The New York Times published a thorough article about and interview with filmmaker Tim Burton. Here it is in its entirety:
September 19, 2012
Tim Burton, at Home in His Own Head
By DAVE ITZKOFF
IT would be a tremendous disappointment if Tim Burton’s inner sanctum turned out to be a sterile environment, barren except for a telephone on its cold white floor; or a cubicle with a “World’s Greatest Dad” coffee mug. Instead, the workplace of the filmmaker behind invitingly grim delights like “Beetlejuice” and “Edward Scissorhands” is a definitive Burtonesque experience: on a hill here in north London, behind a brick wall and a mournful tree, in a Victorian residence that once belonged to the children’s book illustrator Arthur Rackham, it lies at the top of a winding staircase guarded by the imposing portraits of Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee. Its décor is best characterized as Modern Nonconformist (unless Ultraman toys and models of skeletal warriors are your thing), and when the master of the house greets you, his drinking glass will bear a poster image for “The Curse of Frankenstein.”
That the word Burtonesque has become part of the cultural lexicon hints at the surprising influence Mr. Burton, 54, has accumulated in a directorial career that spans 16 features and nearly 30 years. Across films as disparate as “Ed Wood,” “Alice in Wonderland” and “Big Fish” — released to varying critical and commercial receptions — he has developed a singular if not easily pinned-down sensibility. His style is strongly visual, darkly comic and morbidly fixated, but it is rooted just as much in his affection for monsters and misfits (which in his movies often turn out to be the same thing). He all but invented the vocabulary of the modern superhero movie (with “Batman”), brought new vitality to stop-motion animation (with “Corpse Bride,” directed with Mike Johnson, and “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” which Mr. Burton produced) and has come to be associated, for better or worse, with anything that is ghoulish or ghastly without being inaccessible. He may be the most widely embraced loner in contemporary cinema.
His success has also transported him from sleepy, suburban Southern California, where he grew up and graduated from the California Institute of the Arts, to London, where he lives with his partner, the actress Helena Bonham Carter, and their two young children, and where he has come to embrace the sensation of being perpetually out of place.
“I just feel like a foreigner,” Mr. Burton said in his cheerful, elliptical manner. “Feeling that weird foreign quality just makes you feel more, strangely, at home.”
On a recent morning Mr. Burton, dressed entirely in black, was talking about his new animated feature, “Frankenweenie,” which will be released by Walt Disney on Oct. 5., and which tells the charming story of a young boy (named Victor Frankenstein) who reanimates the corpse of his dead pet dog.
Like its director “Frankenweenie” is simultaneously modern and retrograde: the film, which is being released in 3-D black-and-white, is adapted from a live-action short that Mr. Burton made for Disney in 1984, when he was a struggling animator. That project did not get the wide release Mr. Burton hoped for, but it paved the way for him to direct his first feature, “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” the following year.
As he spoke (and occasionally shaped his feral, curly hair into something resembling satyr horns), Mr. Burton was in a nostalgic mood but also a defiant one. That may have been the result of the tepid reception that greeted “Dark Shadows,” his big-budget remake of the TV soap opera (which Mr. Burton said did not disappoint him), or a reluctance to analyze trends in his career. Whether he was talking about his upbringing in Burbank, his earliest frustration at Disney or the unexpected honor of a career retrospective presented at the Museum of Modern Art and other institutions, Mr. Burton still casts himself as an outsider.
“Wanting people to like you is nice, but I’m confident that there’s always going to be lots that don’t,” Mr. Burton said with gallows humor and genuine pride. “I’ll always be able to hang on to that.” These are excerpts from this conversation.
Q. Not only does “Frankenweenie” hark back to the start of your career, it seems to refer to many of the features you’ve made since the original short. Is that by design?
A. If I really thought about it, that’s something I would probably not do. [Laughs.] I don’t consciously make those points of: I did this, I’m going to put that in there as a reference to myself. Things that I grew up with stay with me. You start a certain way, and then you spend your whole life trying to find a certain simplicity that you had. It’s less about staying in childhood than keeping a certain spirit of seeing things in a different way.
Q. How much of your childhood are we seeing in Victor’s isolation?
A. I felt like an outcast. At the same time I felt quite normal. I think a lot of kids feel alone and slightly isolated and in their own world. I don’t believe the feelings I had were unique. You can sit in a classroom and feel like no one understands you, and you’re Vincent Price in “House of Usher.” I would imagine, if you talk to every single kid, most of them probably felt similarly. But I felt very tortured as a teenager. That’s where “Edward Scissorhands” came from. I was probably clinically depressed and didn’t know it.
Q. Were you encouraged to try sports?
A. My dad was a professional baseball player. He got injured early in his career, so he didn’t fulfill that dream of his. He ended up working for the sports department of the city of Burbank. I did some sports. It was a bit frustrating. I wasn’t the greatest sports person.
Q. That can be deeply disheartening at that age, to learn that you’re bad at something.
A. It’s the same with drawing. If you look at children’s drawings, they’re all great. And then at a certain point, even when they’re about 7 or 8 or 9, they go, “Oh, I can’t draw.” Well, yes, you can. I went through that same thing, even when I started to go to CalArts, and a couple of teachers said: “Don’t worry about it. If you like to draw, just draw.” And that just liberated me. My mother wasn’t an artist, but she made these weird owls out of pine cones, or cat needlepoint things. There’s an outlet for everyone, you know?
Q. Were horror films and B movies easily accessible when you were growing up?
A. They’d show monster movies on regular TV then, which they wouldn’t show now. Some of them were pretty hard core, like “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die,” or something where a guy gets his arm ripped off and is bleeding down the wall. My parents were a bit freaked out. [Laughs.] But better that I’m watching TV than them having to watch me or deal with me.
Q. There are emotions and experiences in “Frankenweenie” that audiences don’t often associate with Disney features.
A. People get worried and they go, “Oh my God, the dog gets hit by a car.” It’s funny how people are afraid of their emotions. I remember the original short was supposed to go out with “Pinocchio,” and they got all freaked out about it, like kids would be running, screaming, from the theater.
Q. Do you find poetic justice in the fact that, after all that, Disney is the studio that’s releasing “Frankenweenie”?
A. I feel like I’ve been through a revolving door over the years, and from my first time there as an animator to “Frankenweenie” to “Nightmare” and “Ed Wood,” it’s always been the same reaction: “Come back,” and then “Hmmm, I don’t know.” After I stopped working on “The Fox and the Hound” and trying to be a Disney animator — which was useless — they gave me the opportunity, for a year or two, to draw whatever I wanted. I felt quite grateful for it. At the same time I felt like Rapunzel, a princess trapped in a tower. I had everything I needed except the light of day. I felt they didn’t really want me, and luckily Warner Brothers and Paul Reubens and the producers of “Pee-wee” saw the movie and gave me a chance.
Q. If “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” and “Beetlejuice” hadn’t been hits, would that have been the end of your filmmaking career?
A. I always felt bad for people whose first movie is a gigantic hit. [Laughs.] They were movies that were under the radar in a certain way. They’re both low-budget in terms of studio movies. Both were moderate hits, and were on some of the “10 worst movies of the year” lists. I learned quite early on: don’t get too excited, don’t get too complacent, don’t get too egotistical.
Q. When you see, 23 years after “Batman,” the extent to which superhero movies have become the backbone of Hollywood, do you feel a sense of pride or ownership?
A. No, not ownership. At the time it felt like the first attempt at a darker version of a comic book. Now it looks like a lighthearted romp. If I recall correctly, it wasn’t the greatest-received critical movie. So I do feel strange for getting such a bad rap on some level, and nobody mentions, oh, maybe it helped start something.
Q. When you worked with Johnny Depp for the first time, on “Edward Scissorhands,” what was it that connected you to him?
A. Here was a guy who was perceived as this thing — this Tiger Beat teen idol. But just meeting him, I could tell, without knowing the guy, he wasn’t that as a person. Very simply, he fit the profile of the character. We were in Florida in 90-degree heat, and he couldn’t use his hands, and he was wearing a leather outfit and covered head to toe with makeup. I was impressed by his strength and stamina. I remember Jack Nicholson showed me this book about mask acting and how it unleashes something else in a person. I’ve always been impressed by anybody that was willing to do that. Because a lot of actors don’t want to cover [theatrical voice] “the instrument.”
Q. Has your relationship with Johnny changed as your careers have evolved?
A. There’s always been a shorthand. He’s always been able to decipher my ramblings. To me he’s more like a Boris Karloff-type actor, a character actor, than a leading man. The only thing that changes — and this is something I try not to pay any attention to — is how the outside world perceives it. [Snidely] “Oh, you’re working with Johnny again?” “Oh, how come you’re not working with him this time?” You can’t win. I give up.
Q. You don’t have a formal repertory company, but there seem to be certain actors you come back to.
A. [Sighs.] I don’t want to respond to criticism I hear. People that go, “Oh, he’s using her again,” or “He’s using him again.” I’ve enjoyed pretty much everybody I’ve worked with. But it’s good to mix it up. If somebody’s right for the part — I’ve worked with them? Fine. Haven’t? Fine.
Q. Having a life with Helena Bonham Carter, do you have to be more careful about how you use her in your films?
A. The great thing about her is that, long before I met her, she had a full career. She’s also willing to do things that aren’t necessarily glamorous or attractive [Laughs], and I admire her for that. We’ve learned how to leave things at home, make it more of a sanctuary. But I probably take a slight, extra moment to think about it. On “Sweeney Todd” it was quite rough. Nobody was a singer, so I looked at lots of people. Everybody had to audition for it; she did as well. That one was a struggle, because I felt like, jeez, there’s a lot of great singers, and it’s going to look like I gave this one to my girlfriend. She really went through an extra process.
Q. In your last couple of movies you’ve burned her to a crisp, you’ve dumped her at the bottom of the ocean ——
A. I know. But she’s getting it on other movies. She’s being burned up alive a lot lately, or she’s getting set on fire quite a lot. Again, I’ve set another trend.
Q. Your “Planet of the Apes” remake introduced you to Helena, but was it otherwise a professional low for you?
A. Yeah. I’ve tried to learn my lesson. It usually happens on bigger-budget movies. You go into it, and there’s something about it I like, the studio wants to do it. But the budget’s not set and the script’s not set. So you’ve got this moving train. You’re working on it, and you’re cutting this because the budget’s too big, and you feel like an accountant. It’s certainly perceived as one of my least successful films. But at the same time I met with and worked with a lot of people that I loved.
Q. Will you ever explain its ending?
A. I had it all worked out. But it’s my own private thing. Someday we’ll go take some LSD and we’ll talk about it.
Q. Your recent films, like “Sweeney Todd,” “Alice in Wonderland” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,”have all in some way been based on existing properties.
A. I’ve heard that, but a lot of things are, in a way. Even “Alice,” there’s a book, there’s lots of different versions. But there was no movie I would look to and go, “Ooh, we’re going to have to top that ‘Alice.’ “
Q. Is it harder to put your personal stamp on something you didn’t create from the ground up?
A. For me, no. It may be perceived that way, but I have to personalize everything, whether or not it comes from me. If I were to cherry-pick things, even “Ed Wood” was based on a book, it’s based on a person. “Sweeney Todd” is one of my more personal movies, because the Sweeney Todd character is a character I completely related to. Even in “Planet of the Apes” there are things I have to relate to, otherwise I just can’t do it. “Frankenweenie” is a bit more pure that way. But you could argue it’s based on a short which is based on lots of other movies.
Q. Is it a danger when you have a style that’s so distinctive it becomes boilerplate and imitated?
A. It does bother me a bit. People thought I made “Coraline.” Henry [Selick, who directed “Coraline” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas”] is a great filmmaker, but when they say something, they should have to say the person’s name. “From the producer of ” — well, there’s eight producers. It’s slightly misleading. Not slightly, it’s very misleading, and that’s not fair to the consumer. Have the courage to go out under your own name. But I don’t have any control over that, and it’s not going to make me change. I can’t change my personality. Sometimes I wish I could, but I can’t.
Q. Do you think that overfamiliarity might have been a problem with “Dark Shadows,” that people saw it was you, and Johnny, and monsters, and they thought, “I’ve seen this before”?
A. Even the fact that it was deemed a failure — financially, it wasn’t really. It may not have set the world on fire, but it made its money back plus some, so I can tick that off as not being a total disaster. There’s some people that I talk to that liked it. “Alice” got critically panned. It made over a billion, I guess, whatever. “Ed Wood” got a lot of critical acclaim, it was a complete bomb. It all has a weird way of balancing itself out.
Q. When you’ve had your own retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, do you feel bulletproof after that?
A. That was surreal. A lot of people thought I manufactured that, which I didn’t. They came to me and I was actually quite freaked out about it. To me, it was all private. It was never meant as, like, great art. It’s like hanging your laundry on the wall. “Oh, look, there’s his dirty socks and underwear.” But with the curators I felt I was in good hands, and they were just presenting it like, this is his process, this is what he does.
Q. Did it come with unforeseen pitfalls?
A. It followed suit with the movies. It got dismissed as “It’s not art.” Which I agree with.
Q. Are there other, more traditional forms of recognition you’d still like to earn?
A. Like public office?
Q. Like an Academy Award?
A. I grew up on movies like “Dr. Phibes,” that were not Academy Award-contending movies. [Laughs.] It’s not something that I’ve got to win. It’s like getting into film — I didn’t say early on, “I’m going to become a filmmaker,” “I’m going to show my work at MoMA.” When you start to think those things, you’re in trouble. Surprises are good. They become rarer and rarer as you go on. But anything like that is special. I’m not Woody Allen yet.
Q. This may seem strange to ask someone with many years of work still ahead, but what would you want your legacy to be?
A. What do I want on my gravestone?
Q. It sounds like something you’ve thought about.
A. I do. I think it’s wise to plan ahead. Start early — plan your funeral now. It’s not a morbid thought. If you want something to happen in a certain way, especially the last thing, you might as well.
The thing that I care about most — that you did something that really had an impact on them. People come up on the street, and they have a “Nightmare” tattoo, or little girls saying they love “Sweeney Todd,” and you’re like, “How were you able to see it?” Or you see people, especially around Halloween, dressed up in costume, as Corpse Bride or the Mad Hatter or Sally. It’s not critics, it’s not box office. Things that you know are connecting with real people.
Q. Is there something unrepentantly crowd-pleasing that you’ll admit to enjoying?
A. I’m always bad at this. Name something.
Q. Well, now that “Downton Abbey” is back on in Britain, will you watch it?
A. No. Helena, that’s more her kind of thing. That one I don’t quite get. To me that’s like getting a morphine injection on a Sunday night. And that can have its positives. But not my cup of tea. There’s shows like “MasterChef,” which I cry at. I don’t know why. I find it quite emotional when they cook something, and it doesn’t work out. Movies, I can’t quite think of, but especially if I’m on an airplane — I don’t know why, maybe because you constantly think you’re going to die — I find every movie, I cry if I watch it on a plane.
Q. I had that reaction to “Love Actually.”
A. [Draws a breath.] Ooh, no, no. I saw that with Helena, and I’ll never forget the ad campaign on that one. It was like, “If you don’t love this movie, there’s something wrong with you.” And we saw it, and we got into a fight and argued all the way home. It was the same with “Mamma Mia!” For a feel-good movie, I’ve never been so depressed.
Q. Your kids are old enough to see movies. Do you try to influence their tastes?
A. I don’t overly push it. I was quite proud when my daughter’s favorite movie was “War of the Gargantuas.” But now that she’s older, she’s gone off from that a bit. I don’t push my things on them. If they’re into it, they’re into it. They’ll find it, or not. You’ve got to let them find their way.
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