Writer-director Dean DeBlois, producer Bonnie Arnold, and actors Jay Baruchel and America Ferrera have been involved with the How to Train Your Dragon franchise since well before the initial film's 2010 debut. Working from Cressida Cowell's book series, DeBlois and Chris Sanders (who also made Lilo and Stitch at Disney) launched the first film, and DeBlois takes the reins solo with the sequel How to Train Your Dragon 2. Arnold produced both films and has production credits ranging from Over the Hedge, Tarzan and Toy Story to Dances with Wolves and The Addams Family. Ferrera—winner of an Emmy, a Golden Globe, and a Screen Actors Guild Award (among others) for her lead role in Ugly Betty—co-anchored the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants films; starred in the films Real Women have Curves, Cesar Chavez: An American Hero, and End of Watch; as well as headlining the West End production of the hit musical Chicago in the role of Roxie Hart. Canadian Baruchel's big American break came with Judd Apatow's one-camera FOX sitcom Undeclared, followed by appearances in Knocked Up and Tropic Thunder; his other films include Million Dollar Baby, Cosmopolis, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, She’s Out of My League, Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist and two films he had a hand in writing: This Is the End and Goon. The Dragons team sat down with me at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
Groucho: Okay, so I enjoyed the film.
Jay Baruchel: Thank you!
Dean DeBlois: Thank you!
Groucho: One of the things that—I thought the most special effect in it was that the "human" acting in animation was some of the best that I've seen.
Jay Baruchel: Awesome!
G: (to Jay and America:) Particularly it really struck me in the first scene between your characters.
JB: (Laughs.) Yeah!
G: There's so many little things going on in the body language, in addition to, of course, the voice acting. So can you all talk about—from the voice perspective and the animation perspective—how you go about achieving that illusion, sort of, of acting?
JB: Well, I mean, y'know, I would say that it's probably not that much of an illusion. I think it...as unnatural as it might be to just be in a booth with a mic in front of you—still all comes from the same place, the preparation remains the same, the intention remains the same, the end goal is the same. So what that means is that we start with really terrific scripts with very clearly defined intentions in each scene, we make sure that we serve the story, and then Dean always allows us time to "find daylight," to sort of try to make it our own and kinda do what I call "handmade acting," right? Make it a bit clumsy, rough around the edges, homemade.
Dean DeBlois: It was partly conceived to be—because it's Jay once again: he did it in the first film, and here he is reprising his impression of Stoick—recounting a scene that happened earlier that day so that narratively we didn't have to play the scene out in what would have been a really expected but kind of dull fashion. So it was kind of a refreshing take on that: by recounting the story to Astrid, it opened it up for Astrid to then imitate Hiccup—
JB: (Laughs.) Yeah. (Laughs.)
DD: And we brought them together, in a recording session in New York. In fact, it was the only one that they got to record together. But the idea was that they could step on each other's lines, they could let it breathe, they could insert pauses wherever they wanted or even change dialogue if they saw fit. And that's always my hope, is that I try to carry it—get the intention across, as jay said—but then leave it in their hands to make it their own. And they're such authorities on their characters. They embody them so well that it becomes really refreshing and spontaneous, and it inspires the animators.
G: (to America:) Anything to add about your process with voice acting?
America Ferrera: You know, I think like Jay said, at the end of the day, it's the same—you've set the intention the same way you would in any on-camera performance. For me, what's special about this process is the main ingredient is imagination. And most of the time you're by yourself. It's amazing when you get to record with somebody, but the majority of the time, it's me and Dean in a booth, and he's playing all the other parts. And it really—
JB: Which one day...if you're lucky, you'll get to hear what that sounds like.
G: I hear he does a mean you.
DD: Oh, it's bad.
America Ferrera: But a big part of it is getting back into a place every couple months when I come in to record Astrid, where I'm really in my imagination about what this world is, and it's on Dean to bring it to life in my imagination. And then it's on me to kind of internalize that. I'll never forget the recording session, in the first film, where he was explaining Astrid going on her first ride on Toothless. At first, she's screaming and hanging from a tree and "Aighhh! Get me down from here!"
AF: And then she's screaming, and she stops for a second and sees where she is. I'll never forget how Dean described it, 'cause he was explaining it, and I felt like I was flying—like, in a booth. And when I watch it with the animation, it really lives up to what it felt like in my imagination. It's just so fun.
Bonnie Arnold: I just have to put an end point on that...to me, the performance comes from two places: it starts obviously, as Jay said, with a great script, and then performances by good actors, America and Jay—y'know, at the top of their game—but then there's the animators. And they come in and really listen and listen to the voice performance, and then they're actors as well.
BA: And they bring the physical performance. And in that scene in particular, I just have to say, there's other things that add to that—the lighting and the effects, and I have to mention the music by John Powell, because he used some of "Astrid's Theme" from movie one to play in that scene to remind you of their—of sort of the Astrid-Hiccup relationship. And I just think that—to me, I've watched the scene and a zillion times, and when I heard the...Hiccup-Astrid music from movie one get reprised in that moment, it just reminded me of their relationship. And I think that's kind of the subtleties that just put the finesse on scenes like that.
G: Is there any video reference of the actors? I know you used mo-cap for some of the fight scenes and stuff like that.
DD: Mm-hm! Yeah, yeah, we do! In fact, we have [cameras] on the actors while they're recording. Because sometimes the animators—if they're stumped for an idea or if they're just looking for inspiration—they will watch the playback and see if there's a mannerism or an expression or a—
JB: There's always a camera on us.
DD: Yeah. Yeah. So I think, when they're doing voice work, they're trying not to use the crutch of their bodies and their physicality, but you can't help it, you know? It's like watching somebody on the phone. The natural gestures and expressions come across, and those actually oftentimes inform the animation.
G: One of the other things that's great about the movie is that it's inspiring on a couple of levels. One is personal growth, right?
G: With the journey of Hiccup and him, in this movie, earning leadership and loyalty, right?
G: And then the other level is this whole thing about the potential for sociopolitical change, right?
G: And what it means—is war necessary? And, if so, under what terms? So can you talk a little bit about how that comes into a movie like this: is it an organic thing for you, or is it something that you're really going after?
DD: Well, we're always careful not to be didactic about it, because we don't—we're not pushing an agenda. It really is first and foremost entertainment. But, at the same time, Hiccup represents an advanced idea. He's willing to look beyond the dogma. He took the step of befriending an enemy and discovered, y'know, the sympathetic plight of dragons in the first movie. So this builds upon that idea, now that he's sort of brought that truth to the people of Berk, and they're living in harmony, and it's actually working, despite the knocks and bumps along the way. It makes sense that there would be others out there that are pursuing a completely different path, seeing dragons as opportunistic means to a nefarious end. And that's what Drago's all about is that he knows people fear dragons, and therefore he collects them; he keeps them close at hand. And that way he can control the masses and get rid of those who won't follow him. The idea of an island full of dragon lovers, y'know, that live in harmony with the beasts and sympathize with them, is poison in the well. And he's very quick to want to suppress and get rid of that voice. So, in a way, it does sort of reflect out there in the world. There are people who want to demonize the "other," and in this case, the dragons are that other.
G: So as we move toward a wrap-up here, maybe you could all talk a little bit about where you see the franchise going. I know there's going to be a TV series that shows us what happens between the films...
G: And then where it might go from there. I'm sure there's a plot for a third film, right—?
G: Because it's conceived as a trilogy?
DD: Yeah, absolutely. We didn't want a sequel that felt random, or unneccesary. So in charting Hiccup's coming of age, the end goal is to end up where Cressida Cowell began her books. Hiccup is an adult reflecting back on a time when there were dragons. And that seems to indicate that dragons will go away, that Hiccup will complete his coming of age. How that all evolves is yet to be unveiled. we just promise to do it in a very powerful and hopefully emotionally satisfying way. And then the TV series actually helps bridge the gap. So now that they're heading into Series Three and Four, they're going to use our older versions of the characters and begin to set up the year leading up to movie number two. So you'll start to see Hiccup beginning to explore the outer limits of the Viking map. You'll see the development of the dragon-racing games on Berk and other things: y'know, Hiccup's dragon blade. All of these things will have a little bit more time to explain what they are and how they came to be.
G: In the minute I have remaining, perhaps Jay and America: could you recall a moment in your journey with these characters or with this franchise that sticks out as "Wow, it was all worth it for that one moment"?
JB: Oh boy, I mean there are so many. Y'know, I think when—there was a point, about a month or so after the first one came out where it was clear that it was a movie that meant a great deal to a lot of people. And that was not the least bit lost on me. 'Cause, yeah, I think most people will toil their entire careers and never be a part of something half as impactful as that. And so then to bring number two down the Croisette in Cannes and walk up the red carpet of the Grand Palais, y'know, it was a reprise of that same sort of feeling. It was returning to that of "Holy smokes! We're in something that people like."
AF: I think what's so exciting is to see what the audience chooses to take from it. I think what's so wonderful about what Dean and Bonnie always keep in mind is that they're not making a movie for kids, they're not making a movie for adults, they're just telling a good story. And I think kids really sense that. They know that there's quality in what they're being shown. And I'll never forget: a friend of mine's grandson—he was about seven years old and every night went to bed listening just to the score of Dragons One. Y'know, a seven-year-old [for whom] that was his favorite thing to listen to before he went to bed. Y'know, my goddaughter's, at seven, playing dragons and pretending to be Astrid, and knowing that this film was not leaving girls behind, and letting girls be a part of the fun and adventure. And, y'know, I grew up with so many animated films being a staple in my childhood, and to know that I get to be a part of something that, for these kids, will be a touchstone in their childhood is really exciting.
G: Well, I hope number two takes off like a rocket.
All: Thank you!
G: Or a dragon.
JB: Thank you.
DD: Appreciate it.