How To Train Your Dragon - Kristen Wiig and Ruffnut (TJ Miller
How To Train Your Dragon - During Dragon Training, fraternal twins Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Ruffnut (TJ Miller) come face to face with a Deadly Nadder, one the most dangerous dragons feared throughout the land © Dreamworks

Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, who wrote and directed Disney’s Lilo & Stitch and Mulan, have moved to DreamWorks animation to bring to the screen Cressida Cowell popular children’s book How to Train Your Dragon, an adventure set on the Island of Beck, where fighting dragons is a way of life.

A teenage Viking named Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is desperate to make his father,Stoick (Gerard Butler), proud of him by slaying a dragon, but when he finds an injured dragon he names Toothless, instead of killing it, he befriends it.

I spoke with Cressida about her novel coming to the screen, and to Dean and Chris, who helped bring it there.

Did you have any influence in the back story?

How to Train Your Dragon - Co-director Dean DeBlois, producer Bonnie Arnold and co-director Chris Sanders
Co-director Dean DeBlois, producer Bonnie Arnold and co-director Chris Sanders © Dreamworks

Cressida Cowell: No, I very much saw it, right from the beginning, as their movie. I’m not a movie writer, although I was in touch throughout and I flagged out issues that I saw as we went along, but I very much saw it as their movie creatively and I was the writer of the book, which was a separate thing.

What was the decision to go Scottish with the accents?

Dean DeBlois: When Chris and I came onto the project we had just a little over a year to make the movie, and the cast was largely in place, all except for Dobber, he was the last character to be cast. So we had this great group of young teen Vikings who has North American accents, and then we had Gerard Butler doing his native brogue. It’s a silly conceit, but it’s one that’s familiar to us growing up here in North America, that you might have parents who still speak with the accent of whatever country they came from.

So we just went with that idea and by casting Craig Ferguson we had not only a great comic foil, but acting as a conduit between a father and a son who couldn’t speak to each other. Gerard and Craig are friends off-screen as well as on screen, so it really helped that relationship. It just gave consistency to that adult world versus the young Vikings

Is it just me or does Toothless look a little bit like Stitch?

How to Train Your Dragon - Jay Baruchel
Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) befriends Toothless, an injured Night Fury © Dreamworks

Chris Sanders: There is a resemblance there. Believe it or not, we didn’t design him. Simon Otto, who is our head of character Animation, actually created his look.

It was based on some very specific things that we gave him as far as what we needed this character to do. We needed Toothless to play a very specific role, because he is one of the big changes that we made when we came into the film just because we needed a certain type of dragon to fill that role.

We needed him to play very much like a mammal, there is a lot of acting he has to do, then we had some other things we needed just in a geeky way, we just wanted him to look fast, and stay streamlined and not have too many spiky projections on his body, just have a Corvette of dragons look!

Can you talk about the fact that the dragons don’t talk in this like they do in the novel.

How to Train Your Dragon - America Ferrera and Jay Baruchel
Astrid (America Ferrera) and Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) soar through the sky on the wings of Toothless © Dreamworks

Dean DeBlois: When we came onto the project the first thing we did was we read Cressida’s book and then we looked at some of the previous versions of the film as assembled and put up on reels.

I think that we collectively decided that because the mandate coming in was to age-up the material a little bit and broaden the world, and take the world that Cressida had created and expanded for a big fantasy adventure.

Part of that was creating a level of believability within the world so that we understood the stakes and the peril, and that meant removing a certain amount of magic and replacing it with elements that we understand.

So taking the very brilliant decision of having multiple breeds of dragons but Imbuing them with characteristics that we understand and recognize in the animal world, like Toothess being very panther like, we thought there were enough personality traits to be glean from the natural world that would actually help in our story telling.

Is there anything that changed dramatically from your first concepts in the book to what ended up on the screen?

How to Train Your Dragon - Craig Ferguson with: Jonah Hill, Kristin Wiig, America Ferrera, TJ Miller) and Christopher Mintz- Plasse
Dragon Training drill sergeant Gobber (Craig Ferguson) with his new recruits::Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Ruffnut (Kristin Wiig), Astrid (America Ferrera), Tuffnut (TJ Miller) and Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz- Plasse) © Dreamworks

Cressida Cowell: In the book Toothless is really tiny. Children just love Toothless; he’s one of the characters I get a lot of letters about. I was anxious about the decision to make him bigger, but I can see why if you’re making a movie about dragons in 3D, you want to be able for the hero to get on the dragon and ride it. The dragon riding scenes are spectacular; they are my favorite scenes in the movie.

In the book Hiccup speaks dragonese, but what works really easily in a book doesn’t necessarily work in a movie. You’d have to have subtitles and kids can’t necessarily read subtitles. Some things had to change when it was made into a movie. That happens.

The flying dragons were spectacular;did you have to do anything special to get the 3D effect?

Chris Sanders: The flying sequences were the favorite things that we did in the film. It was the biggest challenge for us. They were the most naturally 3D friendly parts of the film. The interesting thing about that is that throughout the film we constantly throttled the 3D effects back and forth, because you tend, as an audience, to get used to it and it stops being effective.

When we knew a flying sequence was coming up we would throttle the 3D back, and flatten things out just a little bit and a little bit more until we hit the flying and then boom, we’d crank the depth up again, so that you really felt it afresh.

How to Train Your Dragon - Jonah Hill, Kristin Wiig, America Ferrera and TJ Miller
Dragon Trainees Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Ruffnut (Kristin Wiig), Astrid (America Ferrera) and Tuffnut (TJ Miller) © Dreamworks

There are a whole series of book.

Cressida Cowell: Yes, I’ve written eight while they were doing this one movie.

Is this planned to be like Shrek, a whole series of adventures that we’ll be seeing for the next decade?

Chris Sanders: It’s presumptuous to assume that we might make a whole bunch of films, but if it’s a success and if it’s embraced then certainly I think the potential for mining that world, now that we have Vikings on dragon-back the world obviously broadens, so there are many adventures these characters can get into together.


Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.