'Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made' Director Tom McCarthy On Following 'Spotlight' With A Disney Family Movie [Interview]

Just when you think you have Oscar-winner Tom McCarthy figured out, he goes and follows Spotlight with a film for Disney+ about a kid who thinks of himself as a hard-boiled detective whose best friend is a polar bear.It may surprise you to know that McCarthy's latest film, Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made is delightful. The main character takes himself very seriously and the film has a lot of fun playing around with that while building an entertaining mystery for him to solve. The Result: a detective noir movie from the '40s, but for kids.Ahead of its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, we talked to McCarthy and the film's star Winslow Fegley about working on movies for kids, working with CGI bears, and how Fegley found out what Sundance is.So, I guess you'll get asked this a lot, but how? Just how did you choose this as your follow up to Spotlight?Tom McCarthy: I kind of brought it to Disney. Um, I had read the book a long time ago now and just immediately found the book and the voice to be amusing, entertaining, and original. And it's kind of always what you're looking for. You know, at some point Sean Bailey at Disney had said, Hey, if you ever come across any material that you think would lead you to us to make a movie, please bring it to us. And I said, yeah, I don't know everything I'm looking at, nothing looks Disney-esque. And then I found this book and I met Steph and I really liked him and I like to wake talked about the characters and he's just a good guy.So I went to Sean and he kind of jumped at it. And we start developing, I didn't know it would ever lead to a finished movie or it would get to this point, but you know, it's one of those things where every time Steph and I met up to work on it, which is sort of intermittently over time, I always really enjoyed it. I enjoyed the process, the challenge. I'd never made a kid's movie. I never made a movie that was a really difficult book to adapt because of the sort of chaotic worldview of Timmy and how that is manifested in the pages of the book, making sense of it and finding an arc.And eventually it got to a point where I had an opening in my schedule after Spotlight and before the movie I'm editing now that I was like "Hey, I can do this bcause the next movie I'm going to make isn't ready and this movie kind of is."Wait, so you were working on this before Spotlight?McCarthy: Oh yeah. I had a cooking for a while. Again, I didn't know if I was looking to have a place in my schedule where I really wanted to make it. And I always feel like with every movie I've got to get to a point where I can see how I would direct this and that and then I'll do it. I don't care about what people think I should be doing or what comes next, or I'm just always like, if something's ready to go and it's good and I'm excited about it, I'll do it. There's something very liberating about shifting gears like this. You meet people and they're like, I was doing this for a long time in my life and now I'm doing this. I've always admired people that do that, I love my career, so I probably won't do that. But I respect the courage it takes to do that and I kind of felt that way with Timmy. Taking the same artistic team and turning our attention to this book, making it as good as we can.This is your first feature, Winslow, how was it going from TV to this project?Winslow Fegley: It was definitely different and I wasn't completely used to it, but I feel like everybody on set just helped me like kind of transfer to that environment. TV and in film are just very different to me because instead of telling these shorter stories over a big period of time, you're just telling one and then you just really have to know how to let them, follow you, and you just have to be open to collaboration. Something I loved about Timmy, and the movie itself really, is how it plays it completely straight. Timmy is a very serious character, even if everyone around him looks at him funny.McCarthy: That was the idea. I know and I've heard from friends who are parents that they can sit and watch Timmy with their kids and enjoy it. Like if we can make a movie that you can possibly enjoy for 10-year olds starring 10-year olds, we're doing something right. And there is pretty much nothing there right now in live action for kids this age, there's animation that has sort of planted the stake in that ground, and that's it. Like when I go with my kids on Disney+ and look for something, it's all animation, there's not that many live action stuff that isn't on TV. And the film has a different sort of arc than TV. You learn through the course of the film that Timmy is flawed, that he makes real mistakes. And really what I loved about this movie is like that relationship between mother and son. Like exploring that relationship between mother and son, and really watching that develop.So how do you balance that, being for kids but also paying tribute to noir movies?McCarthy: It's a challenge. I come from here, you know. My movies played here, and I love independent cinema, and world cinema. I want kids to have a slightly different sense of tone, structure and reality, while still being playful and weird and silly. When we first screened this movie for test audiences, one of the questions was, what does this movie remind you of? And they could not come up with a movie, not one movie, and then finally one kid said Up. So I want kids to have this cinematic vocabulary as we lean as an industry more and more into these genre movies, like superheroes and Star Wars and Disney IP, I want kids to have more options. What movies influenced Timmy?McCarthy: One movie that I showed my daughter the other day was The Red Balloon, this French movie from 1956 that it's basically a little boy chasing a red balloon in the streets of Paris. And that movie made me love the French New Wave, and Timmy is kind of like a New Wave movie for kids. The movie also plays around with the idea of fantasy and Timmy's imagination. How was portraying those big numbers, specially the Broadway musical-inspired scene and of course the polar bear in the movie?Fegley: Michael (Adamthwaite) was the man in the suit pretty much the entire movie, and there was a huge box about the size of the bear in the movie. And it made it a lot easier for me to do like re-enacting and to connect with the magic and the bear. He made it a really good experience because he was always just so helpful making it feel real. McCarthy: For me it was really exciting. I had a great crew. For Total, the bear, we had a massive sort of puppet that a person could sit in and move and it was big and really exciting. We got a sense of his scale and Winslow looked so tiny next to him and immediately it was sort of moving and funny in a way, which is what the movie and the book is like. When it came to create the look of the movie, I worked with a great crew, and we tried to find out what the post-apocalyptic version of middle school would be like for Timmy. And a lot of it was based on research on child behaviour and psychology because that age of being 10 is when a lot of children start letting go of their make-believe world, but Timmy is not, he's holding onto it.Another big change going into this movie is that you worked with such an ensemble cast of big-name actors and here you're working with kids. How was that transition for you?McCarthy: Both fun and challenging. The young actresses were definitely a little bit better at being in line and paying attention, and all the kids made it really fun, but it was also challenging to keep them on target. So there was, you know, some parenting in my directing. But for the most part seeing these guys work together it was really fun. But it was challenging and new for me. There were days where I would go home to my kids and be like "Oh my God, more kids. Get away from me" [laughs]. And my wife was like "you still have to be nice to your kids." And I would behave. And I did have to make that mental adjustment, because I'm used to working with adults and there were times where I would be too sharp with them, or too demanding.Fegley: You know what, I actually liked that, because otherwise sometimes the director is not clear enough and you don't get what they want. Tom did a really good job with it, because I think he was very clear to me. I think it can be kind of intimidating to some people, but it was nice just to be able to understand what he wanted. [laughs]This movie is coming out on Disney+, was that something you knew going into production? And did that change your approach at all?McCarthy: No. We shot it wide. And they knew and they said "oh, you know this is going on the streaming service," and I told them "You said I could make a movie. I'm making the movie." I literally had to get on the phone and remind him that they said I could do it this way. But we were going to make this, then we paused because they saw that their model of family films of $25-$50 million dollar family movies were having trouble turning profit in theaters, so that's where they could use Disney+ as a way of pushing their brand, of expanding and trying new things like Timmy. And I like being a part of the launch, and the publicity we're getting, they're handling it like a real movie, and putting a lot of resources behind it. I'd love it to be in movie theaters, of course, and that is painful to me, but for the movie it was and it is, I'm okay with it. If it was Spotlight, I probably wouldn't have do it this way, I'd have said no. But it's getting harder and harder to make those movies as we all know. I mean, you know, Marty's got to go make The Irishman with Netflix, and he's Marty Scorsese, you know? But he wasn't going to get that money anywhere else. There's always going to be, and now more than ever, some compromise. But I felt this was a natural fit in a lot of ways, so it didn't feel as that big a compromise, simply as something different. And still, the movie is premiering here at Sundance. How did you both feel when you got the news?McCarthy: I was the one who suggested it long ago, I said this is an independent movie, and I can't think of a better place to take it. After the test screening in Pasadena, I said we got to let audiences know this is different. Fegley: When I found out I was excited, because you don't really hear anything from them on what they're going to do with the movie except when they put it on Disney+. But when you're like, okay, it's going to Sundance.McCarthy: Did you know what Sundance was? Or heard of it?Fegley: Not really, no. Of course, my mom knew. And my brother knew, but that's also because he worked with Robert Redford and he's always like talking about Sundance and telling us to come to Sundance. Unfortunately I didn't get to meet Redford, but my mom and my brother did. But I was pretty freaked out, I thought "wow, that's cool." Because I knew it was big, and I didn't know how big, and then I looked into it and thought that it's a pretty deal. And then I told my brother and because of his reaction I figured it was a big deal. 


Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made is now available on Disney+.