For Tim Burton, This One’s Personal : The director of ‘Beetlejuice’ and ‘Batman’ is filming another bizarre movie--but this tale draws on his own childhood images
It’s only noon on the Fox lot in Century City but the mercury moseyed past 100 degrees hours ago. Director Tim Burton, weary after three months of filming his new movie, has taken refuge inside an air-conditioned mobile home near Stage 15. Sitting across a formica table, he runs his fingers through his jet black, mad-scientist hair and begins describing his life-long fascination with scissors.
“They’re an interesting invention; they cut through things,” he says.
If this was any other filmmaker, now might be a good time to call it quits and reschedule the interview after the guy has had a chance to collect himself. But when the 31-year-old Burton turns his skewed microscope on the world, it’s usually worth paying attention. The absurdist realities he created in “Pee Wee’s Big Adventures,” “Beetlejuice,” and “Batman” have earned him a reputation as one of Hollywood’s most inventive young directors. “There is a wonderful cartoon madness in his work,” says Vincent Price, “a kind of madness that doesn’t exist anymore in film.”
So if Burton wants to talk about scissors . . .
“I mean,” the director continues, “scissors are both simple and complicated. They’re a very simple design. But I remember as a kid I could never figure out how they worked.”
Scissors provide the overriding metaphor for Burton’s new movie, “Edward Scissorhands,” his most personal feature film yet. In it, Johnny Depp stars as a boy-creature who has sharp metal shears for hands--a curse that befell him when his inventor (played by Price) died before finishing his project. Each “finger” is about 10 inches long, making Depp’s hands look more like hedge-trimmers than scissors (though calling the character Edward Hedge-trimmerhands might overextend the metaphor.)
Isolated for years in a Gothic castle, Edward is a social misfit, but one with rare artistic talents: He’s a sculptor who creates intricate topiaries for his garden. When an Avon lady discovers him, Edward quickly becomes the neighborhood’s favorite oddity. He whips up new haircuts for the women and shapes bushes into bears and deer and penguins for their front lawns. Eventually, though, the neighborhood turns against him.
“The character is both simple and complicated,” says Burton. “Both beautiful and off-putting, both creative and horrifically clumsy.”
Fox executives have cautiously high hopes for Burton’s $20-million movie, one of three films scheduled for release at Christmas. “I hate to use the word ‘E.T.'--that’s sacrilege,” says Fox Chairman Joe Roth. But he used the word anyway, making it clear that Fox hopes “Edward Scissorhands” will connect with audiences the way the 1982 Steven Spielberg classic did.
“We have to let it find its place,” Roth adds. “We want to be careful not to hype the movie out of the universe.” Drawings and photos of Edward are closely guarded. A spokeswoman says the studio does not want to give away the look of the picture.
Winona Ryder, who worked with Burton on “Beetlejuice,” was the first actor attached to the project. Early this year the 18-year-old actress contracted a sinus infection while filming “Mermaids,” set in Boston, in which she co-stars with Cher. That forced her to quit her next film, Francis Coppola’s “Godfather III,” shortly after she reported to the set in Rome. Ryder recovered, though, in time for the production start on “Edward,” in which she plays a teen-age girl who alone understands and befriends the boy-creature.
Burton had little trouble assembling the supporting cast. Dianne Wiest, the Avon lady who discovers Edward, read the script and immediately agreed to her role. Price had worked with Burton before, having narrated a short film called “Vincent,” and was a big admirer. Kathy Baker saw the part that she was offered as a good chance to break into comedy. Alan Arkin, who plays Wiest’s husband, and Anthony Michael Hall, Ryder’s evil boyfriend, were both readily cast.
But the lead role of Edward was picked over by a strange assortment of actors before Burton and Fox settled on Johnny Depp, the former star of Fox Television’s series “21 Jump Street.” Fox urged Burton to consider Tom Cruise for the role, but after several hours of meetings, the two parted ways. (One topic of those meetings, sources say, was Edward Scissorhands’ lack of virility.) Michael Jackson was eager to play the role but wasn’t offered it. Tom Hanks passed up the project in favor of “Bonfire of the Vanities.” William Hurt and Robert Downey Jr. both expressed interest.
The casting of the 27-year-old Depp opposite his real-life fiance, Ryder, was coincidental. Burton hadn’t seen Depp’s work, but once he did and met the actor, he says he was impressed with Depp’s subtlety and ability to “act with his eyes.” Burton also was intrigued by Depp’s career path. After four seasons of a macho TV role that transformed him into a teen-age heart-throb, Depp did a 180-degree turn, taking the lead role in a John Waters farce, “Cry Baby.”
“America has been sold this perception of me,” Depp says. "(Fox) had this product (“21 Jump Street”) and in order to sell it they had to generate heat, so they sold this character I played on TV as if it were me.” His real interest, he says, is to work on offbeat projects with directors like Burton, Waters and David Lynch.
Depp’s role as Edward Scissorhands is anything but macho. “Johnny played it like a little boy, which is a tough thing to do for an actor,” says Ryder. "(Male) actors have this thing, they don’t want to do anything to make them look innocent, naive, vulnerable. They all want to be macho, to carry a gun.”
Says Depp: “It was strange because it’s not like there was anything to base (the character) on. Edward is not a human being, he’s not an android, he’s not an alien. To me he was like a newborn baby, with that kind of innocence . . . or like a dog that gives unconditional love.” In fact, the film’s screenwriter, Caroline Thompson, says her memories of a dog she once owned helped shape the character’s reaction to the world. “She had this preternaturally alert quality,” Thompson says of the dog, “but no way to communicate it. But for the physical constraints, I always felt she could speak.”
More than one crew member has commented on the eerie resemblance between Burton and his lead character on the set--two slenderly built black-clad figures with wild black hair. “This film is important to Tim because it is so personal,” says producer Denise Di Novi. “In a way Edward really is the metaphor for the artist who does not fit into the world.”
Is Burton the artist chronicling his own uneasiness in the world, his memories of a difficult childhood where he found refuge in the melodrama of Vincent Price movies? “That (notion) freaks me out too much,” Burton says. “I wouldn’t have approached a film like that. I don’t want to get so interiorized that it’s just . . . I’m hoping the feelings are fairly universal.” The film, he adds, “is not a new story. It’s ‘Frankenstein.’ It’s ‘Phantom of the Opera.’ It’s ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame,’ ‘King Kong,’ ‘Creature From the Black Lagoon,’ and countless fairy tales.”
But “Edward Scissorhands” is Burton’s most intimate expression since the short films he made while working as an animator at Disney. Unlike his other feature films, the story of “Edward Scissorhands” is his own invention--fleshed out into a screenplay by Thompson. “It was a hard movie,” producer Di Novi says during one of the last days of production. “Every detail was important to Tim, because it is so personal.”
Burton first brought the idea to his agents at the William Morris Agency, Mike Simpson and John Burnham, after the success of “Pee Wee” but before he had so thoroughly captured the interest of critics with “Beetlejuice.” “It was a very unusual story,” Simpson says of Burton’s story about a boy-creature with scissors for hands. “It didn’t jump off the page as a hit picture.”
Warner Bros.--which has produced all three of Burton’s feature films so far--passed on “Edward Scissorhands.” But Scott Rudin, then production president at Fox, agreed to finance a script, to be written by Thompson--also a William Morris client. Burton originally wanted to make the movie as a musical (“it seemed big and operatic to me,” he says) but later dropped the idea.
The Morris agents structured a deal with Fox that gave Burton enormous creative freedom. He and Thompson wrote the screenplay without input from Fox; once it was completed, the studio had a limited time to either greenlight the project or turn the rights back over to Burton. Roth says “Edward Scissorhands” was one of the first films he greenlighted when he took over as Fox chairman.
The three months of filming--first in a Florida subdivision, later on the Fox sound stages where “Die Hard 2" was shot--took an emotional toll on Burton. “It’s harder because it’s something I’m completely connected with,” he says. “I feel more volatile. I feel myself in weirder moods. I’m more interiorized. Emotionally, it’s harder, but it’s more satisfying.”
Harder, even, than “Batman,” with its $60-million budget, cast of megastars and stratospheric studio expectations? “Yes, yes,” Burton says, holding on to each “s” as he thinks back. “I felt like a normal person doing ‘Batman,’ actually. I was not a giant comic book fan. I felt like that movie . . . Making a big budget movie is so absurd anyway . . . I think back on it . . . " Burton often slips into these half sentences and allows his words to stray off like that. His thoughts seem to come racing to his tongue, tripping over each other before they can get out. Yet for some strange reason, it’s always clear what he’s trying to say. As writer Thompson put it: “He’s the most articulate non-verbal person I know.”
The social misfit aspect of the Edward Scissorhands character has appeared in Burton’s work before. As a young animator at Disney in 1982, he made the short black-and-white animated “Vincent,” in which a 7-year-old boy has delusions of being Vincent Price, of sharing his home with “spiders and bats” and wandering “dark hallways alone and tormented.” Price narrates the cartoon, which won two awards at the Chicago Film Festival.
The images in “Vincent” were drawn directly from Burton’s own middle-class childhood in Burbank, where his father recently retired from the parks and recreation department and his mother runs a small gift shop. “I can’t tell you what (Price) meant to me growing up,” Burton says. “This sounds dramatic but he helped me live . . . When you’re a child and a teen-ager it’s not unusual to go through a melodramatic phase. Some people find release through heavy metal or whatever. But by watching (Price’s) films, there was a catharsis for me. You’re not just watching a low-budget Edgar Allan Poe movie, there’s something else there that’s not on the screen. I channeled my melodrama into that, as opposed to suicide probably.”
Two years later, Burton again turned his camera on a little boy, this time in a 30-minute live-action film called “Frankenweenie,” also shot in black-and-white. In it, a young boy becomes a kind of Young Frankenstein when he brings his dead dog back to life in the isolation of his attic. The complex reaction of the suburban neighborhood to the dog is much like that of the neighbors toward Edward Scissorhands.
All three of Burton’s feature films have done big business at the box office: “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventures” cost less than $7 million, but grossed more than $40 million in the U.S.; “Beetlejuice,” budgeted at $13 million, had ticket sales of nearly $74 million; And “Batman” has grossed more than $425 million worldwide, establishing itself as Warner Bros.’ biggest hit ever.
The imaginative looks that Burton brought to all three films--his ability to make the grotesque look mundane, even funny--have made him a favorite among critics. But at the same time, he has been criticized for flaws in story structure. “Batman,” in particular, drew that kind of criticism.
The Times’ Sheila Benson wrote that the Sam Hamm-Warren Skarren screenplay didn’t give “those characters a fighting chance . . . It flops about . . . and it’s disastrously low on the sort of wit that can make a gargantuan movie lovable.” Vincent Canby of the New York Times complained that the “wit is all pictorial. The film meanders mindlessly from one image to the next.” While some observers have speculated that the movie’s flaws were the result of factors and people other than Burton, the director says he is satisfied that “Batman” reflected his own vision. “I read a lot that said it wasn’t me,” he says. “Actually if there was a reason it wasn’t me as much, it was the time constraint. Everything happened very quickly. That’s where I feel the most dissatisfaction. But I knew that going in.”
Burton hopes that “Edward Scissorhands” will offer his audiences something meatier than his past work. “The problem I have with some of the things I’ve done is that because they have such strong surface level images, I don’t know if people see below that,” he says. In “Edward Scissorhands,” “I feel like there is a little bit more below the surface that’s obvious. But I don’t know, I can’t predict (audience reaction).”
Still, the film has plenty of Burtonesque visuals. Inside Edward’s castle, the inventor left behind an assembly-line of huge black human-shaped machines--dripping with cobwebs--that look capable of skinning corpses. In fact, this creepy Rube Goldberg contraption is a cookie-maker.
The castle sits on a hill next to a suburban tract where the houses are painted in a series of pastels that makes the neighborhood look more relentlessly uniform than if the houses were all the same color. Production designer Bo Welch says these “old circus colors” reflect the “faded optimism” of middle-class neighborhoods like this.
Alan Arkin says that when he first read the script, he was “a bit baffled.” “Nothing really made sense to me until I saw the sets. Burton’s visual imagination is extraordinary.” The crew went into a Florida subdivision and repainted 60 houses. “They stripped the houses of any textures,” says Arkin. “It makes it look surreal and yet strangely reminiscent at the same time.”
To achieve that look, Burton brought together a crew that includes many of his old standbys: Oscar-nominated production designer Bo Welch (“Beetlejuice,” “The Color Purple”); art director Tom Duffield (Beetlejuice”); set designer Rick Heinrichs (“Vincent,""Beetlejuice” and composer Danny Elfman (“Beetlejuice,” “Batman”). Newcomers to Burton’s crew include director of photography Stefan Czapsky ( “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” “The Thin Blue Line”); Oscar-winning editor Richard Halsey (“Beaches,” “Rocky”); costume designer Colleen Atwood (“Joe Versus the Volcano,” “Married to the Mob”) and Oscar-winning special effects designer Stan Winston (“Aliens,” “Predator”).
Burton insists that the neighborhood he created is not just another film commentary on vacuous suburbia. “A lot of it for me is the memory of growing up in suburbia,” he says. “It’s not a bad place. It’s a weird place. It’s a place where some people grow up and ask, ‘Why are there resin grapes on the wall?’ (and others don’t). We’re trying to walk the fine line of making it funny and strange without it being judgmental. It’s a place where there’s a lot of integrity.”
Burton doesn’t know what his next project will be after “Edward.” Sam Hamm is currently working on a script for a sequel to “Batman 2,” but Burton says he doesn’t know whether he will direct--despite reports that he already has committed to the project. “I get pressure from studios and other people and agents to do it,” he says. “And then my friends say, ‘Don’t do it, why would you want to do a sequel?’ I don’t take either side of the fence. I just need to finish this. Otherwise, I’ll make a decision based on being in a bad mood or something.”
Warner Bros. is hoping to produce “Batman 2" next year for a 1992 release. But a studio spokeswoman said no decisions have been made about the cast and crew. Meetings between Burton and studio executives on both sequels are planned in the near future, she added.
Burton is equally noncommittal when asked about “Beetlejuice 2.” But he adds that “doing sequels doesn’t excite me. I’ve been lucky so far. While there are flaws (in my work), the reason people have generally had a good response is that it feels fresher . . . I don’t consider myself an accomplished filmmaker. I have to do projects where I have something to offer.”
In the meantime, Burton’s and Di Novi’s unnamed production company (“Let’s just called it Vague Productions,” Burton says) is churning out animated projects. One cartoon, “Family Dog,” which views a household through a dog’s eyes, is on the upcoming CBS prime time schedule. Burton declines to discuss the others. Di Novi is also hard at work on a book of Burton’s drawings.
So far, Burton is three-for-three at the box office. And the huge success of “Batman” last summer has made him one of the most sought-after directors in the business. Still, this solitary artist is not always comfortable with all the hoopla that accompanies a big hit.
Last summer, as Batmania took hold across the land, Burton was desperate to get away. He got in his car and took off for a long drive in the desert. In the middle of what seemed like nowhere, he pulled into a roadside restaurant. A waitress came over to take his order. He looked up. She was wearing a Batman pin.