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 Heathers of werewolf movies.)
Anything you’d like to say in closing?
That was all very cathartic. Thank you, Tina, for the opportunity!