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 Michael, Danny, and Alan all together. It was an incredible moment for everybody, myself included, to see them together again with Tim. At the same time, you have the talented Colin Farrell, who is an amazing and generous presence on set, working with Tim for the first time. They gelled immediately, and their shorthand was instantaneous. To see all of this talent assembled and fitting comfortably was a joy.
What do you enjoy most about working with Tim?
After all these years and all these projects, it’s still an honor to work with him. He continues to inspire everyone around him, because he’s always pushing his own creativity. While he does work with the same people from film to film I wouldn’t say it’s ever easy or repetitious, it’s always a fresh experience. You can never guess what he’s going to do that day on set or how he’s going to approach things, he will always surprise you. And that’s what makes Tim the real deal and why he is who he is. I feel that every day working for him. As a creative person you find yourself inspired by other creative people, and he’s the most creative person I’ve ever met.
As someone who is a self proclaimed introvert what have you found are some of the benefits of being less social? What do you think extroverts could learn from the less socially inclined?
I think over the years I’ve had to break out of my introverted behavior, because it’s important in my work to be an effective communicator. That is not to say that being introverted is a bad thing, it’s just for what I need to do, I can’t be like that all the time. But I will say that some of my most fruitfully creative periods were times when I could sink back into myself and explore my own brain. That’s one of the challenges of my job. Because I have to communicate with people constantly it leaves little time to do that. So, although I have broken out a bit (which I think is a good thing for me personally) I pine for my more introverted days. There are benefits of going inside yourself, becoming self-aware and nurturing your creativity. I think ideally you can find the best of both worlds.
How have you changed most as an individual since your early days?
You think about that more as you get older, about how you’ve changed or how you were in the past. I hear people say they feel different from when they were younger. But the fact is I feel very much the same. I’ve often wondered whether something was wrong with me that I don’t feel much different? I’ve always been a high energy person, so maybe I have mellowed out a little bit. I’m probably still more hyper than anyone else I know, except for my son. If anything, I am shocked at how much time has gone by, I find myself trying to make the most of every moment. I guess that’s an important thing that I didn’t think about when I was younger, trying to take advantage of every moment here for the best.
What projects are you looking forward to bringing into existence?
Aside from Awkward Endeavors, I’ve been developing a project called Quiet Fire. It tells the musical relationship between Miles Davis and pianist Bill Evans, and the recording of the album Kind of Blue. That’s something I’m very excited to see happen. It’s a story about the creative process, but it also covers themes about race and substance abuse so there’s lots to chew on. It gives new insight into Kind of Blue which is considered by many to be the greatest jazz album of all time. For Tim Burton Productions, I’m developing an anthology of shorts based on characters from his 1997 book The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other Stories. We’re looking to re-tell the stories using stop motion, which would be visually distinct and something for fans to get excited about.
Is there anything you’d like to say in closing?
Thank you again for the opportunity. It’s been a pleasure to take some time out of the daily grind to reflect upon the past four years.
How Dumbo‘s Producer Carves out Creative Space for Tim Burton. By Hugh Hart for The Credits.
March 28, 2019
Twenty-three years ago, Dumbo producer Derek Frey started working for Tim Burton as a gofer on Mars Attacks. Over the course of Burton’s next 11 movies, Frey rose through the ranks to become a trusted consigliere to the visionary director. Among Frey’s chief tasks: making sure that Burton gets to be Burton. “Tim’s an artist,” Frey says. “He treats every project like a canvas. I always try to – I don’t want to say ‘protect’ — but I try to ensure that Tim has the space he needs to delve into his creativity because certain people within the studio system—they want answers now. They want to see things before they’re ready to be seen.”
Especially for Dumbo, a mostly live-action re-make of Disney’s 1941 flying elephant fable featuring Danny DeVito, Colin Farrell, Eva Green, and Michael Keaton. The London-based filmmaker needed time to shape Ehren Kruger’s script to his liking. Pre-production began in October 2016 and Dumbo only wrapped final edits three weeks ago, Frey says. “Before we had the elephant rendered, we weren’t really sure what the movie was going to be, so I helped carve out that little corner [for Tim] and told the studio, ‘Guys, you’ve got to trust us on this one. Look at Tim’s track record. You know he’ll deliver something wonderful.”
In re-creating the wonder that is saucer-eyed baby elephant Dumbo and his world, Burton enlisted long-standing collaborators including Frey, composer Danny Elfman, costumer Colleen Atwood, and production designer Rick Heinrichs. Frey sees Team Burton as a de-facto repertory company, not unlike the itinerant entertainers depicted in the film. “Tim’s group in a way is really like a circus troupe,” Frey says. “We’re kind of a ragtag bunch where each person brings their own talent to the table, with Tim front and center” as the ringmaster.
In fact, the Dumbo set outside of London often times resembled an actual circus. “We brought in real circus acts from Mongolia and Brazil and Eastern Europe and Spain and Russia,” Frey says. “Five months before we started filming, they put on a show for Tim at Pinewood Studios and he selected a short list of performers for the movie. When you see Danny DeVito and his Medici Brothers Circus, there’s always stuff going on in the background with jugglers, knife throwers, people on a high wire. They’re the real deal. It was really cool to be part of a movie where you’d see these people in the corner every day doing tricks or rehearsing some kind of acrobatics gearing up for their time on screen.”
The circus environments designed by Oscar-winner Heinrichs (Sleepy Hollow) was constructed on a Pinewood Studios soundstage near London and the massive Cardington Airship Hangar once used to build World War I blimps. “We researched real locations in the U.S. that paralleled places in the script but Tim decided to shoot the movie on the new soundstage at Pinewood where we could completely control the light and color and camera,” Frey recalls. “From a production standpoint, we wouldn’t need to deal with rain or weather elements or [changing] light. We used a green screen for Alice in Wonderland, but for this one, we felt the elephant was the fantastical element and everything else should be as real and tactile as possible.”
The folksy Americana backdrop, circa 1919, evokes a lush context for the story but at its core, Dumbo requires an adorable and fully plausible baby elephant to drive the drama. After finishing his 2016 contemporary fantasy Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,Burton turned his attention to the big Dumbo questions. Frey explains, “It really became about the development of the look for Dumbo. A, what could he look like in a live action environment and B, could the visual effects pull that off realistically?”
The answers came from MPC company, which had just finished state-of-the-art visual effects in The Jungle Book. “MPC had already taken a stab at Dumbo on their own and when they showed us their tests, it proved you could create a flying elephant that looks convincing. That’s when Tim decided the technology had arrived for us to make this movie.”
Frey regards Dumbo as a culminating moment in Burton’s filmography, and he should know. Long before joining the director’s inner circle, Frey admired Burton’s black-humored brand of surrealistic horror aesthetic from afar. In high school, he watched Edward Scissorhands dozens of times at the local movie theater. In college, Frey found personal inspiration in Burton’s bio-pic of D-movie director Ed Wood. “It’s probably my favorite Tim Burton movie ever,” Frey says. “Ed Wood made me recognize even if you’re making a horrible film that nobody sees, you can still have a passion for the actual process of getting a bunch of people together, grabbing a camera and running around getting shots. That movie gave me the strength of purpose to pursue film as a career, and looking back, I feel very fortunate about my trajectory.”
As for Burton’s artistic trajectory over the past two decades, Frey believes the man he works with nearly every day has remained essentially unchanged. “Maybe he’s slightly more comfortable in his own shoes than he was 25 years ago but Tim is still very much a champion of the outsider, he’s still talented and touched and unique and very much an outsider himself,” Frey says. “The moment that he’s not the outsider, the moment that Tim Burton is universally accepted? Then it’s over!”
‘Dumbo’ Producers Derek Frey and Katterli Frauenfelder on How ‘Alice in Wonderland’ Influenced the Production. by Drew Taylor for Moviefone.
March 28, 2019
When you watch “Dumbo,” Tim Burton’s fantastic reinvention of the beloved Disney animated classic (you know, the one that made Harry Truman cry), it’s hard to not think about what it must have taken to pull off. Besides wrangling an impressive cast of heavy hitters (many of them, like Danny DeVito, Eva Green and Michael Keaton, Burton regular players), the scope and scale of the production is totally staggering – countless costumed extras (all in period-specific and still Burton-whimsical garb), giant physical sets, and a main character who didn’t actually exist. It’s an epic in every sense of the word.
And much of the logistical planning and preparation fell to “Dumbo” producers Derek Frey and Katterli Frauenfelder, who we were lucky enough to sit down with for a few minutes in Beverly Hills. During our discussion we talked about what it took for Burton to say yes to another live-action remake of an animated classic, how long it took to get Dumbo right, and what they learned from the notoriously difficult “Alice in Wonderland.”
From your point of view, what made “Dumbo” so perfect for Tim and for reinvention?
Derek Frey: There’s so much to pull from. Dumbo is one of the original outsiders. It’s one of the first feature films from Disney and he is an outsider. Tim has such a great history, almost every single one of his films revolves around an outside. So that combined with the fact that it comes from Disney and it’s animation. It’s almost like a personification of Tim himself. He started at Disney, he started in the animation world, he has a history of outsider characters that are animated. So to bring a 2D animated character into a reimagining of a live action motion picture for Disney, aside from all the story points and the lovely script, Tim felt like the right person to pull from his toolbox. And the final result shows that.
Katterli Frauenfelder: And he was very emotionally attached to the story and to Dumbo.
Did it take any convincing for him to do another animated-to-live-action adaptation?
Frey: Here’s the thing – we receive a draft of a script from Disney, we see that it’s “Dumbo” and instantaneously you kind of go, Here’s another reimagining. But after Tim read it, he understood pretty quickly that, yes, it’s another reimagining but it’s lovely. It’s ideal. It’s perfect. He was really touched by the story. It was actually a very quick process. I don’t think Disney expected him to respond as quickly as he did. It was immediate and it was, Count me in. And that’s rare. That hardly ever happens.
And there are stories that he was offered other live-action remakes.
Frey: He had dabbled in a couple and it didn’t work out. Here’s the thing – a lot of those original Disney animated films deal with all the things of life – love, loss, tragedy and good messages in there. I think Tim as a child was greatly impacted by those things. So the idea, with the technology that’s available now, that you could believably create that elephant in a live action film and do it successfully, that was something that really interested him.
On a technical level, this movie is filled with huge sets. How much of that was a response to his experience on “Alice in Wonderland” and just having a green sheet up?
Frauenfelder: A lot. Because I think that he really feels that, though “Alice” went really well and we did our best to give a reality to the actors, Tim felt very strongly that as much set as we could have for the actors to act against and react to and with, was very important to him in this one. We even had a little guy who played Dumbo so that the children always had eyes to look at and also the other actors. I think it was very important. There was always a connection to the set or to Dumbo. I think that, for Tim, it became very important after “Alice.”
Frey: I think there’s also something about embedding a computer-generated character into a live environment. Because if you are dropping “Dumbo” into a virtual environment, that’s kind of two levels into something that your brain processes and knows is not reality. But with real sets, the challenge was, Okay now we’re going to drop this elephant into real lighting scenarios and interaction and touch and all of those things. A movie like “Jungle Book” proved that you could animate at that level. But those were virtual sets so. That’s the real change up in this film – the sets are real, the actors are real, but we’re dropping the star of the film into that.
How long did it take to finesse that character into existence?
Frey: We finished last week. Listen, MPC did an incredible job but Tim saw what the technology could do and he just kept pushing and pushing and pushing it until we had to finish the movie.
Frauenfelder: And Tim is a perfectionist so he sees every detail of Dumbo. But it was last week.
Frey: I think they’ve learned a lot. I think they learned a lot. They brought things to an entire new level. And it shows when you watch the movie. You question, “Is that real? How are they touching it?” I’m astounded when I see it.
There’s the old metaphor of movie productions being like circuses. Was this movie more Medici or more Dreamland?
Frauenfelder: It was both.
Frey: No, it was both. Because our production was split up very much like the film is – where, the first half you’re in that Medici world. We didn’t shoot necessarily in order but we did do more Medici stuff at the beginning and then we went to Dreamland. There was definitely a parallel there. But I will say that the group that works primarily with Tim over the years, we’re Medici. We’re a ragtag bunch of misfits who believe in something and get behind Tim to help him. It is life imitating art a bit.
Island Beat, “Big Screens, Big Fun” article excerpt by Katie Young Yamanaka
May 26, 2016
For filmmaker Derek Frey, the natural mystery of the Big Island itself was inspiration for his film, “Green Lake,” a horror film inspired by the Green Lake in Kapoho.
“I’ve always been inspired by the beauty of the Big Island,” says Frey, whose home base is London. “I’ve also shot a couple of other short films in and around Hilo. It’s my favorite place to go to re-energize.
“I had heard of the Green Lake, but I didn’t know many people who had been there. When I finally went, I was so struck by the beauty of this place, but also its power … and I felt there was a little bit of a darker side to it, too.”
Frey started looking into local legends about the area and was prompted to do a film about preserving nature, but also about the consequences of venturing into areas you shouldn’t go.
“It’s been classified as a horror film, but I’d like to think there is something more poetic to it as well,” he says. “I went with the vibe I felt there. I think it’s something you feel in a lot of places that are off the beaten path in Hawaii. There are areas with tremendous beauty but also that have a haunted feeling. You get into areas where you feel like you shouldn’t be there.
“Industry is treading on a lot of these secret little places, and Green Lake is certainly a place like that. It’s important to protect and preserve it.” Frey, whose used a cast of locals from East Hawaii, says he hopes people will be entertained, get a little scared, but also tap into the emotion of the story.
“Green Lake” just started making the film festival rounds this past month. “We got into 10 or 12 festivals … and we won Best Horror Film at the LA Independent Film Festival,” Frey says. “A song that appears in the film, written by Hilo band Technical Difficulties, also won for Best Original Song. At HIFF we won a gold award and have been nominated for other awards at other festivals, too, so we’re off to a good start.”
Frey says that while it seems like everyone is doing film festivals now, BIFF is regarded as one of the top 25 film festivals that filmmakers want to get into.
“It’s not just because the beautiful setting, too, it’s because they take great pride in what they do and so they attract great talent,” he says. “BIFF puts a lot of effort into making the festival part of the community. As a filmmaker, you just want your film to be seen, so to have it in a place where people can gather together outdoors is fantastic.”
Keep Creating and Embrace Limited Means: Interview with Filmmaker, Derek Frey by Nathan March, Follow Magazine
February 11, 2018
When Derek Frey approached me to talk about his short film, God Came 'Round, I jumped at the chance to speak to the producer of a swag of Tim Burton's projects about his own films and how he connects with his audience.
God Came ‘Round is a beautifully emotional comedy that has picked up a swag of film festival awards so far. What do you attribute its success to?
The story was inspired by Trever Veilleux’s poetic song lyrics which conjured for me an array of imagery. What was initially meant to be a straightforward music video developed into something more. Actor Deep Roy plays the lead role with great depth and morose comedy; when people see Deep in these outrageous scenarios and costumes, combined with his heartbreaking performance, I think they really identify with him.
You often introduce paranormal elements into your work. Do you feel that it’s something your audience has come to recognize and even expect in a Derek Frey film?
The paranormal is something I’ve been drawn to since I was a child. My earliest films always contained otherworldly aspects. It’s still something I’m passionate about and suspect fans have come to expect an element of the bizarre in my work. I love to make people laugh as well as scare and surprise them, and the paranormal is an excellent vehicle for that duality. The track the film is set to is a tender love song, but with some extraordinary twists – essentially the main reason I was compelled to tell God Came ‘Round.
How important do you feel it is to have a recognizable style as a filmmaker?
For me, it’s about creating projects that have a unique feel. I do see similar aspects running across my work. I operate the camera and edit, so there’s a recognizable style in those areas which helps create a distinct tone. Some of the most iconic filmmakers have a cohesiveness throughout their filmography – whether through tone, cinematography, score, screenplay. I think the best directors have unique perspectives on life that make their work strong, original, and memorable.
The design and cinematography for God Came ‘Round are rich, featuring bold colors and deep layers within the frame. Why have you made those choices?
The film is pretty short, (5 minutes), so I had to make a strong impact in a limited amount of time. We never hear Deep’s character speak, so I wanted to bring the viewer into his world by making the visuals simple yet appealing. He’s a guy looking for love, so I chose intense reds and greens to convey passion. Creating this on a low budget, we relied on our locations around London to provide a richness to the story.
Most people make films that they want people to see. At what point in the process do you start to think about who the audience might be for this film and how to connect the film to that audience?
On my own films, the drive to create comes from wanting to tell a story that I’m passionate about. It’s only natural to hope that your work finds an audience and connects with people on some level. For me, thinking about the audience comes in wanting to show them something they haven’t seen before. On bigger budget films I produce within the studio system, the stakes are higher and there’s definitely a greater responsibility to consider who the story may be intended for and if the audience is going to connect and be entertained.
Do you have a marketing strategy for God Came ‘Round?
The approach to marketing has been to engage fans of my previous films via social media, and fans of Deep Roy, which are many around the globe. His work in the Star Wars and Star Trek films, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and The X-Files (to name a few) have built him an incredible fan base. We’re also trying to target music lovers since the short is essentially a music video. It’s been helpful to have the new album, Professor T and the East Side Shredders, to tie into the film’s release. The festivals and awards the project has garnered have helped fuel promotion since they come with their own groups of followers as well.
What are the different components of a marketing strategy for you?
The imagery associated with a project is something I take particular interest in and these elements serve as a good jumping off point for marketing. Posters, still frames, and behind the scenes images can really help a project stand out from others, and having strong visuals draws people in on social media and the film festival circuit. I was fortunate to have an incredibly talented artist and friend, Giulia Rivolta, create the eye-catching poster for God Came ‘Round.
You have a massive following on Facebook. How have you built that community?
I’ve had a Lazer Film page on Facebook for some time now. I use that as a source for people to keep informed about my latest projects, festival screenings, links to view the films, etc. The followers have built up over that time through many projects. There’s also a component of people who have found their way to my page through my work on larger films with Tim Burton.
Do you find it works for individual films to have their own social media presence or do you think it’s better for the production company to have the account and then post updates about films on that account?
I have a few films currently on the film festival circuit and I enjoy promoting past endeavors – so for me, it’s more streamlined to promote and post under my Lazer Film Productions banner – on Facebook, Twitter, Vimeo, etc. I think for short films and music videos it has worked well for me, and I think it helps maintain a long-term relationship with fans and followers. I also have my website, lazerfilm.com, where people can go to if they want to take a more in-depth look at my work, including my earliest films.
If you were to give one tip to emerging filmmakers about how to build a career, what would it be?
Filmmakers today are very fortunate to be creating in an age where the technology is affordable and within reach and there are so many forums to have your work seen. My best advice is to just keep creating and embrace limited means. Sometimes it’s those limitations that stimulate your creativity and help you to achieve something beyond what you thought was possible.
What’s next for Derek Frey?
I’m currently in London producing a live-action version of Dumbo, directed by Tim Burton, which is a reimagining of the classic 1941 Disney film. That will keep me well occupied through post-production. I’m also going to direct a music video for another Professor T song, Pangea, in Hawaii at the end of this year. Looking further ahead I’m developing a couple of feature films, including Awkward Endeavors with my frequent Philadelphia area collaborators the Minor Prophets.
Delco-based filmmakers bring work to Philly’s FirstGlance Film Festival by Kevin Tustin, Delco News Network (excerpt)
February 11, 2018
The work of local filmmakers will be part of the official selection for the 20th FirstGlance Film Festival in Philadelphia this weekend.
Drexel Hill native son Derek Frey will have his short project screen at the local independent film festival.
God Came ‘Round stars Deep Roy — who portrayed the Oompa Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — as a lonely flower seller who falls in love with a girl, portrayed by The Grudge 3’s Aiko Horiuchi, who doesn’t like him. Roy plays all of the major players in the film including a leprechaun, God and a ghost.
“I was drawn to (the song) because the lyrics involved fantastical situations and paranormal elements,” said Frey. “A lot of these lyrics aren’t meant to be taken literally. As someone that’s always been interested in the paranormal, the pairing of (Roy) with ghosts, leprechauns and aliens was something I had to do.”
The video has a more understated relationship between Roy and Horiuchi that Frey noted. He said it was Roy’s Oompa Loompa character and Horiuchi’s titular Grudge ghost falling in love.
God Came ‘Round is Frey’s fourth FirstGlance selection following Sketch in 2001 and Motel Providence in 2015, both playing in Philadelphia, and The Upper Hand at the fest’s Los Angeles installation in 2000.
Frey may be a FirstGlance veteran, but he expressed his appreciation for the festival and the opportunity it brings to the area to see professional productions from local talent.
“For me, Delco and Philly are still very important to me, and to be recognized (at FirstGlance) is the best thing because you have an opportunity for people from your hometown to see your work,” said Frey, who made God Came ‘Round under his Lazer Film Productions banner.
Over the last few years the film landscape of Delco has been evolving. From the shooting of the Oscar-winning Silver Linings Playbook to the opening of a film and television production facility in Chester Township, and even a Comedy Central-ordered series called Delco Proper, Delco has been exposing its creative minds and locations to the world.
In addition to heading Lazer Films, Frey also leads Tim Burton Productions and has helped bring films like Big Eyes and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children to the silver screen, but coming back to Delco to shoot films with friends keeps him grounded, and the creative juices flowing.
“People find me a bit of a curiosity because I work with Tim Burton, but what I always say to people is doing music videos and shorts around Delco helped me maintain those roots and fuels my creativity. It’s a strange dynamic,” he said.
Frey looks to shoot a film next year in Delco.
Producer Derek Frey Talks Tim Burton, Disney and Making an Elephant Fly.
By Jason Gorber for That Shelf.
July 5, 2019
Derek Frey has been a collaborator with Tim Burton since the mid-90s where he began as an assistant on set and has risen to be the head of Tim Burton Productions. Their latest collaboration, the live-action remake of Dumbo, recently arrived on home video. We had the chance to discuss his collaboration with the iconoclastic director, Derek’s own rise within the company, and the challenges of avoiding repeating oneself while still drawing on the skills and expectations that a lifetime of films from this director has produced.
Your personal journey in Hollywood story is fascinating. Could you talk about initially working with Tim Burton and then developing into one of the core members of his team?
I was very fortunate. After college I moved out to LA and worked on a television show for a while. I always was a huge fan of Tim’s – I remember seeing Pee-wee’s Big Adventure in the drive-in theatre, it was a double feature of Goonies and Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, and I went to see Goonies – I didn’t even know what Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was – and I remember leaving, thinking, what was that movie? From that point I was really curious about who Tim Burton was. Then Beetlejuice and Scissorhands – I was in love with his films! I was very lucky to land a job as a runner, or a gopher, in his company. That was around the time they were just going in to shoot, so my first film experience in Hollywood was on the set of Mars Attacks. I don’t think you’ll ever see a film with a cast like that again, and the spirit on that movie was just so much fun, that I look back and realize just how lucky I was for that to be my first film experience in Los Angeles.
Over the years I just kind of stuck at it at [Burton’s] company and worked my way up. I kind of went where the river took me, from each project. It really doesn’t feel like as much time has gone by as has, but it’s been one of the great pleasures of my life to be a part of the journey of his films. Each film is its own new experience and the people he works with are like family.
That being said, as producer you’ve got to have an objective, a third person point of view. What’s it like needing to say no to someone that started as a hero?
I’ve always worked really hard to be someone who can help Tim see his vision to its fullest. Obviously there are times on different projects where you may have to find a different way around that, but I’ve always been somebody who tries to be honest with him, even if sometimes it’s a hard truth. I will say on Dumbo I was very fortunate because we’re working with Tim’s family of collaborators and they are the best at what they do and they’re very responsible. Tim’s a very responsible filmmaker, and they know what the parameters are going in to making a film like this. We worked very hard to keep within those parameters, and it also went in line with what Tim wanted to make in this film. He obviously wants it to be something amazing and sweep you into another world, but he also wanted it to be intimate and wanted the focus to remain on Dumbo. He didn’t want you to get lost into this world.
Sometimes in films there’s so much focus on the world, and that’s when the budget gets out of control and you lose focus on the story. On this film you’ve got people like Rick Heinrichs and Colleen Atwood, they know the drill, they’ve been through it before. They’re going to deliver what Tim wants within the means that we have to make the film. So on this one, I was lucky.
It’s become more and more rare in some ways to have a director with as much vision, sort of the old school way we think of a director, when we hear “A Tim Burton film”, we certainly have expectations of what it’s going to be. But in the same way, we have expectations about what is going to be a Disney film, what is going to be about Dumbo, you’re navigating all of these expectations. Could you talk about the joys of that, the short hand of “this is going to be a Tim Burton production” so you can bring the family together, but also the challenges, as a creative producer, to actually bring these to light in a way that doesn’t feel redundant or repetitive to what’s come before?
I think a lot of that came from Ehren Kruger, the screenwriter. He pitched this to the studio before Tim was involved, the idea of doing a reimagining of Dumbo and bringing it into a live action world. In the original the audience learns that Dumbo flies and that’s where the original film kind of ends. Ours picks up from that point about a third of the way through. It kind of answers the question – now that the world knows there’s an elephant that can fly, what’s going to happen? It’s one of those age-old tales where he’s exploited, and then what are going to do to save this elephant from this situation? A lot of that came from Ehren, and then he worked a lot of the things that people love about the animated film, nods to that.
Out of the classic Disney characters it seems Dumbo may speak to some of Tim’s own narrative proclivities.
At its core, Dumbo is an outsider, one of the original outsiders in the Disney universe. That goes in line with a lot of Tim’s iconic characters within his filmography, so for me, it felt like just a perfect match of those things. The original has some heavier, darker moments. I knew Tim would be able to put his spin on it. I was actually surprised to find that while visually the film is incredible I think it’s like nothing he’s made before. I think the movie looks stunning, I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s darker than the original animated film, there’s actually a lot of colour in it, and a lot of life, and a lot of humour in it as well.
Burton started as this Disney animator that couldn’t quite fit within the rigid structures of Disney. There’s a rigid, much more staid version of what counts as a “Disney film”. Here Tim is, working within the system, with Disney giving him the freedom and the liberty to make the film very much his own. It makes the fact that it’s a theme park being destroyed take on metatextual significance. Do you guys have these kinds of discussions, of the bigger connections to Burton’s general body of work, or is that just stuff we do on the outside while you’re just trying to make sure you’re making the day and getting all of the pieces together?
I think it’s much more of a subconscious thing for Tim. I don’t think he’s even consciously thinking about it, but he’s bringing to the table his experiences, his life, his relationship with the studio. They’re an undercurrent, so people pick up on them. I personally find them quite amusing when people do pick up on these things because sometimes they’re something that we haven’t really thought of, or there’s kind of a different spin on it. For Ehren, the screenwriter, Dreamland, it was kind of based on the Coney Island-like ittle parks, near the big city. I think some of the critics were making the parallels like, oh, it’s like Disney land, the D, the Dreamland. They’re not conscious things that we think about, but I definitely do after the fact. I do see Dumbo as kind of a personification of Tim to a degree. Tim was someone that worked at Disney, and then at a certain point he kind of went on his own path, because he felt that he maybe didn’t fit in there, and then Disney kind of caught him back. They brought Nightmare Before Christmas, which was something definitely unlike anything they had created before, and they weren’t sure about it at the time. So it’s something quite interesting when you look at it from that angle of Tim being an original Disney outsider as well.
Burton’s such an iconic director and has such an iconic vision for much of the stuff he does, but by being so, inevitably artists repeat themselves. On the one hand, the positive we talked about, is that it brings this incredible history. On the other hand, you want to be cautious that you’re making something original. Could you talk about the challenge of that, of making sure that this new project, you’re not just using the same old tropes, especially given the fact that it’s based on a classic which itself? Are there meetings where you’re like uh, I feel like we’ve done this before, let’s try a different direction to stretch ourselves?
Absolutely. I would say first from the approach of making this one, we took Tim’s mandate – he kept using the term “grand intimacy” and wanted it grounded in a heightened reality. He didn’t want our human characters to be running around digital sets with a computer generated elephant, he wanted it to look real. Tim wanted you to question where that line was between what we were creating practically and what we were creating digitally. So much work went into that because it was something that maybe had been approached differently in the past, like for instance Alice in Wonderland, with one human character within a complete CGI playground. There’s a certain look to that, and that worked for that kind of a film, and we could have gone that approach in this movie. But Tim chose to build the sets, to surround our characters in this beautiful, rich world. It should feel like it’s a real place that existed in a real time, in 1918 or 1919, but it has a certain heightened reality to it, so that when we put our elephant into this environment, he should look real, but it should feel grounded in a certain reality. From an aesthetic point of view, Tim approached this based off of all of the experiences he had had on films in the past, whether they were good or bad. He took all of the knowledge and the technology to make this the best-looking film. From a story standpoint, there were definitely discussions where maybe there’d be certain action sequences or points where it’s, like, you know what? We kind of did this before, let’s try to do something a little bit different here. Those things definitely happen, you definitely have reoccurring things that maybe you’ve done before. Tim never gets involved in anything just for the sake of redoing it again, so he’s constantly challenging himself to try something new. And although he works with the same people quite often – and I think people think oh, it’s quite easy, it’s less work – nothing could be further from the truth. People work with Tim repeatedly because they enjoy that challenge, and they know each film is going to be pushing things to the limit again, myself included. We love that, we love that challenge.
Can you talk about one instance where you’re reading the script and you’re thinking oh my God, how are we going to do this, or are we at a point now in terms of making films, where basically what’s on the page can be done somehow or other, given current technology?
That kind of ties in to what I was just saying where, yes, you can do anything these days and pull it off. But because Tim approached this film from very much a practical standpoint, where he wanted to build as much as possible, that kind of locks you in to a certain way of making the film. You approach it from a practical, old-time filmmaking level. Michael Keaton mentioned a couple of times walking on to these sets that it made you feel like why you make films in the first place, it swept you in to the world. People don’t make films like this anymore. I think it’s a good thing because it made you kind of feel like there were limits. Maybe when you approach a film and you feel like there aren’t any limits, that’s not always a good thing. It’s good when there’s certain restrictions because it makes you think about things from a practical level and then makes it more believable from an audience’s standpoint when they see what’s happening on screen. You can kind of process it in your own reality register. If you just kind of do anything you want, it kind of just goes into outer space and then you lose the audience.
For the sake of Dumbo, we had to make an audience believe that an elephant can fly. That had to remain the most fantastical element of the film, and everything else had to feel like it could be possible.
ONE REELER INTERVIEW WITH GOD CAME 'ROUND DIRECTOR DEREK FREY
February 11, 2018
OR: What was the inspiration for your film?
DF: 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 and the track “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.
OR: When did you conceive the idea for your film and how long did it take before it was realized?
DF: I first listened to the album and heard the song during a long-haul flight this past April. I reached out to actor Deep Roy a few days later and he agreed to be part of the project immediately. We filmed over 2 days and 2 nights in late May around London and I finished up the edit by the end of June. From start to finish I think it is the quickest project I have ever been part of.
OR: What was the most challenging aspect of working in a short film format?
DF: Each and every shot counts. You have less time to tell a story so your opportunity for impact is condensed. For this project I knew storyboards would help immensely so I created as many as I could as a guide in our short production time.
OR: What was the most challenging aspect of your production?
DF: It was an extremely smooth shoot. There were many things that could have gone wrong that fortunately didn’t. It was still a challenging shoot and the number of setups and costume changes required kept us on our toes throughout.
OR: Do you have any advice for first-time filmmakers?
DF: 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.
And the winners are...2012 Big Island Film Festival exceeds all expectation. Hawaii Tribune-Herald.
June 6, 2012
The 2012 Big Island Film Festival gathered directors, producers, actors and film critics from around the world over Memorial Day weekend to watch, reflect, and admire award winning short, feature length, and foreign films.
The seventh annual celebration of the moving picture art form, hosted at the Mauna Lani Resort, welcomed over 2,200 people and raised $4,200 for the Fisher Tripler Army Medical Center. Local and state honors were award to both festival directors and filmmakers. Jan and Leo Sears, founders of the BIFF, received an appreciation plaque from rep Elisa Leonelli, from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, who was attending the festival to evaluate foreign language films for possible Golden Globe consideration. Among the 12 winning category awards of the BIFF, announced on Monday, May 28, Big Island residents Kelly Winsa and Peter Henderson’s “Hi, Honey” received the Audience Choice for Short Film and O`ahu’s producer/director/writer Alexander Bocchieri’s “Flat” won for Best Hawai`i Short.
However noteworthy the festival’s award winners, so too was the camaraderie and patronage that filmmakers felt with the “Talk Story” festival.
Directors Dane Neves and Derek Frey were just two of the reasons that the BIFF has become an increasingly successful event. While Neves, a 25-year-old O`ahu native screened his third BIFF movie, a short titled “Giant Monsters Attack Hawai`i,” and Frey, a first time BIFF entrant and seasoned associate producer for Tim Burton films, directed “The Ballad of Sandeep,” the two have one thing in common – a passion for Hawai`i and independent film festivals.
Neves, who attended the Academy for Creative Media at the University of Hawai`i- Manoa, has a lifelong passion for film, particularly those with puppets.
“I’ve always been a fan of The Muppets,” said the young director who made “Giant Monsters” through various visual and after effects programs. “I have always wanted to make a Godzilla movie.”
Neves’ BIFF eight-minute short (previously accepted were ”Cotton Cool” in 2008 and “The Green Tie Affair,” which won Best Family Short in 2011) is a Waikiki take on the classic, stereotypical monsters-attack-city flick.
“In college everyone was doing romantic comedies and coming of age movies, I wanted to do something different,” said Neves, who shoots all of his films in Hawai`i but commissioned Sunny Vegas from Chicago, a master puppeteer, to bring to life his puppet designs. “There is a message in this film, to embrace your true potential and don’t let anyone hold you back.”
Neves himself has taken personal solace in his movie’s mission. Working full time at `Olelo Community Media, he makes movies in his free time to hone his artistic skills, not for profit sake. He is already in production on his next short puppet film “Poison Apple,” a musical story of Snow White told through the perspective of the apple. His repeated submissions to the BIFF– and he plans to submit more– have been because of what Neves called a friendly relationship with the directors, a familial closeness that is unique to the festival and captures the nature of the Big Island.
It is this same personal tie that has Derek Frey, director of “The Ballad of Sandeep,” returning to the Big Island and its residents for the past 10 plus years. “I first visited in March of 2001 as part of the film crew on Tim Burton’s ‘Planet of the Apes,’ said the director, who said he fell in love with the scenic beauty and visual inspiration of the island. “I caught the band Technical Difficulties playing at Fiascos in Hilo on St. Patrick’s Day and was blown away by their musicianship and dynamic compositions.”
Frey returned to the island five months later to shoot a music video for the band and continued to return to the island over the past decade to film additional music videos and help film a concert at the Palace Theater.
“It’s been quite an inspiring collaboration and I’ve remained close friends with the band. What really made filming on the Big Island possible were the friends I made. I’m very fortunate to have met so many artistic souls who share a passion to create. On any of the projects I’ve mounted on the Big Island the intent has always been to merely create something for the sake of itself and there has been a team of devoted people at the ready to give it their all.”
Two of these dedicated individuals include Volcano residents RaVani and Thom Durkin (RaVani was the lead singer for Technical Difficulties). Both husband and wife have assisted Frey on his previous film, “The Curse of the Sacred Stone,” which was filmed entirely in Puna and his 2012 BIFF submission “The Ballad of Sandeep,” starring Deep Roy (Star Trek, “The Neverending Story,” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” etc.).
“Derek (Frey) is a wonderful person to work with,” RaVani, who graduated from Waiakea High School and UH Hilo, said. “ He’s so patient, friendly, and professional. It was really fun working on the films and very exciting.”
With RaVani working the make-up and costuming departments and Thom’s assistant directing and tackling sound recording the two were an instrumental part of the limited crew that filmed the 28-minute movie in the outskirts of Philadelphia.
“We got by with a handful of devoted and hard working friends and family. Although extremely limited by a shoestring budget I feel we were successful in telling the story we intended to,” Frey explained about the film that fits the bill of the festival’s narrative focus. “We wanted to tell a story where Deep (Roy) had the opportunity to step from behind the makeup and portray a character closer to the man he really is. The story also touches upon the aftermath of difficult economic times in the United States. Many Americans have recently faced the harsh reality of having their jobs outsourced to countries such as India. The Minor Prophets (a comedic group of a Philadelphia), having encountered this reality in their own day jobs, took what could have been a simple premise and turned it on its head.”
Due to Frey’s close ties with the Big Island he was hoping his latest comedic short would make it in to the “Talk Story” festival.
“I know selecting a lineup for a film festival is extremely competitive so I didn’t want to get too excited at the prospect,” Frey said. “Out of all of the film festivals “The Ballad of Sandeep” has been accepted into, I have to say being part of the Big Island Film Festival means the most.”
For additional information on “Giant Monsters,” visit facebook.com/Giantmonstersattackhawaii, and Derek Frey’s website www.lazerfilm.com, which includes music videos and a short film shot on the Big Island, or go to www.theballadofsandeep.com.
Technical Difficulties Big Cameo:
Big Isle Band has part in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
By John Burnett For the Hawaii Hawaii Tribune Herald
July 8, 2005
When Tim Burton’s new film “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” opens nationwide a week from today, sharp-eyed Big Island moviegoers may notice East Hawaii rock band Technical Difficulties in a cameo of sorts. Eleven seconds of the band’s video “Mr. Quiet” will appear on a screen-within-the-screen in the film, which stars Johnny Depp as Willie Wonka and promises to be decidedly different from 1971’s semi-psychedelic musical “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”
“There’s a scene where each child is reading a portion of the golden ticket,” said Derek Frey, CCF’s associate producer and director of all of TD’s rock videos. “On the golden ticket, there are instructions on how they are to enter the chocolate factory on a particular date and time. It’s almost like a montage sequence where each child is in their own environment at home. Mike Teavee is into violent videogames and wears a shirt picturing a bloodied skull. He’s kind of a weird techie-punk kid who thinks he knows it all. He has a very large-screen TV behind him which is supposed to represent what he would be watching. And the ‘Mr. Quiet’ video fits into the genre of what he would watch.”
While it may appear that Burton included the video clip as a favor to Frey, a longtime associate who is also a friend and benefactor of TD’s, the famed filmmaker says that is definitely not the case. He says that he was looking for a thrash-metal video to play while introducing Mike Teavee, the kid who is ultimately shrunk by Wonkavision.
“I watched some of the music videos sent from Warner Brothers,” Burton explained. “None of them fit the bill. Derek asked me to have a look at the ‘Mr. Quiet’ video. I thought the ending was perfect for the scene in the film -- quick editing, kind of horror-campy. The music sounded very heavy metal, which was what I was looking for. It was impressive. I kind of liked the fact that they're not recognizable yet and thought this could help them get to the next step.”
TD also gets a music credit at the end of the movie. Pretty heady stuff for an indie rock band from Hawaii, said guitarist-vocalist Trever Veilleux. “Just that alone is exciting and is an honor,” he mused. “It seems like whenever we do anything, like the ‘Mr. Quiet’ video, people ask, ‘What are you going to do with it?’ That question doesn’t really cross our minds. The creative process is what inspires us and what drives us. So whenever anybody asked what we were going to do with this video, we couldn’t answer them. Then, a year later, it’s in a major motion picture. Now, what that means for our future -- and I get asked that a lot -- I have no idea, and it’s not really something that I spend a lot of energy thinking about.”
Burton, who met TD vocalist-alto saxophonist RaVani Flood while filming the remake of “Planet of the Apes” on the Big Island, eventually saw the band play in London, where CCF was filmed and where TD recorded and played club gigs this spring. Burton was impressed enough to ask TD to play the CCF London premiere party July 17.
“They just look like these nice people that are going to perform pleasant songs,” Burton said of TD’s set at Caernavon Castle, a rock club in London’s Camden section. “Then they rip into an intense 30-minute set giving it everything. It was all-out rock. Someone next to me called them (bleeping) demons. I'm pretty sure that’s a positive comment in the UK.”
Actually, that someone was David Arnold, a Grammy-winning British film composer and record producer whose film soundtracks include the last three James Bond movies and whose production résumé includes Bjork, Aimee Mann, Damien Rice, Pulp, Iggy Pop, k.d. lang, Chrissie Hynde and Garbage. Arnold was struck by TD’s eclecticism. “Amongst the funk, rock, soul, folk, punk, jazz and R&B chaos there is a perverted sense of genius,” he commented.
Veilleux said that the band will not be deterred by Thursday’s horrific bus and metro train bombings by terrorists.
“That’s not something that’s likely to happen in Hilo, but it could have happened anywhere,” he reflected. “You can’t let things like that stop you.”
And while TD has an invitation to play the premiere -- an honor usually reserved for a Warner Bros. act -- they will have to pay their own way to London. The band is putting on its fundraising “Chocolate Fantasy Party” tonight at 9 p.m. at Uncle Mikey’s in the Waiakea Villas. Other bands on the bill are Downstar, Shiva and Augustine. Tickets are $10 advance at CD Wizard and Rock Island Gallery, $15 at the door. The night has a chocolate theme. Admission includes a raffle ticket for a chance to win Tim Burton t-shirts, books, DVDs, and other movie memorabilia.
“It’s going to be fun performing with three really good bands that we’ve never played with,” Veilleux said. “We’re putting a lot more energy into this show than just a regular club gig. We’re aiming to make it an event.”
An interview with and the photography of Derek Frey. The ORIGINAL Van Gogh's Ear Anthology: Freely showcasing the most creative minds on the planet
July 2, 2014
Filmmaker Derek Frey is best known for his work with Tim Burton, running Tim Burton Productions since 2001. He is currently serving as Executive Producer on the upcoming film Big Eyes starring Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz. Derek Co-Produced the 2012 Academy Award nominated Frankenweenie and has worked as Associate Producer on such films as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Alice in Wonderland, Dark Shadows, and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. He began his career in the film industry assisting Tim Burton on films such as Big Fish, Mars Attacks!, Sleepy Hollow, and Planet of the Apes. Derek also creates his own projects under the banner Lazer Film Productions which offers an eclectic line of his film, music video, and photographic works. His most recent films, The Ballad of Sandeep and Sky Blue Collar, have been a success on the festival circuit, collecting multiple awards. For more information on his endeavors please visit http://www.lazerfilm.com.
Where are you from? What was it like growing up there?
I grew up in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. It’s a big, diverse township with a good school district. Being an immediate suburb to Philadelphia I experienced a real sense of American history and patriotism. I would describe my upbringing as pretty typical of suburban life in the 70’s and 80’s.
Did you always have an active imagination as a child?
I think my imagination was categorized as hyperactive. I was always staging shows at home for the family around the holidays. I loved Halloween from a very young age. I also became interested in music and played saxophone. Music became a healthy outlet to direct my creativity and it remains a major influence.
Can you remember what your very first favorite film was?
Seeing Star Wars at a drive-in theater when I was four had a profound impact. Close Encounters came out a year later and that was a favorite – and still very much is. Films like Jaws, Superman, E.T., The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark that instilled a sense of wonder in me and really set the course in terms of my love of films. It was such an amazing time for movies.
When did you first know you wanted to work in film? What was it like when you realized that was your life’s work?
I began experimenting with a video camera in high school and moved on to making shorts and eventually feature length films in college with friends. I never seriously thought I could work in the film industry as a career – Los Angeles seemed a world away from Pennsylvania. Even though it started as just a hobby I knew making films is what I felt most confident at and enjoyed the most. I had an opportunity to visit Los Angeles for the first time my junior year of college and was seduced by all of the entertainment industry overload. Instead of going on a spring break holiday my senior year, I returned to LA and established a few contacts and showed some of my work to producers and studio executives who said “If you come out here, give us a call.” It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up, so I made swift plans to move to LA upon graduation. There was no turning back from that point.
Who were some of your influences? What do you love most about their work?
Like many filmmakers of my generation, Spielberg was a towering influence from my childhood. Through high school, names like Raimi and Burton became centerpiece. I admired their more personal voice which I found inspiring and also kindred to my sensibilities. I couldn’t get enough of Edward Scissorhands and Batman. I remember watching The Evil Dead on VHS and feeling immediately compelled to pick up a camera and create something. Hitchcock also became a big influence in college. Vertigo is still my favorite film of all time.
What advice would you offer others who wish to work in the field?
I feel very fortunate to have worked with some of the best people in the industry -both professionally and personally. It can be a very rewarding and creative industry but it comes with a price. There’s a lot of personal sacrifice, long hours and hard work. Sometimes it can seem trivial. You have to be really committed and tirelessly enthused. It’s important to keep in mind that in the end, it’s all for make believe, so don’t forget the people that are really important in your life and remember where you came from. You can’t expect to be handed much – you have to do your time and work from the ground up. If you do, you’ll be better off in the long run. The industry is a machine but it’s also a team effort. It’s important to make yourself invaluable in some aspect of a team.
What do you love most about the magic of film?
Films are an escape from day to day reality. There’s nothing quite like the experience of sitting in a theatre and being swept into another world. It can expand your mind. They can also teach us more about ourselves or the world around us. Aside from the magic, it’s about the power of film. It can help enlighten people about topics they wouldn’t necessarily learn about in other forms, and even make a change for the better.
Of all the projects you have worked on is there one that you hold most dear?
Of all the projects I’ve worked on with Tim, Big Fish was a personal one. It was such a unique experience filming on location in Alabama and I love the film. The upcoming Big Eyes is something close to me as well. We really took a low budget “let’s just do it” approach and the result is something really special. From my personal projects I hold The Ballad of Sandeep, Captain Crabcakes, and my college horror opus, Verge of Darkness, close to my heart. You put so much into each project that they all become a part of you.
What would you say is the strangest thing you’ve have encountered in your work so far?
This is probably the toughest question. I could write volumes on strange things I’ve encountered. To name a few; Island of the Dolls in Mexico, Robot Restaurant in Tokyo, Van Damme in Cannes, Deep Roy (as the Oompa Loompa) in the White House.
How did you come to work with Tim Burton?
My first job in Los Angeles was as a production assistant on a television sitcom. When the show was cancelled someone at the network knew I had moved to LA to work in the film industry. She had contacts at Tim Burton Productions, heard they were hiring and recommended me. She called asking if I would be interested in interviewing for a position. I remember thinking “Are you kidding?” Although I was extremely nervous, the interview went well and I began working as a runner for the company a few weeks later.
What is he like as an individual? What would you say is the most important thing you have learned from working with him?
This is a question I encounter quite often. I think people expect to hear some really weird tales but Tim is quite normal – caring, creative, but also very level headed with a great sense of humor. He’s someone I was very nervous to meet for the first time because he was one of my idols and I was afraid that upon meeting him my view might change. But he was such a nice, down to earth guy that if anything my opinion was reinforced. Tim is the genuine deal – a creative genius and a naturally creative spirit. He is always drawing in a sketchbook – everywhere. From working with him I’ve experienced every aspect of the filmmaking process, which has been invaluable.
You also work as a photographer, what is the most important thing to remember when trying to capture a great shot?
Well, photography has always been more of a hobby for me. My wife is the professional photographer in the family. I’ve always loved the camera and it has been the driving force when I’m making one of my own films. My tip to getting a great shot is patience and to ALWAYS have a camera nearby, ready to go.
As someone who has worked as a writer, producer, director do you enjoy all three equally or do you love one more than the others?
I love it all but do certainly enjoy directing more than anything. It’s what I feel most confident at and it’s the one role that challenges and engages me fully.
Do you feel grateful that you have been able to pursue a career doing what you love?
I am extremely grateful and try my best to always remember how fortunate I am. I get to do something I enjoy every day, and continue to be challenged by it. It’s relentless work but there’s certainly never a dull moment.
Are there any little known things about you that your fans might be surprised to learn?
Even though people that know me consider me pretty extroverted, I personally feel like I’m still very much an introvert. I’ve always felt shy around people I don’t know very well. This industry has helped me break out of that a bit.
What are you personal feelings on life after death? How do you hope to be remembered when your own time comes?
The film Poltergeist taught me everything I need to know about the afterlife. All are welcome. There is peace and serenity in the light. And don’t forget your tennis balls. I hope to be remembered as a good son, brother, husband, father and friend to those close to me. If I can leave behind a memorable movie or two, for everyone else, that would be the icing on the cake.
What do you think is the key to a life well lived?
I think it’s important to burn hot and fast – keep looking forward but don’t forget what is behind. It’s all about the journey and the lives we touch. Enjoy the now –life is too short no matter how long we’re here.
What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?
Don’t pass up opportunities just because they’re not the most idyllic (or out of fear) – you never know where one will lead to another. Don’t discount opportunities that may come your way. Things can happen overnight but usually it takes a lot of time to get to that night.
How did Lazer Film Productions come into being? What projects are you working on at the moment?
Lazer Film Productions is the name of the “company” that my friends and I made films under in college at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. I still use it as a banner for my own films and music videos. I’m currently editing Green Lake a horror featurette I directed last summer on the Big Island of Hawaii. I’m also finishing work on a comedy short, Motel Providence, written by and starring The Minor Prophets. I’ve had a string of successful collaborations with The Minor Prophets http://www.theminorprophets.com – a comedy troupe from Philadelphia, of which some of the members were childhood friends of mine. I hope to unleash both Green Lake and Motel Providence by the end of this year.
Do you have a dream project that you’d most like to bring into existence?
I’ve been developing a feature film called Quiet Fire about the creative relationship between Miles Davis and jazz pianist Bill Evans surrounding the recording of the album Kind of Blue. I’ve also been working with The Minor Prophets and Deep Roy to get a feature film version of The Ballad of Sandeep http://www.theballadofsandeep.com off the ground. The script is complete and we’re ready to go. Now we just have to find funding. Aside from these my wife and I have been working on a werewolf script which has been great fun! (It’s kind of like the Heathersof werewolf movies.)
Anything you’d like to say in closing?
That was all very cathartic. Thank you, Tina, for the opportunity!
Elfman thrilled over Burton film music concerts, 'Nightmare' re-release.
By Tim Lammers for Direct Conversations
October 29, 2014
Twenty-nine years after he first worked with director Tim Burton, composer Danny Elfman is keenly aware that it's unique for a duo like theirs to have such a long and successful collaborative partnership. And as another set of concerts this Halloween weekend in Los Angeles celebrating his music in Burton's films quickly approaches, the shows remind Elfman once more just how lucky he and Burton were that the right eyes and ears were watching and listening at the right time.
After all, Elfman told me in a recent interview, he didn't even think the score for their first film together, 1985's "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" (which was Burton's and Elfman's directing and scoring debuting, respectively) would even live to see the light of day.
"I could not imagine that I was going to have a career in film composing at that time, nor did I imagine anyone would even see 'Pee-wee's Big Adventure' or my score wouldn't get thrown out," Elfman said with a laugh. "There were many 'could not imagine' instances that went on with that film. When I wrote it I thought, 'This is a crazy score and once Warner Bros. hears it, they're going to toss it in a quick second,' but they didn't to my astonishment."
Minus the score of "Big Eyes" -- which is Elfman and Burton's 16th film collaboration set for a Christmas Day release -- music from the duo's first 15 films will be performed at "Danny Elfman's Music From the Films of Tim Burton" LA concerts, set for Halloween night and Saturday at Nokia Theatre, and Sunday at Honda Center. The music will be conducted by John Mauceri with special performances by Elfman, and will feature visuals from several of Burton's films, including "Batman," "Beetlejuice," "The Nightmare Before Christmas," "Alice in Wonderland" and many others.
The visuals, however, don't only consist of clips. Audience members at the shows will also get a look on screen at some other exciting visual elements put together by Burton and the likes of such collaborators as his longtime producer Derek Frey and photographer Leah Gallo, Elfman noted.
"They put together a thorough visual presentation featuring costumes, images, sketches, production and design stuff, so you get a good sense of Tim's development of the films," Elfman said. "They put a lot of work into it."
Elfman said while the timing of the LA concerts happen to fall on Halloween weekend, the concert will not have a special emphasis on the holiday or Burton's films that deal with horror or the supernatural (two more concerts are set for Dec. 12 in London). The set list is the same as previous shows because there's a lot of ground to cover when you're talking representing every one of their films together over a two-hour-and-20-minute time period, Elfman said.
"The big challenge with this show was fitting in 15 suites given the time limit that we had," Elfman explained. "I wanted each suite to be representative of the score, not just a hit parade of titles to each of the movies. In fact, I even tried to challenge myself to write original bits in each of the suites, so I could have something recognizable, and something deeper into the score that is less-recognizable, but important if you want to understand the score and hear something you didn't think existed before the concert."
While legions of Burton and Elfman's fans outside of Los Angeles won't get a opportunity to see the concerts, Walt Disney Pictures is giving them a chance to celebrate one of their collaborations in a big way this weekend with the re-release of "The Nightmare Before Christmas," set to play in more than 200 theaters across the country.
The stop motion animated film and its music have inspired millions of fans in the past 21 years, including Derek Frey, who went on to help produce Burton's two other stop motion features, "Corpse Bride" and "Frankenweenie."
"'Nightmare' came at a time in my life where I was a big Burton fan and before I worked for Tim. Also, as a huge fan of Halloween, that film took me to somewhere where other films haven't," Frey told me in separate interview.
"Even though I worked on 'Corpse Bride' and 'Frankenweenie,' the whole concept of the worlds of Halloween and Christmas and the character arc of Jack Skellington, 'Nightmare' is the stop motion film that resonates with me the most," he said. "I watch 'Corpse Bride' and 'Frankenweenie' quite differently, but with 'Nightmare,' it's fun learning new things about the film because I was not a part of the filmmaking process."
The element that pushed "Nightmare" over the top for Frey, in particular, was Elfman's music.
"I was a Danny Elfman fan and even bought the soundtrack before the movie came out," Frey said. "I was really ready for that movie, and I think the musical side of that film is what for me made it very special."
Amazingly, like "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," Elfman's confidence going into the final phases of "The Nightmare Before Christmas" was shaky before the film was released in 1993, even though he and Burton had clearly demonstrated a winning track-record by that time.
Of course, the big difference with "Nightmare" and their previous films, though, was that Elfman was providing the singing voice of Jack (vocals that fans will get to hear once again at the LA concerts this weekend), and that it didn't enjoy the success -- initially, at least -- that "Pee-wee," "Beetlejuice" and the "Batman" films did.
"For me, at least, 'Nightmare' was the great disappointment of my career at that point," Elfman said. "So much work had gone into it and nobody seemed to understand it when it was released. Disney didn't know how to market it. I remember the one test screening they did was catastrophic because there were a lot of kids there who didn't get what the hell was going on."
Time, of course, has righted the ship, and the film is as popular as ever.
"When it became clear the film had a second life, it was just thrilling," Elfman said. "It was exhilarating, because I just figured at first, 'Well, that's life.' I never worked harder on anything in my life up until 'Nightmare' and I really believed in it, and felt, 'Well, it just never found an audience.'"
Oddly enough, it took Elfman more than a dozen years after the release of "Nightmare" to fully realize the impact the film had, not only on audiences in the U.S., but worldwide.
"I was on a press tour with Tim in Tokyo on 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' when I really realized that it had caught on. Tokyo was filled with 'Nightmare' images of Jack and Sally, and there was even a club inspired by the film," Elfman said. "Every store we went into was filed with 'Nightmare' stuff and Tim would say, 'God, I've never seen half of this stuff before.' So for the film to have this second life is astounding."
Beyond the numbers, though, Elfman said he's most moved by the experiences fans share with him about the movie.
"It's the greatest thing when people tell me, 'My kid knows all the words from this song and that song from "Nightmare" and he's only 4.' That's just amazing to me," Elfman said, humbly. "Very, very few films that get a second life, like a 'Rocky Horror Picture Show' or 'Donnie Darko.' There are films that get re-discovered, but it's rare. So the fact that 'Nightmare' was one of those few was a wonderful surprise.