The outsider

Monsters and misfits … Burton at his London studio next to the character Jack Skellington from <i>A Nightmare Before Christmas</i>.
Monsters and misfits … Burton at his London studio next to the character Jack Skellington from A Nightmare Before Christmas.

It would be a tremendous disappointment if Tim Burton's inner sanctum turned out to be a sterile environment, barren except for a telephone on its cold, white floor; or a cubicle with a ''World's Greatest Dad'' coffee mug. Instead, the workplace of the filmmaker behind invitingly grim delights such as Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands is a definitive Burtonesque experience. On a hill in north London, behind a brick wall and a mournful tree, in a Victorian residence that belonged to children's book illustrator Arthur Rackham, it lies at the top of a winding staircase guarded by the imposing portraits of Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee. Its decor is best characterised as modern nonconformist (unless Ultraman toys and models of skeletal warriors are your thing) and when the master of the house greets you, his drinking glass bears a poster image for The Curse of Frankenstein.

That the word ''Burtonesque'' has become part of the lexicon hints at the surprising influence Burton, 54, has accumulated in a directorial career that spans 16 features and nearly 30 years. Across films as disparate as Ed Wood, Alice in Wonderland and Big Fish - released to varying critical and commercial receptions - he has developed a singular, if not easily pinned-down, sensibility. His style is strongly visual, darkly comic and morbidly fixated, but it is rooted just as much in his affection for monsters and misfits (which in his movies often turn out to be the same thing). He all but invented the vocabulary of the modern superhero movie (with Batman), brought new vitality to stop-motion animation (with Corpse Bride, co-directed with Mike Johnson, and The Nightmare before Christmas, which Burton produced) and has come to be associated, for better or worse, with anything ghoulish or ghastly, without being inaccessible. He might be the most widely embraced loner in contemporary cinema.

His success has also transported him from sleepy, suburban southern California, where he grew up and graduated from the California Institute of the Arts, to London, where he lives with his partner, actor Helena Bonham Carter, and their two young children, and where he has come to embrace the sensation of being perpetually out of place.

''I just feel like a foreigner,'' Burton says in his cheerful, elliptical manner. ''Feeling that weird foreign quality just makes you feel more, strangely, at home.''

Burton, dressed entirely in black, is talking about his new animated feature, Frankenweenie, which tells the charming story of a young boy (named Victor Frankenstein) who reanimates the corpse of his dead pet dog.

Like its director, Frankenweenie is simultaneously modern and retrograde; the black-and-white film, which is being released in 3D, is adapted from a live-action short Burton made for Disney in 1984, when he was a struggling animator. That project did not get the wide release Burton hoped for, but it paved the way for him to direct his first feature, Pee-wee's Big Adventure, the following year.

As he speaks (and occasionally shapes his feral, curly hair into something resembling satyr horns), Burton is in a nostalgic mood, but also a defiant one. That might be the result of the tepid reception that greeted Dark Shadows, his big-budget remake of the TV soap opera (which Burton says did not disappoint him), or a reluctance to analyse trends in his career. Whether he is talking about his upbringing in Burbank, his earliest frustration at Disney or the unexpected honour of a career retrospective presented at New York's Museum of Modern Art and other institutions, Burton casts himself as an outsider.

''Wanting people to like you is nice, but I'm confident that there's always going to be lots that don't,'' he says. ''I'll always be able to hang on to that.''

The following are excerpts from our conversation.

DAVE ITZKOFF: Not only does Frankenweenie hark back to the start of your career, it seems to refer to many of the features you've made since the original short. Is that by design?

TIM BURTON: If I really thought about it, that's something I would probably not do. [Laughs] I don't consciously make those points of: I did this, I'm going to put that in there as a reference to myself. Things that I grew up with stay with me. You start a certain way, and then you spend your whole life trying to find a certain simplicity that you had. It's less about staying in childhood than keeping a certain spirit of seeing things in a different way.

DI: How much of your childhood are we seeing in Victor's isolation?

TB: I felt like an outcast. At the same time I felt quite normal. I think a lot of kids feel alone and slightly isolated and in their own world. I don't believe the feelings I had were unique. You can sit in a classroom and feel like no one understands you, and you're Vincent Price in House of Usher. I would imagine, if you talk to every single kid, most of them probably felt similarly. But I felt very tortured as a teenager. That's where Edward Scissorhands came from. I was probably clinically depressed and didn't know it.

DI: Were horror films and B-movies easily accessible when you were growing up?

TB: They'd show monster movies on regular TV then, which they wouldn't show now. Some of them were pretty hardcore, like The Brain that Wouldn't Die, or something where a guy gets his arm ripped off and is bleeding down the wall. My parents were a bit freaked out. [Laughs] But better that I'm watching TV than them having to watch me or deal with me.

DI: There are emotions and experiences in Frankenweenie that audiences don't often associate with Disney features.

TB: People get worried and they go, ''Oh my god, the dog gets hit by a car.'' It's funny how people are afraid of their emotions. I remember the original short was supposed to go out with Pinocchio, and they got all freaked out about it, like kids would be running, screaming, from the theatre.

The vampire's bite

DI: Do you find poetic justice in the fact that, after all that, Disney is the studio that's releasing Frankenweenie ?

TB: I feel like I've been through a revolving door over the years, and from my first time there as an animator to Frankenweenie to Nightmare and Ed Wood, it's always been the same reaction: ''Come back,'' and then, ''Hmmm, I don't know.'' After I stopped working on The Fox and the Hound and trying to be a Disney animator, they gave me the opportunity, for a year or two, to draw whatever I wanted. I felt quite grateful for it. At the same time I felt like Rapunzel, a princess trapped in a tower. I had everything I needed except the light of day. I felt they didn't really want me and, luckily, Warner Bros and Paul Reubens and the producers of Pee-wee saw the movie and gave me a chance.

Among the living onscreen

DI: When you worked with Johnny Depp for the first time, on Edward Scissorhands, what was it that connected you to him?

TB: Here was a guy who was perceived as this thing - this Tiger Beat teen idol. But just meeting him, I could tell, without knowing the guy, he wasn't that as a person. Very simply, he fit the profile of the character. We were in Florida, in 90-degree heat, and he couldn't use his hands, and he was wearing a leather outfit and covered head to toe with make-up. I was impressed by his strength and stamina. I remember Jack Nicholson showed me this book about mask acting and how it unleashes something else in a person. I've always been impressed by anybody that was willing to do that. Because a lot of actors don't want to cover [theatrical voice] ''the instrument''.

DI: Having a life with Helena Bonham Carter, do you have to be more careful about how you use her in your films?

TB: The great thing about her is that, long before I met her, she had a full career. She's also willing to do things that aren't necessarily glamorous or attractive [laughs], and I admire her for that. We've learnt how to leave things at home, make it more of a sanctuary. But I probably take a slight, extra moment to think about it. On Sweeney Todd, it was quite rough. Nobody was a singer, so I looked at lots of people. Everybody had to audition for it; she did as well. That one was a struggle, because I felt like, jeez, there's a lot of great singers, and it's going to look like I gave this one to my girlfriend. She really went through an extra process.

DI: In recent movies, you've burnt her to a crisp, you've dumped her at the bottom of the ocean …

TB: I know. But she's getting it on other movies. She's being burnt up alive a lot lately, or she's getting set on fire quite a lot. Again, I've set another trend.

Phantom of the adaptation

DI: Your Planet of the Apes remake introduced you to Helena, but was it otherwise a professional low for you?

TB: Yeah. I've tried to learn my lesson. It usually happens on bigger-budget movies. You go into it, and there's something about it I like, the studio wants to do it. But the budget's not set and the script's not set. So you've got this moving train. You're working on it, and you're cutting this because the budget's too big, and you feel like an accountant. It's certainly perceived as one of my least-successful films. But at the same time, I met with and worked with a lot of people that I loved.

DI: Will you ever explain its ending?

TB: I had it all worked out. But it's my own private thing. Someday we'll go take some LSD and we'll talk about it.

Before the grave

DI: This may seem strange to ask someone with many years of work still ahead, but what would you want your legacy to be?

TB: What do I want on my gravestone?

DI: It sounds like something you've thought about.

TB: I do. I think it's wise to plan ahead. Start early - plan your funeral now. It's not a morbid thought. If you want something to happen in a certain way, especially the last thing, you might as well. The thing that I care about most - that you did something that really had an impact on them. People come up on the street and they have a Nightmare tattoo, or little girls saying they love Sweeney Todd, and you're like, ''How were you able to see it?'' Or you see people, especially around Halloween, dressed up in costume, as Corpse Bride or the Mad Hatter or Sally. It's not critics, it's not box office. Things that you know are connecting with real people.

DI: Is there something unrepentantly crowd-pleasing that you will admit to enjoying?

TB: I'm bad at this. Name something.

DI: Well, now that Downton Abbey is back on television in Britain, will you watch it?

TB: No. Helena, that's more her kind of thing. That one I don't quite get. To me, that's like getting a morphine injection on a Sunday night. And that can have its positives. But not my cup of tea. There's shows like MasterChef, which I cry at. I don't know why. I find it quite emotional when they cook something and it doesn't work out.

DI: Your children are old enough to see movies. Do you try to influence their tastes?

TB: I don't overly push it. I was quite proud when my daughter's favourite movie was The War of the Gargantuas. But now that she's older, she's gone off from that a bit. I don't push my things on them. If they're into it, they're into it. They'll find it, or not. You've got to let them find their way.

The New York Times

Frankenweenie opens on October 25.

This story The outsider first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.