A PEEK INSIDE THE LIFE OF PRODUCER DEREK FREY.
Fresh off the making of "Dumbo" Frey tells us his story
by Christine Bunish for Creative Content Wire
June 9, 2019
Derek Frey was born and raised in suburban Philadelphia and has helmed Tim Burton Productions since 2001. He produced Disney’s just-released “Dumbo” and previously executive produced “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” and “Big Eyes.” He co-produced “Frankenweenie,” which received an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature, and has a string of other notable productions with Burton. His indie directing credits include the Hawaiian horror featurette “Green Lake,” the dramedy “Motel Providence,” the comedy “Sky Blue Collar” and the moving “The Ballad of Sandeep.”
What was your pathway into this field?
“I made films in high school and college with friends but never thought it would be possible to do that for a living. I was on a journalism path at West Chester University of Pennsylvania but always passionate about making films. In my junior year of college I had an opportunity to visit LA and fell in love – it revolved around the entertainment industry, a world immersed in things I adored. The next spring break I had an opportunity to visit LA again. I met the head of the film permit office, and he showed me around town and introduced me to executives and producers in film and television. They all gave me different advice, but across the board said I needed to be in LA.
“Immediately after graduation I made the move and worked in the LA film permit office for a time. That led to an interview to be a production assistant on an ABC sitcom, ‘The Faculty,’ shooting on the Paramount Studios lot. I learned the ropes and on the side got a taste of the film world by glimpsing other productions and actors on the lot, including people in Star Trek costumes and makeup eating in the commissary. When ‘The Faculty’ wasn’t renewed, one of the people at ABC Productions had a contact in Tim Burton’s office where there was an opening for a runner.
“I was a fanatic of Tim’s growing up and jumped at the chance for an interview. I started working there on ‘Mars Attacks!’ and now it’s 13 films and 23 years later – where does the time go? It’s been a wonderful and interesting journey.”
What do you feel you learned the most from? “Watching Tim at his craft.
Each project brings its own challenges, and I love observing the way he approaches each one creatively. It’s inspiring to see the energy he brings to every stage of a production. And I’ve been fortunate to work with him in different genres and forms: commercials, music videos, animation, live action, low budgets and high.
“Every project is something personal to Tim, but he also has to be smart about the business side. Tim is very good at navigating through that and working with the major studios. It’s a real testament to his staying power and the level of the projects he continues to work on.”
What do you think people need to succeed in this field?
“For me it’s been patience but passion, too. I’ve met a lot of people who come into the industry and work on a couple of projects, maybe things don’t happen quickly enough and they give it up or move on to something else. I’ve felt like every project I’ve worked on has added to my skill set and helped me in the future. I learned what to do and what not to do and to take risks: to take jobs that don’t necessarily go where you want to end up but offer an opportunity to learn.
“Passion about the craft and films in general is important, too. You have to feel excited by it.”
What is the project you’re most proud of?
“That’s a difficult question because every project is special and holds a place in my heart. Right now, I feel very proud of ‘Dumbo,’ a beautiful film with a great message. It was a big, lengthy project. My responsibilities were greater than on previous films, and I’m really happy with the result."
"Dumbo’ was a 1941 Disney classic that meant a lot to people. I really liked the take that screenwriter Ehren Kruger had on this: reimagining the 1941 story then taking it beyond.
Once the world finds out Dumbo can fly, what happens?
Tim has always been a champion for the outsider character, and Dumbo is the original outsider animal in the Disney universe. Tim thought he could bring something unique to that world; he was really the correct choice to do this film. This ‘Dumbo’ fits with the original, it doesn’t try to beat it. It’s almost like a companion to it.”
What is the toughest problem you’ve solved?
“It wasn’t really a problem but more of a welcoming challenge regarding timing. Eleven years ago we received the script for ‘Big Eyes’ about the artist Margaret Keane, and I felt Tim was the only person to direct it. But he was busy with other projects, so the writers thought maybe they could get it going themselves. Then, in 2013, Tim had an opening between projects, and I raised the subject of ‘Big Eyes’ again. Tim was receptive, and we went into pre-production immediately.
“I’m glad I kept at it – often a project comes down to timing. ‘Big Eyes’ is one of Tim’s smaller films but a really personal one.”
What is the most fun you’ve had on a project?
“Each film is enjoyable, each one is filled with so much creativity and set in an amazing world [with] interesting characters. I’m fortunate to have been a part of so many.
“It was really fun to be a part of ‘Big Fish’ (2003). We brought everyone down to Montgomery, Alabama and made the movie. It was so dynamic, with different vignettes and stories — every day we had new locations, characters and costumes. ‘Big Fish’ blurred the line between reality and fantasy, and we were living in that world to a degree.”
What is your most indispensable tool?
“I write down everything and have containers full of notebooks. Nothing works as well as a pen and a notebook to help me stay organized day to day.
“Outside of that, I’d say Tim’s amazing team of people who are all really creative and who help Tim extend his reach. I couldn’t do my job without the team that surrounds Tim and me. They not only help us execute Tim’s vision for his films but also projects like Tim’s touring art exhibit, ‘The World of Tim Burton.’”
What are you currently working on?
“We just finished ‘Dumbo’ days before its LA premiere, and we’re now involved in supporting it through its release so our minds are still in ‘Dumbo’ mode. Tim will take a bit of a break, but he’s never idle for long. What is next is anyone’s guess!
“Something I’m very eager to complete work on is ‘Conversations with Vincent,’ Tim’s unfinished documentary on Vincent Price. Tim sat down with him about a year before he passed away, soon after he appeared in ‘Edward Scissorhands’ (1990). We have a rough assembly of the documentary, and it’s quite beautiful and moving. I’m exploring how to get this out to the world as we approach the 30th anniversary of ‘Edward Scissorhands.’ I’m hoping Tim will be open to completing it soon.”
What is your passion project?
“I’ve directed my own short films and music videos and am always looking to develop something of my own on the feature front. Frequent collaborators of mine are The Minor Prophets, a Philadelphia-area comedy troupe; we’ve done a number of award-winning short films. We’re eager to shoot a low-budget, dark comedy this year, ‘Awkward Endeavors.’ We have a funny and cleverly crafted screenplay and now we’re on the hunt for funding.
“I’m also getting some traction on ‘Quiet Fire,’ the story of trumpeter Miles Davis and pianist Bill Evans recording the landmark jazz album ‘Kind of Blue’ in 1959. We have it to the Miles Davis estate now. The story is such a compelling one: how Miles brought a classically-trained white pianist into his jazz group to create something unique and exciting. The film shows how they came together and the collaboration unfolded. I have a passion for jazz and played saxophone back in the day, so the story appeals to my sensibilities.”
How do you pay it forward?
“A lot of young people are inspired by Tim and look up to him as a champion of the outsider. That’s how I felt as a kid. We’re always receiving letters and email from kids who send their own artwork and videos. Corresponding with them is something we take pride in here. I also do the occasional interview or Skype call with students interested in the entertainment field.
“At each stop Tim’s art exhibit makes he meets with students from that city for a Q&A. In Belgium we visited one of the local art schools where kids had created art loosely based on Tim’s vision. These are the people who will be coming into the film and art worlds bringing their passion and energy. We feel a responsibility to keep those channels open. We’ll get letters from someone completing a Master’s dissertation or someone telling us they made it into the industry because of Tim.”
What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned?
“A lot of people come into the industry hoping things will happen overnight. That’s always possible but most likely it will take some time.
“Through the ups and downs it’s important to have a perspective on the bigger picture – look past your current project. You don’t know what could be next. So it’s important to savor the moment, the journeys, the experiences, the failures. It’s all about finding happiness in the process. When you focus too much on a goal, you can destroy the joy of the now.”
ADAPTING THE CLASSICS: A FEW MINUTES WITH PRODUCER DEREK FREY TALKING ABOUT DISNEY’S ‘DUMBO’. By David Voight for In The Seats.
July 07, 2019
Very often getting insight from behind the scenes of a film feels much more poignant then getting it from in front of the camera…
With Disney’s Dumbo available on Digital, Blu-Ray, 4K and DVD at all major retailers, it is easily the top choice for some summer entertainment in the comfort of your own home.
While we will admit to a little bit of skepticism about Director Tim Burton tackling this classic old tale I was surprised to realize that I simply wasn’t alone.
We got the unique pleasure to speak with Producer Derek Frey about his experiences on the film and how this Disney classic tale managed to also evolve itself into a classic Tim Burton tale as well.
Dave Voigt: You’ve worked with a Tim (Burton) a little bit and the marriage between Tim and Disney is already well documented but Dumbo actually feels like a little bit of stretch. Can you talk a little on what it was about the Dumbo story in particular that got you both involved?
Derek Frey: Yeah you know when Disney first sent the script through I think that my reaction really was pretty similar to how a lot of people reacted initially but once I read it and got to revisit the original animated film I quickly realized that Dumbo is this story about an outsider, just this misfit with the big ears. Tim’s entire career really has been about being a champion for these kinds of outsiders. When you look at characters like Edward Scissorhands or Sweeney Todd in a weird way, these are characters who really don’t have words to them and they play like silent movie actors and the second I saw that they weren’t trying to make Dumbo talk or do anything of that nature I knew that this was something that he would really respond to and ultimately he did.
And that really does add so many layers to it as well and I’m glad that you’ve mentioned the animated version because if memory serves it’s less than 70 minutes long. How much did you have to sort of balance the spirit of the original with the fact that there was going to be some different and new layers to the story for audiences to experience?
Ehren Kruger the screenwriter gave us this concept of reimagining Dumbo and he brought it to the studio that was initially hesitant but they encouraged him to give it a go, not to mention that Ehren was a huge fan of the original animated film as well. In this he kind of wanted to answer the question of it all because the first one takes up to the point where Dumbo flies for the first time but he really felt it would be interesting to see what happens after the world finds out that there is this flying elephant. He really felt he could get audiences through most of the action of the original film and still have plenty of time to go effectively beyond that. Given the exploitation of the character it all plays out a little bit in a King Kong like fashion, with this wonderful and rare creature being taken away from its natural environment and ultimately exploited.
It’s also visually very layered and this really was one of those films (much like in many of Tim’s films) where the world building is just seamless and you can’t tell the practical from the digital.
I guess that means someone did their job correctly! (Laughs) And here’s the thing, Tim has worked across so many different spectrums of live-action and animation that it can often run together. Obviously on this shoot, we knew going in that Dumbo would have to be a computer animated character. However, Tim did want it anchored into a real world at the same time to make for a kind of “heightened reality”. Ultimately the approach was that while Dumbo has to be CGI we want to make as much as we possibly can around this character be real and practical so that the actors had a real environment to work in and that you could drop into real sets. On the disc you’ll see in some of the behind the scenes, most of the sets are completely closed in and you’d really only have to insert the sky or to extend some of the sets. We had that mandate to anchor in reality as much as we could because he really felt that the story had that element of needing something you could really grasp on to.
Obviously it made for a really big challenge, particularly for the animators who handled Dumbo but in concert with Tim everyone involved took extra care to make sure that Dumbo as a character was connected to a real world environment. Be it through actors physically touching him or something slight like a kick up of dust when he flies by it was so important to make it all feel as grounded and as natural as we could. I think it really shows and that’s why it’s hard to really see that line between practical and CG.
I have to say that I got such a kick out of seeing Michael Keaton and Danny Devito working with Tim again here on Dumbo. It almost felt like he wanted to get the old gang back together in order to tell this story.
From the beginning of casting, Tim was always very meticulous in regards to casting because he just knew that the right people for the right roles would make it so much better. I know for a fact that Tim was excited to work with Michael and Danny again but it was a big deal for people on set as well. I know that one of my favourite days was when Alan Arkin, Danny Devito, Michael Keaton and Tim Burton were just all on set together. Even though they hadn’t worked together in years you could see how the shorthand between them all was there and how they easily they slipped into the work is a testament to how much fun they were all having on this shoot as well and I really think it comes through on the screen as well. The energy is palpable and they we’re all excited about going into fresh territory, particularly between Danny and Michael as Danny finally got to be the good guy and Michael really had fun in the bad guy role.
I’m always very curious, because you’ve also directed short films yourself and obviously have a creative bent to you but as a producer you also have to worry about the nuts and the bolts of it all. How do you ultimately find a balance between the two; the creative vs. the realities?
Obviously I really do love the creative side of things and I would say that’s what I enjoy more but when you are on a project of this scale you have certain responsibilities as well. On this one I’d say that I am really fortunate because Tim is a very responsible filmmaker with a team that has some of the best people in this industry. Trusting them all to come through on their various tasks and Tim is never one to try and make anything more than it should be and then you lose focus, not only behind the camera but in front of it as well. The term we’d always use is creating a kind of ‘Grand Intimacy’ and from that standpoint I actually think it helped us keep things in line from a budgetary standpoint. You’re always trying to prepare for contingencies but his department heads are all so great that they made my job pretty easy and for the most part this was a pretty smooth shoot over all…Knock on wood of course (Laughs).
These days in this business we live in such an environment where people just want to remake or reboot already successful properties which can cause some audience trepidation.
Do you think that for stories like this it really does come down to making sure you match it with the right talent because I can’t see this working as well as it did without Tim at the helm?
Oh I completely agree. Obviously there are so many of these films being made right now, but there’s also an audience for them as well but it does unquestionably help to take care that you’ve got the right match and we certainly had it here on this one. Apparently Tim was the first person approached with the script and Tim didn’t hesitate. Yeah you can have surprises when you’re making stuff and pairing material with talent and even my own initial hesistance is something I feel a lot of people felt…until they saw that first trailer and knew that in style and in tone this was unquestionably going to be a Tim Burton movie that audiences could get behind. It’s a delicate balance to be sure.
Disney’s Dumbo is available on Digital, Blu-Ray, DVD & 4K from all major retailers now…
INTERVIEW: DEREK FREY TALKS TIM BURTON, ‘MISS PEREGRINE,’ ‘GREEN LAKE’ by Tim Lammers for Direct Conversations
October 1, 2016
Starting out as Tim Burton’s assistant on the space invasion thriller “Mars Attacks!” in 1996, time has been flying, for the lack of better words, at warp speed for filmmaker Derek Frey.
Having worked on every one of Burton’s films since, Frey quickly rose through the ranks under the iconic film director to the pivotal role of running Tim Burton Productions and serving as the filmmaker’s closest collaborator.
On Burton’s latest, the fantasy adventure “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” Frey once again assumes a key role as one of the film’s executive producers.
“It doesn’t feel like 20 years at all,” Frey said Tuesday in a phone conversation in New York City. “Each project brings a set of new challenges and it’s been great to be near him on this journey through all these wonderful worlds.”
Frey said each year, if not each day, working with Burton brings out a new thing he didn’t know about the director before. In the case of “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” opening in theaters nationwide Friday, the biggest revelation was about making the film with more of a back-to-basics approach.
There’s a reason the cinematic adventure, based on Ransom Riggs’ best-selling 2011 novel, feels like vintage Burton. Just like the old days, the filmmaker is relying as much as he can on practical special effects.
“It feels so fresh and looks so different. There’s so much of it that’s real and practical,” Frey enthused. “We obviously did some computer stuff, but we actually went to these locations and I think it makes a difference, visually. In this day and age, where everything is created virtually, Tim wanted to go against the grain and I think it was a great decision of his. You can sense that there’s something tactile there and there’s something in the room. The brain can just feel it.”
Frey said that the reason he gets on so well with Burton is that they have the same sort of sensibilities — something that Frey said he knew growing up in Pennsylvania.
“I was a fan of Tim’s well before I started even thinking that working in this industry would be a possibility. Anybody who knew me in high school and college knows that I loved his films and really identified with the characters he created, being a misfit and a little bit of an outsider,” Frey recalled. “I was very fortunate to begin working with him very quickly when I moved to Los Angeles.”
Twenty years later, Frey said he still gets excited by the energy Burton creates, and how quickly the cast and crew of each film pick up on it.
“They see that what he creates is a family, and we’re all energized by his energy,” Frey said. “It’s one of the reasons why I’ve worked with him for so long because he’s maintained that same energy and passion. It’s incredibly inspiring.”
The great thing is, Frey said, is that Burton’s audiences get to share in the passion, too. His cinematic influence is worldwide, mainly because the films are something audiences can identify with on a personal level. Burton has felt the same emotions of the outsider as his characters have, and “Miss Peregrine” once again projects the feelings that his fans can grasp onto.
“Tim is not really one that follows reviews and critics — he knows it can be mixed bag,” Frey said. “But the people who identify with him, who embrace him films, are the ones who are going to be watching it 10, 20, 30 years from now. They’re going to be the ones dressed up as these character on Halloween, and they’re going to keep it alive.”
Of course, Frey knows that there are people who don’t identify with Burton’s work, and that’s OK.
“I said to him before, ‘The moment you’re universally accepted, it’s all over.’ He wouldn’t be the outsider anymore,” Frey observed. “As long as he’s the outsider, and he has those people who continue to identify, embrace and value these films, me personally, I’d rather be in that place. Look at pictures of his that didn’t generate a whole lot of interest or box office 20 years ago, yet are now heralded, like ‘Ed Wood.’ I’d take that any day. I would rather watch that film from 1994 than any film that came out within a few years of it.”
Waters of creativity
Admittedly a guy who can’t sit still for too long and is often on the road (fortunately, Frey is married to Leah Gallo, who is Burton’s photographer and author/photographer of “The Art of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”), Frey often engages in projects apart from Burton, most notably short films. His latest, the horror thriller “Green Lake,” has dominated the film festival circuit this year with more than 30 honors, and the accolades are still rolling in.
Frey said the opportunity to do films like “Green Lake” (inspired by the Hawaiian lore of the Mo’o — a female, shape-shifting-type of lizard that used to protect freshwater-based systems in the islands) affords him the opportunity to enjoy the best of both worlds. During his off-time from Burton’s films, he gets to create his own work.
“I need to be creative. I need to tell stories. I need to create something,” Frey said. “But at the same time I see the pressures that Tim is under — the pressures of the studio and the system and the deadlines and all the big things that come with releasing a big film — and I want to go the complete opposite direction. I want to do something that I have complete control over. It may be a very, very microbudget, but I have complete control over it. It’s kind of like therapeutic in a way.”
“Would I like to do that on a greater level someday? Sure,” Frey added. “But in the meantime, to be able to help Tim with his films and exercise myself by these microbudget films, I’m very happy with that.”
Interview with director Derek Frey by Diana Ringo, Indie Cinema Magazine
July 22, 2017
Being a member of the jury of Prague Independent Film Festival I watch a lot of independent films. One film – “Green Lake” impressed our jury by its humor and brilliant music score, but we were very surprised when we later found out that director of this independent production is Derek Frey, one of the most important producers in Hollywood, head of Tim Burton Productions. Apart of his main profession he directs his own independent films and music videos, including the horror short Green Lake, which was screened in over 40 film festivals and collected 47 awards. His newest music video God Came ‘Round will be screened at the Prague Independent Film Festival 2017. Derek Frey is currently producing the upcoming live action version of Dumbo directed by Tim Burton. We decided to interview him to find out more about his passion for independent low budget cinematography and how he combines it with his work on big budget projects.
Diana Ringo: What served as inspiration for your new music video God Came ‘Round?
Derek Frey: Trever Veilleux’s songwriting and poetic lyrics were the inspiration. I’ve been a fan of his music for a while now and this song spoke to me visually. I first collaborated with his band Technical Difficulties in 2001 on a music video for the song Sex is Easier. I listened to an advance copy of his new album Professor T and the East Side Shredders on repeat during a long-haul flight this past April, and God Came ‘Round jumped out instantly as something that could turn into a unique, funny, and touching music video. It’s an incredible album and I look forward to creating more videos to accompany it soon.
Official Facebook Page of Professor T and the Eastside Shredders: https://www.facebook.com/professort.biz Diana Ringo: Tell us about your working relationship with actor Deep Roy; he has acted in God Came ‘Round and also in your short film The Ballad of Sandeep. In an earlier interview you have mentioned the possibility of making a feature film version of The Ballad of Sandeep. Are you still planning it or is there another feature film project in your future?
Derek Frey: It’s always a pleasure to collaborate with Deep. I first met him on the set of Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes and later worked with him on Big Fish and Corpse Bride. He has an amazing spirit and an inspiring career. His first role was an Italian assassin opposite Peter Sellers in The Pink Panther Strikes Again, and he went on to play roles in Flash Gordon, The Empire Strikes Back, and Star Trek, just to name a few. The Ballad of Sandeep was great fun and was conceived by The Minor Prophets wanting to put a twist on the practice of outsourcing. It also gave Deep a chance to work out of SFX makeup.
I’d still very much love to make a feature film version of Sandeep, which we’re continuing to develop. Deep is eager to reprise the role and The Minor Prophets have created a fantastic screenplay which explores Sandeep’s outsourcing predicaments on a whole new level, and adds some social commentary relevant to today’s ever-changing work environment. We have a website dedicated to the legacy of the award-winning short which also explores the development of the feature: http://www.theballadofsandeep.com
Aside from Sandeep I’ve been developing a project called Quiet Fire, which tells the story of the creative bond between trumpeter Miles Davis and pianist Bill Evans, around the time of recording sessions for the iconic album Kind of Blue. It’s a historical musical journey and also a powerful story of race and addiction.
Also, my collaborations with The Minor Prophets continue. They are in the process of writing a feature screenplay entitled Awkward Endeavors, which we plan on filming in and around the Philadelphia area in 2018.
Diana Ringo: You also have made several short films starring the comedy group The Minor Prophets, how did your collaboration start?
Derek Frey: I was friends with two of The Minor Prophets, Gil Damon and Brian Gillin in middle school. Gil and I were mischievous cohorts in 7th grade. Fast forward to 2006 when I received an email from Gil who expressed how much he and his children enjoyed Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which I was the Associate Producer on. Gil introduced me to his work in The Minor Prophets. I found their shorts hilarious and extremely unique and thought-provoking. Most of their work is set in my hometown of Upper Darby, Pennsylvania so I felt a deep connection to what they were creating. I expressed interest in collaborating, which led to our first short film together, 4th and 99. It was a rewarding experience, and we brought the film to the Cannes Film Festival in 2007. Kill the Engine, released earlier this year, is our sixth collaboration and is currently having a successful run on the festival circuit.
Link to The Minor Prophets official website: https://www.theminorprophets.com
Diana Ringo: Your films show a good understanding of music, did you ever play any instruments yourself?
Derek Frey: Music was my first creative passion and remains central to everything I do. I played saxophone in marching band and jazz band throughout high school and into college. I was also an enormous fan of film music from a young age. For me, music is an essential component of each project I’m involved with.
Diana Ringo: What was your major in college? How have your films evolved from your university days?
Derek Frey: I studied Communication and Journalism at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. Making films with friends was a hobby throughout my college years. Each semester the projects would grow in complexity and improve through the process of experimenting. I missed out on the party side of college because I would stay in my dorm with friends making films. Those were the best of times! One of our earliest movies, Marooned in our Room, was a comedic survival story which revolved around being trapped in a dorm room during a blizzard. There were basic themes present in my early work that I’m still drawn to – usually involving comedy, horror and sci-fi. I’ve always enjoyed a good monster mash-up. In the final weeks of college my energy was focused on completing work on my college cult opus film Verge of Darkness. The positive reaction to the film fueled my desire to make films for a living. A couple of weeks after graduating college I decided to take a gamble and move to Los Angeles to pursue a job in the entertainment industry.
Diana Ringo: Your spouse Leah Gallo is a professional photographer who co-wrote the screenplay of Green Lake and has appeared in some of your films. Can you tell us about her role in your films and how she supports you in your creative endeavors?
Derek Frey: Leah is an extremely talented photographer and writer. Her creativity was one of the characteristics I was attracted to when we first met. We’re drawn to the same things visually which serves as great inspiration. For Green Lake I had a general outline of a story but knew Leah would do a great job writing the screenplay. The story revolves around a strong female character and has many elements of fantasy of which Leah is a fan. Leah has always been very supportive of my creative endeavors. She remains patient even when projects absorb my time and being, which is often. I’m fortunate because since she is creative herself she is understanding of my obsession with each project.
Leah Gallo’s Official Website: https://www.leahgallo.com
Diana Ringo: Please tell us about the camera and equipment with which you shoot your films. Films you direct are a good example for young filmmakers, they show that a low budget should not be a barrier for creativity.
Derek Frey: I’ve built up my kit over the years. God Came ‘Round was shot on a Panasonic GH5 (4k) with Zeiss Compact Prime Lenses. The lenses are what really makes the difference in quality. It’s amazing how much the technology has leapt forward in even just the past five years. Being able to shoot in such high quality with a minimal kit has been a godsend to my process. Working on both large budget features and micro-budget shorts and music videos keeps me balanced and grounded.
Diana Ringo: Which film have you watched the most times in your life?
Derek Frey: It’s difficult to select the one film I’ve watched the most. It’s a toss-up between Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Evil Dead 2 and Edward Scissorhands.
Diana Ringo: Can you tell us something about the upcoming Dumbo adaptation where Tim Burton serves as director and you as producer?
Derek Frey: We’re in the middle of the shoot at Pinewood Studios outside of London. It’s such a special project and a perfect fit with Tim. The story will capture the same rollercoaster of emotions as the original. Dumbo will break your heart… and lift you up along the way.
Diana Ringo: Your new music video will be screened in Prague. What are your impressions of the city? What is your favorite city in Europe?
Derek Frey: Prague is a great city. I love the gothic nature of its building and the beauty of the streets at night. I’d really like to film something in Prague someday. I was there in 2014 for the opening of Tim Burton’s art exhibition at the Stone Bell House in Old Town Square and had a great time. I find Prague to be incredibly cinematic, which is one of the reasons I’m so proud to have a project selected in the festival this year.
Diana Ringo: What advice would you give to young filmmakers?
Derek Frey: Just get out there and create. There are so many stories to tell and these days there’s nothing to hold you back. Let your passion guide you and always have a camera by your side.
Top Shorts Filmmaker in the Spotlight: An Interview with Derek Frey
January 23, 2018
Derek Frey is an exceptional filmmaker. With credits like The Killers' Here With Me, Alice in Wonderland, Kill the Engineand Disney's upcoming Dumbo, he is taking over Hollywood at the speed of light.
Read Derek's interview to find out how did a suburban Philadelphian boy become one of Hollywood's top producers?
Tell us a bit about how you became interested in being a filmmaker? When did you create your first film?
Going to the movies was a big part of my childhood. So many great films came out during my formative years and I remember after watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Wars, E.T. the Extra Terrestrial and Raiders of the Lost Ark, being curious about how they were made. I think audiences in the late 70s/early 80s began to take interest in how visual effects were created. I was always excited to read the latest edition of Bantha Tracks, the Star Wars fan club newsletter, which gave an inside look into the making of those films. Although the photos were printed fairly small and in black and white, they provided a lot of behind the scenes information and I was intrigued.
In 7th grade we had a class project where we wrote and filmed our own skits. Our teacher gave us the freedom to do pretty much anything we wanted. That was a big moment for me, I loved the creative nature of putting something on camera and making people laugh. It was a pretty powerful exercise at that age. I didn’t have access to a camera again until high school when I borrowed a camera and started experimenting more. Each project would grow in complexity and then in college I wrote and shot the first of a few feature length films.
Have you ever received formal education in filmmaking? Did you attend any film school for training?
I studied communications and journalism in college. Filmmaking was always a hobby – something I did on the side. My university didn’t have a film program but did have some editing and camera gear, mainly kept out of student’s view and utilized by faculty members. A supportive professor championed for me to have access to cameras and a Video Toaster editing system. The opportunity to work on a real editing system was a huge leap forward for me. Up until that point I would edit between two VCRs, with the sound either dubbed live while duplicating, or premixed on a cassette tape that I would then synch up while duplicating. It was an insane way to edit, especially the feature length films, but it really taught me the fundamentals.
When did you move to LA? And why?
The idea of moving to LA to work in the film industry was something I never would have even considered a possibility. I had a chance to visit LA during the spring break of my senior year and through some personal connections was able to meet a number of executives and producers within the industry. All these people had helpful advice for me on how to break into the industry. They also said if I decided to make the move to LA, I could give them a call. After graduation, I figured I had nothing to lose. My plan B was to move back to Pennsylvania and pursue a career in journalism, which also was a passion of mine.
You started working for Tim Burton productions back in 1996 – and you've been working on Burton’s films ever since. Not many people get to say they began their professional film career assisting Burton on Mars Attacks!, Sleepy Hollow, Planet of the Apes, and our favorite - Big Fish. How did a suburban Philadelphian boy get this position?
My first paying job in LA was as a Production Assistant on a sitcom for ABC Productions. It was a great experience but my goal was to work on films. An executive at ABC knew this and when the sitcom wasn’t renewed, she recommended me for an opening at Tim Burton Productions. I remember her asking “Would you be interested in interviewing for a position at Tim Burton Productions?” My jaw hit the floor. I was very fortunate to find myself working for Tim, an idol of mine, just 10 months after making the move to LA.
These days, you're an established producer with many notable A-List projects under your belt: Big Eyes, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the upcoming live-action Disney film Dumbo, to name a few. Can you describe some of your responsibilities while being involved in such diverse jobs? How demanding is it to work on these large-scale productions? When you produce a movie like ‘Dumbo’, is it a 24/7 gig?
The work is relentless, but always a welcome challenge. I thrive on a heavy workload and each project brings its own complexities. That’s the wonderful thing about working with Tim – he never idles and each project presents a new puzzle to crack. My main responsibility is helping Tim carry out his incredible vision from conception through post production. I also help ensure that once the film is complete that it is represented and marketed in a manner that will lead to its success.
Tell us about your involvement in Frankenweenie, the 2012 film you co-produced which received an Academy Award® nomination for Best Animated Picture. Were you involved from the very beginning? Was this the first time you approached an animated film? Was it different than a live-action movie?
Frankenweenie was a wonderful project to work on. It certainly was a high point for me. Corpse Bride was the first stop-motion animated project I was involved with. Prior to that I worked as a production coordinator on Tim’s The World of Stainboy animated series. Initial work on Frankenweenie began shortly after the release of Corpse Bride in 2005, with Tim designing the look of the characters and working with talented puppet makers Mackinnon and Saunders on the fabrication of the Frankenweenie maquettes. The approach and execution of an animated film is vastly different from a live-action project. So much of the work that goes into an animated film happens before the camera rolls a single frame. And the process of actually shooting in stop-motion is a much greater timeline than that of a live-action film. Photographing a feature-length animated film is traditionally a time-consuming affair – one of the main reasons why Tim may only churn out one or two each decade.
Alongside your studio-work, you create your own content, music videos, and indie films. How and when did you get into that?
I’ve always had the impulse to create original work. Making films in college is what lead me to pursue filmmaking as a career. It’s challenging to find the time, but I do my best to shoot one or two projects each year. It’s therapeutic between big studio projects to work on films and music videos where I have the freedom to create entirely on my own terms. My website is a good resource for these works, from the crude and zany experimental films of my youth up to current day: www.lazerfilm.com
You often write, produce, direct, DP and edit your projects. Lots of multitasking! What do you enjoy the most?
I love it all, but feel best when I’ve got the camera in my hand. It’s a thrill to operate and see what you’re capturing in real time. That symmetry and excitement generated between the camera and your subject is what I enjoy most. I really love every step of the process, although filming, editing, and scoring are highlights.
It’s so cool that you produced the excellent music video HERE WITH ME for The Killers! As of now, it has over 21 million views on Youtube! How did you get on board? Can you tell us a bit about this experience?
Here With Me was a blast to work on. It’s such a special little gem that people are still discovering. I had worked with The Killers previously when Tim directed the music video for Bones in 2006. The band approached Tim to direct another music video when they released their album Battle Born in 2012. Tim was drawn to the track. He had recently reunited with Winona Ryder on Frankenweenie and asked if she would be in the video. It was a pleasure to work with her and Craig Roberts, and they gave wonderful performances. The video was shot in Blackpool, UK over the course of 2 days and nights. It was a real guerilla-style shoot, which I think everyone enjoyed. Aside from producing the music video, I created a behind the scenes video of the project which can be seen here: https://vimeo.com/62271804
Many of the films you directed won prestigious awards: the featurette Green Lake screened in over 40 film festivals, collecting multiple awards including Best Film at the L.A Shorts Awards, Motel Providence received the Golden Palm Award for Best Short at the Mexico International Film Fest, as well as Best Director at the World Film Awards. Sky Blue Collar granted you the Best Director award by the Chicago Comedy and Mockfest Film Festivals. The Ballad of Sandeep and God Came ‘Round have also enjoyed successful festival funs. With 79 festival wins and 19 nominations, (according to IMDb), what are the ingredients for creating a successful film, in your opinion?
The fact is you can never really tell what is going to connect with a festival or audience. I just try to make things that appeal to me. I know my sensitivities are a bit off-kilter so it’s a pleasure when others “get” and appreciate it. I really enjoy making people laugh but also giving them a scare as well. Most of my films attempt to do one or the other and a few try to balance the line between humor and horror. That’s really where my mind resides.
Most recently, you directed Kill the Engine. First of all, congratulations on winning Best Dark Comedy, Best Sound Design and an Honorable Mention: Editing at Top Shorts Film Festival! Excellent work. How did you come up with the idea? And how did you get your collaborators (such as Gil Damon & David and Matt Amadio) on board?
My friends and close collaborators, the Minor Prophets, conceived the story for Kill The Engine. They wrote the screenplay under the working title “Say Goodbye to Hollywood”, which originally would have followed the three characters as they observe an annual ritual of “almost” killing themselves as a means of coping with whatever bad things they may have done in the past. Through the writing process the story evolved into more of a commentary on 21st century man’s flawed relationship with the automobile and thus himself. https://www.theminorprophets.com
Three actors, one car, simple (hilarious!) storyline: when we look at the final product, it looks so perfect - you make it look easy! But there were probably some challenges involved… Tell us about the making of Kill the Engine. What were some of the challenging parts?
Gil, Dave, and Steve (the Minor Prophets) make it easy. I knew they would have a good handle on playing the roles they invented, and their longtime friendship really shines through. That’s something you can’t make up or recreate. It’s authentic. My goal was to make the visual side of the story as poetic as the story they wrote. I wanted the viewer to feel the passage of a summer day in the barn, keeping the visuals fresh through the use of color and camera angles. The textures already present in and around the barn helped greatly. The sound design and the use of the cicada stridulations created a unique soundscape and combined with Matt Amadio’s score formed a solid ground for the humor and tragedy.
This comedy is dark… super dark! Who were your earliest influences and who influences your work now?
I think one of the reasons the collaborations with the Minor Prophets have been so successful is because we share a common upbringing in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. We also were inspired by many of the same things growing up. For comedy, Saturday Night Live sketches from the 80’ and 90’s were a big inspiration. Especially their film shorts which always swayed a little darker, like ‘Alan: A Video Junkie’, ‘Prose and Cons’, and ‘Hitchhiker’. Shows like The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery also spoke to me – the sci-fi twists and horror elements were something I always gravitated towards. In high school and college so many films were inspiring to me. The works of Tim Burton and Sam Raimi ranked highest. I remember watching Evil Dead 2 with friends in college and immediately borrowing a friend’s camera to make a short. The balance of comedy and horror combined with the active cinematography ignited something in my brain. I remember dragging friends to see Edward Scissorhands five times in the theater. I had never seen something so unique and original that connected with me emotionally. And that amazing score by Danny Elfman…
Danny Elfman and Tim Burton have been long-time collaborators. Did you ever get a chance to work closely with the legendary Elfman? What was your impression of him while shooting the documentary: A Conversation with Danny Elfman and Tim Burton?
Anyone that knows me from my high school and college days remembers I was a Burton and Elfman fanatic. This was a fact that I kept very close and quiet when I began working for Tim. Music was my first passion in life and the scoring of a film is always one of the most enjoyable parts of the process. I’ll always remember the first time I stepped onto a scoring stage at the Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, California. Danny was just beginning to record the main titles of Mars Attacks! with a robust orchestra. I still get goosebumps thinking about it. I always make certain to be present as much as possible during the recording of each and every score. It continues to be a thrill!
Tell us about your next projects! As mentioned, you’re currently working on Disney’s Dumbo, which is scheduled to be released in 2019. Any spoilers for the big fans? And what other projects are on the menu for 2018-2019?
Dumbo is going to surprise many people. It’s an amazing cast and tale, set within a rich and beautiful world. Although Tim is reuniting with many actors he has worked with in the past they are all trailblazing new ground with this one. It’s not a remake, but a retelling of the classic story. Aside from Dumbo which will keep me well occupied, I’m editing a music video I just shot in Hawaii for Professor T and the East Side Shredders. And looking further ahead I’m developing a couple of feature films, including Awkward Endeavors with my frequent collaborators the Minor Prophets, and Quiet Fire a story revolving around the recording of the album Kind of Blue and the creative collaboration between Miles Davis and pianist Bill Evans.
Would you like to add anything?
Thank you for the interest and the opportunity! It’s always a pleasure to take some time to reflect.
Interview: Derek Frey, Cult Critic Film Magazine by Helen Wheels
March 7, 2018
Derek Frey’s credits are long and impressive; filled with some of the best fantasy coming out of Hollywood. He’s been working with Tim Burton Productions since 1996, building a career assisting on films such as “Mars Attacks!”, “Sleepy Hollow”, “Planet of the Apes” and “Big Fish”. He was the executive producer on some of my personal favorites such as “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” and “Big Eyes” which is based on the true story of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), whose husband Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) became one of the most successful painters of the 1950s and early 1960s by using his wife’s art and signing his own name.
Derek co-produced the 2012 Academy Award© nominated “Frankenweenie” and associate produced the blockbuster “Alice in Wonderland”, as well as “Dark Shadows”, “Sweeney Todd”, “Corpse Bride”, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”. Derek currently is producing Disney’s “Dumbo”, a live-action adaptation of the classic animated children’s story, scheduled for release in spring 2019. In addition to all that, he still finds time to produce his own work! I recently reviewed his 2016 horror featurette, “Green Lake”, which has appeared at over forty film festivals and won numerous awards. Last year I was fortunate to review his short film “Kill the Engine,” which is also enjoying quite a bit of success on the circuit.
1. Derek, I am thrilled to have an opportunity to interview you, and I’ve been wondering, having been born and raised across the country in Philadelphia PA, how did you end up in Hollywood working with Tim Burton?
Derek: Filmmaking started as a hobby for me during high school and college, and over time I grew increasingly passionate about it. I was always infatuated with films but as a kid growing up on the east coast, the idea of moving to Los Angeles to work in the film industry was something I never really considered a possibility. During my senior year of university, I had an opportunity to visit LA and through some personal connections was able to meet a number of executives and producers in the industry. They all had helpful career advice for me if I decided to make the move west. In the final weeks of college, my energy was focused on completing my cult opus: Verge of Darkness. The positive reaction to the film fueled my desire to make movies for a living. A couple of weeks after graduating college I decided to take a gamble and moved to Los Angeles.
My first paying job in LA was as a production assistant on a sitcom for ABC Productions. It was a great experience, but my real goal was to work on films. An executive at ABC knew this and she recommended me for an opening at Tim Burton Productions. I remember her asking “Would you be interested in interviewing for a position at Tim Burton Productions?” After getting over the initial shock, I went through a couple of rounds of interviews and was hired as a runner, just as Mars Attacks! was in pre-production. I was extremely fortunate to be working for an idol of mine months after making the move to Los Angeles.
2. In what ways have working on films for Burton and Disney influenced your sensibilities as a filmmaker and your approach to your own work?
Derek: I felt a strong affinity for Tim’s work from the very first film I saw of his: Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. I remember seeing it at a drive-in movie theater – they were showing a double feature of Pee-Wee and Goonies. I went mostly to see Goonies, it was massive at the time and all my friends were talking about it. Goonies is a great film, but I was blown away by Pee-Wee. I’d never seen anything like it. From a kid’s perspective, it was very funny, odd, strange and unique. On the top layer, it seems really ridiculous, but there’s a lot going on. There’s an artistic richness to the film and it widened my perspective as to what a movie could be.
As time went on I followed his career. Beetlejuice, Batman, and Edward Scissorhands were films I would watch repeatedly and ultimately prompted me to pick up a camera and make films of my own. As a fan, his films were ingrained in me and inspired me, long before I ever had the chance to work with him. Watching him work and create continues to be a huge inspiration to me.
3. You have numerous credits as a producer and associate producer, what other roles do you play behind the camera, and do you have a preference?
Derek: I have played a number of roles on various projects. It’s always a real thrill and honor to produce for Tim and help him actualize his incredible vision. I love so many aspects of the process but enjoy directing the most. The symmetry and excitement generated between the camera and your subject is the most satisfying.
4. Have you ever worked on the other side of the camera, as an actor? How does that experience compare to being a crew member?
Derek: I’ve never worked as a paid actor. It never really appealed to me though I have a lot of respect for people with that skill. In college, I would play roles in my early films, mainly out of necessity. I had stories I wanted to tell, and it was a collaborative effort with all of my friends helping out in front and behind the camera. In the end, we’d all pitch in, filling in roles that we were (or weren’t) naturally inclined for.
5. When I reviewed Green Lake, I noticed that you had credits for the story, but Leah Gallo was the screenwriter. Could you describe that process? How do you work with the writer to go from concept to script and what does the revision process look like?
Derek: For Green Lake I had the general outline of a story but knew Leah would do a great job writing the screenplay. The story revolves around a strong female character and has many elements of fantasy – of which Leah is a fan. I thought the story really needed to be told from a female perspective and I think that is one of the greatest strengths of the film.
6. You played several behind the scenes roles in your horror featurette “Green Lake”, how do you juggle the sometimes-conflicting demands on a film as cinematographer, director, and editor?
Derek: Juggling many roles is something I’ve always assumed without hesitation. For short films, I think it is a challenging and a healthy exercise – and it’s great to immerse yourself on such a complete level. I will say on a project like Green Lake, which creeps closer to a feature-length running time, taking on so many roles was extremely challenging. Shooting at real locations, many of which were on or under water, combined with makeup and effects, proved a huge undertaking. Our small cast doubled as basically our only crew. It took a toll on everyone physically and emotionally. Looking back, I think everyone appreciates what we went through and the end product. It certainly helps when the film does well and receives praise. That has been therapeutic.
7. Could you describe a day in your life when you’re in the middle of a big production for Burton and/or Disney and how does it differ from your day as an independent filmmaker?
Derek: Each day presents its own challenges and unexpected hurdles. A workday can be strikingly different from pre-production to filming to post-production. Generally, when filming you’re on your feet a lot, moving from between sets and locations. It can be quite a transient lifestyle. During post and prep, it’s a bit more of a stable office/cutting room environment. The hours are always long, but I thrive on a heavy workload and embrace it.
During the rare time I have off, usually around the holidays, I’ll try to film a project of my own. It’s a nice antidote to work on smaller projects where I have complete control over how and when they’re made, versus a studio project where you are responsible to the powers that be.
8. Other than Disney’s much anticipated “Dumbo,” what projects are currently in your cue?
Derek: Aside from producing Dumbo, I’m in the process of developing a stop-motion anthology series based on the characters from Tim’s book: The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories. I’m editing a music video, Pangea, that I recently directed in Hawaii for Professor T and the East Side Shredders. It’s going to be a wild trip through history and around the world. Looking further ahead I’m developing a couple of feature films: Awkward Endeavors with my frequent Philadelphia collaborators the Minor Prophets, and Quiet Fire, a story about the recording of the album Kind of Blue and the creative collaboration between Miles Davis and pianist Bill Evans.
The Original Van Gogh's Ear Anthology: Freely showcasing the most creative minds on the planet. An Interview with Derek Frey
April 21, 2018
Derek Frey is best known for his work with Tim Burton on such films as Big Fish, Mars Attacks!, Sleepy Hollow, Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Alice in Wonderland, Frankenweenie, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Dark Shadows, Big Eyes, and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. He has worked at the helm of Tim Burton Productions since 2001 as well as running his own film banner Lazer Film Productions, which has created several award-winning films, most notably The Ballad of Sandeep and Green Lake. His most recent endeavor finds him producing the upcoming live-action Dumbo film for Disney. Slated for 2019 the film features Colin Farrell, Eva Green, Danny DeVito, and Michael Keaton
How has life changed most for you since we spoke last (while you were working on Big Eyes)?
Daily life hasn’t changed all that much. I continue to challenge myself and stay busy. I’m now a father to a three-year-old, so that’s a fairly new addition to my life. I view my life from project to project, so after Big Eyes I executive produced Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Childrenand am currently in post production on Dumbo. Tim’s art exhibition The World of Tim Burton continues to tour, which is always exciting to help put together and visit the different cities in support of his work. It just finished its run in Mexico City and will be in Genk, Belgium later this year.
On the personal side, I’ve made a few more films and music videos since then. I think right after Big Eyes I was deep into Green Lake, which was released in 2016. With Green Lake, I was inspired by my lifelong love for B-horror films, and also the mystical setting in Hawaii really spoke to me. I’ve explored B horror before but not quite on that scale. It was a tremendous amount of work, but I was really pleased with the result and surprised it received the recognition that it did.
Last year I directed the music video God Came ‘Round for a band from the Big Island of Hawaii: Professor T and the Eastside Shredders. When I first heard their new album the track really stood out to me. It has a lot of fantastical and paranormal elements in its lyrics by Trever Veilleux and immediately Deep Roy came to mind for the lead character. Luckily enough, Deep was coming to London and I pitched the idea to him. After that the whole project came together very quickly. Deep got to play a myriad of different roles with many costume changes and it’s been a success on the festival circuit. It was great to reunite with Deep. I’ve worked with him on a number of Tim’s films tracing back to Planet of the Apes, Corpse Bride and Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, and then I had the opportunity to direct him in The Ballad of Sandeep. Working with him again was a great pleasure. He’s always game for whatever we throw at him… literally.
I’ve also continued to work with my friends and collaborators the Minor Prophets, with Motel Providence and Kill the Engine. I’m perpetually inspired by their writing which has been described as commentary on 21st century man. Poking fun and putting a spin on the meaning of manhood and the ridiculous things men do to sustain it. I try not to take anything too seriously and can relate to that.
How has becoming a father changed your outlook on the world and life in general? What do you love most about it?
I’d say you definitely reflect more on your own life. Seeing life through my son’s eyes, I look back and recall things from when I was young. We share a great appreciation for Godzilla movies. He knows the names of all the characters, whether they are “good guys” or “bad guys’, and he’s assembling quite a collection of vinyl figures. We have good vs. bad Toho-Kaiju smackdowns. He usually prefers the bad guys, I think because in the vast Toho universe, the good guys are unfortunately outnumbered.
Becoming a father hasn’t really change my outlook. I’ve always had a concern for the state of the world and unfortunately the times we’re living in only heighten that concern. Not only for today and tomorrow, but also the world we’re leaving for the future generations. That’s definitely something I think about more now and feel like the stakes are higher. Obviously past generations dealt with their own world threats, and personally I hoped our civilization had evolved to a point where we wouldn’t be dealing with quite as many issues. But with all the active threats and destabilizing forces at work today – the combination seems to make the future a more perilous uncertainty.
Do you think being a parent encourages adults to revisit their own imagination?
It absolutely does, and more so it encourages me to channel it in different ways. One of the things my son enjoys most in our time together is telling stories. Each night I’m having to think up two or three thrilling tales, and while they’re not the most inventive he seems impressed by them. Ultimately what it does is allows me to revisit the things that inspired me. As I dig into the mental recesses to come up with all these sagas, I end up sharing with him the things that I was inspired by as a child.
What are you currently working on over at Lazer Film Productions?
I’m currently editing a music video, Pangea, that I filmed earlier this year in Hawaii for Professor T and the East Side Shredders. Like the title suggests we aimed to create something globally epic and I think it’s going to turn out great. I’m slowly making my way through the editing process but hope to have it finished in another month or two. I’m also developing a feature film with the Minor Prophets. We’ve had success with a number of short films over the years and are now moving forward with Awkward Endeavors which we’re planning to shoot next year.
What is the most challenging thing you face in continuing work on your personal projects and working at the helm of Tim Burton Productions?
When it comes to my projects with LFP, the greatest challenge is really finding the time. I usually find myself filming over breaks and holidays and the editing process takes a bit longer than usual. It’s always a cathartic experience but really that is the biggest challenge, just finding the time to do my own stuff. The flip side of that is because I’m involved with these projects on every level, I also have the freedom to finish on my own schedule. It’s a great thing to work without any outside pressures and to have complete control over something you call your own.
At Tim Burton Productions things are never idle. The projects are larger so the stakes are higher with many gears at work. One of my main responsibilities as a producer on Tim’s films is to help him carry out his amazing vision. It keeps me on my toes but is a welcome challenge to help him see that vision through, from development all the way to the release, through every stage of a film.
How is the live action version of Dumbo coming along? What are some of the most daunting challenges faced with bringing Dumbo to life outside of the original animation people are familiar with?
Dumbo is going extremely well. We filmed last year and it’s a production I’m proud to be a part of. We’re in post-production now and eyeing a March of 2019 release. Every one of Tim’s films is unique and demands its own consideration. On this one, the approach was very much filming a practical movie on a grand yet intimate scale. We built the majority of the sets which enabled the cast to perform within real environments. The technology comes into play with the star of the film, Dumbo, and much of the effort in post-production is animating that character. A big goal for the character is maintaining the emotion that people love from the original film. It’s still early stages in the process but I’m confident that Tim will achieve everything he is hoping to.
Were you a fan of the film as a child? What about it stands out most in your mind?
I went to the movies often when I was a child and although I was really young, maybe four or five, I remember seeing Dumbo in the theatre. I recall feeling strong emotions, the heaviness of Dumbo being separated from his mother, and that melancholy sadness. I probably didn’t see it again until recently, when we began work on Tim’s Dumbo. I was completely taken by how potent the film is. Even at sixty-four minutes it is full of emotion and a beautiful, simple story. The impact it has is something that not only a child can experience. I think as an adult, and maybe as a new dad, I felt those feelings quite strongly again.
I also felt excitement at the prospect of Tim telling Dumbo’s story. The cornerstone being to maintain the same emotional bond between a son and his mother. Now, close to eighty years since the original was released, technology is at a point where you can believably recreate an elephant on-screen, and Tim’s expertise in animation will bring that lovable character to life. When the news first broke that Tim was directing a live-action Dumbo, people were sort of unsure about it and scratching their heads. But for me reading the screenplay for the new film, I realized that Dumbo is an outsider and an outcast. People accuse him of being a freak and he moves past those perceptions to embrace what makes him special. If you look back at Tim’s catalogue he’s a champion for these types of characters. And looking through the Disney canon of characters, I don’t think there’s a better fit for Tim to interpret than Dumbo.
Do you think traditional animated film will ever come back to forefront?
Film is a broad art form, and there is room for stories to be told in every single form available. There may not be many films being made in traditional 2D, but there is still a place for it and I hope there will always be. It’s the same with stop motion. I know for Tim it’s a very special way of making films and he’ll continue to utilize that form. I don’t think traditional animation is dead, these things come and go. There is always interest in looking back at different storytelling mechanisms. Maybe we’re just in a lull now and we’ll see a wave of 2D crop up in a few years. Let’s hope so!
Will this film feature a lot of CGI or will it have more practical effects?
When Tim made Alice in Wonderland it was a virtual approach with completely green screen sets and a lot of computer-animated characters. Then fast forward to something like Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children which took a very practical approach, real locations and not a lot of CG at all. I think when things look so good these days people just assume that it’s a computer-generated set or environment. But Miss P was very much a practical film. I would say Dumbo sits somewhere between the two, but definitely closer to a practical approach. The sets and the world that the characters live in were all built and created, and although we did shoot on sound stages, that was mainly for the sake of controlling the light and not running into problems with weather. Dumbo needed to have a fable or storybook feel and shooting on stages helped create a heightened sense to the world.
As I spoke about before, the main character Dumbo will be computer-generated, and that is out of basic necessity. We can’t use a real elephant, nor would you be able to get the needed performance out of a real elephant. So, while Dumbo will be animated the goal is to create a truly believable elephant. An elephant who sits within this world and you don’t question it. The fantastic ability of this elephant is that he can fly, so it’s about making that believable too.
I understand this is the first time Michael Keaton has worked with Tim since the first two Batman films and DeVito since Big Fish. What is it like to have them on board for this project?
I was really excited for Tim to be working with Michael and Danny, two people that he’s had close collaborations with in the past, and I know it got him excited about the project as well. My initial thought was: Tim Burton, Michael Keaton, and Danny DeVito together… it’s like a Batman Returns reunion! But then seeing them get into their work with Tim, they have an instant shorthand on set, you realize this is not just a trip down memory lane. These guys are looking forward, creating exciting new characters, and working at the top of their game. I think it’s going to surprise a lot of people. It was quite an energy on set.
Aside from Michael and Danny you have Eva Green, who Tim worked with on Dark Shadows and Miss P, who is going to light up the screen in this one. And Alan Arkin who worked with him back on Edward Scissorhands. It’s almost like a greatest hits package of these wonderful actors that Tim has worked with in the past. I remember in one of the scenes we had M