Tim Burton interviewed by Gavin Smith

Tim Burton interviewed by Gavin Smith THE HOLLYWOOD SIGN up in the hills recedes rapidly into the darkness of a stormy L...

Tim Burton interviewed by Gavin Smith
THE HOLLYWOOD SIGN up in the hills recedes rapidly into the darkness of a stormy Los Angeles night as the camera pulls back over the rain-swept city and pans down to a skid row theatre, venue for the premiere of a play by Edward D. Wood, Jr. This outrageous model-shot opening is part of Tim Burton's signature-his way of establishing unchallengeable control of the domain of each film, defining its reality as a privileged imaginary landscape of eccentric, mannered artifice. It's also pure mise-enscene: the distance this shot puts between Hollywood and Ed Wood the man will remain fixedly out of reach, ironically sanctioning Ed Wood the film, a sort of secret history of cinema, to perform the miracle of belatedly delivering the World's Worst Director to his promised land. Wood's films raise a lot of questions about cinema, and the EXIT sign used to answer most of them, so it's apt that in the end Ed Wood circles back triumphantly to another stormy night to allow Wood to exit the theatre justified, the premiere of his magnum opus, Plan Nine from Outer Space unspooling.
Like Quentin Tarantino, Burton is a cinema true believer and avid fan turned artist, and by recasting Wood as a naïve auteur wannabe whose ineptitude produces inadvertent art, Burton proposes Wood as a patron saint of movie junkies, raptly mouthing his own films' dialogue Rocky Horror-style, his own number one fan. Wood's idolization of fellow pariah Orson Welles and the splendidly unforeseen audience with Welles that the film grants Wood combine to move beyond affectionate tribute to bestow him with unlikely, surreal grace, adding luster to the Wood myth. An alternate title might be It's All True, since much of it is.
Welles's gospel-"Visions are worth fighting for. Why waste your time making other people's dreams?"-and the cast-and-crew baptism that is a precondition for the financing of Plan Nine simply the possibility of salvation through cinema that seems natural given the religious undertones of Burton's latter oeuvre (the gothic monumentalism, the almost Old Testament moral gravity). Burton's films all contemplate in near-sacred terms imagination's attempts to negotiate the mysteries of life, death, and the human need for love that fills the interval between them. Wood is a variant, like The Penguin, Edward Scissorhands, and Beetlejuice, of the irrepressible outsider who will not be denied.
Fifties retro-hip as Ed Wood is, its vindication of mediocrity is very modern, not merely for its fringe/subculture cachet but because Wood's style is akin to, even inspiration for, the Abject Art aesthetics of artists like Mike Kelley, Candyass, and Sean Landers, who privilege the pathetic, the infantile, and the banal as the semantic DNA of contemporary art practice. But Burton is less invested in this than in the same sense of loss-for a bygone era, for outcasts and misfits-that distinguishes Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns. The Wood-Lugosi relationship, easily imagined under the circumstances as one of sad mutual exploitation, is idealized with breathtaking conviction as a father-son or mentor-student dynamic, all the more poignant for the realization that the declining Lugosi (magnificently incarnated by Martin Landau in a performance that Academy Awards were made for) foreshadows Wood's own eventual fate.
Up until Edward Scissorhands, Burton's work was distinguished by a flip hit-and-miss postmodernism: his mining of the outlandish potential of makeup effects; special effects, and production design suggested a sui generis cinema of cartoon-macabre, its aesthetics equal parts joke shop, theme park, and pop. The willful lack of visual or tonal consistency in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice and their gleeful inversions of convention indicated a genuinely anarchic sensibility. By Batman it was evident that narrative came a distant third, behind Burton's inventive visual gags and designs and his interest in the psychotic triangular play of identity and desire between Batman/Bruce Wayne, The Joker, and Vicki Vale. The Batman-Edward Scissorhands period represents a significant transition phase from which Burton emerged with much increased stylistic control, and there can be no underestimating the importance of key collaborators such as composer Danny Elfman, screenwriter Caroline Thompson, cinematographer Stefan Czapsky, and Batman production designer Anton Furst in cementing the Burton aesthetic. From Scissorhands on, Burton's visuals are markedly more specific in terms of composition, choreography, and cutting and much more unified in terms of tone and style, achieving a precarious balance between anarchy and order.
Disney's prodigal son returned to the fold with Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas (directed by Henry Selick, Burton co-producing), and there was even talk of Burton designing theme park rides in the future. Beetlejuice at any rate suggests a distinct ambivalence towards the theme-parking of America, but has Burton resolved the riddle of corporate sponsored pop art? Ed Wood begs the question in the implicit contradiction between Burton's commitment to the purity of the artistic vision and his affection for B movies with their bottomline exploitation mentality. In any event, Ed Wood is an immaculately executed metacinematic feat, rich with unexpected sentiment and comic pleasures, which simultaneously redeems Wood and confirms Burton's artistic maturity.
Q. Is there a sense of wish-fulfillment about Ed Wood? Do you wish you could have been a director of horror and sci-fi B movies in that era?
A. Oh yeah. That's what I grew up on. I don't know what it was, maybe the movie theaters in my immediate surrounding neighbourhood in Burbank, but I never saw what would be considered A movies. It's like folk art vs. fine art: rather than this finely brushed painting, it's more of a broad stroke kind of thing. There's a roughness and a surprising nature to most B movies that you don't get in classic films-something more immediate. I never chose those movies to leave impressions in my brain, they just did. Why do certain things remain with you? I remember a lot more images from those movies than I do from even Citizen Kane, which has incredible images. For some reason, the images from The Brain That Wouldn't Die are stronger in my head.
Q. Although I laughed at Wood's Plan Nine from Outer Space and Glen or Glenda? now and then, overall their pathetic, desperate mediocrity depressed me.
A. I agree with you. They are depressing. Obviously they're bad, but they're layered in a way, to me. They're long, they're kind of unbelievable, and there's this denial, which we all go through. Wood did have this perverse optimism. . . I could relate to that in terms of, when you're making a film it's like doing a painting: you have this weird sense of power and energy, and you feel - and you should feel - like you're making the best movie ever made. In fact you could be making the worst, and that could happen to anybody. It happened to him in its purest form; his work is purely "bad:'
Q. Do you see anything good in his work?
A. The films are unusual; I've never seen anything like them, the kind of bad poetry and redundancy-saying in, like, five sentences what it would take most normal people one, which I can also relate to. (Laughs) Yet still there is a sincerity to them that is very unusual, and I always found that somewhat touching; it gives them a surreal, weirdly heartfelt feeling. And there's this overly heavy emotional air, a kind of out-of-it quality. I think these people were all out of it, which creates this feeling of doing something from the unconscious. And with the people in the movies, there's a weird consistency. How do you get this collection of peopie? It's like the reverse of a group of artists who get together in Paris at certain times in history when so-and-so was hanging out with so-and-so. This is like a bad version of that.
The first Ed Wood film I was aware of was Plan Nine, and I grew up in Burbank, near a cemetery that I used to play in, near the airport, so the references to the Burbank airport and the graveyard and the type of people in the film-who reminded me of my parents' friends, people that 1 grew up around- gave it a strange reality. It sounds kind of stupid, but the tone was so depressing and ominous and slow-motion that it had a frighteningly real quality. That's why I have a problem when people say something's real or not real, or normal or abnormal. The meaning of those words for me is very personal and subjective. I've always been confused and never had a clearcut understanding of the meaning of those kinds of words. You don't know what's real and what's not real anymore. People may look at Ed Wood and go, "It's completely fabricated and unreal' but for me that's the way things are right now.
Q. What kind of personal chord did the material strike in you?
A. I think it's several themes and issues. You run it through your own personal mill. I was fascinated by the weird perverted optimism because it's something that I started out with and has somewhat eroded, and (Ed Wood) kind of reenergized me. I liked the theme of duality in somebody's nature: like in Batman, the idea of hiding what you have inside. And perception, how you perceive somebody-I'm interested in that theme. Also the relationship with Bela Lugosi - I romanticized it from what I read, but I related that to how I felt about Vincent Price.
Q. Did you approach directing this as an actor might approach a performance, with a sort of emotional preparation?
A. In some ways that's all I have. It would be hard for me to do a Western unless I felt something about it. I do have to feel it. Whether or not it comes out in the film, that's all I really respond to. That's why, with the actors I work with, I have to feel like they're with me in a way. It's all feeling, even if it's not showing up to other people.
Q. Yeah, but does it go a step further? When working on the Lugosi-Wood scenes, was Vincent Price in your thoughts-or are you just thinking about the shots you've got to get?
A. No. In actual fact, that whole relationship was comprised not only of Vincent Price but another person as well; it's a composite. A lot of that relationship had to do with another friend of mine who died, somebody I cared about who probably had the rougher edge of what Bela had.
Q. Would that be Anton Furst?
A. Yeah.. . . I didn't realize this until just before the shooting. The most obvious comparison was with Vincent Price; that was an intellectual and emotional thought at the very beginning. But Anton came before shooting, but after I had responded emotionally to the material. Movies are like an expensive form of therapy for me. (Laughs).
Q. The business of the last footage of Lugosi is very moving.
A. I tried to put a tiny bit of ambiguity in there.
Q. When he holds up the film can and uses it to sell the film?
A. Exactly. Which again I find very realistic. The film shows the other side of the Hollywood dream of making it-the casualties and people at the bottom of the food chain. I'm very affected by seeing those people. Have you ever been down near Selma Avenue in Hollywood? I remember when I was a kid taking the bus there. You're very haunted by these people; you could feel them there in the Seventies, and they're there now. There's something very intense about it. They're like living ghosts, and there's a sadness and a weird humor, an emotional quality all in one that is very powerful to me.
They're in a kind of limbo. It's like layers of the dream world. You're drawn to Hollywood because you're interested in a dream, kind of. It's not what anybody thinks it is; it's an image, an illusion. You don't make that dream, so you end up creating a kind of nightmare. It's like life and death, on a less literal level.
Q. It's a bit like the Hollywood of Aldrich's Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
A. Yeah! That one's beautiful. I like things that give you those feelings all in one package-sadness and humor and horror. It really seems for me to be what comprises the essence of life. Those people in some way are symbolic of all of that.
Your conception of Wood is very innocent, with none of the pain, self-loathing, and masochism I imagine he went through.
The thing that gave me the feeling of freedom to do this was Nightmare of Ecstasy-all of these people and their Rashomon-style contradictions. That made it feel like a real story. I think true memory is. . . as things get further away from you, what you think changes. When I'm talking about the last movie I did, it's always the most nightmarish experience, but as movies get further away, I start to look back on the experience fondly and romantically. Because you experience new things all the time, it's obvious that you change and your impressions of things change. And when you add the fact that their recollections were all so screwed up and drug- or alcohol-induced, all of that gave it a looseness. I found it what I call very realistic about the nature of memory and how we perceive things. I don't like film biographies, I find them dull and pretentious. There's something kind of bogus in the stoic reverential approach that's less realistic than this movie, which people might perceive as very unrealistic. We're kind of reverential, but in a funny way, because we treat him optimistically.
Q. How did you formulate the film's perspective on Wood?
A. I operate a lot out of my own subconscious, and it gets me into trouble sometimes. I can't help but invest a little bit of myself in a lot of the characters. I didn't learn filmmaking in the classic way, I just get in there and mutate along with the characters. A lot of what I was doing was flip-flopping, in terms of seeing things through Ed Wood and then kind of drifting back and commenting. I'm always aware of a balance of not making fun of a character while trying to make certain things funny. I'm aware that there's no flashing red light that says, "We're inside the character, in his head, and now we're outside, hovering up on the ceiling looking at him?' It's hard for me to structure that. In this case it's probably more amorphous than in some of the other movies.
Q. Given that you make little of Wood's sexuality, when Lugosi talks about the link between eroticism and horror I couldn't help thinking that your films function at a remove from both-they restore horror to a kind of preadolescent innocence.
A. I think it comes from just treating the horrible as more matter-of-fact. To me, Catwoman is the only real sexual character that I've dealt with. I'm very interested in sexuality as a theme, so hopefully it'll come up here or there in the future. Wood's wearing of women's clothing is not camp; I didn't want it to be ha ha ha, drag queen. The fact that he would dress in drag and the people around him didn't even acknowledge it, I thought was great. That's my approach; that's what I think about when I'm doing something. I think, well, it's not weird.
Q. Was that why you revealed Wood in drag in such a non emphatic way, with Dolores simply opening the door?
A. We wanted to make it very presentational but then sneak up on it a little bit. That shot had an odd quality that I liked very much. I like the opening of doors, you know? There's something that's always shocking about opening a door or going through a window. Going through a door is so symbolic and seems to say something to me visually, though I don't know what. (Laughs).
Q. You must have loved all those doors in Masque of the Red Death.
Oh yeah. I guess it's door movies.
This and Edward Scissorhands both seem to be clear statements about the intolerance of nonconformity in suburban America and Hollywood. In Edward Scissorhands, that comes out, but it's weird: even though I had trouble growing up in suburbia, it also made me what I am. You may have a love-hate relationship with it, but you can't completely come down on it. When you are doing things that are visually maybe more extreme, therefore people see them more simplistically. I don't think I'm so much ambivalent as that-that yin-yang sign is the perfect symbol because there's always another side, even though there's a thrust and an overriding point of view.
Q. And in terms of your view of the film industry?
A. Well, it's the same. I didn't grow up in independent film; from the first, I was in the studio system, and yet I've still been able to do what I wanted to do. So I feel very lucky, but I don't embrace it. I have a resistance to joining the club because I'm just too aware of what can happen to you. I've seen how people are-if you're successful they like you, if you're not, then they don't as much. It's not based on deep emotion.
In Hollywood, when people say they're your friends-I mean, that's a fairly relative term. It's a business. I try to deal with it and be nice to people. I'd rather just struggle through my own conflicts. You've often talked of an estrangement from mainstream American values; one of the big ideals is winning, or success. Celebrating cinema's greatest loser is therefore a political statement.
America, especially in the era I grew up in. in the aftermath of the Fifties nuclear family-it's all about winning and the American dream, and we're all individuals and free. I remember conformity and categorization from the very beginning, so where is all this individuality? The people I have known who have been individuals have always been tortured. There's this predatory love- hate thing in this culture; they get preyed upon and devoured. For me there's a fine line between what is a winner and what is a loser, especially nowadays, where people who kill people become celebrities and people who do bad things start selling books. I wasn't trying to make a comment on that so much as an observation on the personal nature of how people are perceived and how you perceive yourself, the contradictions of life. That's why it was important for me to put those final overly dramatic supers at the end.
Q. How much did you direct or revise the work of Ed Wood's screenwriter's, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, after they brought the idea to you?
A. Not very much. Before the script was written we had meetings and talked about general things. It was something they had in them. It was the quickest script I ever got-like a month-and it was really long. I'm really specific about tone, and there's a very hard-to verbalize mix of things that I like. They got the tone that I was very excited about right away. The only changes were in cutting it down. I find that once you're shooting, certain things get redundant. I'm not a brilliant structuralist, but I sort of edit as we go, especially when we're behind schedule. [Laughs.]
Q. What was Michael Lehmann's involvement?
A. Originally Denise Di Novi and I were just gonna produce and Michael was gonna direct. For some reason either he decided-or I just decided, Oh, I really would like to do this. There was no script at that point.

Q. There's an almost religious or at least spiritual quality to this film. How do you account for that?
A. I'm learning more and more that I have that something in me, and I'm searching for a spiritual foundation. Even my interest in fairy tales and folk tales is based in that. I never thought of myself as a religious person. In Burbank you'd never say you were an atheist-you'd say you were a Protestant. Nobody wants to come out with any sort of rash statements. When you grow up in a blank, unemotional environment- no weather, no culture, no seasons-the impulse to create and do stuff, especially movies, is a desire to create things that are lacking in your life.
Q. So creativity is a kind of wish-fulfillment, or compensation?
A. Yes. There's different levels of that. And perversely, without being too cynical, sometimes I mix positive things with negative things. That's what I loved in Beetlejuice, these people who live in this sort of hermetically sealed world and probably have a very whitebread view of heaven, but it turns out to be a weird parallel-universe bureaucracy. It's almost a horror movie: when you die it becomes a cheap horror film. So it's perverse and hopeful at the same time.
Q. Is Ed Wood ~s heightened acting style an attempt to re-create the acting style of the period?
A. We tried to get the spirit of it without being judgmental and making fun of it. We don't rehearse a lot; I never have. I try to work with actors who don't mind looking ridiculous and who are interested in exploration. Almost everybody had a different style. I've worked with actors who can put up with my abstract notions. They kind of look at me and don't know what I'm talking about, I (but) it kind of comes together, which I'm very fascinated by.
These people (Ed Wood's stock company) are all perceived as bad, the easiest targets in the world, so the difficulty was how much to pull back. Johnny Depp would try things that would work for one scene, but for other scenes might have been too broad. Filming in black and white helped-it became a sort of unifying character. Production design and music, too-all of those elements you treat as characters; you listen and look as you would with an actor.
Q. I thought the acting styles in Beetlejuice were much less consistent.
A. This is a thing I've experienced a few times. People look at Michael Keaton and say, "He's great:' and then look at Geena (Davis) and Alec (Baldwin) and say, "Oh, they're boring." Or Jack Nicholson is great and Michael's boring. I somewhat disagree, because it's like in a Marx Brothers movie: if every character was like the Marx Brothers, would that work as well? Some of that is in the inherent nature of my see-what happens, hoping-for-the-best approach.
Q. Were there any actors you never succeeded in communicating your ideas to?

A Well, Jack Palance scared the shit out of me [on Batman]; he almost beat me up one day. Oh God, that was so scary. I don't know, I must have said something wrong to him and he just flipped out. More often it's my ideas maybe sometimes that have disturbed people. On Batman I approached the special effects like I did on Beetlejuice, which was kind of a mistake. I thought it was funny when The Joker pulled out a gun and shot down the Bat plane, but that disturbed a lot of people. I treat most ideas fairly cavalierly, and sometimes they work and sometimes they don't. I've had more difficulty with that aspect than with actors.
Q. What were you trying to suggest in the third part of the credit sequence, where the camera pulls back from the Hollywood sign and down over the city to the theatre?
A. There's something about having an overview and then coming down into a and camera moves have become so much little piece of it, a microcosm. It sets a place, and with this character it gives a cheesy overview of the whole thing. And coverage seems much more precise and there's something about initially punching holes through what's not real and then settling into something to find its own reality. I always liked credits in movies, so I like to make something of them, to help set a tone.
Q. Beetlejuice opens with an aerial view of an actual town that dissolves seamlessly into an obviously fake model shot of the town, to form one continuous space. But I never quite understood why they had a model of the town in their attic.
A. It was more symbolic of these people. The intention was that these people live in a hermetically sealed world and everything's perfect and retentive.
Q. Each of your films creates its own artificial world.
A. Yeah, (but) even though they're all the same that way, (each) is meant to have a slightly different bent on that. Beetlejuice had to do with anal retentiveness. In Edward Scissorhands it had more to do with a fairy tale kingdom and the way suburbia really looks-slightly romanticized but slightly cheesy. That's probably the overriding consistency between all of the films.
Q. Does shooting in black and white present any technical problems, maybe in relation to production design?
A. When you're doing a period thing, it's a unifying force. Red is an odd color because you never know which way it's gonna go.
Q. You mean dark or light?
A. Yeah. Part of the decision to do Ed Wood in black and white came when we were doing makeup tests with Rick Baker. Rick said, "What color were Bela's eyes?" and we realized none of us had seen Bela Lugosi in color. And since we were portraying him as he hadn't really been seen, kind of out of it, we realized we didn't want to be asking those kinds of questions.
Q. How do you think your approach has evolved since Batman?
A. I've gotten less planned. At the very beginning I storyboarded, but now I find that there's so many elements, you really don't know until that moment what your going to get. Experience has given me more confidence, but at the same time I've gotten looser, more abstract in terms of how something is going to come out.
Q. I'm surprised, because the compositions and camera moves have become so much more specific and controlled from Edward Scissorhands on, and your coverage seems much more precise and economic.
A. That's true, I don't actually shoot a lot of coverage. Because I always spend a lot of time on shots, I never had time to do a lot of coverage. We kind of approach things one shot at a time. I don't come in with a shot list-it's more organic. I think it has gotten more specific, but that just has to do with experience.
Q. In Batman Returns there's a two-minute scene where Michelle Pfeiffer comes home and plays her messages, and its four shots, four setups, four long takes. That's very economic you didn't do anything like that in Batman.
A. Yeah. It's just a little bit more confidence. Perhaps it's a resistance against the rock video age, but I like the idea of staying on an image, lingering on something and seeing something. With Michelle I just said, "This is your little apartment, this is what we need to do"; I let her do what she wants to do, and then I suggest something. It's fun. As they start walking through it, I take the viewfinder and feel it out. It can kind of wreak a little havoc on your schedule. It's such a joke, flilmmaking-they treat it like an exact science. It wasn't an exact science when I brought in a shot list on Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. It's hard enough for me to beat myself up on a storyboard because it changes. I'm much more aware of the amorphous nature of the process. You know, I'm kind of moody, so my mood changes from film to film and each film becomes its own organism. During Ed Wood I remember saying to Stefan Czapsky,
(Burton's DP since Edward Scissorhands) one day, "Why do I want to shoot things like this [indicates a low-angle shot with hands) so much?" Things happen much more internally before they happen with the camera.
Q. Batman looked as if it was worked out in the cutting room.
A. Yeah, even though there wasn't a lot of coverage. A lot of that had to do with my background in animation. Here's a blank piece of paper, here's a square and you draw a picture in it. I still sometimes shoot things proscenium, I like sometimes locking it off and letting something go through the frame. I wasn't necessarily as confident or comfortable moving the camera.
Q. What advantages has your animation background given you?
A One advantage I think is a design sense. When you're drawing, every element, every line, makes up what it is; and there is a feeling of that when I think about a shot. I've gotten a lot of criticism like, "Oh, the film looks good but there's nothing to it." I've never tried to think of something as just looking good, I've always thought of it in terms of supporting a character or a setting. Animation broadened my horizons in terms of thinking about color and light.
Q. Take that shot in the sanatorium waitingroom in Ed Wood, where you have Depp sitting foreground left, a woman in middleground right, the far wall is divided by an extreme contrast of light and shadow by the wall lights, and then what looks like a process shot of the view outside the windows. How do you create an image like that?
A. It's not a process shot, but it's odd. Every element should mean something, even if it's not screaming out at you. Take the lady: I liked the way she looked, she had a feeling about her that reminded me of that kind of hospital. We put her into it before we lit it. I didn't say, "Add bright light and shadow here' but what Stefan and I will do is talk about a feeling-sort of dark, institutional, with a brighter outside. It all comes to making a feeling, and I trust my feelings much more than I do my intellect. I certainly don't go into a situation with no idea; I think about it to a point, but then I like to let the emotional side take over, and build each element, and finally, when we're ready to shoot, look through the camera and just feel it, and it's either yes or no.
Q. Can you give an example of where you changed or added something in a shot?
A. Nothing major. With Bela in the coffin the first time, the pillows around him were too bright, and I just got some dark fabric because it made him seem more dead, and it had a richer texture. These tiny little things are just ingredients; I never think about them too much. And we try not to have too many very specific references to other films. You may look at a movie and go, "Oh that looks like Fritz Lang or blah blah blah," but I try not to do it. If I do use a reference, I try to use a contradictory reference as well that kind of annihilates it. I remember using a Godzilla film and To Kill a Mockingbird once-I don't remember for which movie!
Q. All of your films are about outsider artists or performers who seek acceptance. Why do you think that is?
A. That's sort of the history of the world, isn't it? Why are these people tortured so much? Some of it's self inflicted. But they're never embraced in their lifetimes. Van Gogh. . . Orson Welles....
Q. What was the signficance for you of the scene in Batman where The Joker mutilates the paintings in the art gallery?
A. Part of what I loved about that character was the freedom. It's a scary
thing, too, the idea of going completely insane and becoming a clown and being completely unrestricted by society and doing whatever you want. I've always been a little bit daunted by art because, rather than embracing, it's always been a very distancing, pretentious thing to me-and it should be the opposite, it should be inviting. So the museum scene is just a perverse fantasy, really, of not having any boundaries and recreating. It's classic anarchy.
Q. At what point did you become serious about yourself as an artist?
A. I'm still not serious. I'm uncomfortable with the word. I don't mind using it about other people, but I don't use it about myself. I like to make things, and I've always been serious about that. That never left me as a child. It gets beaten out of you. Every kid can draw. What seems to happen in the environment I grew up in is that, as you grow older, you're taught, "No no, you can't draw like this, you got to draw like that?' Why didn't that happen to you?
I sealed myself off in some way, and that creates some positives and negatives. It's positive that I didn't listen to anybody.
Q. Were movies part of that sealing off?
A Sure, oh yeah. You're in a world that's safe because nobody's on your case about it. I remember, I was at Cal Arts and I wasn't a good life-drawer; I struggled with that realistic style of drawing. And one day I was sitting in Farmer's Market sketching, and it was this weird, mind-blowing experience: I said, Goddamit, I don't care if I can't draw, I'm just gonna draw how I feel about it. All of a sudden I had my own personal breakthrough, and then I could draw, and satisfied myself. I've had very few experiences like that, and I'll never forget it.
Q. When were you at Cal Arts?
A. 1979-80.
Q. Was it a good experience?
A. You hated it at the time, but in retrospect it was great. I got a scholarship in the second year and I was in the Disney animation program. The character animation program were like the nerds and freaks. The rest of the school looked on them as crass, commercial geeks. And they were.
Q. Was your scholarship on the understanding that you'd then go work for Disney?
A. Well, that's why they created the program, but there were no guarantees. At the end of the year, it was like being drafted into the army or something.
They come out and take a look at you. Working for Disney was what most of the people in the program wanted to do the most.
Q. Was it what you wanted?
A. Yeah, initially, until I got to Disney. (Laughs). I realized fairly early on that I was not cut out for that, drawing foxes. My foxes looked like roadkills. It was very frustrating; I couldn't do it. The company was really retarded at the time; there was no direction, which in some ways gave me a lot of freedom. I kind of mutated. They let me sit in a room for a couple of years and draw whatever I wanted to draw. I did reams and reams of drawings for The Black Cauldron, which they never used anything from. I got to work out a lot of my creative problems on paper.
Q. Did you start to find certain images that were meaningful to you?
A. I did a lot of work that is still applicable, absolutely. That's where certain things, like Edward from The Nightmare Before Christmas, came from-drawing an image and then analyzing it as it kept coming up. So far for me, that has been the more telling way to do things.
Q. It sounds very daydreamy and freeassociative Was that what you were like as a kid?
A. Very internalized. I didn't speak much and drew a lot. But I don't think 1 drew any more than any other child.
Q. When you made Frankenweenie, were you abandoning animation?
A. There was a need to come out and communicate, not just by drawing but interacting with people. When I was at Disney I think most people perceived me as a little odd, even for that group. I was lonely, I didn't have a girlfriend for a few years, I felt pretty depressed. Once I got into that other world, that really helped me.
Q. So you were drawn to filmmaking because it forced you to integrate with other people.
A. Exactly. When you look at most people who are in film, they're all kind of loner types. I remember going to my ten-year high school reunion; I was never friends with anybody, and that's kind of why I went, as a sociological study. What was fascinating was that the people who were deemed antisocial and freaks in high school were now incredibly attractive and well adjusted. There seemed to be some sort of catharsis about growing up and being alone that made you rely on yourself. What that seems to do, I think is-the nature of creating, film, painting, whatever-you look to create those things that are lacking in your life. I never used to speak, and all of a sudden you find yourself in an environment where you have to speak to hundreds of people during a day. I'm still not great at that, but I've gotten better. We're weird, hopefully self-healing organisms.
Q. Weren't you pretty much into the L.A. music scene, though?
A. Oh yeah. Punk music was very cathartic to me, the anger and the emotional immediacy. But there's a really heavy feeling when you go to a club by yourself and you see people together. It actually only helped support my alienation-not the music, but the social scene. I never talked to people.
I listen to rock music that I don't end up using in my films, but I use it as an emotional guidepost. The movies are scored more classically. When I'm thinking about characters I'll listen to things that really don't necessarily literally apply at all.
Q. When Prince was hired to write songs for Batman, you didn't use many.
A. What's funny was that I listened to a lot of Prince, used it as an emotional thing; I listened to it for The Joker. I just don't fit into that whole Hollywood slick technical thing-I can't pull it off. People think that they can impose certain things on me. I think he's incredible, and I used it as playback on a couple of the scenes where we needed music- going into the museum, the parade sequence. In flimmaking you throw a lot of stuff out, so it's scary getting involved with people you admire like that, because if it's not working it's very difficult to deal with.
Q. What was the germ of the idea that years later became Edward Scissorhands?
A. It started when I was a teenager. I would go to clubs by myself and couldn't speak. It's rooted in depression, in having a lot of feelings inside that are very strong, and the very disturbing feeling of not being able to get those out to anybody.
Where did the image of scissor hands come from?
A fairy tale visualization and physical outgrowth of wanting to touch somebody and not being able to. And a side element about destruction and creation, the idea of two sides of everything, something that's good can also be bad. I threw all of that into the mix. And something about the workings of scissors, the complexity and simplicity of that.
Q. Was that one of the images you found yourself drawing a lot?
A. Yeah, that was one of those doodles that came out and you think, What does this mean? And you think about it- you've got a lot of free time on your hands, you don't have any friends, you're not talking to anybody, so you just think.
Q. Why are you drawn to the fairy tale/fable form? Is it in some way more truthful?
A. Most other cultures are very rich with folk tales, fairy tales. America is a fairly new country so there's a desire in me to create that. There's a lot of freedom in symbolism and layers of reality. It's slightly abstract. People can get things if they want to-or not.
There's a certain amount of discovery involved and a relating of semi-abstract images to your own life. I've always appreciated that in movies, like the Poe movies-what is this about really? It's about what you make it, it's about whatever relates to you. But if you look at an old Grimm's fairy tale, the moral hits you over the head like a hammer. I try to be clear enough but still not be too judgmental on anybody. You're dealing with images and I go extreme with them.
Ultimately the housewives in Edward Scissorhands turn into the villagers in Frankenstein, but 1 try to show a little more to them. It would be easier if the films were perceived as realistic, because the fairy tale veneer sometimes confuses people from seeing some of the subtleties.
Q. You once said that every time you make a film you think it's your last-something many other filmmakers feel. If that fear makes you go all out, is fear a useful creative force?
A. Because of the nature of the technical problems that arise, I can't imagine that anybody could walk into it feeling like it's a picnic. Those are the people who should be hauled away. It's like the idea of finding a completely happy person somewhere in the world. It's an incredible responsibility because of the money involved even on a low-budget film; you should care a 1000 percent, and if you care 1000 percent you go through a lot of emotions. Studios don't realize that, and they should a little bit. They're giving you money and then torturing you. I'm trying to do what they want as well-come up with a good movie that some people might like. That's anybody's impulse. There's a little too much torture involved, in my opinion.

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