Go inside the circus with the men and women who brought 'Dumbo' to life

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - MARCH 10: (L-R) Production Designer Rick Heinrichs, costume designer Colleen Atwood, composer Danny Elfman, screenwriter/producer Ehren Kruger and producer Justin Springer speak onstage during the "Dumbo" Global Press Conference at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on March 10, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney) *** Local Caption *** Rick Heinrichs; Colleen Atwood; Danny Elfman; Ehren Kruger; Justin SpringerDumbo was king of the box office this weekend, pulling in more than $119 million worldwide. While opening number one might be considered a feather in the cap of most filmmakers, Tim Burton, like his leading pachyderm, has no need for feathers. The message of the film, after all, is one of family and that’s as true behind the scenes as it is in the narrative.

“The exciting thing about working with Tim is that you dig deep into the history and the period and all of the things that one normally does to bring all the toys to play with on the table,” says production designer Rick Heinrichs, who with Dumbo marks his sixth teaming with the director, “And then Tim sweeps all that aside and you sort of put it back together as a Tim Burton film. It’s always a blank canvas that you start with. It feels dangerous and exciting and challenging.”

“It started with Tim’s sketches, which everything starts from,” explains Katterli Frauenfelder, producer, first assistant director and Burton regular since Planet of the Apes in 2001. “It was a lot of work. Everybody was involved, but basically it was Tim’s eye that kept evolving towards how he wanted to see Dumbo. He didn’t want a photo real character. But he wanted something heightened. The work on the skin and the eyes and the movements and the flying. It was just his eye in collaborations with the people he worked with to create Dumbo that pushed forward continuously until I think last week was the end of the push. But it’s basically his vision of what Dumbo should be in the world that Rick and Colleen created and how he fits in there and fits in with the live action family and circus and can bring out all the emotions that Dumbo should and does.”

At one point, filming took place inside a massive 800 by 200 foot airplane hanger at England’s Cardington Airfield. The space was filled almost entirely by the film’s massive Dreamland set.

“We did explore the idea of being outside,” Heinrichs says, “But Tim very early on in the process decided that this was going to be a film that was done on stage… We wanted a complete immersive level of believability, credibility to the characters and to the environments.”

Adding to the practical sets are incredible contributions from Colleen Atwood, four-time Academy Award winner for costume design and longtime Burton collaborator.

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - MARCH 10: Costume Designer Colleen Atwood speaks onstage during the "Dumbo" Global Press Conference at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on March 10, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney) *** Local Caption *** Colleen Atwood“I think we’ve done 11 projects together, Tim and I,” she says. “But I think the idea of creating a world on a performance level and on a kind of level period level together is always an interesting challenge. It sort of bridges between fantasy and reality and the challenge of combining five circuses. [Determining] how they would all look and how all the people in them would look was a huge challenge. One thing that’s really amazing about this movie is that so much of it is real in the room. The sets for the big circus parade and the stuff. When you’re in the room with all that going on, you realize you’re in a really magical very rare place that you might not ever be in again in your life because movies are changing so quickly.”

But there’s another key member of the production who has even Atwood beat when it comes to Tim Burton projects.

“It’s funny,” smiles composer Danny Elfman. “This is our 17th film and I still never know what to expect from Tim at all. People think, ‘Oh, you must have the shorthand where it’s real simple’. I go, ‘No, actually. Working with Tim is a lot less simple than a lot of other directors. His mind is strange and interesting. I learned many years ago never to take for granted what I think he’s going to want… Usually it’s something that we have to find in process. I think it’s a good way to work, actually. Because directors will say what kind of music they really, really want and it usually ends up being not at all what I’m imagining. It’s better just to talk about, ‘How do you feel about the movie? What do you think?’ Start there and see where we go.”

Another longtime member of the Burton family is Derek Frey. Once Burton’s assistant on films like Mars Attacks! and Sleepy Hollow, Derek Frey has served as a producer on every Burton film since 2005’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

“I think for Tim, [the desire to make Dumbo] was the combination of knowing that the technology was there to render this character and that it pulled upon all of his strengths as an animator with his Disney background,” he says. “It’s almost like Dumbo is a personification of him in a way, which is interesting… It’s a simple story. It’s a beautiful story. I think a lot of the themes in the story that Ehren created, they’re universal things. It’s about family. It’s about believing in yourself. It’s about overcoming judgment and people looking at you in a certain way.”

Of course, there are also some new additions to the Burton family with Dumbo, notably with screenwriter Ehren Kruger, who initially developed the project at Walt Disney Pictures.

“Dumbo is not just a Disney character,” he says. “He’s a mythological character and I wish he were real. I wish I could have been in the audience of that circus in the golden age of the circus and observe his story and then to take the next step: Not just observe his story, but imagine what it’s like to be Dumbo. That leads you to a place where you say, ‘What would Dumbo want?’ and ‘Is the end of the 1941 film truly a satisfying end for Dumbo?’ So that just organically led to expanding the story past where the animated film ends.”

Some time before Burton came aboard, Kruger worked on the Dumbo script with producer Justin Springer, inspired by his lifelong love of the original 1941 version.

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - MARCH 10: Producers Derek Frey (L) and Katterli Frauenfelder speak onstage during the "Dumbo" Global Press Conference at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on March 10, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney) *** Local Caption *** Katterli Frauenfelder; Derek Frey“We sat down over lunch and Ehren asked me about ‘Dumbo,'” says Springer. “He said it was his favorite movie growing up as a kid and the first one that he showed his own kids… Ehren had an early version of the story in mind that he and I started talking through. I went to the studio and said, ‘Hey, Ehren is this writer that we all know and love and he’s really excited about this title. Would you guys consider it? Would you be willing to hear a story from us?’ They said yes and it came from a very organic place, which I think it really speaks to sort of the development process where you have a writer who is very passionate.”

“Why is Dumbo a universal character and a universally loved character?” Kruger continues. “Because everyone sees themselves in the story of a character who has self doubt. Who has flaws. Who is defined as one thing by someone else and who has this mouse inside them telling them, ‘Maybe you’re more than that. Maybe that negative is a positive.’ So we worked very hard to create a menagerie of human characters. The circus family around Dumbo who, all in some way, were wrestling with uncertainty about themselves and their place in the world.”

Although Timothy Q. Mouse may be relegated solely to a brief cameo in the new movie, Kruger likes to imagine that there’s more going on behind the scenes than we actually see.

“I like to feel that these movies run on parallel train tracks,” he says, comparing the new Dumbo to the 1941 original. “You can imagine that Dumbo’s conversations with Timothy Mouse are happening offscreen inbetween scenes of this movie… He’s whispering in Dumbo’s ear in the frames between the scenes.”

Catch Dumbo on the big screen now. Be sure to scan the poster with your Regal Cinemas app, too, to unlock a series of alternate poster designs!

Silas Lesnick is the Senior Editor of Moviebill. He has been covering entertainment news out of Los Angeles for more than a decade. You can reach him via e-mail or on Twitter.