How to Train Your Dragon: an interview with the director

Dean DeBloisOK, *this* is embarrassing. I did this interview ages ago and ran out of time to post it before the movie came out. Then the DVD came out and I was all, "Oh! I'll post it for that." And I ran out of time again and it sort of seemed awkward to just shove it out there at any old time.

But I really do want to share some of the things Dean DeBlois said about making the movie, because they're useful for people working on stories. Also, the movie was very, very good.

Confession: I was skeptical about it initially. The trailers made it seem not particularly special--and quite a bit different from the book. The movie, however, was very well made, with a taut story, nicely developed characters, and a satisfying ending. It was also funny without being gimmicky or overly reliant on current pop-culture references, so I know this movie is one I'll like seeing repeatedly.

In making the movie, DeBlois veered from the source material, a book series by Cressida Cowell. In the books, the dragon is small, and the story is largely about the relationship of Hiccup, the hero, and his runt dragon. Initially, this is where they started with the movie, DeBlois said. But the story didn't work for the screen.

"It was small stakes," DeBlois said. "Every version of that yielded to a very young-feeling film." This didn't work for Dreamworks. It narrows the audience. As DeBlois put it, "Disney makes films for the child in every adult. Dreamworks makes films for the adult in every child."

To me, there are two interesting points tied up in this decision:

- How big are the stakes of the story? You can make a story feel bigger by putting the world in the balance. But a story can also feel big when the conflict between two characters is big--though to a lesser extent. The most resonant stories, or at least the most commercial ones, have both high stakes and significant conflict: not just between the protagonist and antagonist, but also the protagonist and his or her friends. Harry Potter is a great example of this.

- What's the central emotional experience of the story? The child-in-every-adult aspiration probably points to a sense of wonder. I think that's what adults most miss about being children. It's the night-before-Christmas feeling. The school's-out-for-summer feeling. We don't experience that anymore, and it can make us twitch with nostalgia. In contrast, the adut-in-every-child aspiration is probably more nuanced. Many kids feel frustrated by their relative lack of power. They're not in charge of what they eat, where they go, what they wear. They feel capable of doing more than they get to. They have big dreams. They have loving, fully breakable hearts.

This, I think, is worth remembering as we write for children. It's not that they're miniature adults. But their world, their hopes, their feelings, are as vivid to them, if not moreso, than ours are to us as grownups. The limitations on them are real and often in place for good measure (I do not give my 7-year-old the keys to the car, for example. Which is perhaps why she is so set on riding Autopia at Disneyland later this summer.) The story is in the conflict between limitations and desire.

OK, but back to the interview. Honestly. Do I ever shut up? Answer: No.

What were the most useful things he'd learned about story?

"The biggest education I’ve had from a story perspective came from Mulan. 5 punishing years... It all comes down to the main character, and making that main character empathetic so everyone sees a little quality in those characters that like them or someone they know. It's also about making those characters flawed."

Another key thing he learned there was about story structure, "getting a sense for what movements need to happen at what time in the story. It was a big eye-opener when I read a book called Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. It outlined every lesson we learned the hard way in Mulan."

"There’s a natural way we tell stories and like to hear stories unfold. If you skip one of those elements, we get restless or bored or feel unsatisfied. What I like about that book is that it asks you a series of questions. If you don’t have answers to those questions, you’re missing something."

It's also important to be able to boil the story down to its essence. "If it reads as a postage stamp," he said, "it will read as a billboard. You can't be so complicated that when you reduce it, it's a mess."

Why this took me almost two years to post is a mystery. My relief at this point is palpable.