Director Dean DeBlois reflects on a decade of How to Train Your Dragon
After spending a decade in a world of dragons and Vikings, Dean DeBlois is ready to soar onward. The destination: unclear. The mode of transportation: definitely wings.
The surprise of the unknown is a theme that has bookended the filmmaker’s journey with How to Train Your Dragon, the billion-dollar DreamWorks fantasy franchise that he’s lived with from its children’s-book beginnings to its sunset finale in the newly released How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World. DeBlois’ big breakout in animation came in 2002, co-writing and co-directing Disney’s Lilo & Stitch with Chris Sanders; after its wrap, DeBlois, 48, attempted a shift to live action, setting up a handful of genre-diverse projects that would ultimately fall through. Then DreamWorks called, asking Sanders and DeBlois to try their hand at a title newly acquired by the studio’s animation arm: British author Cressida Cowell’s 2003 children’s book series, How to Train Your Dragon.
Fast-forward to 2010, and the first Dragon film — with a voice ensemble that tapped rising comic Jay Baruchel, Ugly Betty breakout America Ferrera, and 300 star Gerard Butler — seized a No. 1 weekend and universal critical acclaim. Hollywood had cast a closer eye on technology thanks to Avatar’s release a few months prior, and on that front Dragon scored high marks; its mature storytelling carved out an entirely separate win for DreamWorks, who had chipped away at the Disney/Pixar monopoly with the quadrant-checking Shrek and now had a strong contender to do it again.
A month later, DreamWorks revealed plans for a sequel, and later in 2010 upped the announcement to a trilogy. Sanders would return for How to Train Your Dragon 2 only as executive producer (he moved on to The Croods), while DeBlois became sole writer and director of the Dragon series. The cast grew richer — Cate Blanchett and Game of Thrones wonder boy Kit Harington joined the ensemble — and both the production’s technical dexterity and the story’s themes grew more ambitious (Dragon 2 swung for the fences with big themes that dealt directly in death, a topic the first film only skimmed). Two television spin-offs were also put into production with a separate team, premiering on Cartoon Network in 2012 and 2013, just ahead of Dragon 2’s release in 2014. The sequel added another $600 million to the box office haul.
By the time DeBlois was deep in the trenches as writer-director of the third and last Dragon film, finality was setting in for the franchise overall, not for lack of interest (the vocal fandom proved quite the opposite) but for natural conclusion of story. Cowell’s book series had come to a fitting close with its 12th installment in 2015, and the now-Emmy-winning Dragons TV series, which thrived after a move to Netflix, concluded in 2018 after eight seasons.
DeBlois was left to round out How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World on his own terms, putting to bed a story he had stumbled into a decade prior but one of which he had become known to fans as the creative godfather. But the emotional burden of Dragon’s big farewell did not rest squarely on him; DeBlois estimates that upward of 75 percent of his production staff of 350 were involved in all three films (including department chiefs like animator Simon Otto, composer John Powell, cinematographer Gil Zimmerman, designer Pierre-Olivier Vincent, and producer Bonnie Arnold). Coupled with the recording-session nostalgics of its veteran voice cast, Hidden World was a production that would be marked by great joy and growing somberness in equal measure. After all, how does a family in real-life say goodbye to the family they created on screen?
Consider it DeBlois’ exit interview, then, as he speaks to EW on the eve of the film’s long-awaited release in the U.S., where the movie finally arrives after a smash global premiere that has proven — to DeBlois, to DreamWorks, and to fans who have stuck with Dragon from the very beginning — the unexpected power and promising legacy this franchise will leave behind.
(Spoilers for How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World follow.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In the lead-up to the final film’s release, was there one premiere or screening that marked a major sigh of relief for you?
DEAN DeBLOIS: Yeah. We were in an airport — we opened on Jan. 3 in Australia — and when those first trade reviews started coming in, the fact that everything was leaning positive was a big relief, and that it was doing well in Australia and New Zealand. It was one of those few moments of, “Oh, phew, now maybe I can relax a little bit.” But we’ll see. Everything’s building up to the domestic release. Hopefully people want to see the movie.
If you, today, could meet yourself 10 years ago as you were about to start on the first Dragon, what would you tell that Dean?
I would say, “Don’t worry that you sidestepped live action to come back to animation, because it’s going to be a fun ride, and it’s going to be worth it.”
Is that what happened?
I was out there peddling live-action projects. I set up three of them to write and direct, and they were all kind of individually hitting the rocks when there were changes in presidency at Disney and at Universal, so I was getting a little discouraged, and the prospect of going back to animation made me feel like I was retreating with my tail between my legs. But as it turns out, so many of the people that I wanted to work with in the live-action world came to be partners in the making of these films. Roger Deakins, being able to consult with Steven Spielberg, people of that caliber… it was pretty amazing how many of those dreams were actually coming true working on this project.
I imagine that all three Dragon films had defining traits that marked the specificity of each film and its experience for you. What were some of the major defining points in the physical production of Hidden World?
For one, our technology was finally able to deliver on our promise, on the ambition of the project. We had some great front-end tools on the second movie but we still had a bottleneck on the backend, which meant that we kind of had to curb our ambition a little bit and be a little more realistic with the rendering and computing power that we had. Whereas on this movie, we had the ability to put just about anything we wanted up on screen, and so we tested that and, true to [the visual effects teams’] word, we were able to get all of that scale and scope that we were looking for onto the screen for the first time. I can truly say that animation is at a point where, if you can imagine it, if you can picture it, and if you can find a way of communicating it to your artists and your crew, you can put that on screen. There are no longer the limitations that we had 10 years ago, or even five years ago. And that’s amazing.
In what ways did finishing this film feel therapeutic to you personally?
For me, it was when we finished the mix at Skywalker Ranch. We had this tradition on all three movies to screen it there and invite some local friends from the Bay Area, and for me it was just the sense of completion. The picture’s done, we’re listening to the finished sound, and for a moment I’m able to kind of move myself out of that subjective, critical point of view and just experience it with the people sitting there in the cinema. And it’s emotional for me because this has been 10 years of my life. Our ambition behind the trilogy was always to try to weave a story that could stand alongside some of my favorite bittersweet endings. You know, these stories where you’ve got disparate characters of completely contrasting backgrounds who would come together and they’d have an effect on one another while they’re together and, even though they may separate in the end, they’re never going to be the same. That goes all the way back to things like The Fox and the Hound or Born Free or Harold and Maude or E.T. It’s just such a timeless theme, and I saw the potential with this trilogy, if we did it right, to be able to have that kind of an end that the audience wouldn’t hate us for, and I felt that all come together in that moment, sitting in the theater at Skywalker Ranch. It was certainly an emotional moment for me.
Did you think often of other films you love as you were putting these final pieces together?
Just in terms of looking at the third installment of the trilogy, we wanted to make sure that we didn’t become another one of those trilogies that disappointed in that last installment. We wanted to make sure that it lived up to the first and second, and tried to surpass it as best we could. There have been very few trilogies where I think all three installments come together and don’t go astray at some point. And so we came in every day trying to keep one another honest and trying to make the best movie we could, and we put everything we could put into it, knowing it was our last chance and the end of a decade.
Dragon has been so hugely successful — the money is there, the reviews are there, the fandom is there — and yet I feel like this series has always stood alone in the animation landscape, and might even be a little underrated in the world. Have you sensed that at all?
Every day, when I come in and sit down with all of these talented folks, I try to communicate what I want to see on screen, and hopefully out of those conversations, we make a movie that we would want to go see. And if it goes out there and it disappoints or for whatever reason it doesn’t check the boxes of the mass audiences, then you sort of feel a little bit at odds with the world because you sort of go, “Well, wait a minute, I tried to do everything I would want to see in a movie.” And I do that from a screenwriting perspective, and I do that as a director working with 350 people. How do we be responsible but try to put in everything that we love about movies up on screen? So the nice thing is, it has garnered a very vocal and very fervent fanbase over the 10 years, and they’ve almost become more nervous and expectant than we were. We definitely had the sense that there were a group of passionate people saying, “Don’t screw it up,” and letting us know that via Twitter and Instagram and Tumblr and every other social media platform. It kind of got bigger than us — these characters, this world. There was a sense that it had taken ownership among our fans and we were servants to that.
What would you say is the biggest nod to fans that you included in this last movie?
The wedding between Hiccup and Astrid is something that they’ve been asking for for a long time. But there were little housekeeping things as well. Like, we wanted to put Drago’s Bewilderbeast, the one that they defeated at the end of the second film, in the Hidden World among the multitudes that were celebrating Toothless as the alpha, just as another indication that we haven’t forgotten and that dragons are redeemable — even the ones that might have gone bad. So little things here and there.
Looking back, what has surprised you about your returning voice cast? You always want to see actors enjoy themselves and the work, but this seems to have meant so much to them. What were your meaningful conversations like with Jay and America about these characters over the years?
Jay and America, obviously, they embody their characters. They became authorities on their characters. I could write scenes and lob dialogue in their direction that wasn’t nearly as specific as what we ended up with on screen because they knew where to take it. But when I think of actors like F. Murray Abraham or Cate Blanchett — busy, serious actors who do as much theater as they are on screen — it was just amazing to me to see how seriously they took it. They wanted to know everything about the characters, they wanted to workshop the ideas behind every scene and alter dialogue there on the spot. It really kept me on my toes. They didn’t come in for a three-hour voice session and that would be that. I was so impressed with their dedication to the craft and how tireless they were.
Murray in particular was doing a three-hour play in New York City every time we’d go to record him, and he would show up and give us three hours of his day, at 79 years old, and I couldn’t keep up with him. He just had so much power in the room; it was a master class in acting. And the fact that they didn’t just see it as an easy payday… they certainly had fun with it, but they took it very seriously, as seriously as anyone, which I think is the mark of a great actor. Also, because I tend to be the one in the room that has to do all of the other voices on the script page, it was super-intimidating. Not only do I have to keep up and alter lines and be director, but I’m also forced to do my best to deliver lines in other character voices. [Laughs] I am not an actor and I know it. But it is so fun to find yourself in a situation where you have to act opposite Cate Blanchett.
What were Jay and America’s wraps like?
With Jay, we rented out a movie theater during the Toronto Film Festival and he showed up with his girlfriend and a few other folks and we played the film for him, and right at the climax of the film, when I felt I had them hooked and they were going to start shedding a few tears any second now, the projector — and not only the projector, the whole house, all of the cinemas in the complex — shut down. A massive power failure. And it took 10 minutes to restart everything. But as was the case, we were rushing to finish everything and make last-minute alterations, so we walked over to this little office where they do podcasts inside of the movie theater complex, and I had him do his last couple of Hiccup lines on a handheld recorder. [Laughs] I think it was emotional for him in whole. But I was so bummed that he got cheated out of the emotional experience of the climax. But that turned out to be the last line of his we had to record.
And I think for America, she hadn’t had a chance to see anything, but the last recording session we had with her was a little bit abstract. She probably anticipated we would come back to her, but we had everything we needed. And then we showed her the film completed and she texted me, from 10 minutes to the end all the way through into the credits, and everything was in all caps. [Laughs] She was so proud of it and really excited. And that’s obviously super-validating for me. I want them to be proud.
With so many of your crew members having also worked on all three films, I imagine they were equally emotional when they had to say goodbye to the specific characters they’ve worked on.
Oh, yeah. I think the authenticity and specificity of the characters on screen really comes from a crew that have developed them and come to know them so well, technically and in terms of all the facets of their personality. It’s really a talented team of animators who had the time to develop all of the specific mannerisms and expression libraries and everything that makes a character authentic and specific. You need time, and it was great to have more or less the same supervising leads on all of these characters.
Was it joyous every day going into work? Or, as you were entering the last few months of animation, were you hearing more people saying things like, “Well, that was the last Astrid shot” or “I can’t believe this is my last time drawing Toothless”?
[Laughs] That started to happen, certainly, towards the end. As people were wrapping up their characters, it occurred to us that it was becoming very bittersweet. But I would say about a year ago, I started to remind people that as overworked as you’re feeling, as intimidating as the weekly quotas are, remember: This is it. This is the last chance we have to put everything we have on screen, and we may never get this opportunity again. So I think people were quite aware, despite whatever pressures the schedule might be putting on, that we were kind of looking for glory here. That, for better or worse, this was going to be our last chance to fill this movie up with as much love as we could.
I asked Jay this question, but if an audience member walked away from this trilogy with their perspective changed about one thing, what would make you proud?
The story through its installments is about pushing coexistence and being tireless in that ambition. But it’s a less naïve take on that ideology, that it’s still filled with hope but it’s in recognition that we humans have some work to do on ourselves before something as magical as dragons can come back. I think the themes — of being yourself, of sticking to your guns, of letting the world change around you and being open to the conditioning that we all have, the fear of what we don’t know — are definitely in place, but I think at the end of the day, it’s about being hopeful and having faith in humanity to figure it out eventually. That’s what the dragons represent. And we tried to do it in a story that embraced consequence and peril. So many animated films never really take on consequence and real physics. If you fall from a height, you bounce. If you get in the way of dragon fire, you’ll be fine. These movies embrace the idea that sacrifice will come with consequence, but living with it and moving on is part of life.
To your credit, the Dragon movies have never treated audience members as anything less than adults.
I just remembered that there was one very pivotal moment when we realized that we were wrapping up the first movie a little too cleanly, and the surprises that came along the way were replaced with this rather pat ending. And it was actually Jeffrey Katzenberg who had said, “I feel like we’re cheating the audience out of something here. What if we just kill Toothless? What if we do an Old Yeller?” And we all just went, “Wait, what!?”
Oh my God.
We went, “Hold on! We’re so close to the credits!” But he was looking for some sort of surprise, something to stir the emotions, and that’s when we brought up the idea that maybe Hiccup loses a limb. Maybe he doesn’t come out of this unscathed. And it might bond him to Toothless even more, but it also says something about his sacrifice. And it was a very precarious idea. In fact, we had an audience test screening, and in that focus group, a lot of the parents rose to defend it and said they’d be disappointed if it wasn’t in the final film. There was one kid in particular, who was about 8 years old, who said, “It’s sad because Hiccup lost something, but then he got so much more.” And we realized, wow, everybody gets it. Even the youngest of the young. We thought parents would be worried that we were traumatizing their children, and it turned out to be just the opposite. The movie meant more to them because we took that risk. And that ended up defining the daring mentality for the entire trilogy.
When we last spoke, I asked you whether this film ended the whole Dragon franchise, and you said yes. Is that still your current understanding? That this is the end of all things Dragon?
I wanted to be definitive with the ending. I wanted to take it all the way to the disappearance of dragons and the end of Hiccup and Toothless’ story, even flashing forward so that we get Hiccup’s much older perspective on a time when there were dragons. I really didn’t want to leave that door open because for me, I would rather end it as we have and leave fans wanting more than to let it carry on over the years and have people eventually just lose interest because it lacked meaning and went on forever. But that said, I don’t own the franchise. [Laughs]
If DreamWorks in the future were to go back into the world of Dragons, I think they would have to do it in a different timeline with different characters and find a new way into it, because this really is the closure to this story, and that was delivered on my part because I want to move on to something else and start taking on the challenge of a completely different storyline, different characters, and different worlds, and set this whole Viking and dragon thing aside. Let it be. But we wanted to complete it with the integrity of the trilogy, and hopefully it becomes something that lasts beyond all of us and becomes timeless. That would be amazing, and as such, that’s my intention. I am done with it. Hopefully the studio sees the value in having a complete story.
I wonder when you’ll feel you’ve truly said goodbye to Hiccup and Toothless. Maybe it will be at the end of awards season next year. Or maybe you’ll see a Toothless plush doll every day for the rest of your life in your office, and it won’t ever really be goodbye.
I’m not sure! It’s funny, like, Lilo & Stitch, Stitch is such a ubiquitous character. He continues to pop up everywhere. I see merchandise that I didn’t even know existed. So maybe we never really let go of these characters. I would hope that Hiccup and Toothless and our other dragons and Vikings continue to have a life beyond my involvement, you know? They continue to be favorites of people out there. That would be amazing. But I don’t know if I’m ever really going to say goodbye! I think I’m just going to preoccupy myself with something new.
What do you want to do next? Is this now the time to go into live action, per what you said earlier?
Yeah, maybe. Part of my plan was, if I could be writer-director of a trilogy, it might re-energize some ideas that I didn’t have enough momentum or clout to get going before. But I’m also open to anything out there. I’ll have all the conversations I need to have and meet all the people I need to meet and take a look at any projects that someone’s passionate about making, and if they want to hear about mine, I’ll be ready to talk about them. But it’s wide open at the moment, and that’s kind of exciting. I haven’t committed to anything too early. The first order of business is to take a little vacation and clear my head.
One final question: I love Hiccup and I love Toothless, but please name one underrated Viking and one underrated dragon that have never gotten enough love.
Oh, boy, let’s see. Underrated human. I would say Kit Harington’s Eret. There’s so much potential to that character, but he became one of the last ones to join our giant cast, and so there just wasn’t a whole lot of time on screen to explore what it would be like for a dragon trapper to become part of the team of dragon rescuers. There was a lot of potential for conflict of how this sort of arrogant, wild cowboy of a character was going to integrate into this tight-knit group of Vikings. We had some really wonderful moments that we had to pare back because of our limited runtime. But I think he’s a bit of an underused, underutilized character. And let’s see, a dragon? Hmm. Well…
Look, I’m just going to say, because I may never get to say it again: Stormfly killed it. Meatlug killed it. And every main dragon who was there with Toothless all along — icons! All icons.
[Laughs] One of my favorites is Gobber’s dragon. It’s a variation of a Gronckle. His dragon is Grump the Hotburple, and we kind of conceived this dragon to be this sloth of a dragon, this grumpy, fussy walrus of a dragon, always in the way, falling asleep midflight. It’s the perfect complement to Craig Ferguson’s personality. And we’ve always been looking for moments to play up their relationship like an odd couple, but again, it’s the stuff that hits the cutting room floor when you have to make cuts for time. If only.
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World