We caught up with Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, the writer-directors behind How to Train Your Dragon.

How to Train Your Blockbuster

on March 06, 2010 by Amy Nicholson
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Why are Vikings so awesome?

Chris: Vikings are awesome because they do their talking with their fists-and their swords. The Vikings in our movie are very much about fight first, ask questions never.

And at the same time, you take these characters and turn them into a film about empathy and peace.

Dean: That message of empathy and peace actually grew out of the story organically. It's not what we set out to do. We figured our thematic message of remaining true to yourself and letting the world change around you is a better way to go than vice versa, and Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is very much that. He doesn't fit into his world despite trying very hard, and he eventually realizes that his own perceived weaknesses are actually strengths. The other message of looking into the eyes of your enemy, of taking that step beyond what you've been programmed to do, is something that just found its way through the material organically. And I'm glad because had we set out with that message in mind, it might have been a little preachy.

What is your collaboration process like as writers and directors?

Chris: The thing that makes our collaboration work very well is that, aesthetically speaking and tonally speaking, we like the same things but we definitely have our own ways of solving problems. When we start a project like this, from the beginning until the end we tend to earmark certain sequences for ourselves and then jump into those sequences and write them. Then we always trade our pages back and forth. We always have a group effort on everything. It makes the process go fast, keeps it fresh and keeps the sequences individual and strong. But the thing that really makes our collaboration work, I think, is that we completely trust the other person's opinion. If I write a sequence and Dean says, "I think that this could probably change right here, I feel like this is this," I trust that and I'm completely open to making those changes-I'm actually anxious for those changes because I think there is no question that our work always improves when we collaborate.

Dean: We want the same end goal, generally, because we have the same tastes in stories and characters even though we come at it from slightly different angles. I think by virtue of that, we actually strengthen each other's material and we're really good at policing each other for stuff that could be better.

What in this film inspired the most debate between you two?

Chris: That's a good question. I don't know if we ever had a real heavy debate. The interesting thing about this particular film was that we jumped onto it after the film had been in production for about three years. Dean and I were asked to come on and finish the movie, so we had a very, very tight deadline-there was not a great deal of time to debate anything. We got in a room, talked about our goals, talked about the kind of film we wanted to make, and lined up very, very quickly. Then we went straight into pitching our solutions to certain outstanding problems within the story. From that point on, we just never looked back. Every time we made a decision and the studio, as a whole, made a decision on a direction that they wanted to go, we closed that door and moved on. It was a very refreshing process in some ways. There just was no time to fiddle around with anything-we just had to bolt it down and go.

Dean: There was no time for indecision. We basically threw out the story that they had been working with for three years when we came onto the project. We kept the spirit of the book on which it's inspired, but plot-wise, we just went in a completely different direction. That meant no time for debate, either internally between us or externally with the executives. We needed to pick a direction that felt strong and just go with it because we had a fixed release date.

Chris: One of the great experiences about making this film with Dean was that this was our second film as directors and writers and we were able to apply things that we learned from our last film to this film. I think this film is a very balanced film. It has some great action sequences that are very busy and very intense, but those are balanced with sequences where things get very quiet and dialogue is actually kept to minimum-almost non-existent. Music takes over. One of the things about being able to do more than one movie together is that we have definitely benefited from a certain amount of learning on each film.

Dean: On our last film, Lilo and Stitch, we did have an impasse at one point and we were both highly opinionated on which way the story should turn. And I relented, but I relented for a coupon that Chris drew up, which could be redeemed in a "subsequent story debate of medium size." I carried the coupon around in my wallet for quite a while and then one day, I went to cash it in on a particular heated discussion and he wouldn't let me.

How did you first meet? Were you put together by the studio or had you known each other before?

Chris: It was really just chance. We happen to be working on the same film at the same time: Mulan. Dean came on in the layout department and I was working in the story department as Head of Story. Dean clearly should have been storyboarding from the moment he walked in the studio, so in relatively quick time, Dean was made a story person. By the end of Mulan, Dean was such a good writer in his own right that when it came time for me to move on to the next project, Dean then took over as Head of Story to finish Mulan. After that, we teamed up to write and direct Lilo and Stitch. Mulan was really where we met.

Dean: Mulan was actually the basis of the way we work because that was a project that was mired in everything that we try to avoid. For five years, there was so much push and pull and struggle with the story that it felt like there was no authority on where the story should go. It came to a point where Chris, as Head of Story, just one day walked into a meeting and he warned the producer that he was going to lay waste to any idea that got in the way of this particular storyline. It took somebody stepping up and saying "Here's the stake in the ground and anyone that challenges it, I will fight tooth and nail." That is what gave birth to the story that is Mulan right now. We realized that if we ever had the change to direct a movie ourselves, we would want to contain as many of the jobs into one or two people. On Lilo and Stitch, we not only wrote the script ourselves and directed it, but we were there supervising the assembly of it and editorial everyday. We also essentially storyboarded the film ourselves as well. We removed all layers of reinterpretation as best we could, so for better or worse, it was consistent and true to itself.

Chris: Dean is exactly right. I think that Mulan taught both Dean and I that story is about making hard choices. And that if you make those hard choices and you make those tough edits, it then allows you to have certain indulgent things that you really wanted. In order to make room for these things that you really want to get in there, you got to make some tough choices and you have to stick to them. A lot of times you come into these projects and they have wonderful sequences that people have boarded-they might even be animated. In the case of How to Train Your Dragon, there was some wonderful work that had been done, but it just didn't make the story work. Even though there were some very expensive things that had been done, you just had to take them out. You just have to know that in the end, everyone-even the ones that worked on sequences that had to be taken out-will appreciate working on a movie that they feel works.

Since 2003 when Lilo and Stitch came out, you must have seen so many changes happen in directing an animated film.

Dean: For Chris and I, this is our first dabble in CG animation, as well as 3D projection-two new tools to add to the box. But we love traditional hand-drawn animation and always will because we both draw it. However, CG animation just offers so much in the way of subtlety-in texture and detail, but also in performance. The amount of subtle acting that you can get across with a CG character almost seems impossible with a hand-drawn character because the lines themselves kind of boil onscreen and you never really get that convincing sense of the subtlest acting that you can get with CG. That in itself was super exciting and made the experience fresh. We have aspirations to direct live-action as well, and that will round it out. Then maybe we can do a stop-motion film at some point! But it really is fun and freshens it up. Not only do you come at it with a new story, but you come at it with new technology and new tools that are exciting in and of themselves.

Chris: Yeah, I agree. I want to second that, but Dean and I grew up watching traditionally animated Disney movies. That was the thing that got us into this. To be here when everything changed and all these new tools came about was the luckiest thing in the world. To have made several films in traditional animation, you feel satisfied with that, and you feel that you can always go back and do that again because you know how that particular version of this art form works. But to now be in this new zone with all these incredible tools and the ability to light scenes so many different ways! We were able to work with Roger Deakins on this film, who's an amazing cinematographer. He shot a lot of the films that Dean and I both admire very, very much, story-wise and visually: The Village and The Assassination of Jesse James, which just has phenomenal lighting. He came onto this project to just do a few lectures for our crew and for us, but in a surprise turn, he decided to stay with the project and ended up having influence over every single scene in this film. The opportunity to work with somebody like that is why working in film is such a wonderful thing to do-there are so many artists out there who are so accomplished at what they do and you have the opportunity in this world of filmmaking to cross paths with them and learn from them. That's exactly what happened with this film; for Dean and I to work with Roger Deakins, and not only learn some things about what he does, but to just meet the man and see how he approaches an issue and how he approaches his craft, was really a phenomenal opportunity.

Dean: The interesting thing is that people seem to have taken that away, even if they can't quite articulate it. A lot of people that have seen the film have this general impression that it felt like a movie and not a cartoon. That's largely thanks to Roger for bringing such sophistication to the lighting that really hasn't been seen in CG animation before. And also just our general approach, which is to avoid anything that feels too cartoon-y. Chris and I always weed that out of the story because we want you to believe it; we want the highest degree of suspension of disbelief that we can muster. Steven Spielberg took a look at the film a few months back and he actually commented on that. He said, "You guys feel like live action directors in the best sense, because there's no shot in this movie that feels like you couldn't have accomplished it with a physical camera. You weren't threading the needle with the camera as you can in CG-it made the whole experience feel more real." I think that's just a giant compliment to both Chris and I because ultimately that's what we want, even though there's a caricature to this land and to these Vikings and to the dragons. We want you to be really engaged to the point that you forget you're watching an animated film.

How did you decide to have the dragon take the shape and personality of cats?

Chris: The lead animator on Toothless the dragon didn't know he was a cat person until he recently got a cat in his life, and now he just loves this cat. There's no question that some feline traits came in there because he just loves this wonderful pet that he gets to live with. A lot of people see their own pets in Toothless. Some people see a horse. Some people see dogs. Some people see very feline characteristics. There are some of all those things mixed into the dragon. Toothless was one of the last characters that was built for this film and he represents a big change from the Toothless that exists in both the book and the version of the movie that we came onto. We knew that to make the story work, we needed to change the dragon. He used to be a very small lizard. We needed to upgrade him substantially. We knew that this dragon had to occupy a very powerful position in the Vikings mythology. In their world, he's almost a ghost-he's so dangerous. Even to Vikings, he's terrifying. We knew that a lot hung on this character, so we wanted him to have more mammalian traits-we wanted to really warm him up. So we went away from more lizard-y versions of dragons and more towards black panthers or tigers or wolves.

Dean: Part of our story departure that makes it inherently distant from the book is the notion that Vikings and dragons have been at war for eons-this becomes the story of the first Viking to bridge the divide between mortal enemies. Part of that meant that Hiccup would have to not only nurse it back to health when he finds it injured in the woods, but eventually fly it. So we needed something that was not going to overwhelm him when he climbed onto its back, something was sturdy, flight-worthy, fast and streamlined. When he's sitting up there strapped-in on his neck, the two feel like they're connected. Being big enough to climb onto, but also small, fast, and flight-worthy enough to have a reputation up there, those were two requirements that we had.

Full disclosure: I have a cat. I like the idea that the dragons are a Rorschach test for your favorite pet.

Chris: It's so true!

Lets talk about the voice casting.

Chris: Part of coming on less than a year and a half ago meant that the film was largely already cast. We were very happy to inherit the cast that was there, however we didn't have a huge part to play in who was named for what character. The only real casting we did was bringing on Craig Ferguson for Gobber. We decided to keep the Scottish brogue present in all of the adults and an American accent for the younger kids, as though the adults still had a remnant of their mother tongue and the kids were kind of acclimatized to this new place.

How do you approach humor in a film where you want both adults and kids to laugh?

Chris: I think the best way to approach humor in general-and Dean and I are very much in sync on this-is to have the humor come out of the characters in the situations. There's always something funny to be had when you put characters into any situation, and sometimes it's a matter of letting humor leaven a very tense or very sad situation. We are not big on taking what's called a 'gag pass' over the film, which is not something that happened on this film. Sometimes, especially in animation which moves slowly enough that you have the opportunity to take runs over the entire film fairly late in the process and add things or make little changes, you just try to find goofy, funny things to add to scenes. There are certain films that works well with. But this particular film, gags that were just thrown in on the top would have stuck out.

Dean: And glib humor is not our style, anyway. We're never fans of sitcom one-liners that you often see tacked onto animated films. Our favorite comedy comes from movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark, where you're watching an engaging, riveting, action adventure with characters that are humorous in those situations. That's what we always aspire to: that balance and level of comedy versus pure story.

 

Tags: How to Train Your Dragon, Mulan, Jay Baruchel, DreamWorks Animation, Chris Sanders, Dean DeBlois, Lilo and Stitch
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