Of Myth & Men

 

By Mark Salisbury

From Empire February 2004

A tall tale of family fabrication, Big Fish is Tim Burton's best film in years and his biggest chance at Oscar glory since Ed Wood. Here the director and cast reveal the emotional truths that fuel the fantasy frippery.

There's something about the American South that unsettles Tim Burton. Perhaps it's the extra large portions of fried chicken they serve down there, or maybe it's the overly friendly nature of the people that freaks him out just. Or maybe it's simply the fact that they advertise Ku Klux Klan rallies in the local paper. "It took me aback a bit," admits Burton of the moment he came across one such ad while in pre-production of Big Fish in Alabama. "The good side of it is you're in the place where [the film] is taking place," he continues, safe now in the more evolved climes of New York City. "It's not the kind of movie you'd like to shoot on a sound stage in Los Angeles. For me, for the actors, for the crew, just being in the environment is helpful." But, he reflects, "I looked up myself in the mirror every day and would go, 'Why did I end up here?' The whole sort of deer hunting, heavily religious..." He trails off. "It's a strange place. But that's what makes it great to be there." There were other benefits. "You don't get many [studio] visitors," he grins, eyes suddenly a-twinkle behind blue-tinted specs. "It's not like they're going to saunter down to Alabama for the weekend."

All in all, Burton spent seven months in and around the small southern town of Montgomery, Alabama, directing a film that should finally bring him to the attention of those Oscar voters who have thus far chosen to ignore him. Based on Daniel Wallace's novel, Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions, Burton's latest is a lyrical slice of Southern Gothic that packs a remarkable emotional punch without ever becoming overly sentimental. The story revolves around the exaggerated adventures of the Alabama travelling salesman Edward Bloom, a gregarious, romantic and prodigious teller of exceedingly tall tales, now in the twilight of his life, and his estranged son, Will (Billy Crudup), a journalist living in France and soon to be a parent himself, who visits in the hope of affecting some kind of reconciliation with his dying father, beautifully played by Albert Finney. The film cuts back between the real life drama, with Will determined to uncover the truth behind his father's stories, and the fantasy version of Edward (with Ewan McGregor as the younger Bloom), through whose eyes we see them.

In adapting Wallace's novel, screenwriter John August (Go, Charlie's Angels) was faced with the dilemma that the book wasn't exactly heavy on plot, being an episodic collection of Edward's very big adventures. But August, who'd read it in manuscript form five years ago and convinced Columbia to cough up for the option, says he found a way into the film on his first reading. "I work very quickly and very instinctively and, chapter by chapter, I kept filling in the pieces," he reveals. "It was easy to feel what the present day story would be: a grown son trying to come to terms with who is this man who tells these stories? I had lost my father a few years before and I could sense what it was like to be that grown-up. Between what was in the book and what I knew I could bring to it, I felt there was a movie there."

For Burton, August's script proved to be something of a godsend. Having started out as an animator at Disney in the early '80s working on The Fox and the Hound, Burton, thanks to a couple of quirky shorts and a recommendation from Stephen King, soon found himself helming Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, starring comedian Paul Reubens. The film was an unexpected hit for Warner Bros., and Burton was soon handed the reins of the Batman franchise that was to elevate him to the Hollywood A-list and make his hauntingly beautiful vision a marketable commodity, even if subsequent films, such as Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, Ed Wood and Mars Attacks! never quite attained the same kind of financial success as the first Batman. In 1999, after a wasted year spent developing a Superman movie, Burton took out his frustration on the head-chopping horror of Sleepy Hollow, before directing a remake of Planet of the Apes for Fox that disappointed even his most ardent fans. In contrast to the demands inherent in helming such a huge studio franchise picture (and in remaking a classic movie to boot), Big Fish came with none of the usual pressures, none of the expectation, none of the hype. "It's nice to work on a movie that doesn't have a high profile, that doesn't have all the things that are usually required, one big star to sell the movie, a one-sentence tag line, all of that stuff that is usually part of that system." Burton hadn't even heard of Wallace's book when he got the script, which only added to its appeal. Furthermore, he was keen to do something smaller and more personal again. Although quite how personal even he could not have foreseen.

"My father had recently died," Burton reveals. "I wasn't really close to him but it was heavy, and it makes you start thinking and going back in time."
August's script, he says, gave a voice to unspoken emotions about his parents (his mother died shortly before he read it), but especially his relationship with his father. "It was something that was very difficult to discuss, then this script came along and dealt with those issues. So it was an amazing catharsis to do this because you're able to work through those feelings without having to talk to a therapist about it."

"I don't think you have to lose a parent to identify with the mystery of the father-son dynamic," says Richard Zanuck, who joined Big Fish as producer when Burton signed on, and who himself had a difficult relationship with his own father, the late Darryl F. Zanuck, who once fired him as head of production at 20th Century Fox. "I was with Tim when he learned of his father's passing and even though they weren't close, he was shaken to the core. The whole process of making the film and dealing with this story unearthed certain things in both of us."

As it turned out, the material was deeply personal for so many of those involved. "Some of the stuff that [Tim] felt was very personal to him was also really personal to me," says August, "because my relationship with my father was also tied up in there, and Daniel Wallace's relationship with his father was tied up in there. I remember telling Tim that Daniel Wallace had emailed me and said, 'Oh, so I guess Billy Crudup is playing me,' and I told Daniel Wallace, 'No, Billy Crudup is playing me,' and I think Tim had a sense like, 'No, Billy Crudup is playing me.' All three of us had been there. My father was nothing like Edward Bloom, but I certainly knew what it was like to be in a house with a guy you know is going to be dying soon . . . I knew I could do all the last-weeks-of-your-life details very honestly and efficiently."

Before Burton had hooked onto Big Fish, Steven Spielberg had flirted with directing it and his interest was enough to turn what had initially been conceived as a small-scale picture into a hot project. "Nothing really big got changed," insists August, who wrote a couple of drafts to Spielberg's specifications. "The only thing that changed, that stayed changed, was the tress that come to life and try to hold [Edward] back as he is leaving [the haunted town of] Spectre." Spielberg, however, had wanted Jack Nicholson to play the older Edward Bloom, and August had had to adapt the script to attract a commitment from the three-time Oscar winning actor. "There was this thought that there wasn't enough for Jack Nicholson to do in the movie, so we built new sequences. Pieces got moved around, but it wasn't a lot of new stuff being created. It ended up being a really good intellectual exercise in my explaining and defending and reanalysing pieces of the story."

A year later, with Spielberg no closer to committing, August, working now with producers Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen, who won the Best Picture Oscar for American Beauty, went looking for another director. Before sending the script out to Burton, they took the opportunity to revisit the material. "Once Steven decided he wasn't going to do it, we put the script back to the way it was," recalls Jinks. "Steven even said, 'I think I made a mistake with a couple of things I asked you guys to try.'" August confirms, "I was able to do a 'best of Big Fish' draft. By the time we approached Tim, the script was in the best shape it had ever been."

In retrospect, Burton seems the ideal choice for this material, not least for his visual flair and unrivalled sense of the fantastical, so important in the realisation of Edward's fabricated tales, which involve glass-eyed witches, sheep-scoffing giants and singing Siamese twins. "This is a movie about a great storyteller, and his stories have sort of a fantastical quality to them. That's why Tim Burton seemed the dream choice to do this project," Producer Jinks insists. "With all of Tim's movies, his stories take you into weird, wonderful, fantastical worlds the way Edward Bloom's stories do in John's screenplay."

The first decision facing Burton was who to cast as Edward Bloom. The debate was "Do you have one actor who you age up and age down?" recalls August. "At some point there was talk of, like, a Russell Crowe, or somebody who could split the difference. Then it became, what are the combinations of actors that could give you the right thing?"

"We couldn't think of just one actor - it had to be, who's the other guy?" says Burton, referring not only to the Edward Bloom role(s), but also to that of Edward's wife, Sandra, who wound up being played by Jessica Lange (opposite Finney) and Alison Lohman (opposite McGregor). It was Jinks and Cohen, who at that time were producing Down With Love with McGregor, who suggested the combination of the Moulin Rouge star and Albert Finney. Around the time Finney's name came up, Burton was shown a People magazine article on McGregor from six or seven years before, which had a photo of Finney from 1963's Tom Jones alongside one of McGregor, with a caption asking, "Is he the new Albert Finney?" "The picture of Tom Jones, the picture of Ewan, that was the thing," Burton notes. And indeed, McGregor remembers meeting him and seeing pictures of himself and Finney on his desk: "They were upside down and I saw one I couldn't remember having [been] taken of me. I turned it around and it was Albert when he was young. It's bizarre, because we even laugh the same way." But it wasn't solely their physical similarity that swung it. "They're both just great actors," says Burton, "and it had more to do with their spiritual connection; the same with Alison and Jessica. Without that connective thing, I don't know if it could have been made."

"Despite the fact that they were playing the same character, Finney says he and McGregor never talked about how they would approach the role, other than deciding on the way Edward would cast a fishing line, as both actors are seen casting in the film. "Whether round arm, over arm or side arm," Finney states. ("They went out to the parking lot and I was going, ' Why are they casting in a parking lot, shouldn't it be in the water?'" laughs Burton.) "I did most of my shooting at the beginning, so maybe Ewan sneaked into dailies to see how I did, or maybe Tim talked to Ewan about those things, or maybe they didn't worry so much because I was in bed so much," chortles Finney. "It wasn't as if I was walking around a great deal." Had he ever noticed a resemblance to McGregor before this? "Never. To me, Ewan's Ewan, he looks like Ewan, he doesn't look like me. But now and again he does remind me [of me] a little bit, a head turn or something like that."

Burton filmed all the intense hospital scenes and most of those involving Finney first, before moving on to the McGregor section of Bloom's life. Often the production would shoot in several separate locations in one day. "Every day was like a new film," Burton notes. "It was like you're doing the circus movie one day, [then] a bank robbery, a romance, an intimate family drama. The juxtaposition of that was what was great about it." And in keeping with the more human element of the project, he refused to use many computer effects, preferring to keep it as real as the story allowed. "I've dealt with CG and I prefer to use it as little as possible, especially in a film like this. It just seemed like it was right to shoot on location with actors and sets, and whatever effects we had to do just do them as simply as possible." And despite various weather mishaps (they filmed from January to April 2003) - "It would change on us right in the middle of a scene or day to day," says Zanuck. "At one stage the whole circus was flooded, the tent was blown down by a tornado" - Burton wrapped the four-month shoot on budget and on schedule.

Part of what makes Big Fish so affecting is the balance Burton achieves between the fantasy and reality elements. There's a consistency of tone that extends from the script, to the production design, to the casting and to the acting. "I think Tim made a very smart choice to let the real world be real, but it's not gritty real," says August. "There's a bit of movie sheen to the real world which is very comforting and approachable, then in the fantasy world everything's heightened, yet it's still sort of human proportions. While there are impossible things, it never feels like you've walked into Star Wars. It's all heightened versions of things you could really see in the real world."

"Because nobody had a really big part, it was like a puzzle," Burton observes. "Nobody knew how one person was going to affect the other, but that was the beauty of it for me. I always felt that Jessica was going to help Allison's performance and Allison was going to help Jessica, Ewan was going to help Albert and vice versa, in these weird ways. It was amazing for me to see." Finney, for one, says he wishes he was more like Edward in real life, and claims to be jealous of his character's ability to embellish the truth in his storytelling, something he cannot do. "The doctor says to Billy at the end that he knows how he was born, and of the two he prefers [Edward's] story," he notes, with a touch of regret. "I liked that, the feeling of 'let a little fantasy in, let a little air in to dream and play with'. That's Edward Bloom's great talent. That's Tim Burton's great talent. And, after seeing Big Fish, you might just wish it were your great talent.

 

 

 

 

 

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