Robert Redford Talks "Pete's Dragon" and Keeping Film Magic Alive

When a cast includes a film icon like Robert Redford, it’s a special effect in many ways equal to a lavishly rendered CGI dragon.

The Oscar winner has a key role in Disney’s reimagining of “Pete’s Dragon,” reworked from its 1977 origins as a rather threadbare musical into a more emotionally grounded tale of a boy and his dragon. Redford’s presence, playing an old-timer whose experience with the mythical creatures is scoffed at by his fellow townspeople and even his own daughter (Bryce Dallas Howard), provides a welcome gravitas.

Redford recently joined a group of journalists to share his thoughts on what drew him to the project, the great and increasingly shrinking outdoors, his place in the film industry and the unique, and occasionally dark elements, of movie magic pioneered by Walt Disney.

We talked to your young co-stars about meeting you, a member of acting royalty who maybe they had preconceptions about. And Oakes Fegley replied “Actors are just people doing a job, and Robert Redford is just really good at his job.”

Robert Redford: Nice. What’s better than that? There’s no personality, there’s no stuff attached to it. I’d be happy to be judged that way.

Easy kid to get along with. Very happy, very free, very free-wheeling. No intimidation. He was fearless. He had a lot to say. He talked a lot, and he enjoyed it. He just enjoyed being in the movie. He just enjoyed being there. He enjoyed being who he is. Same with the little girl, Oona [Laurence]. They were terrific.

Then of course Bryce [Dallas Howard], she speaks for herself. You see she’s got an incandescent quality to her that just like beams out. So she was a joy to work with. She was a joy to work with.

Your character in the film is very big on the things that people don’t see. Relating to that for your character, what are the things you feel are some of that magic that maybe people miss? The things that people don’t see if they miss the forest for the trees.

That’s a good point, because it is a big point in the film. It was a big point for me to be attracted to the character. Don’t just focus on what’s in front of you. There’s a broader canvas around, and take that in, because it’ll broaden your point of view. And I just thought that was a very healthy thing, and the fact that that’s sort of in the film, he tells his daughter, you only see what’s in front of you, but there’s something more.

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So you can walk around, but also look around. I think what new technology has done is narrowed our focus on things. So we miss nature in its natural state. We have to see it reproduced on our screen. So that makes me sad. So the idea of playing a character who asks simply that you look beyond what’s right in front of you, and you make that a story point, I love that idea.

You’ve reached a point in your career where you can pick and choose what you want to do. In recent years, you’ve played everything from big superhero movies to this very sweet family film. Is there a rhyme or reason to what you’re picking these days?

I think I avoid the rhyme or reason. I think I avoid that. I’ve tried to avoid, most of my life, being pigeon-holed. There was a period of time where I really had a hard time. When I first started acting in films, and suddenly, it was about how I looked, and I wasn’t expecting that. I became an actor because I was drawn to the craft in the theater in New York. So I wasn’t prepared to go into film and suddenly be judged by how I looked. That’s not that way I saw myself.

So you try to work your way out of it, and you realize it’s not easy. Because you say, I’m going to try a different character, I’m going to play a different personality, and they don’t accept that because they want you the way they had you. So that became a struggle that I think I finally overcame, just by doing so many films that were different in nature, and then finally directing. I think I was able to move. It was hard, hard time.

When you are reading scripts and considering offers come your way, what are you looking for?

Things that are unexpected and different, that are outside the norm, slightly. Not so far out that it doesn’t land. Things that are surprising, unexpected. That’s appealing to me.

You have a predilection for the outdoors, as noted from your real life and from the movies you’ve done over the years. You don’t get much more outdoors than New Zealand, where you shot.

Well, I didn't know about New Zealand before I went. It was such a pleasant shock that it really had a huge impact on me, and also a profound sadness, because there was a time when America was like that, and California was like that.

And I grew up at that time in the end of the second World War when there was big, vast stretches of land, people were friendly because they were all together for the war effort, paper drives, things like that. People were friendly with each other. The air was clean. There was swatches of land between Santa Monica, Westwood, Beverly Hills. And then I went away, and when I came back, it was like too long at the fair. The place had changed, and it was no longer the place that I knew or loved. So I couldn’t wait to get out of here, because I felt it was developing itself to death.

So going to New Zealand is a reminder to me about how California and Los Angeles was when I was in the 40s. And I could relate to that, so it made me both happy and sad. I said, “Oh, this is the way we were,” and it made me sad because we’re not that way anymore.

The film kind of lets kids explore being a little uncomfortable and getting a little scared. Why do you think that emotion is necessary for kids to explore in today’s society?

Well, I think it’s necessary simply because the world is bigger and darker than they know when they’re little. They don’t know, they’re not at an age of sophistication, so they don’t know how complicated things are. And so they only know things that make them happy. And you want to try to keep that going without creating a fantasy.

You want to keep that going, because once you leave that stage in your life, you say, “Oh, wow, this is the way it is?” You want to create something that keeps them going. So for me, I’m drawn to projects that give you some kind of hope.

What are your thoughts on the industry and how it’s evolved during the time that you’ve been a part of the entertainment industry. You’ve certainly shaped it in some ways yourself, but what do you think about it today?

I don’t know if I shaped anything. I was a part of it. I mean, I’m part of the Academy. I still am. I was never against the industry, never, because I was a product of it. I benefited from it. I worked my way through it. I just got to a point where I thought maybe there could be more, and maybe the more could be more diverse stories as Hollywood was beginning to be more centralized and focus on where the money was, which was blockbuster films, children’s films, so forth.

They were no longer making those humanistic films they made in the ‘70s and the ‘60s. I thought, well, I love those films. Those are films that I’m interested in. Can I do something to keep that alive? That led to the idea of the Sundance Institute. It was meant not to go against Hollywood or go against the mainstream, but just add more to it. So that’s what it became.

But the industry itself changed, and you asked the question, I’m afraid I can’t fully answer it because I don’t live here. I don’t spend much time here. My relationship with the industry is when I’m in a film or working in the Sundance festival and the Sundance Lab. So I’m very much involved with film, but not so much in Los Angeles. So I don’t have a lot to say about it.

How would you describe the difference in movie magic between an indie Sundance-type film, and a huge studio film like this?

Well, there’s a difference. Every now and then you can get a small film that creates magic. Usually in some sort of horror. But I think magic is a wonderful word, and I think it’s part of film vocabulary. I think it should be kept alive.

When I was a kid and I would go see Disney movies, I remember being lifted by seeing “Bambi,” and then seeing “Fantasia.” And I saw that as a little kid and I was very taken because he could draw it dark and scary, but he could also make you laugh and make you feel something. I said, “Well, that’s what film could do.” He created magic. Both dark magic and light magic.

Now, I’ll never forget a story I was told, because I wanted to be an artist early on, I was in high school here. Went to get a job at Disney Studios as what they called an intermediate, when you’re down in the basement just passing cell plates along. At that time, I thought I might want to be an artist at the studio.

I remember being told a story about why Disney was brilliant, and that is when he was doing “Bambi,” there was a scene where Bambi has to fight another deer. And they get in this really incredible fight, and he finally wins. So the artist just went into it full bore. They just really got into it and did a beautiful, beautiful scene of this fight.

They show it to Disney, he sits there and he says, “That’s not it.” They said, “What?” “No. Redo it.” “Redo it?” He said, “Dark on dark,” and left. One of the guys there, the other guys said, what the hell is he talking about, “Dark on dark?” He said, “I think I know, he wants to make it night. So let’s redo this and make the fight at nighttime.” So you just see flashes of lightning. It made all the difference.

When you walk on to a movie set now, what do you feel? Do you feel deja vu? Or do you still feel something new?

You know what, it’s been a while since I’ve been on an actual set because a lot of the films that I’ve been involved in have been on location. So there hasn’t really been a set. I think the last set I was on was “Captain America.” A lot of green screen. It was very technical. It wasn’t a particularly warm feeling.

Or even like in this film, you’re told to look at a dragon. So what you’re really looking at is a pole with a tennis ball on the end of it. It’s going like that. Oh, wow. There’s a level of reality that’s missing. You just have to get used to it.

Talking about the difference between doing smaller indie films as opposed to a big blockbuster. Even with all of the effects, it feels a lot like a smaller, intimate kind of film.

You’re right, you’re absolutely right. It’s a very good point. At some point, we did small animated films starting in the ‘30s – Disney did a lot of them. They were smaller. Then suddenly around 1940, he decided to expand and create realism with fantasy, and mesh them together. Then you’ve got a whole different kind of film.

I thought that was terrific. That’s just taking full advantage of the medium. To bring reality and fantasy together, I think is pretty great. I think this film certainly tries to do that.

Disney’s “Pete’s Dragon” opens today nationwide.

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