Behind The Scenes of Tim Burton’s DUMBO

From imaginative director Tim Burton, the live-action retelling of Walt Disney’s classic DUMBO celebrates family and celebrates nonconformity. The film reunites 1992’s BATMAN RETURNS stars Danny DeVito (playing circus owner Max Medici) and Michael Keaton (entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere) in a heart-warming tale. Dumbo is a newborn elephant with unmanageably large ears, so Max appoints Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) and his kids (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins) as his baby sitter, more or less. Eva Green (playing circus aerialist Colette) joins the loving team surrounding Dumbo and his quest for acceptance in a critical, disparaging world.

Co-stars Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito and Eva Green, along with director Tim Burton and more filmmakers joined us for a press conference at the film’s Los Angeles press junket on March 10th (Incidentally, my birthday!). Here they spoke about how simple stories work best, what it’s like to perform in the opposite role (hero vs. villain), how to resolve feeling like an outsider and how it feels to fly.

(Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney) Tim Burton; Colin Farrell; Nico Parker; Finley Hobbins; Eva Green; Danny DeVito; Michael Keaton

The Themes of DUMBO

What do you love about Dumbo?

Tim Burton (Director):  I just liked the idea of a flying elephant and the character that doesn’t quite fit into the world. It’s obviously a very simple fable. How somebody with a disadvantage makes it an advantage. So it just felt very close to the way I felt about things. And all of the characters actually are in it that way – everybody is trying to find their place in the world. Like Dumbo. So lots of nice themes. But in a very simple framework.

(Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney)  Tim Burton; Colin Farrell

Do you identify with that theme of feeling different – like you don’t fit in?

Eva Green:  Right now, I do. I think you don’t have to be an artist to feel like an outsider. I think everybody has felt at some point kind of a bit strange or different. It’s just such a wonderful movie because it has that message of ‘no, it’s okay to be strange or different.’ It’s actually great and it makes you special. We just have to embrace our uniqueness.

What was your biggest challenge making DUMBO?

Tim Burton: The biggest challenge was that you have all these people, the actors, amazing sets, Colleen Atwood (costume designer), Rick Heinrichs, the art director. Amazing. The only thing that’s missing is the main character. That’s a very, very unnerving thing. You know what you’re trying to go for and you can even see rough animation. But until it materializes, you just don’t know. Will he be believable? Dumbo just arrived about a week ago, finally!

What was Dumbo actually represented by on set?

Tim Burton: Ed. He looked a weird insect. He had this green suit on and was an extended length. But Ed was amazing because he actually studied elephants and movements.

Creating the Look and Sounds of Tim Burton’s DUMBO

(Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney) Rick Heinrichs; Colleen Atwood; Danny Elfman; Ehren Kruger; Justin Springer

In a rare treat at the press conference, not only did we hear from producers Derek Frey and Katterli Frauenfelder, but also famed costume designer Colleen Atwood, production designer Rick Heinrichs and composer Danny Elfman. Each shared what it was like creating yet another imaginative Tim Burton film.

Rick Heinrich (Production Designer):  Every movie I’ve worked with Tim on with, and I’ve known Tim for almost 40 years now, has been an adventure unto itself. What I would say is that there is a shared visual shorthand and I’m sure that all of his collaborators would say the same. And the exciting thing about working with Tim is in many respects, you dig deep into the history and the period and all of the things that one normally does to bring all the toys to play with on the table. And then Tim sweeps all that aside and you sort of put it back together as a Tim Burton film. It feels dangerous and exciting and challenging and Dumbo is certainly no different from any other time.

Katterli Frauenfelder (Producer):  It started with Tim’s sketches, which everything starts from. It was Tim’s eye that kept evolving towards how he wanted to see Dumbo. He didn’t want a photo real character – he wanted something heightened. But it’s basically his vision of what Dumbo should be in the world that Rick and Colleen created and how he fits in there and fits in with the live action family and circus and can bring out all the emotions that Dumbo should and does.

Derek Frey (Producer): Dumbo is one of the original outsiders in a way, and Tim’s films are populated with outsider characters.  Dumbo is kind of a bullied character and I know that’s something that we’re dealing with socially right now. To place it back in a time period and have this heightened reality, I think we can learn a lot now by looking back. So I think for Tim, it was the combination of knowing that the technology was there to render this character and that pulled upon all of his strengths as an animator with his Disney background.

Colleen Atwood (Costume Designer): I think we’ve done 11 projects together, Tim and I. Creating a world on a performance level and on a period level together is always an interesting challenge. It bridges between fantasy and reality and the challenge of combining five circuses – how they would all look and how the people in them would look. And then just managing 500 people a day for months on end. Because the one thing that’s really amazing about this movie is that so much of it is real in the room. The sets for the big circus parade and the stuff. When you’re in the room with all that going on, you realize you’re in a really magical, very rare place that you might not ever be in again in your life because movies are changing so quickly. Which made it a really special experience for me. Forget the challenge. It was just the experience that was great.

Danny Elfman (Composer):  This is our 17th film and I still never know what to expect from Tim at all. His mind is strange and interesting. And I learned many years ago never to take for granted what I think he’s going to want. When we start a film, he’ll say very little about the music. When there’s music to hear, then he’ll talk. Unlike any other film I’ve done with Tim, I knew way in advance I was going to be working on DUMBO. Now I didn’t know a lot about Dumbo because I didn’t see it as a kid. But I remembered a baby elephant loses his mom. That’s going to be bittersweet.   And I had a musical idea. I went and I wrote it, played it, finished it, and put it away. And I’ve never done that before with Tim beforehand. A year later I came back. And that’s Dumbo’s theme right now. So it was kind of a unique moment that I hadn’t experienced.

Danny Elfman answered many questions about his process at the press conference and I even got to meet him! Read more about Danny Elfman’s process here.

Bringing Dumbo to Life Through Acting

(Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney) Danny DeVito; Michael Keaton

After the first press conference panel of filmmakers trooped out, the actors trooped in. This is where the fun begins!

What was it like coming back together to perform, but in kind of an opposite role?

Danny DeVito:  It was really terrific. When Tim called a year ago or so and said he was making the movie, I was really thrilled to be a part of it. And then the joy factor went up through the roof when I heard that Michael [Keaton] was in it with me.

Michael Keaton:  The joy factor was the first thing he reminded me was, he got to be the hero and I got to be the bad guy. He was just thrilled with that.

Danny DeVito: Him in the mask and the whole Batman thing. And me always being the gross penguin grunting and groaning and stuff. So how does it feel to be the bad guy?  It was really so nice to be with Michael in the movie and everybody who is in the movie with us. It’s a great family Tim Burton creates. And we’re all the weirdos. But there is one really weird daddy down on the end who likes pulling all the strings.

Tim Burton:  Welcome to the island of misfit toys!

What is it like to work with Tim Burton?

Danny DeVito:  Oh. Well, everything I do in the movie is basically fed to me through the insane mind of Mr. Burton. I felt really great to be Max Medici and be part of this insane family. Tim just works 24/7 when he’s making a movie, keeping everything going, keeping the plates spinning, keeping all the balls in the air, keeping everything moving. All the moving parts congealing. Everything going together. So I feel like he’s an inspiration when we’re on the set and it pushes you to new heights.

Eva, can you expand on the training that you did in order to first of all conquer your fear of heights, but then perform?

Eva Green:  I had the most amazing circus people who were very patient, because I was absolutely petrified. For two months, every day, I trained. You need a very strong core, very strong arms. And then little by little, I went higher and higher and higher. My stunt double was Catherine Arnold. She’s just the most amazing aerialist. She was my teacher as well. I’m just in awe of the circus people because they work so hard. They’re ready to sacrifice themselves almost because they constantly have to overcome their fear as they put themselves in mortal danger. Actors, we’re nothing compared to those kind of super heroes.

Now is it me or did I see Dumbo cast a bat signal shadow on the circus tent?

Tim Burton:  I think that might be you. And there is a doctor at the back who will see you after the show.

That cheeky comment was made by Richard Woloski (my co-host on Skywalking Through Neverland as well as my husband) and was absolutely delighted that Tim Burton told him to see a doctor. If you’d like to read more about Danny Elfman and his film composition process, along with my story of meeting him face-to-face *gasp*, please check out my article.

Walt Disney Studio’s DUMBO soars into U.S. theaters Friday, March 29th. Check out this heartwarming film with your family and make sure to bring tissues!

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About Richard & Sarah Woloski

Richard and Sarah Woloski are the co-hosts and creators of the Disney / Star Wars Podcast Skywalking Through Neverland. The husband and wife team strives to create a polished, positive and fun weekly show celebrating fandom. They also love writing for Adventures By Daddy. Find them @SkywalkingPod