MCM Buzz Saddle Up for the How to Train Your Dragon 2 Q and A

The waves are crashing against immovable stone, the wind is blustering and the ground is trembling, but that’s the least of our worries. Here there be dragons. Through a method of transport that most of the world will never get to experience (the tube, which is statistically true…), MCM Buzz took the perilous trip to the Isle of Berk. On arrival, we heard from How To Train Your Dragon 2‘s director and screenwriter Dean DeBlois (Lilo and Stitch, How to Train Your Dragon) and the mastermind behind the wonderful series that started it all, Cressida Cowell. Alex Zane was present as the question master of the day, and he directed queries from a horde of fevered journalists and fans of the books and films alike. Not only did we have the pleasure of meeting these dragonwriters of old, but we were lucky enough to catch a sizeable helping of the film itself and then managed to catch up with the resident dragon experts and talk process, sequels and Gronckles.

If you’ve been living under (or on) a rock that hasn’t been inhabited by dragons, there is also a brand new trailer out to show you exactly what you’ve been missing:

Zane began the Q and A session by addressing the looming pressure that all sequels face in the wake of a predecessor’s success, asking Dean what it has been like bringing How to Train Your Dragon back to the big screen. Dean was happy to admit that “there’s great pressure of course”, but went on to say, “We’re holding ourselves to a very high aspiration. We don’t want to be another disappointing sequel and so we’re doing everything in our abilities to guarantee that we do not repeat ourselves or let the audience down with something that feels random or haphazard as often sequels do”. In the first film, Hiccup “has to define his own strength and he has to come to terms with realising that this weakness that he’s been cast with is actually a strength in hiding.” In How to Train Your Dragon 2, Hiccup is not the same misunderstood teen, but nearing 20 years old with a friendship most can only dream of. “He is standing on the cusp of adulthood, clinging desperately to youth and the freedom that that gives him,” said Dean. “And freedom is embodied by his relationship with Toothless and their hobby of being out there and of mapping the world… It certainly isn’t simply putting on his father’s boots and becoming the new chief of Berk and walking around and doing the seemingly dull things his father does from day to day.” 

How to Train Your Dragon 2Dean has had an eye for incredible story arcs since before even his days as the head of story on Disney’s Mulan, and this has not changed. As he explains, “We can treat the first film as the first act and this can be the larger second act of the story, and there must be a third that will culminate.” The third film is set for release on the 24th of June 2016, and Dean explained how “it’s been a really interesting process of tracing Hiccup’s arc forward through this, the second instalment, and what will eventually be the third, to the point where [spoilers to follow!] he becomes the wise Viking Chief.” Having a story with such a massive time frame takes planning, but for Dean it was something he wanted to do right after reading Cressida’s books. “The aspiration to explain what happened to dragons, and why they are no more – that was so compelling and so rich and exciting,” said Dean. “Even though the narratives of our particular storylines have diverged quite a bit, the idea that we might end up in the same place is really compelling.” 

As for Cressida, the brilliant exception in a long line of disgruntled writers, when adapting her acclaimed books she explained that “it’s very hard to get that combination of humour, of people genuinely laughing, genuinely being frightened, being scared and excited and blown away by the visuals but also moved. Actually to move people is quite a rare thing, and these movies really have it. So I couldn’t really be happier.”

Dean is a huge fan of her books, and this really comes out as he talks about what Cressida really did for dragons as a whole. “It was a wonderful thing for Cressida to incorporate all these different types and attributes and personalities,” he joyfully recalled. “It makes the world go on and on and on, and it allows us to keep inventing interesting new takes on dragons.”

Dean has tried to keep this up, not only with the dragons that we have come to adore in the first film, but with the dragon of all dragons, the Bewilderbeast, which makes its first appearance in the sequel. “At one point in the early designs of the Bewilderbeast he was a sort of shaggy, woolly mammoth type thing.” The crew quickly found that “as soon as you put hair on it, it’s not a dragon anymore.” You can hear the creative sparks flying as Dean gleefully gives us his cataclysmic creature’s new profile. “It’s a sea dragon and instead of blasting fire, it ingests masses of seawater and stores it in his goitres in its neck and then regurgitates with such force that it can tear apart its target and then also freeze it mid-blast.”

Cressida cant help but be impressed by his attention to detail. She expressed how in making films that try to stick close to the line of reality, “that dragon feels like it could really exist.”

Hiccup and Toothless ride again

Hiccup and Toothless ride again

The strength of the film’s animation is really brought home by just how expressive dragons can be even without the Dragonese language seen in the books. As Dean explained, “We wanted to create a sense of real world stakes. We wanted you to believe that these creatures really roamed the earth, so we tried to give them as many relatable animal characteristics as possible. So in Toothless you’ll see elements of a black panther for example, in Stormfly there’s a bit of a parrot, in Grump or Meatlug there’s a bit of a bulldog mixed with a cement mixer. There are interesting combinations that have gone into the dragons and always an animal reference,” forming the foundation for emotive, personable and grounded creatures.

The charm of the series can be found in the dragons too, drawing right back to the completely charming, entirely disarming expressions of Toothless when he is around Hiccup. “Often we’ll say in this moment, ‘This is what Toothless is saying to Hiccup, can you find the animal version of that?'” recalled Dean. “So, some of that grunting and eye-rolling attitude that Toothless sometimes has is actually purpose built for that scene.” The inspiration for this, Dean admits, is often found when the team are “always pulling up YouTube videos of funny animal behaviour. When we cast out the scenes, the individual shots, to the animators we talk about what the context of the conversation is: whatever’s happening translate it into English, this is what the dragons would be saying.”

“Toothless and Hiccup, five years in, they’re the ace fliers,” says Dean of his lead characters in the sequel. “They’re the hometown heroes and having a relationship that feels very comfortable. Making them college buddies in a sense was a really nice comfortable way to start.” Dean warns that as the story progresses, “we do challenge that relationship. Hopefully in an interesting and emotional way.”

When first seeing her creation on screen, Cressida was taken aback, confessing that “the books are autobiographical,” which was met with a roar of laughter. “One of the reasons that I wanted to own a dragon as a child, which I did like many people, was the idea of flying on the back of a dragon,” she said. “This is where books and films have very different strengths. In the films the dragons feel real, they feel like real creatures, they feel like they could exist. I find the whole thing very emotional.”

The film as a whole is certainly not without its deeper emotional hooks. When asked about the treatment of disability in the film, as part of its interpretation of Cressida’s world of inclusivity, she is quick to praise the team’s additions (or removals) when it comes to both Hiccup and Toothless, saying that “it feels very right.”

“Everything just wrapped up a little too cleanly and with too fine a bow on it,” explained Dean. “Considering that we had put so much work into creating a sense of real world peril… it seemed to have Hiccup walk out of that situation completely unscathed just wasn’t very satisfying.” Ultimately Dean believes he “decided to play it in earnest as a way of bringing Toothless and Hiccup together. They both complement each other’s losses.” At first the crew “were a little uncertain,” but he recalled a moment from an early screening of what would become the first movie. “There was a kid, he couldn’t have been more than eight years old who said, ‘It’s sad because he lost something, but then he got so much more.’ It did say something about the movie and the idea of sacrifice for your beliefs.”

httyd2 (8onesheetposter)Zane notes that Dean uses The Empire Strikes Back as inspiration for his film, and Dean excitedly responds saying, “It’s one of the few sequels that really lives up to its predecessor.” As a sequel, Dean notes that “the scope increases, the characters become richer, the stakes deepen and just in terms of broad adventure with a bit of humour, it was a tone that was very much the goal when setting out on this film.” For Dean it is not just a great sequel, but a sign of the incredible things that can happen when expanding and enriching a great universe. “We weren’t well off so if we got to see a movie we got to see it once,” he recalled. “So I was on the edge of my seat, I took everything in I could, I went home and drew, wrote my own fan fiction and staged massive epics in my back garden with action figures for years to come. So I would love to be able to inspire a young generation in that same way.”

There are some key differences in the starting point of The Empire Strikes Back and Dean’s sequel. Of sequels he explained, “I find that you take a character who has a problem and you fix it in the course of the first film usually. So here we begin this second instalment where Hiccup is no longer pining for acceptance… he’s become a hometown hero with the girlfriend he wanted and his father couldn’t be prouder.” This film is set up to be something different, and like Empire, more complex. Dean teases that with this scaled sequel. “There is an opportunity, in terms of its look, the emotion, the acting, but also the stakes, to be a little more daring,” he says. “Certainly the last hour of the film takes some rather dramatic and interesting turns and I think it will narratively take you places that you weren’t anticipating.”

Nailing the tone for any second instalment is certainly a mammoth task, and it is through the incredible writing, the dedication of everyone involved and arguably the enthusiastic and positive support from Cressida. Discussing the collaboration between novelist and screenwriter, she refreshingly admits, “I wanted somebody to feel that they could do their own thing with them… I was not hovering over it like a discontented ghost.” She readily expresses that when it comes to her series, she encouraged the team at DreamWorks “to go off and have their own fun and discover their own things about it. You don’t want to be saying, ‘No, it has to be like this’, because it won’t necessarily achieve the best result. So that’s how I tried to be.”

Dean agrees heartily, noting how supportive Cressida was from the very first time she saw what they had done. “What I was so appreciative of was that she came to us and said, ‘I’m an illustrator first and an author second and I would think it was really boring if you had just turned what I had written down on to the page into a film.’ Throughout this process, Cressida has had my back and has been sending me emails and checking in with me from time to time and really supporting what she believed in and what she responded to and contributing ideas and making things stronger.”

Dean is humble even when addressing the stellar new cast members. “It’s always easier when you have a successful film behind you,” he admitted. “I think when it’s an unknown people aren’t sure if it’s going to be good or bad.” The fact that Cate Blanchett signed on when Dean approached her at the Oscars really does show the momentum the series has. Dean described what happened when he approached Cate, saying, “I walked over and I introduced myself and I said, ‘I’ve written a part for you in the second How To Train Your Dragon.’ She said ‘Well, that movie is a giant hit in my household, my three boys love it and we love it. Send me the script, I’m not doing anything.’ That made it very easy!” He added that “it was pretty much the same with Kit Harington.” (Game of Thrones, Pompeii) He had “seen the film and he very much responded to the material.”

With the final part in the series already slated for a 2016 release, Dean talked about what he and his team hoped to accomplish with his trilogy as a whole, saying, “I think we’ve seen the opportunity to speak to a broader audience and to be a little more daring and bold where we can be, within the context of what it is, without alienating children.” He went on to reveal that for the third film “the ambition is to steer clear of the formula and offer enough that’s reassuring, hopeful and aspirational, but also we want to challenge the audience and take them on a ride that has highs and lows.”

From the stellar new cast members, the first reactions from trailers and the immense success of the first film, the momentum is building like a night fury reaching maximum velocity. The time for training is over, and in the middle entry in Dean DeBlois’ trilogy, both dragons and audiences are set to soar.


How to Train Your Dragon 2 will be gliding through UK cinemas on 4th July this year.


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