The Total Film Interview - Tim Burton

After 21 years of movie mystique, what still fuels Hollywood’s A-list outsider Tim Burton? The king of the kooks tells Total Film about Depp, daffodils and death warmed up...

The afternoon after the clocks go back, when darkness falls at four and Halloween is but two days away – it’s a fine time to meet Tim Burton.

It’s the season to be scary, after all: to dress up as ghosts, squeeze into your skeleton suit and make rictus-grinning Jack-O-Lanterns out of pumpkins. For the 48-yearold director, though, it’s all a bit… humdrum. “Everyday is Halloween in our house,” he says as he sits down with Total Film in the Marriott Hotel on London’s South Bank, dressed in black jacket, dark blue shirt and Bono-style tinted shades. “It’s sort of decorated that way the year round.”

What’s normal for Burton, of course, is extraordinary for the rest of us. The director of 12 films, producer of the recently 3-D-ised The Nightmare Before Christmas and scribbler behind countless spindly sketches of assorted oddballs (The Melancholy Death Of Oyster Boy; Roy, The Toxic Boy; The Boy With Nails In His Eyes), he’s one of a select club of filmmakers for whom an ‘esque’ suffix conjures up a specific world. Think Burton and you think droopy shadows, spidery angles, twisted trees and cobbled, cobwebby pavements – much like the late-October, twilight-cloaked London outside his hotel window right now, in fact.

Burton laughs. He’s about to respond when the fire alarm pipes up, causing a minor evacuation. (“I’m always getting chucked out of hotels,” he remarks drily.) Cut. Take two. Fade in…

“I love London but I was disappointed that it wasn’t as foggy as I’d expected!” he says, referring back to his 1982 short Vincent (“So he and his horrible zombie dog/Could go searching for victims in the London fog…”). “Thing is, I felt very much at home when I first came over in the late ’80s to do Batman and then Sleepy Hollow, so I was living here off and on.” Since finishing Big Fish in 2003 it’s mostly been on, the director having repatriated with fiancée Helena Bonham Carter. So does he really love London, now that winter’s creeping in? It’s a far cry from Burton’s childhood in sunny Burbank, California

“I like your weather,” he says, deadpan. “Weirdly, I feel more at home. And there’s much more of an acceptance for eccentric behaviour here than in America. I feel very comfortable being a foreigner, because I felt like a foreigner in LA. I’m actually much more at home being a foreigner. Also, it helps being further away from George Bush…”

But on to more Burton-esque topics, the director puts a signature spin on a domestic concern that’s currently niggling at him. “Billy Ray [his three-year-old son] broke his arm and he’s got a full cast on,” he says, apologising if he seems distracted. “He looks like a mummy, so he’s got his Halloween costume early this year.” A chip off the old block if ever there was one…

Changing The Nightmare Before Christmas into 3-D... Was it just a case of waiting for the technology to be ready?

Yeah, but it was halfway there anyway because the puppets were dimensional and the sets were dimensional. Stop-motion and the 3-D process work really well together – when I first saw the footage, I was amazed how it shows off all the artists’ work the way it was intended. You can feel the texture of the puppets more. It’s also emotionally enhanced the film for me. It’s the best it’s ever been.

From the original Nightmare to Corpse Bride to the new 3-D rendering, stop-motion’s come a long way...

The thing about stop-motion is that, at the end of it all, it’s still the same process. Digital cameras and certain aids may be there now, but part of the joy is that it’s still that old-fashioned medium. Sure, some of the puppets were more sophisticated on Corpse Bride, but stop-motion hasn’t really changed since the beginning of motion pictures. That’s what’s great about it. That’s why we love it.

The 3-D Nightmare is certainly scarier...

I feel it’s how the movie was meant to be seen. It doesn’t feel gimmicky to me and the technology’s gotten to a place where you don’t get a headache watching it. The glasses look a little cooler, too! As TV gets better and better, filmmakers need to think, “What will get you out of the house to go see something?” There are good CG movies, but there’s also valid stop-motion.

On Charlie And The Chocolate Factory you trained real squirrels and on Big Fish you surrounded Ewan McGregor with real daffodils. Wouldn’t CGI have been easier?

The squirrel-trainers, man – they went nuts! It was like a special James Bond training camp. As the months went on, you could just see those guys glaze over; they had a weird look in their eyes. But it was important. I remember a squirrel jumped on me and it’s the freakiest feeling. They’re like these hyper-rats that jump, so it gives it a reality to actually experience that a little as opposed to the scene being all just an effect. I think that’s why you build as many sets as you can, or actually put in the fields of flowers like in Big Fish. It helps the actors. It’s the fun of making a movie, too – if you’re just in a green room for six months, it drives you mad.

You’re on safe ground with Nightmare 3-D as it’s a re-tinkering of your own work. But what did you want to bring to your re-imagining of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory?

I wanted what I felt the spirit of the book was, because it was one of those that you remember in your mind when you first read it, see the poems and the Oompa-Loompa things. It just felt very musical to me. So the goal was to keep as true to the spirit of the book as we could.

And with Planet Of The Apes?

Well, that was more of a perverse challenge. I mean, Planet Of The Apes was a classic movie and I thought, “Well, there’s the original, then they made five other movies and the TV series and lunchboxes...” So it’s not like it’s just the original and this. That would have been a real mistake. I knew I was going to be in trouble for it, but you know, something about talking apes [Laughs]… It’s always a weird challenge! With this… the more time goes by, the better I’ll like it.

Can you imagine any of your own films being remade?

Yikes! I don’t know about that. I mean, I’ve often resisted re-visiting. Like in the case of Nightmare and Beetlejuice, they asked me to do sequels and I just said no… I wanted to keep the integrity of those particular things. Those movies were special to me.

Batman, though, has had a re-tooling with Batman Begins...

I was lucky when I made Batman because, at the time, it felt like new territory. We went back to the traditions of the comic and they were usually light and cartoony. It was exciting. Then, all of a sudden, every comic-book hero is a tortured soul in a funny costume. [Laughs] I think the genre’s always having to reinvent itself and, obviously, comics are a kind of modern folk tale that can stand to be re-told and re-looked at in many different ways. But I think the dark tortured comic-book hero… Well, I think it’s time for a new angle. Maybe it’s time to go back to the brightly coloured cartoon.

In a sense, you’ve always treated death like a brightly coloured cartoon. In Beetlejuice, Big Fish and Corpse Bride, you deal with it through humour. Is that for comfort?

Well, I’d rather go later than sooner, but I think a lot of it has to do with the culture I grew up in – death was very taboo, very dark and not to be discussed. But living in Southern California, I was also near the Hispanic community for whom death was a day-to-day celebration. It made it feel like, “Yeah, you know, it’s a part of life; it’s going to happen to everybody…” I was always impressed by the way other cultures treated it with a sense of fun. It just seemed more accurate and more right to me.

In Beetlejuice’s afterlife, there are those scenes with the clueless jocks. Was that a revenge of sorts?

Absolutely. Studios don’t want to hear it, but filmmaking is all about exorcising certain demons. Those guys reminded me of people I went to school with [Laughs]. There was something about it that was very funny to me – especially when you’re doing a weird fantasy. Taking someone who tortured you in high school helps you to stay passionate and be personal, even in projects that are big Hollywood movies. It takes something that’s unreal and anchors it in its own reality.

You’re famed for your sketches. What is the closest that you’ve got to matching your drawings on screen?

Probably Nightmare. That was the first film I really conceived of and was with the whole way through, even though it took almost 10 years to get made!

Are you constantly scribbling new drawings?

Yeah. For instance, Jack [Skellington, The Nightmare Before Christmas] was just a simple case of me being on the phone and doodling. Sometimes you just keep drawing without any real conscious decision like, “Oh, I’m going to make a main character that has no eyeballs.” I find that when it just happens that way – and it doesn’t happen on every film – when it comes from your subconscious, it’s more meaningful than your intellectual mind just going, “Let’s make a movie about this or that.” So when it does happen, it’s an important moment for me.

It’s rumoured that your current project, Sweeney Todd, will be R-rated. Have you made gruesome sketches for that, too?

Well, I do my own little doodles, but the movie’s being designed by Dante Ferretti who’s such a brilliant draughtsman. He did a lot of Fellini films, so that’s exciting. But I have done a couple of little doodles… and I’m not going to skimp on the blood. I’ve seen some Sweeney Todd productions that try to be politically correct, y’know? [Shakes head] We’re talking about a serial killer and cannibalism, so you can’t exactly skimp on that stuff! It’s a politically incorrect movie; soften it up and it just doesn’t work. And also, we’re doing the full-on musical version. It will be… interesting.

On Sweeney Todd you’ll again be surrounded by friends and family. Does it help you relax on set?

I like to mix it up. Sometimes I’ll work with new people and sometimes I’ll work with those I’ve worked with before. It’s not something I consciously go out of my way to do, but obviously, with certain people, there’s a shorthand in terms of discussion. But I don’t like to rely on that, because it makes it too easy. With each film, you want to keep that energy going.

Johnny’s fun to work with, though – it’s always something different. He’s more of a character actor than a leading man. It’s fun to work with an actor like that, much more exciting than somebody who wants to come in and do the same thing every time. Johnny’s always wanting to sort of hide behind a character, become a character. I’ve always loved great character actors…

It must have been great to work with some of your heroes, such as Vincent Price and Christopher Lee...

Yeah, and Michael Gough. I’d grown up watching all those people and that’s been one of the greatest pleasures, to work with people that have given you so much. It’s amazing. Amazing. I wish I could have met Peter Cushing, but I’ve been really lucky anyway… Vincent, Christopher, Michael… All these people. Wow.

How disappointed were you when Ed Wood didn’t do well commercially?

That’s the weird thing about movies… I loved Ed Wood. For me, it’s as good, if not better, than a lot of the other ones I’ve done that made a lot more money. I’m surprised if a movie does well, or I’m surprised if it doesn’t do well. It’s always a surprise. Ed Wood was a surprise because it was complete bomb! Yet it’s probably one of the favourites of mine.

It’s gathered momentum as the years have passed, especially on DVD...

Yeah, it’s strange. It surprises people. I don’t know what happened but, when it first showed at the New York Film Festival, it got a great response. I guess it’s a real film crowd there but it was, “Wow.” But then I realised that the only people who were going to see it probably saw it that night!

Suitable perhaps for a film that elevates the work of Ed Wood...

Yeah, I know! Well, it’s keeping up the good work [Laughs].

If Ed Wood is known as a heroic failure, what to you is Burton-esque?

I try not to think about it. No honestly, I’ve always hated labels. It’s like we all get labelled from the day we start going to school. But I guess I consider it flattering because when you make a movie, you hope at the end that people can recognise you in it, even if they don’t know your work or whatever. I mean you watch a Roman Polanski film and you know it’s Polanski. Cronenberg, too. I think it’s a compliment if people recognise something in it, even if they don’t like it.

You must be proud, though: even people who don’t know much about film will look at spindly trees around this time of year and go, “Oh, it’s like something out of a Tim Burton film...”

You see, that’s meaningful to me because that has nothing to do with money or box office or anything like that – it just has to do with the connection that I find really strong and emotional. And that’s what makes me the happiest, that connection. It’s like Nightmare… That’s had the strangest life because it did okay and then took on a life of its own. Not with a large group of people, but a relatively small and passionate group. They’re the kind of group you feel part of in a funny way. It’s like the small group of people at school that were the slight outcasts of everything. It’s very meaningful because that’s the kind of person I am and was.

The night’s drawing in, so here’s one last question to finish things off. If you had to place yourself in just one of your films, which one would it be?

Oh boy. High up on the list would probably be Nightmare because it was the first film I really conceived of, so that was special. Edward Scissorhands is one that is very personal to me, too. And Ed Wood. It’s those three that are up there for me…