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From Tim Burton, Another Signature Lovable Loner

Oct 4, 2012
Originally published on October 4, 2012 10:19 am

Tim Burton is known for making quirky films, including Batman, Beetlejuice, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Sweeney Todd, Mars Attacks, and the blockbuster Alice in Wonderland. His latest movie is an animated adaptation of the classic Frankenstein story — only this time, it's a little boy who brings his dog, Sparky, back to life.

Burton says Frankenweenie is his most personal film, based on his memories of growing up in Burbank in the 1950s. Like his main character, Victor, Burton had a beloved dog who died.

"Pepe was a mutt," Burton says, during a visit to Los Angeles to promote his movie.

Like Victor, Burton grew up in the suburbs. He made Super 8 films, watched horror movies and played in the nearby cemetery.

"Being there felt very sort of somber and humble and quite thoughtful," Burton recalls. "It was a place I found romantic and dramatic."

Disney's animation studios, Warner Brothers and Universal Pictures were all just a few avenues away. But for Burton, a recluse, they seemed out of reach.

"You kind of feel like you're alone and nobody understands you, and you think you're the only person who feels that way," he says. "But probably if you asked any kid, they probably felt exactly the same way. Most of them also felt like, sort of strange, because they felt quite normal at the same time, and other people felt weird."

Burton has used this archetype — the seemingly odd, misunderstood loner who triumphs with his imagination and creativity and heart — in most of his films.

Take Edward Scissorhands, about a soulful young man whose hands are literally made of scissors He's feared by his suburban neighbors, but ultimately wins them over by creating elaborate topiaries and ice sculptures.

Then there's Burton's homage to cult filmmaker Ed Wood, a cross-dresser who befriends aging horror actor Bela Lugosi and earnestly produces B-movie masterpieces.

You can see the quirky-outsider motif in Beetlejuice, in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, in his version of Batman, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Sweeney Todd, even his Alice In Wonderland remake.

Burton says he continues to identify with the peculiar-nonconformist motif, despite the fact that he happily lives far from Hollywood with actress Helena Bonham Carter and their children in London — despite working with friends Johnny Depp and composer Danny Elfman, and despite his many successes.

"Even if you change as a person, you can have a big family and friends, but you can still have those feelings," Burton said. "They never leave you. You still can go right back to that place so quickly. It's scary."

'Permission To Be Weird'

Burton studied animation at the California Institute of the Arts, which was founded by Walt Disney. He's still a legend among Cal Arts students, who talk about the door to his dorm room, which he altered to be crooked.

In the animation department, students describe Burton's visual style — spirals, stripes — and his storytelling — whimsical, dark, funny. Like her classmates, Rose Browner grew up watching Burton's films.

"The monotony of suburbia, introducing a dark, twisted element," she said. "I can completely relate to that." Browner says she was the only goth kid in her high school, in a suburb of Milwaukee.

"My nickname through school was Satan," she recalled. "And Tim Burton's work gives people like me permission to be weird. Sometimes I go home from school and think it doesn't pay to be weird. And then you see Tim Burton, and you say, 'Oh, but it does.' "

Student Vitaliy Strokous credits Burton with helping to revolutionize modern animation with his pop-surrealist sensibility. While Disney cartoons were known for being cute and cuddly, Strokous says Burton "made the grotesque really accessible and really appealing."

It's somewhat ironic, then, that Burton got his start after college, as an animator at Disney Studios. He admits he was miserable there. 

"I realize I was not good at their style. It was quite depressing," says Burton. "Being a bad animator saved me. I'd be some alcoholic in the gutter somewhere drawing cute foxes."

Still, Burton's Frankenweenie, and other films, were made for Disney. "They have a revolving-door policy," he joked.

It was during his time at Disney, in 1984, that he first shot Frankenweenie as a live-action short. The studio that once thought it was too strange is now releasing his new stop-motion animation version.

Disney's California Adventure theme park has on display some of the puppets and drawings Burton used in the movie, and Disneyland features his Nightmare Before Christmas characters.

"He appeals to a cult audience," says Museum of Modern Art curator Ron Magliozzi. "An audience that feels a deep connection to Tim and his work. Also a family audience, who see it as edgy but not too edgy."

Magliozzi is responsible for a wildly popular exhibition of Burton's artwork at MOMA. The filmmaker's sketches, props and installations have also been shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, at the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris, and at museums in Toronto, Melbourne and, now, in Seoul.

Magliozzi says Burton's appeal has to do with the notion of preserving childhood instincts as an artist.

"It's his sense of fun, and that notion that nothing a child has done is bad, it should be encouraged. Tim absorbed all of that pop culture people said was not worthy, like sketching monsters. He never lost faith in that, and the results have been a phenomenon."

Burton still takes time for his fans, like 7-year-old Dashiell del Barco, my nephew. (I couldn't resist showing off Dash's Burtonesque sketches.)

"Wow," the filmmaker exclaimed. "I wish I could draw like that!"

He said there's something pure about kids' art, something he says older artists spend their lives trying to regain. Then he signed a copy of his art book.

"To Dashiell," he wrote: "Keep on drawing."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

If one had to come up with a single word for Tim Burton's movies, starting with "Beetlejuice" and "Edward Scissorhands," that word could be quirky. His new movie, opening tomorrow, is quintessential Burton: an animated adaptation of the Frankenstein story. This time, a little boy brings his dog back to life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FRANKENWEENIE")

CATHERINE O'HARA: (As Mrs. Frankenstein) He'll always be in your heart.

CHARLIE TAHAN: (As Victor Frankenstein) I don't want him in my heart. I want him here with me.

(Soundbite of lightning, crashing)

Sparky! You're alive!

MONTAGNE: The movie is "Frankenweenie." NPR's Mandalit Del Barco met with Tim Burton in Santa Monica to talk with him about his films and his recurring motif of the childlike, eccentric loner.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Tim Burton says "Frankenweenie" is his most personal film, based on his memories of growing up in Burbank, California in the 1950s. Like his main character, Victor, Burton had a beloved dog who died.

TIM BURTON: Pepe. He was a mutt.

BARCO: And like Victor, Burton grew up in the suburbs, making Super 8 films. He watched horror movies and played in the nearby cemetery.

BURTON: Being there felt very sort of somber and humble and quite thoughtful. It was a place that I found romantic and dramatic.

BARCO: Just a few avenues away were Disney's animation studios, Warner Brothers and Universal Pictures. But Burton says they seemed out of reach.

BURTON: You kind of feel like you're alone and you're - nobody understands you. And, you know, but I, you know, I felt quite normal at the same time. And, you know, other people felt weird.

BARCO: The seemingly odd, misunderstood loner who triumphs with his imagination and creativity and heart, it's the archetype Burton has used in most of his films. Take "Edward Scissorhands," about a soulful young man whose hands are made of scissors.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "EDWARD SCISSORHANDS")

WINONA RYDER: (as Kim) Hold me.

JOHNNY DEPP: (as Edward Scissorhands) I can't.

BARCO: Edward Scissorhands is feared in the suburbs, but ultimately prevails after creating elaborate topiaries and ice sculptures. Then there's Burton's homage to cult filmmaker "Ed Wood," a cross-dresser who befriends aging horror actor Bela Lugosi and earnestly produces B-movie masterpieces.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ED WOOD")

DEPP: (as Ed Wood) This is the one I'll be remembered for. Really? Worst film you ever saw.

BARCO: You can see the quirky-outsider motif in "Beetlejuice."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BEETLEJUICE")

MICHAEL KEATON: (as Beetlejuice) It's showtime.

BARCO: You see it in "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE")

PAUL REUBENS: (As Pee-Wee Herman) You don't want to get mixed up with a guy like me. I'm a loner, Dottie, a rebel.

BARCO: It comes up again in Burton's version of "Batman." In "Nightmare Before Christmas," "Sweeney Todd," even his "Alice in Wonderland" remake.

(SOUNDBITE OF "ALICE IN WONDERLAND")

MIA WASIKOWSKA: (As Alice Kingsleigh) Curiouser and curiouser.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You're back.

BARCO: Burton says he continues to identify with the peculiar, nonconformist motif, despite the fact that he happily lives far from Hollywood with actress Helena Bonham Carter and their children in London, despite being able to continuously work with friends Johnny Depp and composer Danny Elfman, and despite his many successes.

BURTON: You know, you start out feeling with those feelings, and then you can have a big family, lots of friends, but you still feel those feelings, you know. You still, like - it doesn't ever leave you, you know. You still can go right back to that place so quickly, you know. It's kind of scary, really.

BARCO: Tim Burton studied animation at the California Institute of the Arts, which was founded by Walt Disney. He's still a legend among Cal Arts students.

AMANDA CANDLER: He altered his door to his dorm room. It's in the Tim Burton style. It's crooked. It's very angular.

BARCO: In the animation department, students Amanda Candler and Bosook Coburn appreciate Burton's style.

BOSOOK COBURN: Stripes and black-and-white spirals.

ROSE BROWNER: You have the whimsy for the kids. Then you have the dark stuff, and very mature humor.

BARCO: Like her classmates, Rose Browner says she grew up identifying with Tim Burton's films.

BROWNER: It has like this sort of isolating quality and monotony of suburbia, and then introducing, like, a sort of dark, twisted element in it. And I can completely relate to that.

BARCO: Browner says she was the only goth kid in her high school in a suburb of Milwaukee.

BROWNER: My nickname through school was, like, Satan.

(LAUGHTER)

BROWNER: So they were just like...

VITALIY STROKOUS: They didn't beat around the bush with Rose.

BROWNER: And I think with Tim Burton, his work gives people like me permission to be weird. Like, you know, sometimes I go home from school and think: Oh, it doesn't pay to be weird. And then you see Tim Burton, like oh, but it does.

BARCO: Burton helped to revolutionize modern animation with his pop-surrealist sensibility, says student Vitaliy Strokous.

STROKOUS: Disney and a lot of stuff at the time was all about the cute and cuddly and, you know, just - he made, like, the grotesque really accessible to everyone and really appealing.

BARCO: It's somewhat ironic, then, that Tim Burton got his start after college as an animator at Disney Studios. He admits he was miserable there.

BURTON: I realized I really was not good at their style, and so it was actually quite depressing. So I was actually quite lucky to be able to then move off and, you know, being a bad animator basically saved me, in a way, because I was just - I'd be some, you know, alcoholic in the gutter somewhere drawing cute foxes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BARCO: It was during his time at Disney in 1984 that he first shot "Frankenweenie" as a live-action movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FRANKENWEENIE")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: No.

BARCO: The studio wrote it off as being too strange. Now it's releasing his new stop-motion animation version. Disney's California Adventure theme park has on display some of the puppets and drawings Burton used in the movie, and Disneyland features his "Nightmare Before Christmas" characters.

RON MAGLIOZZI: He appeals to a cult audience, an audience that feels a deep, personal, intense connection to Tim and his work, and a commercial audience, a large family audience that sees it as edgy, but not too edgy.

BARCO: Ron Magliozzi is a curator at New York's Museum of Modern Art. He's responsible for a wildly popular exhibition of Tim Burton's artwork.

MAGLIOZZI: Tim's work is inspiring because of his connection to childhood and that notion that nothing that a child does is bad. I mean, he continued to absorb all that pop culture that people - that was thought of as not worthy of a child's time, sketching monsters, Tim never lost faith in that.

BARCO: Back in Santa Monica, after my interview with the filmmaker ends, I can't resist showing off some very Tim Burton-like sketches by my nephew, Dashiell del Barco.

My nephew, seven years old, he obviously loves your work. So these are some of them.

BURTON: Wow, that's amazing. That's beautiful. See, that's the thing: Kid's drawings are so incredible, and it's like they reach a certain age and then they go, oh, I can't really draw. And it's, like, well, look at this, you know, this is great. I wish I could draw like that.

BARCO: You do draw like that.

BURTON: Yeah. But, I mean, there's something about it that's just very pure and, you know, I think a lot of artists, they have that period and then they spend their whole life trying to regain that kind of simplicity there, whatever that they had at the beginning.

BARCO: That's something Tim Burton has done with his new film "Frankenweenie." Before we say goodbye, Burton autographs a copy of his art book. To Dashiell, he writes, keep on drawing. Mandalit Del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.