Spotlight director Tom McCarthy turns to a very different kind of investigator for his new film Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made: a kid detective who works with a polar bear named Total.
Timmy Failure couldn’t be much different than Spotlight, McCarthy’s 2015 film about the Boston Globe‘s investigative reporting on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. The new film, airing now on Disney+, is based on a series of books by Stephan Pastis that follow the misadventures of a 5th grader who is inspired by noir detective flicks.
Timmy (newcomer Winslow Fegley) solves cases — which range from a stolen vehicle to a hamster’s homicide — while avoiding the much-less magical realities of growing up. Endearingly offbeat and narratively ingenious, McCarthy’s latest doesn’t exactly call Spotlight to mind, but it certainly packs great emotional resonance.
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Returning to the Sundance Film Festival, where the family-oriented feature premiered as part of the Sundance Kids sections, McCarthy talked to MovieMaker about making his first project for a streaming platform and the already in-the-works sequel to Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker: Were the Timmy Failure books on your radar prior to your getting involved in the adaptation? Perhaps your children were fans of them, or you had been sitting on them to make a movie for a while?
Tom McCarthy (TM): Eight years ago or so, a colleague of mine put it on my desk. We’re always looking at new material and she was like, “I don’t know what this is or what you would do with it, but I was reading this book to my daughter and it was hilarious.” And I let it sit there for a number of months before I finally picked it up and started reading it and I just started laughing. I found the voice really fresh, a bit subversive, and a bit alternative, both sad and funny at the same time—maybe sad is too strong a word for that, but I just connected with it. [Stephan] was in town sometime later for a book tour. We sat down for coffee and told him I loved his book.
We talked about what else we could do with it and the idea for maybe making a movie out of it. I’d never really considered making a kid’s movie, but I’m always looking for something new and different to do. It’s sort of how I made my career. I was helping Disney on a rewrite at the time. I’ve known Sean Bailey over there for a long time and he’s always like, “If you have anything that you think is right for us,” because as you know it’s a specific brand, that Disney brand. I thought, “Hey, not only is it right for you, but I think it’s also a bit quirky.” … I never thought we would actually get it done. Sundance feels like an incredibly appropriate place to premiere the film because it owes a lot to independent cinema. It’s certainly my roots and where my tastes lie. The movie is true to that in a lot of ways, except we’ve got a polar bear.
MM: In the process of translating the material for the screen, were there major elements or small changes you made to make it more cinematically adept?
TM: First of all was just realizing the polar bear has got to be real, right. That was a big deal, because real polar bears have a tendency to eat children. So we couldn’t do that. There’s one in one part of Canada that is somewhat trained and it’s not really trained at all. So we were like, “Okay, that’s out.”
MM: Wait, so initially you were considering having a real polar bear on set?
TM: I didn’t know. I thought, “Hey, there’s real bears in movies.” But polar bears are a whole different breed. There’s no such thing as a trained polar bear. That immediately changed the dynamic of the movie. But to get back to your question, one of the biggest challenges in the movie was working from Steph’s book, which is brilliantly tangential like Timmy’s mind. It just keeps curving off and it’s never about one journey with Timmy. It’s about getting lost on the way, which is sort of like being a kid. It was about finding and arc and a journey, and then digging a little bit deeper. It was really digging into Timmy, the book, and into Steph, the man, the author, to say, “What’s the emotion here? What’s going on? What’s driving this kid? What are his fears, hopes, dreams, nightmares?” We were trying to understand that a little bit more, because I don’t think Steph spends a lot of time there in his writing. He plays through that. It was an interesting process of excavating the deeper story to make it a film.
MM: Some people might find it shocking that your first project after Spotlight is aimed at young audiences. But the fact that Timmy Failure also has an investigate element sort of links them. It actually doesn’t feel so out place, but rather fitting.
TM: That’s what I should start telling people. I’m just into investigative stories. That’s genius. It’s been something a lot of people have been saying to me. I’m deep in my next movie, which is much more like some of my other movies. We’re editing now. And so for me, I’ve never considered this movie a follow-up. A lot of how we make movies is timing, resources, and availability. Things move around. I thought I was going to make Stillwater, then Timmy, but I couldn’t get Stillwater together in the way I wanted to soon enough. I pushed Stillwater, and had a lot of fun making Timmy.
After making a movie as intense as Spotlight—it was an intense place to live for a couple of years because of the subject matter and the world—it was nice to do something which is much lighter, has lower stakes in a way, and uses a different part of my brain in terms of the visual effects and the creative storytelling. I was also trying to reprogram how I thought I could tell a story in live action that can reach 10-year olds and maybe still be enjoyable for 30-, 40-, or 50-year-olds, because animation seems to have the stake in the ground on those kinds of movies. I’ve worked in animation and I have friends who work there. It’s a different way of telling a story and they get away with a lot more because it’s animated. Live action is tricky. To me it was just a really cool intellectual, storytelling challenge that I was very engaged with. And if I’m engaged in something, I’m generally happy.
MM: How does the directing dynamic change when one of your main characters is a CG polar bear interacting with a real child?
TM: Not as much as I thought, because Rich McBride is such a great VFX supervisor who really loves storytelling and was right there on my shoulder the whole time. Technology has advanced in such a way that you can do so much more with so much little. Outside of shooting plates, shooting cover, and shooting walkthroughs of Total, we’d shoot a scene and then we’d just do a plate of Total walking through, which is a cart with fur, like a couple of odd balls. If you saw it, it looked like three mad people walking through our frame.
We had a wonderful actor, Michael Adamthwaite, playing Total, so he was in a bear suit or versions of it that looked like we’d built a puppet. That connection between Michael and Winslow — they became very good friends in the set — was crucial to making that real, to feeling the connection between these two characters, understanding that neither of those two characters, rather, are terribly emotive. They’re very in their own world, which is a part of Winslow’s personality and part of Timmy’s personality. Total was based very much on my dog. I have a very strange a mutt who’s with me all the time, but she’s also very independent. She’s very aloof, and we felt like that was the right personality for this bear.
It was about feeling the connection so we could feel the loss, but understanding that Timmy created this character. But it’s interesting that’s the character he created. It doesn’t talk to him. It doesn’t really help him. It doesn’t really do anything positive for him. This is what he chose to create. Why? I think that’s really interesting. Figuring out a way to approaching that and working with my cinematographer and with Rich my production designer, we talked about, “Where’s the bear? How does the bear fit in the attic? How does the bare fitt here? What’s the weight of the bear in this room? What does that look like? What does it feel like? What happens to the truck?” That was just fun. Something I haven’t dealt with before.
MM: The vast majority of actors in the Timmy Failure are children. Was commanding a set with mostly children distinctly challenging from what you had experience previously as a director?
TM: Certainly challenging, only because there were a lot of children there. I don’t think I had one scene with just adults. There wasn’t any. There are children in every scene and I love children. I’m a dad, but it’s exhausting. There’s a little bit of parenting and a little bit of chaos in directing children. Definitely that was a new experience for me. Like I’ve had kids in my movies, the movie I just finished had an eight-year- old French girl, and in Win Win I had kids, but they’re usually surrounded by adult actors who are kind of running and dominating the story. This was the very different, but man, little Winslow, he really carries the movie and it’s a tricky thing to do. We work the heck out of that little guy and he was up for it.
MM: Imagination guides the narrative, as we appear to always be at the mercy of Timmy’s whimsical ideas. How did that core aspect influence your storytelling approach?
TM: A lot of it was based on Steph, who was a comic-strip writer and then wrote the books. He said, “Growing up, my safe place, my happy place, was in my drawings and my art. I lived there and I gave them dialogue. That’s how I escaped.” I didn’t have that. I had more of a household where it was very open and talkative with a lot of kids, so I didn’t have that. But I understand that. That imagined world is where Timmy lives. What I love about the character is that he’s so resilient and he really just figures out a way to survive. He’s different. His mother has been a terrific mother for the most part, acknowledging, “My kid’s different in some ways and I’m going to lean into that. I’m going to celebrate it.”
The problem comes when that becomes too big an obstacle to function and that’s what happens in the movie. We’re reaching a point in his life where he’s not assimilating in the right way, which happens right around 10 years old, based on a bunch of behavioral psychologists I talked to that deal with children. They were like, “That’s right when a lot of kids are at the end of holding onto things like imaginary friends and imaginary worlds.” They’re really holding on to things like Total, while the other kids are moving forward and being like, “Okay, I’m done with that type of play in my life.” We were trying to capture that moment.
So you got Rollo, who’s left the agency and is thinking about school and college, maybe too much so, and Timmy just doesn’t understand that. We tried to ground all these characters and make fun of the quirky weirdness in the movie. We realized it’s Timmy’s world. He’s still living in this, so how could we make sense of it for this little kid living in Portland?
MM: On a formal level, the movie uses very sophisticated film language in terms of the editing, with multiple cutaways and flashbacks. Was it a concern to maintain a cohesive through line so that it was understandable for the target demographic, kids?
TM: We realized children are so sophisticated right now. If you watch what they’re watching, especially some of the better animated movies, the cinematography is incredibly sophisticated and the language is sophisticated. We knew they could hold it, but I was curious to see how it’ll work. Like you have two kids walking down and talking, Rollo saying, “You always get me into trouble,” and then, “What about Operation Sumo,” and boom. Suddenly we’re just in the scene…
I knew the movie was working because we were screening early. We would do screenings for eight eight-year-olds. I normally do that for eight adults. But I was like, “Get me eight eight-year-olds, parents can sit in the room or not. I want them watching and I want to talk to them about it.” Those were some the most interesting and amusing talkbacks I’ve ever done for a film. We could tell they weren’t bumping on anything, even with some of the more intense parts, the emotional moments, like when mother seems to be losing it on her son. Certain people in our creative teamwork were concerned about it: “Is this too intense? We can do it in cartoons, but this is real.” Kids didn’t blink at that.
MM: Did you ever consider using animation to set up or expand on certain story beats?
TM: No, never did. I think once we committed to Total being real, that was it. We couldn’t go back and then go to his imagination and suddenly see animation felt. It felt like would’ve been to too much of a departure.
MM: Did you hesitate at all at the fact that this movie is meant to go straight to Disney+ without a traditional theatrical release? If so, was playing at a festival like Sundance important to you, even if only to have it on the big screen a few times?
TM: Certainly. I’m also going to a couple of cities and doing screenings. I want people to see it. We all want all our movies to be on big screens all the time. I had to give that a lot of thought, but I just felt it was right for this type of movie, for the budget we needed to make it, with some of the effects, and to reach a large audience. I had a very good relationship with the people at Disney and I felt it was a different movie. The movie also makes sense here at Sundance. That tells you something.
Disney’s never had a movie here. Sundance has never let them in. We talked a lot to my creative team about it and we thought, “Let’s go for it.” I was one of the people who suggested coming here. I was like, “If we can, we should at least submit it.” It’ll reach a lot of people on Disney+. Being a parent and using Disney+ myself now, I see there’s not a lot of live action movies there that you can watch with your kids. They automatically go to animation all the time. And animation is great, but sometimes it’s nice to see real kids and real people and different people. That’s something I’m really happy with this movie. There are a lot of different types of people in this movie and different points of view. I liked that we’ve embraced that with the film.
MM: Now that this one is out of the gate, do you have any plans to adapt any of the other Timmy Failure books, or is this it for you?
TM: Steph has come up with a script already. What’s exciting about it is that in the eight books, there’s so much story to call from. Steph cranked out a rough draft already, and we realized that revisiting all the characters is really fun because all those kids are really good characters. They’re just really fun people to be around. For me what merits going back for a sequel is that you want to spend more time with those characters. It’s fun to see them grow now that you really know them and you’ve been introduced to them. Who knows what will happen with it, but Disney’s interested and we’re talking about it now.
Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made, directed by Tom McCarthy, is now streaming on Disney+.