Director Dean DeBlois Talks How To Train Your Dragon 2

How To Train Your Dragon is DreamWorks’s most critically acclaimed animation and the highly anticipated sequel hits screens on July 11 2014. We got the scoop on what we can expect to see in the new film from director Dean DeBlois (Mulan, Lilo & Stitch) and author of the original novels, Cressida Cowell!

After the huge success of the first film, director and screenwriter Dean DeBlois was keen to avoid falling into the trap of creating a disappointing sequel that rehashes old ground. Instead, the producers and crew had a few interesting ways of making sure this new film brings something new to viewers!

“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,” says DeBlois. “[Often] it’s the same five or six characters cast into another seemingly unimportant, unnecessary and somewhat random scenario. So I said ‘would you entertain the idea of a trilogy?’ Because that way, 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 studio bosses bought into that.”

As well as confirming that we will be getting a third film, DeBlois talks about how they have planned to make a bold trilogy that would stand the test of time. The Star Wars sequel, Empire Strikes Back, proved to be a huge influence in how they planned to do just that: “It’s one of the few sequels that really lives up to its predecessor. It takes everything that I loved about the first film and expands upon it. So 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.”

Promising stuff! So what can we expect from our favourite dragon rider in the new installment?

“The interesting thing with sequels, I find, is that you take a character who has a problem and you fix it in the course of the first film, usually,” DeBlois notes. “So here we begin this second installment where Hiccup is no longer pining for acceptance, no longer trying to get attention from the girl he has a crush on or the love of the father that seems to be disappointed in him or the disappointment of the community in large. He has all of those things, he’s become a hometown hero with the girlfriend he wanted and his father couldn’t be prouder. So how do you take that and then give him an arc? When looking at it, we thought if those were his 15-year-old problems, maybe we should age him up and make him a 20-year-old, where he is standing on the cusp of adulthood, clinging desperately to youth and the freedom that that gives him. That kind of created what I felt was a universal truth and something a lot of us go through, it is a rite of passage of maybe trying to divorce yourself from the heavy expectation of parents and find your own way and sometimes coming to realise what they had seen for you is ultimately your destiny, but you had to come to it in your own right.”

Cressida Cowell is the author of the highly-acclaimed book series that the films are based on and she is extremely pleased with the direction DreamWorks are going with the films: “I’m feeling pretty pleased, I have to say. I think I’ve been unbelievably lucky, I just love the films. I love the team who are making them; I could not be luckier or happier.”

The process of making the films is collaborative between Cowell and DeBlois, but the films diverge from the books. It gave the filmmakers a chance to keep the spirit of the books, whilst highlighting the strengths of animated film.

“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. So, she was very encouraging,” DeBlois elaborates. “I have to say as well, one thing that Cressida did that we hopefully kept the spirit of [is] the character who is determined to succeed, to assimilate but is ill-equipped. I think it’s always a winning combination. That’s the spirit we took away from Cressida’s books and hopefully that we are putting on the screen as well.”

Whilst keeping that spirit alive, the second film increases the scope in both the story and the animation. Along with the great storytelling, the cinematography and graphics are all a breathtaking step up from the original. And we get to see plenty more of the gorgeous, lovable dragons.

“We wanted to create a sense of real world stakes,” says DeBlois. “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. Valka’s dragon, Cloudjumper, is based on an owl, so they find their ways into the behaviour and the attitudes of the dragons themselves.”

“I think that the flying sequences are just breathtaking,” Cowell adds. “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. There’s no other film that I can think of where you have more of a sense of flight and of flying than these films. In a book, flying is just a bunch of description, so I actually cut down the dragon flying sequences. This is where books and films have very different strengths. In the films the dragons feel real, they feel like they could exist.”

One of the boldest changes from book to screen was the decision to (SPOILER!) have Hiccup lose a leg after the battle. DeBlois talks about the strength of that decision: “We thought, considering that we had put so much work into creating a sense of real-world peril and stakes and physics, you know if you fell from a great height you would die, if you got in the way of dragon fire you would die, it seemed to have Hiccup walk out of that situation completely unscathed just wasn’t very satisfying. Early on, one of our storyboard artists had pitched as a comedy beat that one of them would lose a limb and everyone would be like ‘Yeah!’, because it was an established precedent in the Viking community of Berk. But we dusted off that idea and we decided to play it in earnest as a way of bringing Toothless and Hiccup together. They both complement each other’s losses. The best part of it was, we tested it because we were a little uncertain as to whether or not the audience would reject it or think it was too harsh or too much. It was only in storyboard, but a focus group of people that stayed behind after the screening were quizzed about it and one of them, a father, said ‘I really love that you put that in there, please don’t take it out’. All of the other parents put up their hands to second that. Then 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.”

With the sequel, new voice actors have been added to the already impressive cast. Cate Blanchett, Kit Harington, and Djimon Hounsou all star as new characters.

“We were lucky enough be nominated for an Oscar and I went to the Oscars and in the cocktail party just before the ceremony began,” DeBlois explains. “I saw Cate standing there and she was speaking to someone and 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.’ That made it very easy! It was pretty much the same with Kit Harington as well, he’d seen the film and he very much responded to the material, Djimon Hounsou as well, his kids were fans. It’s much easier when you have something for them to reference and they know the tone of it.”

So, with what promises to be an excellent sequel to look forward to, when can we expect the third and final film?!

“Certainly from my point of view, it’s a specific ending to a classic trilogy and we are working on it already,” DeBlois promises. “We’ve been turning out outlines and looking at what it’s going to take to sort of build everything that we need to make this film. So, in terms of a specific release date, it’s still floating out there, but we have a general idea of when we’re going to release it.”

We can’t wait!

How To Train Your Dragon 2 is released on 11 July 2014.