Los Angeles — It is always a thrill to watch anything that Tim Burton does. And that includes his version of the well-loved 1941 Disney classic, “Dumbo.”
We were able to talk to the eccentric director as well as his talented and extraordinary cast composed of Colin Farrell (Holt Farrier), Eva Green (Colette Merchant), Danny DeVito (Max Medici) and Michael Keaton (V.A. Vandevere).
They shared with us their experiences creating and collaborating with the genius filmmaker and making this fantasy adventure live-action remake a reality.
Below are excerpts of our conversations with them:
I remember how you talked about being on the soundstages wandering into one that was dedicated primarily for the trapeze artists there. What stuck out for you when you saw all the talents and the myriad of people around the world?
I get moved by talent. Like I went to see “Cats” this weekend with my younger boy Henry at the Pantages, and the amount of talent that exists in the world, it’s insane that anyone should get a job or have quote, unquote, and a career and have continuity of work in something as fickle as entertainment.
When there’s so many talented singers and dancers and actors in the world — what stood out to me again, was a reminder of just how much talent exists in the world. These men and women were people who had honed whatever craft it was, whether it was juggling or fire breathing, whether it was tightrope walking, contortionists, whatever it may be.
It was just beautiful to see that kind of swell, that much human talent, people who had mastered a certain craft that they had dedicated years before they arrived. They had very little to do on the film, and they were in that warehouse. It sounds like they were chained to beds, but they weren’t. They were doing their thing, but they were waiting around for four, five months.
They were there the whole time and every now and then they would have a routine to do. But yeah, just the depth of extraordinary talent that exists around the world is phenomenal. So it just brings you to a place of gratitude for having the opportunity to work the way I have over the last 15 years.
Did you try to do things one handed on the set at all or was that not necessary?
Off the set I did for a while, just in the hotel room and stuff for a while. It was fine, because I could never separate from the reality of knowing that I, in “The Lobster” even there was a thing where I was tied, one of my hands were tied and I had to take my pants off with one hand and eat breakfast and butter toast with one hand.
So you just do it — messing around is part of the experience. But at the end of the day, I knew I had an arm. You can do a lot with one hand. It wasn’t something I was having to live with.
Are you a very much hands-on father?
Yeah, oh Jesus yeah. It’s certainly the most consequential thing and it’s why I find it — I can say this with all the love I can muster — I find parenting a lot harder than acting. As I think I should, it’s a lot more consequential, that’s the real stuff.
The rest of the stuff is beautiful and we get to explore humanity. We get to express ourselves creatively and you get to make what money you get to make. But the real business of living and existence and the cycle of life and change and evolution and the next generation, that’s all got to do with being a dad. So yeah, it’s very important to me.
A Chinese professor once told me that you go through rebirth when you are 40 to 43. You have time to rethink your life. Is this happening to you?
I am 42. I am in a somewhat contemplative period of my life, which when I hear myself say that, I wonder: Does that mean at the expense of engaging physically, immediately with life as I find it, as it is presented to me? It doesn’t mean that at all.
I tend not to look back through the lens of regret, but I certainly do look back from time to time, just to purvey the landscape of my life and make sense of how I am here today, knowing of course that the past doesn’t exist anymore.
It only exists in my perception of the present as seen through the experiences of the past. I do look back and look around, but I don’t look to the future really. I do have of course a relationship with the past because it got me where I am today. I find myself quite contemplative and I love being in my 40's now. I wouldn’t take my 20's back if you paid me. I had a great time but I wouldn’t, and I am okay with getting older.
When did you first see “Dumbo” and how was the experience shooting with Tim and the animals?
I saw the original movie when I was 4 or 5 years old. I have great appreciation now with the aerialists in the circus, because I am afraid of heights. So, I had to strengthen my arms and core, overcame my fear of heights.
I love animals, I like the animals to be free, especially the elephants in Africa. When you see the result on screen, it's so amazing, so realistic, the elephants. It is so sophisticated, it's quite a wonderful job.
Did you ever go to a circus when you were a child? Which animals did you like?
It's funny, I probably went twice as a child, and I always felt a bit sad. I don't know what it was, there's something, I don't know if it was the clown or — but there was something. I don't know, I can't really explain it.
But now, maybe it's just seeing these wild animals in the circuses, it's very sad. It doesn't make sense that they are in captivity and children could feel that. I'm just very proud, as well, that Disney is taking a stand and is promoting animal-free circuses. Even zoos, we should not have wild animals in zoos. I went to Africa a few times and it's so magical when you see those animals being free. It makes sense that they are free and not stuck in cages.
Do you see yourself as the muse of Tim Burton? You worked on several movies together. How would you describe your relationship with Tim?
I don't know, I find the term very intimidating. I'm not sure. It's very flattering, of course, but I'm just much honored that he's asked for me for a third time.
It's so wonderful to be able to play characters that are so different, as well. You know, "Dark Shadows," she was kind of a bonkers witch, a wounded witch. Then, Miss Peregrine, a woman-bird, and then here, a trapeze artist. She is a clearer character than the two others I've done with him. I'm just much honored that he's given me those gifts.
What did you learn about your body being an aerialist?
It was very intense training, because I'm terrified of heights. So, it was a really big challenge. Tim asked me to do some of my own stunts, so I was like, "Okay, I'm going to try. But I can't assure that this is going to work." But I really tried, and I worked intensively with some circus people, like every day, two, three hours.
First of all, you have to get like a really strong core, very strong arms. Then you get up there. But we went step by step, and it was amazing because I surprised myself. I thought I would never be able to do this. These people were very patient with me, and they gave me lots of confidence. I managed to take off, thanks to them.
Would you do it again?
Yeah, you know what? There's a circus school in London, and it's such a great workout because it's also very playful. I love the girl, Katherine Arnold, she taught me, and she teaches over there, as well. So, definitely.
Does Tim Burton push you to be more different, edgier?
He welcomes my ideas and I welcome his and unfortunately and fortunately, I am the one who brought up the wig and I thought oh man, because I just don’t like that time in the makeup chair.
I don’t like sitting there that long or getting ready with a wig because it requires preparation. But everybody on this movie is so, his group. The people who work on his films, they all really enjoy being in a Tim Burton movie, working on a Tim Burton movie, and they are all so good. So we got that down and that was pretty easy. But I brought it up and I thought, 'oh why did I do this, now it’s going to take me longer to sit in the makeup chair in the hair and makeup department.'
I saw his eyes light up when I suggested wearing a wig and I thought 'oh boy, here we go.' So that was my fault, even though I liked it. But I saw it and it looked ridiculous.
You belong to the regular Tim Burton gang. Is there an initiation for newcomers? Are there endless takes?
Those endless takes — that doesn’t exist.
What happens to the newcomers?
Well first of all, your blood is drawn. You take a blood test and we run it through, (laughs) and it’s top secret and mixed with weird things.
Colin was talking about it this this morning. He was joking how, we were teasing him about being an outsider and he is not an outsider at all. You just get it and you figure it out. When you get on board with him and it’s not like Danny and I are the only two, there are others who have done movies, multiple movies with Tim, you get what he wants to do and it becomes a shorthand.
Honestly it’s not, I tell those people all the time and they think there’s an image of him being, I don’t think eccentric is a bad thing, I think eccentric can be a real good thing.
So I can’t say he’s not that thing sometimes, but there’s an image out there that he is this dark weird dude and he is not. To me he is really, really almost ridiculously normal in a lot of ways, like what most people consider normal. So I totally understand what he is talking about with certain things and he is exciting to talk with because he just goes on what he sees and what he thinks and it’s fun.
It’s just fun and Danny got it and I got it and I got it really early on because “Beetlejuice” was such a baptism by fire thing. That is way out there, that is just totally a whole other animal that movie.
So what do you think does it take to get into the Tim Burton gang?
You just got to be in tune to, just pay attention and really listen to what he is saying and probably it helps to have seen some of his movies and go 'oh I kind of see what this guy is doing.'
You have to have the ability to see the whole painting to go, 'okay I think I get the painting now, what is my color and where am I in that?' That is the truth of all movies really, but with him, you just say 'oh I see where he is headed.' I guess if I could explain it, I wouldn’t be any good at it.
What is your personal relationship with circuses and do you remember the first time you went to one?
Oh, absolutely. I was a big fan of the circus. I lived in New Jersey, and the circus would come to the outskirts of town, from Asbury, and I'd go. My family always took me. I loved it. I loved the high-wire acts, basically, in the lot, and the juggling.
Like everybody else, I was a little bit afraid of the clowns when I was a kid, but I really enjoyed going. Now, I haven't been in a while, but I've been taking the kids over the years.
I always had a good time at the circus. I realize that, what's going on now, is we're going through a time when we're understanding that it's not a good idea to keep animals in the circus. Like, in our movie, we dealt with that very well in the end of the movie, without revealing the ending. Maybe I just did. But that was like one of the real pluses of "Dumbo."
So how is the genius of Tim Burton different from other directors?
Everybody has their own style. I was fortunate to work with Milos Forman, rest his soul, a brilliant director. I've worked with many, many directors that we know and love, and everybody has their own take on it.
This is my fifth movie with Tim Burton; four he was directing and one, he's in one of my movies that I directed. The thing is that, you take "Dumbo," this incredible story, and you give it to an artist like Tim, and you know that it's going to exponentially explode into the stratosphere, in terms of, not only preserving the themes that were in the original, really well-done, 63-minute cartoon that Walt Disney made, take those themes and bring them in to add so much more spirit from what goes on inside Tim.
He paints with us. I feel like part of his paint box. Like, he'll take Colin and I and Michael and Eva and the kids, and all the jugglers and all the clowns and all the massive props and the way it's lit, and everything, and onstage in front of you, you can watch him do this. If you're lucky enough, to be in one of his movies, or around the set. You can see that thing emerging in front of you, and where he's going with every single beat. So, it's a very exciting thing to work with him. I was blessed to be in "Batman Returns," we had a great time, and then "Mars Attacks," and "Big Fish" and now "Dumbo." Really, it's a pleasure to work with him.
You’re going to be 75 this year.
Yes on November 17th. Isn't that something? You get up for every day, "Well, I'm awake. I'm up, I'm up. And I’m a day older." Another day older, yeah, that's right. It's good. I'm blessed with a good career and I keep working, and so, I just want to keep going, I don't ever think I'll stop, retire. We're all going to stop someday. But it's been good.
It’s interesting that you said about what drew you to “Dumbo,” this misfit. And that is what we have in all of your movies, the misfit guy.
Yeah, I can’t help it. Once you are what you are, I am not going to make a movie about this cowboy hero, because I know nothing about that feeling.
Is it true that a filmmaker makes the same movie again and again?
I don’t think that’s true, and you can boil it down to that. I do think you can see certain directors making things, even if they are different, there is a certain look and similarity in terms of themes and topics, and maybe even imagery that keeps coming up.
A person is a person and everything goes through a prism of what they know and what they feel. I am no different than that way, because I didn’t know really, I grew up as a filmmaker, and I did animation. So everything I have done is just more like me, even though it’s a big studio thing or whatever. So yeah, I could see that there are certain things that probably reoccur, and that is because unfortunately I keep thinking about them.
So how different is “Dumbo” from the previous one?
Every movie is different. It’s different because it’s coming out of a slightly different perspective. It’s talking about family in a different way. It’s talking about what constitutes a family in different ways and it’s not just a traditional way. There are lots of different ways that family exists. So it just explores, and again, the difference between this and that, there’s a very beautiful, simple image of a flying elephant that means a lot and it touches on different subjects.
Did you ever have a pet that you trained of some sort?
I had a pet raccoon and you can’t have them anymore and that was tough. That was hard work. It just lived in my room and opened the refrigerator and that was tough. I must have been eight or nine or ten.
Did it have a name?
Yeah, Bonnie, like Bonnie and Clyde because of the mask. Very clever. But yeah, you can’t have raccoons anymore. My friend had spider monkeys. You used to be able to buy spider monkeys in the back of a comic book. You could buy a live spider monkey, so I knew a guy who had one of them. — LA, GMA News