Island Dreaming

ACMI curator Ulanda Blair chatted to Cressida Cowell, author of the young adult book series How to Train Your Dragon, by telephone during the development of DreamWorks Animation: The Exhibition.

Pierre-Olivier Vincent, 'The One', How to Train Your Dragon, 2010

Pierre-Olivier Vincent, ‘The One’, How to Train Your Dragon, 2010

Cowell’s series (there have been 12 books to date) is set in a fictional Viking world and focuses on the teenage protagonist Hiccup and his tribe as they train dragons as pets. DreamWorks Animation released their first film adaptation of the book series in 2010. The highly anticipated How to Train Your Dragon 2, starring Cate Blanchett, has just been released.

UB: Tell me about the origins of your book series How to Train Your Dragon.

CC: The original story of How to Train Your Dragon (2003) came from a very true, autobiographical place. I grew up in London and my father was a mad-keen birdwatcher. The Isle of Berk was inspired by my childhood summers spent with him on an uninhabited island off the west coast of Scotland. There was nothing on this island – no houses, no phones and no electricity. When you stood on the top of the island, all you could see was water all around you. My family was sort of living like people really did live a thousand years ago. Real Vikings would have come to that very island, because the west coast of Scotland was the first place invaded by Vikings. The little ruins I used to play in would have once been houses occupied by Vikings. I used to play in the caves and imagine that dragons really did live inside.

This Scottish island is a place I now go back to with my own family. We still have no electricity, and we still we catch our own fish to eat. We still go out in boats and storms. It’s a very romantic, inspiring place.

Nicolas Marlet, 'Hiccup', How to Train Your Dragon, 2010

Nicolas Marlet, ‘Hiccup’, How to Train Your Dragon, 2010

UB: Tell me about the process of having your books adapted to film – how painful was it?!

CC: I knew I just had to let go; I couldn’t control the adaptation process, and I didn’t want to. I was hoping my stories were going to be taken up by really imaginative and clever filmmakers who could make something wonderful and filmic, and I’m pleased to say that this is what happened.

DreamWorks Animation is a company that attracts excellent artists and original thinkers. That for me has been the most exciting thing in the whole process. All the artists that worked on the first How to Train Your Dragon film were at the top of their game. To see people like Nicolas (Nico) Marlet and Pierre Olivier-Vincent (POV) bringing my stories to life was just so exciting. Roger Deakins’ work with light lent so much power to that first film; that’s a tool you never could use in books.

In fact, the things that worked in my books, like the Dragonese language, could never have worked in the film. In the film, if you had dragons talking, they would sound like Jar Jar Binks! The dragons would lack mystery. Directors Chris (Sanders) and Dean (DeBlois) made Toothless the dragon much bigger in the film. In the books, Toothless is tiny and Hiccup doesn’t get his riding dragon until Book 6. But I think if you’re making a film about dragons in 3D, you need to see massive, swooping dragons. Chris and Dean also made much more of the conflict between the dragons and the humans, and although that was quite different from the first book, it wasn’t so different from my vision for the entire series.

UB: Did you collaborate at all with the DreamWorks Animation artists and writers while they were making the film?

CC: About ten years ago, DreamWorks Animation asked if I was interested in writing a screenplay and I said no. They were quite surprised by that response, but I am not a screenwriter, I am a book writer. At that time I had just started out as an author and I had only completed two books. I had a vision for a very long book series and I wanted to be doing that.

When Chris and Dean came along as the How to Train Your Dragon directors, they weren’t asking my opinion, but they did have a vision for the film that they were willing to share with me. They were very open and inclusive. Dean still sends me scripts. Thankfully I have never been involved in any of the day-to-day, intense decision-making that goes on at the DreamWorks Animation Studio!

 

Pierre-Olivier Vincent, 'Dragon of Spring', How to Train Your Dragon, 2010

Pierre-Olivier Vincent, ‘Dragon of Spring’, How to Train Your Dragon, 2010

UB: I heard that you wrote the first two books in the How to Train Your Dragon series by longhand, and that you the sketched characters, settings and maps as you wrote?

CC: I wrote the first two books in the series with a pen and paper, yes, and I still go back to longhand if I’m writing something emotional or poetic. It’s easier for me to access emotion with a pencil, I don’t know why that is! If I’m introducing a new character or a new location I always draw that character to get a sense of what that character is like. You have to be quite obsessive when you’re creating fantasy worlds.

I think in a very visual way. I do loads of research into different types of creatures. Right from the beginning of my book series I tried to treat dragons as real creatures. I did a lot of research in a sort of David Attenborough, Naturalist type way. I learned about how different creatures have evolved over time and adapted to their environments. I made dragons not just the big green things I’d already seen in storybooks, I made them have special modifications. So if they live in ice they might be white and have a spear on the end of their nose so they can poke a hole in the ice. Drawing is a very important part in the creation of my books.

I like to think of writing as telling a really big lie. The more detail I put into the lie, the more true it feels. So if I draw maps of places, I know how long the characters’ journeys will take and how different places link together. I read somewhere that Stanley Kubrick drew a map of the creepy hotel in The Shining (1980) so he knew how all the rooms connected together. I work in a very similar way.

A lot of the development work that goes on behind the scenes when making a book or a film doesn’t make its way onto the page or screen. I draw characters that never see the light of day. But the process of creating these unseen, unknown characters is still vitally important. It gives the whole completed piece more veracity.

DreamWorks Animation: The Exhibition runs until Sunday 5 October 2014.

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