17 Invaluable Filmmaking Lessons from the 'Pete's Dragon' Production Diary
We plumbed the depths of indie-auteur-turned-Hollywood-director David Lowery's extensive production notes.
David Lowery has a contentious relationship with his breakout theatrical release. Like a first love, the filmmaker is chagrined when he looks back on Ain't Them Bodies Saints; in it, he sees his own flaws laid bare. His self-described naive choices, from less-than-perfect edits to specific lines of dialogue, haunt him ad nauseam. But, as we often don't regret our first loves for the experience they afford us, Lowery is glad he made the movie. He feels that it matured him—without it, he wouldn't be the filmmaker he is today.
Fortunately for filmmakers everywhere (even if unfortunately for him), Lowery's deeply personal sentiments are recorded for posterity in one of the greatest contributions to modern filmmaking: his online production diary. Spanning 12 years and nearly as many films, the diary chronicles Lowery's ascent from an aspiring director living in the back of his car to a buzzy indie auteur to today, when he's the helmer of Disney's $60 million Pete's Dragon. His incisive observations and anecdotes on the craft and industry of filmmaking serve as valuable lessons for filmmakers at any stage of the game.
"I am very grateful I got to make [Ain't Them Bodies Saints]," Lowery wrote earlier this year. "I am content that it exists, I'm proud of what we accomplished, I am happy it is out there and even more happy that some people genuinely love it...and I need to not think about it or I'll drive myself nuts. One day—I tell myself it'll take 10 years, which means seven from now—I'll be able to like the movie."
Pete's Dragon, which opened last Friday, is Lowery's first foray into Hollywood. Save for a few technocranes, Robert Redford, and a 70-day shoot—almost three times as long as production on Ain't Them Bodies Saints—the Pete's Dragon production diary serves as a testament to both the immutability and dynamic nature of the filmmaking process. As Lowery notes, on both Day 1 and Day 70, there is hardly a chasm between making a micro-budget indie and a blockbuster; at the end of the day, filmmaking is a marathon.
Many days on Pete's Dragon are riddled with the usual challenges: inclement weather, not enough time, crippling fatigue. Lowery demonstrates a dexterous problem-solving ability, navigates threats to his vision, and works effortfully to maintain his resolve. Over the course of 70 days, the director's diary manages to chronicle the entire spectrum of emotions experienced while making a movie. Day 21's entry simply reads: "Too tired too tired." On Day 49, Lowery asked, "How do we still have more of this movie to shoot?" But these sentiments are punctuated by moments of triumph, large and small: "Way back when we first pitched our take on this project, we described the images we shot today. It looked exactly right."
As Lowery notes, on both Day 1 and Day 70, there is hardly a chasm between making a micro-budget indie and a blockbuster.
"Allow me to delve once more into the marathon metaphor that I find so consistently applicable to every stage of the filmmaking process," Lowery wrote on Day 28. "When I ran my first marathon back in 2011, I'd never made it past miles 15 in training. That was about two weeks before the race, and it was agonizingly difficult. It filled me with despair. I considered withdrawing from the marathon altogether. But then I remembered what everyone always told me about adrenaline, how it picks you up and carries you, and decided I might as well give it a go. That morning of the race, the miles just blew by and I remember suddenly realizing I was at mile 16 and feeling totally great. The last 10 miles were hard, but never painful. I knew they were coming and somewhere, on some deep internal unconscious level, adjusted accordingly. I imagine that's exactly what's happening now." Here are some of the valuable takeaway's we gathered from Lowery's documentation of the filmmaking "marathon:"
1. Shooting an indie ≈ shooting a blockbuster
Lowery began his production diary the day after he graduated high school. On Day 1 of production on Pete's Dragon, he wrote, "Back then, I’d have been surprised and thrilled to know this is where I’d wind up. A handful of years later, I was so entrenched in auteurism and fierce independence that I’d have been surprised and mildly aghast at the suggestion that I’d be directing a Disney film a little ways down the line (and a remake, no less)!"
But it took no more than one full shooting day for Lowery to conclude that, when in comes to process, shooting a blockbuster isn't all that different from shooting a micro-budget indie. "It didn't feel all that different from when we were shooting St. Nick six years ago," he wrote, referring to his $12,000 debut feature film, which screened at the SXSW Film Festival.
For one, Lowery somehow managed to retain creative ownership over the script of Pete's Dragon. "I'm very proud of the fact that Toby Halbrooks and I are the only writers to have touched this script," he wrote. "It feels like our film as much as it is the studio's; that we've managed to keep it personal and strange and weird and fun."
"As soon as you treat your special effect like it costs $60 grand per shot, it stops being special and starts calling attention to itself."
Lowery did, however, concede to some advantages. "We admittedly had a technocrane, but we went out of our way to make those shots feel less technocrane-ish," he wrote. And, later, he went on to describe the dexterity of his A-list crew: "We powered through and knocked out about three pages and roughly two dozen set-ups. I'm in awe of how agile this company is. No one bats an eyelash when I ask to swap a lens. Which is one of my favorite things to do."
By the final day of production, Lowery reflected once again on the unexpected similarities between indie and blockbuster filmmaking. "What I said early on remained true: shooting this movie felt just as small and handcrafted as any I’ve ever made. It just went on for a whole lot longer. On indie movies, you have to search for financing, and on studio movies, you have to manage notes from upstairs—both necessary travails which, once set aside, still leaves you sitting in the same pretty okay boat. It felt like we were flying by the seat of our pants."
2. There's a reason to shoot anamorphic
On Day 3, Lowery drew attention to an important benefit of shooting anamorphic. "We covered the heck out of [a location]," he wrote, "and still didn't have time to get a few of the wides that I had planned, but I guess who needs wide shots when you have anamorphic close-ups?"
3. When possible, edit as you go
Lowery is, by all standards, an overachiever. During production, he commits to watching two movies each weekend and reading at least one book. (During Pete's Dragon, he read the 700-page Of Human Bondage). But perhaps the most impressive hallmark of his dedication is Lowery's commitment to editing during production. This practice helps him fill in the gaps before it's too late.
On Day 6, Lowery wrote, "Editing together what we'd shot over the first two days of this sequence was incredibly helpful. There were a few missing pieces we needed to get, and a few shots—a reveal here, an interaction there—where I felt we could do better. And we did."
However, if you do opt to assemble a rough production edit, there is one small sacrifice: "It also reminded me why I can't edit while shooting: I'll never, ever sleep."
4. A strategy for shooting out of order
On Day 9, Lowery was tasked with filming the emotional climax of Pete's Dragon—without having filmed anything that led up to it.
"You write all these scenes and each one builds upon the next in a very specific way," Lowery wrote. "Then you start to conceive of how you'll shoot them and figure out how individual shots will highlight that crescendo and visually underline the emotions you put on the page. And then one day you're on set, an hour away from lunch and you're about to shoot one of those shots—a very specific one which will be the culmination of 90 minutes of emotion you have absolutely not filmed yet."
"You roll the camera and an entire imagined history suddenly reaches its apex right there in front of you."
In the face of this challenge, Lowery created a mechanical framework to ground himself in the scene. This approach essentially served to move him forward; once in motion, the scene came together as if effortlessly, and Lowery was able to relax once again.
He continued: "Your head spins and you feel like you don't have a grasp on what it is you're doing, and so you think about the shot, and break it down into mechanics—the camera starts out here, for starters, and winds up there, and maybe if you shoot at 33 frames per second it will give you a little bit more of that feeling you're looking for, and if you move a second fan over here you'll get the wind to move that lock of hair just so as the camera passes betwixt its marks. You create this very mathematical context and then you throw an actor into it and all they have to do is turn their head just so and think the right thoughts and you roll the camera and an entire imagined history suddenly reaches its apex right there in front of you. And from that point forward, you're working backward just as much as you are forwards. Sometimes it works that way."
5. Don't give special effects priority treatment
On Day 10, Lowery cautioned against holding VFX in too high esteem. "I always keep in mind something David Fincher said in regards to Benjamin Button," he wrote, "about how as soon as you treat your special effect like it costs $60 grand per shot, it stops being special and starts calling attention to itself. The way to make it work is to bury it in the frame and let it go out of focus. It still costs the same, but it ceases to be precious and therefore feels more real."
"I made quick work of letting go; basically, the movie called me out for trying to get too fancy."
6. The shot list will always change
Day 11 proved daunting when Lowery attempted a complicated camera move involving two shots with a precise cut point. But even as he and his cinematographer counted out loud, they couldn't get the timing right. "Two takes in and it was clear that nailing it wasn't really an option," Lowery wrote.
He was forced to alter the shot list, adapting it better to the practical limitations of the scene. "One shot needed to be two, and by the end of the day it became four, and those four, when cut together, will work far better and with far more grace than whatever strained result the original plan might have yielded. I made quick work of letting go; basically, the movie called me out for trying to get too fancy."
7. Don't push too hard for complexity
Overcompensation can be dangerous; if you try to make a scene look more complicated than it is, your effort will likely call attention to itself. On Day 16, Lowery caught himself in the act—and managed to find a middle ground.
"The last scene of the evening was a true joy: a quiet, intimate scene that gave us a chance to use space and blocking in a way we haven't had much opportunity to just yet," he wrote. "It all comes down to taking a scene that at its heart is about two people talking in a room and gracefully making it feel like it's not just two people talking in a room without going so out of your way that the audience catches you trying to make two people talking in a room talking feel like something more than it actually is. I think we did pretty good today."
8. Think twice about choosing remote locations
Much of Pete's Dragon is shot in the remote New Zealand wilderness. At the drawing board, shooting at many different primeval-looking locations seemed like a romantic idea. But in practice, the exhausting logistics gave Lowery pause.
"It's all bold and adventurous when you're scouting, all early mornings and worn out evenings when you're actually shooting."
On Day 22, he wrote, "This hour-long drive home from location would be a really great time to delve into the pluses and minuses of choosing remote locations. It's all bold and adventurous when you're scouting, all early mornings and worn out evenings when you're actually shooting. Yesterday I fell asleep as soon as I got back to my hotel, woke up at 1:30 this morning, got out of bed at 3, was on the road by 4, at location a little after 5, shooting around 6:45 and now I'm headed home a little more than 12 hours after starting. I think I might just look at the scenery."
9. Don't underestimate nature's will
Throughout the shoot, Lowery details the myriad ways in which weather conditions derailed the crew's best-laid plans. While there are too many instances of unplanned rain and snow to count, on Day 25 Lowery describes of a different type of geographical challenge.
"Geography on location runs fast and loose."
"Today we shot the conclusion of a scene we covered the middle of on Day 3 (the beginning of it will be shot next week)," he wrote. "The first two hours on set were spent waiting for the most glorious fog to dissipate in the morning light— it would have looked stunning on camera, but there's no way we could have matched it for the rest of the day. As it was, we started the day shooting in one direction with two actors, and then brought them back in the evening to get the reverse coverage, spinning them around from take to take to escape the rapidly advancing shadows. Geography on location runs fast and loose."
10. You will never— I repeat, never—have enough time
"This is a day I've long been anticipating: the 28th day of production, which marks the same number of days we spent shooting Ain't Them Bodies Saints," Lowery wrote midway through Pete's Dragon. The director goes on to detail how he "wanted to die and/or quit making movies" towards the end of Ain't Them Bodies Saints and wondered "how I could handle any more demoralizing beat-downs."
"I feel fairly certain of two things: one can adapt to anything, and no movie ever has enough time to shoot things properly."
"In the months leading up to this gig," he continued, "the sheer duration of the production grew increasingly daunting. I've never focused on just one thing for anywhere near this long, mentally or physically, and I wasn't sure how I'd handle it or if I could pace myself—although, on the plus side, I was looking forward to having enough time to shoot things properly for once."
"Now, on Day 28, I feel fairly certain of two things: one can adapt to anything, and no movie ever has enough time to shoot things properly. Filmmaking, I now suspect, is infinitely scaleable. How else to explain that we are scraping by each day by the skin of our teeth, rushing like mad to complete scenes that demand at least twice the time as we have for them? In the moment, our schedule feels ridiculous and unfair and sometimes comical and often just wrong, but we buckle down and somehow we finish the work. And although I have no idea how we'd do it, I know that if we only had a few weeks to shoot the same script, we'd be finishing it too—just as if we had 150 days, we'd still be running out of time."
On wrap day, Lowery reflected once again on time's infinitely greedy nature. "I used to think...that on a studio movie you wouldn’t have to worry about being rushed or not having enough time or not being able to get the things you need to make the movie work; but it’s starting to seem like those things have less to do with whether the movie is big or small and more like they're just part of making a movie.”
11. Know when to rock the boat
Because Lowery is a people-pleaser, he finds it difficult to assert himself at times. "I never want people to be mad at me, or annoyed or frustrated," he wrote. "I also never want them to dislike my movies, and oftentimes these two wants are not at all inclusive." As such, Lowery picks his battles—but he knows when it's necessary to rock the boat.
On Day 31, Lowery encountered a situation in which a specific prop was not made to his liking. "Everyone worked so hard on this prop, and who was I to rock the boat at the last second?" he mused.
"Directing a movie is a job in which rocking the boat is often mandatory, and one in which gut instincts should always be listened to," Lowery continued. "I've made the mistake of biting my tongue too many times in the past; not today! I quietly called Jade and Tasha, our wonderful props master, and explained my last-second misgivings and asked them to whip up something new. I described roughly what this bold new paper airplane needed to look like, and for the next few hours, between set-ups, they'd bring in new versions until finally a brand new master was there in front of the camera, ready for its hero shot. It looked almost perfect."
"Directing a movie is a job in which rocking the boat is often mandatory, and one in which gut instincts should always be listened to."
Later, on Day 60, Lowery came into conflict with another crew member over a visual gag. "Internal directorial crisis of the day: you're working on a visual gag when someone suggests a different approach," he wrote. "You stick to your version because you like it and you settled on it ages ago and you're halfway through shooting it and the way the day's going you can't shake things up at this point, all the while getting sick to your stomach thinking that maybe this other version actually is funnier and you screwed up, and if you screwed this up, what other mistakes have you made?"
But in the end, Lowery stuck to his gut, and the gag succeeded. "The kinks get worked out and the shot eventually works great and is exactly as funny as you'd been planning, and you remember that humor is subjective," he continued. "Sometimes you've gotta stay in your bubble."
12. There is no right way to give direction
"I wish I could say that it's over the course of an entire day that my directions to actors go from precise, playable adjustments to vague assemblages of feelings," wrote Lowery on Day 49, "but, since I can often be heard giving direction while the camera is rolling, I have concrete proof that I'm a mess from the get-go. The best a thespian can do is learn to interpret the tenor of my emphatic gobbledigook. God forbid they ask for a line reading."
Later in the entry, Lowery offered an example: "However, I did manage one somewhat lucid direction today that I'll hang onto for future usage: 'Less Richard Dawkins, more Mr. Rogers.'"
Lowery's unorthodox directions can be seen once again on Day 62, when he livened up a scene by throwing a curveball: "During an emotionally climactic shot towards the end of the day, I asked one of our actresses to smile like she'd just heard a really funny fart joke. I thought it might be one of those brilliant out-of-left-field directions that would bring the scene to life in an unexpected way—and it did, especially since her off-camera co-stars helpfully chimed in with some live flatulence sound effects as soon as we called action."
13. Embrace a constant state of flux
Lowery's constant engagement with the filmmaking process lends itself to last-minute changes. As evidenced in the diary, Lowery rewrote many sections of Pete's Dragon. On Day 55, he found himself in familiar territory: "As is my wont," he wrote, "I decided to rewrite a lot of it two days ago. I always do this. It always causes the usual minor challenges to the production— sometimes a scene gets longer, sometimes a character appears or disappears, sometimes lines get reattributed and the sound recordist isn't ready for them."
Since rewriting is integral to Lowery's process, he doesn't normally doubt his decisions. But on this particular day, he wondered whether he was tiring out his crew. "I usually ignore these growing pains, but yesterday, sensing weariness on the part of my compatriots at my latest round of revisions, I wondered whether I was just being compulsive," he continued. "Maybe it wasn't so much a case of me trying to improve upon something as it was an obsessive inability to let things stay fixed. Were these changes actually making the scenes better? Or did I just feel better about them because they were different?"
"Know exactly what shot you’ll set up for the following morning."
"Either way, this is how I've figured out how to work. Maybe someday I'll do it less, but at the moment I don't know how to handle a script that's not in at least some state of flux. There's a risk to it, absolutely; you spend months working on something, and when you throw a bunch of it out the window at the last second, maybe you do lose something in the moment that was once important to you for a legitimately valid reason that you've temporarily overlooked. On the other hand, what was really important in a scene usually tends to stick around, and whatever I react to that compels me to rock the boat is usually something I'd never have predicted when I was sitting at my computer six or 12 months earlier. And in today's case, the actors came in, we read through the dialogue, we made more changes, together, because at the end of the day they're the ones who have to say all this stuff, and then we shot it. It was terrific."
14. Plan your mornings
To temper the chaos inherent in this constant state of flux, Lowery employs an interesting coping strategy: "I’ve found that the best way to maintain a sure footing on a movie is to know exactly what shot you’ll set up for the following morning."
15. Small props are not worth it
"Never, ever ever write a totemic prop into your scripts," warned Lowery. "You will spend way too much time shooting inserts of it. Small objects that characters value are a terrible thing to put into movies."
16. The devil is in the details
On Day 58, Lowery caught himself downplaying a seemingly insignificant scene. "I popped into the car after the actors had gotten in and explained what was going on and what I wanted them to do. 'All pretty simple,' I said, and then interrupted myself with 'Actually, this is an incredibly vital moment in the movie and I'm really doing you a disservice by undermining its importance.'"
No scene, however small, is worth phoning in; often, the most stunning moments in a film have the least amount of action.
17. There are no easy days
Throughout the process, Lowery was perpetually confounded by the challenging nature of filmmaking. "There are no easy days!" he wrote. "Remembering this is important."
And then, like a marathon, production on Pete's Dragon was somehow completed. "It was ridiculously hard," Lowery wrote, "until suddenly it ceased to be."