If filmmaker Dean DeBlois had his own dragon to do as he pleased, he admits he might do a little damage midair.
“That’s every kid’s dream,” said DeBlois, whose animated movie “How to Train Your Dragon” opens March 26. “To get on the back of something that could take flight like that would be unbelievable. I would crush every mountain I could find!”
Co-director/co-writer Chris Sanders interjects with his plans as if he had thought about it many times before.
“I would bypass traffic,” Sanders said gleefully, “and torment my enemies!”
As veterans in the animation industry, there hasn’t been much time for destruction as there has for creating new and fantastic worlds and characters. The last time DeBlois, 39, and Sanders, 50, directed and wrote the same movie was for 2002’s “Lilo & Stitch,” a film that also featured Sanders as the voice of the troublesome title alien.
In late 2008, the duo reunited for “Dragon,” a story about scrawny Viking named Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) who captures and befriends a rare dragon he calls Toothless. As he becomes familiar with the mysterious beast, Hiccup realizes they are not the destructive creatures everyone thought they were. The film is based on a British children’s novel by Cressida Cowell.
During an interview with me, DeBlois and Sanders talked about why they were brought onto the project, how much input they had on the design of the dragons, and how they were able to put a unique twist on a mythological subject that has been featured on the big screen before.
I read the two of you were named as directors late into the process. How was your role explained to you coming onto a film that was already in production?
Dean DeBlois: When I first came onto the movie in 2008, they had already spent a couple of years adapting the book rather faithfully. They discovered the story didn’t really lend itself to a 90-minute feature film. We were in charge of aging up the project a little, bringing it to an epic scale, and trying to make more of a fantasy adventure out of the elements.
Did that mean you had to start from scratch?
Chris Sanders: We took the story back to scratch. The environments and the characters almost all had been built already. It became a little bit of a puzzle because we had to use those existing elements. It was more about getting back to the basis of the story. We make some very big editorial decisions. In the book there are elements of dragons and Vikings at war. There are also elements of dragons and Vikings being cooperative with each other. We had to decide and go one way or the other. We went with Vikings and dragons as mortal enemies. That was good for Hiccup’s character because that meant when he befriended the dragon he was taking the greatest risk he could take.
Were any of the characters changed once you came on board?
DD: Our character designer gave us a diverse range of different breeds of dragons and we were able to give them very specific personality traits. Toothless was redesigned so he could be a larger, more powerful, and more menacing.
Explain what directors do on the set of an animated film aside from working with the voice actors.
CS: It’s all about staying in touch with the story. As directors on this film we attended to the story. Whether it was working with someone who is lighting a scene or producing effects for the scene, it’s all about seeing that those things are contributing to the story in the right way. Because the story is constantly evolving it’s important that we are there for all the critical story moments.
There is some great voice work in this film. Talk about the talent you had and how you got those performances out of them.
DD: In this particular film, not only did we have the great ad lib talents of Jay Baruchel and Jonah Hill, we had the opportunity to get some of the actors to work together in the sound booth at the same time, which is sort of a rarity in animation. It didn’t feel cobbled together.
CS: We always encourage every actor to ad lib and build on what we’ve written. All of them were fantastic. It was critical to have them riff off one another. They just need to be as flavorful and as funny as possible.