The twelve-year-old me was a weird kid. Despite being happy and functional with a fairly lively social life, I wore a lot of black. I also listened to too much sad music. I won’t dive much deeper into the extent of my Wednesday Addams syndrome, but let’s just say that the employees at the nearest Hot Topic store knew my name. It was pretty bad. After a few years, I suddenly had the desire to break free from my moody exterior. While my closet brightened up dramatically, my tastes never really left. I still listen to The Smiths on a daily basis, and the urge to watch The Nightmare Before Christmas as I get ready for the holiday season is still unshakeable. Burton on Burton, just one member of the lengthy list of books in the Faber & Faber series that highlights the works of celebrated filmmakers through in-depth interviews filled with anecdotes, made me realize that Tim Burton is basically twelve-year-old me — a fairly functional child with an affinity for the dark and mysterious.
In this collection of interviews, Burton becomes surprisingly personal as he takes the interviewer and the reader on a journey from his childhood in California, taking a detour to his time at Disney, and finally hitting the brakes in 2005 (when the book was revised and published) when he becomes a family man with a slightly altered vision of the world he grew up in. I have come to describe Burton’s style as if you were having Siouxsie & the Banshees sing a Dr. Seuss book — it’s twisted and gloomy, but with an underlying message of the importance of being yourself because that’s all that matters. Or something like that.
Every project for Tim Burton, it seems, is a very personal exploration of the aspects of his childhood that helped him create the sugar-coated gloom we have become so familiar with. While still working with Disney, Burton began to explore his personal and brooding artistic visions. In 1982, he made his first stop-motion short film entitled Vincent. The story follows a young boy who wants to grow up to be Burton’s personal childhood hero, Vincent Price (who also narrates the film with a lovely poem that the director had written about his hero). The director never denies the similarities many of his lead male characters have to his own personality, world view, and even appearance, however he consistently insists that it is usually never intentional.
An exception, however, comes much later in his career with Big Fish (2003). After the parents he had never been very close to had passed away, Burton sought out a project that would help him feel close to them once more. The adaptation of Daniel Wallace’s novel of the same name, about a son coming to terms with the absenteeism and general elusiveness of his dying father, crossed his path at an opportune time. Burton speaks with high regard for the lead actors of Big Fish, Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney, who play young Edward Bloom and Edward Bloom senior respectively. The project resonated with Burton since he had never been able to resolve the problems he had with his own absentee father before his passing.
Prior to this particularly personal endeavor, the director explains some of his biggest hits and the motivation behind him. Burton took on a project entitled Beetlejuice (1988), because he was tired of the same stock scripts that kept being sent to him; he saw something unique and even edgy to create with Beetlejuice. Beyond that, he was able to integrate some of his personal artwork and own twisted visions of the underworld and the lives of the supernatural into the design of many of the costumes and characters.
The director even provides a response to some of the controversy that shrouded the darker aspect of his films, especially in relation to the direction he took for Batman (1989). Everything from the pre-release response to the casting of Michael Keaton (also the title character in Beetlejuice) to the wariness of fans to the all-black costuming of the caped crusader. Burton defends his choices as an exploration of the psychological motivations of a man leading a double life. He strove to find Batman’s inner outcast, probably out of his own desire to feel connected to the subjects of each of his stories and films.
In 1993, an endeavor he had begun around the time of Vincent’s release finally came to fruition in the form of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. The script came from a story Burton had written about the Pumpkin King of Hallowe’en, Jack Skellington, who grows weary of his own holiday and decides to take over Christmas. The brooding and dark exterior of this stop-motion film masks a much brighter morality tale that is also encompassed by extraordinary amounts of compassion, in the form of Sally, who is literally falling apart at her seams, and her never-ending love for Jack. The film was directed by Henry Selick (James and the Giant Peach, Coraline), but it still encompasses the very distinct vision that can be seen in Burton’s earlier and later endeavors. One of his most well-known projects, Burton expresses a strong sense of pride in his creation that spawned the mascot for a generation of Hot Topic shopping preteens, like myself. Being able to provide sanctuary for the outcasts of the world who never felt comfortable in the constricting norms of suburban life still brings Burton copious amounts of joy, since he had found a home in heros like Vincent Price and Edgar Allan Poe as a young boy.
The most endearing thread of Burton’s career is his friendship with many actors; he often fights production companies to cast his friends in many of his films. The book begins with two separate forewords by Johnny Depp; one had been written for the book’s original release in 1994 while the other came in 2005 after the birth of children for each men and starting new families. Depp holds a special place for his kindred soul who helped save him from becoming a typecast heartthrob during his time on the teen drama 21 Jump Street. They first began working with each other in the quintessential favorite film of every emo kid I knew in high school, Edward Scissorhands (1990). Depp finally had the chance to escape the mold that Hollywood was about to create for him and had the chance to explore a more creative side of himself. Scissorhands helped spawn a lucrative partnership between the actor and director for several more films (Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride before the publication of this book, and Sweeney Todd after).
It must be difficult for Tim Burton to still consider himself an outcast. He has created his own table for the cool kid’s at lunch, complete with matching Jack Skellington hoodies and all. The book was a fun look inside the mind of a fairly normal man who just finds the idea of a more gothic life a little more appealing. In turn, he has influenced a legion of Poe-loving rascals to slap on the black eyeliner and take a dip into a much gloomier world.