Tapanui: How a small New Zealand town became the heart and soul of Disney’s Pete’s Dragon

“Edge of the Forest”: an apt description of quiet West Otago township Tapanui, the words located underneath it’s welcome signage. On first look, this forestry town on New Zealand’s south island, a few hours east of Queenstown, is no more than a quick stop-off on a road trip through the region’s stunning scenery, which includes the lush Blue Mountains and tranquil Pomahaka River.

Aside from the mysterious “Tapanui Flu” (better known as chronic fatigue syndrome), not much of note to tourists could have been attributed to the locale before 2015, but now that small stop-off has become quite the star attraction, and surprisingly it’s due to a fantastical brush with Hollywood.

By Hollywood I mean Disney, and by Disney I mean the cast and crew of the epic, emotionally rich 2016 remake of Pete’s Dragon.

For six weeks in 2015, Tapanui’s population of around 700 grew by 250 as everyone from director David Lowery to actors Bryce Dallas Howard and Robert Redford came and helped transform the place into the fictional U.S logging town of Millhaven, a major location for the film and an anchor for it’s endearing and nuanced themes of family, belonging and loyalty.

New Zealand’s natural landscapes have enraptured audiences through cinema many times during the modern era. From Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy and now to Lowery’s remake of Pete’s Dragon, filmmakers have sought to contain the essence of what makes the country such a beloved and desired part of the world. But Tapanui represents another, equally important side to all of that. Aside from the gregarious Californian redwoods in Rotorua and the sweeping mountaintops of Queenstown – both locations used to great effect in the film – the behind-the-scenes and oft ignored human aspect of the creation process may have been just as influential over the finished product.

So what made Tapanui so special? Well first off, as soon as Lowery and his crew became aware of the disused mill, Blue Mountain Lumber, that sits nearby, this spirited little town had its fate all but set in stone (or steel).

“We needed a mill for the plot of the movie, that was where the climax was going to take place,” recounted Lowery as he spoke to The Iris. “And so we were looking around the country for abandoned saw mills that we could kind of take over. And we found that one, we went there and fell in love with the mill, but we didn’t even think to look at the town.”

“For some reason, we kind of looked at the mill, checked it off our list and then went looking elsewhere”, he continued. “Then we went back a little while later and still hadn’t found a town to shoot the movie in…our production designer was hungry and decided to go looking for lunch, drove into town and then facetimed me from the main street to say ‘this is exactly what we need, why have we not been here yet?'”

All Lowery needed was a quick look through the phone and he was immediately sold on Tapanui. “It’s got that perfect main street, it’s got those beautiful hills in the background, and it really felt like a human establishment on the edge of nature”, he said. “And it doesn’t feel like it’s threatening the forest. It feels like it’s existing right alongside it and that was really important to us because a big aspect of the movie is a symbiotic relationship between nature and mankind and how they need to exist together, and that man needs to respect nature in utilising it”.

The locals are sure glad the crew did eventually decide to take a look at the town; to think this chance encounter, which would go on to bring so much to the film, happened simply because someone was hungry.

Dramatic scenery surrounds Tapanui.
Dramatic scenery surrounds Tapanui.

On a recent visit to Tapanui, as part of a press junket with Disney, I was able to speak to some of the residents who were involved in the making of the film.

Being welcomed so warmly into town (on an impossibly rainy day nonetheless) and hearing these locals reflect fondly on their experiences as part of Pete’s Dragon, I instantly understood something Bryce Dallas Howard told me before the trip. “I think when we were coming to work, we were all feeling rested and protected and safe, and connected to one another and the people around us, and I think that bought a lot of humanity and warmth to the piece,” she said. This quote alone sums up a much larger theme at play here, not only for the film in question, but for art in general: It’s not just the what, why and how when it comes to the creative process, but the where.

Speaking to locals, I could only imagine what it was like to watch their town transform from Tapanui to 1970’s small town America (Douglas County, Oregon to be exact). It’s a transition which they have lovingly held onto, whether it’s through photographs hanging on walls; a list of which buildings were transformed for the set, proudly displayed underneath an American flag at ‘The Tapanui Courier’; signage or paint that has been kept in tact from the film; even the renaming of the local cafe’s caramel slice to “Wes Bentley’s Caramel Slice” (the awarded actor apparently couldn’t get enough of them – and after a bite, I could hardly blame him).

Inside the Top Nosh cafe, which became The Yellow Diner for Pete's Dragon.
Inside the Top Nosh cafe, which became The Yellow Diner for Pete’s Dragon.
Wes Bentley's Caramel Slice.
Wes Bentley’s Caramel Slice.

“I loved it!” Exclaimed the bubbly Jann Robertson, whose local business Ideal Print turned into ‘Toby’s Barber Shop’ for the film while she herself became a policewoman as an extra. “You could feel the atmosphere in town lifted, everyone seemed to be smiling. It felt unreal having it transformed bit by bit. When my building got transformed they built up layers to make it work, and when it was to be dismantled, it was just two and days and it was gone.”

“We were all a little bit sad, but of course we did have the movie to look forward to”, reflected Jann, who also saw one of her sons become an extra for the film’s bus scene. “It’s just been a really cool thing for this town. Everyone did work together and it made for a great vibe”.

Jann Robertson's Ideal Print became a barber shop for the film.
Jann Robertson’s Ideal Print became a barber shop for the film.

Aside from giving them an aesthetic edge to hold onto, welcoming Pete’s Dragon into their town has left Tapanui locals with newfound perspectives on show business, and it may have just shot more than a few of them onto career paths they wouldn’t have otherwise considered.

“The jobs that are in the industry are amazing”, said Jann.”To think that people now, where their hobby might be something like knitting, [can have] a job in the film industry…knitting costumes. When you’re bought up in a small town, to think about all that’s out there is incredible. It’s not just acting, there’s so, so much more. Everyone’s little job matters, otherwise it doesn’t work.”

Photos in the window of The Tapanui Courier.
Photos in the window of The Tapanui Courier.
A list of buildings transformed for the film.
A list of buildings transformed for the film.

Others seemed to agree that actually seeing how much detail and work goes into a film was extraordinary. “It was hard to believe at the start”, recounted local mechanic Nathan McPherson, who ended up playing a mill worker and also worked on various vehicles used in the film. “There seemed to be vehicles and people everywhere; I supposed it started off slow, people doing sets and all that, but once the main unit came [the scale] was unbelievable”.

Linda Cavanagh-Monaghan, the principal at the town’s Blue Mountain College, described the arrival of Pete’s Dragon as “mana from heaven on a whole lot of levels”, the most notable for her being the very rare opportunity it bought the students, exposing them to not just the wonder but also the technical side of making a film. Location manager Clayton Tikao would encourage those interested to watch first hand how the film was being made, and for students like Tommy Davies, who also played an extra, the experience was invaluable. I believe “coolest thing I’ve ever done”, was Tommy’s to-the-point description.

A gift from the cast and crew of Pete's Dragon.
A gift from the cast and crew of Pete’s Dragon, displayed on Main Street.

Pete’s Dragon is available to own in Australia on Digital HD, Blu-ray and DVD from Wednesday 18th January.

The writer travelled to New Zealand as a guest of NZ Tourism and Disney.

Featured image supplied.

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Chris Singh

Chris Singh is the Deputy Editor of the AU review and a freelance travel writer. You can reach him on Instagram by following @chrisdsingh.

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