Tim Burton has reinvented many different films, as well as books and in the case of Mars Attacks!, a TOPPS trading card series. In Dumbo, Burton turns the Disney animated film into a live action movie with actors and what looks like a real flying elephant.
Holt (Colin Farrell) returns from the war to the circus where his children (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins) have been waiting. The new elephant gives birth to a baby who has the power to fly. Ultimately, Max Medici (Danny DeVito) sells Dumbo to V.A. Vandevere’s Dreamland circus, where trapeze artist Colette Merchant (Eva Green) plans a new act with Dumbo.
Burton and the cast of Dumbo gave a press conference in Los Angeles and Dream Alliance was there in the front row. Dumbo opens Friday, March 29 in theater.
Q: What draws you to a a performer or an artist like the ones you’ve cast in many of your films?
TB: Look at them. They all look weird. It’s very simple and in this particular case it’s a few things. There’s a point because Dumbo is a heightened reality so for me, there was two different things. One, because it’s a weird story about a weird family, it was very special to me to work with people that I’ve worked with like Michael, Eva, Danny and I feel like I’ve worked with Colin for many years because he’s got the same kind of spirit. And meeting Nico and Finley, having a weird dysfunctional family like a film is and like the movie’s circus is was just very beautiful and important. The spirit of all of them really meant the world to me in terms of what the movie is and the spirit that they all put into it, and because it’s a weird elephant, I had one thing in the back of my mind. All the people had to look kind of weird, naturally.
CF: And coming from an actual dysfunctional family, I felt like I fit in.
Q: For the regulars, what was it like to work with Tim Burton again?
MK: I can’t but here’s the deal, if you’re going to say Batman.
TB: It’s like I’m at my own funeral. Let me leave the room.
DD: Let me say something. I think he’s brilliant. I think he’s just a genius. His artistry is just astounding. Give a talented person like Tim a subject like Dumbo with all the great meaning and messages, what does he do? He sends it off into the stratosphere and he’s one of a kind. He’s just amazing. We love him so much and we like to see him squirm.
MK: It’s true. Sorry, you’re going to get sick of this. It’s a rare thing to work with an original and to be in the thick of it, to be right in the middle of a piece of art. We really do have to stop this now because he is getting sick of this but it’s true. It’s absolutely true.
Q: What was it like for Michael and Danny to work together in opposite roles than when you played Batman and The Penguin?
DD: It was great. It was really terrific. When Tim called a year ago or whenever it was and said he was making the movie, I was really thrilled to be able to be part of it. Then the joy factor went up through the roof when I heard that Michael was in it with me.
MK: Part of the joy factor was that the first thing he reminded me was that he got to be the hero and I got to be the bad guy. He was just thrilled with that
DD: Well, you know, once in a while, how does it feel to be the bad guy? Him in the mask and the whole Batman thing. It’s just too much for me and me always being the gross penguin grunting and groaning and stuff. It was really so nice to be with him and everybody who was in the movie with us all together. Like Tim says, this great family that he creates and we’re all the weirdos but there is one really weird daddy down on the end who’s like pulling all the strings. So we’re thrilled to be together.
TB: Welcome to the island of misfit toys.
CF: No shepherding needed, trust me.
TB: The other way around.
CF: Nico would be like, “Colin, you’re two feet off your mark.”
NP: I did that, yeah.
Q: What was your first day on set like?
FH: Well, I can’t really remember much from the first day but with Nico, I remember one of the first days of filming, we were in our costumes and we were just going in for a costume check. We would have done one of the first scenes, and then Danny walked past . We just did that and it was five seconds and each second felt literally like an eternity of just going, “Hi, how are you? Hi, how are you?” And then we met Colin and then Eva and then Michael and then Tim. It was just terrifying each time.
Q: Why Dumbo? What do you love about Dumbo?
TB: I just liked the idea of it. The idea of a flying elephant, a character who doesn’t quite fit into the world and how somebody with a disadvantage makes it an advantage. So it just felt very close to the way I felt about things. It was just a very pure simple image, like all the great old Disney fables had that kind of simple symbolism for real emotions.
Q: What were your ideas to expand the film?
TB: I just like the fact that it’s obviously a very simple fable, very simple story at its heart about a family. What I liked about it was the human parallel story. This character Holt comes back from the war, doesn’t have an arm, doesn’t have a wife, doesn’t have a job. He’s trying to find his place in the world and all the characters actually are that way. Nico’s character, they want her to be something, she wants to be something else. Every character in it is trying to find their place in the world except Dumbo, and using disadvantage to an advantage. So lots of nice themes but in a very simple framework.
CF: As Tim was saying, I think every one of the characters is at odds with either their past or what’s going on in the present or both. So I was playing a father who was disenfranchised from his kids, disenfranchised from a life that he left behind that’s completely different by the time he comes back from fighting the first War. He’s physically a different man. He’s lost his left arm. He’s seen a lot of brutality and we don’t get into all that psychological stuff so heavy because we want the film to be received with the importance of the messages that are in it without hitting them over the head. My character’s journey was more him just accepting his position as father and how that meant that all he had to do really was get out of his children’s way and let them be who they are.
Q: Eva, do you identify with the theme of turning a perceived weakness into a strength?
EG: Feeling like an outsider? Right now, I do. Yeah, I think you don’t have to be an artist to feel like an outsider. I think everybody has felt at some point a bit strange or different. It’s a big thing. It’s such a wonderful movie because it has that message of it’s okay to be strange or different. It’s actually great. It makes you special and we just have to embrace our uniqueness.
Q: What training did you do to conquer your fear and perform so elegantly?
EG: I had the most amazing circus people who were very patient, very kind with me because I was absolutely petrified. I thought I would never be able to do that, and so for two months every day I trained. You needed a very strong core as well, very strong abs, very strong arms. Little by little I went higher and higher and higher. That was amazing. I found a trick. It was to sing as well, in French. Like whoa, off you go and you swear and you sing. I surprised myself. It was a miracle.
DD: You absolutely look like you were born to be on a trapeze. It was just amazing.
Q: What do you hope kids will take away from seeing this movie?
CF: The same things take away from it. The importance of just accepting the inherent difference that people have from each other in relation to each other but celebrate it. As time was saying, there are simple messages that are very complex, it seems, to live in as we go on through our lives and those messages of kindness and inclusion. So that’ll be cool, or else if they’re just entertained for a couple hours, I’ll take that as well.
TB: And also for me, the reason I wanted to do it was the old Disney movies had all these elements. They had joy, they had humor, death, everything. Certainly there were taboo subjects.
CF: You skipped so deftly from joy and humor to death.
TB: Did I emphasize that one too much? But those movies always had a mixture of those things. Like Colin was saying, we try to present these things without overdoing it in a fable-like way, but let it present itself and not dictate it and just show these people for what they’re going through and who they are.
Q: How did you represent Dumbo on set?
TB: Ed. He looked like a weird insect. He had this green suit on but Ed was amazing because he actually studies elephants and movement so you remember Ed, don’t you?
NP: Yeah, we bullied Ed.
TB: He was great but he really got into the feel and movements of elephants even though he looked like a weird insect so we had help.
CF: They did give him an awful hard time because it was unavoidable. He was dressed in a green spandex suit for the guts of five months.
NP: Yeah, because we were with him the whole time and I think midway through we found out he was in Tarzan and could do the ape walk.
FH: Oh, we took such advantage of that. So when we first found out we were like, “Oh yeah, that’s cool.” Then we were like, “Okay, do it.” Then we were like, “Do it again. Do it again. Do it again.” Then we were like, “Teach us how to do it. Teach us how to do it.” That went on for about a couple of weeks maybe. We were quire harsh.
MK: In my scenes I didn’t use Ed. I used Daniel Day Lewis. He’s a friend. I asked if he’d come in.
Q: What was the biggest challenge as a director working on Dumbo?
TB: Well, the weirdest thing on this movie was we have all these great actors. The biggest challenge I guess was you have all these people, you have amazing sets, Colleen [Atwood], Rick [Heinrichs], the art director. The only thing that’s missing is the main character. That’s a very, very unnerving thing to be going into something. You know what you want and you know what you’re trying to go for. You can even see rough animation but until it materializes, you just don’t know. So all these people are suspending disbelief for everything to make the main character there and believable. I think that was the biggest challenge. Dumbo just arrived about a week ago finally.
Q: Michael, were you inspired by Bettlejuice for this character?
MK: No, that’s a lightning in a bottle kind of thing, that movie. That was unique. No, not really. There are probably certain things I guess. Danny would probably feel the same way since we’ve worked with Tim before. There are probably certain things that you just click into immediately, just in terms of sensibilities. But no, not really. I do like, going to extremes. So any time you’re with Tim, there’s always that likelihood that you’re going to go to some kind of extreme in a look or something like that.
Q: How did you develop the sound Dumbo makes and creating the look with cinematographer Ben Davis?
TB: That just kept developing. We had a whole array of sounds. Just varying bass, upper, lower, all that stuff. We just tried to give him a voice without him speaking. You see with animals and things where you know there’s a connection. It’s not the exact human connection but that kind of thing. That’s just part of his character. It was just developing up to a few weeks ago so we’ve been playing with that for a long period of time. Then there’s Dumbo. Because it’s his movie, his character, we tried to give it so you felt like you’re with him, you’re in his point of view and you’re with him being in the experience with him. Dumbovision is probably based on the fact that I’ve seen too many science fiction movies with Alien vision. It Came From Outer Space.
Q: The film is a lot darker than the poster. Why?
TB: Maybe you saw a bad print of the film. I can’t hear or see but to me, it’s very bright to me.
CF: Mad splashes of color.
TB: See, I don’t know what I’m talking about because I’ve been it’s too light, it’s too dark.
CF: I think there’s a tonal shift throughout the film. I think the first half of it is more in keeping with this and then ti gets a bit darker with the introduction of Michael’s character. The color palette changes in Dreamland. It becomes a bit more oppressive, a bit more dark and a bit more sincere even though it’s beautiful and even more elaborate than what we came from. There’s a weight to it and then it ends up where it ends up.
DD: Film is 24 frames a second. The way film works, half of the time you’re in the dark. That’s exactly it. 24 frames a second that shutter opens and closes so half of the time you’re in that theater, you’re in the dark.
MK: It’s physically the most beautiful movie I’ve ever been in. I’m just going to say that. It’s unbelievably gorgeous.