Most directors wouldn’t follow up a best picture Oscar victory with a children’s movie produced by and distributed on a new streaming service. But that’s exactly what Tom McCarthy did after “Spotlight,” his powerful 2015 drama about sex abuse in the Catholic Church, became an awards season darling. His latest feature, “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made,” will be one of the first films to debut on Disney Plus when it drops on Feb. 7.
“I’ve never been too concerned with making career moves,” says McCarthy. “I’m more concerned with telling stories and finding projects that I find compelling. In the long run, that’s taken me to interesting places.”
“Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” will also be the first Disney-branded movie to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. The studio, best known for making sprawling global blockbusters, usually steers clear of the indie gathering. However, McCarthy and his producers began to feel that a Park City unveiling could be just the ticket after they started screening the movie for test audiences.
“Many of the people had never seen an indie movie before,” says McCarthy. “When we asked them what it reminded them of, they didn’t really have a frame of reference. It made me think that we needed to do some work to find our audience.”
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McCarthy first got intrigued by the project after a colleague leant him a book, “Timmy Failure,” by Stephan Pastis that was geared toward middle school students. It follows the adventures of a preteen detective whose partner is an imaginary 1,500-pound polar bear. The story may have been pitched at preteens, but it was also fresh, original and subversive.
“I’m always looking for something in a protagonist that sets him apart,” says McCarthy. “There was something about the blind spot that this kid had in terms of his sense of self. He has such an outsized vision for who he is, and it’s unmovable in a way that is funny and appealing. He never stops believing for a minute in his own greatness. There’s a sweetness there.”
Finding the right Timmy was no easy task. McCarthy and his producers auditioned thousands of kids, and the director began to grow worried that he had started preproduction without the right actor in place, something that would have ultimately doomed the project. McCarthy says it was fortunate that he found Winslow Fegley, the brother of “The Goldfinch” star Oakes Fegley. The actor was quickly able to identify with Timmy.
“Winslow has his own rhythm in life,” says McCarthy. “He has this facility with language that’s very adult in some ways. He worked hard, and we worked with him hard. And even though it’s early in his career, he was ready to carry a movie.”
McCarthy, best known for intimately observed slice-of-life dramas such as “Win Win” and “The Station Agent,” took a similar approach to “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made.” Timmy may ride around town with a polar bear in tow, but the director wanted to ground his adventures in realism. Timmy’s single mom, Patty, is struggling to stay afloat financially. A hipster at heart, she often acts more like a friend than a parent as she strives to find the right balance between supporting her unusual son and instilling discipline when he gets in trouble at school. It’s not the kind of relationship that’s usually seen in a Disney film.
“Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” will be the first of McCarthy’s movies not to debut in theaters. However, he seems fine with the idea of audiences enjoying his latest work in the comfort of their living room.
“I just feel fortunate that I got to make the movie I wanted to make with the resources I needed to make it,” he says. “That’s my primary interest. You can’t ignore that Disney Plus feels like the first wave of something new, and it’s exciting to be part of that.”
McCarthy will continue his shape-shifting ways with his next project, “Stillwater,” a crime drama that stars Matt Damon and Abigail Breslin.
“A big part of what I like to do is to have some variety,” says McCarthy. “You need to mix it up and not go back to the same well again and again.”