Bryce Dallas Howard on playing a complete character in ‘PETE’S DRAGON’


IMG_3934Courtney Howard // Film Critic

“Are you sure we’re making a studio movie?!”

This is the question Bryce Dallas Howard kept having to ask of the studio execs on the set of Director David Lowery’s PETE’S DRAGON. The remake of the 1977 Disney film of the same name diverges greatly from the original to tell a truly timeless and magical tale (tail?) about a young boy, Pete (Oakes Fegely), and his dragon, Elliot. In the film, Howard plays Grace Meacham, a park ranger who stumbles upon an almost feral Pete in the forest.

As soon as Howard heard the project had been greenlit, she felt drawn to be a part of it.

I loved the 1977 version, which is so different from this. I was really surprised how different it was and yet how moved I was by this story. Immediately it felt very sentimental to me and very emotional.

Howard wanted made sure her character wasn’t too obtrusive so it was a challenge to find the emotional throughline.

The thing that was my primary focus was I didn’t want to over-complicate things because I’m an adult character. It was sort of this balance of wanting to be of service to the primary story about a boy and his dragon. I was twisting myself up about it and my husband said something that was really helpful, which was like, ‘Bryce. I think it’s simple; I think you speak to Pete like you talk to our kids.’ The moment that he said that, it was such an obvious thing. The moment I was doing a scene with Oakes in that frame of mind, I was like, ‘Oh! She’s his mother!’

Though her character in JURASSIC WORLD struggled with motherhood, PETE’S DRAGON marks the first time Howard, a mother of two herself, has stepped into a motherly figurehead role on screen.

For me and for ‘Grace,’ it’s really about becoming a mother – and her kind of stepping into this role – and not in a way where she’s resisting. She is a complete character and yet something else is fulfilled.

While Lowery’s film is grand in scale and scope, filming this epic studio tentpole felt like an intimate ensemble piece to Howard. She compared it to JURASSIC WORLD.

They are both are intimate ensemble pieces in a way and yet there’s this heavy visual effects component to both of those worlds. Interesting enough, both Colin [Trevorrow] and David [Lowery] come from a background as independent filmmakers, who, in the scheme of things, is still relatively early in their careers. Both sets felt like we were making independent movies. For PETE’S DRAGON, I kept turning to the Disney exec and asking, ‘Are you sure we’re making a studio movie?’ It felt so personal, for David, as the filmmaker. Disney was really supporting this. I love that we’re not all in primary colors. There was a mature, sophisticated sensibility David lent to this story.

Howard, who has produced a small handful of features and shorts, typically looks at scripts with an eye as a director.

I’ve been told more like a director – a little bit. Even when I’m in a scene as an actor, I refer to the character in the third person. I think just growing up on set around my Dad always reading his scripts from that perspective as well, I read things objectively. [I’m] a little distant. It takes a little while to then pull out the character and figure out who this person is. I’m sort of an outside in kind of person.

She hints that directing a feature might be in the near future.

I’ve never directed a feature. I’ve been directing short films for the last ten years. I love both the technical side and the storytelling side. I didn’t think I understood the technical side until I started working with Canon Camera and got the chance to test out their prototypes of their emerging technology.

World-renowned actor/director Robert Redford plays her father, Mr. Meacham, who loves to spin legendary yarns about the dragon that lives in the nearby forest. While she classified their working relationship as a…, relaxed, collaborative, fun, amazing experience…

She wasn’t sure to address him.

For the first three days, I didn’t know what to call him. I felt really weird saying, ‘Bob.’ Finally I was like, ‘What do I call you?’ ‘Bob.’ Still, I have to say ‘Robert Redford,’ because it feels really weird for me to say ‘Bob.’

PETE’S DRAGON opens on Friday, August 12.

Photo header: Bryce Dallas Howard and Oakes Fegley in PETE’S DRAGON. Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.

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Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.