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Big Fish

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This article is about the 2003 film. For other uses, see Big Fish (disambiguation).
Big Fish
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Tim Burton
Produced by Richard D. Zanuck
Bruce Cohen
Dan Jinks
Screenplay by John August
Based on Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions 
by Daniel Wallace
Starring Ewan McGregor
Albert Finney
Billy Crudup
Jessica Lange
Helena Bonham Carter
Alison Lohman
Robert Guillaume
Marion Cotillard
Steve Buscemi
Danny DeVito
Music by Danny Elfman
Cinematography Philippe Rousselot
Edited by Chris Lebenzon
Jinks/Cohen Company
The Zanuck Company
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release dates
  • December 10, 2003 (2003-12-10)
Running time
125 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $70 million[1]
Box office $122.9 million[1]

Big Fish is a 2003 American fantasy drama film based on the 1998 novel of the same name by Daniel Wallace.[2] The film was directed by Tim Burton and stars Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange, and Marion Cotillard. Other roles are performed by Helena Bonham Carter, Matthew McGrory, and Danny DeVito among others. Finney plays Edward Bloom, a former traveling salesman from the Southern United States with a gift for storytelling, now confined to his deathbed. Bloom's estranged son, a journalist played by Crudup, attempts to mend their relationship as his dying father relates tall tales of his eventful life as a young adult during which scenes he is played by Ewan McGregor.

Screenwriter John August read a manuscript of the novel six months before it was published and convinced Columbia Pictures to acquire the rights. August began adapting the novel while producers negotiated with Steven Spielberg who planned to direct after finishing Minority Report (2002). Spielberg considered Jack Nicholson for the role of Edward Bloom, but eventually dropped the project to focus on Catch Me If You Can (2002). Tim Burton and Richard D. Zanuck took over after completing Planet of the Apes (2001) and brought Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney on board.

The film's theme of reconciliation between a dying father and his son had special significance for Burton, as his father had died in 2000 and his mother in 2002, a month before he signed on to direct. Big Fish was shot on location in Alabama in a series of fairy tale vignettes evoking the tone of a Southern Gothic fantasy. The film received award nominations in multiple film categories, including four Golden Globe Award nominations, seven nominations from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, two Saturn Award nominations, and an Oscar and a Grammy Award nomination for Danny Elfman's original score.


At his son's wedding party, Edward Bloom (Albert Finney) tells the same tall tale he's told many times over the years: on the day Will (Billy Crudup) was born, he was out catching an enormous uncatchable fish, using his wedding ring as a lure. Will is annoyed, explaining to his wife Joséphine (Marion Cotillard) that because his father lives in a fantasy world and has never told the straight truth about anything, he felt unable to trust him. He is troubled to think that he might have a similarly difficult relationship with his future children. Will's relationship with his father becomes so strained that they do not talk for three years. But when his father's health starts to fail from cancer, Will and the now pregnant Joséphine return to his hometown in Alabama to visit. On the plane, Will recalls his father's tale of how he braved a swamp as a child after he was dared by a few other children. He meets a witch (Helena Bonham Carter). She shows Don Price and another boy how they were going to die. They run away, frightened. When the witch shows Edward his death in her glass eye, he accepts it without fear. With this knowledge, Edward knew there were no odds he could not face.

Will and Joséphine have a warm welcome at his childhood home from his mother and Edward's wife Sandra (Jessica Lange) who informs them that Edward's cancer is advanced and he is not expected to live very much longer. As Will sits by his dying father's bedside, Edward continues telling tall tales, claiming he spent three years confined to a bed as a child because his body was growing too fast. While in high school, Edward became a successful athlete, but found the town of Ashton too small for his ambition, and set off with the misunderstood giant Karl (Matthew McGrory). The witch with the glass eye is seen bidding him farewell. While traveling, Edward and Karl see two separate roads out of Ashton. Edward suggest they each take one way. He'll take the old dirt road and Karl should take the new paved road. They will meet on the other side. Karl feared that Edward was attempting to abandon him, but Edward gives him his backpack to prove that he isn't.

After walking through a scary swamp, Edward discovers the hidden town of Spectre, where everyone is friendly to the point of comfortably walking around barefoot, nor are there any streets; only lush, grassy lawn. Their shoes can be seen hanging from a wire near the entrance. When he enters the town he is greeted by the Mayor and his wife. The Mayor has a clipboard that says Edward was meant to be in their town but he had arrived early. He also tells him of the poet Norther Winslow (Steve Buscemi) who was also from Ashton. While there Edward has an encounter with a mermaid in the nearby swamp. She swims away before he could see her face. Edward leaves the town after one day because he does not want to settle anywhere yet, but promises to the town mayor's eight-year-old daughter Jenny (Hailey Anne Nelson), who developed a crush on him, that he will return. He believed that he was fated to be there someday.

Edward meets up with Karl. They attend the Calloway Circus where Edward falls in love at first sight with a mysterious woman. Together, Karl and Edward begin working at the circus. Karl meets his destiny by working as the giant man, replacing the old one who is much smaller than him. Edward works without pay, as he has been promised by the ringmaster Amos Calloway (Danny DeVito), who claims to know the mysterious woman, that each month he will learn something new about the mysterious woman. Three years later, having only learned trivia about her, Edward discovers Amos is a werewolf. In return for his refusal to harm him in his monstrous state, Amos tells Edward the girl's name is Sandra Templeton (Alison Lohman) and she studies at Auburn University.

Edward goes to Sandra to confess his love. He learns Sandra is engaged to Don Price (David Denman), whom Edward always overshadowed during his days in Ashton. Sandra refuses Edward's proposal but that does not discourage Edward. He writes "I love Sandra" everywhere he could. Don arrived to challenge Edward to a fight over Sandra. Sandra makes Edward promise not to fight Don. Edward allows Don to beat him up. Sandra, disgusted by Don's violence, ends their engagement and falls for Edward. Edward later reveals that Don died from a heart attack on the toilet bowl at an early age (as Don saw in the Witch's eye).

During his recovery, Edward is conscripted by the army and sent to fight in the Korean War. He parachutes into the middle of a show entertaining North Korean troops, steals important documents, and convinces Siamese twin dancers Ping (Ada Tai) and Jing (Arlene Tai) to help him get back to the United States, where he will make them stars. He is unable to contact anyone on his journey home, and the military declares him dead. This limits Edward's job options when he does return home after four months, so he becomes a traveling salesman. Meeting the poet Norther Winslow from Spectre again, Edward unwittingly helps him rob a bank, which is already bankrupt. Edward explains this to Winslow, who then decides that he will work at Wall Street. After earning a million dollars, Winslow later thanks Edward for his "advice" by sending him $10,000, which he uses to buy his family a dream house.

In the present, still unimpressed by his father's stories, Will demands to know the truth, but Edward explains that he is who he is: a storyteller. While doing his own investigation into his father's stories, Will finds the small town of Spectre, and meets an older Jenny (Helena Bonham Carter), who explains that Edward rescued the town from bankruptcy by buying it at an auction and rebuilding it with financial help from many of his previous acquaintances. Will suggests his father had been having an affair with Jenny, to which she replies that while she had indeed fallen in love with him, for Edward there only two types of woman, Sandra and all the other women, so he could never love any other than Sandra.

When Will returns home, he is informed by his mother that his father had a stroke and is at the hospital. He goes to visit him there and finds him only partly conscious, and unable to speak at length. Since Edward can no longer tell stories, he asks Will to tell him the story of how it all ends. Beat and deciding to play along, Will tells his own tall tale about helping Edward escape from the hospital and they go to the river where everyone in Edward's life appears to bid him goodbye. Will carries his father into the river where he becomes what he always had been: a very big fish. Edward then dies, knowing his son finally understands his love of storytelling.

At Edward's funeral, Will is astonished when all of the characters from Edward's stories appear to pay their condolences to his father; Amos, Karl, Norther Winslow, Jenny, Ping and Jing all arrive, though each one is a slightly less fantastical version of themselves than in Edward's stories—the sisters, for example, are not conjoined but are merely identical twins. Will finally realizes the truth of his father's life for which his stories were embellishments. When his own son is born, Will passes on his father's tall tale stories, remarking that his father became his stories, allowing him to live forever.


  • Albert Finney as the old Edward Bloom
  • Ewan McGregor as young Edward Bloom
  • Jessica Lange as Sandra K. Bloom, Edward's dream girl and wife
  • Alison Lohman as the young Sandra, née Templeton
  • Billy Crudup as William "Will" Bloom
  • Marion Cotillard as Joséphine Bloom
  • Helena Bonham Carter as Jennifer Hill (Jenny). Bonham Carter also plays an elderly witch who gives a young Bloom a vision of his future death in her evil eye
  • Hailey Anne Nelson as Jenny as an eight-year-old when Edward first meets her
  • Robert Guillaume as Dr. Bennett, the family doctor
  • Matthew McGrory as Karl, the misunderstood Giant
  • Danny DeVito as Amos Calloway, a circus ringmaster and werewolf
  • Steve Buscemi as Norther Winslow, a poet from Ashton who supposedly went missing, having never left the idyllic town of Spectre
  • Ada Tai and Arlene Tai as Ping and Jing, conjoined twins who perform as singers for soldiers in Korea
  • Bevin Kaye as River Woman (Fish)
  • David Denman as Don Price, a boy from Ashton who was always overshadowed by Edward's achievements and former lover of Sandra Templeton
    • John Lowell as Don as a child
  • Loudon Wainwright III as Beamen, the mayor of Spectre, and Jenny's father
  • Missi Pyle as Mildred, Beamen's wife
  • Miley Cyrus as 8-year-old Ruthie (Credited as Destiny Cyrus)
  • Daniel Wallace as Economics teacher
  • Deep Roy as Mr. Soggybottom, the circus clown and Amos' Attorney
  • George McArthur as Colossus, former giant in circus, replaced by Karl


"Big Fish is about what's real and what's fantastic, what's true and what's not true, what's partially true and how, in the end, it's all true."

Tim Burton[3]

The reconciliation of the father-son relationship between Edward and William is the key theme in Big Fish.[4][5] Novelist Daniel Wallace's interest in the theme of the father-son relationship began with his own family. Wallace found the "charming" character of Edward Bloom similar to his father, who used charm to keep his distance from other people.[6] In the film, Will believes Edward has never been honest with him because Edward creates extravagant myths about his past to hide himself, using storytelling as an avoidance mechanism.[7] Edward's stories are filled with fairy tale characters (a witch, mermaid, giant, and werewolf) and places (the circus, small towns, the mythological city of Spectre), all of which are classic images and archetypes.[8][9] The quest motif propels both Edward's story and Will's attempt to get to the bottom of it. Wallace explains: "The father's quest is to be a big fish in a big pond, and the son's quest is to see through his tall tales."[6]

Screenwriter John August identified with Will's character and adapted it after himself. In college, August's father died, and like Will, August had attempted to get to know him before his death, but found it difficult. Like Will, August had studied journalism and was 28 years old. In the film, Will says of Edward, "I didn't see anything of myself in my father, and I don't think he saw anything of himself in me. We were like strangers who knew each other very well."[10] Will's description of his relationship with Edward closely resembled August's own relationship with his father.[10] Director Tim Burton also used the film to confront his thoughts and emotions concerning the death of his father in 2000:[5] "My father had been ill for a while... I tried to get in touch with him, to have, like in this film, some sort of resolution, but it was impossible."[8]

Religion and film scholar Kent L. Brintnall observes how the father-son relationship resolves itself at the end of the film. As Edward dies, Will finally lets go of his anger and begins to understand his father for the first time:

In a final gesture of love and comprehension, after a lifetime of despising his father's stories and his father as story-teller, Will finishes the story his father has begun, pulling together the themes, images and characters of his father's storied life to blend reality and fantasy in act of communion and care. By unselfishly releasing the anger he has held about his father's stories, Will gains the understanding that all we are are our stories and that his father's stories gave him a reality and substance and a dimension that was as real, genuine, and deep as the day-to-day experiences that Will sought out. Will comes to understand, then, that his father—and the rest of us—are our stories and that the deeper reality of our lives may, in fact, not be our truest self.[11]



About six months before it was published, screenwriter John August read a manuscript of Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions (1998) by author Daniel Wallace.[12] August read the unpublished novel following the death of his father. In September 1998,[13] August convinced Columbia Pictures to acquire the film rights on his behalf.[14] August worked hard to make the episodic book into a cohesive screenplay, deciding on several narrators for the script.[8] In August 2000, producers Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks began discussions for Steven Spielberg to direct. Spielberg planned to have DreamWorks co-finance and distribute Big Fish with Columbia, and planned to have filming start in late-2001,[15] after completing Minority Report (2002).[16]

Spielberg courted Jack Nicholson for the role of Edward Bloom, Sr. and towards this end, had August compose two additional drafts for Nicholson's part. August recalls: "There was this thought that there wasn't enough for Jack Nicholson to do in the movie so we built new sequences. Pieces got moved around, but it wasn't a lot of new stuff being created. It ended up being a really good intellectual exercise in my explaining and defending and reanalyzing pieces of the story."[14] Spielberg eventually left Big Fish when he became distracted with Catch Me If You Can (2002),[17] and DreamWorks also backed out of the film.[15]

With Spielberg no closer to committing, August, working with Jinks and Cohen,[14] considered Stephen Daldry as a potential director.[18] "Once Steven decided he wasn't going to do it, we put the script back to the way it was," recalls Jinks. "Steven even said, 'I think I made a mistake with a couple of things I asked you guys to try.'" August took his favorite elements from the previous drafts, coming up with what he called "a best-of Big Fish script. "By the time we approached Tim Burton, the script was in the best shape it had ever been."[14]

"My father had recently died and, although I wasn't really close to him, it was a heavy time, and it made me start thinking and going back to the past. It was something that was very difficult for me to discuss, but then this script came along and it actually dealt with those same issues, and so it was an amazing catharsis to do this film—because you're able to work through those feelings without having to talk to a therapist about it."

Tim Burton[8]

Burton had never been particularly close to his parents, but his father's death in October 2000 and his mother's in March 2002 affected him deeply. Following the production of Planet of the Apes (2001), the director wanted to get back to making a smaller film. Burton enjoyed the script, feeling that it was the first unique story he was offered since Beetlejuice (1988). Burton also found appeal in the story's combination of an emotional drama with exaggerated tall tales, which allowed him to tell various stories of different genres.[8] He signed to direct in April 2002,[19] which prompted Richard D. Zanuck, who worked with Burton on Planet of the Apes, to join Big Fish as a producer. Zanuck also had a difficult relationship with his own father, Darryl F. Zanuck, who once fired him as head of production at 20th Century Fox.[14]


For the character of Edward Bloom, Burton spoke with Jack Nicholson, Spielberg's initial choice for the role. Burton had previously worked with Nicholson on Batman (1989) and Mars Attacks! (1996). In order to depict Nicholson as the young Bloom, Burton intended to use a combination of computer-generated imagery and prosthetic makeup. The director then decided to cast around for the two actors in question.[8] Jinks and Cohen, who were then working with Ewan McGregor on Down with Love (2003), suggested that Burton cast both McGregor and Albert Finney for Edward. Burton later compared McGregor's acting style to regular colleague Johnny Depp.[8] Viewing Finney's performance in Tom Jones (1963), Burton found him similar to McGregor, and coincidentally found a People magazine article comparing the two.[14] McGregor, being Scottish, found it easier performing with a Southern American English accent. "It's a much easier accent to do than a standard American accent because you can really hear it. You can get your teeth into it. Standard American is much harder because it's more lyrical."[20] The same dual casting applied to the role of Bloom's wife, Sandra, who would be played by Jessica Lange and Alison Lohman.[8] Burton commented that he was impressed with Lohman's performance in White Oleander (2002).[21] Burton's girlfriend, Helena Bonham Carter, was also cast in two roles. Her prosthetic makeup for The Witch took five hours to apply. "I was pregnant throughout filming, so it was weird being a pregnant witch," the actress reflected. "I had morning sickness, so all those fumes and the make-up and the was hideous."[22]

Burton personalized the film with several cameos. While filming in Alabama, the crew tracked down Billy Redden, one of the original banjo-players from Deliverance (1972). Redden was working as a part-owner of a restaurant in Clayton, Georgia, and he agreed to reprise his role in the Spectre vignette. As Edward Bloom first enters the town, Redden can be seen on a porch plucking a few notes from "Dueling Banjos". Burton was pleased with the result: "If you're watching the film and don't recognise the solitary, enigmatic figure on the porch, that's fine. But if you do – well, it just makes me so happy to see him and I think other people will feel the same way."[23] Original Big Fish author Daniel Wallace makes a brief appearance as Sandra's economics teacher in the "Courtship of Sandra Templeton" scene.[24]


Burton focused on the story and limited the use of digital effects. Costume designer Colleen Atwood created special dresses for identical twins Ada and Arlene Tai, who played the role of Ping and Jing. One set of dresses created the effect of fused twins on camera, while another set enhanced the added CGI of conjoined twins.[25][26]

Burton planned to have filming start in October 2002, but principal photography in Alabama did not begin until January 13, 2003.[15] Apart from filming in Paris for one week in May, Big Fish was entirely shot in Alabama,[8] mostly in Wetumpka.[27] and Montgomery (such as the Cloverdale neighborhood)[17] Brief filming also took place in Tallassee and on the campus of Huntingdon College.[28] Scenes for the town of Spectre were filmed on a custom set located on an island in Lake Jackson between Montgomery and Millbrook, Alabama, adjacent to the Alabama River.[29][30][31] Principal photography for Big Fish in Alabama lasted from until the first week of April.[32][33] and is estimated to have generated as much as $25 million for the local economy.[27]

Burton filmed all the dramatic hospital scenes and most of those involving Finney first, before moving on to the McGregor section of Bloom's life.[14] Although McGregor was on set from the very beginning of filming, Burton chose to shoot all Finney's scenes first.[8] Location filming in Alabama experienced a setback due to weather problems. During the production of the Calloway circus scenes, a tornado watch was issued and flooding on the set interrupted filming for several weeks.[34][35] Despite the delays due to weather, Burton was able to deliver the film on budget and on schedule.[14]

The director attempted to use as limited an amount of digital effects as possible. However, because he wanted to evoke a Southern Gothic fantasy tone for Big Fish, color grading techniques were applied by Sony Pictures Imageworks.[8] Stan Winston Studios, with whom Burton worked with on Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Batman Returns (1992), designed Helena Bonham Carter's prosthetic makeup and created the animatronics.[36] Scenes with Karl the Giant were commissioned using forced perspective filmmaking.[26]


Main article: Big Fish (soundtrack)

The soundtrack was composed by regular Burton collaborator Danny Elfman.[8] Burton approached Pearl Jam during post-production to request an original song for the soundtrack and closing credits. After screening an early print of the film, Pearl Jam vocalist Eddie Vedder went home and wrote "Man of the Hour", completing the demo by the next day. It was recorded by the band four days later.[37] Guitarist Mike McCready stated, "We were so blown away by the movie...Eddie and I were standing around talking about it afterwards and were teary-eyed. We were so emotionally charged and moved by the imagination and humanity that we felt because of the movie."[37]


Columbia Pictures planned to wide release Big Fish in the United States on November 26, 2003[38] before pushing it back to December 10 for a limited release.[39] The film premiered on December 4, 2003 at the Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan.[40] The domestic wide release in the U.S. came on January 9, 2004, with the film appearing in 2,406 theaters and earning $13.81 million in its opening weekend. The film eventually grossed $66.81 million in U.S. totals and $56.11 million in foreign countries, with a total of $122.92 million worldwide.[41]

Critical response[edit]

Big Fish received positive reviews from film critics. Based on 212 reviews collected by Rotten Tomatoes, 77% of the critics positively reviewed Big Fish, for an average score of 7.2/10.[42] By comparison, Metacritic calculated an average score of 58/100, based on 43 reviews.[43]

Observations modeled the film after Forrest Gump (1994).[44][45][46] "Big Fish turns into a wide-eyed Southern Gothic picaresque in which each lunatic twist of a development is more enchanting than the last," Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly wrote. "It's like Forrest Gump without the bogus theme-park politics."[46] Peter Travers from Rolling Stone magazine praised Burton's direction, feeling it was a celebration of the art of storytelling and a touching father–son drama.[44]

Mike Clark of USA Today commented that he was most fascinated by the casting choices. "Equally delightful is the Alison Lohman character's evolution into an older woman (Jessica Lange). It's a metamorphosis to equal any in screen history."[45] Internet reviewer James Berardinelli found the fairy tale approach reminiscent of The Princess Bride (1987) and the films of Terry Gilliam. "Big Fish is a clever, smart fantasy that targets the child inside every adult," Berardinelli said, "without insulting the intelligence of either."[47] Roger Ebert, unmoved in a negative review, wrote "there is no denying that Will has a point: The old man is a blowhard. There is a point at which his stories stop working as entertainment and segue into sadism."[48] Richard Corliss of Time magazine was disappointed, finding the father-son reconciliation storyline to be over-dramatically cliché. "You recall The Boy Who Cried Wolf? Edward Bloom is the man who cried fish."[49] Big Fish was placed at 85 on Slant Magazine's best films of the 2000s.[50]

Home media[edit]

The Region 1 DVD was released on April 27, 2004,[51] and Region 2 was released on June 7.[52] The DVD features a Burton audio commentary track, seven featurettes and a trivia quiz. A special edition was released on November 1, 2005, with a 24-page hardback book entitled Fairy Tale for a Grown Up.[53] The film was released on Blu-ray Disc on March 20, 2007.[54]


Big Fish received the most nominations at the 61st Golden Globe Awards without a single win, including Best Motion Picture (Musical or Comedy), Best Supporting Actor (Finney), Best Original Score and Best Original Song (Pearl Jam's "Man of the Hour").[55]

At the 57th British Academy Film Awards, the film received seven nominations from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, including Best Film, Best Direction (Tim Burton), Best Adapted Screenplay (John August), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Albert Finney), Best Production Design (Dennis Gassner), Best Visual Effects (Kevin Scott Mack, Seth Maury, Lindsay MacGowan, Paddy Eason) as well as Best Makeup and Hair (Jean Ann Black and Paul LeBlanc).[56]

Finney received another nomination for Best Actor at the 30th Saturn Awards, where the film was also nominated for Best Fantasy Film.[57]

At the 76th Academy Awards, Danny Elfman was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Score.[58] In 2005, Elfman received a nomination at the 47th Grammy Awards for the Best Score Soundtrack Album for a Motion Picture.[59]


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