Tim Burton - Prince of darkness

Tim Burton's new movie is another of his eerie, twisted fables. He tells Gill Pringle how his strange childhood gave him a taste for the bizarre

"Any time I take a road trip, I always stop off at a pet cemetery," says Tim Burton with such enthusiasm he could be describing a favourite vacation spot. "They're quite emotional. There's something strangely touching, and weird, about them."

There can be few directors more intrigued by ghouls and the after-life than Burton, whose films, including Sleepy Hollow, Beetlejuice, Corpse Bride and Dark Shadows, regularly feature the dead. In his latest film, Frankenweenie, he once more plunders the grave for inspiration while, at the same time, serving up a strangely autobiographical tale, utilising memories of his own parents, childhood dog, school classroom and teachers.

"Mr and Mrs Frankenstein of the film are the optimistic versions of my parents, although in some ways I had a slightly more troubled relationship with my parents [than that in the film]. And Frankenweenie was based on my own childhood dog, Peppi. If I could have brought him back to life, I would [have]. I did it in film instead," reflects Burton, who made his four-legged-Frankenstein movie not once but twice, first in 1984 as a live-action short and today as a black-and-white stop-motion animation 3D feature film. The first version resulted in his being sacked by Disney. In comparison, today's re-imagining was heralded with much trumpetry during a recent weekend of festivities at Disneyland attended by the company's top brass and the film's celebrity voice talent, including long-time Burton collaborators Winona Ryder and Martin Landau.

But back in 1984 the novice film-maker was accused of wasting the company's resources on a film too dark and scary for young audiences. If making films too dark and scary for young audiences has since proved a winning formula for the director, then Disney has also long forgiven their protégé, successfully collaborating on Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach and Alice in Wonderland.

Far from feeling any sense of vindication at finally getting his original vision of Frankenweenie made, Burton says instead: "I've been through those 'full circle' moments a few times, and its more funny than anything. It just makes me laugh. It just shows you how absurd life is. I've been hired and fired by Disney three different times. I'm used to it."

Raised in Burbank, California, in the shadows of that venerable and world-famous studio, Burton studied animation at the California Institute of the Arts, where his short film Stalk of the Celery Monster resulted in his being hired by Disney's animation department.

Reflecting on those early Disney days, he says: "I was in this strange kind of fairy-tale-princess world in the sense that I was at Disney at a time when I was able to do whatever I wanted to do for a couple of years, and draw whatever I wanted to draw. I got a chance to make Vincent and Frankenweenie. I knew I was lucky at the time and yet it was kind of like that show The Prisoner – you're held captive in this very wonderful place.

"It was weird doing things that I knew nobody was ever going to see and yet I got the opportunity to do them."

Frankenweenie comes to life, so to speak, as the result of a school science fair, something Burton, now 54, remembers fondly: "I recall being one of those kids where every day was a science fair, you know what I mean? It's like well, 'here, let's mix this up and see if it blows up'.

"I was just one of those kinds of kids. There was a lot of us around then. 'Let's set fire to this!' That was the problem – we'd turn everything into a science fair," smiles the director who extended a personal invitation to one of his favourite former high-school teachers to attend the Frankenweenie premiere. If Burton has artfully employed his reputation as the artistic recluse, it comes as a surprise to learn he was something of a jock at school.

"I played baseball," he reluctantly admits. "My dad was a baseball player. He had been a professional athlete, and so it's easy for me to relate to that sort of dynamic with parents and kids, pushing and pulling them one way or the other."

His mother, Jean Burton, once opened a cat-themed gift shop, lending the notion that she, too, was quirky before quirky became fashionable.

"I don't know about that," Burton frowns today. "I found it more horrific than quirky but that's my opinion. Opening a cat store in Burbank was just a very strange idea. I don't think it did very well."

His childhood memories are less than rosy: "When I was younger, I had these two windows in my room, nice windows that looked out onto the lawn, and for some reason my parents walled them up and 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.

"But 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."

Feeling more empathy for the monsters in the popular horror movies of the day than he did with the adults in his life, he says: "I don't know why but I always related to characters like Frankenstein. I think a lot of kids do; its easier to relate to the monster in the sense of he's alone. Growing up, you could feel those feelings and the way you felt about your neighbours is like they're the angry villagers.

"I was never scared of monster movies. I could happily watch a monster movie but if I had one of my relatives come over, you'd be terrified."

If he still identifies with the misfits he celebrates on screen, then in his private life he has found happiness and peace within his 11-year union with Helena Bonham Carter, whom he met while making Planet of the Apes. Adopting his partner's British homeland, the couple have a nine-year-old son, Billy, and five-year-old daughter, Nell.

On screen he has collaborated with Bonham Carter six times, most notably in Charlie and The Chocolate Factory and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

He has found comfort in that close bond, just as he did with his earlier romantic partner Lisa Marie, who featured in his films Ed Wood and Mars Attacks! His greatest muse, however, remains Johnny Depp. First working together on Edward Scissorhands in 1990, the pair would re-team for a further seven movies. However Frankenweenie, a quintessentially American tale, features neither the very British Bonham Carter nor Depp.

Perhaps in response to a barrage of web chatter criticising his repeated teaming with both Bonham Carter and Depp, he's a little sensitive when asked why Frankenweenie doesn't include at least a cameo from Depp.

"Well, you know, we have to go on with our lives. And we don't do these things just to do it. We're not going for some Guinness Book of World Records [thing] here."

With no immediate plans to work with Depp he adds: "I don't know [when we'll work together again]. How many films did the Three Stooges make? I mean, there's other records to be broken."

Having become close friends over the years, the reason for their frequent collaboration is simple: "I like it when actors bring ideas to the table, which is why I often work with the same people who I knew will bring something to it. Johnny and I have this sort of process where we speak in the abstract with each other and yet can still somehow sort of understand each other," says Burton who, when we meet, is dressed in his signature black wardrobe and shades worn even indoors. "I've got coloured underwear and socks on, but wearing black saves about a half-hour of my day. I don't have to sit there and go, 'gee, does this blue go with the yellow shirt and the green pants?'"

Also a noted artist, Burton's sketches and storyboards have appeared in travelling exhibitions featured at The Museum of Modern Art in New York and at Los Angeles Museum of Art.

He is as skilful at directing stop-motion animation as he is with live action. His two previous stop-motion movies, Corpse Bride and Nightmare Before Christmas, (the latter directed by Henry Selick) both received Oscar nominations, although he has been singularly overlooked for any major nominations for his live-action films including box-office hits Beetlejuice and the Michael Keaton-starring Batman in 1989 and Batman Returns in 1992.

Incongruously, given his reputation for shyness, he says it's the actual fan encounters that give him more pleasure than even box-office millions.

"That means more to me than anything. And sometimes you get people that show you tattoos that are quite strange, based on your work. That's always an interesting one, strange places, strange tattoos," he says, going on to reveal how he has seen his own face tattooed on body parts more than once.

Like many children who feel their parents don't understand them, Burton the youngster found solace with his childhood dog: "I like all dogs but, again, dogs are like people or animals are like people. I'm sure if you like cats, I'm sure you've had a favourite cat. I've had maybe two or three out of a series of pets that you really connect with. I think it's the same with people, you never quite know which one you're going to have that kind of emotional connection with."

At present, the Burton-Bonham Carter household is lacking any similar kind of four-legged friend.

"I don't have a dog because you travel," says the director who famously lives next-door to his partner, in a domestic arrangement that is likely the envy of any married couple. "My kid has a tortoise and three terrapins but that's about all we can handle at the moment."

'Frankenweenie' opens the London Film Festival next week. It goes on release on 17 October

Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project