THERE’S A recurring debate among longtime Tim Burton fans: when exactly did their hero become a mainstream wow? Some point to 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, the 12th biggest grossing movie of all time. Others note that Burton’s Batman films ignited the current vogue for superheroes as long ago as 1989.
In truth, Burton’s brand of cartoon gothic and cutesy outsider angst has always pleased crowds. A girl who turns into a bed? We’re there. Johnny Depp with shears for mitts? What’s not to love?
Hollywood, however, hasn’t always been quick to recognise the value of this shadowy oeuvre. Between the hits – Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – the 54-year-old film-maker’s back catalogue is peppered with missed commercial opportunities. Edward Scissorhands, arguably the director’s finest film, received only a limited theatrical release in 1990 and was unavailable in the US for many years. Ed Wood was kicked around between all five major studios before it went into production in 1994. The director’s anime-inspired Hansel and Gretel was broadcast once, late at night, on the Disney Channel in 1983 and did not surface again until the 2009 Burton retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
“The studios are always more comfortable if you are making a big Marvel comic-book movie,” says Burton, as he fumbles with a handkerchief. “But that never changes. Maybe it’s getting more that way. But it has always been that way.”
Today, in the run up to the London premiere of Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie, the director has the sniffles but is in high spirits. He ought to be. Frankenweenie, even on a CV defined by personal projects, is a sort of homecoming. Back in 1984, Disney bosses famously didn’t know what to do with his original 30-minute version. The House of Mouse, then at its lowest historical ebb, fired the young animator for “wasting company resources” on a short film about a boy who tries to reanimate his late, beloved dog.
“Well, it got me hired somewhere else,” smiles Burton. “It was a whole different time and place. Being at Disney at that time was fun. Even though it was frustrating, there was no other studio that was letting somebody do that sort of short film. It was a difficult industry back then. It was probably the low point for animation. You look at what’s going on now and it’s flourishing. But at that time they were having growing pains in terms of what direction they were going.”
He’s genuinely not bitter. Frankenweenie redux arrives feature length and in splendid retro 3D monochrome courtesy of Disney, the studio where Burton once laboured thanklessly on The Fox and the Hound and Tron. In 1985, they canned him for making something “too dark and scary for kids”. In 2012, they’re happy to do the same project in stop-motion and (brave this) black and white.
“I don’t think I could make a really scary film if I tried,” says Burton. “There’s this footage on YouTube from the 1960s where they kept this dog’s head alive. I am not at home watching it.
Bringing things back to life is fine in a fantasy movie. But we don’t want that in real life maybe.
Nowadays, should he ever need to check the fear factor, Burton has a ready-made Frankenweenie test audience at home. He and Helena Bonham Carter, his partner of 11 years, live just down the road in Hampstead with their two children: nine-year-old Billy and five-year-old Nell. The youngsters have, he says, left their mark on his latest film.
“Obviously I have responsibilities, but being a parent does reconnect you with those feelings of being a child,” he says. “Seeing people see things for the first time is a beautiful experience. As you get older, you do get a bit jaded. And suddenly you are fresh again. You see things from a new perspective.”
The Victorian pile is a relatively recent development. Burton grew up in Burbank, California, home of the big Hollywood studio and, paradoxically, some of the blandest real estate in the Greater Los Angeles sprawl. His origin story, as enhanced by popular conception, tells of a reclusive goth boy who took refuge in Hammer horrors and monster movies. To this day, he cites Ray Harryhausen and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, The War of the Garguantuas and Dracula 1972AD as major influences.
“It’s hard to say why, exactly,” says Burton. “Why do some people like John Wayne in westerns? Monster movies spoke to me. Growing up in an environment where it’s all bright and white, they allowed me to enter a world very different to the one I was living in.”
Burton’s films continue to champion the genre and are variously populated by appealingly monstrous protagonists and antagonists such as the Joker in Batman, Barnabas Collins in Dark Shadows, or Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber. In this spirit, Frankenweenie, like many Burton pictures before it, buzzes with allusions to Universal Horror movies of the 1930s and sci-fi B-pictures of the 1950s.
Setting the tone, and following on from 1994’s Ed Wood, the new film is Burton’s second in black-and-white. First time around, his insistence on this retro aspect was resisted by Columbia Studios who put the project into turnaround.
Did any of the producers or executives attempt to nudge this Frankenweenie towards a more extravagant palette, I wonder?
“I wouldn’t have done it in colour,” he insists. “Part of the emotion was in black and white. The choice isn’t nostalgic. There’s something else that comes into play when you take away the colour. Its hard to put into words. It scares people. The studio was great about it. Much to their credit. It was so much part of the piece. We built the sets in black and white. We had all those old-fashioned techniques: water reflection and mirrors with cracked glass.”
In keeping with the theme of reanimation, Frankenweenie is Burton’s second stopmotion feature (after 2005’s Corpse Bride) as a director and his fifth as a producer. He adores the medium and is currently attached to a stop-motion Addams Family reboot.
“Stop motion is tangible,” he enthuses. “You can see it. It’s like walking on to a movie set. You are a giant but you are still walking on a set. There are shadows. The shadows are real. Everything is made. It’s important to show that artistry.”
There remains a sweetness to Burton’s darkness. His heroes are fairytale outcasts – often hailing from the same cookie-cut suburbia as Burton himself – who come good by the final reel. In The Nightmare Before Christmas, the Pumpkin King saves the holiday and gets the girl; in Mars Attacks the governance of earth falls to the socially excluded and Tom Jones; in Beetlejuice and James and the Giant Peach, crummy, conventional families that just don’t understand are usurped by alternative arrangements. “If you grow up liking a certain movie, that stays with you,” he says. “And if you grow up a certain way, feeling like a loner, that never leaves you. Then you have lots of friends and all that changes. But you never forget those feelings.”
Frankenweenie, like Edward Scissorhands, plays out in an all-American conurbation and is partially autobiographical. In common with the young Burton, Victor, the film’s hero, is a creative spark with a flair for science and 8mm productions. “I loved making little Super 8 films,” recalls Burton. “I wanted to be a mad scientist, not a regular one. I was a reluctant sports person. This is a memory piece for me. Memories are fun. The fact that it’s not reality is what makes it interesting. It’s an interesting exercise.
Was it a therapeutic one?
“Yes and no. Everybody has positive and negative memories. People say that I am quite negative about where I am from. But actually I am quite positive. It’s part of who you are. For us it felt painful at the time. You didn’t feel part of the culture. You retreat into the world of monster movies. But that’s just a way of dealing with things. It actually felt very positive. It was fun to go back and remember this girl or that kid. It was fun to think of the scary teacher that you didn’t understand. All those things were fun. It was painful, but also pleasant. Both.”
He insists he didn’t really visit the pet cemetery, but Victors attempt to bring his beloved pet dog back from the dead is rooted in a youthful fantasy.
Sparky, the animated canine star of Frankenweenie, is based on Pepe, Burton’s first pet and a victim of distemper. “If you have a pet when you’re young and you connect to it, it’s your first love. The love is unconditional. It’s there. It’s the heart come to life. I don’t sit at home with my memorabilia thinking about the good old days. But I do think about things that I love.”
It’s a testament to Burtons artistic integrity that, between Frankenweenies, any number of actors have responded to his ideas and screenplays, even when studios have been less enthusiastic. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are currently unofficial principals in a company of recurring Burton players that stretches back to the 1980s and the director’s early collaborations with the late Vincent Price. Frankenweenie, in turn, reunites Burton with old chums Martin Landau (Ed Wood), Catherine O’Hara (Beetlejuice), Martin Short (Mars Attacks) and Winona Ryder, who, laughs Burton, “still sounds like a 10-year-old”.
But no HBC? And no Depp? How is such a thing possible?
“Meh,” sighs Burton theatrically. “They complain when I work with him; they complain when I don’t work with him.”
* Frankenweenie is out now on general release