Monday 17 June 2019

Dragon director fires the imagination

Dean DeBlois, the creator of the 'How to Train Your Dragon' films, has been creating magic movies for decades

America Ferrera, Dean DeBlois and Bonnie Arnold
America Ferrera, Dean DeBlois and Bonnie Arnold

Anne Marie Scanlon

Say the name Dean DeBlois and maybe the resident film buff will know who you are talking about. Conversely, mention How to Train Your Dragon and everyone will know the (now) trilogy of animated films based on the books by Cressida Cowell as they've become an ingrained part of childhood since the first film appeared in 2010. Dean DeBlois is the man behind the phenomenon.

How to Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World, written, directed and produced by DeBlois is the concluding chapter in the saga of unheroic hero Hiccup and his dragon Toothless. Be warned - there may be blubbing (guilty) as one of the themes in the film is the contradiction at the heart of parenthood - which is essentially you pour all of your love into your children with the express purpose of making them leave you.

I asked DeBlois how he felt saying goodbye to the Berk universe, where the films are set, which is essentially his 'baby'.

"It's cathartic, it's bittersweet," the filmmaker replies, "because the team that made these films - all 300 of us, have been working alongside one another for a decade of our lives. And now we head off in different directions, and so it's goodbye to one another as much as it's goodbye to the word of Berk.

"There was an active ambition to tap into something that was universal thematically in each of the instalments," DeBlois elaborates.

"The first film (How to Train Your Dragon, 2010) was about the desire to assimilate and the eventual discovery that by being yourself you can change the world around you rather than the opposite.

"The second film (How to Train Your Dragon 2, 2014) is a crossroads everyone has to face - which is the abandonment of the freedom of childhood, and to take on the more serious consequences of adulthood, often without knowing who you are yet.

"This third film is about a very universal rite of passage which is gaining that wisdom to let go, despite wanting to cling, despite your love of those you've nurtured and protected, knowing they need to spread their wings and follow their own destiny. What does that do to you, how do you define yourself in the wake of that?"

Now that all sounds very serious, but as anyone who has ever taken an excited child to a How to Train Your Dragon film will tell you, they're very funny and age is no barrier to enjoying the antics of Hiccup and his band of merry eejits.

DeBlois is a big burly bearded man, not unlike his own creation, Stoic the Vast, Hiccup's father (voiced by Gerard Butler) but without the plaits and Viking helmet.

Originally from Canada, he learned to draw by copying pictures from comic books in a nearby shop - his family were not well off and there was no money for him to buy them.

The director's very first job was with Sullivan Bluth Studios in Dublin, which he joined in 1990. "I had no Irish connections," he tells me. "I moved to Dublin without knowing anyone but I made friends that I still have to this day."

I'm not surprised, DeBlois is easy company and likes to laugh. He is very enthusiastic about his four years in Ireland.

"It was a wonderful experience. It was my first time living alone, outside of my country, I loved it. I'd never been in a place with so much history. It was an adventurous time."

DeBlois and I are around the same age and as he chats about going straight to the pub after work, heading to the West for the weekend, or catching the ferry to Holyhead (I tell him that qualifies him for honorary Irish citizenship and he roars laughing) it all sounds very familiar.

We also share the experience of only recently realising those days were quite a while ago.

"I've been working for 30 years in the animation industry, which is crazy, as time has just blurred by and then I meet people who say 'I grew up with your movies'."

I ask him how it feels to know that he, via his creations, including Lilo & Stitch and Mulan, has been an integral part of creating memories for generations of children.

"It's a bizarre revelation," he admits "and it only occurred to me last year. People were contacting me through social media, who were finishing high school and wanted to get into animation programs, saying 'your work has been an inspiration to me since I was a little kid'. Growing up, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott were my heroes. They continue to be my heroes, and, when I compare myself against them I feel inadequate, but, with people being inspired by my films I realised I'm part of the cycle. It's flattering and nice to know that future storytellers have been inspired by work I've been a part of."

When I say that he's also been the source of many happy memories for children, he looks bashful and says hesitantly "that's also a nice side effect".

The Hidden World is voiced by an all-star cast including America Ferrera (Astrid), Cate Blanchett (Valka), Kit Harington (Eret, son of Eret), Kristen Wiig (Ruffnut) and F Murray Abraham who plays Grimmel, the baddie determined to exterminate the dragons. I wonder if he ever gets star struck?

"The only one time was Cate Blanchett," he tells me. "I've admired her as an actor since seeing Elizabeth (1998), she was so good. And, after living in Ireland, (I think) she is the only non-Irish actor who has nailed the accent with Veronica Guerin (2003). She's a powerhouse of acting."

DeBlois wrote the character of Valka with Blanchett in mind, but never thinking he would be able to sign her up.

"I met her at the Oscars in 2011 and told her I'd written a part for her in How to Train Your Dragon 2. Her boys were fans so she heard me out and said "well, I'm not doing anything, so send me the script. To me that was an amazing moment and it all happened in the space of a minute. As glamorous as she is, she's very down to earth and a real passionate artist at her core."

As we say our goodbyes, DeBlois tells me that as soon as he's finished publicising The Hidden World he's heading to Dublin for four days, to catch up with his friends and to visit a couple of the pubs he used to hang out in.

I feel Dean DeBlois will be back where he belongs.

How to Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World is in cinemas nationwide.

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