The wizard of 'Fish'

Special to The Times

A dark, creepy forest path with vicious spiders, bees and attacking, moss-covered oak trees leads to a mythical shoeless town where the bright and cheerful atmosphere feels oppressive. You've entered Tim Burton's "Wizard of Oz," a.k.a. "Big Fish."

The quirky, goth-loving director has always been attracted to fairy tales and legends, the stranger and more iconic the better (witness everything from "Edward Scissorhands" to "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "Sleepy Hollow"). That makes "Big Fish" the ultimate Burton movie.

Weaving in and out of fantasy and reality, it's about the nature of all myths, particularly those of the South, where exaggerating the truth is a way of life, immortalizing the storyteller as well as the story.

And given Burton's oversized imagination, "Big Fish," overflows with surreal imagery that gains resonance from the viewer's act of trying to interpret it.

"It's a funny mosaic of a movie because you can't pin it on any image or any real idea," Burton explained last month during postproduction on the Columbia movie here in town. "It's like a puzzle, and that's always intriguing. You kind of know what it's about, and yet you come at it in different ways like in real life and let it sneak up on you. You can't stick it in a normal structure where you're told what it's about."

Yet in leaving the real world behind to better understand it at a distance, "Big Fish" unlocks the awkward and unspoken relationship between fathers and sons (personified by Albert Finney and Billy Crudup). Burton admits there's an emotional richness here that's very different from his previous work. Which is why "Big Fish," opening Dec. 10 in limited release, is attracting best picture Oscar buzz for the first time in his career.

No wonder the normally reserved Burton was so upbeat and attentive to his actors while shooting "Big Fish" in Alabama this year. That is, when he wasn't incessantly pacing to stay focused, logging 300 miles in one month on his new pedometer. It helped to be working with a script that has real substance by John August ("Charlie's Angels" and "Go") and a distinguished cast that also included Ewan McGregor, Jessica Lange, Helena Bonham Carter, Alison Lohman, Danny DeVito and Steve Buscemi.

Still, what a sight: The pumpkin king (in honor of "Nightmare") dancing with child actress Hailey Anne Nelson and joking with the ebullient McGregor between takes on a cold April night. It was all part of the celebratory vibe.

Like-minded characters

McGREGOR plays Edward Bloom, the younger version of Finney, an inventive Alabama traveling salesman and charismatic spinner of tall tales who's always dreamed of being a big fish in a big pond -- a kindred spirit, you might say, to Burton's other two favorite Edwards, Scissorhands and Wood.

Bloom's fabled stories have charmed everyone but his son, Will (Crudup), a skeptical journalist and father-to-be, who attempts to connect with his dying father before it's too late. Will desperately needs to know the real Edward Bloom.

But that's not so easy. From the outset, Burton wanted to blur the line between reality and fantasy, taking his initial cues from August's well-crafted script and Daniel Wallace's funny, episodic novel, which evokes Mark Twain along with epic Greek mythology. (Steven Spielberg was initially to direct.)

"You think you know things, but you don't know everything," Burton emphasized. "And what you don't think is true can sometimes be true."

Bloom's delightful and delirious exploits revolve around a gentle giant, a clairvoyant witch (Bonham Carter), a conniving circus owner (DeVito) and conjoined Korean lounge singers. Not to mention the love of his life (Lohman/Lange) and the mysterious, heavenly town of Spectre, which Bloom wanders into long before he's expected, circa 1950. Despite the warm welcome, though, Bloom realizes he can't stay, especially when he finds Alabama's favorite poet (Buscemi) in a state of creative paralysis after living there for 20 years.

Like many of the film's fantastical settings, Spectre was constructed on the spacious Jackson Lake Island estate along the Alabama River, whose waters rose as high as 17 feet when floods disrupted production. They submerged the causeway connected to the mainland near Montgomery, and almost all of a precious antebellum house erected for the movie.

Maybe it was just part of the mystique of the South, where the weather has a will of its own. Or maybe it was fate, as Burton suggests, as water plays such a large role in "Big Fish," especially since Bloom's most outlandish yarn entails trying to catch -- you got it -- a humungous catfish.

Delving deeper into the watery depths, Burton watchers may be surprised and delighted when the elder Bloom couple shares an intimate moment in the bathtub. "I wrote the scene after Lange was cast to give her something to do," August explained. "I wanted to show off her sexuality and convey [their] passion."

Pursuing a balance

With his own inspired visual synchronicity, Burton "wanted to tie reality and fantasy together in a very stream-of-consciousness-like way." Working with production designer Dennis Gassner ("Road to Perdition") for the first time, the former Disney animator-turned-director developed a visual shorthand, doing 30-second sketches on the back of envelopes. "Tim and I spent a lot of time talking about finding that right balance of illusion," Gassner said. "There was a reality that was contemporary and a storytelling world that was period. It has that beautiful veil of past memory. You can't remember all of the details, but you remember the sense of it. It was like being in a different movie every day."

Not surprisingly, Burton requested that cinematographer Philippe Rousselot ("Planet of the Apes") treat the fantasy as part of the reality and vice versa. Thus, Spectre looks so soft, gentle and muted that it sometimes resembles an old photographic tintype, while a circus sequence explodes with color and contrast.

"Tim wanted to introduce a lot of atmosphere in the real sequences so we didn't see them realistically," Rousselot added. "A ghostly [blue] look in the hospital. Edward's room at home is dark with a lot of contrast. We used wide angles there and depth of field. There is an intimate connection between father and son that is new for Tim."

Crucial to the movie was the dual casting of Edward Bloom, which couldn't have turned out more fortuitously. In trying to match various actors at comparable ages, the filmmakers stumbled on an eerie resemblance between Finney and McGregor -- right down to the same smile, dimple and twinkle in the eyes. Curiously, People magazine had even made the photographic comparison in '97. "And here I thought I was rather unique when I did 'Tom Jones,' " Finney laughed by phone from London.

Unlike his turn as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the "Star Wars" movies (first portrayed by Alec Guinness), McGregor didn't have to pattern himself after his counterpart, Finney. "It's different because I'm Edward Bloom's fantastical image of himself, so I can do a lot of poetic justice," McGregor suggested. "Albert and I found ourselves on location together only once, [when] we synchronized our walks and sidearm fly casting techniques."

Although Burton has tinkered around the edges with fathers and sons before ("Edward Scissorhands," "Ed Wood," "Planet of the Apes"), he addresses the issue head on here. In doing so, he was forced to confront the death of both of his parents (his father before the making of "Planet of the Apes," his mother before the start of "Big Fish").

"At the end of the day, it wasn't a great relationship with my father, but at the beginning there was a certain magic that I remember," Burton recalled. "He had false teeth, so he had the ability to move his mouth around and reveal sharp teeth and pretend to be a werewolf. I tried to connect some in the end. You always wish you had a better resolution when a parent goes, no matter what the relationship was like, so there's that bittersweet aspect that makes you play through everything."

In a final twist of fate, Burton became a father for the first time last month when his significant other, Bonham Carter, gave birth to their son in London, where they reside. "I hated leaving him," Burton sighed, "and we haven't even had a chance to name him yet. I feel like a weird zombie floating through Southern California."

Veteran producer Richard Zanuck, who had a volatile relationship with his own father, the legendary Fox studio chief Darryl Zanuck, admits that "Big Fish" touches him deeply because of the father-son story. He's become a trusted friend and father figure to Burton as they begin planning their third straight movie together, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."

"The picture captures that always somewhat strained situation, hidden and under the surface, that is part competitive, with lots of love," Zanuck said. "I was lucky to connect with my father, but sometimes it's too late."

Burton can only begin to discuss what "Big Fish" means to him: "With all the fantasy and truth, the journey is a simple, pure, beautiful thing. The yin and yang of parents and children, with all of its friction and rigidity, is very natural. The movie builds in a funny way. It's all about discovery."

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