Trevor Hogg profiles the career of filmmaker Tim Burton in the first of a four part feature…
Growing up in Burbank, California, Tim Burton found himself living in a suffocating environment. “There’s something about suburbia,” stated the American filmmaker of his childhood home, “it’s really a place to hide. Or people use it as a mask of normalcy.” Set designer Bo Welch (The Birdcage) observed, “Probably his out-of-place-ness comes from growing up there. It’s in the middle of the movie business, but it’s so mundane that it forces your imagination to work overtime.” This was definitely the case for the young Burton. “I once got some kids to help me set up a bunch of debris and weird footprints in a park,” recollected the prankster, “and we convinced these other kids that an alien ship had crashed in Burbank. I would stage fake fights in the neighbourhood so it looked like somebody was killing somebody, and I once convinced a kid that a killer had fallen into a neighbour’s pool after they’d just cleaned it and doused it with acid and chlorine. I threw some clothes in there and told this kid the guy had dissolved.”
“Embracing death and the catharsis of, ‘Oh, my God, I’m going to die!’, The Fall of the House of Usher (1960), The Raven (1963), Edgar Allan Poe and Vincent Price helped me to live,” reflected Tim Burton who made a directorial debut (which some believe to be a practical joke on his part) at the age of thirteen with a remake of The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells. Shot on a Super 8 camera and using locations such as the Los Angeles Zoo animal cages and the beaches of Malibu, The Island of Doctor Agor (1971) features Tim Burton as the title character while the rest of cast consists of his friends and classmates.
Floundering in high school, the eighteen year old received a scholarship to attend the California Institute of the Arts. Finding himself in a setting where he could flourish creatively, Burton produced a pencil-test animation entitled Stalk of the Celery (1979). Hired by Disney, his first assignment was The Fox and the Hound (1981); however, the rookie animator was soon reassigned to work in design capacity on The Black Cauldron (1985). The move did not surprise the moviemaker as he admitted, “My foxes looked like roadkill.”
1982 was a busy and frustrating year for the aspiring filmmaker who was involved in the creation of three separate projects. Luau, a low-budget independent film Tim Burton co-produced, co-directed, and co-wrote with Jerry Rees (Back to Neverland) was never released; and his martial arts version of Hansel and Gretel, which made use of an all Asian cast, was aired only once on the Disney Channel.
Soldiering on with the $60,000 production money given to him by Disney, Tim Burton wrote, designed, and directed the six minute black and white stop-motion animation film Vincent. Seven year old Vincent Mallory pretends to be actor Vincent Price while living in an imaginary world influenced by the horror stories of Edgar Allan Poe.
The short film is based on a poem by Tim Burton which is appropriately narrated by Vincent Price. Asked what would have happened if the legendary performer had turned down his request, the director replied, “I remember going through those feelings at the time, thinking, ‘God, will he like this?’ It’s hard to say what would have happened, but I know how I felt about the thing: it was one hundred percent pure. It could have been one of those things that you see: [imitating a jaded star] ‘Hey, kid, get away from me! Get out of here!’ Everything is based on your first impulse, and I didn’t do the thing for his approval. Vincent is probably the one thing that I can watch and not have to turn away.”
Despite receiving a Chicago Film Festival Award and the Critic’s Prize at the Annecy Film Festival in France, Vincent was pulled after a two-week Los Angeles theatrical run with Disney’s teen drama, Tex.
Expanding to a half hour format, Tim Burton delved into the realm of black and white live-action to produce Frankenweenie (1984). A boy named Victor Frankenstein (Barret Oliver) attempts to bring his dead dog Sparky back to life.
Intended to be paired with the re-release of Pinocchio (1940), the negative feedback for the short film plus a PG rating caused Disney to abort the idea. “I remember a test screening for Frankenweenie where kids started crying,” said Burton. “Parents forget that for some kids, being scared isn’t a bad thing. It’s actually helpful in life.” The film-rating board begged to differ with the moviemaker. “They claimed the film was too violent. The only violence in that is when the dog gets run over by a car, and that is done off-camera.” The director went on to say, “Vincent and Frankenweenie going unreleased has been a constant source of frustration to me. Disney owns both films. I can’t even get a copy of them.”
Looking back on his time at Disney, Tim Burton declared, “They were trying to train new animators. All the old guys had retired, so what was left in charge were these second-stringers. They were older; they were bitter that they weren’t the ones in the limelight. So a lot of things besides creativity leaked in. What drove me nuts is, here you are Disney – ‘Best animation in the world,’ they say.’ A dream come true.’ And on the other hand, they say, ‘Remove part of your brain and become a zombie factory worker.’ The split that it created drove people nuts. So you either succumb to it or you leave.”
Not all was lost for Burton after he left the animation studio. Shelly Duvall (The Shining), who had portrayed Victor’s mother in Frankenweenie, was impressed enough with the rookie helmer to sign him to direct an episode of her Showtime series. “Aladdin’s Lamp  I guess was my first “directing” assignment,” remarked Tim Burton on the project which featured the acting talents of Leonard Nimoy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and James Earl Jones (The Great White Hope). “I did that right after Frankenweenie, for Shelly Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre. It was a three-camera video thing and I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. It came out looking like a Las Vegas show. The Jar [NBC, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, 1985] was my only other assignment, a case where it didn’t work out again. That’s when I realized that nobody should treat me like a director, because I’m not.”
Horror author Steven King had recommended Frankenweenie to a Warner Bros. studio executive who then showed the short film to Paul Reubens (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), the star of The Pee-wee Herman Show [HBO, 1981]. “It was the easiest job I ever got,” declared Burton of his assignment to direct a big screen adaptation of the television show. “I had a much more difficult time getting my busboy job six months earlier.”
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure released in 1985 centres around Pee-wee Herman embarking on a cross-country quest to find his stolen bicycle.
“There was a lot of spontaneity involved in making Pee-wee and I was flying by the seat of my pants,” confessed Tim Burton of the project which introduced him to his long-time music composer Danny Elfman (Midnight Run). “There was such a mutual belief by Pee-wee and myself in the character that what he did was never questioned. What we did was thrust people into his world. We said, ‘This is Pee-wee, believe him or not.’ We tried to make people understand the character by making him as colourful as possible and setting him in an atmosphere where he was comfortable. It was a very cut-and-dried movie; people either liked it or they didn’t.”
Panned by film critics such as Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune, who gave it a zero star rating, the quirky comedy developed a cult following with moviegoers. Made on a production budget of $6 million, the picture grossed $45 million at the domestic box office.
Returning to his origins as a storyteller, Tim Burton designed the animation for an episode of Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories (NBC, 1985 to 1987) called Family Dog (1987); however, he was soon behind the camera again.
“Nearly every script I was offered had the word ‘Adventure’ somewhere in the title,” revealed Tim Burton of the trouble he had selecting his 1988 sophomore effort. “One project fell through and Batman was still on hold. I was freaking out until the script for Beetlejuice came along.”
The ghosts of a recently deceased couple (Gena Davis & Alec Baldwin) call upon an anarchic spirit known as Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton) to exorcise the family which has moved into their former home.
“It’s hard to describe this film as just one thing,” stated Tim Burton. “It has elements of horror but it’s not really scary and it’s funny but not really a comedy. Beetlejuice is one of those movies that just doesn’t fit any place.”
When it came to selecting the acting talent which included Jeffery Jones (Howard the Duck), Catherine O’Hara (Home Alone), and Winona Ryder (The Age of Innocence), the director remarked, “Many of the cast come from an improvisational background, so I felt it would serve to balance the movie if much of what the actors did was created on the spot. We didn’t throw out Michael [McDowell]’s script. We just embellished it a lot.” When asked if he had trouble adjusting to live-action filmmaking, Burton answered, “I’ve had fun dealing with the actors on this film and that’s a hard thing to admit because it hasn’t always been the case. Because of my animation background, I was basically in the position of having to deal with my craft on a non-verbal level.”
“I turned down the role because I didn’t quite get it,” admitted Michael Keaton (Mr. Mom) who later changed his mind when Tim Burton suggested that the actor should do his own interpretation. “I went home and thought, ‘Okay, if I would do this role, how would I do it?’ You clearly don’t create him from the inside out. Meaning, what motivates this guy – his childhood or whatever. You work from the outside in.” Eventually, the character analysis had to come to an end. “At some point you show up on the set and just go nuts,” stated Keaton of his mania-induced cinematic performance. “It was rave acting. You rage for twelve or fourteen hours; then you go home tired and beat and exhausted. It was pretty damn cathartic. It was rave and purge acting.”
Shot over ten weeks in Los Angeles and Vermont, the $13 million production had Tim Burton entering into a new realm as a filmmaker, “This was the first time I dealt with a full-blown special effects film and it sure made my life difficult at times,” recollected the director. “The intent was to do them quick, funky, and fun. You can only take that so far when you’ve got ninety adults standing around a set getting pissed off because a mechanical hat isn’t doing what it’s suppose to do. Much of the stuff we did worked live, but ‘Lets do it in post-production’ was a phrase you heard frequently on this show.”
Central to the commercial success of Tim Burton’s pictures is the work of music composer Danny Elfman. “I remember testing Beetlejuice with no music and then with music,” recalled Burton. “The difference was shocking! And it really has to do with the fact that when you’re doing a movie where people don’t know what is going on, the music is the guidepost, it’s the tone and the context.”
Winning an Oscar for Best Makeup and receiving BAFTA nominations for Best Visual Effects and Best Makeup, the picture grossed $32 million in its first two weeks of release. The final box office tally was $74 million worldwide.
“I wasn’t working on it full time,” stated Tim Burton of Batman (1989), the comic book adaptation which cemented his reputation as an A-list Hollywood moviemaker. “I’d just meet with Sam [Hamm] on weekends to discuss the early writing stages. We knocked it into good shape while I directed Beetlejuice, but as a go project it was only greenlighted by Warners when the opening figures of Beetlejuice surprised everyone – including myself!”
As a high school student attending Comic Con in San Diego, Burton saw the production still presentation for Superman (1978); the event was a revelation for him. “The ballroom was packed with people,” began the director. “All the eyes were glued to the screen with this poor Warner guy trying to keep it all under control. Suddenly, one fan stood up and screamed, ‘Superman would never change into his costume on a ledge of a building. I’m going to boycott this movie and tell everyone that you’re destroying the legend!’ Intense applause followed as he stormed out of the hall. Wow, I thought. And from that moment on I always knew in the back of my mind the enormous problems facing anyone taking on a film version of a comic book hero.”
Batman details the rise of The Caped Crusader’s most famous criminal adversary. “What attracted me to the project in the first place were Batman and The Joker – my favourite characters,” said Burton. “Like all great larger-than-life images, they can be explored in any number of different ways.”
“The very first Batman treatment I read was remarkably similar to Superman,” stated the Californian filmmaker. “It had the same light, jokey tone, and the story structure followed Wayne through childhood to his genesis as a crime fighter. I found it all rather disturbing because, while that route was probably fine in the case of Superman, there was absolutely no exploration or acknowledgement of the character’s psychological structure and why he would dress up in a bat suit. In that respect, it was very much like the television series.” Burton went on to add, “The success of the graphic novels made our ideas [his and Sam Hamm’s] far more acceptable. The movie doesn’t wallow in the darkness, but without becoming a psychological tone poem, it addresses all the issues without hammering you over the head. The Dark Knight works on the comic page – it seems to be a direct response to all the light-heartedness that has gone on before [the 1960s TV series] – but it is too dark stylistically for movie purposes. I think the movie is funny without being campy at the expense of the material. The tone is more consistent than in any other film I’ve made.”
Controversy erupted when Michael Keaton was chosen to portray the title character. “The fan reaction is a surface response,” observed Tim Burton. “Michael is very good. Clean and Sober  proved it. He’s funny/dramatic in a way which added to what I was trying to achieve. Taking someone like Michael and making him Batman supported the split-personality idea…He has a lot going on inside, there’s an explosive side, he has a temper and a great amount of anger – that was exactly the Bruce Wayne character, not some unknown, handsome, strong hunk.” Cast first was an Oscar-winner in the role of The Joker which served to strengthen the director’s resolve to select Keaton. “I kept imagining the reviews and hearing the response in my head, ‘Well Jack Nicholson [Five Easy Pieces] is great, but the unknown so-and-so is nothing special.’” One performer who was replaced during the production was Sean Young (No Way Out) which resulted in Kim Basinger (L.A. Confidential) playing the part of journalist and love interest Vicki Vale.
Responsibility for creating the overall look of the picture was given to production designer Anton Furst (The Company of Wolves). “Tim had wanted me to do Beetlejuice but after two exhausting years working with Stanley Kubrick on Full Metal Jacket , I didn’t feel in the position to take on a new film,” explained Furst who had nothing but praise for Burton. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt so naturally in tune with a director conceptually, spiritually, visually or artistically. There was never any problem because we never fought over anything. I often wanted his advice, but when I came up with four ideas in four different directions, he’d always chose the one I liked most.” The two men found themselves sharing a common philosophy towards their work. “When we first met, we both independently mentioned how sick we were of the ILM [Industrial Light & Magic] school of filmmaking. You can’t stun with effects anymore, you have to go back to basics. We both agreed the best special effect we could ever remember seeing was the house in Psycho  because it registered as such a strong image. Impact –that’s what films are about – not effects.”
In designing the urban dwelling that serves as the principal location for the story, Tim Burton and Anton Furst made use of a “retro high-tech” look. “So few great movie cities have been built,” said the director. “Metropolis  and Blade Runner  seem to be the accepted spectrum. We tried so hard to do something different although people tend to lump things into categories. We conceptualized Gotham City as the reverse of New York in its early days. Zoning and construction were thought of in terms of letting light in. So we decided to take that in the opposite direction and darken everything by building up vertically and cramming architecture together.”
To help stem fan backlash toward the movie, the artist associated with the iconic comic book figure was brought onboard as a creative consultant. “Hiring [Bob] Kane was a very intelligent move,” remarked Furst. “He loved what we were doing. We sent over sketches constantly and he kept sending back these little drawings with notes attached saying, ‘Well done boys.’ He came over once to visit the set and when he was shown around, he was totally awe-inspired. Very clever, because when it comes to the American media, just to have it sanctioned by the creator makes it difficult for the [audience] to complain.”
Filmgoers embraced the movie; Batman earned $411 million worldwide. At the Academy Awards the picture won Best Art Direction, while Jack Nicholson was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Comedy or Musical. The international award circuit honoured the film with six nominations at the BAFTAs, including Best Supporting Actor (Nicholson), Best Production Design, Best Visual Effects, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup, and Best Sound. Looking back on the picture, Tim Burton stated, “I like parts of it, but the whole movie is mainly boring to me. It’s OK, but it was more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie.”
Faced with the inevitable question of directing the next installment of the blockbuster movie franchise, the filmmaker answered, “Sequels are only worthwhile if they give you the opportunity to do something new and interesting. It has to go beyond that, really, because you do the first for the thrill of the unknown. The sequel wipes all that out, so you must explore the next level. I don’t rule out anything if the challenge is exciting.”
Gotham City’s guardian would have to wait. Next on the cinematic agenda for Tim Burton was a reunion with a childhood film idol and a collaboration with an actor who would become his kindred spirit.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.