An Interview with Derek Frey

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The World of Tim Burton, Mexico City. Photo by Leah Gallo.

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.

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Poster Design by Matt Saunders.

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Green Lake behind the scenes. Photo by Leah Gallo.

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The Green Lake Mo’o. Photo by Leah Gallo.

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 Children and 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.

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Poster design by Giulia Rivolta.

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Derek & Deep Roy on the set of God Came ‘Round. Photo by Leah Gallo.

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Deep Roy in God Came ‘Round. Photo by Leah Gallo.

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.

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Derek & son on location for Miss Peregrine’s. Photo by Leah Gallo.

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.

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Filming Pangea in Hilo, Hawaii. Photo by Valery Richardson.

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On the set of Pangea. Photo by RaVani Flood.

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.

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Tim Burton conducts Dumbo. Photo by Leah Gallo.© Disney

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!

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© Twentieth Century Fox.

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.

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Ella Purnell, Asa Butterfield & Derek Frey on the set of Miss Peregrine’s. Photo by Leah Gallo. ©Twentieth Century Fox

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.

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Derek Frey & Tim Burton on the set of Miss Peregrine’s. Photo by Leah Gallo.                                    © Twentieth Century Fox

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.

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Poster design by Holly Kempf.

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.

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Poster design by Holly Kempf.

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.

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Derek & the Minor Prophets on the set of Kill The Engine. Photo by Brian E. Smith.

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.

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