Tim Burton, like his work, is a wonderful mess. He’s falling-apart funny and completely alienated; he’s morbid and ironic; he’s the serious artist as goofball flake. A self-described “happy-go-lucky manic depressive,” he’s like a bright flashlight in a very dark place: the grim factory of Hollywood. Burton is a true visionary. Our culture usually doesn’t use that word for people whose visions look like cartoons and go down like dessert, but Burton is spitting in the eye of our culture anyway, while simultaneously celebrating it. That’s the fabulous, odd thing about his work: he’s angrily spitting something sweet.
Tim Burton was born in Burbank, California, in 1958, and has lived near Hollywood all his life. He has a brother and two parents, from whom he’s always felt distant. Growing up, he did feel close to Edgar Allan Poe and Vincent Price and many monsters from many bad movies. He also took sanctuary in the confines of his own imagination; for him, drawing was a refuge. Burton’s first vehicle of public acceptance was at garbage truck: in ninth grade, he won first prize in a contest to design an anti-littering poster, and his work graced the refuse trucks of Burbank for a year. Wanting a career for which he wouldn’t need too much schooling, he studied animation at the California Institute of Arts. Upon graduation, he went to work for Disney.
Unhappy on the animation assembly line, Burton eventually won some measure of freedom within the Disney kingdom, directing his first animated short, Vincent, in 1982. With narration by Vincent Price, this five-minute, black-and-white piece of stop-frame animation, heavy on German Expressionist sensibility, chronicled the miserable life and liberating fantasies of a seemingly normal but deeply disturbed suburban boy, quite like young Tim. A kung fu Hansel and Gretel with an all-Asian cast followed, to everyone’s dissatisfaction. Then came Frankenweenie, a half-hour exploration of the Frankenstein myth come to the suburbs, starring Shelly Duvall, Daniel Stern, and a monster/dog named Sparky. This lovable little mutt of a movie, which announced the outsider-in-town theme Burton would later develop in Edward Scissorhands, was buried by Disney until 1992, when they released a home video version.
Burton’s first full-length feature, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, was an inventive, well-modulated romp built around the singular, screechy talents of Paul Reubens, aka the prepubescent, grey-suited, rouge-cheeked Pee-wee Herman. The critics paid little attention, but the picture did great business. Next, Burton enlarged his visual signature on the campy, surreal Beetlejuice, a black laugh of a ghost story. Starring Geena Davis, Alec Baldwin, and Michael Keaton in a comic tour de force, the film was an over-the-top lob into the irrational, a cherry bomb tossed into the grey classroom of mortality. It didn’t all coalesce (how could it?) but when it worked, Burton’s pie-in-your-face existentialism worked like magic. The critics paid little attention, but the picture did fabulous business.Never particularly a fan of comic books or cartoons, Burton was nonetheless chosen to direct Batman, one of those blockbuster properties that had been in development forever, with the studio executives clustered around it in dumb wonder, like cave men around their first fire. Burton went deep into the myth, and deep into the dark, and produced a flawed but fascinating pop epic. The movie had a grand, rotten urban texture and a brooding tone. It was weighty but not ponderous, and it was great fun — here Jack Nicholson had the comic turn — but the fun was somewhat submarined by awkward action, narrative glitches, and inappropriate music by Prince. The critics paid all sorts of attention, and the picture did historic business. This gave Burton the freedom to direct Edward Scissorhands, a profoundly personal project he’d first conceived as a teenager. A simple fairy tale gift-boxed in a sophisticated design package, the story concerned a castle-bound boy with shears for hands, who’s plucked from the fortress of his solitude by an angelic Avon lady and thrust into the banal wonders of suburbia. Yearning and sentimental, the movie felt like Burton’s ache, and was affectingly played by a cast that included Dianne Wiest, Winona Ryder, and Johnny Depp.After waffling for some time, Burton decided to do the inevitable Batman sequel. (A sequel to Beetlejuice had also been proposed, and turned down.) He tried Batman Returns largely for the chances to take a whack at some new characters and to take the myth more in his own direction, exercising a control which the overwhelming success of the first movie brought him and which his added experience would naturally provide.
The first Batman film also brought him his wife, Lena Gieseke, a German painter, whom he met while filming in London and married in February of 1989. In addition to directing major motion pictures, Burton draws constantly and paints occasionally. A coffee-table book of his art is in the planning stage, as are some children’s picture books he plans to author. He’s also shot a documentary about Vincent Price, and is developing a full-length animated feature, Nightmare Before Christmas.
I spoke with Burton twice in March of 1991, in his production company office at Warner’s Hollywood lot. Before our first session, he was in the midst of preparing Batman Returns to show to studio executives — he said he’d “rather show it to aliens” — and he was even more nervous than usual. Burton talks with his hands cutting the air, covering his face, pulling his hair. He struggles to make sense of himself, starting four or five sentences for every one he finishes, and dicing his words into bits. Indeed, he’s been called “famously inarticulate” by the Washington Post. (I’ve chosen clarity in favor of interview verité in the editing and punctuation of our conversation, in hopes that what you lose in the way he thinks — his vegematic style of verbalization — you gain in actually understanding what he thinks.) The fact is, English seems like a foreign language for Burton: he thinks visually. Everything he says carries with it the burden of translation.
Why do think you are a director?
I never wanted to be. I never felt, I am going to be a director. It probably has more to do with having an idea and just wanting to control it a little bit. I’ve always kind of quietly had ideas and controlled them, maybe not in a demonstrative way. It really has to be that impulse. And it just lucked into movies. I started in animation, but I couldn’t sustain that — because of my attention span. I have enough of an attention span for live-action movies, and enough of a temperament to work it out. And it’s funny, there’s this wonderful thing of having an idea and not being completely in control — in dealing with outside elements, which you have to do in movies, which I find quite exciting. The things that happen that are out of your control are quite energizing.
Is that tension, between what you can control and what you can’t, the juice for you?
Yeah. Yeah! I think it becomes absurd and it becomes surreal. You are thrust, just in the nature of making a film, into a surreal situation, where there’s a lot of passion. And I find that attractive. I think that’s why I’ve always enjoyed Fellini films — he shows the beauty and surrealism behind the scenes, things you go through that people don’t see. That’s quite energizing.
Isn’t the impulse to art, to draw, for you, an attempt to control your world?
Sure. I am very interiorized, and very private. I’ve never verbalized that aspect of working. I’ve chosen, and I choose, to protect it, in an intuitive way and not an intellectual way. So I’m kind of cagey about what I intellectualize.
Does the intellectualizing alienate you from your inspiration?
Yeah, because you are bombarded by outside elements: media, reviews, people. That’s why I find myself interiorizing more. I don’t want to hear what it is I do or I don’t do, or start to analyze that too much. I feel my strength in my enjoyment is very private and interior. That’s really the only thing I enjoy about it. And I try to protect that to some degree.
Everybody has a different way of thinking. And my way is with a certain amount of intellectualization of the themes, but there’s a cut-off point — where I have a strong enough idea of what’s going on, and then I cut it off and just try to deal with it intuitively. It’s just your own barometer. I look at certain things — actors on the set — and I have my barometer of belief in what they are doing. ’Cause oftentimes when you [are dealing with stupid-looking things, and all the sets look kind of ridiculous, you have to find that line of belief. I hate it where things just look ridiculous and people act funny, so it’s just your own barometer. So I’m very cagey about it.
Let me stop you right there, because “cageyness” implies a kind of consciousness of what to reveal and what not to reveal, as opposed to a built-in censor.
Yeah. [Pause.] I guess the cageyness has to do with kind of fighting outside things. It’s very hard to be in all of this — you really do have to fight to keep a certain kind of clarity. You see people turning into the most frightening creatures. I remember when I first got into this, and I’d see somebody yelling and screaming and bursting their blood vessels and I’d go, “Whoa! What’s that guy’s problem? Why he is reacting so strangely?” But being in it for a while, you tend to understand why. The whole situation perverts you. And it’s a mistake to think that it doesn’t. And I think it’s a constant struggle to try to maintain what it is that you’re doing, or what you’re trying to do, and to keep that as simple as possible.
So the warding off is a self-protective measure?
It is, I think. It certainly feels that way to me.
David Lynch indicated that one of the reasons he never pursued psychoanalysis or therapy was that he was afraid it would block his creative process.
That can be interesting. I went through that process a little bit, and I completely unraveled. [Laughs.] There’s so much about yourself and other people that’s interesting, but I just unraveled too quickly! I had a therapist who was very good, and they’ll tell you that one of their main concerns is not to let you unravel as you’re recovering.
They want to let you hold onto your defenses until you have some new things to hold on to.
Exactly! And I just dived right in and immediately went to the bottom level of antidepressants and everything. I couldn’t handle it. So I understand it. It’s a true balancing act. Your mind plays funny tricks on you all the time.
How did the “shrinkage” relate to your work?
[With a Brooklyn accent, as an old-time director.] “Well, luckily I was in between pic-chahs!” [Laughs.] I was just a ball of yarn there. There are times in your life when you feel stuck. And I was wanting to burst through something, what it was I didn’t know. Depression. Throughout my life, some form and level of depression has always hung over me. And I don’t think it’s bad necessarily, but sometimes when it gets bad — and there have been a few points — it keeps you kind of stuck.
How long did you stick with it, before it became intolerable?
A couple of years. I had a couple of shrinks. I had one guy, he didn’t talk to me the whole time. [Manic laugh.] It was hilarious. That was my problem: I never spoke to anybody. So I found the perfect therapist, who just sat there for an hour and didn’t speak. It was like being in any other relationship — I didn’t say a word. So it was redundant in a way. He checked his watch every now and then. It was weird. We didn’t say anything to each other. Maybe we were speaking Vulcan-style.
In the past, you’ve brought up making-films-as-therapy a number of times, both as a metaphor, and almost literally in the case of Vincent — that it was therapy for you to make that film.
People don’t realize, because of the surface way the films look and the cartoonish nature of them, that the only thing that keeps me going through a movie is that these characters mean something to me. My process is that I look at all these characters and get a feeling out of them that I find to be very meaningful. And thematic, to me. That’s the only way for me to approach it. I could never approach it like it’s just a funny movie or it’s a weird-looking movie.
It’s not candy.
No, it’s not, even if it may be perceived that way, and often is. Everything has quite a deep foundation, otherwise how could you really do something? The process is too difficult and it’s too painful to not have some deeply rooted feelings in it. I wouldn’t actually do it, I’m not proficient enough at it; I don’t have that thing that some people have, that allows them to move from one picture to another, and be a very good director, and keep moving. Each thing to me is like the last thing: it’s all very big and tragic and cathartic. “This is the next and last picture” — I really go through that quite grandly, in my own way.
Do you ever fear that because the superficial characteristics of your films are so strong — the surfaces are so brilliant, the edges are so sharp — the audience will be blinded to the elements underneath?
I believe that one hundred percent. I have found that to be true on everything I’ve done. For the first ten minutes, nobody knows what they’re looking at. I think it’s definitely true, but I also know that I have a reputation — and this comes from critics on down to studio people — that I am not America’s Premier Storyteller. But who cares, really? Why does everything have to be the same?
Let’s go back to the world of your childhood. I’m curious as to whether you think your character was almost fully shaped by the time you were five years old.
Number one, I really hate, more than almost anything — because it seems to be bubbling up — that fucking “child within” bullshit. Do you know what I mean? I don’t know whether you’ve heard that shit. I’ve heard it related to me, where they say, “I’ve never lost that touch of the child.” It’s the remnant of some kind of yuppie bullshit, that whole “tapping into the child within you,” and that it’s important to make films that do that. And actually I find that a form of retardation. [Pause.] I am very interested in where you come from and what you are. What are you? That truly is a very interesting question. But not to the point where people perceive you as maintaining that “childish” quality. ’Cause I don’t actually know any children, and I don’t know what that’s all about.
Well, in the past you’ve said that you were, in the films, working out or working from a lot of “childlike feelings” and that you felt you would move on from them.
Yeah, I find it very interesting, because I think it holds the key to everybody, that question of what you are. Children are not perverted, in a way. It has more to do with the culture. When children are drawing, everybody draws the same. Nobody draws better than everybody else. There’s a certain amount of strength, there’s a certain amount of passion, there’s a certain amount of clarity. And then what happens is it gets beaten out of you. You’re put into a cultural framework, which gets beaten into you. To punch through that framework you have to maintain a certain kind of strength and simplicity.
Do you think that when you were a kid there was an attempt to beat things out of you that you wanted to hold on to?
I think that in the atmosphere I grew up in, yes, there was a subtext of normalcy. I don’t even know what the word means, but it’s stuck in my brain. It’s weird. I don’t know if it’s specifically American, or American in the time I grew up, but there’s a very strong sense of categorization and conformity. I remember being forced to go to Sunday school, for a number of years, even though my parents were not religious. No one was really religious; it was just the framework. There was no passion for it. No passion for anything. Just a quiet, kind of floaty, kind of semi-oppressive, blank palette that you’re living in.
How young were you when you felt that for the first time?
From very early on. As long as I can remember. My grandmother told me that before I could walk I always wanted to leave. I would just crawl away, I would crawl out the door. And then, when I was older, if anybody was going anywhere, I always wanted to go. I had that impulse. And I had the impulse for horror movies — that was a very strong thematic thing.
Young Vincent Malloy, in Vincent, is “possessed by the house and can never leave it again.” That must have been your greatest fear.
Well, I think so. I think so. It’s a funny thing, that. It has to do with this atmosphere. I don’t think it even has to do so much with your parents. Just the kind of collective feeling. In some ways it’s quite good. It’s almost like dealing with a blank piece of paper. In some ways you had to create your own world.
You became quite private, and wanted to spend time alone.
Absolutely. Absolutely. To this day I’m happiest when I’m . . . I look forward to sleeping. And I did, even then, I liked sleep. And I love talking to people who like to sleep. There are a few things that just calm me down: when I hear about somebody making mashed potatoes, and when I hear about somebody sleeping, and liking to sleep. I get this sense of calm, and it’s a wonderful feeling. And in Hollywood, nobody likes to sleep — they’re losing out, they’re not on top of it. There are a few people that enjoy sleep, and I love talking to them about it. People that like to sleep are able to talk about it in ways that are nice. There is something that’s wonderful about it. I love to sleep.
But you don’t remember your dreams.
No, I don’t. I have like five dreams that I remember.
Do they repeat, consistently?
No, I only have one dream that’s been recurring. It’s a great dream. There was a little girl on my block, who I was in love with, and she moved away. Every ten years I’ll have a dream about her, at the age we are now. We lost contact, but I have this very clear image of what she looks like and all that.
What are the other four dreams you remember?
I had a dream that — this is so weird, because it’s like it actually happened. My parents went bowling, and there was this weird place that they stuck the kids. I guess it was like a day-care center, but it was all Gothic, it was all rotted wood. And there were a few of us morose kids sitting there, and we saw this light — a skeleton was coming in with this candle. And the skeleton looks at me, and it opens a door, and I fall through a trapped door and I fall into my parents’ bed. And I remember waking up in my parents’ bed. Weird, huh? Whoa! [Manic laugh.]
I remember the ones that are so strong that I just couldn’t forget them, and I remember each feeling, each detail. I remember one when I got into a Western axe fight with somebody. I remember every chop. I remember chopping off this person’s face. None of us died, but we just went through this thing, in sort of a Western setting. There was another, where there was this horrible, [shudders] this horrible seaweed, like this tough purple rubberish sea plant, that was growing out of my mouth. And I kept tearing it away and it kept growing and growing and growing. That’s all it was, a long dream about the feeling of that, and the wacky hijinks surrounding that.
But when you get deep into the middle of a film, nothing spills out of your unconscious about it?
No, my dreams then are the worst dreams in the world, which are dreams that I am actually awake and working. Nothing could be more nightmarish than that. The nightmare is that you’re still working and you’re still dealing with certain people. You wake up like you’ve just seen through a day. Nothing is worse than that.
What was the kind of taste and smell of childhood for you?
This is funny, but I think I’ve always felt the same. I’ve never felt young, like I was a kid. I’ve never felt like I was a teenager. I never felt like I was an adult. I just have always felt the same. I guess if there was a flavor, I guess it was a kind of surreal, bright depression. I was never interested in what everybody else was interested in. I was very interiorized. I always felt kind of sad.
Were you lonely?
I never felt . . . yeah. Yeah. I’ve always likened it to that feeling, when you’re a teenager, that grand feeling — which is why I liked punk or some people like heavy metal or Gothic. You’ve got to go through some kind of drama. I’ve always seen people who are well adjusted, and actually, they are not that well adjusted. Everybody is going to blow at some moment or other. In fact, the ones that come across as the most well adjusted are like human time bombs, waiting to go off. I just think that kind of dark catharsis, that kind of dark, dramatic, depressed, sad, moody thing, was kind of healthy.
When Edward Scissorhands came out, you said of your youth that you were “perfectly happy” alone, in your own little world. When I read that, I didn’t really buy it.
I think my statement’s a bit cavalier. I think that was a broad-stroke statement. Lookit, nothing is ever one way or the other. But I relate to that more than anything. Part of the problem when I’m doing a movie is that I never see things simplistically. People ask me if I’m happy. I never can answer that kind of question, because it’s always too mixed, in a way. Well, I’m never going to be happy, but I feel absurdly lucky to be here.
Given this world, the fact that we’re not starving makes us extremely lucky, but nonetheless, within your world, you have certain feelings.
Within an emotional world, nobody knows and nobody cares what sort of torments somebody might go through to do something. Maybe it’s good not to talk about it so much. Fact is, who cares? Who cares? You can read about artists of the past, and you read about their dark, horrific struggles . . .
The painter in the garret.
Nobody in Hollywood is cutting off their ears.
Well, they are cutting up their breasts and faces.
[Laughs.] Yes, but it’s more for beautification reasons than it is for dark, tormented reasons, although the result is pretty much the same.
I think there’s plenty of dark torment beneath the need to do it.
Oh boy, you bet! It all ends up the same.
I’m curious about your attraction to the horrific: monsters, ghouls, demons, and so on. One take might be that in the kind of nothingness of suburbia — the almost slyly attractive no-feeling nothingness of suburbia — which you can project anything onto, the kind of deep feeling of the ghouls and demons and monsters is compelling.
Exactly. I love it. Lookit, all monster movies are basically one story. It’s Beauty and the Beast. Monster movies are my form of myth, of fairy tale. The purpose of folk tales for me is a kind of extreme, symbolic version of life, of what you’re going through. In America, in suburbia, there is no sense of culture, there is no sense of passion. So I think those served that very specific purpose for me. And I linked those monsters, and those Edgar Allan Poe things, to direct feelings. I didn’t read fairy tales, I watched them. I wasn’t watching them because I liked to be scared. From day one, I never was afraid of them, ever.
Did you identify with the monster?
Completely! Every kid does. They were always taking the monster and kind of prodding him and poking him, especially the ones of the fifties. The way those movies were structured, the heroes were always these bland actors, who had no emotion. They were the suburbanites to me.
And you were the creature from the black split-level.
Sure! Of course. Grand drama. You’ve got to feel, you’ve got to go for the drama. Because if I didn’t, I just felt I would explode. I always felt it was healthy — I enjoyed the drama of that. I just felt it was saving me. You deal with it, and you create, or, you become it.
Is the alienation that was present between you and your folks, and you and your brother, a lifelong thing, or is there any possibility for repair?
It’s one of those issues . . . my parents are good people. They are not bad people. But, I feel it’s much more of a cultural phenomenon. I’m not the warmest of people, when it comes to that.
Do you see any of yourself in them, or any of them in you?
Yeah, I think so. I don’t think was adopted, or hatched from an egg or something. There is some connection there.
You’ve said you grew up at the end of the nuclear family experiment, and that it didn’t work. Did you mean yours, or the whole idea?
I think the whole thing. There was no sense of connection to emotions. In our culture, what you were taught about America in school is the way things should be — success and family, what they call traditional family values — and you know, things are not that simple. So when it’s not working, rather than going, “This isn’t working, this is fucked,” people just feel like they are failures.
And the last twelve years in Washington, they’ve been shoving that “family values” idea down our throats.
And it’s completely frightening, because they don’t understand. The same thing about “America.” It’s just bizarre to try to maintain this feeling about America. And you see it most strongly in Los Angeles. America to me always seems like a country that’s based on a movie. Here you’ve got presidents spouting lines from Clint Eastwood movies, and it’s getting more and more that way. It’s hard to find people to work with because nobody wants to be what they are. “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m not this, because I’m really this.” This level of success that’s thrust upon you — you’ve got to be successful and you’ve got to be a certain way — nobody is what they are, because of this dream. And it’s great to have a dream, and none of that should be taken away from people, because that’s all people have, but not this materialistic dream. That’s the problem, and everybody is fucked up from it.
Jim’s dad in Edward Scissorhands being case number one.
[Manic laugh.] Absolutely, absolutely.
Do you remember when you first had the impulse to draw?
I think it started when it started for everyone. I’m just lucky that it wasn’t beaten out of me. I was very lucky that I maintained a passion for it and didn’t give a fuck what my third grade teacher thought of it.
And were your drawings stuck up on the fridge by your parents?
I got the normal parent routine. It’s actually quite funny. You know, mom’s reading a book, and you show her a drawing and she has X-ray vision through the book, where she can actually see your drawing without looking from her book. [Manic laugh.] That’s the classic routine. I don’t know what the whole deal was. My father was also a baseball player, in the minors, and he worked for the park and recreation district in Burbank, so there was a slight pushing in that direction. And my mother pushed me into the whole musical instrument routine. I think I played the clarinet, but I was never any good at it. So my drawing was always more private. I feel kind of lucky, because I think if they had supported it, I probably wouldn’t have done it. Lookit, every kid is reacting against their parents. If the parents are radicals, the kid turns out to be a little accountant. It’s not always the case, but that dynamic is pretty strong.
A couple of years ago you said you “freaked” because you didn’t even know the most basic things about your parents, like where they were born. What caused you to freak about that?
I think it was that period of therapy, where I was trying to figure out what the fuck was going on. I felt a bit more depressed than usual. The fog got a little greyer. It’s hard to see through it as it gets down a little bit closer to you. I was just not connecting to anybody. I was starting to feel a little too lonely and too isolated and too abstract and depressed. And it was around that time that it was pointed out to me that I didn’t know anything about my parents. [Manic laugh.] It was kind of shocking.
Do you ever see them?
I see them occasionally. Not too much.
I know how important Vincent Price and his films were to you as a kid. You talk in terms of him getting things out of your system. What did he get out of your system that proved so helpful to you?
His movies probably spoke most directly to me. In fairy tales and myths, the symbolism is not so much intellectual as emotional. I could understand everything he was going through. Then, as I got older, I met the guy — and I still don’t know him that well, and that’s probably good in a way — and I realized that this connection made me feel good about my own intuition. Here you are, looking at a guy, and he’s killing people and all this other stuff, but then you sense something else. It gave me a feeling, a human feeling, of intuition; and kind of a barometer of looking at people. There are very few moments like that that make you feel good. A little bit of a validating experience. A little bit of a reality check. A check on something that gets lost in the world.
Do you imagine depressed teenagers needing your work the way you needed his work?
I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about that. You can’t think about those things because it would be wrong. That’s not the way things should happen. But if someone would say to me that that was the case, I would feel happy about it. I would feel an affinity for that, because of the way I felt, and feel.
How do you feel your background in animation shaded you as a director?
What I feel really good about, really happy about, is that I did not go to film school. I went to Cal Arts, and went through animation, where I got a very solid education. You learn design, you draw your own characters, you draw your own backgrounds, you draw your own scenes. You cut it, you shoot it. You learn the storyboarding process. It’s everything, without the bullshit of film school. I can’t even meet people from film school, because I feel like they’ve been in the industry for ten years. It’s really frightening! Not to say that they are all that way, but I knew somebody who was at a studio and was going to look at a student’s film, and then the student came in and said, “I’m not running this film, I need a stereo room!” The level of competition, of feeling like you’re already in the industry, you don’t get a chance to create.
But the torpor of being attacked to the animator’s desk was traumatic.
I couldn’t handle it. At Disney, I almost went insane. I really did. I don’t ever want to get that close to that certain kind of feeling that I had. Who knows what a nervous breakdown is? Or who knows what going off the edge is? I don’t want to get that close again.
Was the monotony your biggest enemy?
Number one is, I was just not Disney material. I could just not draw cute foxes for the life of me. I couldn’t do it. I tried. I tried, tried. The unholy alliance of animation is: you are called upon to be an artist — especially at Disney, where you are perceived as the artist, pure and simple, where your work flows from the artistic pencil to the paper, the total artist — but on the other hand, you are called upon to be a zombie factory worker. And for me, I could not integrate the two. I could not find that balance.
Also, at the time they were making kind of shitty movies. And it took them five or six years to make a movie. There’s that cold, hard fact: do you want to spend six years of your life working on The Fox and the Hound? There’s a soul-searching moment when the answer is pretty clear.
How do you react to the critical shorthand which suggests that your films are live-action cartoons?
You know what’s weird? I never really liked animation. My attraction to it was: if I had the choice of being a court reporter or an animator, I would choose animation. [Laughs.]
That’s right, your parents wanted you to be a court reporter.
There was a guy who lived near us, who was really creepy, who was a court reporter, and I remember I went to his office once to find out about it. It was creepy. So, beyond court reporting, I liked to draw — animation seemed good. But I’m not gung-ho about it.
So your connection to animation was really only that it was linked to drawing, which was something you did, and still do, obsessively and incessantly.
Well, sure. That’s why the one thing I had to learn about live-action, which is still a struggle for me, is to speak. In animation, you would communicate through drawings, and I was perfectly happy to communicate that way, and not in any other way. So what you’re saying is true: there was a direct link. You’re able to maintain that privacy much more in that relationship, because there’s nothing else happening, really.
Let’s talk about the Disney work you did do. If you resist the connection between yourself and Edward Scissorhands, you can’t really in good faith resist the connection between yourself and Vincent Malloy in Vincent?
No, I can’t. It’s probably the thing that is the most purely related to me, for sure.
And young Vince has some fairly aggressive fantasies: one of boiling his aunt in wax, and one of sending enough juice into his dog Abercrombie to turn him into a zombie.
Sure. All forms of experiments, yes.
So, did you have these kind of fantasies? And did you exorcise them by making the film?
I did both. But again, again, if you grow up in an environment that is not passionate, you have no choice but to have these dark fantasies. That’s why I get so freaked out when I read about parents trying to stop their kids from listening to this or that music. It’s like “Sesame Street” — I would never watch that. You got to understand, things are not perfect for children. There’s a lot of darkness, there’s a lot of abstraction. The only way to get through it is to explore it.
When you did all your drawing, did you do it to communicate with others, or just to pleasure yourself by doing it?
I pleased myself by doing it. I really did get enjoyment out of it, myself. I did these very big things. You know how kids would go out and play “army” or something like that — well, I would do it on paper. I would have these elaborate things where spaceships would attack, and so on, and by the end of it, it would turn into a gigantic mess. It wasn’t even a drawing by the end. It looked like a collection of obliterated figures. I enjoyed it. It wasn’t for anybody else.
If Vincent Price had not cooperated with you on the film and done the voice-over narration, in hindsight, do you think your life would have been different?
That’s an interesting question. I remember going through those feelings at the time, thinking, “God, will he like this?” It’s hard to say what would have happened, but I know how I felt about the thing: it was one hundred percent pure. It could have been like one of those things that you see: [imitating jaded star] “Hey, kid, get away from me! Get out of here!” Everything is based on your first impulse, and I didn’t do the thing for his approval. Vincent is probably the only thing that I can watch and not have to turn away.
Of all your work? Or just that early work?
Of anything. I can watch parts of things. Sometimes I’ll turn on something, if it’s on TV, and I’ll just watch a little bit of something, just to see what my own reaction will be. I feel like everything I do is part of me, but it’s very hard for me to watch things. I can’t sit back and enjoy it. I feel an affinity for it, but I can’t enjoy it. It takes me about five years before I can really see it at all. I don’t know what that’s about.
Do you watch your films with audiences? Do you go to test screenings?
I have to. Those things are really hard for me. There’s such importance placed on test screenings, by studios, and unrightly so, because they’re complete bullshit. The reality of the situation is — and I don’t care what anybody says — that if you show the movie to a group of people, you’ll get an idea of what’s working and what’s not working. That’s really all you need to do. You don’t need to have this lab animal experiment, where you dissect the audience and dissect the film. That’s complete, one hundred percent bullshit! And they are completely locked into it. If you put the audience in a lab experiment scenario, they’re gonna turn into critics and they are going to turn into lab animals. So I believe, in the broad-stroke, in looking at a movie with an audience — and you don’t have to ask them, who is your most favorite character, and who is your least favorite character? You can tell what’s working and what’s not. That’s all you should do. And that’s why I constantly try to fight this fucked system. It’s so horrible. It doesn’t help the movie.
But after the movie opens, I don’t go. I get too freaked out. I can’t enjoy it. It makes me wonder why I do it. I don’t enjoy this, I don’t enjoy that. I wish that I could, because I feel like I’m cutting myself out of part of it that’s maybe nice. I get too nervous.
With hindsight, Frankenweenie looks very much like a dress rehearsal for Edward Scissorhands.
Yeah. I was very lucky at Disney to do things that meant something to me: A, to be able to do a short film in any studio situation, and B, to be able to do some things that were personally meaningful to me — that’s unheard of. And everything is thematically meaningful to me. Even Pee-wee. Whether it shows up to anybody else, I don’t know.
When Frankenweenie got a PG rating instead of a G, Disney buried it in their vault, and from what I understand, they wouldn’t even give you a personal copy of it.
That’s absolutely true. They were very weird about it.
And yet, now that you are a famous director, they are releasing it on video, before Batman Returns comes out. It seems like Exhibit A of Hollywood cynicism.
Exactly! And you know what, though, I don’t even get upset with this shit, because it’s the way it is. I understand it. I’m cynical enough about things just to be happy that they are releasing it. I have plenty of other things to get upset about and paranoid about.
Victor Frankenstein, in reading about how to bring his dog Sparky back to life, has Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s On Death and Dying in his room. That’s surely the only time that book has shown up in a Disney fairy tale.
[Manic laugh.] Yes. It’s all heavy.
And a lovable little monster is Sparky, and a monster who survives, and prospers. The monster is supposed to die in a monster movie, right, Tim?
Yeah, but they never do! Even when they die, they don’t die. Even in Creature from the Black Lagoon, the creature dies, but he comes back in Revenge of the Creature and The Creature Walks Among Us. They never die. It’s part of the mythology that they do. But they are always coming back. They’re always fighting. They fight through the system, the system of bland B-actors.
After Disney, you had a couple of TV directing assignments: “Aladdin’s Lamp,” and “The Jar,” for “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”
“Aladdin’s Lamp” I guess was my first “directing” assignment. I did that right after Frankenweenie, for Shelly Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theater. It was a three-camera video thing and I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. It came out looking like a Las Vegas show. “The Jar” was my only other assignment, a case where it didn’t work out again. That’s when I realized that nobody should treat me like a director, because I’m not. What we long for in the world is people doing their own thing. I don’t consider myself a director. I don’t have the capabilities. I can’t use technique and proficiency, I can’t hide behind those things, because I don’t have them. My shortcomings will quickly come into play.
Do you still feel unaccomplished?
Well, I don’t really care about that. I’m learning more and more, but I’m relatively new to the whole thing. It’s a mistake for me, maybe, to try certain things.
You’ve admitted that your movies are “flawed” and that they could be shot full of holes.
I think it stems from story. It makes me a little sad sometimes. People peg you. And they don’t know what you go through with studio people and executives, and they take their cue a lot from critics, and the feeling is that “Tim can’t tell a story out of a paper bag.” And when they peg you, then that’s what they feed upon and that’s their fight with you. And every time, when you’re developing a script and you’re talking to the studio and you have these stupid script meetings with them, I can say that if there is a problem with the movie it is nothing that you discussed. Nothing at all. So when you’re fighting that, it does make you a little sad. And now, it’s turning out to be a little boring. And Beetlejuice was kind of the one movie for me that gave me, again, that feeling of humanity, that Fuck Everybody! That made me feel very good, that the audience didn’t need a certain kind of thing. Movies can be different things! Wouldn’t it be great if the world allowed David Cronenberg to do his thing and people could tell the difference! And criticism would be on a whole other level! And the world would be on a whole other level!
But studios have the expectation that each film will be like one of those cookies coming off the cookie assembly line in Scissorhands, and that there are only three or four different shapes of cookies allowed.
Well, they’re wrong! It’s like with Warner Bros., because that’s where my history has mainly been. I’m always amazed — movies that they fight tooth and nail, and are always the weirdest, those are the ones that end up making them all the money. All they have to do is look at their fucking slate of movies! The proof is there. Fuck! Fuck your system! Whoever’s making the movie, give him a chance to make the movie, and you’ll have a fifty percent chance of failing or succeeding, or working or not, and that’s as good of a chance as you’ll get on anything, and you’re not going to do anything that’s going to make it any better! So why not, if something is going to be flawed, why not have it be interestingly flawed, as opposed to boringly flawed? Why lower things? Why not let there be different things? Some people are better storytellers, some people are better at other things.
You don’t feel that your “problem with narrative” is really a problem?
Well, I feel that less and less. Because now it’s become redundant. And the fact is, I’m more interested in growing in ways I don’t even know about. Maybe I’ll become better at it, maybe things will become more abstract.
Would you junk narrative if you could? Because you indicated once that if you were left to your own devices, “the result will always be very commercial because that’s the way I think.”
Well, I don’t even know what that is. It’s best for me not to say, “Everybody says I can’t tell a story, maybe I should really try here.” I don’t think I will ever consciously try to do that. But what’s important is to keep moving and to hone in and to keep exploring. I don’t know whether the storytelling will get better, or worse, more abstract or clearer, or whether it will become its own form — because the thing that’s always been very important to me is the visuals as story. The images, for me, are the story. It’s not that it looks great or funny or cartoony. If I were to hone myself, it would be: how could I make images feel a certain way, so that what you’re looking at is the thing? That’s a desire, that’s a goal.
You got closer to that in Scissorhands, where the feeling of the film is actually in the images themselves, rather than in the story.
I feel that way. And I feel like that’s the thing for me to try to do. That’s the thing I’m interested in. That energizes me.
It’s a very abstract and pure enterprise, that attempt.
Yeah, it is. See, the problem with Hollywood is that you’re always fighting the same thing. It doesn’t change. They don’t change their time. And it gets really boring.
So why not just use the machinery of Hollywood, but do your work more independently, as Cronenberg does?
Well, that’s interesting, and I think I’m certainly in that area now to find out. See, I’ve never talked to somebody like him, and perhaps I should. I think I’m getting there, I do. The odd thing for me is that I grew up in the studio system. And it’s been odd to feel like I could do what I want, and have had the ability to do what I want, in a system that doesn’t seem to allow that very much. I always felt like, if you’re not getting it from these guys, you’re getting it from some French guy or something. There’s always going to be some problem. But now I’m getting to the point where maybe it’s time to deal with somebody else, because it’s getting too retarded and inbred among these people. I can’t hear these same things from these same people anymore. I’d rather hear it from some French guy!
What they don’t understand, no matter how anybody perceives me in Hollywood, is you’re still trying to make something — film is still an art form. And you go through the same anguish as any artist does creating something. But this doesn’t enter into their thinking. You can go along with it for a while, and laugh your way through it, but then you have to move along, because it gets redundant and you get angrier and angrier. Where I wouldn’t get angry before, now I get angry and start to see red in a split second, I just fly off the handle now. It’s anti-creative. It’s not helping anything. It doesn’t even help them get the movie made! I understand their goal, their goal is simple: take this movie, make it commercial, make it good, we want to make a lot of money on it! I understand that, that’s fine. But I can’t go through it anymore.
Forgetting the “they” for a while, I’m interested in what you feel the flaws or weaknesses of your films are.
It’s funny, there’s two levels to that. On an emotional level, I never feel bad about it. I don’t have children, but to me it’s like giving your child plastic surgery. I accept them, and on a very weird level I love them for their flaws. Now, there’s a technical side of me that sees I could have cut this, or that could have been shorter; that’s the boring, technical side. But on the emotional side, you accept them. What if you had a five year-old with a whatever — would you give him plastic surgery? I wouldn’t do that, because part of the joy in life is in the flaws. I feel a very strong emotional connection to everything, and treat them as a part of myself. The only movie I feel colder about is the first Batman. I feel close to parts of it, but it’s not as emotional a connection as to everything else.
In that movie, Vicki Vale [Kim Basinger] asks Bruce Wayne [Michael Keaton] about his mansion, because she thinks it doesn’t seem like him, and he says, “Some of it is very much me and some of it isn’t.” And I felt that was Tim Burton talking there, about his movie.
[Laughs.] Sure! Sure. That’s why I decided to do another one. Because I love the themes of it. I have to have those little links with it, because that’s the only thing that really keeps me going, otherwise I couldn’t do it. I don’t have the technical talent to not have that.
Do you think you’re disrespected by some people in the industry because you don’t have that technical talent?
I don’t know. Nobody is perceived any one way. I’m in an odd position. I’m looked at by independents as somebody in the studio system. And I’m looked at in the system as somebody who’s very lucky. But I’m not in the system. I don’t hang out with members of the Academy, “so to speak. I’m not entrenched in it. So I don’t have many friends in either world.
Do you feel any kind of simpatico vibration with silent film? It’s not that dialogue doesn’t matter in your work; it’s that I can imagine your films without it, and with their great scores.
I think I know what you’re saying. I actually don’t like silent films. I never got into them, and to this day I don’t get into then. I find them dated. I’m not into Charlie Chaplin. I guess though, the fact; is, it is true, that I find dialogue and speaking kind of meaningless unless they’re saying something. I think this has more to do with myself, my own feelings of verbalization and communication and what words mean to me. I am uncomfortable with dialogue. I do enjoy, when I’m working, scenes where people are not talking. I do feel more comfortable with that.
But the type of melodramatic emotions of the silents, the kind of overweening dramatic elements, has a kind of resonance with your work —
Yeah, but that maybe has more to do with the horror films, in a way. Because they always had that feeling, the Edgar Allan Poe thing. It doesn’t come from silents, for me. They leave me cold. I actually find them kind of cold and calculated. Whereas the grand melodramatic emotion of horror movies was more of an attraction. I like dialogue to some degree. It’s just that, like in life, what you say is not necessarily what you are saying. I just feel that too strongly to be able to do something where people are talking and it’s being completely meaningful, because that’s not the way I think and that’s not my experience with people talking. God, all you’ve got to do is go to a studio executive meeting to understand that! [Manic laugh.]
Music is obviously hugely important to your work. The bond between your images and Danny Elfman’s music is so tight that when I watch one of your movies I feel like I’m listening to them.
Well, exactly. Believe me, I feel I’m very lucky. I used to go see Oingo Boingo at clubs, when I was a student. It’s like a dream come true to me to meet him, work with him. I’d sit there in the clubs and have this connection. There’s nobody better for me. That’s where a part of the idea of the silent film works — his music is part of the story. Every director will tell you, [as pretentious snob director:] “The sets and the music are part of the character of the film.” It’s bullshit! Nobody knows how important music is to my things better than me, I guarantee. It is as important as some of the actors or anything, if not more important. Danny is an actor in the films.
His music really does seem like the fuel that powers your films.
Let me tell you: I will now only test my films once the score is in. It’s too painful the other way. I remember testing Beetlejuice with no music and then with music. The difference was shocking! And it really has to do with the fact that when you’re doing a movie where people don’t know what the fuck is going on, the music is the guidepost, it’s the tone and the context. Danny and I don’t even have to talk about it. We don’t even have to intellectualize — which is good for both of us, we’re both similar that way. We’re very lucky to connect. It’s one of the most fun aspects of filmmaking. That’s one of the things I look forward to: walking onto the stage with an orchestra and seeing live music being played to certain images. It’s something that no one will see and is actually so exciting!
Let’s talk about screenwriting. Do you think you’ll ever write your own screenplay?
That’s an uncharted thing for me. I don’t know how writers really feel about me. I’m respectful, and I do enjoy working with people, but then I get on a set, and things change, and I really don’t go by what anybody says or writes. I have great effect on what I do. And I don’t know how people really feel about that. Most of my friends are writers, because I identify with what they go through. In terms of the artistic pain, they’re in a bad place in Hollywood. I can relate to them. I feel closer to them. But I don’t know how they really feel about me, really.
Why don’t you do the writing yourself? Even on Frankenweenie, which was clearly your story, you had someone else write the screenplay, and also on Scissorhands — if ever there was a project where you would have been a natural choice to do it, that was it, and yet you didn’t write it.
I may need somebody else as a balancing point for myself, no matter how much I change or push or whatever. That is one thing I’ve certainly thought about and I am thinking about it, and I think I need to try to write one, just to see where it is I am. It’s like on Beetlejuice: everything I’ve done I feel has equal parts writer, director, and actors. I think if you read original scripts of everything I’ve done, and looked at the film, you’d see lots and lots and lots of changes.
And yet you, for some bizarre reason, have insisted that you’re not an auteur. You said, “I know I’m not an auteur because I try to listen to people,” as if that would disqualify you? The fact is, if you can put your stamp on all these films without actually writing them, that’s more of a sign that you are an auteur.
I think what that comment says is that I don’t really know what the fuck I’m talking about. I think that sums the whole thing up. [Manic laugh.] Lookit, I’m relatively new to all of this, and I have a very tough time with words. A lot of words don’t have meaning to me, because I have no context with them. The words “normal” or “auteur” — there are probably several words that actually I don’t really know what they mean. Part of that is just my inexperience and naiveté. I do believe that the director has to be the person whose movie it is. Whose else is it? If it’s the actor’s movie, then you don’t need a director — let the actor direct it. It’s got to be the director.
Since you do have such a strong take on things, perhaps paradoxically it’s helpful for you to rub up against someone else’s material.
Perhaps it is. There’s always that whole argument about artistic suffering. I’ve wavered on that. At one point, where I was near suicidal, I didn’t want to be completely suffering to create. That’s completely negative. So then you work more positive aspects into your life, but it comes back to butting up against something. Maybe it’s just always there. There’s no such thing as anything being perfect, so maybe if you got that, you’d be a zombie by that point. [Laughs.] If things were perfect, you wouldn’t want to do anything.
Whether or not it’s your thing [the story and screenplay], you have to walk
into a picture feeling like it’s your thing. I walked into Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and I felt one hundred percent connected to it. I understood it and it was mine, even though here was a character that was already created. I couldn’t have done it — even with the chance of doing a first film — unless that feeling was one hundred percent there.
So the question is, should I or can I write, because I’ve got a bunch of ideas which I’d like to do. I think my biggest problem is focusing, because I get a little scatterbrained. What I’m curious about is finding out whether you go through more in working with other people than what I would have to go through in doing something myself. I’d like to go through as little torment as possible, because it’s all tormenting.
You’re known as someone who will cast an actor without first seeing their work. Is that true?
Casting is the one area that’s really down to taste and choice. You can sit in a room with studio executives and casting people and blah blah blah, and argue who’s right for a part and who’s wrong for a part. There are probably cases where people are right or people are wrong, but there’s a whole big area where it finally comes down to a guess. Once you make a decision, I prefer not to think about their other work.
One thing I realize now is that I don’t want to work with actors who care about anything other than what they are doing. People who care about how they look — it’s not interesting. You’ve got to work with people whose passion makes it exciting. They are trying to take something that is absurd, and not real, and in whatever way, invest it with some sort of life. I find that very exciting. So their attitude is very important. I also like to like people; it’s really kind of psychotic. Part of the energy, with me, is working through things with people, and liking them. I don’t want to work with people who have a different agenda.
There were a number of hours of discussion with Tom Cruise about him playing Edward Scissorhands. And part of the issue was his concern about the virility, or lack thereof, of the character.
[Manic laugh.] I thought that was a little odd. It kind of struck me from left field, because I certainly wasn’t thinking about that. I didn’t think it was worth writing a scene where Edward goes to a bar with a bunch of guys and ogles the babes! Or scores with the chicks! Or we see him watching a Raiders game! There comes a point where actors have too many fears — there’s too much intellectualizing about the process. I understand him wanting to understand the character, wanting to understand me — you have to go through quite a lot to get that — but there comes a point where their fears are too great, and it makes you realize they shouldn’t do it. You need to work with people who will go, “Well, fuck it! Let’s do it!” That’s exciting.
But are there situations when you will cast someone without having seen his or her work?
I prefer not to have seen it. I didn’t know Michael Keaton’s work at all before Beetlejuice. I actually liked that. Because I felt like I was getting to know somebody, for myself, freshly, and that excited me. And with Kim Basinger on Batman, if I had seen her work, I probably would have said, “Ugh! No!” We needed someone in a time frame in that case and I ended up really liking her, I liked her, when I met her. People talk — “this person is an asshole” or “that person is a monster” — there is so much categorization and I prefer not to go through that, and just have my own feeling about somebody, and not listen to what everybody says.
As you don’t have any theatre or acting background yourself, I’d guess the level of discussion between you and your actors can get fairly abstract.
Yes. Part of the luck I’ve had is to be around actors who have been willing to go through that with me. That’s what the process is all about. Part of the enjoyment is to watch these people dressed up in their funny costumes trying to bring something to life.
I’d like to go through each of your five features, beginning with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Although that was perceived as a children’s picture, there was a lot of very adult stuff in it.
Well, I don’t think of kids or adults. What’s child? What’s adult? Everybody is everything. It has more to do more with a feeling. You don’t get rid of who you are or where you come from, but the point is: everybody is trying to get back to a certain kind of purity anyway. Why are people looking for escape in movies or drugs or drinking or going to amusement parks? Or anything? Why does anybody read? Because it’s a form of escape, or a form of recapturing not a “childish” impulse, but a way of looking at the world as if it were fresh and interesting. It has less to do with being a child than with keeping an open, wonderful, twisted view of the world.
Did it occur to you during the process of making that movie how phallic the story is?
[Laughing.] I mean the whole thing . . . you strip down any story or any fairy tale and you pretty much come down to the same thing, don’t you?
Yeah, but that was fairly relentlessly phallic.
I find that if those things come out, then it’s pretty much what it was about anyway. It’s the unconscious. The time to worry is when you’re consciously thinking about that stuff.
Well, you would have to have been in a stupor not to have been thinking about it during the filming. There are many, many lines of dialogue that are explicitly sexual, not to mention the basic story of a boy obsessed with his bike. You couldn’t have been shooting that and not been conscious of the implications.
I grew up with a fascination for people that were dangerous. Why a fascination with clowns? Why do I like clowns so much? Why are they so powerful to children? Probably because they are dangerous. That kind of danger is really what it’s all about. It’s playing with that to a degree. It’s that kind of stuff that I think gets you through life. Those are the only things worth expressing, in some ways: danger, and presenting subversive subject matter in a fun way. I link this stuff to the power of fairy tales. All roads lead to them, for me, because of what I think the purpose is of them.
What is the purpose and the function of fairy tales?
I think it does have to do with whatever that young impulse is — whatever you want to call that. Who are we? How are we created? What else is out there? What happens when you die? All that stuff is unknown. Life is unknown. Everything is under the umbrella of life and death and the unknown, and a mixture of good and bad, and funny and sad, and everything at once. It’s weirdly complicated. And I find that fairy tales acknowledge that. They acknowledge the absurdity, they acknowledge the reality, but in a way that is beyond real. Therefore, I find that more real.
Does there need to be a moral, or something edifying, to make a fairy tale work?
Well, we’re talking about the movie industry. There are things to be dealt with. I don’t think it’s necessary, personally. As a culture, and as an industry, people are looking for that, for sure. Especially the whole “happy ending” routine. They always like a happy ending.
Why do people seem to need that? You don’t need it.
I don’t need a happy ending. I feel much happier coming out of a movie like Sid and Nancy than I do . . . Ghost or something. I feel like: yes, I understand, and I love it and I get it, and because it acknowledges a certain way that I feel about life, I actually feel better. I see something like that and it makes me happy.
Because tragedy is what makes sense to you.
It does make sense. I think life ultimately is tragic, but in ultimately a very positive way. We all die. It is tragic. You go through many tragic things in your life, but that’s not necessarily bad. That’s what I love about playing with tragedy in a fun way. [Laughs.] That’s what I loved about Pee-wee. He was into something, in a passionate way, and it didn’t matter what it was about. He was into it.
Pee-wee says to the girl who desires him, brushing her off: “There’s lots of things about me you wouldn’t understand, you couldn’t understand, you shouldn’t understand.”
[Manic laugh.] So I didn’t ask! Because I understood.
It’s interesting, because we could say the same thing about all your protagonists: Beetlejuice, Bruce Wayne, Edward Scissorhands, they’re all misunderstood.
It’s very true, I think. Definitely. Who can pretend to know about themselves? It’s too complicated, there are too many crossed signals, there are too many split sides and dynamics. Does anybody know who they are, really? Does anybody feel integrated? I mean, I don’t know anybody who does. I don’t certainly pretend to know myself. So for me, I find this dynamic to be realistic. And I enjoy it. It’s often fun not to know things about people.
What about, in Pee-wee, the kind of sexual threat from women that hangs over the character during the whole odyssey he’s on?
I guess the Pee-wee character is immature. It does go back to childish impulses, in a way. My take on what he’s doing is that it’s a perversion, there’s no question about it. That’s what’s great about it. This weird, alternative character that’s protecting, that’s fighting off things in the world — and has mutated into something that’s separate. I just see him as an outside character dealing with the world, in a heightened way. It had less to do with his bike than it did with just the idea of passion about something that nobody else cares about. I kind of feel that way about . . . the movies! [Laughs.] I make these things that are very hard to make — that are not pictures with a message, by most people’s standards — so I identify with a character who is passionate about something that nobody else really cares about.
Edward Scissorhands is also an “outside character dealing with the world.” But you brought a lot more baggage to him, since you’d had the idea first in high school, and had lived with it, and there were clear correspondences between Tim Burton and Edward Scissorhands.
Yeah, well, it was a different thing for me, and I tried, very hard, not to be too self-involved. See, I saw that character more thematically than personally. Again, I saw it as much more fucked up. I tried to make it — you know what I’m saying.
Yes, you said you tried not to make it too personal because you wanted it to be universal. But the more personal you make something, whether it be a poem or a song or whatever, if it’s true, if it’s pure, the more universal it is. So why the fear that the tighter the bond between you and Edward, the less universal the picture?
I guess because I don’t know enough about myself. I’m not integrated enough yet. I don’t know if that will ever happen. It just shows you how unintegrated I am, because the kind of characters that I enjoy are the kind of characters that aren’t integrated. [Laughs.] So that’s about as personal as it could get. Let’s put it this way: I’m interested in the personal, because I take everything personally. I take Pee-wee, and Beetlejuice and Edward and Batman — I feel very close to those characters. I really do. I feel like they are mutated children. They mean a lot to me.
It’s clearly where you find meaning in the movies.
Exactly. But there again, these characters are all fucked up. They are impurely pure. If Batman got therapy, he probably wouldn’t be doing this, he wouldn’t be putting on this bat suit and we wouldn’t have this weird guy running around in a cape. So there is a form of things not being integrated that is quite appealing. So I don’t know if I’m stuck or if I enjoy being stuck at that moment. Know what I mean? There is a charm about characters that know not what they do, but do it purely. Even Beetlejuice is that way. There’s a charm in that which I enjoy.
Let me play Satan’s helper here. Edward Scissorhands is a pathetic, beautiful, ridiculous but funny character, whose heart is always breaking — it’s Tim Burton saying how sensitive he is, that he’s the oversensitive artist, who as a child could not touch, could not communicate, without hurting. That’s obvious. That’s an obvious reading of the film.
[Laughs.] Sure. Right.
How does it make you feel when you get that reading?
Well, I guess it makes me feel that I wasn’t one hundred percent successful. When you do a fairy tale, you are a little bit at odds with yourself. Because a fairy tale is a romantic version of certain things. Taking something real and heightening it. So what you have is an inherent balancing problem between the real and the unreal. I think that’s where I run into trouble a lot of the time, because of the unwieldy nature of it. And then you’ve got Johnny Depp [playing Edward] who brings a certain thing to it himself. Actually, it turned into more my perception of him, in a way — what I saw in him, what he goes through, how he’s perceived — than even of myself. It’s unwieldy, it’s unbalanced, and there’s a constant desire on my part to find the right balance. And you know what? I’ll take the hit, and miss with it, because it’s the only thing that really makes it fun. So that thing probably does make me uncomfortable, but I did it.
Well, it was a harder shoot for you, emotionally, because of that.
I was very moody. I was very interiorized. And I don’t think it had completely to do with being in Florida, though that helped. That’s a weird place. It really had a lot to do with how I felt about having the background that I did. It was personal. But whatever worked or didn’t work is part of the nature of it.
Kim [Winona Ryder] at the beginning, as the old woman, says of Edward, “The man was left by himself, incomplete and all alone.”
Well, there again, it’s that tragic thing. There is that tragic element of fairy tales. Everybody can look at it and go, “Aww!” If that is the case, then I have not been successful in what I was trying to do. See, I’m interested in the grandeur of tragedy. And I didn’t want people to look at that and go, “Aww! Poor character!” I see it as just like life: you’re up against a lot. I see the ending not as, “Oh gee, the poor character doesn’t get what he wants,” I saw it more as, “This is the way things are. You get some good things and you get some bad things.” It’s not a happy ending, it’s not a sad ending to me — it’s more a symbolic ending. Some things work out and some things don’t.
Why was it necessary to kill Kim’s evil boyfriend, Jim? That shocked a lot of people — because the tone of the movie changed.
See, that’s again how people misperceive fairy tales. I’m not interested in softening what that’s all about. Yeah, I think it was completely necessary. And I think it’s belittling the idea of a fairy tale — I think it’s a mutation of our culture. People’s idea of a fairy tale is that it’s all white. Why don’t they read one of them!
It’s some of the nastiest stuff in the world.
Exactly. It’s about as disturbing as it gets, for anything. And the point is, it has more to with the homogenization of our culture, and that needs to be fought, on all counts and by everybody.
The first words of a movie are usually important. Here, they are Kim saying, “Snuggle in, sweetie, it’s cold out there.” To me, that could almost be the epitaph to the entire film — and not because it’s snowing.
Yeah. Everybody goes through it every day. It’s not the most sensitive place. [Pause.] Lookit, if you analyze what you go through in a day, in your job, when is anything completely one way? And you know what, you can drive yourself crazy thinking about it. Good and bad. Positive and negative. Funny and sad. Every second is a flip-flop of some feeling. And ultimately, that’s what it’s all about. It’s unbelievably complicated. I don’t get it, but I get it: that, to me, is about as real as it gets. That’s why I hate most movies. They kind of simplistically tell you what they are all about. They don’t capture what life is about in any way. What am I talking about? I have no idea.
People are weird. And I think we forget, because we’re so intelligent, that we are all basically animals. Animal instincts take over all the time, under the surface of things. People say to me, “Oh, you must be really happy!” Well, there’s no sense of happiness, there’s no connection to anybody, people aren’t being nice to you because they really want to be, a lot of the time. You know who your friends are — people you like and respond to — and you know when it is complete bullshit. And most of the time it is bullshit. It’s not like anybody acting real to you. Because there’s no real context anymore. Especially, here, where it’s all business, even the social. And America is founded on that principle — that’s why everybody is over here to begin with. That’s the whole point. It’s frightening.
If these characters are the repositories of meaning for you, I’d like to talk about each of them. We’ve talked about Pee-wee already. What does Edward Scissorhands mean to you?
I loved the idea — and this did go with an impulse that I felt, and still feel, and I think a lot of people feel — of feeling misperceived, the feeling of being sensitive, and overly sensitive, and wanting things you can’t get. I remember going through a very strong feeling, a very teenage feeling, of not being able to touch or communicate. I had that, very strongly. I’ve never been a very physical person. I didn’t grow up in a way that was very physical. And I always resisted that. So there are simplistic things like that — which I would call the melodramatic teenage impulses. And then the subtext of presenting yourself in such a way that is not the way you are meaning. For me, I saw that character as all of that. He is a way that you feel: what you say is not coming across, what you want is misperceived. Just a way of seeing the world. I often feel, I look at things and see them in a way, and wonder if anybody else is seeing them that way. It’s really just about each person feeling very individual. And just on a humorous level, I love a character that is open and sensitive to everything. There is something very funny and tragic about that. I’ve known people like that, that are overly sensitive, and you know what? It’s sad. I’ve known five people in my life who are overly sensitive, and the pain and the torture they go through — it’s almost funny.
You wouldn’t include yourself in that group?
Again, I don’t analyze myself. [Pause.] I have that tendency, yes.
Do you feel there’s been some movement in you, away from that adolescent angst?
Do I feel like I’ve changed in that way? I think that you exorcise that, but I don’t think you ever completely know if it’s exorcised. I think it moves along a little bit.
Let’s talk about some of the small, quirky things you put in Edward Scissorhands. The striped, canvas house that’s in a couple of early frames. Are they supposed to be fumigating it?
That’s just a little pest control.
It looks like a circus tent.
Yes. I have a lot of little things that nobody ever gets, but are there just for myself, like that. That was just the interlinking of the idea of a circus-like atmosphere, and the theme of getting rid of pests.
As they are going to want to get rid of Edward. There’s also a soundtrack foreshadow, about a third of the way through. When the boys are up in the treehouse, listening to the baseball game on the radio, and Edward is below them, starting to cut his first hedges. The announcer describes a home run, and he says, “It’s gone . . . it’s out of here . . . it’s history!” Now, I’m sure the first time through, nobody really gets that, but the second time through, it just leaps out: what’s “out of there” and what’s going to be “history” is him, Edward.
That’s another theme that I love. I love the links between things. You take something that is a baseball game, that is in this world, and you make a direct link. Again, since we have no culture, it’s just so interesting to explore things that way. It’s too big to understand, but it is fun to see these links. Sometimes these things are planned, sometimes they are not. For me, they are the things that make me think it’s great, that it’s fun and it’s worth doing. It makes you think that you’re on some course.
What about Edward’s “V” cap that he wears during and after the robbery that will be his downfall?
[Laughs silently.] We just had a couple of hats, and there was something about the image of that, something about that clicked. It was kind of like a weird, scissory peace sign. Something about that image, which has been used so many times before.
For “Victory,” which this is not going to be!
Exactly. And it kind of points down to him. It was more of a feeling, in a way.
Many, many years ago you did a drawing of a gardener, without shears but with two long, sharp fingers on each hand, and he seems like a nascent Edward if there ever was one.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s an impulse from a long time ago, for sure.
What about the repeated offers to help Edward, in the film? Three different people tell him they know doctors who could help him, but nothing ever comes of it.
That’s one of my favorite things. I’ve always loved that. That’s Hollywood, isn’t it? “Yeah, yeah, we’ll do your script.” Or, “Yeah, yeah, we’ll do this or that.” Again, is it the culture? They might as well be saying “Have a nice day!”
How do you say “Fuck you” to someone in Hollywood? “Trust me.”
Yeah, exactly. The meaning of things, to me, has gone out of things. It’s all like guilt — no one has any real intention of doing anything, but it’s actually just a cultural thing. It’s unfortunate, because it makes you not believe anything. And that’s not a good place ever to get to.
In the script, or in the shooting, was there more between Edward and his inventor [Vincent Price] than there was in the finished film?
No, not really. I just wanted to keep it what it was. I didn’t want to get into too literal a thing. It would have opened up a whole can of worms, basically. I just tried to treat it as an idea of what was going on. In some ways, the vagueness of all of that, or the blankness . . . I didn’t want to go into that. It’s tough with these kind of characters. Vagueness is a tough thing to get at, ’cause people don’t quite know what to make of it.
Well, that’s the second great criticism of your work. One is that you can’t storytell your way out of a paper bag, and two is that your characters, while they are fascinating, tend to stay emblematic —
They tend not to grow, or push through, or develop in such a way that we come to understand them differently at the end of the movie than we did upon introduction.
Yeah. That may have a lot to do with my own problems. I may not be integrated enough to get at that yet. Take the Beetlejuice characters, for example, the ghosts [Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis]. I loved those characters, but they were perceived as the bland characters. I never saw them like that. The point is, they’re stuck. They can only go so far, and that’s part of their problem — in life and in death. It’s all in this limited framework. And I thought that was part of the theme. But again, it gets lost.
They can’t have children and their name is “Mait-land.”
Things get misperceived in the broad-stroke of the visuals. [Resigned.] Sometime, maybe things will all work out. I’ll just keep trying.
Where’s the meaning for you in the Beetlejuice character?
He’s a classic character, a true fantasy character, the good side of that. The good side of being labeled, and misperceived, and put in a box, is that even though that is being done to you, you also have, in some ways, a complete freedom.
You’re not responsible to anybody’s idea of you.
Yes. You can dress how you want. You can act however you want. You can be however you want. “Well, that’s just Tim.” The freedom that comes with that is a sad kind of freedom — there’s a freakish quality to all of that — but, it’s got its benefits. And I think Beetlejuice shows the complete positive side of being misperceived, and being categorized as something different. He can do whatever he wants! He’s horrible and everybody knows it, so he’s a complete fantasy of all of that. That’s part of the lure of movies, in a simplistic way — just the freedom. People respond to it. And then you put him up against the other characters, which are really about repression.
About the tyranny of their desires.
Yeah, they’ve got their house, they’ve got their world. I just love the dynamic between them. It’s just very much like life.
During the filming of Beetlejuice, you apparently took a lot of flak from the studio about the “realism” of it. What were they talking about?
I don’t know. I have problems, to this day, understanding. I go through these meetings, and you know what? It’s just so tiring, because on anything that I’ve ever done, there’s nothing that they can ever say or have ever said that is meaningful to the outcome of the picture. They say their normal things — “The third act needs work,” or “It’s too dark” — they have a list of ten things in the Studio Executive List of Comments. None of it has any bearing on how the fucking thing turns out! So, on Beetlejuice, I was sitting there, thinking, realism? What do you mean, realism? The whole thing is fucking ridiculous. What are we talking about here? They often treat films as if they are radio shows. Unless every line says something, there are problems — almost as if they are doing a radio program. “You don’t have to film it, we just can hear it!” So I had to fight that a lot.
I can’t imagine anyone criticizing that movie for too much realism.
You’d be surprised. I went through a twenty-four-hour script meeting with them, over a two-day period, line by line, asking about this and that. Luckily, I bullshit my way through the whole thing. It’s a big waste of time.
You said once that the things in your films which you really have to fight for turn out to be their shining moments. Like what?
“Well, in Beetlejuice, little things that they would think were disturbing, like eating a cockroach. Anytime there was any kind of thing that was strong, in any way, shape, or form. Really, the movie industry, in my experience, rarely gets excited — they mainly approach things from a fearful point of view. That’s why so many boring, bland things get made; they read ten scripts on a weekend, it’s a good read, it’s an easy read, you put the right elements in it, it’s a great thing. The things that disturb them are things that jump out. It’s almost why you get audited by the IRS! Things that jump out — whoa! — get you in trouble. The guy eats a cockroach? His head spins around? What’s that coming out of Danny De Vito’s mouth in Batman Returns? It’s stuff that’s based on fear. It’s stuff that jumps out at ’em, really. And you know, it has a better chance of working if it’s potentially risky than if it’s not. Especially nowadays. It’s proven itself.
Did you spend a lot of time when you were doing Beetlejuice thinking about what death might be like?
Sure! It’s a classic. It occupies a little time, sure.
How much did your visual representation of the afterlife parallel what you actually think might go on?
What I’m reacting against is that people expect to be taken care of when they die. Which I find like giving up on life. I react very much against that impulse — these people that use religious belief as a way of disassociating themselves from their lives, and their responsibility for their lives. My feeling, in Beetlejuice, is a reaction against people doing that. I saw the Maitlands as those sort of people. I liked them, but they almost expected not to have to really deal with things because they’d be taken care of in the hereafter. And what I think is that basically you should never expect your problems to be taken care of, because they won’t be. It’s not necessarily bad, but it’s an alternative universe where it’s pretty much the same.
Hell is the continuation of life by other means.
[Laughs.] It’s not necessarily hell. But they are experiencing hell, because they are expecting something nice and perhaps wonderful. That’s the philosophy that I was most interested in, and that’s what I enjoyed about it: they didn’t get what they expected. If anything, why should the afterlife be any real different from this?
Let’s turn to Batman, the first one. Now there were, Tim, some rough narrative spots. There were periods on that shoot where the script was being changed every day and you didn’t have time to reflect upon the changes —
Yeah, it was bad.
— And you were, in your own words, “near death.”
I was probably as sick as I’ve ever been, on a movie, all the time. I was out of it. I was sick. See, the problem is, it was my first big movie. There’s all these people around. There’s a different energy. There’s no way to prepare. No way to prepare. More money. More tension. More fear. Everything: more, more, more. More. And I just let something happen which I’ll try to never let happen again, which is to let the script unravel.
See, lookit, people in Hollywood, it’s like territorialism, it’s like animals peeing on little patches of ground. Unless somebody can do that, they don’t think they’re being creative. Hollywood is not real, it’s not founded on reality, so there’s a lot of subconscious paranoia. There’s a lot of deep-down fear, people thinking: what’s my worth? Am I necessary to this process? It’s filled with that. And what happened on Batman, and I let it happen, is that the script unraveled. Here we started out with a script that everybody said — again, it’s classic Hollywood — everybody goes, “Oh, it’s a great script, it’s a great script,” But at the end of the day, they basically shred it. So it went from being the greatest script in the world to completely unraveling. And once it unravels, it unravels. You’re there, you do it. I remember Jack Nicholson going, “Why am I going up the stairs?” I was like, “I don’t know Jack, I’ll tell you when you get up there.” [Laughs.] And a lot of it had to do with dealing with the energies of the studio and the producers and everybody just being there and doing it. There was no one thing — it was a big animal.
What was the original ending, before you had to substitute the big deal in the tower?
God, I have no fucking idea. I have not a clue.
Well, a lot of those problems don’t show up in the movie, or they show up, but we don’t care about them, because we’re swept forward by other things. But the one thing that everybody did care about is that the tension leading up to Vicki Vale finding out that Bruce Wayne is Batman is completely unresolved. She just walks into the Batcave and —
And obviously, that was one thing I got killed for. It was rough. I’ll tell you exactly what the impulse was. The initial impulse, for me, and again, this is where I can go . . . ’cause I . . . I . . . my problem is, I can be a little belligerent. I can respond to things, like maybe when you read about those little kings in England or Egypt who go, when they’re really young, [as petulant, spoiled child] “I don’t care!” My impulse was, I said to myself, “Fuck this bullshit!” This is comic-book material. I thought, you know, who cares? Who really cares? But it was a mistake. It went too far.
We expect, at least, Bruce Wayne to play off of the fact that he is discovered there, by her, for the first time. But he doesn’t. So the audience is left wondering, did he already know that she knew who he was? Did we miss something? And we don’t know. So we’re sort of thrust out of the narrative.
This is the trouble I have. This is where sometimes there will be big gaps in something that I do. I try very hard to create your own environment. And so far it’s worked out. But sometimes there will be a leap that people don’t buy, they don’t buy, they don’t buy. They go, “Whoa!” and it takes them out of it. I don’t want to take people out of something. I spend a large time trying not to have that happen.
Because the rule you are playing by, until then, is that you do want the audience involved in her quest to figure out who Bruce Wayne is and who Batman is.
Yes. Yes. Part of the problem with that movie is that there are two things I made mistakes on. I think it has to do with the nature of a big, big movie. Number one, I said, on the effects, “Let’s do the effects like on Beetlejuice, where they’re just kind of fun and all.” Well, that did not work at all! Because it’s perceived as a big movie with cheesy effects, as opposed to a movie like Beetlejuice, which is a small movie, and cheesy, and so it fits. Mistake! Same thing with the structure. The original script was laid out like a grand kind of thing. And also, because the push was in that direction, I was playing into strengths I don’t have. I think that’s why I wanted to do another one: so I could look at Batman Returns, and whether or not it worked out, I could feel about it as I did about other things. I do feel differently about the first Batman movie.
One of the interesting things about that movie is that the action sequences are not nearly as interesting as the rest of the movie.
There’s a zillion great action directors and I’m not one of them. Yet this is the genre. On this new thing, I feel better about the action. It’s not James Cameron. There are a few people that can jack things up to that kind of level, and why try? I feel like, in the second one, I tried something a bit more representative of myself. I do feel better about it than I did about the first. The action feels more like a part of the movie, as opposed to: here’s the movie, and here comes some action, and I’ve seen better action in my day.
The other thing in the first one that felt horribly intrusive was the Prince music. We’re in this Tim Burton world, and all of a sudden, like him or not, in rides Prince.
Yeah, it’s true. It’s the unholy alliance of me and . . .
Warner Bros. marketing, pure and simple?
This is what happened. You learn something new every day. Now, here is a guy, Prince, who was one of my favorites. I had just gone to see two of his concerts in London and I felt they were like the best concerts I’d ever seen. Okay. So. They’re saying to me, these record guys, it needs this and that, and they give you this whole thing about it’s an expensive movie so you need it. And what happens is, you get engaged in this world, and then there’s no way out. There’s too much money. There’s this guy you respect and is good and has got this thing going. It got to a point where there was no turning back. And I don’t want to get into that situation again.
It had to be painful for you to put that music into that movie.
It was . . . it was . . . it completely lost me. And it tainted a lot. It tainted something that I don’t want to taint, which is how you feel about an artist. So it tainted a lot for me. And actually, I liked his album. I wish I could listen to it without the feel of what had happened. And you know what? To tell you the truth, I understand the marketing side of it. I think it would be cleaner if you created cross-marketing, where you don’t have that taint, but you can still do things. The idea of somebody looking at a movie and getting ideas about it and doing a musical interpretation of it is a potentially wonderful idea. But it needs big thinking, and it needs truly interesting, creative business people to do that, and it’s not at that level. It would be great to crossover movies and opera and records and dance.
What’s Batman about to you? Bruce Wayne’s degression?
It’s about depression and it’s about lack of integration. It’s about a character. Unfortunately, I always see it being about those things, not about some kind of hero who is saving the city from blah blah blah. If you asked me the plot of Batman, I couldn’t tell you. It’s about duality, it’s about flip-sides, it’s about a person who’s completely fucked and doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s got good impulses, but he’s not integrated. And it’s about depression.
It’s about going through life, thinking you’re doing something, trying very hard. And the Joker represents somebody who gets to act however he wants.
He’s playing the Beetlejuice character.
Yeah. There are two kinds of people, even with double personalities. The ones that are fucked and they’re still trying to muddle through life, and then the ones that are fucked and get to be completely free, and scary. And they’re basically two fantasies. There are two sides.
Which one are you closer to?
Well, I’m probably closer to the Bruce Wayne character, but I much prefer the fantasy of the other. That’s much more the liberating side of it.
It’s curious that Bruce Wayne/Batman is actually the only character in the movie who’s not a cartoon character, but a human being.
I get the most gravity out of him. That’s why I like Michael Keaton in it. He’s got that — all you got to do is look at him, and he looks fucked up. So, for me, the context is immediately there. He’s an unintegrated, kind of goofy, sad, passionate, strong, misguided, in some ways quite clear and in some ways completely out-to-lunch-type character.
Why didn’t you explore that more in the movie?
Because, again, I always found that the deeper you went, the more of an intrusion it was. Maybe there’s a way to do it which I haven’t figured out yet. I always felt trying to figure him out more would be too intrusive.
You don’t want to demystify?
Yeah, there’s something about not knowing which I like. That was always the impulse.
I assume there was a challenge for you in directing the sequel. Because you said a number of times that sequels don’t interest you, unless there is a challenge — something for you to discover which you know nothing about.
New characters. New characters. New characters. New characters. I like them very much. Catwoman, Penguin, and the Christopher Walken character, I like him too. It’s a smaller cast. It’s much more . . . uh . . .
Yeah! I don’t know what it is, but there’s a different energy about it. I didn’t analyze it except to say, I don’t feel about Batman the way I do about my other movies. It has to do with an energy and finding another field. And I feel good about that. I don’t know what it means. It could be bad for the movie, I don’t know. But I was much more interested in it. And I find these other characters very compelling.
Is it more open to interpretation? When you did Scissorhands, you said it was nice to finally make a movie that was a little bit more open to interpretation than your first three pictures.
I guess if people get it, no. And if they don’t, yeah. I don’t know. It’s hard for me to predict. It could be a big, giant mistake. I have not a clue. Part of the good thing is not knowing what worked or the first one. I certainly know what didn’t work.
This one feels more personal to you?
Well, I feel like there’s more effect. I feel like I learned something. I feel better about this one. It sounds abstract, but it’s really the only feeling I have about it. Lookit, it’s an expensive movie, and they don’t want you to say this kind of stuff, because it’s like, “We’re letting somebody do this, and he feels like that? Jesus!” Then they get more afraid, and it’ll be harder the next movie.
I want to go back to talking about your filmmaking process. Do you draw everything first?
No, I don’t get to the point where I draw every frame. I think the process is ongoing. I start by doing fairly naive sketches of characters, just for feeling, and then as it gets going, they get updated. It’s more doodling. Sitting, talking on the phone, I do it. It’s not that they are that elaborate, or that I say, [in deep, pretentious voice:] “I’m going to create this character.” It’s really a way for me to get my thought process out. It’s really a way of thinking. I never used to even speak. That was the way I would speak. And I don’t push it on people. It’s really just a process I have.
You have such a strong visual sense that your production design and art direction people, whoever they are, have to be locked into that, otherwise —
It’s meaningful, it’s the one area that I feel, I guess, quite confident in. And I like working with people who are good, because they give you something. Most of the people who I’ve worked with have been very talented, and give you a lot. I prefer that, but I could do without.
Do you storyboard?
I used to, but I don’t as much anymore. In fact, I’m getting anti-storyboard. I pretty much stopped on Beetlejuice. You storyboard things that need effects. I still do it to some degree. But certainly after the first Batman, I really stopped. And now, I can’t even come up with — I’m getting very twisted about the whole thing. There’s something about being spontaneous and working shots out. And when you work with these kind of actors — if they’re good, you’re just not going to give them a storyboard, and say, “Here.” There’s an energy and there’s a working through things with people.
You’re more comfortable with improvisation now?
Yeah. I’ve started to learn it. The most fun day I think I’ve ever had was on Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, in the scene at the Alamo, with Jan Hooks, who played the guide. That was all improv, and it was so much fun. So I learned it on that, and that was Paul Reubens’s background. And I realized that I loved it. And working with Michael Keaton and Catherine O’Hara on Beetlejuice — it was exciting, and it was a lot of fun! You get good stuff, sometimes. I think that kind of turned me into anti-storyboarding.
Are you a “first take” director?
No. It depends on the actors. I think my average is about seven to nine takes. There’s always something technical fucked up and it depends on actors.
What’s your favorite part of the process?
It’s very private and it’s very quiet. It’s really the hardest part. It’s the creation of being on the set and shooting. Right then and there. You’re dealing with people that you like, and you’re taking some weird idea and trying to make it work. You get that, with the layer of seeing stuff that people don’t see, and the light, the way it hits the water, and a guy is sitting up there reading a cheesy magazine with this beautiful light behind him. And the people working on the movie are the greatest. Because they’re the ones working on it. You’re cutting through the bullshit of other things. That’s the best thing about it. Those are the only people I can stand to be around.
I get the feeling that editing is fingernails-on-blackboards for you.
When I look at rushes I sometimes get chills because it reminds me of shooting, but editing? What can I tell you? I don’t slap ’em together, but I’m not going to win any editing awards. It’s okay. It’s fine.
What about your camera? Do you feel it’s as clunky as you used to?
Well, it’s kind of moving around a little bit more. Things are happening. I’m getting a little more confident. I’m knowing about more things. But again, I never think about it too much. I’m getting much more now into looking at it, and trying to respond to it in the moment. Which gets me into trouble, with no storyboards . . .
Because it makes things technically more difficult.
It takes a little longer. I make up my mind very quickly, but I’ve got to do it when the time is right. Maybe I’m less professional. This is all stuff that worries people. Less professional, maybe more moody.
Do you go out to the movies?
I think because of living here — this sounds like a stupid cop-out but I don’t have any other explanation, to tell you the truth — it just feels redundant. It’s such a one-industry town. I grew up here, I live here, you go out and it’s all movies. It just feels redundant.
So how do you see work you want to see? Go to screenings? Rent cassettes?
I guess, right now, I’m feeling kind of bad about it. For the past few years, I just don’t go out and see movies very much. I rent things on videos, but not new stuff. I haven’t seen much new stuff. Somehow, when I’m in a video store, I go to the lowest common denominator. When I walk into a video store, I’m not going for the latest Martin Scorsese, I’m looking for the latest Chainsaw Massacre Babe-o-rama Fest. I can’t help it! There’s something about video where you seek the level of the medium.
Is there anybody’s work out there that you feel connected to, or are interested in?
Well, I don’t have a good answer. My answer is bullshit in a way. I mean, I know who I’m for. I mean, I do like David Cronenberg. He’s great. Basically, you got to like anybody who’s doing their thing, don’t you?
You and David Lynch sometimes get put together in the same sentence.
But, don’t you think that’s because of categorization?
Maybe comparison and not categorization. You both have strong visual arts backgrounds, you both really struggle with the language, you both have an interesting take on —
But I’m sure that’s true with lots of people. I grew up with reading critics bemoaning the state of movies, right? Everything is a conglomerate, everything’s a cookie-cutter, and blah blah blah, and in fact, doesn’t the categorization and lumping people further support that? When I was working Disney, I got the same thing, and this is why I have such a twisted interpretation of it. People would come into my office and say, “Oh, your drawings look like Charlie Brown.” And then somebody else would say they look like something completely different. What’s the point? The point is people are trying to categorize. Is it positive or is it negative?
It depends which side of the binoculars you’re looking through. If you’re looking through the wrong end of the binoculars, it makes everything smaller. If you’re looking through the right end of the binoculars, by comparing and contrasting two bodies of work, it enlightens: it makes both richer, deeper.
But, you know that, and I know that, but I guess my point is that in the context of the culture, a context of where things are headed in terms of the arts, you know, it’s scary. It’s bad news. It’s headed in a negative direction. And my point being (and I know what you’re saying and there probably are a small group of people that would look at it in the positive way that you might look at it but) I’m afraid it does everybody a disservice. I was like tortured at Disney. I was treated like a king and tortured at the same time. It was like a farce. You are allowed to be in a room and do your own stuff, but then someone would go, “Oh, that looks like such and such.” It’s the way I took it. It was like Chinese water torture. Jesus Christ!
On the day of our first session, you changed agents. You left William Morris and joined CAA. How come?
Things happen. I guess it has its evil connotations. Everybody has a perception of CAA, and I’m not sure it’s altogether untrue. But on a very personal level, things made sense. I’ve been very lucky, dealing with Hollywood, but nobody really knows . . . I just am very moody and I have my own agenda, and I don’t even know what that is. But I know it’s to fight a certain thing; it doesn’t have to do with money, it doesn’t have to do with position in the industry. Except that, in America, the better position you have, the more freedom you have — which I know now is not true completely. So that’s why I’m always one hundred percent interested in finding out how to deal with this system. I don’t want to get hot scripts. I don’t like meeting actors. I’m not interested in any of that stuff. That’s what Hollywood is all about, and I guess you could look at CAA and say they’re the pinnacle of all that. But that’s not the conversations with them I had. I had conversations where nothing was said literally, like “We’re going to get you this, Tim” — I was just spoken to in a way I’d never been spoken to: as a person.
Not as an “artist”?
As a person. I wasn’t out to change agencies, I love my agent. What mattered was, things were presented to me and I was spoken to in a way, it was almost uncanny. I’ve been trying to figure out how to deal with all this stuff, and to be in this industry. All I’m interested in is in punching through and trying to do interesting things. That’s all.
You are interested in doing some theme-park attractions.
This is what I’m interested in: I’m not interested in anything literal. I’m interested in, if an idea comes up — and it could be painting a mural on a building, it could be doing an underwater Bob Hope special, it could be anything. See, what I’m tired of, to give you the clearest example, is that whole idea of marketing. Things are changing, and these people are not interesting thinkers, for the most part. They are not going to look at me and they are not going to look at you, and say, “Wouldn’t you like to do interesting things? Wouldn’t you like to try something?” See, I don’t consider myself like a film director. I’m interested in openness, I’m interested in trying to create an environment for myself. I mean, I’ve gotten offers for things that are more money than anything. But I won’t do it. No one understands. They think once you’re hooked into the movie industry that you’ll kind of do whatever.
“We’ve already established what you are, now we’re just negotiating price.” The famous punchline to the joke about the prostitute.
[Laughs.] It’s that whole thing about what project is next. You know when you get there. And that’s the only thing that will allow you to do it. You’ve got to have one hundred percent passion for it. See, part of my problem is, I’m a guy who is very discombobulated. I cannot, I realized fairly recently, deal with things the way other people do. Especially when people perceive you as something. For instance, I hate talking on the phone. You spend all day on the phone, and all that bullshit. People get upset with you if you don’t return calls. In one week, you could end up having most of Hollywood angry at you, if you didn’t return their calls. Now, I never returned my calls two, three years ago, but all of a sudden, it’s a problem. I will destroy myself if I get into it.
What do you do when you’re not working?
I’m never bored but I can’t account for my time. What do I like to do? Fuck knows. I’m not a loiterer necessarily. I don’t go down to 7-Eleven and hang out in the parking lot. I do my drawing and fool around with painting, I do enjoy that. But, I don’t know. I’m not sitting there drooling and staring out of a window. I can’t account for my time. Maybe that’s why I was audited by the IRS. [Pause, laughs.] Maybe I do hang out at 7-Eleven parking lots.
You’re not preparing for fatherhood, are you, Tim?
No, not yet. You can’t prepare for that sort of thing.
Well, you can take steps to prevent it.
Well, those steps are being taken. We sleep in separate bedrooms, much like the Hayes Code. When we kiss, we both have one foot on the ground at all times.
You wear full-body condoms?
Yes, we wear full protective gear. And one foot on the floor at all times.
Because I know at one point you said that the idea of family for you was an impossibility.
Well, you know, it’s a problem when you see too much. It usually happens with the firstborn. It’s like a fucking lab experiment.
The first waffle gets burned, and tossed.
Exactly! How many firstborns do you know that are completely fucked up? And once the parents get through that, it’s better. I’m just too sensitive for it, right now. I’m overly sensitive about it. I think I’d end up throwing little lizards on the child’s bed to see what he’d do. Treating it much like the experiment that it is. It’s an experiment. Let’s throw water on it and see what it does!
Why bother making another movie, Tim? You hate putting them out.
It’s like some sort of drug or virus, that takes over your body. The desire to do it is there.
What terrifies you so much about putting them out?
It’s funny, I question it. It’s a split. Obviously, I do this stuff. I’m talking to you. I’m not holing up in my castle in Switzerland, away from anybody, but I have a strong fear of letting this stuff out, for some reason.
What do you think you’re afraid of?
I think because I don’t know who I am. I think I haven’t figured myself out. It’s personal. The movie is my baby, and I’m putting it out there into the cruel world. It’s scary, that’s all. Just really scary.
What’s the worst thing that could happen to it?
See, the worst thing that could happen, would be something you could understand. I wish they would tear down the screen, if they didn’t like it. That would be the worst “good” thing that could happen. The worst “bad” thing would be . . . I don’t know. It’s fear of the unknown. Is anybody going to like this? It’s judgment. Being categorized, and judged. I have a very strong aversion to that. I don’t know where that comes from, but there it is. I’m in my little world, trying to do this film, then boom, it’s out there. The film may have its unreality but the people that watch it are one hundred percent real people. And they always look angry. Everytime I go to these fucking screenings, the audience always looks angry to me. They look very scary. Its just fear.
You’re not afraid of failing, are you?
It’s funny, in some ways I’m not, and in some ways I guess I am. I will not base my decisions on what to do based on the thought of “success.” So in some ways, I’m not afraid of that — I’ll do what I want to do, and hope for the best. The fear just has to do with that aspect of showing it to people. I don’t know if that’s failure, or just the fear of coming out into the open.
You really kind of want to be in a cave, hanging upside down, with your drawing.
Yeah, but then again, I’ve been through that. At Disney, I was in my own little cave, and I was not getting out, and that’s no good. Definitely, you want to get out and you want feedback. I think I am just afraid of it. I think that my impulse is to hide in the cave. Again, it’s the split, it’s Batman. It’s classic, really, it’s classic.