Tim Burton is one of the few directors whose name constitutes a brand in and of itself. His work defines the whimsical Goth ethos, thanks to films like Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, Corpse Bride and Alice in Wonderland. His latest film, Frankenweenie, returns to a short he did back in 1984, expanded to feature-length running time and using stop-motion puppets instead of live actors. He spoke to the press at the film’s junket about Frankenweenie’s roots in his Burbank childhood, as well as the influences that brought him to his current position.
Question: When did you first get the idea to make Frankenweenie a feature-length film?
Tim Burton: These things always take a long time to get going, but it was many years. After doing a live-action short, which was great, I got to go on and do other things. So I didn’t really think about it for a while. Then when people came to me and wanted to do that show, I started looking at some of the older drawings. And there was something about the drawings and loving stop motion. The idea of doing black-and-white stop motion, in 3-D, was really cool.
Then, because it was such a memory piece, I started thinking about other things. I started thinking about other kids that I remember in school, and certain weird teachers I had, and things like that. New monsters, what kind of kids would own them, and stuff like that. It started to feel like a whole new project, and that’s when I started to really get excited about it.
Q: If it is semiautobiographical, are Mr. and Mrs. Frankenstein based on your parents in any way?
TB: I think they’re more optimistic versions. [Laughter] I had a slightly more troubled relationship with my parents, but on some level, yes. My father was a professional baseball player, and he got injured, but he still worked in the sports department of Burbank. So that whole dynamic of trying to get me into sports, that’s all fairly accurate. In a cartoon kind of way.
Q: This film deals with the death or the loss of a pet. Was there any autobiographical element to that?
TB: It wasn’t so much one incident that captured it. It was sort of the overall feeling of it. The genesis of the movie is the relationship with the dog. But unlike the short film, I tried to capture the feeling of the place I grew up in as well. The architecture and the design go much more with the architecture of that era of Burbank. And like I said, the other kids, and the dynamic of the classroom, and the way the classroom looked, and the way the other kids were… it all felt kind of strange growing up.
I tried to link everybody to people that I remember. I remember a few different weird girls in school, and teachers that were quite kind of scary and intimidating, but also inspirational. Everything in the movie was based on some sort of personal memory of the place, or people, or the feeling. The story of the boy and his dog sort of grew out of that.
Q: You’ve stated that you’re a fan of the old Universal horror movies, and that’s clearly on display here. When did that love affair begin?
TB: I don’t know. I think it’s just because I could always relate to them. I think a lot of kids relate to Frankenstein’s monster, and Dracula and those guys. It’s easy to relate to the monster in the sense that he’s alone and misunderstood. When you’re growing up, you could feel those feelings pretty easily. And it’s not hard to see your neighbors as angry villagers sometimes. It was easy to make those kinds of connections in a slightly abstract way in this film.
Q: What scares you now?
TB: I was never scared by monster movies. I felt like the monsters were always the most emotional characters, at least in those old films. I’m not a big fan of spiders, rats and bugs. Especially if they’re… I got up one morning on a holiday recently, and there was a centipede in the bed that big. I wasn’t very happy about that.
Q: What kinds of things could you better express in black and white here?
TB: I just find the black and white very beautiful, and I was very happy that the studio went along with it. I only wanted to make it in black and white, I wouldn’t have done it in color. It’s part of the emotion, of evoking this place and this feeling. I was also quite excited about seeing black and white in 3-D, because there’s a depth in the black and white and the clarity in the image, which you wouldn’t get in color.
3-D also works really well with stop motion. If you’ve ever been on a stop motion set, it’s like you could touch the puppets. You’re in a set, with the props and the lighting and everything. The characters are going in and out of shadows for real. There’s something quite beautiful about it; what the artists put into it is so beautiful. Black and white and the 3-D for me helped enhance all the work that people put into it.
Q: Was Disney ever concerned that it would get too dark?
TB: Not at all. I always felt quite confident that this was a traditional Disney movie in a lot of ways. Disney movies like Bambi and The Lion King deal with similar issues. People forget that; I mean even people at Disney forget that! There’s also an element of danger and darkness in Disney films, like Snow White and Pinocchio. I think that’s part of why people remember Disney films. If all of that stuff was taken out of every Disney movie, they wouldn't have any power to them.
And I think it’s a positive film with a positive message. So I never felt like it was pushing the boundaries very much.
Q: I’m sure you get a lot of fans who tell you how much they’ve identified with one character or another…
TB: Yeah, that’s really gratifying. I know it’s a cliché, but it really makes you feel good when you’ve connected with someone like that.
Q: What’s the most bizarre encounter you’ve had with a fan?
TB: Sometimes you get people that show you tattoos that are quite strange based on your work. That’s always an interesting one, strange tattoos in strange places.
Q: Have you ever seen your face tattooed anywhere?
TB: Um, yeah. Don’t remind me. [Laughter.]
Q: Who do you admire the same way that people admire you?
TB: I’ve been very lucky to meet a lot of people that I grew up being inspired by. Vincent Price, Ray Harryhausen, Christopher Lee, Michael Girard. It’s one of the benefits of doing what I get to do. I’ve been very, very lucky.