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Filmmaker in the Spotlight: An Interview with Derek Frey

Derek Frey is an exceptional filmmaker. With credits like The Killers' Here With Me, Alice in Wonderland, Kill the Engine and Disney's upcoming Dumbo, he is taking over Hollywood at the speed of light.

Read Derek's interview to find out how did a suburban Philadelphian boy become one of Hollywood's top producers?

Directing "Kill the Engine"

Tell us a bit about how you became interested in being a filmmaker? When did you create your first film?

Going to the movies was a big part of my childhood. So many great films came out during my formative years and I remember after watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Wars, E.T. the Extra Terrestrial and Raiders of the Lost Ark, being curious about how they were made. I think audiences in the late 70’s/early 80’s began to take interest in how visual effects were created. I was always excited to read the latest edition of Bantha Tracks, the Star Wars fan club newsletter, which gave an inside look into the making of those films. Although the photos were printed fairly small and in black and white, they provided a lot of behind the scenes information and I was intrigued.

In 7th grade we had a class project where we wrote and filmed our own skits. Our teacher gave us the freedom to do pretty much anything we wanted. That was a big moment for me, I loved the creative nature of putting something on camera and making people laugh. It was a pretty powerful exercise at that age. I didn’t have access to a camera again until high school when I borrowed a camera and started experimenting more. Each project would grow in complexity and then in college I wrote and shot the first of a few feature length films.

Have you ever received formal education in filmmaking? Did you attend any film school for training?

I studied communications and journalism in college. Filmmaking was always a hobby – something I did on the side. My university didn’t have a film program but did have some editing and camera gear, mainly kept out of student’s view and utilized by faculty members. A supportive professor championed for me to have access to cameras and a Video Toaster editing system. The opportunity to work on a real editing system was a huge leap forward for me. Up until that point I would edit between two VCRs, with the sound either dubbed live while duplicating, or premixed on a cassette tape that I would then synch up while duplicating. It was an insane way to edit, especially the feature length films, but it really taught me the fundamentals.

When did you move to LA? And why?

The idea of moving to LA to work in the film industry was something I never would have even considered a possibility. I had a chance to visit LA during the spring break of my senior year and through some personal connections was able to meet a number of executives and producers within the industry. All these people had helpful advice for me on how to break into the industry. They also said if I decided to make the move to LA, I could give them a call. After graduation, I figured I had nothing to lose. My plan B was to move back to Pennsylvania and pursue a career in journalism, which also was a passion of mine.

You started working for Tim Burton productions back in 1996 – and you've been working on Burton’s films ever since. Not many people get to say they began their professional film career assisting Burton on Mars Attacks!, Sleepy Hollow, Planet of the Apes, and our favorite - Big Fish. How did a suburban Philadelphian boy get this position?

My first paying job in LA was as a Production Assistant on a sitcom for ABC Productions. It was a great experience but my goal was to work on films. An executive at ABC knew this and when the sitcom wasn’t renewed, 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?” My jaw hit the floor. I was very fortunate to find myself working for Tim, an idol of mine, just 10 months after making the move to LA.

These days, you're an established producer with many notable A-List projects under your belt: Big Eyes, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the upcoming live-action Disney film Dumbo, to name a few. Can you describe some of your responsibilities while being involved in such diverse jobs? How demanding is it to work on these large-scale productions? When you produce a movie like ‘Dumbo’, is it a 24/7 gig?

The work is relentless, but always a welcome challenge. I thrive on a heavy workload and each project brings its own complexities. That’s the wonderful thing about working with Tim – he never idles and each project presents a new puzzle to crack. My main responsibility is helping Tim carry out his incredible vision from conception through post production. I also help ensure that once the film is complete that it is represented and marketed in a manner that will lead to its success.

Tell us about your involvement in Frankenweenie, the 2012 film you co-produced which received an Academy Award® nomination for Best Animated Picture. Were you involved from the very beginning? Was this the first time you approached an animated film? Was it different than a live-action movie?

Frankenweenie was a wonderful project to work on. It certainly was a high point for me. Corpse Bride was the first stop-motion animated project I was involved with. Prior to that I worked as a production coordinator on Tim’s The World of Stainboy animated series. Initial work on Frankenweenie began shortly after the release of Corpse Bride in 2005, with Tim designing the look of the characters and working with talented puppet makers Mackinnon and Saunders on the fabrication of the Frankenweenie maquette. The approach and execution of an animated film is vastly different from a live-action project. So much of the work that goes into an animated film happens before the camera rolls a single frame. And the process of actually shooting in stop-motion is a much greater timeline than that of a live-action film. Photographing a feature-length animated film is traditionally a time-consuming affair – one of the main reasons why Tim may only churn out one or two each decade.

Alongside your studio-work, you create your own content, music videos, and indie films. How and when did you get into that?

I’ve always had the impulse to create original work. Making films in college is what lead me to pursue filmmaking as a career. It’s challenging to find the time, but I do my best to shoot one or two projects each year. It’s therapeutic between big studio projects to work on films and music videos where I have the freedom to create entirely on my own terms. My website is a good resource for these works, from the crude and zany experimental films of my youth up to current day:

You often write, produce, direct, DP and edit your projects. Lots of multitasking! What do you enjoy the most?

I love it all, but feel best when I’ve got the camera in my hand. It’s a thrill to operate and see what you’re capturing in real time. That symmetry and excitement generated between the camera and your subject is what I enjoy most. I really love every step of the process, although filming, editing, and scoring are highlights.

Pangea - Behind the scenes

It’s so cool that you produced the excellent music video HERE WITH ME for The Killers! As of now, it has over 21 million views on Youtube! How did you get on board? Can you tell us a bit about this experience?

Here With Me was a blast to work on. It’s such a special little gem that people are still discovering. I had worked with The Killers previously when Tim directed the music video for Bones in 2006. The band approached Tim to direct another music video when they released their album Battle Born in 2012. Tim was drawn to the track. He had recently reunited with Winona Ryder on Frankenweenie and asked if she would be in the video. It was a pleasure to work with her and Craig Roberts, and they gave wonderful performances. The video was shot in Blackpool, UK over the course of 2 days and nights. It was a real guerilla-style shoot, which I enjoy. Aside from producing the music video, I created a behind the scenes video of the project which can be seen here:

Derek Frey & Jon Landis - The Ballad of Sandeep award

Many of the films you directed won prestigious awards: the featurette Green Lake screened in over 40 film festivals, collecting multiple awards including Best Film at the L.A Shorts Awards, Motel Providence received the Golden Palm Award for Best Short at the Mexico International Film Fest, as well as Best Director at the World Film Awards. Sky Blue Collar granted you the Best Director award by the Chicago Comedy and Mockfest Film Festivals. The Ballad of Sandeep and God Came ‘Round have also enjoyed successful festival funs. With 79 festival wins and 19 nominations, (according to IMDb), what are the ingredients for creating a successful film, in your opinion?

The fact is you can never really tell what is going to connect with a festival or audience. I just try to make things that appeal to me. I know my sensitivities are a bit off-kilter so it’s a pleasure when others “get” and appreciate it. I really enjoy making people laugh but also giving them a scare as well. Most of my films attempt to do one or the other and a few try to balance the line between humor and horror. That’s really where my mind resides.

Kill the Engine

Most recently, you directed Kill the Engine. First of all, congratulations on winning Best Dark Comedy, Best Sound Design and an Honorable Mention: Editing at Top Shorts Film Festival! Excellent work. How did you come up with the idea? And how did you get your collaborators (such as Gil Damon & David and Matt Amadio) on board?

My friends and close collaborators, the Minor Prophets, conceived the story for Kill The Engine. They wrote the screenplay under the working title “Say Goodbye to Hollywood”, which originally would have followed three characters as they observe an annual ritual of “almost” killing themselves as a means of coping with whatever bad things they may have done in the past. Through the writing process the story evolved into more of a commentary on 21st century man’s flawed relationship with the automobile and thus himself.

Three actors, one car, simple (hilarious!) storyline: when we look at the final product, it looks so perfect - you make it look easy! But there were probably some challenges involved… Tell us about the making of Kill the Engine. What were some of the challenging parts?

Gil, Dave, and Steve (the Minor Prophets) make it easy. I knew they would have a good handle on playing the roles they invented, and their longtime friendship really shines through. That’s something you can’t make up or recreate. It’s authentic. My goal was to make the visual side of the story as poetic as the story they wrote. I wanted the viewer to feel the passage of a summer day in the barn, keeping the visuals fresh through the use of color and camera angles. The textures already present in and around the barn helped greatly. The sound design and the use of the cicada stridulations created a unique soundscape and combined with Matt Amadio’s score formed a solid ground for the humor and tragedy.

This comedy is dark… super dark! Who were your earliest influences and who influences your work now?

I think one of the reasons the collaborations with the Minor Prophets have been so successful is because we share a common upbringing in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. We also were inspired by many of the same things growing up. For comedy, Saturday Night Live sketches from the 80’ and 90’s were a big inspiration. Especially their film shorts which always swayed a little darker, like ‘Alan: A Video Junkie’, ‘Prose and Cons’, and ‘Hitchhiker’. Shows like The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery also spoke to me – the sci-fi twists and horror elements were something I always gravitated towards. In high school and college so many films were inspiring to me. The works of Tim Burton and Sam Raimi ranked highest. I remember watching Evil Dead 2 with friends in college and immediately borrowing a friend’s camera to make a short. The balance of comedy and horror combined with the active cinematography ignited something in my brain. I remember dragging friends to see Edward Scissorhands five times in the theater. I had never seen something so unique and original that connected with me emotionally. And that amazing score by Danny Elfman…

Danny Elfman and Tim Burton have been long-time collaborators. Did you ever get a chance to work closely with the legendary Elfman? What was your impression of him while shooting the documentary: A Conversation with Danny Elfman and Tim Burton?

Anyone that knows me from my high school and college days remembers I was a Burton and Elfman fanatic. This was a fact that I kept very close and quiet when I began working for Tim. Music was my first passion in life and the scoring of a film is always one of the most enjoyable parts of the process. I’ll always remember the first time I stepped onto a scoring stage at the Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, California. Danny was just beginning to record the main titles of Mars Attacks! with a robust orchestra. I still get goosebumps thinking about it. I always make certain to be present as much as possible during the recording of each and every score. It continues to be a thrill!

Tim Burton & Derek Frey on the set of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (photo by Leah Gallo)

Tell us about your next projects! As mentioned, you’re currently working on Disney’s Dumbo, which is scheduled to be released in 2019. Any spoilers for the big fans? And what other projects are on the menu for 2018-2019?

Dumbo is going to surprise many people. It’s an amazing cast and tale, set within a rich and beautiful world. Although Tim is reuniting with many actors he has worked with in the past they are all trailblazing new ground with this one. It’s not a remake, but a retelling of the classic story. Aside from Dumbo which will keep me well occupied, I’m editing a music video I just shot in Hawaii for Professor T and the East Side Shredders. And looking further ahead I’m developing a couple of feature films, including Awkward Endeavors with my frequent collaborators the Minor Prophets, and Quiet Fire a story revolving around the recording of the album Kind of Blue and the creative collaboration between Miles Davis and pianist Bill Evans.

Would you like to add anything?

Thank you for the interest and the opportunity. It’s always a pleasure to take some time to reflect.

Follow Derek Frey:

Minor Prophets:


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