Freakishly Clever: A Tim Burton Profile (Part 2)

Trevor Hogg profiles the career of filmmaker Tim Burton in the second of a four part feature… read part one.

Edward ScissorhandsAs a high school student, Tim Burton came up with a story concept which would serve as the basis for Edward Scissorhands (1990). A creator (Vincent Price) dies before he can complete Edward (Johnny Depp), his human invention, who has shears for hands. Discovered by the local Avon lady (Dianne Wiest), she takes Edward to her suburban home where he falls in love with the woman’s teenage daughter (Winona Ryder).

Contemplating the meaning of the fairy tale, the director stated that it is about “growing up in the kind of neighbourhoods where on the surface you’re immediately accepted. When you go to another country, people are leery of you and it takes them time to get to know you.” To establish the visual look of the picture, Burton referenced Suburbia, a book by photographer Bill Owens which includes interviews with residents; a passage which resonated with him was, “I find a sense of freedom in the suburbs. You assume the mask of suburbia for outward appearances, and yet no one really knows what you do.”

Commenting on the suburban lifestyle, Tim Burton observed, “That’s what so incredible about it. Because you’re so close to people and yet – this is the way I grew up feeling – you have no idea what they’re really about. And it can change at any moment.” The filmmaker went on to add, “I always wonder why some people see things as weird and some people don’t. Some people feel like an alien; you look at almost everything and it seems strange to you. I grew up with the resin grapes and the raised bullfighter on black velvet painting…and I could never for a million years…I had no feeling for why they had this in their house, what it meant.”

Edward ScissorhandsFor the part of Edward, Tim Burton had talks with actor Tom Cruise (Born on the Fourth of July) who was concerned about the lack of virility of the main character. “I didn’t think it was worth writing a scene where Edward goes to a bar and ogles the babes! Or scores with the chicks! Or see him watching a Raiders game!” declared Burton. “There comes a point where actors have too many fears – there’s too much intellectualizing about the process.” Instead of selecting the blockbuster entertainer, the moviemaker turned to a lesser known performer. “I love actors who like to transform,” explained the director on why he so often casts Johnny Depp (Finding Neverland) as his leading man, “It’s exciting to see that. And I really get a lot of energy out of somebody like him who doesn’t care how he looks, [and] is willing to do anything.”

Production designer Bo Welch shrunk the size of the windows in the houses so to make them “a little less friendly, a little more mask-like, and to heighten the hiding-in-suburbia feeling.” Welch also replaced the greenery so that the character could reshape it into a thirty foot dinosaur and a man bowling. “It has a carnival feel, a happy feel. Edward brings out life in what’s there in suburbia.” He was particularly proud of the thematic contrast between the mansion on the hill and the residential neighourhood below. “The mansion is monochromatic, suburbia is garish; the mansion is huge and dark, in suburbia the rooms are small and bright. This is all through Edward’s eyes. You should have a feeling of seeing this world for the first time.”

“I wanted to project something sweet and tender in that film,” said Tim Burton, “but at the same time, keep reminding audiences that there was a sense of reality that had to be dealt with. Blending the two sides, and knowing when to pull back on one to favour the other, and how the whole thing would cut together was an ongoing challenge.”

Movie critic Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote, “Burton invests awe-inspiring ingenuity into the process of reinventing something very small. Edward Scissorhands is a tale of misunderstood gentleness and stifled creativity, of civilization’s power to corrupt innocence, of a heedless beauty and a kindhearted beast. The film, if scratched with something much less sharp than Edward’s fingers, reveals proudly adolescent lessons for all of us.” A less flattering review came from Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times who wrote, “Burton has not yet found the storytelling and character-building strength to go along with his pictorial flair. The ending is so lame it’s disheartening. Surely anyone clever enough to dream up Edward Scissorhands should be swift enough to think of a payoff that involves our imagination.”

Made on production budget of $20 million, the picture grossed $86 million worldwide; it received an Oscar nomination for Best Makeup, while at the BAFTAs the film won for Best Production Design and garnered nominations for Best Costume and Best Makeup. At the Golden Globes Johnny Depp was nominated for Best Actor – Comedy or Musical.

The Nightmare Before ChristmasHaving established himself as a dependable commercial brand name, Tim Burton was approached by his former employer. “This was an opportunity for us to be in business with Tim Burton and to say, ‘We can think outside the envelope. We can do different and unusual things,’” stated David Hoberman, then president of Walt Disney Pictures and Touchstone Pictures. The support of Disney allowed the director to resurrect a project entitled Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1991). “Initially…I was going to direct this picture,” recalled Burton, “I tried to get it going as a short film, a TV special, Home Shopping Network, anything that would take it, but I couldn’t even give it away back then.” The filmmaker handed over the directorial responsibilities to fellow animator Henry Selick (Coraline), who remembered the troubles Tim Burton originally encountered, “I thought that people, especially kids, would love his work the way they loved Charles Addams. But nobody recognized that at Disney. They thought, ‘Oh this is just too weird.’”

Based on a poem written by Tim Burton, The Nightmare Before Christmas takes place in the parallel worlds of Halloweentown and Christmastown where Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon), the Pumpkin King, kidnaps Santa Claus (Ed Ivory) with the intention of taking over the Christmas holiday. The stop-motion animation tale required the construction of two hundred and thirty detailed sets and lot of blood, sweat, and tears. “What the animators do is as hard as neurosurgery,” said Harry Selick, “The have to almost bleed their energy into the puppet.” Making life interesting was unconventional cast design. “The first rule of animation is to give your characters expressive eyes,” confided Burton. “We designed these characters that are pretty weird. The lead character doesn’t have any eyeballs.” To compensate for this, sculptor Rick Heinrichs remarked that the picture was, “just the right combination of cute and ghastly.”

The Nightmare Before ChristmasRegarding the box office viability of films that rely on puppets, Tim Burton said, “People will look at the movie and go, ‘Oh, this is really great,’ and a lot of stop motion will be done, and some of it will be really great. Some will be really bad. Too much will be done, and then we’ll put a pillow over it and smother it for another thirty years, and then it will come up again.”

Earning $50 million worldwide in its first year of release, the picture is annually re-released each October in time for Halloween. Capitalizing on the growing cult status which resulted in the creation of video game spin-offs such as Oogie’s Revenge and The Pumpkin King as well as a series of movie trading cards, Disney converted the film into the 3-D format in 2006.

With the popularity of Tim Burton on the rise, Disney decided to release Frankenweenie and Vincent into the home video market in 1992. “I distanced myself from both of those films for a long time,” responded the director when asked to comment on the news. “I kept hearing things were going to happen that never did, so I lost interest in keeping on top of them. But I’m glad that people will finally get a chance to see them.”

Batman ReturnsRevisiting the comic book franchise which made him a Hollywood star was not a foregone conclusion for Burton. “For a long time, ‘No,’ was exactly the way I felt,” revealed the filmmaker who returned to behind the camera for Batman Returns (1992). “The studio wanted to make a sequel the moment they knew the first film was successful, which was right after opening weekend.” Over time Tim Burton warmed to the idea. “I would just keep looking at it and think it could have been better. I saw the first movie as being flawed. I didn’t like the tone – what I did with the elements of darkness and mood, and the character relationships. I felt like I hadn’t done one hundred percent of what I wanted to do with that picture, and part of me felt that I wanted another chance at it.”

“Character-wise we’re not trying to up the ante with this film,” remarked Tim Burton. “We’re not trying to make Batman too cynical or too dark. We didn’t want to make him too dangerous or too aware, and Michael [Keaton] has been very clear on that. It took him a while to find the character in the first film, but he came in with it right away on Batman Returns.”

Unlike its predecessor which relied on The Joker, the sequel doubled the number of adversaries in the picture. “I didn’t feel having two villains was absolutely necessary,” stated the director, “but it added some variety by helping us avoid doing the same kind of explanation things we did with the one villain in the first film.” As for the selection of the antagonists, Burton declared, “I always felt that Catwoman was a strong character, but the Penguin presented a bit of a problem. For my money, he was the least interesting character in the comic books, and I could never figure out what the character was all about. But it seemed like a real challenge to take a character I basically didn’t care for and make something out of him, which, as the script developed, we did.” Criminals serve a critical purpose in exploring the tale of The Caped Crusader. “Unlike Superman, Batman isn’t simply a good versus evil thing. You get a lot of grey areas with Batman, and that was a major consideration in the script’s development. I wanted the villains to be these weird but interesting characters who could fill those grey areas of Batman’s life.”

Batman ReturnsOut of vengeance for being left as an infant in the underground sewers by his wealthy parents, The Penguin (Danny DeVito) seeks to dispose of every first-born child in Gotham City. Complicating the situation further for Batman (Michael Keaton) is the emergence of a sexy feminine adversary in the form of Catwoman (Michelle Pfieffer).

Choosing Los Angeles over London as the principle shooting location was a matter of practicality. “The move wasn’t an attempt to put less pressure on me,” explained Tim Burton. “It was just one of those corporate logistical decisions. In many ways, I would have preferred doing it in England. I prefer to be away from Hollywood when I make my movies, because there’s a lot of unnecessary stuff that goes on in this town that gets in the way.” Asked if he felt overwhelmed by the picture, the filmmaker replied, “When I was on the set, doing it every day, that movie became a total reality. Going outside the studio became the biggest fantasy. In fact, picking up my laundry was probably the most mind-blowing experience the whole time we were making this movie.”

Upon screening the dark tale, Todd McCarthy of Variety wrote that “the real accomplishment of the film lies in the amazing physical realization of an imaginative universe. Where Burton’s ideas end and those of his collaborators begin is impossible to know, but the result is seamless, an utterly consistent universe full of nasty notions about societal deterioration, greed and other base impulses.” Film critic Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times was left feeling conflicted after viewing the picture; he wrote, “I give the movie a negative review, and yet I don’t think it’s a bad movie; it’s more misguided, made with great creativity, but denies us what we more or less deserve from a Batman story. No matter how hard you try, superheroes and film noir don’t go together; the very essence of noir is that there are no more heroes.”

Receiving nominations for Best Visual Effects and Best Makeup at the Oscars and the BAFTAs, Batman Returns, which cost $80 million to make, earned $267 million worldwide.

Privately, Tim Burton was in a state of emotional turmoil during the filming of Batman Returns. Production designer Anton Furst had committed suicide, his first marriage to German artist Lena Gieseke had ended, and his production company was on the verge of collapsing. “I’m happy to be who I am; [Warners has] been good to me, we’re one big happy dysfunctional family,” reflected the filmmaker on the dark period of his life which had him feeling morose and depressed. “And I also know the truth – that they’re happy I didn’t do another Batman movie, because I put them through a lot. I didn’t mean to; I felt a lot of pressure on the second one. A friend of mine had just died, and I felt really bad; I was going through some personal things. My primary goal was to make a good movie, the same goal they had. But they were happy I left.”

Serving as an executive producer, Tim Burton expanded his animation work on the Family Dog episode from Stephen Spielberg’s Amazing Stories (NBC, 1985 to 1987) into a short-lived CBS television series in 1993. The bad luck continued with the moviemaker’s planned retelling of the Jekyll and Hyde story which was to focus on the relationship between Dr. Jekyll (John Malkovich) and his chambermaid (Julia Roberts). “I had been thinking about Mary Reilly [1996] and working on it for awhile,” stated the director. “In some ways I was pushed out of that, because the studio [Sony Pictures] wanted to get it done. It was a high priority for them. I’m sure that now they’re getting what they want with it.”

Ed Wood Tim BurtonA strange coincidence brought about the filmmaker’s return to the big screen. “I was staying at a farmhouse near Poughkeepsie, [New York],” recollected Burton, “and I started to read Nightmare of Ecstasy [the Ed Wood biography]. Then I found that Ed was from Poughkeepsie and I started to get it thematically.” With an eye on producing the biopic on the director of notoriously bad B-movies, the Californian native went about making the project a reality. “I wanted to do it, but we didn’t have a script. Scott [Alexander] and Larry [Karaszewski] wrote the script in the quickest amount of time I’ve ever seen. They must have had it in their heads already, because they wrote it in about a month. I read the script and liked what they had written very much. Then I really wanted to direct it.”

For Tim Burton the difficultly in filmmaking is not determined by the size of the production budget. “You could do a movie on the scale of Batman, or on the scale of an Ed Wood movie, and you know what? It’s pretty much the same problems. When things don’t work, it doesn’t matter if you have one million dollars or fifty million dollars. If the car doesn’t start, it doesn’t start.” Where there is a difference is in the filmmaking approach adopted by the director. “On a picture like this I find you don’t need to storyboard. You’re working mainly with actors, and there’s no effects going on, so it’s best to be more spontaneous.”

“This group of people are so special and tragic,” marveled Burton of the cast of characters who populated his 1994 film. “You have Tor Johnson (George “The Animal” Steele), Vampira (Lisa Marie), Bunny Breckinridge (Bill Murray), Ed Wood (Johnny Depp), and Béla Lugosi (Martin Landau). They’re like faded royalty. There are times in history, like Paris in the Twenties, when groups of artists happened to get together at the same time. I think of this as kind of a bad version of that [the Surrealist movement in Paris, which included filmmaker Luis Buñuel (Cet obscur objet du désir), Salvador Dali, and André Breton.] There’s something very compelling about seeing Dracula at this stage of his life. It’s a very strange feeling. It’s like a weird Andy Hardy movie.”

Ed Wood Tim BurtonTwo-time Academy Award nominee, Martin Landau (Crimes and Misdemeanors) was the first choice for Béla Lugosi. “Tim has an empathy for these underdogs,” observed the veteran actor. “He admired the fact that in the face of all this adversity, Ed Wood remained loyal to his troupe of players and was able to get these movies made, which were so abysmal. Yet, there’s something about the movies that is fun to watch. They’re so bizarrely awful that they’re great.” A couple of pictures in particular stood out for Landau. “Glen or Glenda [1953] is a picture that doesn’t know what it is. You’re watching it and it suddenly becomes an informational film on cross-dressing! Plan 9 from Outer Space [1959] is classically awful! Bride of the Monster [1955] is actually the only one that makes some kind of sense; in there is a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s great to get a bottle of beer, a couple of friends and some popcorn and sit down and watch them.”

“Martin has done great movies. He’s done weird cheesy horror movies. He’s done it all,” admired Burton. “It was a fun group to work with. We had an ensemble of characters, who kind of float in and out. Martin has done so much, he’s bringing all of this experience to it. We’d be talking and Martin would say, ‘Hitch did this,’ and I’d think, ‘Who’s Hitch?’ Then I’d realize, ‘Oh, Alfred Hitchcock.’ It’s mind-blowing when people have such a body of work.”

Addressing the issue of historical accuracy, the director replied, “We didn’t try to delve into the history of these people because there wasn’t a lot you could delve into. I felt lucky that we didn’t have to treat it as a realistic bio picture.” One such creative liberty was the appearance of a cinematic icon near the end of the film. “That scene with Orson Welles [Vincent D’Onofrio] was more of a device of the writers. Ed was obsessed with Orson and fancied himself as a writer-producer-director, as was Orson.” Assessing how people will react to his style of storytelling, Tim Burton remarked, “I have no conception of what cheesy is, and isn’t…The lines to me are now completely blurred. I have no idea between good and bad anymore. That will be for others to decide.”

Filmgoers did not line up to see the picture which grossed less than a third of its $18 million production budget. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone wrote, “Ed Wood is Burton’s most personal and provocative movie to date. Outrageously disjointed and just as outrageously entertaining, the picture stands as a successful outsider’s tribute to a failed kindred spirit.” Magazine film critic Richard Corliss of Time stated in his review, “The script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski posits Wood as a classical American optimist, a Capraesque hero with little to be optimistic about, since he was also a classic American loser. That’s a fine start, but the film then marches in clique chronological order.”

Scriptwriting partners Alexander and Karaszewski received the support of their peers when the Writers Guild of America nominated them for Best Original Screenplay. Garnering accolades for his performance as horror legend Lugosi, Martin Landau won Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars and at the inaugural Screen Actors Guild Awards. Ed Wood was also up for three Golden Globes, including Best Picture – Musical or Comedy, Best Actor – Musical or Comedy (Johnny Depp), and Best Supporting Actor (Landau).

Switching from directing to producing once again, Tim Burton was accredited with the comedy Cabin Boy (1994) which starred and was co-written by Chris Elliott (Groundhog Day), Batman Forever (1995) directed by Joel Schumacher (Falling Down), and a stop-motion animation adaptation of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach (1996), helmed by Henry Selick.

Heading back behind the camera in 1996, Burton followed in the footsteps of Ed Wood when he adapted a series of bubble gum trading cards for the big screen.

Continue to
part three – and be sure to vote on our poll for “Your Favourite Tim Burton Movie”.

Read the scripts for Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Ed Wood at IMSDb.

For more on Tim Burton, visit his official website or fan-site The Tim Burton Collective.

You can also check out The Home of the Church of Ed Wood, or watch Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.

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  • Anonymous

    &quot;Planet 9 from Outer Space [1959] is classically awful&quot;<br /><br />typo there? It is &quot;Plan 9 from outer space&quot;

  • Anonymous

    great post