Danny DeVito On Completing Tim Burton's "Circus Trilogy" With 'Dumbo' [Set Visit Interview]

"We gotta complete the circus trilogy."

That's how Tim Burton got Danny DeVito on board to play yet another circus ringleader in Dumbo, Disney's upcoming live-action adaptation of the beloved 1941 animated film. The last time DeVito donned a circus ringleader outfit, he was playing the shrewd ringmaster Amos Calloway in Burton's 2003 fantasy drama Big Fish. And before that, he was a circus gang leader of sorts in 1992's Batman Returns. But DeVito didn't need much convincing to work with his longtime friend and director — Dumbo marks the fourth time he has collaborated with Burton, and he doesn't plan for it to be the last.

"I get emotional thinking about how much I care about him," DeVito said in an interview from the set of Dumbo in September 2017. "Always spirited, always an artist, always thinking about the craft, always just painting with his mind. I feel like I'm part of...some kind of palette or color scheme in [Wassily] Kandinsky's world or something."

Kandinsky, the abstract Russian painter, is not too far of a stretch from the bright and vibrant colors of the circus in Dumbo, of which DeVito's Max Medici is the ringmaster. A character from the original 1941 film, DeVito lends his own spin on the character, giving him more humanity. He's "a guy whose back is up against the wall," DeVito said.

This interview was conducted as a roundtable with other assembled journalists.

So Danny, what is it about you that makes Tim think of circus ringleader?

This is the completion of the circus trilogy, you know [the one we started with] the Batman. When he called, he said exactly that, "We gotta complete the circus trilogy." And I was so excited because I'm a big fan of Dumbo and I love Tim and would do anything to be in that movie with him. I don't know why he thinks of me for that. But what are we going to do next, who knows? Something really weird.

Is there a specific note about the character that Tim gave you that sticks out?

Well, I feel like in our movie it's different than the Dumbo we all know and love. Medici, my character, or if you're England you say Med-eechee — or Jersey probably. [Laughs] But I call it Med-ichi. The thing is, he has big pressure in the beginning to keep the circus alive because it's a very, very tough time. It's 1919, that's when it takes place. And they were fading, the little circuses, because all the big ones were taking over. So contrary to what it was in the movie where the mouse gives the head of the circus all the ideas, this is kind of how life itself in a modern world puts us on the spot. For some reason, we're having a very difficult time getting people in the seats and we get a windfall when I buy Mrs. Jumbo. So to try answer your question, it's more of a guy who's under a lot of pressure and makes a couple of decisions during the movie that are obvious for a guy whose back is up against the wall, but then, thank goodness everything works out all way. And Medici gets rid of Donald Trump, and the world is a better place.

Has Tim changed much since you guys worked on Batman Returns?

Not a bit. I get emotional thinking about how much I care about him. Always spirited, always an artist, always thinking about the craft, always just painting with his mind. I feel like I'm part of...some kind of palette or color scheme in [Wassily] Kandinsky's world or something. Right from the very beginning, even with Batman, the first meeting we had was so great. He had a painting of circus stripes, red and white, just a beautiful big canvas. And on a circus ball was this creature, and there was a caption that said, "My name is Jimmy, but they call me The Hideous Penguin Boy." And it was so moving but so...you know. From that, he hasn't changed a bit. When you talk about things, when you discuss what's going on. Like with Big Fish and even Mars Attacks — with Mars Attacks I went to Vegas for four nights, what's bad about that? And you know he's in Hoffa. People didn't know that, he's in one of the coffins. But it's always the same. We don't see each other for a really long time, but then you just pick up, it's that kind of friend.

What's it like working with Michael again?

It's really fun that Michael's here, and it's also really interesting that he's [the villain]. We've done a couple movies, Michael and I. But the last movie with Tim and Michael and I, of course we were both in suits — he was in the Batman suit, I was in the Penguin suit — he was playing the good guy in that movie, I'm the good guy in this movie. So it's a little bit of an evolution here.

I saw your other costume with the extra....

Oh with the feet? Yeah that was kind of weird because we tried to do this gag because I have a "brother" — the Medici Brothers Circus — but there's no other brother. So we wanted to make the brother eight inches taller. This was like before I even started, and we were doing some tests because he comes out of a box. They bring a box into the middle of the circus on the floor and it [makes exploding noise] explodes, and there's Medici, but I'm the brother. Now the brother was Max the Italian, and I did a little Italian accent, like a little New Jersey-Italian accent. And the first time Tim saw me, I was standing there with the boots on and he said, "When did you become a member of KISS? [Laughs] It kind of was an interesting idea. That's the great thing about him, he's just inventive and off the charts, all kinds of unexpected. But they were kind of hard to walk in. [Chuckles] Oh man. I have a hard time in the boots I'm in today. I'm not good in high heels, I'm a flats person.

You said you loved the original Dumbo, what was your relationship with it?

When I was a kid we didn't have all this stuff that you guys have. Like in the early days in New Jersey I had the million-dollar movie and every once in a while you got to see a cool Disney movie or something. But probably when it first came out I didn't see it as much as I did [with my kids]. I have three kids so it started with them, I started them really early 30 years ago looking at Dumbo over and over again.

So I have a long history with Dumbo, I just looked at it again before we started. I wanted to see things after I read the script. It's 63 minutes long and you probably know that. I don't know if you've ever seen the thing about Timothy, the mouse. A special edition on the Blu-ray where they put an excised scene that was actually written — the whole scenario was written — and they got someone to read it that sound like Timothy the Mouse, and there are also storyboards that are really cool. But they took it out because it was really dark. What it was, was Timothy explaining to people why elephants are afraid of mice. I don't know if you've seen it but you should check it out. They have the guy sitting there and he looks like a guy who animates, he's all dressed in the Disney animator way and he goes up on a shelf and he takes it down and they do a whole little thing. But it was really scary because it was: mice were 10 times bigger than elephants years ago, and they would play with the elephants and make them their slaves, and string them around their neck. Disney was really wacked!

Did you get to say one of the signature lines of the original animated character?

Oh "I've got it! I've got it!" That one? I don't think I've put that. But we're not finished! And the guy had an accent too, it was a great line. Because there was a moment where we — I'm shaved now — for the Medici Circus I had a two- or three-day [scruff]. There was a moment where we thought I'd be wearing a mustache but... I wish I had a picture of me as the brother because it's really crazy. Like black wig that doesn't fit, that kind of thing.

Aside from being the good guy in this, how was this character different from other circus character you've played?

No different! He's a showman. He's not as slick and maybe not as savvy as [my character in Big Fish], but he's a showman, he's a barker, he's a guy who wants to get people in to have a good time and enjoy themselves. It's kind of like what I'm doing now. Just want everybody to have a good time, really feel good, be happy to be here, buy a lot of peanuts.

He's not secretly a werewolf though?

No, but I do have a nude scene! But I'm nude in the bathtub so you don't see it. But I did in Big Fish get up and you got to see my toosh. But when [Tim] told me, "There's a scene in a bathtub," I said, "I'm in baby!" Try to keep Danny from saying the wrong words and taking his clothes off!

How was it interacting with the CG elephant?

That's really interesting, I've never done that before. It's really so kind of cool. The first time I saw it — we have a couple people in green suits, we have a couple people in big aluminum outlines of how big an elephant would be with eyes [represented] by little tennis balls, and they're carried by a person in green, so that when you're in the relationship of the, you know, you know where it's gonna be. He's not there. There's nothing there! There's sometimes the interaction that I found was really great, with the mama elephant Mrs. Jumbo and baby Jumbo, because you know he doesn't get his name Dumbo until there's a big brouhaha in the tent and the jay falls and he falls. This is different [from the original] it's kind of a Tim Burton-esque way of doing it.

They literally in our one set where we have the boxcars in the old circus, they're more like that brownish color... What happens is the elephant is unloaded on the side of the boxcar on a ramp, and sometimes they would do — this is like a mindblower — there's nothing coming down the ramp. There's a guy with a big rig coming down the ramp, and the ramp has a hydraulic thing and it pulls it down. I thought that was the coolest thing. But one of the elephants was purple and one was green. The baby was green and the mama was purple, and I guess when they draw it that's how they separate it. That part was really cool.

I mean, in Matilda, when I did that there was a lot of acting with dots. Because when you're working with kids, in that movie I had a ton of kids, so you only get them for four or five hours a day in their school year. So most of the time, Pam Ferris or me, if you're talking to Matilda she wasn't there. So if she's off-camera you're looking at nothing. So it's kind of similar to this.

You talked about the hydraulic ramp. There's a lot of CGI in this film, but are there a lot of practical effects like that?

There's a lot of things where you — like for instance, when I show them Mrs. Jumbo that I bought, this is my big acquisition that I'm really excited about. She's laying a boxcar in hay, and everybody thinks she's sick but she's not, she's pregnant. And there's a fake trunk coming out of [the boxcar], and the special effects people have little filaments that move the hay. And that's really cool to watch, it's like [mimes moving hay]. I think that's fascinating. Although we do things like we shoot things with the actors, then we shoot things with the silver balls, then we shoot things with the plates. They shoot the scene at least four or five times over. Then people don't remember their lines and that makes it 10 or 12 times.

So have you worked with Tim more than any other director?

Ah that's a good question! Yeah I think so. I've done...Yeah with a director I think this is the most except for...Ingmar Bergman. I've worked with him I think — nah. Yeah I think Tim and I, this is the most anyone would tolerate me.

The film is about a flying elephant, but what is the film about to you?

It's a very, very positive, hopeful, never give up kind of theme. I mean I think that in life you see all the different things that infiltrate the good things in life. The things that kind of surprise you and come out of nowhere, like when you think you're making a movie with someone who is duplicitous or something. Maybe in terms of a younger person, or an older person, the idea is that you can't always believe what somebody tells you. And sometimes it messes up all your hopes and dreams, that if you all stick together, possibly you could get a happy ending. And dreams do come true.