What do Ewan McGregor, Miley Cyrus, Steve Buscemi and Danny DeVito all have in common? Physically, not much. However, if you were to peer into the world of Tim Burton and John August’s adaptation of “Big Fish,” you will find them all playing their own part, as each holds a role in this beautifully crafted film.
In 1998, an author by the name of Daniel Wallace had just completed his novel, “Big Fish.” Screenwriter John August was given an opportunity to read the entire story six months prior to its initial release, and almost immediately began shaping a screenplay adapted to the novel. August knew instantly that this was the perfect story to craft into a film. While he worked towards its completion, producers attempted to negotiate with Stephen Spielberg to direct the film. Spielberg dropped the project in 2002 to focus his work on “Catch Me If You Can,” leaving Tim Burton and Richard D. Zanuck to take over.
Filming for “Big Fish” began, as John August tasked Tim Burton with the job of directing almost everything – pulling it all together to make that vision become reality. If you’re familiar with any of Burton’s other works, you know that this could only end in something greatly unique. In the story of Big Fish, Edward Bloom (played by Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney) sets out from his hometown of Ashton, Alabama in search of bigger, better things – more excitement in his life. During his travels he’s met with a fork in the road, with the left side leading straight out of town, and the right winding a dangerous, rarely traveled path. In the story, it was said that the poet, Norther Winslow (played by Steve Buscemi) was the last to take this road. Nobody had ever heard from Norther again, nor were quite sure what happened to him. Finally deciding to take the road less traveled, Edward would soon find himself staring down a visually haunting path, which became increasingly more physically difficult the deeper he wandered. After numerous dangerous encounters throughout the forest, Edward finds himself facing the entrance of a quaint and beautiful town – Spectre; “the best kept secret in Alabama”. His first visit, he was too early – his second, too late.
Spectre is quite a unique town brought to reality strongly through the imagination of Dennis Gassner. Dennis is an American production designer, known for his work in “Bugsy,” “Road to Perdition, and of course “Big Fish.” While many films will collect their footage from locations anywhere but what was actually written into the story, it was jointly agreed upon that “Big Fish” be shot exactly where the story takes place – Alabama. You see, this town was never truly inhabited by a single soul – it was built on an island, specifically for the purpose of filming. The “town” lived a life of no more than a couple short years, providing a unique space for actors and actresses to dance wildly through the night, or for Steve Buscemi to eat pie. While it may appear to be an incredibly bizarre “lost” or “hidden” town, that’s not entirely the case.
^^^This is where Steve Buscemi ate pie^^^
Once the first half of filming came to completion Spectre was intentionally altered to appear abandoned, as if it had sat for decades falling into a gloomy state of decay and disrepair – this was done for the second portion of filming when Edward returns to find Spectre in shambles. The project was eventually finished, leaving all buildings behind; a fading memory. Right from its initial abandonment in 2003, having been manually altered, it already appeared as though time stopped years ago, and that everyone had simply left. The years to follow would only come to welcome further natural destruction.
Spectre resides on a small island, which stretches over Jackson Lake within the city of Millbrook, Alabama. Twelve years later, the town still remains empty, standing in silence atop this land. The passing of time has pushed these structures into further dilapidation, and any future plans for the set remain unknown at this point.
I stood centered between the two odd trees, which frame the town into a dark and ominous, very picturesque scene. Their branches reach from one to the other, overlapping and nearly touching almost as if they’re trying to grasp the hand of one another. Shoes still dangled from a line hanging above the town’s entrance, while the lonely, empty road stretched between buildings. Traipsing back and forth around the base of these trees, I searched for the perfect photo, stepping through, on and all around them. I bounced from one side to the other for at least ten minutes before finally noticing that the trees themselves were actually made of Styrofoam – designed by Tim Burton himself.
Even though Spectre was never a “real” place – though it never actually inhabited life, we are still affected by the very real vision and somber feeling that it did – especially after seeing it portrayed as so. I’m often asked why I find such deep interest in places like this, and always struggle to describe it in just one way – see, there lists worth of reasons constantly flow through my thoughts. Every location is different. Every single space is unique in its own way. I believe that many other locations would not be able to compare to the town of Spectre, specifically for its unique story – it’s a tale that came to life exclusively here. I’m not quite sure if I was too late or too early, but I’m glad I was able to experience it before it becomes lost forever. It’s astounding, witnessing a scene from a fantasy that truly exists.
While some people know of its existence, many remain unaware that this beautifully odd place was ever even part of our real world. This strange collection of structures remains tucked behind Styrofoam trees and a gated road, just waiting for those interested enough to find it. Sometimes to discover something new and beautiful, you must choose the path less traveled.