Some days, Tim Burton wonders if he should have become an artist instead of a filmmaker. Perusing a Manhattan gallery full of quirky cast-metal Jeff Koons pieces that perfectly resemble inflatable pool toys, he says, ”In the art world, you don’t have to explain to anybody what you’re doing.”
That’s how Burton would prefer to usher in his new movie, ”Big Fish”: by not explaining anything. ”To me, the whole point is to not talk about it,” he says, en route to a post-gallery-stroll lunch, clad entirely in black, occasionally tousling his tangly, profoundly unkempt hair against the breeze. ”When I was a child seeing movies, you didn’t know anything in advance. You’d see this thing, and it had an impact.”
Unfortunately for Burton, modern film culture is about preselling and reselling the experience — first in teasers and TV making-of programs, then in deluxe DVDs. It’s a cycle he decries as ”too much information,” none of which he feels serves ”Big Fish.” A curious hybrid of serious family drama and surreal tall tale (see review on page 56), it follows an estranged son (Billy Crudup) reconciling with a fable-spinning father (Albert Finney) on his deathbed.
Columbia Pictures spent at least $75 million making Burton’s rendition of Daniel Wallace’s slender novel, and for a drama without built-in marketing hooks, that’s a risky sum. While it showcases a notable cast — Ewan McGregor (as the Finney character’s younger, imagined self), Jessica Lange, Alison Lohman, and Helena Bonham Carter (Burton’s girlfriend of two years and now the mother of his 2-month-old son) — none of the actors are exactly marquee draws. A potentially bigger hurdle: ”Big Fish” isn’t typically Burtonian. It hasn’t got the obvious teenage appeal of such loner-brooder fantasies as ”Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” or ”Edward Scissorhands,” or the familiar mythology of the first two ”Batman” films or ”Sleepy Hollow” or ”Planet of the Apes” (which grossed $360 million worldwide despite gripes about the ending).
”Part of the reason I did it,” says, Burton, who’s 45, ”is because it’s not something to put into a quick category.” But ”Big Fish” is also partly an act of therapy. Burton’s father, Bill, died in 2000, while Burton was scouting locations for ”Apes.” His mother, Rickie, passed away last year. Although he wasn’t close to them — as an adolescent, he left their suburban house in Burbank (where he was raised with a younger brother) to move in with a grandmother — their passing shattered him anyway. ”You cannot prepare yourself for it,” he says. ”It’s heavy-duty. It’s hard to sort out. It’s hard even with a therapist to put into words.”
Then along came words and images that spoke to Burton’s pain. When screenwriter John August (”Charlie’s Angels,” ”Go”) and producers Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen (”American Beauty”) approached Burton about making ”Big Fish,” he quickly said yes. The script barely changed from green light to final cut. ”It’s stuff that’s real,” says Burton of the dying-father story line, ”but very difficult to talk about. That’s what I loved about the movie. It was a way of exploring that. Otherwise, those feelings would’ve just kept swirling around.”