Trevor Hogg profiles the career of filmmaker Tim Burton in the third of a four part feature… read part one and part two.
Taking a cue from previous blockbuster disaster pictures, Tim Burton assembled a cast of celebrities for his black comedy about an alien space invasion. Mars Attacks! (1996) featured Jack Nicholson (Easy Rider) playing the dual roles of a sleazy Las Vegas real estate developer and the under-siege American president, Glen Close (The Big Chill) as the First Lady of the United States, and Natalie Portman (Beautiful Girls) as the neglected presidential daughter. Other performers include Annette Bening (American Beauty), Pierce Bronson (Goldeneye), Danny DeVito (The Rainmaker), Martin Short (Father of the Bride), Sarah Jessica Parker (Sex in the City), Michael J. Fox (Back to the Future), Rod Steiger (In the Heat of the Night), Tom Jones, Pam Grier (Jackie Brown), Jack Black (School of Rock), and Lukas Haas (Witness). “I just thought it would be fun to see big stars getting blown away,” chuckled the filmmaker. “It’s like all those movies that they used to make where you never knew who was going to make it. I remember seeing Robert Wagner on fire in The Towering Inferno. I didn’t expect Robert Wagner to be on fire; it’s kind of cathartic in a way.”
Not everyone in Hollywood was receptive to the idea. “Agents didn’t want to see their star clients playing loser roles, and a lot of big acts passed on the project,” revealed screenwriter Jonathan Gems (White Mischief). “At one point we actually thought we were going to have to cancel the film. The guy who saved our butt was Jack Nicholson.” It was a moment of chance which brought the Oscar-winner onboard. “I knew Jack Nicholson was working on something,” explained Burton, “so I thought he might not want to do it. I was in an airport, and I talked to him. He said he had read the script, and I asked which part he wanted to play – whatever you want. He said, ‘How about both of them?’” The filmmaker was pleased to be working with the legendary actor once again. “Jack really energized the project. He’s perfect to go up against the Martians. If anybody was to be the human counterculture to the Martians, it would be him. He’s so fun, he’s so smart, and he’s a great actor.” Tim Burton found it to be a joy to be onset. “I really loved it. I laughed every day on this movie, and I got a real joy out of seeing these fine actors just pretending. I almost thought of releasing the movie with no Martians so you could see what these people were reacting to – nothing – because that’s true acting.”
Inspiration for the cinematic adaptation of the bubble gum trading card series came from a real life event. “It was during the Gulf War,” began the director, “where the media seemed to have taken it to another level – wars having titles and theme music – and I found it kind of disturbing. I felt like these characters were just a good cathartic shakeup of that kind of thing.”
Originally, the Martian footage was shot using stop-motion animation, but the American moviemaker was not pleased with the results. “I think what finally made me switch over [to computer graphics] in this case was a few technical elements. One was being able to shoot anamorphic [film format], which was more difficult with stop-motion.” Despite utilizing a high tech approach, Tim Burton wanted to maintain the style established by a special effects icon. “I love the old Ray Harryhausen movies, so a lot of this draws inspiration from those, even though he never did anything like this, except First Men in the Moon . We’re using a different technique, but still trying to capture the feeling those movies created.” The director added, “We were able to create something that’s not truly three-dimensional, but seems three-dimensional, and has the feeling of that old stop-motion.” When asked to give his view on the hostile little green invaders, Burton replied, “We know not of their ways. That’s the part of the thing I liked about it. Everybody categorizes everything, everybody thinks they know so much. The are so many experts, but what does anybody really know? Not too much.”
Barely eclipsing its $100 million production budget, the picture earned $101 million worldwide. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “Mars Attacks! is all 1990s cynicism and disbelief, mocking the conventions that Independence Day takes seriously. This all sounds clever enough but in truth, Mars Attacks! is not as much fun as it should be. Few of its numerous actors make a lasting impression and Burton’s heart and soul is not in the humour.” Magazine film critic Richard Schickel of Time found the film to be praiseworthy in his review, “You have to admire everyone’s chutzpah: the breadth of Burton’s (and writer Jonathan Gems’) movie references, which range from Kurosawa to Kubrick; and above all their refusal to offer a single likeable character. Perhaps they don’t create quite enough deep earthlings to go around, but a thoroughly mean-spirited big-budget movie is always a treasurable rarity.”
“We are actually working on a script that I feel good about,” remarked Tim Burton on his planned Catwoman picture starring Michelle Pfieffer (Dangerous Liaisons). “I’m writing it with Laeta Kalogridis [Shutter Island]. I love Batman, he’s my favourite comic book character. He has the best villains, the best everything, and Catwoman is great. She’s a real icon, like Batman.” The project fell through and was resurrected in a poorly received 2004 picture with Halle Berry (Monster’s Ball) in the title role.
Not deterred, the filmmaker turned his attention toward another superhero icon in Superman Lives with Oscar-winner Nicolas Cage (Leaving Las Vegas) cast as the famous Kryptonian. It was not to be. “That was extremely painful,” confided Burton. “I had locations scouted and I had meeting after meeting. I don’t think those people realize how much of your heart and soul you pour into something.” The task to relaunch the movie franchise would be given to filmmaker Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects) who produced the critically maligned Superman Returns (2006).
Ill-fortune affected the director’s documentary tribute to his childhood movie idol Vincent Price (The Whales of August). “While he was working on Edward Scissorhands I got an idea to do a documentary called Conversations With Vincent that he agreed to narrate and was completely cool about. I felt like he got what it was about, that it was more than just a tribute to him, and it meant a lot to me. It was about the internal life of a child and how adults tend to overlook the fact that children are supremely intelligent in a unique way. They have instincts that should be taken seriously, and Vincent understood that. He was in his early eighties when we met, and it was great to meet someone so old who’d been through so much but was still so cool. The film has never been seen because it became a nightmare trying to get all the rights and clearances we needed. But it’s not over yet. A little time has passed, and there are some great things in it – Vincent died in 1993, so it has some of his last footage. I haven’t given up on it.”
Switching to the literary medium, Tim Burton illustrated the children’s book The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other Stories (1997). “Doing Oyster Boy was fun because it allowed me to get back into the less pressure-packed situation for a while,” recalled the director. “The idea of getting back to drawing something simple and not having delusions of huge amounts of money being on the line was refreshing.”
In 1999, after a string of disappointments a cinematic project provided Tim Burton with the means to creatively exorcise his filmmaking frustrations. “I didn’t want to make any old piece of crap just to move on – I didn’t want to be like, ‘Okay, I’ll do Police Academy 8 because I need the work,’” said the filmmaker. “So when Sleepy Hollow was presented to me, it was like, ‘This is the script. Do you want to do it?’ Who knows maybe it was because of my previous year that I related to the character with no head.”
New York City constable Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) investigates a series of grisly murders in the hamlet of Sleepy Hollow; the superstitious locals believe them to be the handiwork of a headless horseman. Tim Burton’s introduction to the famous nineteenth century gothic fairy tale by Washington Irving was through the cinema. “I was familiar with the original story because I’d seen the Disney cartoon The Legend of Sleepy Hollow  – I didn’t actually read the source novel until after I’d had seen the script.” The screenplay was the combined effort of Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en), Kevin Yagher, and Academy Award winner Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love). “A big reason why I liked the script,” said the filmmaker, “was that it reminded me of one of those old Hammer horror films. It had a fresh take, but it also respected the source material, which has a very Germanic tone.”
“I always like a good fairy tale or any story that has a symbolic meaning,” remarked Burton, “I was particularly drawn to the idea that Ichabod Crane is this guy who lives within his own head, while his nemesis has no head at all! That juxtaposition was interesting to me; it really worked on a symbolic, almost subconscious level.” When describing how he viewed the main character, Johnny Depp stated, “I always thought of Ichabod as a very delicate, fragile person who was maybe a little too much in touch with his feminine side, like a frightened little girl.” Tim Burton agreed with his leading man, “It’s true. We may have the first male action-adventure hero who acts like a thirteen year old girl.” Producer Scott Rudin (No Country for Old Men) revealed, “At the very beginning at the shoot, Johnny told me that his inspiration for the part was going to be Angela Lansbury in Death on the Nile . For his birthday I got him a signed photo of Angela Lansbury that read, ‘From one sleuth to another,’ and he absolutely flipped.”
Actress Christina Ricci (The Opposite of Sex) who plays Crane’s love interest Katrina Van Tassel was impressed by her director. “Something I thought was kind of impressive about Tim was he didn’t seem me to be like other people. He cast me in the part of the completely angelic, sweet and naïve young thing. And I thought, ‘Wow, he must have not seen any of my other movies.’” Cast along with Depp and Ricci in the $80 million production were Michael Gambon (Toys), Miranda Richardson (Tom & Viv), Ian McDiarmid (The Awakening), Christopher Walken (The Deer Hunter), Christopher Lee (The Wicker Man), Martin Landau (Tucker: The Man and His Dream), and Casper Van Dien (Starship Troopers).
Scott Rudin was not concerned about Tim Burton losing his box office magic. “Sometimes I think it’s good to get someone whose last film didn’t do well, because they’re a little hungrier for a hit. Although Sleepy Hollow is a big film, it doesn’t need to be Batman or Superman… no one’s life is going to be made or destroyed based on how well it does, which can be creatively freeing.”
To obtain the desire cinematic atmosphere, Burton passed on the notion of doing on-location filming. “In order to bring the story back to its folklore roots, we wanted to have a strong, controlled visual environment. We didn’t want the movie to fall into this strong naturalistic rut where you’d have a bunch of people dipping candles and watching them dry. That’s not the most exciting thing to see at the movies.” The director, accompanied by his cast and crew, headed across the Atlantic Ocean for the principle photography. “Working at Leavesden Studios was a decision based mainly on cost. The facilities had the amount of space we needed, but the stage heights were very low. I’ve worked in England before [on Batman], and the film industry there offers everything you need, including great crew people and artisans. To me, if you’re doing a heavily designed movie, the only two places where you can actually do it right are Los Angeles and London. Even New York doesn’t have the same level of resources those two cities offer.”
One drawback to the studio setting required some creative ingenuity. “I hate using smoke,” confessed Burton, “but on this film we used it in almost every shot, because it really helped us to hide the stage ceilings and create some atmosphere.” He went on to say, “We tried to do as much of the effects work live as possible. We wanted to keep the digital stuff to a minimum, which is one of the reasons we built so many sets, and pumped so much smoke into the rafters.” Tim Burton has nothing against using computers as a cinematic tool. “Digital technology is very interesting and certainly has its place in filmmaking, but when you’re watching a movie like Black Sunday  you really feel as if you’re there. When you combine the stagebound sets with the actors, their costumes, and everything else, you really feel as if you’re within that particular world, because it has a more human quality.”
Scott Rudin’s faith paid off as Sleepy Hollow became the first movie starring Johnny Depp to gross over $100 million. The final box office tally would bring the figure to $206 million worldwide. The picture won the Oscar for Best Art Direction and at the BAFTAs was awarded for Best Production Design and Best Costume Design.
“The internet has amazing capabilities,” remarked Tim Burton, “but it also takes gossip, innuendo and the printed word and disseminates them at an incredibly rapid rate. It doesn’t matter if it’s true because once it’s out there gossip takes on a life of its own, and that’s kind of evil. When somebody says something incorrect about an area of my life that is or was painful, that’s not cool and it leaves me feeling that I’ve been robbed.” However, the director also recognized that the populist medium provides a great creative avenue for filmmakers when he produced the internet series The World of Stainboy (2000); it was based on a collection of characters that first appeared in The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other Stories. The six five-minute long flash animation shorts consist of Stainboy investigating and bringing in a collection of social outcasts on the behalf of the Burbank, California police department.
Looking to update the science fiction classic Planet of the Apes (1968), about an American astronaut who crash lands in a world ruled by primates, 20th Century Fox Film Group president Tom Rothman approached Tim Burton to helm the remake. “To reenergize a familiar idea,” stated Rothman, “you need a uniquely iconoclastic filmmaker. Tim has that uncanny ability to walk the line between making very commercial films and yet very individualist and distinctive films.” Burton had no intention of competing with the original, which featured Hollywood legend Charlton Heston (Ben-Hur) in one of his signature cinematic roles. “The point was not to make it the same,” explained Burton. “There was room for other explorations, bringing in more ape mannerisms, interesting behavior patterns, and having more fun with that.”
Richard D. Zanuck (Driving Mrs. Daisy), the producer of the picture, was the head of production for Fox at the time when the original film was made. “The [William] Broyles script has been radically changed,” said Zanuck of the screenwriter who was given the initial task to rework the story. “He came up with the characters pretty much as they are, but his script was impractical in many respects. It had monsters in it, all kinds of other things, half-horse half-man. We wanted to go back to the basic element: the upside down world.” Writing partners Lawrence Konner and Mark D. Rosenthal, who were responsible for another primate picture Mighty Joe Young (1998), were brought in to re-write the screenplay; to accomplish their assignment they reverted to the source material composed by French author Pierre Boulle. “I think it’s fair to say we’re a bit more faithful to the book and the original movie than Bill [Broyles] was. Tim felt very strongly that this needed to be the adventure of a guy on the planet of the apes.”
“What I like about this is, it’s just reversals,” stated Burton as to why he was attracted to the tale. “There’s a human outsider; there’s also an ape outsider. You see reversal on different levels, double juxtapositions. I don’t’ know how much of that will come through, but it’s interesting to play with.” The actors in the 2001 picture, which included Mark Wahlberg (The Departed), Tim Roth (Rob Roy), Helena Bonham Carter (A Room with a View), Michael Clark Duncan (The Green Mile), Paul Giamatti (Cinderella Man), Estella Warren (Driven), and Kris Kristofferson (Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid), were put through their paces. “We tried to get into ape behavior so it would feel like more than just people with ape masks on,” said the director. “The cast and crew spent a week at Ape School trying to get the feel for ape mannerisms. Some of what went on at Ape School was movement training, and some of it was interacting with live chimps.”
Given the responsibility of replacing Charlton Heston as the main character was Mark Wahlberg. “We had a meeting that lasted all of two minutes,” recalled the former Calvin Klein underwear model about his conversation with Tim Burton about portraying Captain Leo Davidson. “I went in and told him how much I liked him. I said I would be willing to do whatever he wanted. I was just hoping that I wouldn’t have to wear a loincloth [as Charlton Heston did in the original]. I like to keep my clothes on these days. And I’ve got tattoos.” Burton did not regret his casting choice. “Mark’s a type of actor I really like. He’s solid and there’s not a lot of bullshit about him. When you’re doing a film like this you need a person who can serve as an anchor, and Mark can do that.”
To honour the original movie, Richard D. Zanuck approached Charlton Heston about making a cameo appearance. “I said, ‘Chuck, it’s unimaginable to me that we can make a picture called Planet of the Apes and not do some homage to you. Obviously, you’ll have to play an ape, because we killed you [in Beneath the Planet of the Apes] at your request.” Heston agreed and played General Thade’s (Tim Roth) dying father. “I was a huge Charlton Heston fan when I was growing up,” reminisced Burton, “particularly during his Planet of the Apes, Omega Man , Soylent Green  period – and he still fascinates me. Monster movies didn’t scare me as a child but Heston’s films really did.” The filmmaker added, “Heston’s like Vincent Price who’s an actor I love in a completely different way. Both of them seem tortured somehow, and there’s something really personal about what they do on-screen.”
Recruited to do the critical primate makeup was six-time Oscar winner Rick Baker who had worked on Gorillas in the Mist (1988) and Mighty Joe Young. “I wanted them to be more expressive than in the first one,” explained Baker. “You never saw the lips moving over the teeth. I wanted to be able to see teeth and have people move more like real apes.” One area in which the production could not upstage the original was in the twist ending which featured the infamous shot of the Statue of Liberty. “We couldn’t compete with the atomic bomb,” admitted Zanuck, “which, in the Sixties, was a concern of everybody’s.” Helena Bonham Carter was at a loss to explain the negative criticism aimed at the ambiguous conclusion, “I thought it made sense. I don’t understand the why everyone went, ‘Huh?’ It’s all a time warp thing. He’s [Captain Leo Davidson] gone back and realizes that Thade had beaten him there.”
A major drawback for working on a big budget Hollywood picture for Tim Burton is all the studio craziness that happens off the movie set. “Sometimes I feel like the film gets in the way of the merchandising,” revealed the California-native. “There were people over in Taiwan making Planet of the Apes swords before we’d even shot the thing.” Burton did not entirely begrudge the experience. “I’ve been very lucky. Making a movie is tough by nature, whether it’s an independent film or whatever. As the world gets more corporate, you just want to protect that artistic feeling as much as you can. I don’t want to create a me-versus-them, because that’s not what it’s about. It’s a large operation – a lot of people, a lot of money – so I take it very seriously. I feel like I’m in the army sometimes.”
Released in 2001, the big screen remake trumped its $100 million production budget and $40 million marketing campaign by amassing $362 million in worldwide box office receipts. At the BAFTAs, Planet of the Apes was nominated for Best Makeup and Best Costume Design, and music composer Danny Elfman received a Grammy nomination for the movie soundtrack. The picture was more successful at the Golden Raspberry Awards where it won for Worst Remake, Worst Supporting Actor (Charlton Heston) and Worst Supporting Actress (Estella Warren).
With the help of A-list screenwriter John August (Go), Tim Burton went on to produce a movie which allowed the filmmaker to cinematically address his troubled relationship with his father.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.