Tim Burton: Beautiful Nightmares

January 31, 2020
Famed for his dark, phantasmagorical visions, we take a look back at the wondrous career of Tim Burton.

“There was one moment, and it happened in school,” Tim Burton once replied when asked about when he decided that he wanted to be a filmmaker. “I had a big final exam, and we were supposed to write a report on this book about Harry Houdini. I probably would have loved reading it, but I didn’t, so I just decided to make a little super-8 movie based on it. I tied myself to the railroad tracks and all that. It was kids’ stuff, but it impressed the teacher, and I got an A. That was my first turning point. That was when I said, ‘Yeah, I wouldn’t mind being a filmmaker.’”

With his perennial pitch black wardrobe, unruly shock of dark, inky hair, and quiet, diffident manner, Tim Burton is an anomaly amongst Hollywood directors. He makes big budget blockbusters, but looks like the kind of guy who wouldn’t have even the slightest interest in money or fame. Burton is an unashamed eccentric; he makes films like nobody else, and the dark, perverse worlds that he creates are never short of visually stunning and thematically compelling. Burton makes celluloid fables for the ages that gleefully celebrate outsiders, oddballs and underdogs. If Hollywood was a high school, he’d be the highly intelligent, slightly creepy kid with an uncanny ability to succeed against the odds.

Tim Burton with his hero Vincent Price.

Born and raised in Burbank, California, the home of Walt Disney and Warner Bros (both studios would later go on to grant the introverted schoolboy millions of dollars of “play money”), Burton began drawing at elementary school. “There was one moment, and it happened in school,” Tim Burton once replied when asked about when he decided that he wanted to be a filmmaker. “I had a big final exam, and we were supposed to write a report on this book about Harry Houdini. I probably would have loved reading it, but I didn’t, so I just decided to make a little super-8 movie based on it. I tied myself to the railroad tracks and all that. It was kids’ stuff, but it impressed the teacher, and I got an A. That was my first turning point. That was when I said, ‘Yeah, I wouldn’t mind being a filmmaker.’”

By the time he turned fourteen, his unique sketches caught the attention of a local garbage company, with Burton winning the prize for an anti-litter poster that he designed. As a result, his posters were pasted on the district garbage trucks for the next year. Earning a grant from Disney to attend California Institute Of The Arts, Burton’s first job in 1979 was naturally as a Disney animator. After slaving on the studio’s 1981 hit The Fox And The Hound, Burton was given $60,000 by Disney to create anything that he wanted. The result was the quirky six-minute animated short, Vincent (1982), about a suburban child who imagines that he is horror movie icon Vincent Price. Burton followed that up with the partially live-action Frankenweenie (1984), about a young boy who brings his dog back to life by jump-starting him with a car battery. Despite providing the funding, Disney weren’t exactly sold on the kinky work that Burton was doing on the company clock.

Tim Burton’s 1984 short Frankenweenie.

As a child, in a stroke of almost Orwellian inspiration, Burton shared with FilmInk in 2010 a story of visiting a nearby park where he faked an alien spaceship landing, taking a pile of weird looking debris and scattering it around, convincing local kids that a spacecraft had crashed there. “I was always something of a loner,” Burton recalls of his formative years in suburbia. “I spent a lot of time by myself, making up stories and that kind of thing. We lived near a cemetery, so I’d go there and wonder about the scary guy who dug graves. That was pretty much it; I’d go out alone and just brood. I never really hung out with other kids, and I always found it difficult to really connect with people, particularly with girls. Looking back, it’s scary how solitary I was. If you’ve ever had that feeling of loneliness, of being an outsider, it never quite leaves you. You can be happy or successful or whatever, but that always stays within you.”

As Burton continues, it becomes clear that his parents were perhaps somewhat to blame for his shut off, outsider status. “When I was younger, I had these two windows in my room,” he begins. “They were nice windows that looked out onto the lawn, and for some reason, my parents walled them up. They gave me this little slit window that I had to climb up on a desk to see out of. I never did ask them why. My parents are dead now, so I guess the answer will remain unanswered as to why they sealed me in a room. I guess they just didn’t want me to escape. I don’t know. In movies, you work out your issues, but then you realise that those traumatic issues stay with you forever, so somehow they keep reoccurring. No matter how hard I try to get them out of my head, they stay there,” says the quirky filmmaker, whose younger brother, Daniel, is also an artist.

In reviewing Burton’s much heralded 2009 exhibition at The Museum Of Modern Art, New York Times art critic Ken Johnson observed: “Bizarre monsters are a favourite motif, but what is most remarkable is Mr. Burton’s ability to generate variations on the archetype of the freakishly gifted but wounded child. From Stainboy, a superhero whose only power is leaving stains, to the dangerously dexterous Edward Scissorhands, his gallery of endearingly pathetic juvenile weirdos is impressive. But it also reflects a state of arrested psychological and artistic development. Adult sexuality, for example, almost never rears its ugly head, and despite Mr. Burton’s lifelong drawing and doodling habit, he never ventures into unexpected formal or technical territory.”

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Burton even went so far as to describe his childhood as a “private hell” despite the fact that, on paper, he was a fairly normal boy, achieving above average grades at Burbank High and swimming and playing water polo on the school team. But unlike the beautiful people that peacocked the streets of neighbouring Hollywood, within the confines of his family home in the San Fernando Valley, the young and somewhat odd-looking Burton was withdrawn, preferring to spend his time indoors with a sketchpad, watching old black-and-white horror movies on TV or messing about with an 8mm camera.

Tim Burton on the set of Batman Returns.

If fans need not look too far to find a dark and scary thread running through Burton’s work, the filmmaker himself insists that it’s not that simple. “I don’t know,” he says. “It’s easier to look at things in retrospect and see where you were mentally. At the time you’re doing things, you’re just in that zone; you’re in the present. It takes time to see where things lie in terms of that kind of thing. I never try to think too much about it; I just move on. People have said to me, ‘You either have a lot of confidence or you’re completely insane.’ It’s probably somewhere in the middle. I have this reputation of being dark, which I don’t think I really am,” Burton insists.

Having ran kicking and screaming from his past, the adult Burton found solace with the women in his life. His four-year marriage to German-born artist Lena Gieseke ended in 1991. He then went on to find comfort with some-time model Lisa Marie, who would become his original muse, featuring in his earlier films Ed Wood, Mars Attacks!, Sleepy Hollow and Planet Of The Apes. Burton also credited her as the inspiration for The Nightmare Before Christmas’ Sally. After eight years together, Burton would abruptly replace Lisa Marie with Helena Bonham Carter, after both women collided on Planet Of The Apes. Bonham-Carter would eventually become the mother of Burton’s two children, Billy Ray and Nell – and featured in every film that he made during their thirteen-year relationship.

Commenting in The Village Voice, writer Rob Nelson offered some hope for the adult-trapped-inside-the-lonely-little-boy, with Burton’s new role as father having an influence upon his work: “A father himself now, Burton seems to have grown up somewhat on the basis of Big Fish, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory and Corpse Bride, with all three principally concerned with relationships as they relate to the risks and rewards of adult responsibility.”

Tim Burton on the set of Sweeney Todd.

Living with Bonham-Carter in London as his second home, it was little surprise that Burton’s newfound English sensibilities (he’d previously mastered truly bent Americana with Edward Scissorhands, Batman, Beetlejuice and other cult favourites) found a place into his filmmaking, first with 2007’s Sweeney Todd and then 2010’s Alice In Wonderland. “I grew up with no weather, and I like the weather in London better,” Burton told FilmInk upon the film’s release. “London is the exact opposite of sunny California. It almost seems like it was by accident that I was even born there. I really enjoy all the history in London. I didn’t grow up in a real museum culture, unless you count The Hollywood Wax Museum. I keep thinking that I’m going to miss Los Angeles, but that never seems to happen.”

For Burton – whose earlier work has frequently dealt with dual worlds and always celebrated the outsider – the prospect of being able to put his own fresh spin on Alice In Wonderland was impossible to pass up. “In the process, I took the idea of those stories and shaped them into something that’s not literal from the book, but that keeps the spirit of it,” says the filmmaker. “It’s not a sequel, because there are so many stories of Alice In Wonderland. The goal was just taking elements of the books and making our own story.”

Johnny Depp and Tim Burton on the set of Alice In Wonderland.

Discussing the inevitable casting of Johnny Depp as The Mad Hatter, Burton points out his regular collaborator’s earthiness, rather than his eccentricity. “It’s a very iconic character,” the director says. “Again, it’s been portrayed in animation and live action. Johnny tries to find the grounding to the character; he wants to find something that you feel, as opposed to just being mad. Again, with a lot of versions, it’s been a very one-note character, and Johnny’s goal is to bring out more of a human side to the strangeness of the character. Every time I work with him, that’s all he tries to do. This was no exception. Johnny and I have this process where we speak in the abstract with each other and yet can still somehow understand each other. We never like to use one reference. I never say to Johnny, ‘Let’s just make it like this.’ I especially like it when actors bring ideas to the table, which is why I often work with the same people. I know that they’ll bring something to it. If there’s a line or something from the book, a Lewis Carroll line for instance that wasn’t in the script that they wanted to be in the script, if an actor connects to something and feels passionate about something, it’s always nice to do it. You usually get something better from them because it’s something meaningful that they can grasp onto. That’s always very helpful.”

Tim Burton and Johnny Depp on the set of Dark Shadows.

Burton worked with Depp again on his next film, 20212’s Dark Shadows. Pure Burton, the film is based on the popular sixties TV show, which ran for five years and produced a staggering 1,225 episodes. Part ghost story, part daytime soap, as a kid, Burton avidly devoured its daily depictions of werewolves, zombies and vampires. “What made it so special was that at that time in American culture, there was nothing like that on television at all,” the director told FilmInk. “You’d run home from school and turn on the TV, and there was this weird gothic soap opera, which was very unusual.”

That would mark, at this stage, the duo’s final pairing, with Burton returning to animation with 2012’s Frankenweenie (the feature version of his earlier short film), 2014’s Big Eyes (the biopic of artist Margaret Keane, starring Amy Adams), and 2019’s Dumbo, a reimagining of the Disney classic. And wedged in amongst those was one of Burton’s most interesting films, 2016’s Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children. Based on Ransom Riggs’ novel, the story follows Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield), a teenage outcast with a close relationship to his eccentric grandfather, Abe (Terence Stamp). As Jake discovers clues to his grandfather’s mysterious past that spans different worlds and times, he finds a magical place known as Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children. But the mystery and dangers deepen as he gets to know the residents and learns about their special powers…and their powerful enemies.

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children.

Also reuniting Burton with his Dark Shadows star, Eva Green (“He’s an artist, and he’s very sensitive,” the actress told FilmInk of her director. “I got really inspired by the book of the huge exhibition of his career in New York and LA”), the film is particularly worthy of another look with the recent publication of Ransom Riggs’ The Conference Of The Birds, the fifth book in the series on which Burton based his film. “I think the best adaptation from novel to film is not always the most faithful adaptation,” Ransom Riggs said of Burton’s reworking of his material. “In order to really make a great film that stands on its own as a piece of cinematic art, the filmmaker has to take the material and internalise it, and make it their own. And yet, while the film diverges from the book in different aspects, Tim captures the spirit and the tone and the messages of the book in ways that I don’t think that any other filmmaker could have. I suppose that’s why Tim gravitated to book. He saw something in it that resonated with him.”

The Conference Of The Birds is available now. Click here for more information.

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