answer the second part of your question first, which is: the only reason that that Drago subplot got cut from the movie was just restriction of time. It was actually Steven Spielberg who said, ‘It’s an ambitious and noble notion to try to bring dimension to this character – but you just don’t have the screen time to do it convincingly.’
He said, “You have so much story to tell, and the emotional weight is in this Hiccup-and-Toothless transformation. You would be better served to lean into that, and leave Drago alone.” So that was one side of it.
And, you know, I honestly didn’t anticipate… Much to my own naivety, I didn’t anticipate the backlash to Drago. Djimon Hounsou is one of my favourite actors. Blood Diamond is one of my favourite films. So the opportunity to work with Djimon, I kind of jumped at. I loved his voice. I loved him in the Jim Sheridan film In America.
So I wanted to work with him, and I didn’t consider the larger impact of, you know, that the baddie in the film happens to be voiced by a French African actor. And the idea that he would, you know, be foreign – you know, like we wanted him to be non-specifically foreign, coming to this Nordic world – was also, I think, interpreted as, you know, racist.
Anyway, it wasn’t intentional, but I accept responsibility for it.
And what’s it like to work so closely with Steven Spielberg on a film like this? It is emotional, and he made us all cry when we were younger. What is that relationship and process like?
For me, that’s so validating, and it’s a dream come true. I was inspired from the beginning by films that Steven Spielberg made. The fact that he’s volunteered his time and has been so generous throughout the course of all three instalments is just such a validating thing.
He’s written me some very wonderful notes that I keep close to the chest. He’s been, I think, you know, such a quiet cheerleader and a support from the start. And even after DreamWorks changed hands and became part of the Comcast family, he still took the time out to watch the film, and lend his support. So I think he’s fantastic.
Kit Harrington was in an incredible viral audition video with Toothless, in which he refers to Game of Thrones. Are you a fan of that show? Who do you think should be on the Iron Throne at the end of the story?
[laughs] I am an absolute fan of Game of Thrones. I think it’s just some of the best writing ever in television. I love the complexity of the characters, and the constant unpredictability of their world. Yeah, it’s my personal hope, I think from season one, that the bastard Jon Snow will find his way to the top. I think he’d be a very fair and level-minded ruler.
Yeah. I agree.
I do think Daenerys is prone to bursts of anger [laughs]. So I’m not sure she should be trusted.
But the two of them together actually make a really dynamic pair.
Yeah. Oh, man, I can’t wait for those episodes. And were you able to tease any spoilers out of Kit? Did you want to?
No. No, no. I avoided it. I didn’t actually want to know. I remember, I was gifted the first four or five books in the series, and when I realised that Ned Stark was doomed [laughs], I quickly went to the last page of the last book to see if Jon Snow was still alive. [laughs] I was like, “I’m not going to waste all this time falling in love with characters, only to have them nixed.”
You obviously wrote and directed Lilo & Stitch. How do you feel about Stitch appearing in Kingdom Hearts 3? Because that’s character’s had a long life.
I think it’s been amazing to watch how ubiquitous Stitch has become in pop culture, and I love that he has lived far beyond the movies.
You know, we went to Japan to promote How to Train Your Dragon, the first movie, and we saw Stitch represented in every little Japanese town we went to. Whatever that town was famous for, there would be little figurines of Stitch with green tea ice cream, or whatever it was. It’s so interesting the way he permeated.
And in fact, we went to visit Hayao Miyazaki. We actually had a sit-down with him, and I gifted him a watercolour drawing I’d done of Stitch.
And he said, ‘I don’t watch animated films, but this character I know.’ [laughs]
How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is in UK cinemas on 1 February.