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TIM BURTON - Smiling in the face of death

The culture I grew up in, death was always looked upon as dark and forbidden and not discussed. And, you know, living close to Mexico where you were very aware of like the Day of the Dead ceremony where they use humour and the skeletons are all dancing and playing, I just felt like that was so much more appropriate. It’s much more a celebration of life and a much more positive way of dealing with death than as this sort of dark, unspoken, forbidden, scary thing. So that other culture seemed to have what I think is a much more positive approach to it.

Your partner, Helena Bonham Carter, is terrific as the Corpse Bride.

“I was so lucky to have her, and all the voices. I think this is one of the best casts I’ve dealt with because they all have amazing voices, and I think it helped it transcend being puppets. For me it made it more like a regular movie to have such great actors.”

How does it relate to A Nightmare Before Christmas for you? Do you see it as part of a whole?

“For me, you know, the connection is the sense that they’re both the same technique, but then that’s about it. I feel like in some ways the technique remains the same but the puppets on this went to another level. There’s a certain subtlety. On Nightmare we used a lot of replacement heads and on this one all the mechanics were built inside the heads. The story on this one, I felt, required much more subtlety. So I think that’s the difference in a certain way. You know, we tried to treat it much more like a regular movie where you have close ups of a character and just more subtle movements.”

So you wanted to make this animated film as if it were a normal live action film?

“Well kind of, yeah. A lot of, I think, modern animation is very quick and has a lot of inside jokes and references to modern things, movies and stuff. We have some of that to a degree but we wanted to have longer shots and close ups where people are just looking at each other, a certain kind of slower pacing in some places, maybe, just to try and get it more like a real movie.”

So why make an animated movie?

“Just because I thought it was an interesting challenge to make an animated film but to try to do that. Again, I feel like the story and the stop-motion animation medium were a good mixture together. Like, for instance, somebody did a test way early on for Corpse Bride doing it in computer animation and it just didn’t feel right. It just didn’t have the same simple, kind of crude yet beautiful reality that this technique has.”

Do you feel a general antipathy towards CGI?

“No, I don’t. What I have it for is like in Hollywood, if they make a drawn movie and it doesn’t make a lot of money, they go, ‘Oh, cell animation’s dead. Computers are the way.’ You know, they forget the fact that computers are the way because a company like Pixar makes good movies that people like. That’s the thing. And then everybody tries to copy them and then it just becomes a copy. So I have nothing against it. It’s just the right kind of casting. Certain projects, you know, are great. A film like The Incredibles, you could only do it in computer animation in a certain way. You wouldn’t do it stop-motion, in the same way you wouldn’t do this with computers.”

You needed the crudeness for this movie.

“I think so. It’s a kind of fairy tale where you want to feel like it could have been made 20 years ago, yesterday, whatever, and there’s something that comes through in this technique. To me anyway.”

You live in the UK mostly. How has that affected your work and how has that affected your life?

“Well, I don’t know if it’s affected my work. I’ve made several movies in London. I like a lot of the artists that I’ve worked with there. The thing I enjoy about it there is it’s not so much of a business. You meet more people that if they're, like, set painters, really are set painters. A lot of times in Los Angeles people are like, ‘Well, I’m not really a set painter, I’m a writer. I’m not really a writer, I’m an actor.’ You kind of go, ‘Well, OK. Who’s the set painter? Can somebody find him? I need somebody to paint this. Go act in somebody else’s movie.’ So it’s a different kind of environment. That's not to say there aren’t great talented people in America, there are. It’s just when you’re in a business town, there’s a bit of claustrophobia to the place. It’s nice to be in a culture where people are doing different things.”

Your films seem to be inspired by England and the 19th century.

”Again, coming from Burbank suburbia where there's no weather, it’s always sunny, I think that’s why I was always drawn to monster movies or things that have texture. It’s almost a kind of way to get something that you’re deprived of. It’s like sensory deprivation, you know? You don’t get something so you seek it out in other ways. Living in England takes care of the lack of rain over the years. It’s nice.”

This is a romantic story.

“That was always important to me. I never saw this story as really dark. To me it’s more a beautiful kind of sad love story, with some humour. I always get a bit surprised when people think things are dark because I personally never see them that way.”

Where did your fascination with this kind of imagery come from?

“Well, I think probably on a few levels. At one symbolic level, it’s sort of the land of the living being more like the land of the dead, and vice versa. Symbolically, for me, the land of the living is sort of repressive society versus land of the dead, which is representing more of the creative mind where you have visual stimulus and colour and life and energy. Again, the culture I grew up in, death was always looked upon as dark and forbidden and not discussed. And, you know, living close to Mexico where you were very aware of like the Day of the Dead ceremony where they use humour and the skeletons are all dancing and playing, I just felt like that was so much more appropriate. It’s much more a celebration of life and a much more positive way of dealing with death than as this sort of dark, unspoken, forbidden, scary thing. So that other culture seemed to have what I think is a much more positive approach to it.”

So it is a mistake to take this as morbid or depressing?

“Oh I don’t think that at all. Personally I find it quite uplifting. It’s a little sad but at the same time hopeful. I find it positive, personally. Like I said, I don’t consider this a downer at all.”

How do you cope with being admired and an inspiration for people?

“You know, it’s nice when people like what you do, because it doesn’t always happen. If you go through the history of past reviews of some of my films, you’ll find that it’s not always a bright, rosy picture. So the most gratifying thing is you’ll meet people on the streets and they’ll say that something affected them on a positive level. That’s beautiful. That’s kind of like why you do things.”

Have you seen Terry Gilliam’s new film, Brothers Grimm?

“No. I literally finished this film three days ago.”

People often compare your styles. Presumably you’re asked about him a lot.

“A bit but I try not to go there. Especially in Hollywood they always like to lump things together and categorise them. It’s unfortunate because I don’t think they often enough try to respond to people as individuals. I think the more open they are and the more they can do that, the better off the movie industry would be.”

You can tell from the very beginning that this is a Tim Burton movie, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Sleepy Hollow. How are you able to do that?

“You know, I draw a certain way so unfortunately I can’t switch styles to easily, I’m not that well versed. Obviously it’s a different thing. They’re sets but they’re miniature, but in some way it’s a more pure thing because you can see the sets. You feel like a giant in a way looking at these sets. It’s kind of interesting.”

And all the movies start with you and a pen and paper?

“Some more than others. I mean Batman was Batman, you know? I do sketches on everything a little bit. A Nightmare Before Christmas completely. This definitely. You know, Edward Scissorhands. Certain ones that are more personalised start definitely with more drawing than perhaps others.”

What is it that you get out of working with Helena? Are there any disadvantages to working with someone whom you’re in a relationship with?

“No, not yet. You know why? Long before I met her she had done a whole body of work. I had done a whole body of work. We have completely different tastes in movies. So there isn’t really any kind of competition in a weird way. She’s very secure in what she does so it’s actually really very good.”

Do you continue to direct her at home?

“Er, no.”

Or does she direct you?

“It’s a back and forth situation.”

Do you identify with Johnny Depp because you keep casting him?

“I identify with him because I like him as an actor. And I like the fact that he likes to change in every movie. For me that’s exciting to work with. He’s willing to try whatever he thinks you’re trying to get across. So that’s what’s great about him. That’s why I keep thinking about him for things, because he likes to be different in every movie.”

His character in Corpse Bride actually looks like him.

“That was weird because the character was designed long before I asked him to do it. So we felt like that was really good karma. Really good.”

There are fewer of Danny Elfman's songs in this film than in A Nightmare Before Christmas. Why is that?

“Well it just didn’t feel like it was the same kind of thing. It felt different. I didn’t want to try and match that. That was, again, slightly different, and I said to Danny [Elfman] it didn’t feel the same. So, you know, we just try to treat each thing organically and did what we felt was the right amount.”

Charlie and Chocolate Factory has been a massive hit. Has that been the biggest hit of your career so far?


Do you feel the effect of things like that in terms of how your other work is received and how many meetings you get into in Hollywood?

“I try not to go to meetings. You know, you go through so many ups and downs it’s almost hard to pretend things are going to get better. After I did Beetlejuice and Batman I thought, ‘Now it’s going to be easy,’ then the next film, Edward Scissorhands, was one of the hardest films to get made. So you can never predict what it’s going to be like. Ed Wood, low budget film, I had had a number of successes, but again, a most difficult movie to get made. So you can never tell.”

They were all artistic successes.

“Yeah, but complete financial – well, Edwards Scissorhands wasn’t a complete financial disaster. Ed Wood was a complete financial disaster. But I don’t care because I like the movies.”

So are you blasé now about the success of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?

“No, I’m not blasé. I’m happy about it but I try not to get too egotistical or think that all of a sudden my life is going to change from it.”

Are you going to stay living in London?

“I think so, yeah. I get nice rain, weather, you know. It’s multi cultural, there are different people doing different things. I like that.”

Will you use any of the characters in Corpse Bride again?

“Maybe, you know? I like to write little stories so in my spare time I try to keep doing different things.”