He’s been gracing us with visions of the peculiar since the 90’s. And after his recent success with the Ransom Riggs adapted novel, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, there’s no signs of slowing.
With childhood inspirations like Dr. Seuss and Roald Dahl, and a rookie background that includes a short stint at Disney, mastermind director, Tim Burton has always stayed true to his creative code. Be it jagged lines, swirly loops, unmasking classic morals within gore, his work, no matter the box office numbers, is authentic to his spirit. As an admirer of his filmography and writer, this is huge. Artists survive off of acclaim. We may receive payment for our efforts, but the true payment is the connection to the receiving audience. To prevent the pressure of finances from altering creative vision and purpose makes for a headstrong creator.
We treasure these types of pioneers. The wild. The driven. The hyped. The dreamers. The limitless. The ones who trust us to follow and understand their journey. And to carry on the spirit of the season, we salute the most authentic works by The Godfather of Halloween.
The Nightmare Before Christmas
Believe it or not, despite it’s working title, Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, was not directed by Tim Burton. Due to the load of creative responsibility with Batman Returns, Burton decided it’d be much more manageable to hand over the role of director to his old Disney Animation friend, Henry Selick. This was Selick’s directorial debut, with Burton serving as the film’s producer and creative director.
The idea for The Nightmare Before Christmas derived from Tim Burton’s sunny upbringing in Burbank, California–a place unmarked by the traditional weather changes of a Winter white Christmas. He found that decorations compensated for that ingredient and because of this, stores contained an epic inventory of both Halloween and Christmas decorations all at once. Thus, inspiring the collision of nightmare and cheer for our beloved Pumpkin King, Jack Skellington. This idea evolved into a poem, then drawings.
Burton believe the concept would do well as an annual TV special. When no one bit, he tried the world of publishing, then finally, film. Per his commentary, an estimated 20 years came to pass between the story’s birth and theatrical debut on October 29th, 1993.
Disney held mixed feelings about the project due to what they believed was its weird and dark nature. Because of this, they refused to release it under their banner and transferred it to their more mature branch, Touchstone Pictures. This however, did not mean they’d wiped their hands clean of creative criticism. Disney was firm on the belief that, in order for Jack to connect with audiences, he must have a pair of soft eyes. You can imagine the strong reactions from Selick and Burton. They believed this wouldn’t deter children or adult audiences from the appeal and empathy of the character. And boy, were they right.
The running theme I’ve always treasured about the film–no matter how many times my Mother insisted it was too creepy–is that it stresses the importance of embracing yourself. There’s only one you. Just like there’s only one Pumpkin King and one Santa Claus. Jack tried his hardest to try something new, which entailed him having to be someone knew. That’s something he wasn’t capable of, hence the mayhem of his version of Christmas. By the end of the film, Jack learns this and is more fulfilled and at ease by delivering his best for Halloween and all its traditions.
After the success of the film, it seemed only natural for Disney to push the wheels for a Nightmare Before Christmas sequel. But Tim Burton, stuck to his guns to prevent such things from happening. He told MTV:
“I was always very protective of [Nightmare Before Christmas], not to do sequels or things of that kind. You know, ‘Jack visits Thanksgiving world’ or other kinds of things, just because I felt the movie had a purity to it and the people that like it. Because it’s not a mass-market kind of thing, it was important to kind of keep that purity of it. I try to respect people and keep the purity of the project as much as possible.”
Beetlejuice fell in Tim Burton’s lap after he began to feel unenthusiastic about the scripts he’d been receiving. He’d just finished PeeWee’s Big Adventure, and was waiting on something fresh and timeless to light his interest. He agreed to take on Michael McDowell’s script, which was then later re-written by Larry Wilson and Warren Skaaren. It was originally full of more horror, demons and gore–with celebrities like Sammy Davis Jr. and Sam Kinison in consideration for the title character–but once the re-write completed, it stood as the mischief fun loving script we know and love today. David Geffen made a suggestion on the integral casting of Michael Keaton, who turned out to be the perfect fit for our ‘Ghost with the most’.
What’s also hard to believe is how much screen time Michael Keaton had in the 92 minute film. He appears for a total of 17.5 minutes, which makes sense since the actor only filmed for two and a half weeks. Ironic, seeing as most believe this to be Keaton’s best performance of all time.
Winona Ryder was pursued for the role of Lydia after Burton saw her in the teen drama, Lucas. A great amount of then young ingenues such as Lori Loughlin, Diane Lane, Sarah Jessica Parker, Brooke Shields, Justine Bateman, Molly Ringwald, and Jennifer Connelly declined the role.
Keaton went on to star in Batman and Batman Returns–both directed by Tim Burton. Winona Ryder returned as a Burton muse in Edward Scissorhands.
Beetlejuice became an instant smash and waved the lesson of be careful what you wish for and also who you ask for help in our faces. Not everyone has good or selfless intentions. So when in a moment of weakness, zip your lips and resist the urge to say ol’ boy’s name three times.
And it seems Hollywood, and Burton have been careful about this as well. A sequel has been an idea for years, but never much beyond that. At a press junket for Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, Tim Burton had this to say about a probable Beetlejuice sequel.
“I have talked to Michael and I have talked to Winona, I’ve talked to a few people,” Burton said, but didn’t have any details to offer, because (brace yourselves, Beetlejuice fans) nothing official is in the works.
“It’s something that I really would like to do in the right circumstances, but it’s one of those films where it has to be right. It’s not a kind of a movie that cries out [for a sequel], it’s not the Beetlejuice trilogy. So it’s something that if the elements are right–because I do love the character and Michael [Keaton] is amazing as that character, so yeah we’ll see. But there’s nothing concrete yet.”
“Well, a long time ago, an inventor lived in that mansion. He made many things, I suppose. He also created a man. He gave him inside, a heart, a brain, everything. Well, almost everything. You see, the inventor was very old. He died before he got to…”
A branch of his running outsider theme, Tim Burton and writer Caroline Thompson, came up with Edward Scissorhands after their shared agency recommended they meet up.
“They correctly assessed that we had strange ideas about the world,” Thompson said.
“One night over drinks, Tim told me about this drawing he’d made in high school of a character who had scissors for hands, and I instantly knew what to do with that image,” Thompson said. “So I wrote a 70 page treatment in about three weeks and gave it to him. And that’s basically the movie we ended up with.”
And after 25 years of cult classic status, it’s surprising to note that the first of eight Depp/Burton collabs was not a hit during its debut. “It took a long time to gain traction,” Thompson said.
20th Century Fox had their doubts about the off beat fantasy, but after the success of Burton’s Batman, they gave him clearance, of course with some heavy suggestions. The studio felt a young Tom Cruise, would be perfect for the role, since he became a household name with Rain Man. But Cruise felt the script’s ending was too depressing.
“He was interesting, but I think it worked out for the best. At the end of the meeting I did feel like, and I probably even said this to him, ‘It’s nice to have a lot of questions about the character, but you either do it or you don’t do it.”
Burton wished to go with an unknown actor for the title character, he compromised with the studio on Johnny Depp, who at the time was a teen heart throb due to 21 Jump Street. The studio continued to freak out about how fans would react to Depp’s appearance as Edward and decided to hold off on releasing images of his full ensemble till the film released.
Even though the film’s aesthetic was all too much and too odd for some, Burton and his crew didn’t budge on their visions. And despite the taking box office rank behind films like Look Who’s Talking and Home Alone, Edward Scissorhands went on to be one the best films of all time–a treasured tale outsider’s can find themselves in when misunderstood and labeled as something other than they truly are.
“Growing up, I was always moved by the sad ones, like ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame,’” Thompson told Variety Magazine. “I remain moved by those stories. I think of every script I’ve written as a sort of sad horror movie.”
For many, the story of a lonely outsider desperate to fit in touches a deeply personal nerve within them. “I’ve seen fans with entire scenes and characters tattooed on their necks,” production designer Bo Welch said. “It’s because the movie is very specific and personal. I mean, clearly it’s a very personal film for Tim as well.”
“Everyone feels like an outsider,” Thompson added. “That’s the story we were telling, and that’s the story people still respond to.”
Asked what they should be on the lookout for when revisiting the film, Thompson had a rather surprising answer. “Edward’s character was based on my dog,” she confessed. “People love their dogs, so just think of him as the best dog you ever had!”
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Meat pies, anyone?
This victorian urban legend practically waited to be spun by Tim Burton’s magic. It’s a tale of a young barber named Benjamin Barker, whose wife and child are targeted as prey by the evil Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman). The judge sentences Barker off to Australia for a crime he didn’t commit. 15 years later, Benjamin Barker returns for sweet revenge against his antagonists and anyone else in his path. But he returns under a new moniker, Sweeney Todd.
Composer, Stephen Sondheim and playwright, Henry Wheeler were very iron fisted with their theatrical body of work. Many reached out to adapt their Broadway play into a film, but a simple decline was given to everyone. That is, until Tim Burton wanted to take a stab.
From then on, the process remained tough. Each singing cast member had to prove their work to the composers. With Burton refusing to do the film without his partner in crime as the lead, Sondheim worried Johnny Depp’s voice would be too rock infused. He also wasn’t quite convinced Helena Bonham Carter, Tim Burton’s then romantic partner, could hold a note. The two actors went to work with creating audition tapes and performances for the composer (Helena sent twelve) and were approved by Sondheim immediately. No nepotism here.
Burton also told the studio the film would need have an R rating, as lots of bloodshed was imperative to Sweeney Todd’s character. The Broadway production was minimal on the gore, and to him, this robbed the story of its great power:
“Everything is so internal with Sweeney that [the blood] is like his emotional release. It’s more about catharsis than it is a literal thing.”
And unlike most of his films, the studio didn’t flinch.
“It was an amazing thing to go to the studio and say ‘We’re gonna do an R-rated musical with lots of blood with no professional singers about a serial killer and cannibals’, and to have them go ‘Great!’. That gave me hope that there are still people in Hollywood that are willing to try different things.”
The musical went on to be critical smash hit and received a bevy of awards — including Golden Globes for best actor, Johnny Depp and best motion picture. Returning to the project for a weekend watch makes it easy to see why. The film boasted a crew and cast so versed and talented, it can only be described as lightning in a bottle.
“This is one of the best casts I’ve ever worked with,” Burton gushes. “Everything on the set was very special for me, because to hear all of these guys sing was just… I don’t know if I can ever have an experience like that again.”
“I always get told that my material is dark, but nowadays my version of ‘Batman’ looks like a lighthearted romp in comparison to Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dark Knight’.”
By now, you’ve come to expect this type of reaction from anything Tim Burton touches. Right? Audiences were freaking out when this movie hit theaters. Parents were pissed and McDonald’s didn’t know how to market the damn thing. Penguin wasn’t exactly a child friendly personality for a toy–biting noses with black goo in his mouth. Michelle Pfeiffer was also a sexual deviant volatile criminal in a bondage suit. Her version of the feline fatale was much different from DC Comic’s Selina Kyle. She was basically a bad ass glorified dominatrix. It’s hard to see why people mistook it for a family movie when it was never marketed or sold as such.
Co-writer Daniel Waters reminisces on his viewings with audiences.
“I know I’ve seen the movie with audiences much more than Tim has. It’s always great, the lights coming up after ‘Batman Returns’ and it was like kids crying, people acting like they had been punched in the stomach and mugged. Part of me relished that reaction and part of me, to this day, is like ‘oops.’ ”
Still, Batman Returns rests in history as one of the first ‘art films’. Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman has also become one of the most renowned performances. There was a method style to her approach of the comic character, something that mimics Heath Ledger’s Joker, but of course in a more tongue in cheek and comedic way.
“For me, her version of Catwoman was one of my favorite performances on any movie I had worked on. I remember how she impressed me by letting a live bird fly out of her mouth, learning how to use a whip and dancing around on rooftops with high-heeled shoes on. She did all that stuff for real. I hadn’t really talked to her for about 20 years, and she called before I had started working on Dark Shadows, and she told me how much she loved the old TV series and she wanted to be involved.”
As Tim Burton has said, Sleepy Hollow is one of those stories that you think you know, but don’t actually know. So he took to the old American tale rather naturally as he himself wanted to adapt the story in its entirety and expand on the characters involved.
If anything, you come away from the film in a deep love affair with Johnny Depp’s interpretation of Ichabod Crane — an outsider forced in, who doesn’t really have the sorts to fulfill his role — and the lurid colors and pale homely sets based in the woods–so full of fog and dead foliage. These are the images I’ll never forget. It was storytelling on multiple levels, a body of work you can watch a handful of times before finding components you never noticed before.
And then there’s Christina Ricci, one of the greatest muses of all time. Her mixture of sexuality, purity and fierceness worked as the icing to this treat. She completed the aesthetic, and without her there would surely be something great missing.
‘We all look at people’s eyes to categorise them,’ he says. ‘You look at their eyes or face. But here you’ve got this powerful, elegant character without a head. The headless horseman represents the subconscious. Ichabod is the conscious mind, thinking too much, bullshitting his way through everything, which is perfect, appropriate…’ he tails off. So that’s something you relate to? ‘I suppose my films are a visual form of the subconscious. Sally in The Nightmare Before Christmas is stitched together because these are symbols of the way I feel. Being loosely stitched together and constantly trying to pull yourself together, so to speak, is just a strong feeling for me. In a great fairy tale you always get these weird images that are symbolic of something else.’
Perhaps the most endearing and sweet works of Tim Burton is Frankenweenie. What looks morbid on the outside is actually a very common tale of a child’s first loss and experience with death. It’s a common thread most of us all share — myself included. I’ll never forget the cutting pain of losing my best friend after 16 years, or the void that still exists when I fall asleep without the sound of his snoring and guarding disposition beside my bed. In many ways, it’s traumatizing.
What better way to provide therapy for your broken piece of childhood than to create art that works through these sentiments?
Burton created a 30 minute live action version of his original Frankenweenie story and drawings in 1984. He was working for Disney at the time, but the powerhouse studio rejected the work because it was, you guessed it, too “scary” for children. After making his own way in the film industry and stacking up a list of cultural phenomenons, Disney wasn’t so jarred by the idea of a dog come back to life. Talk about comeback power.
For Tim Burton, the theme of the film is so genuine and coming of age. Death is very much apart of life and it spares no age, so why not be honest with children and ignore all the frills?
“For me, it was intense, and I’m sure other people have had that experience. Especially when you’re a kid, it’s that first relationship. If you have a pet that you really relate to, it’s unconditional love, and it’s just so pure and strong and memorable that it stays with you. Also, there was the added element of that, with me, because the dog had this thing called distemper, where they said it wasn’t going to live for very long. I had this intense relationship with this specter of death looming over it, and I didn’t really understand that. It’s your first experience with those themes. And then, there were the monster movies, and the Frankenstein wish fulfillment of keeping something alive. Those two things actually felt very similar. You could always relate those monster movies to your own life. The neighbors were the angry villagers and you’re Frankenstein. I always found it quite easy to relate the feelings you got from those films to my real life. In that respect, it was very personal and strong. I think some people have probably had that experience, where they’ve had that connection with a pet.”
Besides being the first black and white animation film, Frankenweenie, at the core of it is no different from every childhood cartoons we celebrate. Somehow, this aspect doesn’t translate to most.
“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.”
And because we’re addicted to the beauty of all of these cinematic gems, here’s some stories we’d like to see re-imagined by Tim Burton in the future:
The Addams Family: Do I even need to say more? This would be a match made in heaven. Depp would slay as Gomez, without a question. Given the assistance of the standard Burton team of Henry Selick and Danny Elfman, another adaptation of our favorite ghoul family would be a certified instant classic. No detail would be spared and no head stone would go un-turned. Again, imagine Depp as Gomez. Lawd have mercy.
Little Red Riding Hood: In the same vein as Sleepy Hollow, this just seems like a natural evolution, especially with the horrid Grimm Brothers Tale endings.. It has all of the components for a whimsically eerie story arc: a rosy cheeked muse, relentless villain and the strangeness of nature to serve as a great background character.
The Crow: A revenant man fixated on revenge for the murder of him and his fiancee on the night before his wedding, Tim Burton style? Gimme. Please. Another installment of The Crow has been in talks for years, but it seems with the late Brandon Lee, it just hasn’t been meant to happen. Hopefully Burton takes an interest in it and makes it respectfully his and true to the legend.
So what did we learn today through the examination of Burton’s works? To never compromise yourselves or your vision. No matter what. Time after time, and even as of today, with all of his success, Tim Burton is doubted by critics and studios. And despite their suggestions and concerns he stays head strong in his artistry and for the most part proves them wrong. There’s something valuable in watching a veteran director still treated as an underdog. Especially when he states there are no regrets about all he has created.
“When somebody says, “If you could go back and redo something, what would it be?,” I go, “Well, I don’t even know if I would do that because it is what it is.” Some things were more successful than others, but even that is a funny one. Sometimes you can have a movie where everybody that you talked to loved it, but it’s a bomb. Sometimes you can have a movie that everybody hates, and it makes a lot of money. It’s a strange dynamic. So, I try to never really regret anything.”