Best known for his dark, gothic and quirky fantasy films, such as Beetlejuice (1988), Edward Scissorhands (1990), The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), Ed Wood (1994), the horror fantasy Sleepy Hollow (1999), and later efforts such as Corpse Bride (2005), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), Dark Shadows (2012) and Frankenweenie (2012).
At heart an animator, Tim Burton leaves an unmistakable stamp on all of his films. Extraordinary, intricate, and either beautiful or Gothically anti-beautiful production designs; intelligent and compelling and, yes, humorous storytelling; his films seem like he literally did everything himself. Still, they leave more than enough room for brilliant actors to add their own touches.
Tim Burton grew up in ’60s Burbank a block from a huge cemetery. The fact that that’s funny says it all. His taste for the macabre is obvious. His early childhood heroes included B-movie monster-makers and Vincent Price. A loner in school, he preferred to draw. Accepted into the Disney-funded Cal Arts (a classmate of Pixar’s John Lasseter), Burton stood out, and was hired by Disney as an animator.
Bored working on films such as Disney’s “The Fox and the Hound”, Burton was made a conceptual artist, where he contributed to “The Black Cauldron”. Still out of sync with his employer, Burton started working on his own projects, the animation shorts “Vincent” and “Frankenweenie”. Because the latter got a PG-rating, it couldn’t be released with other Disney fare and, except for a quick European tour, was shelved.
These “horror-film” shorts, though, got the attention of, among others, Stephen King. That, somehow, led to Paul Reubens, aka Pee Wee Herman, which led to Burton’s first big adventure, “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure”. Far exceeding box-office expectations and picking up critical accolades along the way, Burton was next offered “Beetlejuice”. Though it was supposed to be a dramatic horror film, Burton had the wisdom to let Michael Keaton vamp in his title role, turning it into a classic black comedy. Also, where “Pee Wee” wasn’t exactly overflowing with either quality actors or great performances, “Beetlejuice” had more than enough of both.
Proving that he could direct actors as well as visual effects, Burton was handed even more of both with “Batman”. Though everyone was concerned when he brought along Michael Keaton to play the title role, opposite no less than Jack Nicholson’s Joker, the choice was a canny bit of casting. Not only did Keaton bring dimension to the Dark Knight, Burton’s vision was grounded enough to offset and enhance Jacks macabre silliness. Again garnering critical raves from a summer box-office extravaganza ostensibly directed to kids, Burton reached the call-your-own-shots level, which he used (but certainly didn’t use up) on his own story, “Edward Scissorhands”.
Starring Johnny Depp, his alter ego, the allegorical film takes on many themes, not the least of which is an aborted father-son relationship. Burton admits on the “Big Fish” DVD to not having the best of relationships with his then-deceased father. It is at least one of the themes that unites three of his best films, “Big Fish”, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, and “Edward Scissorhands”. It is also evident in his “Batman” films, and even in Ed Wood seeking out Bela Lugosi as a father figure.
Returning to his favorite medium, stop-motion animation, Burton produced the classic “The Nightmare Before Christmas” in 1993, then meandered through the rest of the twentieth century with his idiosyncratic trio of “Ed Wood”, Mars Attacks!” and “Sleepy Hollow”.
Not exactly going mainstream, Burton seemed to rid himself of enough closet skeletons in the new millennium to make in his last three films, two of his best: “Big Fish” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”. The notable musical “Corpse Bride” is a signature stop-motion achievement, which couldn’t help but be compared unfavorably to “Nightmare”, though it’s wickedly funny and both brilliantly and darkly realized.
And his next project? Perhaps the project he was born to direct: Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd”, starring, of course, Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp. Tim Burton will not stray from his boyhood cemetery for too many moons at a time.
— Nate Lee
“You don’t know whether chimps are going to kill you or kiss you. They’re very open on some levels and much more evil in a certain way.”
“I remember when I was younger, I had these two windows in my room, nice windows that looked out onto the lawn, and for some reason my parents walled them up and gave me this little slit window that I had to climb up on a desk to see out of. To this day I never asked them why; I should ask them.”
“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.”
“I’ll always remember this image of being in line to see When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970), and all the younger kids were like, ‘Dinosaurs are so cool!’ and all the older kids were like, ‘Oh, man, I hear there’s this really hot babe in this movie!'”
“[on the stress of delivering a summer movie in an era when release dates are often set by studios before a script is finished] It’s like you’re a runner and they beat the shit out of you and break your legs right before you’re supposed to race, and then they say, ‘Now go win the race.'”
“[on style] I remember, I was at Cal Arts and I wasn’t a good life-drawer; I struggled with that realistic style of drawing. And one day I was sitting in Farmer’s Market sketching, and it was this weird, mind-blowing experience. I said, ‘Goddamit, I don’t care if I can’t draw, I’m just gonna draw how I feel about it.’ All of a sudden I had my own personal breakthrough, and then I could draw, and satisfied myself. I’ve had very few experiences like that, and I’ll never forget it.”
At the end of Beetlejuice (1988), Beetlejuice metamorphoses into a bizarre creature with a merry-go-round on his head. On the top of this merry-go-round is a smiling skull which became Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). The latter movie had been a pet project of Burton’s since his days as an animator at Disney.
Lives in Ojai (California) and New York.
Nearly everywhere he goes, he carries a pocket-size sketchbook and a small watercolor kit.
Is a big fan of “nudie” director Russ Meyer.
Steven Spielberg considered him to direct Gremlins (1984). He decided against it, because at the time, Burton had never directed a full-feature length movie.
His childhood dream was to be in a monster costume wrecking Tokyo but since he couldn’t be Godzilla he decided to be an animator.
Burton works magic in his many dinner-table scenes, which are probably in every film. From Bruce Wayne and Vicki Vale eating at opposite ends of a twenty-yard table in Batman” to Edward trying to eat peas with his scissorhands,” there are some magnificent scenes at the dinner table throughout his work.
Perhaps the best dinner-table scene of any film is the “Day-O” scene in which the intruding humans are possessed and made to sing and dance calypso — even Dick Cavett — in order to scare them out of a haunted house.
The whole Spectre scene, where Ewan McGregor arrives “early” to the perfect idyllic town, is hypnotic. Time stands still when Ewan’s Ed Bloom first sees his true love. Bloom courting Sandra in a field of daffodils. Albert Finney and Jessica Lange fully clothed in the bathtub.
The famed Oompa Loompas are all multiple shots of one actor, an incredible feat and a fascinating visual through-line. The squirrels testing for “bad nuts” has to be everyone’s favorite.
Each time Edward is furiously sculpting with his scissors, its hilarious and fascinating, first with the dogs, then with their owners. His ice sculpting, with Winona Ryder dancing in the snowflakes, is visual poetry. Johnny Depp’s walk is hilarious.
Though the film’s charm doesn’t hold up as well as the tv show, the opening breakfast-making scene is forever camp. Pee Wee dances for the bikers. Danny Elfman’s score could be one of his best.
Tim Burton’s directing credits include…
|1985||Pee-wee’s Big Adventure|
|2001||Planet of the Apes|
|2005||Charlie and the Chocolate Factory|
|2005||Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride|
|2007||Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street|
|2010||Alice in Wonderland|
|2016||Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children|