Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short both started in sketch comedy, notably the Canadian series SCTV (though Short also had a memorable stint on Saturday Night Live). Both quickly moved on to notable film roles: Short in the likes of Innerspace and Three Amigos, O’Hara in quirky productions like Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas. Those last productions sprung from the mind of Tim Burton, who brought the actors back together for his new project Frankenweenie. They spoke at length about their work on the film, their past on SCTV and how working with Burton hasn’t changed much over the years.
Question: You guys got to play man and wife together on this one.
Catherine O’Hara: Yes we did.
Q: Not your usual experience on an animated movie.
COH: No, but smart on Tim’s part.
Martin Short: Yes, it was wild. Usually in animation you do it by yourself, and we did our parent scenes together.
COH: It helped set the tone for the movie. And it helped us get the intimacy that we needed.
Q: Was it anything like in the old days when you guys did a lot of scenes together?
COH: Oh, it always is. But I’m fortunate enough to see Marty a lot in life. And we live not far from each other, so we goof off all the time. It actually scared me a bit, getting back together. The few times that we’ve worked together we don’t behave well.
MS: Yeah. We have an unfortunate history. We started out at a CBC pilot back in ‘78. Bit different, but it’s sort of been all downhill from there.
COH: I just spend way too much time laughing and being kinda foul mouthed with Marty. But Tim kept us in line.
Q: Had you guys seen sketches of your characters? And sketches of the environment you’d be working in before you do your work?
MS: Absolutely. What’s amazingly rewarding for an actor to work with Tim is that he’s hired you. So the buck stops with him and starts with him. But he also wants to hear from you. So you see a sketch and then for the first session or two he wants to hear how you see it. And when he starts laughing, then you know you’re on the right track. Not necessarily laughing out of something funny that’s been said, but laughing because now it’s fitting in with how he saw it. He started with images, but not voices. Burgermeister is a good example. Tim didn’t know what he would sound like, but he knew he should be disturbing, weird, and odd. I remember at one point I said, “what if he just had been a four-packs-a-day smoker but had recently quit.” With Tim, that’s just the kind of thing he’s looking for.
COH: They had these drawings on easels in the first recording session. We went individually at that time. These beautiful drawings of these characters were there, and they tell you a bit of the story. With that kind of work, when you have such a beautiful thing to work with, you want to honor that. I felt a great responsibility and also a great honor to be able to voice those characters that had been in his head
Q: Both of you have worked with Tim before, so how did he approach you for these roles?
COH: I got a call from my agent saying “Tim wants you to come in and do three voices: Mother, Weird Girl, and Gym Teacher.” I thought, “he’s giving me a shot at three voices.” I did not for a second assume I was going to play all three characters. And each time I went in I thought, “oh I’m still doing three voices! I’m still doing three characters!”
Q: Because you’re doing voice acting as opposed to live action acting, how different was it working with him as a director?
COH: He’s just the same as he was for me on the set of Beetlejuice. Really fun and loose, but he absolutely knows what he wants. He’s so confident about achieving what he wants, that it becomes this playfulness: this willingness to let you try anything. When you first open your voice, it’s scary, whether it’s live action or recording but especially if it’s recording. He makes you feel safe. So you just sort of jump in and start playing and have fun with him. He’s the same guy that way.
MS: I worked with him on a film called Mars Attacks and right away you’re struck by his lightness. He’s just a funny guy who wants to laugh and isn’t particularly dark at all. Just joyful and really enthusiastic. And very much wants to hear what your take on it – even a scene. He’s the exact same now fifteen years later. He just wants to hear what your take on it is. And then as it narrows down, he gets specific as to what he hears. He likes this, he wants that.
Q: Do you find that it’s either more or less difficult to communicate emotion with just your voice?
COH: That’s a relief. For me. My face moves too much.
MS: It’s just a different muscle. It’s like saying is it different to work on film than in theater. If you’re doing a play, you can’t just talk to someone like we’re talking now. You’re moving and you have to project, and you have to get the director to make sure that you can convey the same thought while going downstage to tie up your shoe. Because the audience is right there. And when you do, you are just working with your voice. But if you were being filmed you wouldn’t perform that way. You’d make it organic and one. It’s just a different exercise for an actor.
COH: And very focused. Very focused. And I think most people I know kind of freak when they hear their own voice. You think you sound like something and then you hear yourself and on the recording and go, “What!?” In a recording session you’ve got the headphones on, so your voice is just really big and you hear every breath, and if you haven’t swallowed properly you’re hearing that, and you’re hearing everything in your lungs.
Q: Was there more of a need to exaggerate and embellish the characters in a work like this than it might be in Beetlejuice or Mars Attacks?
MS: Yes and no. Pee-Wee is a perfect example. That film took Pee-Wee Herman, who was a broader-than-life character, but then created a world to be as odd as Pee-Wee. So the equal equation was that it was all normal. It’s the same with Frankenweenie… and in real life too. We live in a world where you go to the market and there’s a guy selling fish, and he’s wearing coolots on his legs and one of those bad shirts and his gut sticks out. And he’s not trying to do a sketch on Saturday Night Live. He’s sincere. And that’s why it’s funny.
When you look at a character sketch like Burgermeister, you wouldn’t necessarily know how he speaks. You have to create something that fits that. You start in a void and you start experimenting, especially in the first session. And then like all things you just find the path. When we did SCTV, sometimes we wouldn’t particularly know what a character was going to sound like. But you’d sit in the makeup chair, they’d put a wig on you, you’d look in the mirror, and then something connects.
Q: When you did see the movie, was there any one scene that popped out at you that you weren’t expecting at all?
MS: I was surprised with the amount of emotion. Movies often tell us to feel emotion, rather than just showing us. The score soars, the teardrops appear. This is a little more sincere than that.
COH: for me, it was the cat changing. The transition is insane. Can you imagine? That is six months of stop-frame animation. It’s like you see every atom in its body change. It’s just madness.
Q: Weird Girl is not a riff on another voice, Karloff or Peter Lorre or anybody. It’s just—
COH: I know I went to school with some weird girls, I know we all did. For the first session I really wanted to show up with something to offer. I remember just trying to think of people that I went to school with who, at the time, you quietly tried to avoid or who you never wanted to be paired with in lab class. I don’t mean this in a mean-spirited way, because everyone is somebody’s weird girl. But I thought, “they probably have a soft way about them, because if they don’t sneak up on you, you’ll find a way to slip away.” So we started with that, and then we basically stole one of John Candy’s sketches about swallowing and not being able to get a thought out. John Candy – dear soul – did it on SCTV. He was doing a version of our makeup artist in a scene that I wrote. He was playing a kid. So I don’t think he’ll mind.
Q: You’ve both worked with Burton before. Have you seen a growth in him?
COH: Well, his work is ever-growing and ever-changing, and although he certainly has great consistency in taking care of his characters and his visuals, but he seems like the same guy to work with. I remember with Beetlejuice, they were waiting to see how Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure was going to do before they would give him more money, or give it a release date. Everything rested on how that was going to do. But he wasn’t any different than he is now.
MS: When you are as successful as Tim, you can be this way. You don’t have to walk into the set and say, “Now look, I’m the most important person here.” There’s none of that because we already know it. Everyone knows it. And he isn’t there to be that guy. He doesn’t come in and say, “Let me tell you about my journey.” He wants to hear about yours… and then use that to find the best way forward.