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.
You had to smell the sawdust, as it were.