Tim Burton on 'Frankenweenie': Weird kids, childhood pets, monster mash-ups

Courtesy Interview Magazine

They are movies where normal is not to be trusted and weird is celebrated; where quirky characters possess the heart of the story; where colorful, yet dark, settings are the delightfully freaky-deaky playground of the macabre and comedy. Everyone knows what a Tim Burton movie looks like.

Ever since the director emerged as a feature film director with 1985’s Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, followed by Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas and so on, the "Tim Burton" style has been a signature brand of moviemaking that married the mainstream with horror nerds and goths.

Meant in the most complimentary way possible, his is the kind of off-center, but mass consumable, product that Hot Topic was made for. This actually makes a lot of sense. Burton, 54, was a weird outsider of a kid who grew up in sunny Burbank, Calif. A young artist influenced by Charles Addams and Roald Dahl, he eventually went to work at the most mainstream place on Earth, The Walt Disney Company, as an animator before striking out on his own to harness his style.

Of course, the problem with having his own style is that a lot of people try to duplicate it poorly. And over time, Burton himself has been criticized for striving too hard to be Tim Burton-esque (See: Dark Shadows, Planet of the Apes).

But by and large, the same is not being said of Frankenweenie, Burton’s new stop-motion animated, black-and-white 3D film opening today. Based on a 1984 live-action short about a science-minded boy who reanimates his dead dog, Burton recently told the audience in the packed Hall H of San Diego Comic-Con that the movie "stemmed from having a dead dog as a kid," and a love of Frankenstein movies.

Originally designed to be released with an animated film like Pinocchio, Burton revealed that Disney executives "got freaked" the short would be too scary. But he said Disney movies are actually scary movies with heart, and that half the audience of kids watching Pinocchio ended up screaming. With that in mind, he called Frankenweenie "the perfect Disney movie."

The updated Frankenweenie fleshes out the story to include more characters – such as a class of weird children and a Vincent Price-inspired teacher (voiced by Martin Landau) - and a monster mash-up approach straight out of old Universal flicks which combined several creatures. He said it also was born from a feeling that everything was strange in school – so much so that he said he still gets freaked out when he goes to a school because it "reminds me of horrible memories."

But the origins of Frankenweenie and the Burton style extends beyond his old classroom. Tim Burton joined Paranormal Pop Culture and a group of reporters to answer questions about his work immediately following his Comic-Con panel.

Q: Your first go-around with Frankenweenie was done on the sly, and the story goes you got in trouble for it – until Disney released it on DVD. So is this something of a great revenge for you that they authorized a feature-film version.

The forms of Sparky, the reanimated dog. Actual
models from Frankenweenie.Copyright Paranormal Pop Culture
A: Revenge? I don’t know if it’s a good word. I mean, it’s a project that always meant something to me and the opportunity to do it with stop-motion, black and white, sort of expand on it with other kids, monsters and characters – it just seemed like the right medium and project. Even though it’s revisiting something that I did a long time ago, it feels new and special.

Q: As you started to expand the story, how many things were ideas lingering in your head that you didn’t have a chance to do versus what was brand new?

A: Well, there were always characters I sort of had, but sometimes you do characters and don’t know what it fits into. There were always some little characters it’s kind of playing around with. Also just going back – not only the thing with the boy and the dog – but going back to school, and remembering some of the kids I had in school, and some of the weird teachers. And also, growing up with those kind of Universal horror films, I was also a fan of House of Frankenstein or House of Dracula – or Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman where they combine them together. A lot of it had to do with those kinds of things that I loved.

Q: At Comic-Con, can you describe the feeling when you walk on stage at Hall H and feel the love. Is it daunting?

A: It’s amazing. I wish my family treated me that way. I walk in the door and nobody says anything! I remember coming to this back in the late ’70s at the Holiday Inn in San Diego; it is amazing what this has turned into … it is just fun to see Halloween in July. There is something that is very special about this place.

Q: It seems like you bring back a dog of yours in almost every movie; what’s the background on that?

A: When you’re young, it is the first kind of pure relationship you have – if you’re lucky enough to have a pet that you love. It is something that connects right to your heart. I was lucky enough to have a special pet that I had that kind of relationship with. Now the whole Frankenstein element is wish fulfillment in that kind of way. I always found those movies like Frankenstein quite emotional. So it seemed like a fairly natural connection to combine the two.

Q: There are a lot of horror elements in Frankenweenie. Would you jump back into that genre of straight horror in the vein of Sleepy Hollow?

A: I think I’ve had enough of me for a while. After this one, I’ll take a little bit of a rest. For me, this one is such a special project, and I’m going to take the time to enjoy that and nurture that.

Q: Over 20 years ago, with Batman, you were one of the first modern filmmakers who dug into that super hero world. What do you think about the current state of that genre?

A: I recall back to when we were doing that, and how worried they all were that it was too, too dark. Now it looks like a light-hearted romp – Batman on Ice! It is interesting because it was such a struggle to get that at the time.

Q: Why stop-motion animation?

A: I do love stop-motion. These things always take time to get done. It is a rarefied medium; it is a slightly lost art form - although there is more being done now than there was in the past. There is something so beautiful about it, just to be able to touch and feel the puppets, and move them. There is something magical about it; you kind of wish everybody could experience it. It is hard to talk about it, but if you felt these things - just the intricacy of the movement - it is quite a beautiful art form.

Q: Will there be any Frankenweenie characters in the Disneyland Haunted Mansion attraction (which is transformed into The Nightmare Before Christmas mansion every year), and what is your favorite Disney ride?

A: Aaah Sleeping Beauty’s castle … No. Is that still there? I’m a Space Mountain man, myself, but the Haunted Mansion is – that was such an honor. I grew up loving the Haunted Mansion and that they turned it into Nightmare was an amazing thing for me. That’s like one of those weird dream come true kind of thing, a very special moment for me.

The classroom of odd kids and the Vincent Price teacher
(voiced by Martin Landau). Actual set models. Copyright
Paranormal Pop Culture
Q: Is this the most detailed film of yours, with regards to the puppets and backgrounds? And this is the second time you’ve worked in black and white after Ed Wood.

A: Well, it was a real pleasure to do it in black and white. That was part of the reason for wanting to do it. And any stop-motion film is intricate. We had a slightly smaller crew on this than we usually do because we wanted to show the stop-motion. On Corpse Bride, a lot of people thought the puppets were so good they were computer animation. So we went back and did it a little bit more low-tech so you felt the stop-motion … also, the black and white draws out textures more. It made the film a bit more emotional, and makes you feel like you’re there. It does a strange thing, and it’s hard to put into words, but it definitely affects the way you watch it.

Q: How has the technology changed with stop-motion?

A: That’s the thing we love about it; it’s still the same. It goes back to the beginning of cinema. It is a technique that still basically is an animator moving a puppet 24 frames per second. That’s, I think, why we all love it. As much as you can do anything with technology, there’s something about going back to the simplicity of that. And the excitement – you see somebody move it, then see it come to life. It is very magical.

Q: We see the science teacher, voiced by Martin Landau, looks Vincent Price-esque. Is this your ultimate fanboy character creation for you? And are there other character shout outs in the movie that are your own personal valentine?

A: Well yeah, everything. You don’t try to put references in for people that don’t know Frankenstein movies. It is not something that is necessary to see the film. But, yeah; from remembering kids I went to school with, to the teachers, to Vincent Price – throw Christopher Lee in there. Also, just basing some characters on Boris Karloff, there are things in there that always meant something to me.

Q: What are the challenges of adapting a short into a feature-length film?

A: It wasn’t too much of a stretch. The heart of the story is the same. Having these other characters that were rattling around, it doesn’t make seem like it is a different thing. That’s why I feel proud about it; it doesn’t feel like a short that we’re padding out. It gets to explore kid politics, and the way kids are to each other, and weird teachers. To me, it didn’t feel like a padding or stretching thing. It felt quite natural. If it hadn’t felt that way, it wouldn’t have been worth doing. It is important that it works as its own thing.

Q: Looking at all the films you’ve worked on and created over the years, is there one that stands out as your favorite. It must be hard to pick …

A: It is hard to pick. You spend so much time on each thing. I think things like Scissorhands, Ed Wood or Nightmare. This one is up there. You have to connect to everything, but these are ones that are probably slightly a bit more personal.

Q: Was 3D always part of the plan with Frankenweenie?

A: The idea of black and white, and 3D, was always something I was interested in. There was a lot of talk about 3D: “It’s too dark, it’s too muddy, it’s this and that.” This was an opportunity to kind of, with the black and white, keep it crisp. When I watch it, I just love it because you see things in a different way. The idea of stop-motion in black-and-white 3D seemed like a really good combination.