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Animfx 2010: Dean DeBlois finds the story

Dean DeBlois co-wrote and -directed Disney’s Lilo & Stitch and Dreamworks’ How to Train Your Dragon. Coming late to the latter, he talked about stripping away what had gone before and making some brave decisions.

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How to Train Your Dragon offered one of the perennial dilemmas of adapting literary properties. It worked fine on the page, but wasn’t making a successful transition to a film when DeBlois and his co-writer and -director Chris Sanders joined the production.

Much work and several drafts had already been done, many characters modelled and actors cast, before DeBlois and Sanders joined the project in October ’08. It was, at that time, not in great shape – which was exactly why they were brought in.

Their job was to get it ready for production as quickly as possible which, to their credit, they achieved when the production was greenlit in December.

Recalling some advice DeBlois had received early in his career from John Lassetter, “Tell me the story without any detail,” Dean and Chris tried to strip away everything to find the core of a story and a throughline that would work for the film, whether it was a Norwegian kid living in a village with dragons “or Madonna on a desert island.”

The latter example might have been stretching a bit far but after a lot of slash and burn, albeit not in a careless way, they pared it back to answer the perennial questions: Who’s the hero and what does he want? What’s the problem and how does he solve it? What happens that’s unexpected?

They found the seven beats for the story:
*The father has high expectations of his son.
*The son is willing to meet those expectations but is ill-equipped to do so. (“You always root for someone who’s trying.”)
*The son does the unthinkable, the exact opposite of what his father wants (and in the process creates a secret that has to be kept)
*The son discovers the answer to the problem affecting the whole village.
*The son’s secret is exposed. His “betrayal” causes his father to disown him.
*The father provokes disaster by ignoring his son’s advice.
*The son saves the day by being true to his own beliefs (and everybody learns he was right all along).

Ignoring many other changes made to the story and script after DeBlois came on board, which largely centred on Norse/Viking myth and supernatural elements in the original source material, the stripping back to a “universal theme”, the father-son relationship, was what allowed the project to go forward.

Especially encouraging for DeBlois and Sanders was the encouragement from Katzenberg to push the story to be a more dramatic and challenging story with heart, rather than to move it in the direction of incorporating pop culture references or, as DeBlois felt it might have been viewed at one point, “a comedy with not enough laughs”.

The further the project went, the stronger the incorporation of elements which DeBlois considered would have been pulled by other studios on the grounds of not wanting to receive the sort of letters that parents would write. In particular (spoiler alert), the post-climax ending where it is revealed that the boy has lost a limb.

This ending was strongly defended at the first test screening in the post-screening discussion, according to DeBlois. Audience members perceived it – presumably from the questioning by the interviewer – as being a development that was under threat.

It made one think that, perhaps, studios sometimes make assumptions about audiences that aren’t necessarily correct but – to DreamWorks credit – they stuck with the ending and the film is stronger for it.

In the Q&A following the presentation, one person asked about testing the story to discover its weaknesses. Apart from sharing it with other people – obviously not a problem with the layers of input and decision-making in a studio environment – DeBlois recommended telling the story from another character’s POV as a good way of making sure you were always finding the most important story and most important elements of each scene.

Asked how he and Sanders had taken the beats of the stripped-back storyline and incorporated the universal elements of the story and its turning points into something specific. “Bury them,” was DeBlois’ response. “Let the story unfold and deliver the beats but bury them as deep as possible.”

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