Interview: Derek Frey

Interview done by Helen Wheels

Derek Frey’s credits are long and impressive; filled with some of the best fantasy coming out of Hollywood. He’s been working with Tim Burton Productions since 1996, building a career assisting on films such as “Mars Attacks!”, “Sleepy Hollow”, “Planet of the Apes” and “Big Fish”. He was the executive producer on some of my personal favorites such as “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” and “Big Eyes” which is based on the true story of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), whose husband Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) became one of the most successful painters of the 1950s and early 1960s by using his wife’s art and signing his own name.

Derek co-produced the 2012 Academy Award© nominated “Frankenweenie” and associate produced the blockbuster “Alice in Wonderland”, as well as “Dark Shadows”, “Sweeney Todd”, “Corpse Bride”, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”. Derek currently is producing Disney’s “Dumbo”, a live-action adaptation of the classic animated children’s story, scheduled for release in spring 2019. In addition to all that, he still finds time to produce his own work! I recently reviewed his 2016 horror featurette, “Green Lake”, which has appeared at over forty film festivals and won numerous awards. Last year I was fortunate to review his short film “Kill the Engine,” which is also enjoying quite a bit of success on the circuit.
 
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1. Derek, I am thrilled to have an opportunity to interview you, and I’ve been wondering, having been born and raised across the country in Philadelphia PA, how did you end up in Hollywood working with Tim Burton?

Derek: Filmmaking started as a hobby for me during high school and college, and over time I grew increasingly passionate about it. I was always infatuated with films but as a kid growing up on the east coast, the idea of moving to Los Angeles to work in the film industry was something I never really considered a possibility. During my senior year of university, I had an opportunity to visit LA and through some personal connections was able to meet a number of executives and producers in the industry. They all had helpful career advice for me if I decided to make the move west. In the final weeks of college, my energy was focused on completing my cult opus: Verge of Darkness. The positive reaction to the film fueled my desire to make movies for a living. A couple of weeks after graduating college I decided to take a gamble and moved to Los Angeles.

My first paying job in LA was as a production assistant on a sitcom for ABC Productions. It was a great experience, but my real goal was to work on films. An executive at ABC knew this and she recommended me for an opening at Tim Burton Productions. I remember her asking “Would you be interested in interviewing for a position at Tim Burton Productions?” After getting over the initial shock, I went through a couple of rounds of interviews and was hired as a runner, just as Mars Attacks! was in pre-production. I was extremely fortunate to be working for an idol of mine months after making the move to Los Angeles.

2. In what ways have working on films for Burton and Disney influenced your sensibilities as a filmmaker and your approach to your own work?

Derek: I felt a strong affinity for Tim’s work from the very first film I saw of his: Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. I remember seeing it at a drive-in movie theater – they were showing a double feature of Pee-Wee and Goonies. I went mostly to see Goonies, it was massive at the time and all my friends were talking about it. Goonies is a great film, but I was blown away by Pee-Wee. I’d never seen anything like it. From a kid’s perspective, it was very funny, odd, strange and unique. On the top layer, it seems really ridiculous, but there’s a lot going on. There’s an artistic richness to the film and it widened my perspective as to what a movie could be.

As time went on I followed his career. Beetlejuice, Batman, and Edward Scissorhands were films I would watch repeatedly and ultimately prompted me to pick up a camera and make films of my own. As a fan, his films were ingrained in me and inspired me, long before I ever had the chance to work with him. Watching him work and create continues to be a huge inspiration to me.

3. You have numerous credits as a producer and associate producer, what other roles do you play behind the camera, and do you have a preference?

Derek: I have played a number of roles on various projects. It’s always a real thrill and honor to produce for Tim and help him actualize his incredible vision. I love so many aspects of the process but enjoy directing the most. The symmetry and excitement generated between the camera and your subject is the most satisfying.
 
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4. Have you ever worked on the other side of the camera, as an actor? How does that experience compare to being a crew member?

Derek: I’ve never worked as a paid actor. It never really appealed to me though I have a lot of respect for people with that skill. In college, I would play roles in my early films, mainly out of necessity. I had stories I wanted to tell, and it was a collaborative effort with all of my friends helping out in front and behind the camera. In the end, we’d all pitch in, filling in roles that we were (or weren’t) naturally inclined for.

5. When I reviewed Green Lake, I noticed that you had credits for the story, but Leah Gallo was the screenwriter. Could you describe that process? How do you work with the writer to go from concept to script and what does the revision process look like?

Derek: For Green Lake I had the general outline of a story but knew Leah would do a great job writing the screenplay. The story revolves around a strong female character and has many elements of fantasy – of which Leah is a fan. I thought the story really needed to be told from a female perspective and I think that is one of the greatest strengths of the film.

6. You played several behind the scenes roles in your horror featurette “Green Lake”, how do you juggle the sometimes-conflicting demands on a film as cinematographer, director, and editor?

Derek: Juggling many roles is something I’ve always assumed without hesitation. For short films, I think it is a challenging and a healthy exercise – and it’s great to immerse yourself on such a complete level. I will say on a project like Green Lake, which creeps closer to a feature-length running time, taking on so many roles was extremely challenging. Shooting at real locations, many of which were on or under water, combined with makeup and effects, proved a huge undertaking. Our small cast doubled as basically our only crew. It took a toll on everyone physically and emotionally. Looking back, I think everyone appreciates what we went through and the end product. It certainly helps when the film does well and receives praise. That has been therapeutic.
 

 
7. Could you describe a day in your life when you’re in the middle of a big production for Burton and/or Disney and how does it differ from your day as an independent filmmaker?

Derek: Each day presents its own challenges and unexpected hurdles. A workday can be strikingly different from pre-production to filming to post-production. Generally, when filming you’re on your feet a lot, moving from between sets and locations. It can be quite a transient lifestyle. During post and prep, it’s a bit more of a stable office/cutting room environment. The hours are always long, but I thrive on a heavy workload and embrace it.

During the rare time I have off, usually around the holidays, I’ll try to film a project of my own. It’s a nice antidote to work on smaller projects where I have complete control over how and when they’re made, versus a studio project where you are responsible to the powers that be.

8. Other than Disney’s much anticipated “Dumbo,” what projects are currently in your cue?

Derek: Aside from producing Dumbo, I’m in the process of developing a stop-motion anthology series based on the characters from Tim’s book: The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories. I’m editing a music video, Pangea, that I recently directed in Hawaii for Professor T and the East Side Shredders. It’s going to be a wild trip through history and around the world. Looking further ahead I’m developing a couple of feature films: Awkward Endeavors with my frequent Philadelphia collaborators the Minor Prophets, and Quiet Fire, a story about the recording of the album Kind of Blue and the creative collaboration between Miles Davis and pianist Bill Evans.

 

Helen Wheels is an independent filmmaker, freelance writer, and visual artist. She has produced, directed, worked as a set designer and scenic painter, and has been an assistant director on dozens of films. Wheels graduated from Shoreline College with an AAAS in Digital Film Production and is continuing toward her MFA in New Media Communications.  Known for her eye to detail and advanced research skills, Wheels is currently researching historical events for her latest script and is in the process of developing her online writing business.