At Deadline’s 2014 Contenders event we sat down with the talented director behind one of the year’s most successful and highly acclaimed animated feature films, How To Train Your Dragon 2. Dean DeBlois discussed the conception of the project, the star-studded cast, as well as the challenges and joys of producing a sequel. Dragon 2 is nominated for a Golden Globe for best animated feature film, and is ramping up for some serious Oscar contention.
No one wants to use the word ‘franchise’ when they first start something, but you had a very specific idea of how Dragon 2 might work. What was your process in constructing this successful sequel?
It comes from a general allergy to sequels and the sense that they often feel so unnecessary and lack the integrity of the original. I pitched the idea of a trilogy with a larger architecture to it, where threads that were set up in the first film would be carried forward in the second and paid off in a very finite way come third.
You’re in the process of beginning the third film?
Yes, actually I’ve spent the last couple months going over outlines, pitching those and beginning the screenplay in earnest, and that will be delivered by the end of the year.
In Dragons 2, you really see the maturation of these characters. There’s a five year jump between 1 and 2.
By the time the first film ended, Hiccup had achieved everything he had set out to gain. He was a character without a problem. This time we meet him at a different crossroads in his life, that being the moment where you’re stepping over the threshold of childhood with a little bit of an identity crisis. That seemed like something that was quite relatable, emotional and universal.
You have an incredible cast for the sequel, including one of the world’s greatest actors, Cate Blanchett, who portrays Hiccup’s long lost mother. How did you secure her for the role?
I conceived this character who was feral, kind of a Jane Goodall or Diane Fossey-like character, who shared an affinity for the creatures and has since been away all this time. That required an actress who could bring confidence of character but also vulnerability and a commanding presence and I think Cate Blanchett does that better than most anyone I can think of.
You worked on both films with a tremendous creative team.
We’re a team of 400 people, so none of us can take credit for any one thing. I have learned through my career that the more hats you wear, the more singular the vision can be. For that reason, taking the time to write several drafts and storyboards meant that everybody could invest their efforts in what’s on screen.
It seems like there’s a very personal story of yours at the heart of this.
The movie came out on Father’s Day here in North America and there were a few people that asked, “Why would you kill off a father and then put the movie out on Father’s Day?” To me, it was a tribute. My father passed away when I was nineteen and my life has been the culmination of those memories and those lessons that taught me how to be a man. The movie is a tribute to the heroism and sacrifice of parents, and specifically, of fathers.
Dean DeBlois photographed by J.R. Mankoff