The Visionaries: Tim Burton on His Movies, His Life and His Tombstone

September 20th, 2012

Steve Forrest for The New York Times

Mr. Burton with accessories at his home in London, including a picture of the actor Larry Hagman. (“Don’t ask. I have weird references.”) More Photos »

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.”

Disney

Tim Burton, far right, shooting his short “Frankenweenie.

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.

Walt Disney Pictures

The hero and his pet in Mr. Burton’s current feature “Frankenweenie,” based on the short.

It Came Out of Burbank

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.

20th Century Fox/Photofest

Johnny Depp and Kathy Baker in “Edward Scissorhands” (1990).

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?

Steve Forrest for The New York Times

Mr. Burton beside Jack Skellington (from “The Nightmare Before Christmas”).

Q. Were horror films and B movies easily accessible when you were growing up?

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