“Shot on location in New Zealand”. Ever since Peter Jackson made cinematic history with The Lord of the Rings franchise, that enticing sentence has been more than enough to let moviegoers know they are in for some spectacular production value. It’s almost cheating in a sense, calling on New Zealand’s famously majestic scenery to enhance a film in such a way that takes it far beyond expectation, providing the director with particular details and nuances that, depending how they are used, can make or break a visual story. The quality this island nation brings to filmmakers and studios, especially those coming from Hollywood, has proven to be a priceless asset in recent years, so it’s not too surprising that New Zealand was chosen to stand in for the Pacific Northwest in a lauded live-action remake of Disney’s Pete’s Dragon.
The 2016 film about a tragically orphaned boy who befriends an affable (and adorable) dragon named Elliot has not only been one of the most unique and likable family-friendly films in years, it marked one of the few times a studio like Disney has reached out to an indie director to helm an ambitious project. The director in question, David Lowery, ended up bringing both a visceral and thoughtful perspective to the original 1977 story, well-reviewed thanks to the shades of family, belonging, loyalty and sacrifice.
And while Pete’s Dragon owes much of its success to Lowery, the team at Wellington’s highly regarded visual effects studio Weta Digital, and of course the cast and crew, it’s the land itself that remains one of the most memorable and crucial aspects of the blockbuster.
Whether it was the tranquility of McLaren Falls just outside of Tauranga, the mythical misty mountains of Queenstown, or just the undisturbed charm of Tapanui (a small town in West Otago which became the fictional locale of Millhaven for the film), the soulfulness that permeated Pete’s Dragon is undeniably New Zealand. Sure, describing a film’s settings as being characters themselves is a cliché, but that’s exactly what the carefully selected locations brought to Pete’s Dragon, and it was Lowery’s use of these stunning surrounds that exemplified that depth of emotion that has been lovingly credited to the film.
“The atmosphere of a movie comes from many places…in this case a lot of that did come from the landscapes we were in”, reflected Lowery as he spoke to The Iris about his experiences shooting in New Zealand. “We had spent a great deal of time [in New Zealand] before looking for locations, getting to know the country and getting to know the opportunity we had at our disposal. We fell in love with everything it had to offer, but particularly some of the locations, like those red wood forests that were buried so deep in the middle of a pine forest that no one had been there for years”.
The forest Lowery refers to is found near Rotorua, a town on the North Island famous for its strong sense of Maori culture as well as its defining thermal pools and hot springs. It was a major filming location for Pete’s Dragon, and while the public aren’t able to venture as deep into the forest as the crew were, a recently opened Redwoods Treewalk allows anyone to get up close to the enormous, fantastical Californian redwoods that tower from the vast forest floor. Through an interconnected series of suspension bridges and living decks around 12m above ground, it’s not hard to see how the location inspired such wonder amongst the cast and crew.
Since there were no CG locations in the movie actually getting to spots like these everyday to film presented somewhat of a logistical challenge. In this case, the team went out and built Pete’s treehouse in the middle of a real forest, driving two hours each day to get there. Though that hardly seems like much of an issue when considering how much it added to the finished product. As Lowery puts it, “we’re travelling halfway across the world to shoot in New Zealand, and we’re doing that for a reason so it’d be a shame if we didn’t get all those locations that we wanted. It’s a testament to the skill of our team that we managed to pull that off”.
And when you’re up close to these scenes of natural beauty you can really understand the dedication it inspires, or what David is talking about when he mentions the “emotional texture of the movie”, and how getting that texture just right plays becomes such an everlasting part of the project.
“A lot of the times you end up referencing random things”, explained the director. “Like the paint chipped off a wall or a tree that looks a certain way in a certain time of day…you find these weird abstract things that convey what you want the movie to feel like, and then you figure out a way to translate those abstracts into the physical reality that you’re shooting in”.
While Rotorua was one of Elliot’s main stomping grounds on the North Island, the immense Southern Alps of Queenstown in Otago provided another important backdrop for the film. There’s a particular scene before the ending credits that makes breathtaking work of the views from the privately owned Deer Park Heights, capturing and drawing from energetic scenery of swirling mist enveloping The Remarkables mountain range with Lake Wakatipu lying beneath.
Not too far from here was Disney’s first foray into New Zealand with 1988’s The Rescue, a film that too benefited greatly from the dramatic backdrop.
“I think New Zealand has a fairy tale quality to it that is incredibly unique,” said David. “Everything just feels a little bit bigger, a little big more epic. It honestly feels like Middle Earth. They feel magical and I wanted to feel a bit of that, I wanted to use that because I wanted this movie to feel realistic but at the same time have a slightly heightened sensibility to it”.
Of course, much of the land’s inspiring aesthetic seemed to seep into the general well-being of the movie too. Pete’s Dragon is noted for how grounded and human it feels when juxtaposed against this “heightened sensibility” David speaks of, and as Bryce Dallas Howard (forest ranger Grace Meacham in the film) puts it, this sounded like a natural effect from just being in New Zealand and among the locals.
“The experience of the film was genuinely enriched by the environment”, said the celebrated actor as she spoke to The Iris. “There was a sincerity and a kindness that we all felt, all of us who came to New Zealand. We all talked about it. There’s also just the fact that it’s such a beautiful place…when we were coming to work we were all feeling rested and protected and safe, connected to one another and the people around us, and I think that bought a lot of humanity and warmth to the piece”.
New Zealand being an idyllic location is nothing new, but knowing it can elevate works of art in it’s own very special way is a perspective often lost in the sheer scale of it all. Having that source of energy and imagination so close for us Australians is a privilege. So next time you find yourself exploring the seemingly endless expanses of places like Queenstown or Rotorua, be sure to stop and let that inspiration really sink in, whether it’s through following in the footsteps of Pete’s Dragon and really coming to understand the natural touch of the film, making use of New Zealand’s famed range of adventure activities, or just simply being there.
If you’d like more insight into New Zealand and how the islands influenced Pete’s Dragon, David Lowery has included a documentary about the making of the movie in the film’s physical home release (available to Australians from Wednesday 18th January), based on his own personal journals which he kept while shooting on location. There will also be features on the making of Elliot by Weta Digital and commentary with young actors Oakes Fegley (Pete) and Oona Laurence (Natalie) who share their perspectives on the film with Lowery.
Pete’s Dragon is now available on digital HD in Australia. It is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from 18th January 2017.
Feature image: NewZealand.com