Released in 1977, the original Pete’s Dragon stands as Disney’s last attempt at a lavish live-action/animation hybrid musical, complete with Broadway-style production numbers, a plus-sized 134-minute runtime, and a lovable cartoon dragon. Director David Lowery’s remake, in theaters now, retains the lovable dragon, but trims both the runtime — by about 30 minutes — and the production numbers. While the 2016 Pete’s Dragon omits “Candle on the Water,” “Brazzle Dazzle Day,” and other songs that generations of kids know well, music remains a vital part of Lowery’s movie, just in a different key…one that sounds a lot more like folk music than brassy show tunes. The film features three original songs performed by acclaimed folk-influenced indie-rock artists Bonnie “Prince” Billy, The Lumineers, and Lindsey Stirling with Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, all of which are included on the Pete’s Dragon soundtrack. These musicians aren’t the type you’d usually associate with a Disney movie, but then again, this version of Pete’s Dragon is very consciously trying not to be a typical Disney movie. Yahoo Movies spoke with Lowery about creating his film’s distinctive musical sounds.
Your version of Pete’s Dragon isn’t a traditional movie musical, but it does use music to express and enhance the characters’ emotional states in several key sequences. Is that your way of paying homage to the original film?
Yeah, and it even has characters singing original songs! [Laughs] That approach grew out of needing to provide a folk sensibility to the movie, which has this folklore about dragons built into the story. And I thought the best way to do that was to write a song, which became “The Dragon Song.” I wrote that song with my co-writer, Toby Halbrooks. Originally, it was just dialogue for Robert Redford, but we realized that what he was saying was a legend that had been around for a while. So we took it and used it as a platform to write song lyrics. And because it was a folk song and had that certain quality to it, it seemed natural to let the soundtrack move in that direction as well. As we were editing, we’d try different pieces of music, and gradually the movie revealed itself to a have a very musical side that we hadn’t really expected. In some ways it was a very happy accident, and in other ways it serves as a little bit of a nod to the original Pete’s Dragon.
How did you enlist Bonnie “Prince” Billy to perform “The Dragon Song”? He’s not an artist you would typically associate with Disney.
He’s one of my all-time favorite artists, and has a very specific sound — and that sound is exactly what I wanted this movie to sound like. We’d worked on a couple of projects together, so I just emailed out of the blue when we were through production. He had just seen Inside Out, and the short film that preceded it, Lava. He told me he really loved the song that was used in that short, and wanted to write something like it that day. So this request hit him at the right time when he was specifically wanting to do a song for a Disney movie. He took the rough demo that Toby had recorded, and went off and recorded 15 different versions of it. As a fan of his music, to get 15 different versions of one of his songs was a real treat.
Hear Bonnie “Prince” Billy perform ‘The Dragon Song’:
You should release that as a separate album!
That would be good! It would be a fun little B-side. He recorded a waltz version, a dirge version — they’re all great. Ultimately, we used two versions of it in the movie. I love to give things to artists that they can run with, and he took that song and ran with it and made it his own, and it’s a beautiful thing.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s alter ego is Will Oldham, who has acted in a few movies including Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy. Did you consider casting him in Pete’s Dragon?
No, oddly enough, I should’ve thought about that, but we didn’t. I’ve worked with him as an actor in one of my short films. I really should’ve asked him to be in it — he would’ve fit right in! [Laughs]
At what point in the process did you reach out to The Lumineers to record “Nobody Knows”?
It was an interesting journey to get to the song that The Lumineers sing. The song is used in a sequence where Pete, who has been living in the woods, runs through this small town, and it’s the first time he’s been in civilization for six years. It’s sort of a sad and desperate scene, but also fun and exciting, because he’s being exposed to a world that’s entirely new to him. So we needed a song that would carry both of those elements; that would have a quickness to its pace, but at the same time be very emotional and bittersweet.
Watch the music video for The Lumineers’ “Nobody Knows”:
While we were cutting the scene together, I told my editor, Lisa Zeno Churgin, to use “Fare Thee Well,” from Inside Llewyn Davis as a temp score. It fit perfectly, and was in the movie all the way up until April! We knew we ultimately couldn’t use that song, because it’s so tied to that movie, but it gave us a direction for what our movie should feel like. It was my co-writer Toby who once again wrote an original song, this time with a friend of his, Andrew Tinker. He emailed me a rough demo of this song called “Nobody Knows” one morning, and we listened to it and started talking about artists who might be appropriate for it. The Lumineers were always at the top of the list, not just because they’re amazing artists, but they also have an audience who would appreciate hearing them in this movie. It lets certain audiences know that this is a certain type of movie, because these artists are playing in it. It also exposes that band to a new generation of listeners, which is really exciting to me.
Since the Lumineers emerged out of the indie folk scene, did they have any trepidation about joining a major studio movie?
They were super enthusiastic, because they’re fans of the original Pete’s Dragon, so the idea of being involved in this version was really appealing. And there’s no denying that having this type of exposure is great. It’s a great thing for any artist to be able to have a song in a movie that will get kids listening early. I think there’s a certain moral responsibility on the part of artists to help introduce other great art to audiences, and as a filmmaker, I take it very seriously that music that I’m putting out into the world via my movie needs to be music that kids should listen to and that people should be exposed to.
Did the Lumineers follow Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s example and record 15 different versions of “Nobody Knows”?
No, it was much quicker with them, partially because we had much less time. It was late in the game. They did one rough take to work out how they needed to change the song for themselves, figuring out what key works best with their voices and so on and so forth. Then they went into the studio and laid it down and it was perfect. I think from the time that we spoke to them on the phone for the first time to the time when we had the final version in the movie was a period of probably about two weeks. It was very, very fast.
Hear Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s ‘The Dragon Song Revisited’:
Because you originally cut the sequence with Pete racing through town to a different song, did the edits change at all when you dropped in “Nobody Knows”?
There were very few changes. I find that when a scene is cut well, it has an internal rhythm to it that can be incredibly conducive to music. It doesn’t mean that every scene needs music to be laid on top of it, but a well-cut scene has a rhythm that will correspond to the beat of a piece of music. We haven’t really changed that scene since Lisa first put the rough assembly together. It’s really interesting how that works because moviemaking is a visual medium and at the same time it’s so intrinsically related to time and to rhythm.
Composer Daniel Hart and Lindsey Stirling on how she got involved with ‘Pete’s Dragon’:
The final original song — and the soundtrack’s first single — is “Something Wild,” performed by Lindsey Stirling and Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, which plays over the closing credits.
Lindsey was approached to work on the soundtrack because she has a tremendous fanbase, and had expressed interest in working on a film score. She and my composer, Daniel Hart, met and they hit it off, so she came to London to put down some violin for the score, and also for The Lumineers song. She mentioned that she had written this song with Andrew, and we’d been looking for a song for the end credits that would have just the right amount of uplift, that would put the audience in just the right space when they leave the theater. We hadn’t quite found the right thing, and this song felt great. It spoke directly to the movie.
Earlier, you mentioned the mournful quality of the “Nobody Knows” sequence, and that mournfulness permeates the entire film. There’s genuine fear and darkness in your version of this story. Were you ever concerned that it might be too dark for audiences, especially younger viewers?
I don’t think it is. I was afraid of being too violent or too scary, but I don’t think it’s a particularly dark film. I do believe that it’s emotionally complex, more emotionally complex than audiences might expect from a Disney movie called Pete’s Dragon. But I think that it’s emotionally complex in a way that viewers will appreciate and respond to, especially children. Children are very emotional creatures, and I find that the entertainment that is provided to them often doesn’t respect that side of who they are. I wanted to make a movie that really respected the emotional landscape of childhood, and part of that is engaging with sadness or fear or desperation. Those are all things that I felt as a child, and that I think every child feels. A movie like this addresses them and feels with them, and I think that’s helpful because it lets them know that it’s okay to feel these things and that if you’re scared, things are going to get better.
Watch the music video for “Something Wild” by Lindsey Stirling featuring Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness: