Frankenweenie director Tim Burton rekindles his childhood love of science

Director Tim Burton. Picture: Getty
Director Tim Burton. Picture: Getty
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Director Tim Burton has one of the most quirky imaginations in cinema, and his latest film, a tribute to his own boyhood, is testimony to that. It could all be connected to the fact that, as a child, he always wanted to grow up to become a scientist. But not any old scientist, hears Chitra Ramaswamy

MYTHS surround Tim Burton. The director lives with his partner, Helena Bonham Carter, in two adjoining mews houses in north London, which people like to think are separated by a secret underground passageway populated with bats and dripping candles. He wears only black. He is an insomniac who likes to pace his house at night and watch old monster movies by the light of a crackling fire. He doesn’t talk much and his films – heightened, otherworldly fantasias that celebrate the outsider and shudder at suburbia – are visual rather than verbal feasts. In fact, Bonham Carter has described Burton as “a home for abandoned sentences”.

Quirky is the word that has shadowed the man and the movies for years. What with the macabre picture usually painted of Burton, it’s not much of a leap to imagine the 54-year-old wandering the creaky corridors of his house by twilight, alone, shock-haired, and perhaps even scissor-handed.

Yet here he is in a swanky London hotel, in the middle of the day, smiling, laughing, and – gasp – talking about his latest film, Frankenweenie. At the press conference he has an entire room of stony-faced journalists in stitches with his off-kilter jokes and everyone I speak to about Burton – the actors Martin Landau, Catherine O’Hara, and Martin Short, all of whom have worked with him before – tell me he has a brilliant sense of humour, is great fun, and a great talker. (Apparently his advice to Landau on the set of Ed Wood was “go with your instinct and then divide by seven”). So it seems Burton does finish his sentences after all. Even his hair looks more tamed than usual.

Frankenweenie is a gorgeous stop-motion film about the love between a boy and his dog, and (this is Burton after all) his attempt to bring him back from the dead. It’s Burton’s most personal work yet, a tribute to his own boyhood growing up in 1960s and 70s Burbank, the Los Angeles suburb where he made anarchic Super 8 films, dreamed of misunderstood monsters, and started shaping what would become one of the most fertile imaginations in contemporary cinema.

“There are a lot of memories in this film,” he says. “Though of course I never tried to bring my dog back to life. But a lot of it is based on real things and real people and real feelings. I really did make little Super 8 films. I did love my dog… he was soulful, a heart on legs. I was a reluctant sports person. And I really did want to be a mad scientist…” He grins, blinks behind his spectacles, and gestures wildly with his hands. (Another surprising thing about Burton: he is very exuberant). “Not a regular one,” he laughs. “Mad seemed more fun.”

“Memories are fun because they aren’t exactly reality,” he goes on. “They are more like dreams.” And Frankenweenie, which opened the London Film Festival last week, has certainly lived a long time in both his memories and dreams. He started working on it almost 30 years ago, long before the ideas behind Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Batman, Sweeney Todd or The Corpse Bride entered his head. All his films contain the prototype of the original Frankenweenie, just as the new Frankenweenie is a culmination of all his films. It’s a very Burtonesque affair with its nod to Hammer horror, black-and-white monster movies, a familiar cast (Winona Ryder, Landau, and so on), and the sense of wonder and intense, pure, and unarticulated emotions associated with childhood. The only thing missing is Johnny Depp, who has appeared in so many of his films that he and Bonham Carter call him his first love.

“He was busy,” Burton says wryly. “People complain when I work with him, and when I don’t. I can’t win.”

Burton was a young animator at Disney in the 1980s when he made a live action short, inspired by Frankenstein, about a boy who brings his beloved pet dog back to life. He always saw it as a full-length stop-motion animation but the budget wasn’t available. In any case, Disney weren’t keen on his odd little macabre film and not long afterwards he was fired.

“It was strange because I got the opportunity to make the film, which was amazing,” he says. “There was no other studio letting you do short films like that. But being an animator at Disney at that time was a low point in the history of animation generally.”

Now the outsider has returned to the fold. Last year Burton made Alice in Wonderland for Disney as part of a three-picture deal. It may have received a lukewarm critical response, but it was massively successful at the box office. (This often happens with Burton’s films, or vice versa and critics love the films, such as Ed Wood, that bemuse audiences.) Frankenweenie, which many are calling a return to form for Burton, is likely to do the same.

“There is a lot more trust in Tim now,” says Disney executive producer Don Hahn. “I worked with Tim at Disney in the 1980s and I remember his drawing style was out-of-control great. It was hard to fit him in anywhere. It’s odd to say it but I’m glad he went away and did his own thing. Like Walt Disney himself, he isn’t afraid of going to a dark place.”

Many of the characters in Frankenweenie come from Burton’s original drawings. He sent them to animators, who sculpted more than 200 puppets for the film. Stop motion is an incredibly painstaking and skilled form of animation that requires making all the sets and puppets and filming 24 frames per second, as in repositioning the puppet 24 times. On average, an animator produces just five seconds per week.

“Returning to my drawings, it did seem stop motion was a more pure expression of the material,” Burton says. Can he get closer to what’s in his mind this way? “That’s what I love about it,” he says. “It’s a very specialised art form. And it’s tangible. You can see it. It’s like walking on to a movie set. The lights are there and the characters are moving in and out of real shadows. Everything is made.”

Frankenweenie is a film for children that explores death, grief, and – with a little help from some lightning – the possibility of life after death. His films are often described as dark, but Burton doesn’t see them like that at all. Actually, they are more childlike than anything else. Films such as Frankenweenie and Edward Scissorhands see the world, and particularly the strangeness of suburbia with its matching houses and manicured lawns through the eyes of a bemused child. Last year I interviewed Bonham Carter, who met Burton when he directed her in an ape suit in Planet of the Apes, and she described them as “a couple of big kids”.

How much does he feel his own childhood moulded his vision? “Well, you don’t try to stay in your own childhood,” he says uneasily. “But the inspirations and feelings you have early on stay with you. If you grew up liking a certain movie, it becomes part of you. And say you grew up feeling kind of like a loner. You become an adult and have lots of friends and you’re successful and you have a family... whatever.” He sighs and wrings his hands. “Everything has changed and yet you still retain the feeling of being a loner. That’s the thing. No matter how hard you try, you can’t shake certain feelings that were so strong early on.”

He doesn’t know why he was drawn to old horror films and monster movies. “Why do some people love John Wayne and westerns?” he shrugs. “Those were the films that spoke to me. It’s not a nostalgic choice. I don’t sit at home in my memorabilia room thinking about the good old days.”

He laughs. “And I think growing up in a certain environment where it was always light and bright had something to do with it. Those movies were a way into a different world.”

He also became a father later in life and has two children with Bonham Carter: Billy, nine, and Nell, five. How has parenthood affected him?

“It’s great,” he says with a grin that could be described as the opposite of dark. “It does reconnect you with all sorts of feelings. It’s so much fun to see little people seeing things for the first time. As we get older we get more jaded but when you see things fresh again, it’s great.” Not that I can imagine Burton ever getting jaded. So is that sense of seeing something for the first time what he’s trying to capture in his films? “It is a beautiful experience,” he says, his hands conducting the air. “Beautiful. Experiencing life like that is amazing.”