I’ve never been really known as a storyteller. I’ve always been trashed for not being able to tell a story. Although I always felt — that’s why I love movies — that there are different ways to tell stories.
— Tim Burton, Commentary track, Big Fish
Most times a person grows up gradually, while I found myself in a hurry.
— Edward Bloom (Ewan McGregor), Big Fish
“It was nice to work on a project from a studio,” says Tim Burton of Big Fish, “that wasn’t based on… comic books or bubble gum cards or other movies. It was nice to actually work on something that defied simple description.” This from the artist who made Pee-wee’s bike multiply meaningful, Batman’s secret life into a coming out dilemma, Ed Wood’s extraordinary mind both accessible and beautiful, and Marky Mark a sensitive astronaut.
Speaking with Mark Salisbury, author of Burton on Burton, for the commentary track on Columbia’s featurette-filled DVD, Burton says more than once that he doesn’t see much distinction between reality and dream, or again, between history and memory, experience and myth. As such blurriness pervades Big Fish, adapted by John August from Daniel Wallace’s novel, it’s the perfect occasion for what producer Richard Zanuck terms “Burtonization.”
Released last Christmas season, the movie is something of a heartwarming familial fantasy. Will (Billy Crudup, whom Burton describes as “a very thoughtful actor, and he likes to dig in”) is a journalist working in Paris, married to a French woman (Josephine, played by Marion Cotillard), and expecting his first child. Just as his life seems more or less set on a “forward” sort of path, will’s mother Sandra (Jessica Lange) calls. His estranged father’s cancer is terminal. He needs to come home, to Ashton, Alabama. (Burton says they shot on location in Alabama, because “We’re dealing with fantasy but it gave it a weird reality that I think you can only get when you go to a place”).
Will resists reconciliation in his voiceover: “In telling the story of my father’s life, it’s impossible to separate fact from fiction, the man from the myth. The best I can do is to tell it the way he told me. It doesn’t always make sense, and most of it never happened.” Such intersections and divergences inform the film; despite its frequent lapses into sentimentality, Burton’s notoriously funky sensibility keeps it more or less afloat.
Will travels with the graceful, big-bellied Josephine (that is, much like Sandra, she is an ideal maternal figure), endeavoring to make sense of his difficult relationship with Edward Bloom (Albert Finney), who, as appears to be his nature, exacerbates the reconciliation process by persisting in the behavior that so annoyed Will throughout his young adulthood: he tells stories, unbelievable, elaborate, and entertaining. Will sees this practice as a way of avoiding truth, whereas Edward presents it as another route to truth and self-conception. Burton observes, “The Will character sort of reminded me of the Batman character, in a way, which is somebody who’s sort of internal and emotionally inward. So in a weird way, I saw this relationship in the same way I saw the Batman-Joker relationship” (in one particularly “weird” set of connections, Salisbury recalls that, when Spielberg was set to direct the film, Jack Nicholson was in discussion to play Edward the elder.)
Asked whether he sees the film as the “personal project” that so many reviewers described, he acquiesces, but not entirely, with just the sort of storytelling that makes his work so entrancing: “My father had recently died so I was thinking about these issues, the sort of unusual relationship you have with your parents,” whereupon he notes that his father had false teeth that he used to “become a werewolf and scare all the kids in the neighborhood.” That sounds about right. He adds, “I didn’t come from a family that was very verbal. We communicated by giving icy stares across the table.” And just so, the film delivers a few such scenes (“I always enjoy shooting uncomfortable dinner sequences, something I remember since childhood”).
The tales Edward favors are of the tall variety, exactly the sort that Will, reporter of “facts,” dislikes most (he’s especially bothered that his father’s ego is so overpowering in every rendition: “I’m a footnote in your story, dad,” he tells him during a flashback to his own wedding night, after which he stopped speaking with Edward until now). In them, Edward is young and vivacious (played by Ewan McGregor), capable of all sorts of useful magic, intelligence, and physical prowess (as Burton notes, during a scene in which young Edward shows his brilliance at football, wrestling, and saving dogs from burning houses, “[Ewan] got to be great at everything he did… score a touchdown, homerun, everything. I think he really enjoyed it”).
Edward’s persistent self-inflation frustrates Will, just as its contradictions appeal to Burton. As the filmmaker puts it, “I liked his sort of outwardness, but again, that’s what I loved about the Ed Wood character, his enthusiasm. I have that myself, sort of a twisted enthusiasm. And in fact, what interested me about the Ed Bloom character is that he used that outgoing nature to also mask a certain thing… Their fantasy and their largeness is a way to keep a certain kind of privacy.”
As earnestly as he tells them, Edward’s stories involve his friendships with a giant named Karl (seven foot-eight inch Matthew McGrory); Amos, a circus ringmaster who happens to be a werewolf (Danny DeVito); a poet turned bankrobber, Norther (Steve Buscemi; Burton says, “I love Steve’s character, a guy who is artistic but doesn’t really do anything”); conjoined twins he meets during the Korean War (played by Chinese twins Ada and Arlene Tai); and a witch with a prophetic eye (Helena Bonham Carter, of whom Burton, her partner offscreen, says, “It gave her the chance to see what she’ll look like at 105 years old”).
When he first spots Sandra (young version played by Alison Lohman), she appears as if in a dream — in filtered light, golden, angelic, with all other action literally stopped around her. And so, his greatest story concerns his efforts to identify, woo, and then return to her, no matter the extreme circumstances in which he finds himself: Korea, a suburban “paradise” from which there appears no escape (Burton: “It’s all very pleasant, isn’t it? Even though I was glad to get out of those areas, I still have a soft spot for them”), the circus (“I do like that weird dysfunctional family atmosphere,” offers Burton); even the mundane “reality” he may have experienced on the road as a salesman of household gadgets). While Will focuses on current responsibility and material security, his dad is all about possibility, past and future.
Burton’s own storytelling is more careful than wildly imaginative, though he plainly empathizes with all his characters, the loopier the better. Will must reunite with his father, recognize the value of his whimsy and roundabout manner of love. “Verisimilitude” is no more Burton’s concern than Edward’s. As he recalls for Salisbury, “Some extra came up to me in the circus, and said, ‘If this were the ’50s, there wouldn’t be any blacks’… But the fact is, I never treated Ed Bloom as that type of a person. He was not a racist, he was not a person who saw things in the way most people in the culture would see things. So when he was looking back at these times, it was always a mixture of things, and not necessarily historically accurate.”
Perhaps in the spirit of mixing hope, desire, and understanding, Burton exults that he felt each day like he was working on different films, of various genres (he compares this to the good fun he had making Pee-wee’s Big Adventure). McGregor seconds this idea in one of the DVD’s seven brief featurettes, gathered together in two sections: under “The Character’s Journey,” McGregor speaks on “Edward Bloom at Large”; “Amos at the Circus” focuses on DeVito (“You can’t deny the Tim Burton stamp,” he smiles); and “Fathers and Sons,” which has several performers rattling on about their own paternal relationships. “The Filmmaker’s Path,” on the other hand, focuses on Burton, as in “Tim Burton: Storyteller” (he likes that the film “put images to feelings that are hard to express verbally”; even better, it offers what he calls “a realistic way of thinking about memory,” that is, subjective and fragmented); “A Fairytale World” shows the effects crew at work on spider webs and the circus; and “Creature Features” shows off Stan Winston’s terrific puppet-work.
“The Author’s Journey” has Wallace and August trading compliments (“John felt like he had taken my children and dressed them in different clothes,” says novelist Wallace). The writers admire Burton as well. And what’s not to like about an artist so fond of misfits and comfortable with seeming disorder? When Salisbury asks how the film manages distinctions between reality and unreality, Burton’s answer is more inspired than his film: “I never see the two as being exclusive, what’s real and what’s not real. I mean, who would have thought that Arnold Schwarzenegger would be governor of California? Is that real? Is that not real? ‘Reality’ is such a funny word. That’s what I always loved about folk tales and fairy tales. You can find more reality in those if it speaks to you on an emotional level, than when you turn on the news [and] it seems completely surreal and unreal.”