For just about the entire length of Tim Burton’s career his work has shown a close association with death. With Frankenweenie in theaters this Friday he’s made two stop motion movies about people coming back from the dead. He directed two superhero movies where the lead character was motivated by the death of his parents. Sweeney Todd is about a barber who cuts people down, and Beetlejuice follows events in the afterlife. But what does Burton have to say about connections between his work and his suggested death impulse? In his words, “They’ve been killing animals for years.”
The weekend before last I had the pleasure of driving down to Disneyland where I, along with my friend Roth Cornet of Screen Rant, were given the opportunity to sit down with the Oscar-nominated filmmaker and discuss both his latest movie and his career. Check out or conversation below in which Burton talks about what made now the right time to resurrect Frankenweenie, the suggested death impulse in his work, and the value of limitations and how they’ve affected his career.
We were just saying that there is a purity and clarity in the stop motion animation, and overall aesthetic to the film, that reflects the purity and clarity in the love between a boy and his dog.
Yes, that’s what made it feel different than the short - which I loved doing and it was great to do live-action - but what I always loved about the drawings and what you can do in stop motion is that there is purity to the emotion. The black and white also added to that for me. If the studio had said to me, “Well, you can do the movie but only in color” I wouldn’t have done it because it was that important to me to impart that emotional stripping away of things so that you get that simplicity and the strength of what it’s about.
You originally intended to tell the story in stop motion, is that correct?
Well, not necessarily. My recollection of it now was that it was designed to go out with another film. Back in the old days when Disney was releasing an animated film they would do these live-action nature kinds of shorts. You know the crazy cougar comes to town or whatever. So that was what it was originally sort of designed to be. And I was happy to do it, and enjoyed doing it, but they quickly became freaked out about releasing it. Whatever, this happens.
What made now the right time to bring it back?
Well I wasn’t thinking "Okay, now is the time." It has to do with a few different things. Obviously when I did it way back then it did its thing and I went on and did other things. But it was such a memory piece for me in the sense that it was based on real emotions and real feelings and a love of certain kinds of movies and growing up in an environment. I started going back and thinking about other elements from that time in terms of like Burbank where I grew up. I mean we shot the original short in Pasadena, which is a slightly different vibe from Burbank, and also remembering certain types of kids in school and certain politics and certain weird teachers. So there were a lot more elements than the love of those classic monster movies.
Also, if the original was the structure of Frankenstein then this was the structure of some of those later movies like The House of Frankenstein or Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein where they put more monsters in there. So that made it feel more of a natural expansion of an idea rather than taking a short and trying to pad it out. It’s like being able to have everything be from a real kind of place, the same kind of baseball field, the same kind of auditorium, the same kind of PE teacher and kids and all that. So that made it feel like a real package. Plus it takes time to get the right kind of team together. When we’re working on an animated film for some reason it feels like we always have to start from scratch again because people go off and work for Pixar and wherever else and it’s such a rarefied form of animation that it takes quite a bit of time to put your team together.
It seems that, in looking at your work, many people have the idea that you have an interest in death, or the death impulse or darker elements. But I see such a life force in your work.
Well thank you. That’s what always shocked me about people. I always find that kids can take quite a lot and that they’re quite intelligent. And I find that adults, as they get older, kind of forget what it’s like. Even with Disney movies. They think they’re all light and airy-fairy and yet from Snow White on, The Lion King and everything, death is very present. They’ve been killing animals for years.
They’ve been shooting them in the woods for years.
Yeah, I mean Old Yeller.
Yeah, and that’s the whole point. I mean that’s why I always get a bit frustrated by that idea. Because I’ve had that my whole life, and the fact is that in my mind this is like a classic Disney movie structure. It’s not like going to new levels of darkness. In fact I find it quite light. But you know I went through that with Nightmare Before Christmas. People said that it was going to be too scary for kids and then you’ve got three year olds coming up to you and singing the songs. I’m so sick of that. Even doing Batman it was like, “it’s too dark, it’s too dark” now it looks like a lighthearted romp. Jesus.
[Laughs] It’s so true. Yes and Grimm’s fairy tales were certainly not airy.
They’re so dark. Even as a kid I’m three years old and reading these stories and now even I forget how horrible they are. And hilariously horrible. But I find that the most fascinating dynamic with adults. It’s like, where have they gone in their mind? I mean don’t they remember any of this stuff? It was around when they were kids. So it’s not like it’s some new thing.
So what do you think it is? Do you think it’s your imaginative take and visual style?
I don’t know. I think they forget. I’m a parent now and you become a little bit more protective, I guess. And I can understand that, getting into protective mode or whatever. But at the same time I don’t know how you can forget that Snow White was scary and Pinocchio was scary. I was even watching 101 Dalmatians and it was like ‘boil em’, skin em’ beat em’ bash em’ em over the head, kill em!’ And I guarantee you now that if that line was in a Disney film they would freak out.
Our culture has become overprotective over the years. Do you think it has something to do with that?
Yeah, and at the same time it spins out of control in terms of violence and other things. They complain about movies but you read less about the effects of technology and Facebook and computers where you can sit endless hours of the day killing people in a video game. To me there are many more potentially culturally damaging things that people don’t talk about as much as they rag on movies - which are probably the safest form of entertainment you can get. I remember I watched movies like The Brain that Wouldn’t Die on a Saturday afternoon and the guy’s arm gets ripped off and he’s running his bloody stump down the wall. And I’m alright; I mean I’m still a functioning member of society to some degree.
Do you think it’s just that your films feel unfamiliar or new and that those fairy tales are more classic and known and so the familiarity makes people take the darker elements for granted?
Honestly I just find it fascinating. The best thing I could think is the protection thing. And fear. That’s why I like the idea of not getting so involved in technology. Instead of going online I’d like to just go look at the clouds for ten minutes and let your mind wander. Especially as an adult when you’re forced to be more responsible, and have a family. It does kind of take you away from your simple, emotional creative life. No matter what you do. It’s important for everybody to have at least a moment to just meditate or whatever you do to space out.
That definitely ties into the film as well, because you have the scene where all the parents are complaining about the teacher, about Mr. Rzykruski, and his “dangerous” methods. It’s progression.
Yeah, yeah. And also it’s like when people get all up in arms about something. The best way…and it’s something you try to tell your kids - you see your two kids fighting. Well why does it work? Because one has an effect on the other, and if you just let certain things go. It’s like the religious thing, when they start complaining about something and it just makes the other thing look better. It doesn’t actually do the purpose. If you actually just let things go and let issues… just keep it personal, don’t make such a big deal out of it because if you make a big deal out of it then you’re not necessarily achieving what you want to achieve with it. It’s kind of a stupid thing. I don’t know. I just find all that stuff shocking and amusing and scary at the same time [laughs].
It is interesting, because the film does deal with the ideal of misunderstandings based on superficially based judgments…
And it’s always been happening that way. Superficial judgments are the most boring, but they’ve been around since I was a child and they’re around today and, like I said, it seems to get stronger that way and everything else kind of spins out of control. So it is a weird dynamic for sure.
I wanted to ask you about your career also, because at the start of your career you were met with your fair share of rejection and we’re now two years removed from what is not only the biggest hit of your career in terms of box office numbers, but one of the few films to make more than a billion dollars internationally. I’m curious from your point of view, if the way you make films has changed as you’ve seen more success, and if you think there’s still value in limitations and people saying no.
Well, if you ask anybody if they have $200 million to make a film it’s not quite enough. If you have $1 million it’s not enough. Everyone from the full spectrum…because there are limitations and you’d be making a huge budget movie and still feel like you’re screwed, that you don’t have enough money. But I was lucky in a way because early on in my career I had a couple of successes, and I thought, “Ooh, this is going to be easier now. I can do whatever I want,” from Pee Wee to Beetlejuice to Batman and I thought, “Well, I’ve been lucky! So now I’m going to do Edward Scissorhands.” And it was like the hardest movie to get made, and it was lower budget. And it created its own weird dynamic because people thought all I did was create big Hollywood movies. I couldn’t get locations because they were too expensive and this and that because they thought you were doing a big Hollywood movie.
So I found that, actually, each project…and there have been projects even lately where I’ve worked for six months on it and they cancelled them. It does still happen and it actually made me feel more evened out to realize that you know what, each project…and I feel bad for people that think, that come up to me and they go, “You can do anything you want.” You can’t really, and that’s okay. You should have those kind of challenges and restrictions. That’s the nature of film and I think that that’s actually not a negative thing.