All the way back in 2017, Disney invited Collider and a few other journalists to the U.K. set of its live-action Dumbo remake to see what a flying elephant directed by Tim Burton would look like. To the surprise of no one, Burton and a soaring pachyderm plus massive circus sets plus Danny DeVito wearing yet another top hat results in something so fantastical you could overdose on all that whimsy. Folks, if nothing else, this is gonna’ be a delightful film.
While most of the specifics of what we saw on set are still under embargo, we did get to talk to Colin Farrell, who plays the one-armed veteran turned circus performer Holt Farrier. In the following group interview, Farrell discusses working with Burton for the first time, joining the director’s crew of go-to actors like DeVito and Michael Keaton, the practical effects of the film, and much more.
Question: What’s your reaction when they come to you and say, “Tim Burton is making a live-action Dumbo movie”?
COLIN FARRELL: Honestly, “Please, can I do it?” Genuinely. Because I’ve just been such a fan of Tim’s work for the longest time. I think Edward Scissorhands is probably the first thing of his I saw. It’s still one of my favorite films of all time, probably. So yeah, just the idea of something as sweet and fantastical and almost otherworldly while being grounded in some recognizable world that we can relate to under the directorship of him is kind of a dream. There’s things I’ve read through the years that are somewhat fantastical or supernatural and have kind of a fairy tale element to them, and then some things that I read that never got made—one script in particular that never got made, but it was beautiful and had elements of Beauty and the Beast to it, I’ve always been looking for something of that ilk. This was…I genuinely, when I heard he was doing it, I was like “Oh my God, what a dream gig to do.” That was before reading the script. Then I read the script and it’s so sweet. Tim is really good at figuring out the balancing act between honoring the sweetness of the original story or the intent or the allegorical element of what a baby flying elephant represents with real-world emotional concerns of families and friendships and damages of war without getting into it too much.
Were you surprised when you got the script and it wasn’t quite as fantastical as you expected?
FARRELL: I mean, you put a flying elephant in there and it can’t be anything but really fantastical. When I say fantastical it doesn’t have to be supernatural. It can be something like, the circus, the world that it exists within is such a world of dreams and magic and performance and a lifestyle that represents the nomadic existence of what it would have been to be in the traveling circus. I didn’t feel like the fantastical element that I expected was diminished at all. I come to work every day and I see all this shit, it’s amazing, really. It really, really is. In twenty years of doing this job, it’s one of the greatest pleasures I’ve had to arrive on the set every day and see the beauty of the craftsmanship. Sometimes you go and work on a film and, say it’s a dramatic piece and it’s set very much in the real world, with very much real-world concerns that affect us all at various stages of our lives—sickness, loss, love, fear, whatever it may be. And then sometimes you go to work on things that are just so bewitching in how you see the imagination of some very talented, very imaginative people made manifest in a physical sense. That’s what this is. You just see the imagination of the production designer, you see the imagination of [costume designer] Colleen Atwood, you see the imagination, obviously, of Tim at every turn. It’s extraordinary to be around.
Can you talk a little bit about interacting with the CGI element? Obviously, the movie is grounded, but…
FARRELL: To be honest with you, it’s all practical sets. They didn’t have time to get their hands on a flying elephant, they couldn’t seem to locate one of those, so there is the old “look at the tennis ball as it flies through the tent” thing. Which is fine. But I was talking to somebody, they said they were on the set of…The Jungle Book? No, Lion King. There’s no human characters in Lion King. [Jon] Favreau’s directing and he’s so clever, he’s so bright, I’m sure the film will be extraordinary and look beautiful, The Jungle Book was mind-blowingly beautiful. But there’s nothing on the set. There’s nothing. There’s a fucking camera, man. I don’t even know if there’s a cameraman. And just blue or green or whatever their color of choice is. This, we arrive on the set and as you can see it’s all practically built. Everything from the big top to…you didn’t see Cardington. Cardington, the stage is like nothing I’ve ever seen. I’ve been lucky enough in the last 20 years to be around some extraordinary sets. Like Alexander, they built some amazing sets in Pinewood. But I’ve never seen anything like the boulevard…this film, we don’t shoot exterior stuff at all, which I’ve never done. It’s all stage, but there’ll be skies, and there’ll be sunrise, and sunset. Birds flying across the clouds. I feel like I’m existing in a practical world. It’s not asking me to imagine too many things that aren’t there, save that flying pachyderm.
How did working with Tim differ from what you expected?
FARRELL: Honestly, I didn’t expect anything. It truly sounds twee, but you try not to expect. There’s been times when I’ve expected things to work and they didn’t work and you learn over time that expectation is not really your ally. Hope is your ally. He’s just really wonderful to work with. He’s deeply kind. He’s so invested, so emotionally, intellectually obviously, and physically invested in the making of the film. To watch him on the set and how engaged he is and how frenetic at times his energy can be. How he moves. It’s just a joy. And he’s just really kind to everyone. Any of the crew would jump through hoops for him, I certainly know I would, and the cast would. But he really has a passion for it. People can accuse other people of doing things for money or if the scale of their work gets bigger or the canvas on which they tell their stories gets bigger, but I can just tell you from being around Tim Burton, he’s not coming to work unless he’s really passionate. Whatever the paycheck says, if he’s not really passionate about something and doesn’t think that he can make something that will connect to an audience, that’ll have some kind of emotional reaction within the audience, he doesn’t want to do it. So it’s lovely being around him.
Like any of the incredible directors I’ve worked with it’s something between a passion and a frustration for them. You can see that level of care, you can see that level of tension. I was just talking about Yorgos Lanthimos in Toronto, at TIFF, last week and I was saying with Yorgos, the work almost destroys him. I don’t know if he sleeps while he shoots. At times he’s miserable and you just don’t know what’s going on. But Tim, in a similar vein, you can just tell by how connected he is to the process of making it, he’s not isolated from the cast or the crew at all. He’s very engaged in every single element of the whole process. He loves it. He loves it deeply. So one would hope that equates to a film that will connect with audiences. But as I say, expectations should be asked to stay outside in the cold and the wind.
Did you do any specific training for the character?
FARRELL: Very little. I’ve ridden horses through the years for various films. I’m not a great horseman by any stretch of the imagination. But I’m alright. I did a little more on this because there’s some stuff coming up at the end of the film, some sequences…I play a character who was one half of a double act called the Stallion Stars. It was me and my wife who did various roping tricks and mounting tricks and dismounting tricks. My character, Holt, went off to fight in the war and was away for about five years and by the time he comes back the two children that they had together are obviously five years older, have been raised by the circus, and his wife has died. So he comes back as a single father ill-equipped to deal with parenthood. Ill-equipped to deal with the changes that are taking place in the circus and the industry of the performers…he’s just trying to get his feet under him again.
You’re not only in a Tim Burton movie you’re in a Tim Burton movie with some true Tim Burton all-stars, what was that like?
FARRELL: I don’t know, man, like I said, he’s a dream. I would do anything with him. Anything with him. As much much as I wanted to work with him before I met him, I’d like to work with him more a second time. He’s just the best, really. Just the picture of him as a kid in his Halloween costume, did you ever see that? There’s a picture online, if you look up “Tim Burton Halloween costume“, there’s a picture of him, I don’t know what age he is because he’s hidden underneath this thing, this creation that he and his mother made. He must be about 10, I assume it’s in Burbank where he was raised, and it’s a prototype for the character in Nightmare Before Christmas, Jack Skellington. It’s such a testament to what happens in childhood and the freedom your imagination is either given or is compelled to exist within, how that manifests itself later in life. It’s so touching that as a kid…it’s a big, long thing and it has the ribs and the head and the idea that 20 or 30 years later, that child was still trying to figure out stuff and creating a story that went out into the world and affected so many people. But anyway, yeah, Danny DeVito? I’ve loved Danny all my life. Romancing the Stone and The Jewel of the Nile and Taxi. Then Michael Keaton, from the Batmans and Beetlejuice, yeah. It seems like Tim has his own little traveling circus going. It’s just nice to be a part of it.