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<I>Big Fish</I> Author Hooked by Hollywood

23 Apr, 2004 By: Angelique Flores

Daniel Wallace surfaced in Hollywood when his 1999 novel Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions found a new life on the big screen last year.

“It's probably as a famous as I'll ever get,” he quipped.

The DVD streets April 27 with extras that include director Tim Burton's commentary, a Burton trivia quiz and an interview with Wallace.

Featuring an all-star cast and one of his favorite directors, the film turned his life upside-down. All this came as a surprise to Wallace whose publisher had told him his novel — lacking a central linear plot, but riddled with colorful fables — would never be turned into a film.

And it almost never even became a book.

Three years before Big Fish was written, Wallace had conceived the title, taking it from a saying his dad used.

“He always said he didn't want to be a big fish in a little pond,” Wallace said of his dad who left his small town in Alabama for a big city.

So while the title sat waiting for a story, he wrote two other books that went unpublished. Deciding to give novel-writing one last shot, he embraced two themes he loved: mythologies and stories with a father figure.

“That was where I did my best,” he said.

So, combining a father with fables, he wrote Big Fish, a story depicting a man (Billy Crudup) trying to sieve out the fiction from the facts of his dying father's tall tales. The author's own dad served as the inspiration for the father (Albert Finney/Ewan McGregor) in Big Fish.

“Everybody loved him. My father was extremely charismatic,” Wallace said. “I wasn't as grumpy about it as the [son] in the movie … but there was the issue of seeing through the charm and getting to the real person underneath.”

Big Fish — which was going to be Wallace's last attempt at writing — ended up being his first published book. The novel also caught the eye of screenwriter John August, who wrote Go, the “Charlie's Angels” films and Titan A.E. August loved the book so much, he sought to adapt it as a film.

From there, everything fell into place, with Burton at the helm of the project. Though August mixed and matched, and added and enhanced elements of the book, Wallace was still thrilled with the film's outcome.

Some of the changes from paper to celluloid included the development of the character Norther Winslow (Steve Buscemi) and the relationship between the father and mother (Jessica Lange). Both had bigger parts in the movie than in the book, and the circus subplot of the movie wasn't in the book at all.

“Everything [August] did was inspired by elements in the book,” Wallace said. “At the end of the book, you still have the same sort of feeling. It's moving in both counts.”Wallace also credits Burton for preserving both the touching story between the father and son, and charming myths of the novel.

“I knew he would be fond of the wild, magical elements of it. He was perfect for the project because the material could've been a sentimental story,” Wallace said.

The writer also has a cameo in the film as a professor — not much of a stretch for the author who teaches economics in Chapel Hill, N.C. The part wasn't written with any lines, but Wallace ad-libbed, and the filmmakers liked it so much, the lines made the cut.

“I knew I never would have an opportunity of being in a movie and would not have another opportunity to be under the direction of Burton. I talked to people about having a cameo,” he admitted.

Though he doesn't think he'll act again, Wallace has caught the film bug and is trying his hand at screenwriting. He just finished writing his latest book, Oh Great Rosenfeld! to add to his other books Ray in Reverse (2000) and Watermelon King (2003) as well as many short stories published in numerous magazines.

What pleases Wallace most isn't getting recognized when making restaurant reservations or getting some screen time; it's that people are buying his book.

“People are telling me how it touched them,” he said. “It's really, really gratifying.”

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