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The Nightmare Before Christmas screenwriter Caroline Thompson ‘begged’ Tim Burton to change ‘dangerous’ Oogie Boogie character

Caroline Thompson claims she urged the director to rethink the character, to no avail, as she also recalls the fraught filmmaking process 

Roisin O'Connor
Friday 30 October 2020 10:17 GMT
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Caroline Thompson, the screenwriter behind some of Tim Burton’s most popular films, has revealed that she begged the director to change the Oogie Boogie character in The Nightmare Before Christmas.  

Thompson, who also wrote the screenplays for Burton’s Edward Scissorhands and Corpse Bride, told the film podcast Script Apart that her relationship with Burton broke down during the making of The Nightmare Before Christmas.

The 1993 animated film follows Jack Skellington, the “Pumpkin King”, who leads the monsters and supernatural beings of Halloween Town as they prepare for the annual Halloween celebrations.  

Bored of the same old routine, however, Jack wanders into the woods and stumbles upon the door leading to Christmas Town, which inspires him to organise a takeover of Christmas.

The movie, starring a voice cast including Chris Sarandon and Catherine O’Hara, was a critical and commercial success, becoming the first animated film to be nominated for a Best Visual Effects Oscar. 

Thompson claims that the making of the film was plagued by behind-the scenes fights, including one where Burton allegedly kicked a hole through a wall.  

“[Director] Henry Selick [at one point] screamed at me that I'd ruined his movie... Henry and Tim [Burton] had a giant fight over Oogie Boogie where Henry wanted the reveal inside Oogie Boogie to be Dr Finkelstein, manipulating Oogie Boogie rather than the sack of moths,” she said.  

“Apparently, Tim, rather than have a conversation, just flipped out and kicked a hole in the wall then walked out of the room because he didn't want to do that... It really was a break in my relationship with Tim, and it's not really been repaired.”

The 64-year-old, who has directed her own films including Black Beauty (1994) and Buddy (1997) also explained the fight over the Oogie Boogie character, a gambling-addicted bogeyman.

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“The Oogie Boogie character looks like a Klansman,” she said. “Oogie Boogie is a derogatory term for African Americans in the American south. I begged the powers that be to change something about that character, because of that. I said: this is so ugly and dangerous and antithetical to everything inside me. I did not win that fight... It was a troubling part of the film for me, to be frank.”  

Caroline Thompson on the set of ‘Black Beauty’, 1994 (Rex Features)

Thompson also pointed out that Oogie Boogie is voiced by a black artist, Ken Page, “so it’s like a trifecta of wrongness”.  

“I really did beg Tim to reconsider,” she said. “Particularly the name... it’s a really evil derogatory term. That's not a fight I won. I think it’s a fun segment of the story as it was executed but it’s a troubling one.”

Selick has previously stated that the Oogie Boogie character in The Nightmare Before Christmas was inspired by the Betty Boop cartoon, The Old Man of the Mountain.  

“Ken Page, the Broadway star who happens to be black, was hired to do the voice, and after seeing some of the old Betty Boop cartoons where they’d use Cab Calloway to voice it, I just thought it was more of a New Orleans thing,” he told The Daily Beast in 2013.  

“It didn’t occur to me that it was racist. People are desperate to look for things to attack.”

A still from The Nightmare Before Christmas (Rex Features)

Burton has been criticised on a number of occasions for the overall lack of ethnic diversity in his films.

In a 2016 interview with Bustle, he defended the lack of diversity by claiming that “things either call for things or they don’t”.

“I remember back when I was a child watching The Brady Bunch and they started to get all politically correct,” he said. “Like, OK, let’s have an Asian child and a black. I used to get more offended by that than just… I grew up watching Blaxploitation movies, right? I said, that’s great. I didn’t go like, OK, there should be more white people in these movies.”

The Independent has contacted Tim Burton’s representative for comment.  

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