IAR INTERVIEW: Director Dean DeBlois Talks 'How to Train Your Dragon 2'

Wednesday, 11 June 2014 09:38 Written by  iamrogue
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IAR INTERVIEW: Director Dean DeBlois Talks 'How to Train Your Dragon 2'

In How to Train Your Dragon 2, Hiccup is feeling the pressure.

He redefined the culture of his native island, creating a new relationship between Vikings and their old dragon foes in How to Train Your Dragon.  Now explorers expanding the Viking map, Hiccup and his dragon BFF Toothless encounter a new threat that endangers his native island of Berk, forcing the young hero to become a true leader and save the day.

Writer-director Dean DeBlois probably has a good idea how Hiccup feels. 

Four years ago, How to Train Your Dragon took everyone off guard, surprising both audiences and critics with its emotionally rich story, endearing characters, stunning animation, and showstopping aerial 3D sequences.  Since becoming a huge hit in theaters, the picture has also gained fervent fans who caught up late thanks to unanimously positive word of mouth.

DeBlois, who co-directed the first movie with Chris Sanders, is the sole director of the sequel.  Anticipation for How to Train Your Dragon 2 is high, as are expectations, but DeBlois was confident when IAR Managing Editor Jami Philbrick visited DreamWorks Animation Studios in Glendale, California.  Along with several other journalists, Philbrick had the opportunity to view How to Train Your Dragon 2, participate in a Q and A, and discuss the animation process with DeBlois.

This film franchise is actually based on a series of children's books.  Beyond the title and some basic ideas, though, the films bear little resemblance to the source material. "They inspired the world. We kind of kept the spirit of the books," DeBlois said.

"We kept some of the character names, but in the first film, [DreamWorks] had spent the first couple of years trying to do a fairly faithful adaptation to Cressida Cowell’s first book, but the story itself is a little small and a little young. So, Chris Sanders and I were charged with kind of reinventing and taking it bigger, in a more action adventure kind of way. Our narrative has departed significantly from Cressida Cowell’s. Her books are mostly following the adventures of a ten-year-old boy named Hiccup and his chihuahua-sized talking dragon names Toothless, so just inherently, Hiccup and Toothless are different characters, and that means going forward, it opened it up to the narrative we felt sort of bridged off of the first film and could be part of an overall trilogy."

"I did get excited about the idea of if this whole thing leads up to the opening lines of Cressida Cowell’s first book, which is an adult Hiccup looking back at his life, saying, 'There were dragons when I was a boy.' I thought that’s compelling because it suggests that dragons are gone, and what happened to them," he continued. "And there’s something poetic about the idea that there was an age of dragons and we’re going to take you into it and show you what it was like and we’re going to show you how it ended and how the world resumed to the one we know from the history books."

The plan was not always to make a trilogy, the director said.  "Well, shortly after the release of the first movie, within a month of the release of the first movie, it was decided that we would be moving forward with a second, and I was approached about that," he recalled. "My pitch back was rather than just doing a sequel which, you know, too often sequels just feel a bit unnecessary, like they’re either recycling material or they feel kind of random and inconsequential. I was inspired by the idea of it becoming a trilogy, so that the first movie would serve as the first act and the second movie is the second act and then there will be a third and conclusive act to complete the story, complete Hiccup’s coming of age."

When audiences met Hiccup, he was a teenage misfit, but in How to Train Your Dragon, he's still voiced by Jay Baruchel (This Is the End), but he's five full years older, a young man facing new dilemmas.

"I thought, well, there’s no point going back to Hiccup as a fifteen-year-old and trying to graft on an artificial problem, because what does he have to complain about? He got everything he wanted," explained DeBlois. "And it’s always unsatisfying if you don’t have an internal problem as well as the external one. That’s where sequels feel cheap. It’s just a new villain arrives. Everything else is the same and here’s a new villain, so I felt that by going older it would be fun because no one does that.

"It actually takes three to four years to make an animated movie, and we got started right away, and now we’re finishing. So that’s actually how long it takes, but it’s nice because our audience that loved the first movie have grown up with the characters, much like the Harry Potter movies, so it’s nice to be able to age our characters up accordingly," he said. "The nice thing is that by meeting Hiccup as a twenty-year-old, it’s a different problem. It’s still a universal problem, but it’s like another stage of his life."

"One thing about the first movie is that if you look at Hiccup’s problem at the time, he was yearning for the affection of his father and the acceptance of his community, and the attention of the girl he had the crush on, and he managed to get all of those things, plus he got a really cool dragon, so what’s the problem to start a second movie? That’s always an issue when you do a sequel," continued DeBlois. "By meeting him as a 20-year-old, it means that now he’s at a different stage of his life, because he’s a different threshold of youth and adulthood and wondering where he really fits into int all, not feeling like he’s a carbon copy of his father. He has a journey of discovery to go on."

Gerard Butler (Olympus Has Fallen) returns to voice Hiccup's father, Stoick the Vast.  How to Train Your Dragon 2 adds a familiar wrinkle, however, introducing Hiccup's long-lost mother Valka, voiced by Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine).  On their exploratory travels, Hiccup and Toothless meet Valka, an experienced dragon-rider whose knowledge and skills exceed those of her son.

Asked about the addition of Oscar-winning actress Blanchett, DeBlois replied, "I absolutely had Cate in mind, because when I’m thinking about this character who, she’s a Dian Fossey-Jane Goodall-type character who’s been cut off from humanity, living among these animals, so I knew that she needed to have a certain fragility to her and some sort of emotional regret as well, because she has the remorse of realizing that her son was just like her and she’s not been there all of this time, but she needed to be commanding and protective and authoritative and Cate’s one of the few actresses that comes to mind to me that can play that broad range."

There are wrinkles for both humans and dragons in the sequel. "One of the things that I liked about the first movie is that there were unanswered questions that we were able to capitalize on in this movie, like what happened to Hiccup’s mother," said DeBlois. "But also with the dragons, we had a sense of hierarchy, that lower-rung dragons, you know, cater to the queen bee of the nest kind of thing. So, when we started this movie, we thought, well what if that’s not the top of the chain, in the overall hierarchy. What if there’s a king of all dragons, some alpha that can, through that same sensory command have, force its will upon other dragons."

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is an unusually ambitious follow-up.  That ambition isn't confined to the film itself, as DeBlois said that, like its predecessor, this movie won't be easily dismissed as children's entertainment.

"I always feel like it’s a bit of a mistake to consider too much it’s just a children’s movie. We always try to entertain everyone in the audience, but not alienate or leave behind the kids, and I think an aspirational hero is a big part of that," he explained. "Hiccup, we saw to rise to be the town hero in the first movie. It’s charting his journey to when he becomes the wise viking chief by the end of the trilogy. This is sort of that middle step of kind of recognizing that he is kind of the sum of his parts, you know, he’s equal parts both his mother and his father, but he’s also something else, and that hybrid is the discovery he goes through in this movie."

With How to Train Your Dragon 2 hitting theaters June 14th, moviegoers are already wondering about the concluding entry in this trilogy.  DeBlois said he has yet to decide whether How to Train Your Dragon 3 will again find the characters advancing by a half-decade.  The writer-director said, "I’m still working on that. I’m not quite sure. There’s a version of it that could happen immediately following the second and then there’s a version that could pick up a little bit later, but I’m not quite sure which way to go."

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