When watching DreamWorks’ “How To Train Your Dragon,” it becomes clear early on that all the adult Vikings speak in a rather distinct way: Scottish accents. Speaking at a press conference for the film last Friday, co-director Dean DeBlois explained it was a matter of consistency. “When Chris [Sanders] and I came onto the project, we had just a little over a year to make the movie, and the cast was largely in place; all except for Gobber. He was the last character to be cast. So we had this great group of young Vikings who all had North American accents, and then we had Gerard Butler doing his native brogue.” The directors cast late night host Craig Ferguson – also Scottish – as Gobber, the best pal to Butler’s Stoick the Vast and trainer to the main character, Hiccup. “We just went with that idea, and by casting [Craig], we had not only a great comic foil, but [also Gobber] acting as conduit between a father and a son who couldn’t speak to each other. Gerard and Craig are friends off-screen, so it really helped that relationship,” DeBlois further explained. “It’s a silly conceit, but it’s one that’s familiar to us growing up here in North America that you might have parents who still speak with the accent of whatever country they came from and the acclimated youth who have different accents.”
“It just gave consistency to that adult world versus the young Vikings.”
The choice of accents is one of many decisions that directors DeBlois and Chris Sanders made when they came onboard the project in 2008. Earlier versions of the film stayed more faithful to Cressida Cowell’s 2003 novel, but as DuBois recalled, “When we came on, there was definitely a few things put on the table for us by the leadership of the studio. The whimsical feel of Cressida’s book is kind of skewed a little young in the first one, and they were saying, ‘Let’s see if we can take that world and just kind of elevate it in age and broaden it as much as we can.'” The directors quickly chose to have the Vikings fighting the dragons instead of capturing them.
“That was just amplifying the stakes,” said DeBlois. “We thought the biggest story – the longest journey for Hiccup in that sort of epic, broad-scope fantasy/adventure version – would be if they were enemies and didn’t have that symbiotic relationship. So, we choose to have them as enemies and Hiccup to be the first to cross that divide.” In the film, it’s clear that the Vikings are locked in a mortal conflict with the dragons, and a big marker of maturing amongst them is killing a dragon. “That meant [Hiccup] could have a double life. It meant by day, he could be training to fight dragons while nursing one back to health and learning to fly it. It put a lot of tension upon him as a character; tension upon him and his father. So it had a lot of the elements we were looking for, given that mandate,” the co-director continued.
Cowell, the book’s author who was also at the press conference, understood the necessity for the changes. “I very much saw it right from the beginning as their movie,” the writer said. She did, however, admit to having some trepidation in the alterations the directors planned for Toothless, the principle dragon character. “I was anxious with the decision to make him bigger,” she revealed. “In the book, he’s really teeny, and children love Toothless. He’s one of the characters I get a lot of letters about.” Despite her protectiveness toward the character, Cowell understands why that choice was made. “I can see why when you’re making a movie about dragons in 3D, you kind of want the hero to be able to get on the dragon and ride it. Otherwise, you might feel a bit grounded. You might feel a bit frustrated. Also, the dragon riding scenes are spectacular. They’re my favorite scenes in the movie! I can see why they took that decision.”
A major part of the book series is the Dragonese language, but the film dragons are portrayed in a more animalistic light, without a language. “The Hiccup character speaks Dragonese, but that doesn’t work in a movie context. What works very easily in a book doesn’t necessarily work in a movie context because you’d have to have subtitles, and little kids can’t necessarily read subtitles,” Cowell explained.
The removal of Dragonese was part of an effort to “age-up” the material, again a part of the studio mandate. “Part of that was creating a level of believability within this world, so that we understood the stakes and peril. That meant removing a certain amount of magic and replacing it with elements that we understand. So, [we ended up] taking the very brilliant decision of having multiple breeds of dragons, but imbuing them with characteristics that we understand and appreciate and recognize in the animal world,” DeBlois explained, referring to the example of one of the dragon breeds as acting like walruses. “We felt there were enough cues and personality traits to be gleaned from the natural world that would actually help us in our storytelling – the hive behavior of the dragon’s nest, that they serve a larger dominant master – all of these things created elements of a story that would be best for Hiccup’s journey of befriending an enemy and understanding the unknown without having communication to complicate that.”
As mentioned earlier by Cressida Cowell, one thing the changes made possible was the film’s impressive (especially when viewed in 3D) flying sequences. “It was the biggest challenge for us. It was a lot a lot of work, but it was a very welcome extra effort that went into those things,” DeBlois remembered. “They were just the most naturally 3D-friendly parts of the film. It just has to do with making sure you keep it fresh.” The directors noticed audiences tended to get used to the 3D effect. As a result, they spent extra time and discovered a way to make the flying more dynamic, further engaging viewers. “When we knew a flying sequence was coming up, we would throttle the 3D back and flatten things out just a little bit more and a little more until we hit the flying, then boom, we’d crank the depth up again, so that you really felt it afresh,” said the director.
When asked if sequels were in the works, producer Bonnie Arnold said, “We don’t know yet, but we hope so.” Cowell mentioned that the rights to the subsequent novels in the series had already been bought by Dreamworks. “Just before Christmas,” she said. “I think the potential for mining that world now that we have Vikings on dragonback, the world obviously broadens. There are many adventures that these characters can get into together,” DeBlois offered.
With the series already on its eighth novel. Cowell joked, “I’ve written eight in the time it’s taken them to make one movie!”
“How To Train Your Dragon” opens on Friday, March 26.
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