Tim Burton: Boyhood traumas of a director

His films are pervaded by darkness and peopled by outsiders. As the director's 'Alice in Wonderland' opens, he talks to Gill Pringle about the origins of his demons
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The Independent Culture

Tim Burton looked bewildered when he was treated to a rock star's welcome as he mounted the podium at last year's Comic Con film-fan event in San Diego to introduce a clip from his film Alice in Wonderland. The frenzied crowd showed no greater excitement even when he was later joined by his long-time leading man Johnny Depp

Such is the enduring mystique of the shy 51-year-old film-maker whose directorial feature debut, Pee-wee's Big Adventure, 25 years ago, offered little hint of what was to come. The film made it on to several of that year's 10-worst lists, only to be described a few years later by several of the same critics as a "classic". Depp has been along for much of the ride, too. He first worked with Burton in 1990 as the eponymous Edward Scissorhands, collaborating six further times with Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride, Sweeney Todd, and now with Alice in Wonderland.

Most curiously, it's a relationship which has brought both men a seemingly endless supply of cool. Few actors, and even fewer directors, can claim to have been considered hip for more than a quarter of a century. Yet today Burton is so revered as an artistic visionary that a four-month retrospective of his work is being held at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Born and raised in Burbank, California, Burton was just 14 when his sketches caught the attention of a local garbage company; he won first prize for an anti-litter campaign, and his posters were pasted on the district's rubbish trucks for the next year. Nearby Disney Studios sponsored him to attend California Institute of the Arts, from which he graduated in 1979. He went to work as a Disney animator on The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron. In 1982 he made his directorial debut for the studio with the stop-motion animated short Vincent, narrated by Vincent Price. The film was a festival-circuit darling, and paved the way for his 1984 live-action short Frankenweenie, a twist on the Frankenstein legend.

Recalling his formative years in suburbia he says: "I was always a loner and spent a lot of time by myself, making up stories and that kind of thing. We lived near a cemetery, so I'd like to go there and wonder about the scary guy who dug graves. I never really hung out with other kids and always found it difficult to really connect with people, in particular, girls. Looking back, it's kinda scary how solitary I was. I think 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 thing still stays within you.

"Growing up, I had these two windows in my room, nice windows that looked out on to 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 question 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 kind of work out your issues, but then you realise that those kind of traumatic issues stay with you forever so somehow they kind of keep recurring. No matter how hard I try to get them out of my head, they sort of stay there." No wonder, then, that the quirky film-maker has always been drawn to the dark and gothic, so much so that you speculate whether his trademark tinted shades help enhance that peculiar vision of the world.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times he 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.

Having grown up feeling like an outsider, it was almost with a sigh of relief that, nine years ago, he finally felt he belonged somewhere, and relocated to London after falling for the British actress Helena Bonham Carter, 43. They are now parents to Billy Ray, seven, and Nell, two. Having first cast Bonham Carter in Planet of the Apes, the Anglophile director has cast her in every film he's made since. Today the couple seem to have even physically morphed into one another, with their unkempt, thick, wavy brown hair, preference for dark goth clothes and shambolic style.

If fans need not look too far to find a dark and scary thread running through Burton's work, the film-maker himself insists it's not that simple: "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 kind of in that zone of the present, so I think it takes time to see where things lie in terms of that kind of thing.

"People have said to me, 'You either have a lot of confidence or you're completely insane'. I think its somewhere in the middle. I have this reputation for being dark which I don't think I really am," he insists.

Having run kicking and screaming from his childhood, the adult Burton found solace with the women in his life. His four-year marriage to the German-born artist Lena Gieseke ended in 1991 and Burton went on to find comfort with the some-time model Lisa Marie. She was his original muse, featuring in Ed Wood, Mars Attacks!, Sleepy Hollow, The World of Stainboy and Planet of the Apes. He further credited her with being the inspiration for The Nightmare Before Christmas's Sally. After eight years together, he would abruptly replace Lisa Marie with Bonham Carter, after both women collided in Planet of the Apes.

"I grew up with no weather and I like the weather in London better. 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."

Having thus adopted London as his second home, it's little surprise that Burton's newfound English sensibilities have been reflected in his recent film-making, in 2007's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and in his latest film, Alice in Wonderland.

Based on Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Burton has taken his big, Hollywood-budget film and colonised it with a uniquely British cast. Aside from Depp's Mad Hatter, Anne Hathaway's White Queen and Australian newcomer Mia Wasikowska's Alice Kingsley, Wonderland is populated by countless Brits, including Bonham Carter's Red Queen, Michael Sheen's White Rabbit, Stephen Fry's Cheshire Cat, Alan Rickman's hookah-smoking caterpillar, Barbara Windsor's Dormouse, Timothy Spall's Bloodhound and Christopher Lee's Jabberwocky. Comics Matt Lucas (playing the dual roles of Tweedledee and Tweedledum) and Paul Whitehouse (the March Hare) have been recruited, as well as Brit thespians Lindsay Duncan, Frances de la Tour and Geraldine James.

Pondering what exactly drew him to take on Alice – tackled scores of times on TV and film by countless other film-makers – he says: "All these kinds of stories, whether it be The Wizard of Oz or Alice in Wonderland, are an internal journey. I think that's a fairly universal concept. These characters represent things inside the human psyche. I think that's what every child does. You try to work out problems as you go along. Same thing as an adult. Some people get therapy, some people get to make movies. There are different ways of getting this sort of thing worked out. What really interests me is taking some of those classic stories and contemporising them. I've always liked strange characters and Lewis Carroll's characters are among the strangest creatures in literature. I first read the books when I was maybe eight.

"I had a weird connection because I bought the house... I don't know if you're familiar with the illustrator Arthur Rackham? In 1905, he did some amazing versions of Alice in Wonderland, Sleepy Hollow, things that I've been involved with, so I felt there was a weird connection to me – the material, and life. It always helps somehow. So today I live and work out of his studio.

"But I've never really liked any of the Alice movies I've seen. The Disney cartoon [1951] is probably the first version I ever saw. There's a 1930s version, and several other TV versions. I never really got into them. It was always a series of a girl wandering around from one crazy character to another. So that was the challenge to me. I tried to give every character their own specific weirdness, so they're all different. I think all the imagery for the characters indicates some type of mental weirdness that everybody goes through," says the film-maker.

Burton's own Alice in Wonderland is an entirely new story, with Wasikowska's Alice returning to Wonderland for the first time since she was a child, and with no memory of her previous adventures there.

"Some of it is based on the 'Jabberwocky' poem in one of the stories, although I've used elements of all the books. They don't necessarily follow a specific linear structure. The thing about Wonderland, like any fairy-tale land, there's the good and the bad. One of the things I like about Wonderland is that everything is slightly off, even the good people."

Discussing the inevitable casting of Depp as the Mad Hatter, Burton says: "It's a very iconic character. I think Johnny tries to find the grounding to the character, something that you feel as opposed to just being mad. With a lot of versions, it's been a very one-note kind of character, and Johnny's goal is to bring out more of a human side to the strangeness of him."

Talking about Wasikowska – who, at 20, is somewhat older than your average Alice – he says: "I wanted somebody with a gravity to her. Most Alices are just a precocious girl wandering through things. I wanted somebody who had a gravity to her, an internal life, someone where you could see the wheels turning. I always like it when I sense people have that old-soul quality to them. Because you're witnessing this whole thing through her eyes, it needed somebody who can subtly portray that."

And what made Bonham Carter so perfect for the Red Queen?

"Helena? I don't know... she's got a big head. She seemed to fit the red queen, and she was available."

'Alice in Wonderland' is released on 5 March