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Director Tim Burton discusses ‘Dumbo,’ upcoming Las Vegas exhibit

Updated March 24, 2019 - 10:59 am

“I have the outsider gene in my DNA.”

So says eccentric film director Tim Burton, who naturally felt a kinship with a little orphaned elephant who could fly. Stick with him for a moment here: “Running away to join the circus is a phrase that always stuck with me,” Burton said. “Just think about it. The idea of being with a bunch of other weird people from around the world who can’t get regular jobs and hang out sounds like an amazing idea.”

It sounds like your average movie set. To that end, the 60-year-old celebrated director of “Beetlejuice” and “Edward Scissorhands” has taken on the remake of Disney’s 1941 classic “Dumbo,” the story of a big-eared baby elephant whose mother is sold by a greedy carnival owner (Danny DeVito). Dumbo is befriended by two kids and their father (Colin Farrell) who help him escape an evil amusement park owner (Michael Keaton) who wants to exploit Dumbo and turn his mama into fancy boots.

The wild-haired director was also talking Vegas and his Neon Museum project, coming this fall.

Review-Journal: What is a great Sunday to you?

Tim Burton: It’s about being around the people who mean the most to me. Family. My home is my sanctuary. I just want time to think, which is when you form ideas. I’m always thinking about something. Sometimes on a Sunday if I really want to just relax I’ll go out to the countryside and take a walk. Or if I’m home, I’ll watch a cooking show. It does make me sad when what they try to cook doesn’t work out.

Can you say anything about your Neon Museum art exhibition project?

I haven’t started it yet, but I’m excited. I don’t exactly know what I’m doing, but I love the idea of doing it in Vegas. It’s really all I can say. I know I wasn’t too kind to Vegas with “Mars Attacks!” This will be something different.

Why “Dumbo”? Why now?

He’s the original outsider. Plus, I always admired this character. Dumbo uses disadvantage to advantage. In a nutshell, you have this flying elephant who doesn’t quite fit into the world. Not fitting in is a very common feeling. The themes here felt very close to how I feel about things — about accepting what you might not understand at first.

It’s a simple story.

“Dumbo” is a very simple fable about a family. It’s also a weird story about a weird family. The kids and the elephant become a family of misfits. The circus is a family of sorts. All misfits. All of the human characters here are trying to find their place in the world just like Dumbo. You have a parallel human story of a father who comes back from war without an arm, a wife or a job. But he pushes on and becomes a hero. It’s another case of using disadvantage to advantage. Those are nice themes to put into a simple framework.

Why mine the Disney vault?

The old Disney movies have all the elements — joy, humor and even death. The key is not overdoing it. You have to allow these themes to present themselves naturally.

And it’s OK if some of the ideas are sad — like Dumbo’s mom being carted away.

Adults forget that there can be a darkness and foreboding to childhood. Very sinister things are also a part of growing up.

Let’s talk about casting. You brought back together Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito — last seen together as Batman and the Penguin in 1991’s “Batman Returns.”

It was important to me to work with people I’ve worked with in the past who could bring out this strangeness. Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito have that kind of spirit.

Dumbo was created via computer generated effects. Since he’s such a big part of your film, how did the cast emote opposite an elephant baby who wasn’t there?

We filmed in London in what was a blimp hanger. On the set, there was a man named Ed with this green suit on. He was our Dumbo. It was important to me that the cast had something real to act opposite. Ed really got into the feel and movement of elephants although there were times in his green spandex suit during the five months of shooting that he looked like this weird insect.

When did you finally perfect the look of cute little Dumbo?

Dumbo just arrived about two weeks ago. The weirdest thing on this movie is you have all of these great actors and amazing sets. The only thing missing was the main character. That’s a very unnerving thing because you know exactly what you want. You know what you’re going for with the character. But until it materializes, you just don’t know. You have to suspend disbelief, which was one of the biggest challenges for me as a director.

What were you like as a kid?

I grew up in Burbank, California. I was that kid with a pencil in his hand and a sketchbook under his bed. I was always creating. I would wish that no one would be home on a Friday night, so I could watch all the scary films on the late, late, late show. I would sit in the dark and scare myself to death. When it was over, I’d swear, “Never again,” but I’d be right back in front of the TV set the next Friday night.

Do you have a favorite fan encounter?

I was out in the English countryside and ran into a girl with a “Nightmare Before Christmas” purse. It was just so beautiful and touching. I encounter people every now and then who make me realize who I make movies for, and that’s the most wonderful thing of all.

Will the outsider theme crop up again for you?

The theme does come up. I can’t help it. It’s part of my DNA to feel like an outsider. I don’t consciously think about it. But once you’re branded that way, it’s a theme that keeps recurring.

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