Hero Complex is essentially a genre media-themed offshoot of the Los Angeles Times newspaper and they have been holding a film festival in Hollywood for the past few years. While the films screened are always classics from the past, this year featured a screening of How to Train Your Dragon 2. I will post a review of this film soon, but following the screening, a Q&A was held with writer/director Dean DeBlois and stars Jay Baruchel (Hiccup) and America Ferrera (Astrid). The trio had plenty of admiration for a series they have heavily involved themselves with for the past seven years and were happy to share their thoughts.
This Q&A was recorded and ideally I will be able to embed the video soon, but for now, here are some big (non-spoiler) highlights that I took away from the panel:
Empire Strikes Dragon
The Empire Strikes Back was used as a tonal model for the film. DeBlois explained how sequels can be tricky, but you ideally want to find new ways to present the characters and challenges for them to explore, with ‘Empire’ serving as one of the ultimate examples. In terms of scope and character, that was a film that heavily informed how to put together the plotting for How to Train Your Dragon 2, with emphasis on the fact that being free from the original books, after the first film, mean there was time to play around with the story and characters, before coming back to what could potentially be a final chapter in the planned trilogy, where the films will likely be able to tie back into what the books, by Cressida Cowell, initially presented in some ways.
Jay & America Love Their Characters
Between the first movie, this sequel, and the popular television series (DreamWorks Dragons), Jay Baruchel and America Ferrera have spent a lot of time voicing their characters, but they love doing it. While the two have not personally spent a lot of time in the voice recording booth together, with the exception for some playful scenes (one from this upcoming sequel had them doing impressions), they are still very fond of inhabiting the characters and contributing to who Hiccup and Astrid are.
For Jay Baruchel, it is getting to play a character that is so earnest that he finds to be the most enjoyable thing about Hiccup. He admits this is his favorite role ever as an actor and a lot of that comes from the many positives to find in the character of Hiccup. Baruchel also joked about kids seeing him in real life and not being impressed compared to what the films portray, though he did say that he’s left voicemails as the character in an effort to make many of his young fans happy. And with all that said, getting to play a more mature version of the character in this sequel allows for him to continually find new challenges to explore.
For America Ferrera, she loves being able to play a female, badass dragon trainer. Being a part of a film/TV series that is proud to show females as being just as powerful is a big positive and Ferrera enjoys that aspect, along with getting to have a lot of fun in general. She also likes that she is challenged by the role, while still being impressed with the overall product, after seeing how the animators not only apply her voice to the character, but can see what else is portrayed in ways that she can’t personally add, but the animators can, based on how her performance informs how to animate Astrid.
The Blanchett Factor
While Game of Thrones’ Kit Harrington and the overall awesome Djimon Hounsou have parts to play in this sequel, Cate Blanchett is the biggest addition to the cast, given her character’s involvement in the story, which I will not reveal in full, but will mention what was said about her at the Q&A. DeBlois and his team put together the story and characters for this film with her in mind as Valka. Getting her into the film was actually pretty easy as well, as DeBlois was able to approach Blanchett at the Oscars and simply explain that he wrote a character for her. It helped that Blanchett’s children are big fans of How to Train Your Dragon and were able to further convince her to accept the part. The film requires a sort of Elizabeth meets Jane Goodall-type, which is what Blanchett is able to bring to the film, while also adding enough of her own playful spirit to make Valka a very memorable character and neat addition to the cast.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 does not move away from the approachable fun that makes the franchise so enjoyable to so many, but there are definitely darker elements in this story to make sure the stakes seem high enough to have good reason for a sequel. Addressing the idea of going a bit darker and to more mature levels, DeBlois explained how he was never focused on crafting a story that was dark just to be dark, but rather one that felt like a natural step for the overall narrative. Entertaining everyone is a priority, but not putting too much thought on how far to go, rather than just naturally getting there, was a constant part of the thought process as well. Aging up the characters by five years made that easier, as having them grow up as responsibilities become greater makes a lot of sense in ways that are relatable for fans as well.
How To Love Your Dragons
A question was brought up in regards to what the process was like in putting dragons back into mainstream popularity, which led to DeBlois explaining the acceptance of dragons in general, along with how the ones in the film were designed to an extent. Essentially, after the film Eragon bombed pretty hard, it seemed like Dragons could have been a risky move to explore, but the key to the dragons in How to Train Your Dragon stemmed from making creatures that had a mix of both the classic designs and a more organic and playful influence, much like the creatures seen in the films of Hayao Miyazaki. Making the dragons fit in a way that is similar to something like My Neighbor Totoro provides a quality that allows for more acceptance from a wide audience, along with the very fact that these are dragons given the chance to do very dragon-like things. Providing a sort of wish fulfillment for fantasy fans in the way they get to see dragons soar, breathe fire, and other things allows for full acceptance of what many want in their dragons, while also getting creations that one enjoys watching from a visual standpoint.
A number of filmmaking aspects were discussed, in regards to How to Train Your Dragon 2. New animation software was utilized, making for a completely new system that allowed for much faster image processing, along with continual improvement on lighting and facial animation in general. Famed cinematographer Roger Deakins has now served as a visual consultant on both films, which is always neat to hear in regards to these animated features. Dean DeBlois and Deakins actually went on a 6-day trip to areas near the North Pole to study the environment and better understand what to work on for the designs in the sequel, given the new settings the characters would come across.
DeBlois also discussed how proud he was to be using 3D as a storytelling tool. As many know, How to Train Your Dragon is one of the best films (animated or otherwise) in recent years to utilize the 3D format and that holds very true for this sequel as well, which has the extra dimension, but never has it play a gimmicky role. It is used for immersion, with some other techniques applied to certain character-driven scenes, which are subtle but purposefully done to make sure the 3D feels like a part of the design, rather than a way to make extra dollars.
And while seeing the Dragons is a wonderful thing to behold, hearing the sounds in ‘Dragon 2’ is just as fantastic. John Powell created a fantastic score for the first film and he returns to provide another grand score that builds off the same themes. Jonsi from the Icelandic rock outfit Sigur Ros was brought back to help create some of the songs and assist on some of the themes of the film, as well as one of the members of The Pogues, who helped compose a melody for a key part of the film, featuring Gerard Butler’s character.
When asked to talk about favorite aspects of the series, beyond things about the characters that Baruchel and Ferrera have already described they continue to acknowledge how the magic of the world and the fun experience it is to be a part of it plays a huge role. More specifically, noting their reactions to seeing the flying scenes for the first time really meant a lot. Baruchel hints at how DeBlois took over from a previous version of the first film that would likely not have had as strong an impact and Baruchel and everyone involved has been incredibly pleased by the results ever since.