Director Dean DeBlois on the Evolution of the ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ Trilogy and His Plans to Go Live-Action Next [Interview]
A couple of weeks back, I was able to visit the DreamWorks Animation campus in Glendale California, an oasis hidden amongst the Los Angeles concrete. There, I had a chance to visit Dean DeBlois‘ new office and talk to the filmmaker about How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World. As you may know, DeBlois wrote and directed the modern Disney Animation classic Lilo & Stitch with Chris Sanders, before moving to DreamWorks to direct all three installments of the now completed How to Train Your Dragon trilogy.
In our interview, we talk about the evolution of the story from the beginning of the trilogy to the conclusion, comparisons to Star Wars, the trouble with sequels, an animation franchise where the characters physically grow and age, the original idea for the second movie that was abandoned, how he feels about making audiences cry, what it was like to work with Guillermo Del Toro and Drew Struzan, his hopes to make a live-action film next, a possible Dragons theme park ride, and the challenge of making a mythical based franchise in the age of Avatar.
Note: the image below is a drawing of Dean created by Nico Marlet, the trilogy’s principal character designer. You can also listen to the interview above in podcast form thanks to /Film Daily.
Peter: First of all, I love the movie.
Dean: Thank you.
Peter: Yeah. It’s really a beautiful conclusion to this franchise.
Dean: Awesome. Great. I’m glad you think so.
Peter: How much of the Dragon Trilogy was mapped out at the beginning?
Dean: So if we’re talking about the first film, Chris Sanders and I jumped onto that at really late in the game. Like we had 15 months before its release in theaters, so and they wanted kind of a reworking of the story from the start. So that was a very kind of intense and focused effort to get a movie that worked up on screen. And there was no thought of sequels or franchise or anything. Not until the movie went out there and actually performed for the studio.
Chris had gone back to working on The Croods at that point. And I was tasked with coming up with ideas for a sequel. And due to my general allergy to sequels, I said, what if we did a trilogy? ‘Cause that we could do three acts of one story. We could draw upon some unanswered questions in the first movie. But tell the story of this Viking runt ne’er-do-well to the wise, selfless Viking Chief that he was destined to be. Loosely inspired by his arc in the books.
So that we could get to that moment like the opening narration of Cressida Cowell’s first book. There were dragons when I was a boy. I thought there was something really emotional about that. But it suggests the end of an era. The disappearance of dragons and all of the mystery and emotion attached to that idea. So yeah, at that point [we were] talking about it in three acts. That the only condition that I was given by Jeffrey Katzenberg at the time was that every one of the installments had to stand alone. It wasn’t reliant upon the previous film. And we couldn’t have cliffhangers. They had to work independently and together.
Peter: Even though you say that, I feel like the second one has a very like Empire Strikes Back feel to it.
Dean: Well that’s a huge compliment. Thank you. That was certainly an inspiration in tone.
Peter: Yeah. So when starting this film, were you working back from the ending of “we need to find out why the dragons disappeared?”
Dean: Yes. Exactly. Like if Hiccup does become the seasoned, wise Chief, how could his ascension into that role be accompanied by the disappearance of dragons? And furthermore, could it be his decision? What would have led to that? For a guy that’s all about pounding this idea of coexistence into his own people and anyone who will listen, how does that guy go to embrace this idea of separating?
Peter: Yeah. It’s also very interesting that in the medium of animation, usually with franchises, you don’t get to see the characters grow up over time. Like, sure you get to see Andy in Toy Story, but the main characters–
Dean: I think that’s the only example. Yeah. I can’t think of any other characters that have grown up on screen.
Peter: Especially TV. Like Simpsons are the same as they always were, a little bit different style, but…
Dean: Yeah. It’s almost an animated convention that you can live timelessly in this world. As sequels and TV series develop. Characters never even change clothes, never mind ages.
Peter: Yeah. So why did you decide to take them in this direction, or leave them off where you do? Is it like…?
Dean: It was a practical consideration, because at its core ,for a story to be worth telling, you need a character who has to undergo some sort of transformation. And if you look at Hiccup in the first movie he, by the end of it, he gained everything he was after. He has his father’s love, the admiration of the town, the attention of Astrid, the coolest dragon. He ends a age-old war. Like this is a character without a problem.
Peter: That’s the problem of all movies that have sequels, right?
Dean: Yeah. ‘Cause then it becomes a very sort of surface level issue. Like somebody stole my car. And that becomes the next sort of pointless adventure with the same five or six characters. I wanted to avoid that. So I thought by advancing the clock and re-meeting Hiccup at a point where he’s facing another universal problem, one that we’re all gonna have to go through this transition from youth and carefree abandon into adulthood with consequence. The search for identity with two overbearing parents. That felt to me like something that a lot of people could relate to and it was an inner problem as much as it was an external one.
Peter: One of the most interesting things to me…
[Peter finally looks around and notices all the cool things in Dean’s office]
Peter: By the way, this is an awesome office.
Peter: Is this your office?
Dean: Yeah. Literally moved in two days ago. We got kicked out of our production area up on the fifth floor of that other building.
[Peter notices some old school Kenner Star Wars ships still in their original box, from Empire Strikes Back]
Peter: You got old school Star Wars toys.
Dean: Yet to be unpacked.
Peter: Yeah. Empire Strikes Back right there. One of the most interesting things about animation I think is the development process is so long and especially you hear these stories, how things have changed over time. So I’m wondering, how did this film change from the original idea that you had for it when you started developing this third film in the franchise to what it is now?
Dean: Well, if we go back to the second movie, Valka was originally meant to be the sympathetic antagonist of that movie. In other words, Hiccup met her in the same way that he did and was amazed by her to find out there’s another dragon rider who’s even more steeped in the world of dragons. But her fundamental core belief was that humans could not be trusted and that dragons needed to be protected from them. And that ran against Hiccup’s desire to teach people to get along with dragons.
So toward the end of the original version of the second movie, she flew to Berk to extract the dragons to get them to safety. Because this unknown force to be reckoned with, Drago Bludvist, was coming. But he really wasn’t going to be a strong presence until the third movie. And it was Hiccup fighting his own mother to protect his way of life on Berk. And she leaves defeated but convinced that he will have to make a decision.
And that was to set up her return in the third movie in the third act when Drago did come crashing upon the shores of Berk with all of his might. She flew back in as having thought about it and been converted to his way of thinking. She flew back in to be his strongest ally with her army of dragons. So that was fundamentally changed because really it was just the relationship of the mother was going to be problematic like with our audience in having young kids turning to their Moms and say, why is his mother fighting him? Why is she taking away the dragons?
So that arc was collapsed. It means that Drago came into the second movie in kind of a one-dimensional way. ‘Cause he was just this brute. But the ambition originally was actually to have Drago arc in the third movie. He was going to have survived the defeat at the end of the second movie and find himself marooned on an island in a pile of wreckage with home to a very aggressive, territorial dragon that wanted to see him dead.
And so once Drago realized that he had been succeeded in his own armada by this character named Grimmel, he was determined to get back there and reassert his position. The only way off the island was to befriend that dragon. And so it was this kind of headstrong tit-for-tat trying to figure out this how to earn the respect and trust with this dragon. And in doing so he develops this kind of this affection for it. So that when he finally flew into the third act battle, he lands on the side of the Dragon Riders. And ends up showing some steps toward redemption.
It was just a story that was gonna require far too much care and feeding and time in order to do it right. And we knew that we had to focus on Hiccup and the new element of Toothless and his call of the wild that it was unfortunately just an element that had to be lopped off.