Tim Burton on Dumbo: «I’ve never liked the circus.»

The american director talks his adaptation of Disney’s classic animated movie 

If you were skeptical about a live-action version of Dumbo, be prepared to change your mind: Tim Burton’s adaptation is surprisingly stunning. The live-action fantasy film revisits Walt Disney’s 1941 animated masterpiece of the same name, based on the novel by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl. Tim Burton’s Dumbo stars Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Eva Green, Danny DeVito and Alan Arkin and follows a failing family circus that gets back on top thanks to a baby elephant with oversized ears, who soon reveals a hidden talent: he can fly.

The director of Edward Scissorhands, Batman and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children stopped in Rome to present the film which debuts in Italy tomorrow, March 28, and in the U.S. on the following day.

Tonight, Burton is also attending the David di Donatello Film Awards 2019, where he will receive the Cinematic Excellence Award.

Dumbo – Tim Burton attending the italian première of Dumbo in Rome. Credits/ Silvia Gerbino

There’s been a lot of talking about Dumbo’s eyes in the past and it seems like they’re still important in your film.

«They’re very important, especially for a character like Dumbo, that doesn’t speak. I just wanted to make sure that Dumbo’s emotions were very pure and simple. So, obviously, speaking through the eyes is important. It’s an emotional response.»

This is a film about being different and self esteem: can we see Dumbo also as an independent artist devoured by the world of showbusiness?

«You’re describing something that sounds very familiar, but I didn’t plan it! It is the way it turned out.»

Without spoiling the finale, in the film you suggest the idea of a circus without animals.

«I made a circus movie, but I’ve never liked the circus: I did the clowns scary and I felt uncomfortable seeing animals being made to perform like that. Maybe it’s a little different for the zoos: if in zoos children learn things about animals that otherwise would be wiped off the planet, it can be a slightly more positive thing; but making them perform is something that I’ve never liked. Except for dogs and horses: they seem to enjoy it.»

The film recalls also The Greatest Show on Earth by Cecil B. DeMille.

«I’ve never seen The Greatest Show on Earth, but you know… it’s a big weird movie: it’s like The Ten Commandments of the circus. All Cecil B. DeMille’s movies are weird, but I prefer The Circus of Horrors by Sidney Hayers. That’s my favorite.»

Dumbo – Michael Keaton and Eva Green. Credits/ Jay Maidment – Walt Disney Pictures.

For Dumbo, you worked again with Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Michael Keaton: it looks like you had a clear idea about the cast.

«With a movie being about family it was very important for me, if I could, to work with people I worked with in the past like Michael Keaton, who I haven’t seen for 20 years, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Alan Arkin… because a circus family is like a film family: it’s a bunch of weirdos making something. I’m very happy and lucky I got to work with these people that I love so much. It was like art imitating life.»

In Dumbo there’s a lot of CGI: how much of the scenography we see is actually built?

«Obviously it was really weird to make this film with all these great actors and we had to build a lot of sets. Almost everything was built, like Dreamland for example. We had some green screen sky kind of stuff, but for the most part it was important for the actors to feel like they were in the setting, in the place, because the main character wasn’t there! »

There’s also a strong human component in this live-action film.

«I liked the script because of the human stories, there are a sort of “parallel Dumbos” looking at the different sides of loss: the children lost one of their parents, Holt lost his arm, his job and his wife, everybody feels a little bit displaced. I thought that was very beautiful and very much in the spirit of what Dumbo’s themes are. I loved exploring these different forms of family than just traditional.»

The theme of separation between mother and son was also in the film of 1941. It seems like it’s still relevant, especially in the U.S.

«It’s an issue there because it’s a very primal thing, it’s not even an intellectual thing: it’s just nature and life. That’s the reason it’s an issue, because it is. »

In your autobiography, Burton on Burton, you tell about your difficult relationship with Disney: did something change over the years? Have you finally achieved the creative freedom that you wanted?

«What is this? A therapy session? I mean nobody does. This is life! It’s like a family: can you say that you love your family every day? No, but you can’t say it’s bad. There’s nothing controversial about it.»

It’s been over 25 years since your Batman movies and, in the last 15 years, two famous directors continued the saga. Who, after you, undestood better the spirit of the DC character? Christopher Nolan or Zack Snyder?

«They did a great job: they’re all great films. For me, I felt very lucky to be doing Batman, because it felt new at the time. Whatever happens with everything, I felt like it was different and special. Obviously, right now, you can do it bigger and greater, but I feel lucky to being around at that time.»

Tonight you will receive the Cinematic Excellence Award at David di Donatello Film Awards. How do you feel about that?

«Great. I don’t receive many! Federico Fellini, Mario Bava, Dario Argento are some of the italian filmmakers who have inspired my cinema. So I’m really excited to receive this award.»


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