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'Spotlight' director takes kids seriously in 'Timmy Failure'

Winslow Fegley plays the title character in Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made. Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI
Winslow Fegley plays the title character in "Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made." Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo

Feb. 7 (UPI) -- Oscar-winning director Tom McCarthy directed the new Disney+ film Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made. It is his first film since winning the Academy Award for the 2015 film Spotlight, which told the story of the Boston Globe's reporting of the Catholic church molestation scandal.

"It certainly was an enjoyable sort of pivot in a way," McCarthy told UPI in a phone interview. "Maybe it was even unconscious on some level, but really it was just a matter of timing."

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McCarthy directed another adult-centered film after Timmy Failure but jumped on the opportunity when the lighter fare was ready to go first. He had directed child actors as supporting characters in Win Win and The Cobbler, but Timmy features fifth-graders in the lead role and main cast.

"This one was a little more intense, in terms of where these kids were at in their experience," McCarthy said. "Once we kind of got everybody locked in, the machine ran pretty smoothly and they really responded to direction. Once I think I adjusted to the idea that it was 90 percent directing and maybe 10 percent panicking, it just felt like work."

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Winslow Fegley plays Timmy Failure, who wants to get a real office for his investigation agency, but he's only in fifth grade. He still has to go to school and deal with classmates and teachers, but he is on the case of potential Russian invaders in Portland, Ore.

"The movie is from Timmy's perspective and how he sees the world," McCarthy said. "I think it's for an audience to judge how sincere he is at moments. He's obviously a kid with a really active imagination and uses that imagination as a way of coping and dealing with the world."

Timmy imagines himself in a Broadway musical or serving hard time in prison as detention. The film takes Timmy's vision of the world as seriously as the character does.

"The stakes are super-high and it can pivot quickly," McCarthy said. "Just about everyone who worked on the movie had kids so it was a constant conversation of how they react and interact."

Timmy would rather follow leads than go to gym class. McCarthy suggested Timmy's sleuth work and his fantasies are a way of deflecting his real-life problems.

"I think also it's Timmy's way of coping and making sense of the world," McCarthy said. "Obviously, he's got a blind spot about who he is."

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Timmy has a single mother (Ophelia Lovibond), who is dating again, and he's at a new middle school. McCarthy suggested he retreats into his investigations because they're safer to him.

"It's a scary time in life, and I think his mother and him have been struggling a bit in terms of getting along," McCarthy said. "There's some tension at home, and he's changing schools, too. His friends are growing up a little faster than him, and it's a lot of those things at that age where it's as big stakes as you can get."

Author Stephan Pastis, who wrote seven Timmy Failure novels, co-wrote the screenplay with McCarthy. McCarthy said Pastis supported changes he wanted to make to the source material.

"Stephan's very good about not being precious [with his material]," McCarthy said. "The only thing he's precious about was protecting Timmy and the authenticity and the views of that character, and I was down with that."

Bringing Pastis' title character to life required a six- to nine-month casting search, McCarthy said. Timmy Failure is 10-year-old Fegley's first movie role.

"We looked at every kind of kid," McCarthy said. "We looked at every race, shape and size. Winslow was it -- no question about it."

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McCarthy cast some established actors in the adult roles. Wallace Shawn plays a teacher, Craig Robinson a school counselor and Kyle Bornheimer the new love interest to Timmy's mother. McCarthy discovered some Portland local actors on location.

Comedian Caitlin Weierhauser plays Flo, the librarian who refuses to help Timmy find information on Russians.

"For whatever reason, the kids love her in the audience," McCarthy said. "They love the friction and tension she has."

The one co-star McCarthy could not cast is Total, Timmy's pet polar bear. Every scene with Total is a visual effect.

"I found out that real polar bears had a habit of eating children and it was impressed upon us that that was not Disney-acceptable," McCarthy joked. "So we had to make do without."

If the first Timmy Failure movie is a success on Disney+, McCarthy hopes to make movies out of the subsequent books. He'd have to film them quickly before Fegley outgrows the part.

"I'd love that," McCarthy said. "We've got to make it happen."

Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made premieres Friday on Disney+.

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