When he sat down to write Big Fish, Daniel Wallace didn’t set out to write the book that wowed Hollywood. Nor was he out to capture the essence of his father, a hard-living, hard-drinking, self-made millionaire, a salesman extraordinaire with offices flung around the globe.
But he did. And now Wallace, a Birmingham native who moved to Chapel Hill two decades ago, is dealing with that. His strategy seems to involve enjoying the surreal pageant that is a major motion picture release and remembering to reel himself back to earth.
“Frankly, I’ve been doing a lot of ego surfing lately,” he says. “I’m really interested in what people are saying about the movie.”
Big Fish, Tim Burton’s cinematic interpretation of the book Wallace finished in 1997, debuted on the coasts last weekend and will arrive in the Triangle at the end of the month.
The author, who enjoyed a good round of publicity when Big Fish was first published, is in the spotlight again. Though the book is subtitled “A Novel of Mythic Proportions” and is peppered with grandiose imagery, its core is a human tale of father and son. In the dozens of interviews Wallace has had surrounding the release of the film, there are the inevitable questions about how his own father compares to Big Fish’s Edward Bloom and whether Wallace experienced the same mix of alienation and the need to understand his father as the fictional son William Bloom. The story translates, Wallace says, but not in every detail.
Like the senior Bloom, E.D. Wallace, a Birmingham importer/exporter, was a gregarious larger than life fellow–a bourbon and branch water magnate who traveled the world slapping backs, cutting deals and telling stories. The book’s title comes from his explanation to his son that he left the small southern town of his birth to become a big fish in a much bigger pond. E.D., who had wanted his son to follow in his footsteps, was indifferent at best to Daniel’s writing. He didn’t see the future in it. He didn’t live to read Big Fish, either, dying suddenly from complications from heart surgery a few weeks after Wallace finished the book. In the years since, the parallels between the characters in the book and his own life “have become clearer,” Wallace says. “I didn’t think at the time I was writing about him. I invented everything in it. The tall tales were all invented, but the book is definitely a result of my direct experience with my father, a person who was so charming and affable, but a person who used that as a cloak against intimacy.”
The movie was shot in Montgomery, Ala., an hour or so south of his Birmingham home. “They scoured the world for the right place and it turned out to be Alabama,” Wallace says, marveling at the mysterious ways of Hollywood. “Imagine that.”
He visited the set a few times, he says, to see how the other half lives and to watch the transformation of the story.
Screenwriter John August, who helped push the book, had supplied him with drafts. “I had a good idea of the film going in to it, but I couldn’t visualize what it would look like on celluloid.”
He’s had a while to think about the idea, though. Big Fish was picked up, shortly after it was published and Wallace, who had cranked it out in short bursts while caring for his infant son, suddenly found himself not only published but with a book optioned by Steven Spielberg. He dealt with that by adopting a “wait until I’m eating the popcorn” attitude. It turned out to be a good strategy.
“I was perfectly content to just have the thing optioned forever and living off of that,” he says. His worst nightmare, he says, was that Hollywood would turn it into something he couldn’t live down. “I was afraid Billy Crystal would get a hold of it and want to play all the parts himself.”
Two years ago, Spielberg dropped the book and Burton picked it up. Having now watched the movie, popcorn in hand, Wallace says Burton and company did a pretty good job. “It was a risky movie to make,” he says. There are outrageous moments, sure, but no Edward Scissorhands characters. “It’s a movie about story telling.”
Burton, Wallace says, was able to work the human and outrageous sides of the story and provide a finish that is true to the story’s mood and the novel’s impact on the reader. And then there are the billboards everywhere, the reviews, the hype, the Web hits and so on. Still, as the author of the book, Wallace is trying to remind himself of where he fits in the movie hierarchy.
“It’s hard for me to believe I had anything to do with it. I didn’t invest $80 million in the thing.”
It’s the kind of spectacle, Wallace says, E.D would have reveled in. “He would have been thrilled. He would have seen himself as the star–the guy played by Albert Finney. He would have gotten more press than I am.”