From visionary director Tim Burton, the live-action telling of the beloved classic Dumbo celebrates differences while also exploring the importance of family, both by blood and by circumstance. When circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) appoints former horse-riding star Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) and his children (Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins) as the caretakers for the newborn elephant with the oversized ears, he has no idea that what initially makes him a laughingstock to audiences will also change their lives forever.
While at the film’s Los Angeles press day, producers Derek Frey and Katterli Frauenfelder (who was also the film’s First A.D.) spoke to Collider for this interview about taking on one of the most classic Disney stories, the appeal of Dumbo, the challenges of having a lead character that doesn’t actually exist, finding two young actors that were able to pull off the film’s emotional center, what they enjoy about their longtime working relationships with filmmaker Tim Burton, and the most fun days on set.
Collider: It seems daunting to take on one of the most classic Disney stories. How did you end up deciding to do Dumbo?
DEREK FREY: Disney approached Tim [Burton] with the idea and the script. Obviously, we’re aware that there are a lot of films that they’re going back to their catalog and re-imagining. You go in a little bit apprehensive like, “Oh, here’s another one of these.” But I think Tim was really touched by the script and the story. Obviously, he’s well aware of, and a fan of, the original film, and it just seemed like expanding upon that classic film was something that Tim would do better than anybody. I think he was really drawn towards it, immediately.
KATTERLI FRAUENFELDER: In the catalog of the classic Disney films, that was one that really spoke to him, from the get-go, when he was an animator at Disney.
FREY: And the technology had reached the point where you could do it now. The Jungle Book proved that now is the time. Sometimes you approach a project and the technology may not be quite there yet, but that film proved that it could be done.
FRAUENFELDER: The biggest thing was Dumbo’s eyes. He was very, very concerned about the eyes of the animals, and the technology is there to make them living.
When your title character doesn’t talk, everything has to be conveyed through the eyes.
FRAUENFELDER: He makes really cute elephant noises, though.
When the lead of your movie doesn’t actually exist, is that nerve-wracking?
FREY: Yeah, because you need a performance. You need a silent performance. One could say, in other films where an animal can talk or maybe have a voice, it lends itself a little bit easier to creating that character. With us, the challenge was making it real, but a hyper-reality and a super cuteness to it. Every time I’ve seen the film, I’m astounded by the beauty of the character and just how cute he is. You really get a sense of his personality.
FRAUENFELDER: And that’s all Tim.
FREY: With his animation expertise.
FRAUENFELDER: And the amount of time he put into how the ears were, the eyes, and the movement flying and walking.
FREY: And the sounds, the little squeaks, and the little chirps that he makes. It’s like a puppy. It’s so cute.
You essentially replace a talking mouse from the animated movie with two children, in this live-action re-telling. Was there ever fear that you wouldn’t find two young actors, like Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins, who are as great as the ones that were ultimately cast in the film?
FREY: We found them pretty early on, in the process of casting. There had been a wide net, put out and Susie Figgis, the casting director, who came back with a short list that both Nico and Finley were on, and she paired them up right away. Tim gravitated towards them very quickly because they’re both wonderful.
FRAUENFELDER: She’s phenomenal at casting children.
FREY: She has a history of casting phenomenal children.
FRAUENFELDER: [She did the casting for] Miss Peregrine and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
FREY: And Sleepy Hollow. They were perfect, and it shows. They’re good little people. For both of them, it was the first movie, so to be immersed in this world made it a little easier for them. It was a playground. They were so relaxed, so professional, and so prepared.
You’ve both worked with Tim Burton for quite some time now. What do you enjoy about that relationship and the collaboration that you have with him?
FRAUENFELDER: It’s his immense imagination and dedication to the project and his vision. With Tim, it’s an ever-evolving process, which I love. It’s not just, “Here’s the script. Let’s go.” He’s constantly changing it and working on it, as it evolves in pre-production and during production because an actor may do something that slightly skews the story. It’s a phenomenal collaboration to work with him because his imagination is unending.
FREY: He is like a painter who is always working on that canvas, until they rip the canvas out of his hands. With that comes challenges because we have to help him be able to hold onto that canvas and finish it exactly as he wants to. I think we both enjoy and thrive off of that challenge. He continues to challenge everybody, across the line. He’s got amazing artists, in their own right, working with him. I think that’s what everybody likes. As an artist – whether it’s (costume designer) Colleen Atwood or (production designer) Rick Heinrichs – you don’t wanna do the same thing, every time. You don’t wanna just assume what it’s gonna be. I think they enjoy Tim challenging them and asking for more or something different. It’s completely boundless.
FRAUENFELDER: And it evolves. As we’re shooting, it keeps evolving. That’s what I think all of us really, really enjoy. We always have to be thinking on our feet and be able to make all of these turns, as his brain turns and sees something.
FREY: And it continues. He’ll come to set and say, “No, I wanna do this now,” and you’re just like, “Okay. No one had thought about that.” He’s always the one driving those elements, and it’s inspiring to watch that.
What were the most fun days on set, and what were the most challenging days?
FRAUENFELDER: Well, they’re all fun days because, first of all, the group that’s around Tim is a family. They’re people that we’ve worked with, a long time. It’s a good atmosphere. And then, to create the circus and Dreamland, those were all real circus performers. In Dreamland, there were dancers that actually were mostly from Hungary. So, I don’t think there was an un-fun day because it was always continuously moving and there was always something else interesting that you’d never done before, so you were just going, “Whoa, okay.”