How to Train Your Dragon is the big screen adaptation of the 2003 children’s novel written by British author Cressida Cowell of the same name. This 3-D animated adventure tells the tale of a Viking boy who tames a fire-breathing dragon.
Gerard Butler lends his voice to a Viking dragon slayer named Stoick the Vast. His character has a nerdy but resourceful son named Hiccup (played by Jay Baruchel) who has a fierce rival in the person of his classmate Astrid (played by America Ferrera). But eventually, Hiccup and Astrid develop feelings for each other.
In the following Q&A, Gerard shares how it was like working on How to Train Your Dragon, which is currently being screened in Philippine cinemas.
Q: How did you become involved with How to Train Your Dragon? Did they send you a script?
GB: No, you don’t seem to get scripts for these movies. They came to me with the idea—and showed me art, renderings of my character, the other characters and the Island of Berk. They showed me the world that we would live in and then told me a rough story—it was much more specifically based on the book. There’ve been a lot of changes since then.
And, so, I think what happens in animation, anyway, is that you go in and you do a session—and my experience now tells me that the chances for that early session ever making it into the movie are pretty low. Because, it’s always moving and transforming—the story changes, and the dialogue changes, and the scenes change, which is actually kind of great. It is definitely an interesting way to go about it, but no, when I went in, there was definitely no script. I don’t know if there’s a script even now. [laughs]
Q: I know that directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois were interested in speaking to you about Stoic before your first recording session with them.
GB: Yeah, it was interesting, because my opinion hadn’t really come into play before. I’d never really been asked for my opinion. I was given my pages and I turned up. Not that that was bad, that’s obviously the way it works in animation. There are too many people working there, doing the writing, editing, animating, for me to be turning up and saying "I think this is how it should be."
Then, Chris and Dean came on, and I got a call from my manager, saying that they’d love to have a chat with you about your thoughts for the character. We were in different parts of the country, so it’d be by phone. There was a part of me that thought, what a lovely thing. You know, how great, and there was another part of me that thought, I don’t know what to say—I have no idea where they want to go with it, how they want to change it.
Interestingly enough, it turned out to be one of the best phone conversations I ever had, especially opening conversations, with two guys who were so excited, appreciative and smart, and who knew what they wanted. But they were also open to other ideas. We ended up creating whole scenes, and a new thing for Stoick—which was often playing against that pure toughness, the brawniness and the way he spoke with everybody, to a more confused kind of vulnerability, trying to be that strong guy, but often just becoming completely befuddled. And, a lot of great stuff came out of just that one conversation. It’s true, you know, I see the remnants of a lot of that conversation even in the movie now when I watch it.
But, it made me so much more excited about the movie, because I knew I was working with two incredibly talented and smart, but also considerate and sensitive guys, you know? I could just tell I was working with two actors’ directors.
Q: Tell me about Chief Stoick.
GB: I play Stoick, the Vast, I think is his name, who is the Chief Viking of this village on the Island of Berk. He’s very old-school, very traditional. I mean, their main thing is fighting—preparing for that fight, and preparing themselves to be heroes, to be brave, brawny and tough.
And, I have this son who is, I guess, the opposite of all of that. He comes along, and he has his own ideas. He’s an inventor, he’s creative, he’s witty, he’s just an embarrassment. It’s a journey for my character to come to appreciate my son’s own beauty and what he has to offer—and that there’s a whole other way to living as Vikings, other than the way that we thought...that there is a way of tolerance, of peace, of understanding. That’s how you would say it in a very spiritual way. [laughs]
Q: What has led up to this fever pitch of conflict between Vikings and dragons? The movie starts with this virtual blitzkrieg attack--what’s figured into this attack? Did you get on the island two generations ago, and the first person there was attacked?
GB: Oh, no, it’s more than two generations. We’ve been in this village for a long, long time. I am the product of many generations and many chiefs of the Island of Berk. I think that in the movie, it feels like this has been a constant thing. We have been battling these dragons for a long time, which is why I was trained the way I was, and my father was trained the way he was.
It’s our sole occupation—we’re not marauding Vikings, we’re occupying Vikings. We don’t go off elsewhere, as your traditional Vikings would do. We’re pretty much on that island, defending ourselves and fighting the dragons. Maybe we go on missions to try and destroy them. But, no, it’s pretty much a constant threat that we have. Yeah, I guess blitzkrieg is a good way to describe it. And we just try to save our people and our livestock, and destroy as many of them as possible. And as many as we can capture of them, the better, because we can learn from them, and teach our kids how to fight against them.
Q: Did the character look one way when you first saw it and then did it evolve? Or, has it pretty much stayed?
GB: Well, the initial rendering I saw was just a 2D still rendering. So, I don’t think he looks much different. What was the big challenge for the animators was to then bring that to life—and one of the biggest challenges was the beard, to make it as real and as alive as possible. And, I remember how excited they’d always get, and they’d say, "We’re almost done with the beard!" Also, to give him his personality, his ticks.
We had this incredible supervising animator Kristof Serrand, whom everybody just raves about. He’s done such a brilliant job. What I love is that when I first went in, they had all these little [lipstick] cameras all over the place, and I couldn’t understand why they had them—I thought, I’m just sitting here, reading—I’m performing, but not really moving, not really doing that much. Then, they showed me some footage from me performing, compared to the animation of Stoick. And they had really used a lot of my own movement, which I found very interesting.
Q: As an actor, you use every part of yourself in a performance. But now, it’s just your voice. Was your process different at all? Was it more challenging?
GB: Yeah, it is more challenging. It is more challenging when, as an actor, you don’t have the physical environment that you would generally have if you were a Viking and you were surrounded by dragons, or speaking to your son in this great hall, or at the head of a Viking ship.
Actually, you’re always standing in the same place surrounded by the same people. There’s not that many of them, and you’re in a dark room. You don’t have the other actors. I did one session with Craig and Jay, but most of them with no actor. Sometimes with the directors reading with me, sometimes with nobody reading with me. So, you really are creating a lot out of nothing, which is a whole new way of acting, and I embrace that.
It’s not easy, but it was the same when I did [the movie] 300, it was a whole new style of acting to me. Often, I was speaking to people that didn’t exist, looking at things that weren’t there. So, you learn to modulate—it’s a huge learning curve.
And, I like that...but there are times that you don’t feel the same sense of gratification inside that boils away in your stomach when you finish a scene. Because, there aren’t the other actors around for you to get your ego boost. How was that? Was that good?
But, I have to say that what made up for that was working with Chris and Dean. They’re two very special human beings, who couldn’t have been more encouraging, more appreciative. I couldn’t say a bad word about them. They’re very smart; they got to know me very quickly, and the best way to work with me. I loved the process. I really looked forward to coming and hanging out with them.
Q: What do you think it is about the Scots, and the Celts and the Picts before them, that will cling so tenaciously to a piece of uninhabitable land and defend it to the death? What is it?
GB: Because they’ve got nowhere else to go. [laughs] Well, in Scotland, I guess the only way they could go was South, which was to England. And that wasn’t quite happening, you know, we were too busy defending our own land. Listen, I think it happens all over the world, when people are in a place, then, they want to defend it. It’s their home; it’s what they know.
When the Celts or the Picts were living in Scotland, they didn’t know that Africa existed. [laughs] They didn’t know they could go on holiday to Majorca—this is what they knew. They were a much rougher breed. And, it’s the same with the Vikings, as well, but it makes me proud to be Scottish. It’s what allows me to play roles like this—that history of tenacity, the toughness, the fearlessness and the stubbornness that works for a character like Stoick...that definitely is part of our Scottish personality.