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BIG FISH

Location
Big Fish was set in Alabama, but the motion picture production scouted the entire South looking for a location that met the myriad of requirements for the epic story, which covers a vast amount of diverse geography and a 50-year time span, according to Oscar®-winning production designer Dennis Gassner (Bugsy).

Ironically, they found the ideal spot in central Alabama, near Montgomery, close to the location of Wallace's stories.

After covering six states, Gassner finally found everything he needed in and around Wetumpka, a sleepy town that hasn't changed much since the 1950s, when the story begins.

But it was the rivers of Alabama that finally sold Gassner and Burton on the state. "You can't do a movie about a fish without water,” says Burton. "Our script had several key scenes that needed to be in a river, on a riverbank or within sight of a river. Alabama has plenty of rivers and we filmed on several of them - the Tallapoosa, the Coosa and the Alabama Rivers.”

Further, he continues, "Water is an important aesthetic in the movie. We have water in almost every scene. You know they say water holds sound even after years and years, that the actual sound is somehow trapped in the water. So in some odd way there is a magic and a mystery and a sorrow here that hopefully permeates this film.”

But a river can also be an uncontrollable force. Gassner says the production drew up agreements with several local dam operators to control the flow of the river for a scene where Edward goes to talk to the giant at the mouth of his cave. The scene requires a certain low-level camera angle to show prehistoric-looking rock formations at the river's edge. The utility helped them maintain the level they needed.

Big Fish marks the first collaboration between Gassner and Burton. But because of his early career as an artist at Disney studios, Burton was easily able to communicate his vision to Gassner. "Tim had the ability to say, ‘This is what I'm thinking,' and do a quick 30-second sketch on the back of an envelope that showed me exactly what he wanted. We quickly developed a kind of artistic shorthand.”

For Gassner, the mixture of reality and fantasy presented him with fresh and exciting new opportunities as a production designer. "It was quite a demanding project, with the largest number of sets that I've ever designed in my career.” On a knoll above the center of Wetumpka (called Ashton in the film), Gassner built the Bloom family house, a three story, wood-sided structure that Edward buys for his family and lives in for the remaining 40 years of his life. The jewel-like, ante-bellum home owned by Jenny (Bonham Carter), the other woman in Edward's life, was constructed over a river, which can be seen flowing by in every window. Over the years, vines grow up and envelop the house, eventually swallowing it into the surrounding swamp.

The large, ominous forest Edward enters when he first leaves home had to be built, tree-by-tree to meet the story's specifications, according to Gassner. "It ended up being very beautiful and ominously scary. And when he reaches the end of the eerie darkness, he enters the brilliant sunlight of the picture-perfect town of Spectre. It invokes memories of the Wizard of Oz.”

Spectre is an idealized place. Every house and shop on the main street is a heightened reality of small-town Americana, circa 1950 and particularly Southern in flavor. All the design elements echo the traditional architectural icons of the South. The inhabitants of Spectre are no less unique. For one thing, they're all barefoot.

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