Advertisement
Share

COVER STORY : Ready or Not : It’s Back to Tim Burton’s World

<i> Hilary de Vries is a regular contributor to Calendar. </i>

Beyond all the budget rumors, the big-name actors, and the requisite scrutiny that attends any sequel, getting Tim Burton to direct “Batman Returns” was actually something of a dare.

“Like ‘I dare you to make me make this movie,’ ” is how screenwriter Dan Waters recalls their first meeting after Burton said he would consider reprising his role as the director of “Batman,” one of the biggest-grossing films in the history of Hollywood.

“I think Tim was scared he might actually wind up filming something. I think he would have been happy to have this film wind up a mess like ‘Alien 3,’ ” says Waters, who had known the director since the two of them kicked around the idea of “Beetlejuice II” a few years back.

Advertisement

Ever since “Batman” opened in the summer of 1989, earning record-breaking box office and becoming the year’s pop-culture event, the drumbeat for a sequel had been sounded. A former Disney animator turned director of the off-beat, low-budget hits “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” and “Beetlejuice,” Burton had taken some heat, as being too lightweight, too weird to direct the film version of DC Comics’ best-selling, most psychologically complex character. However, about $400 million later, not counting the $1.5 billion in merchandising “Batman” generated, Burton was regarded as an essential piece of the puzzle.

“We were very, very eager to have Tim direct the sequel,” says Terry Semel, president of Warner Bros. “He was the first creative person to make sense of ‘Batman’ and we felt that he was the one who could take it to the next level.”

After all, Anton Furst’s Oscar-winning sets were still standing at London’s Pinewood Studios and although Jack Nicholson would not reprise his role as the maniacal Joker, there were plenty of other stars falling over themselves for a chance to play cartoon villains in what Burton describes as “the world’s biggest goofy movie.” Burton himself insisted he wasn’t interested. Warners had passed on his latest film, “Edward Scissorhands,” which Fox snapped up and turned into a sleeper hit of Christmas 1990. His resume was awash in black ink. The Disney dropout was now “the next Steven Spielberg.” Why go back to Gotham City?

Nonetheless, Burton is back with “Batman Returns.” The $65-million crown jewel in Warners’ summer lineup, which opens Friday and stars Michael Keaton, Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito, is seen in some corners as potentially the biggest-grossing film this year. It is almost certainly a major step for the 33-year-old director whom Hollywood still regards as something of an enigma--the creator of quirky live cartoons that strike an oddly prescient chord with adult and teen-age audiences. As Semel wryly puts it, “You don’t meet too many Tim Burtons.”

Burton himself seems at a loss to explain his re-enlistment.

“Look, I don’t even know why the first ‘Batman’ worked,” says the director, sprawled on the black leather sofa in his office on the Warner Hollywood lot, plucking distractedly at his hair. “I don’t feel myself proficient enough to take a certain command. . . . My interests get all weirded out. . . . I put the first one down to more of a cultural event,” he says, biting off the ends of his sentences, bored at having to complete his thoughts.

He slumps into the sanctuary of his sofa, immobile except for the presto wagging of his left foot. “I don’t know. You think these things should get easier but it just gets harder.”

Harder, but not impossible. He said “yes” because Waters made good on that dare, wrote a script, psychologically knotty and wryly funny, that Burton liked. Burton and his partner, Denise Di Novi, were named the film’s producers. He wouldn’t have to shoot in London. And like Nicholson, who had earned the somewhat staggering sum of $50 million on “Batman,” Burton would get a percentage of the film’s profits. But mostly, Burton said “yes” because he wanted to be an auteur and not a director-for-hire on a big-budget movie.

“ ‘Batman’ was my first big film and it’s hard to prepare for all the insanity of that,” says Burton. “You think you prepare. ‘OK, more paranoia, more insanity, more people, more everything.’ But I didn’t really know what was hitting me. I was like an idiot on that one. So I wasn’t going to do this. But then I realized that I loved these characters and their world.”

“Tim goes more on gut instinct than strategy,” says Di Novi, who first worked with Burton on “Edward Scissorhands.” “He had graduated to the point where he wanted to make movies that are his movies. And this is 100% Tim’s movie.”

Indeed, much of the film’s pre-opening weeks have been filled with news of Burton’s off-screen maneuvers. Two months ago, while he was in the midst of editing “Batman Returns,” Burton abruptly abandoned his long-time agent, Mike Simpson, at William Morris to sign with Creative Artists Agency. After years of spurning Michael Ovitz’s overtures, Burton suddenly, and somewhat mysteriously, succumbed to CAA’s power play, setting off the requisite series of rumors that ran the gamut from a Burton-design theme park to full-time return to drawing.

“I do have certain thoughts about the whole thing,” he says purposefully vague. “I’m in movies right now because I enjoy it, like I was in animation for a while. But it’s important to remain open.”

What is definite? An expansion of his 3-year-old company, Tim Burton Productions, that is already involved in reigniting Burton’s career as an animator. “Frankenweenie,” his animated short feature, shot when the director was still a Disney employee, was released on video format this spring and is said to be selling well. A glossy coffee-table book of Burton’s artwork is to be published by Harper Collins next year. The director is also working on two children’s books for Disney’s Hyperion Press. Amblin Productions is producing the Burton-designed animated TV series, “Family Dog.” And Burton is actively involved in his feature-length stop-motion animated feature, “Nightmare Before Christmas,” which Disney will release in theaters next winter.

But most significantly, Burton’s three-year deal at Warners finishes this month. And while the director has a number of feature projects in development at various studios, the smart money is waiting for those opening grosses of “Batman Returns.” If they are anywhere near those of its predecessor, Burton is expected to be hailed as the leader in the post-Spielberg generation of filmmakers. As David Hoberman, president of Touchstone and Walt Disney Films, summed up the general Hollywood reaction: “We see Tim Burton fitting in here anyway he wants to.”

Yet, the slender director, dressed in his signature black jeans, black Doc Martens and black blazer, and with that sheaf of hair sprouting, resists analyzing his success. He has been outspoken of late, publicly complaining about “not being allowed to fail.” And during a recent conversation just before the release of “Batman Returns,” Burton voiced more than the usual pre-opening jitters.

In his office, where a brace of black leather sofas is offset by a desk littered with whimsical sketches, plastic animals and a life-size Edward Scissorhands puppet hanging to one side, the director was by turns dour and manic, insistent on examining his career through a lens of blackly comic Angst .

“Power is funny,” he says staring at his shoes. “And Hollywood is a funny place. I got out of animation because I didn’t like it, but I’ve started to get very unhappy about being in the entertainment industry. Before I was this crazy artist, but now I’m seen much more as a money-making machine. I don’t know if I can do it the way it’s done in Hollywood.”

“Nice and calm,” he says, pitching his voice somewhere between irony and a mantra. “We like a nice and calm ‘Perry Como Christmas Special’ atmosphere on a set.”

Burton is recalling the first “Batman” shoot in London more than four years ago, a time when a sulky English crew and nervous Warners executives commuting from Los Angeles monitored the 28-year-old director with only two features under his belt and an animator’s aversion for words. “I would just show a picture and not talk,” says Burton, punctuating that description with a nervous heh-heh. “People said they had a hard time understanding me. I’ve had to become much more verbal.”

Critics would agree about his stunted storytelling ability. When “Batman” opened three years ago, despite its record-setting box office, reviewers caviled about Burton’s inability to conjure a strong narrative line from his fun-house cartoon imagery. Some, like The Times’ Sheila Benson, faulted the Sam Hamm-Warren Skarren screenplay as “flop(ping) about.” Others, such as Vincent Canby of the New York Times, suggested that Burton’s “wit is all pictorial. The film meanders mindlessly from one image to the next.”

Critics would agree about his stunted storytelling ability. When “Batman” opened three years ago, despite its record-setting box office, reviewers caviled about Burton’s inability to conjure a strong narrative line from his fun-house cartoon imagery. Some, like The Times’ Sheila Benson, faulted the Sam Hamm-Warren Skarren screenplay as “flop(ping) about.” Others, such as Vincent Canby of the New York Times, suggested that Burton’s “wit is all pictorial. The film meanders mindlessly from one image to the next.”

“Everybody gets on my case about me not being America’s favorite storyteller,” says Burton. “I realize it, but I’m not going to worry about telling a story. . . . Because you know what? People can take a slight amount of abstraction and (the success of my films) makes me feel like I’m not totally out to lunch.”

A graduate of CalArts who worked for four years at Disney as an animator before making his feature film debut with “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” in 1985, Burton manipulates the look of his films until they becomes a physical extension of the protagonist: the bright, primary colored landscape of “Pee-wee,” the lurid, special-effects anarchy of “Beetlejuice,” the eerily tidy suburbia of “Edward Scissorhands,” the black urban canyon evocative of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” in “Batman.”

“I like it when the sets are a character and not just a set,” Burton said during the filming of “Batman.”

Now, in “Batman Returns,” Burton has created a film that composer and regular Burton collaborator Danny Elfman describes as “almost operatic in tone” by borrowing visual themes from several of his previous films. Enlarging on the German Expressionism of “Batman,” Burton has incorporated some of the hyper-realism of “Edward Scissorhands” and the Fellini-esque anarchy of “Beetlejuice” into the film to create the disparate worlds inhabited by the three protagonists--Batman (Michael Keaton), Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) and the Penguin (Danny DeVito).

“When I look at ‘Batman Returns,’ I see a little bit of every movie that I made,” concedes Burton, who shot the film on the Warner lot last fall using his longtime colleagues, production designer Bo Welch and art directors, Rick Heinrichs and Tom Duffield. (The late Anton Furst, the Oscar-winning British designer of “Batman” and a close friend of Burton’s, was not part of the film’s team due to Furst’s exclusive contract at Columbia.)

“Because Tim started as an artist, his brain really works like an artist,” says Di Novi, who adds that “Tim is also motivated by his connection with the characters. He wanted a Penguin and a Catwoman as compelling as Batman in terms of their duality and their dark sides.”

Burton had said during the filming of “Batman” that his interest as a director lay in uncovering the post-Freudian reality of cartoon characters found in “a new generation of comic books that explores their psychology and complexities and not how square their jaw is.” It was the same focus that he brought to “Batman Returns.” “Batman, Catwoman, Penguin--they’re all mixed up with these themes of splits and good and evil sides, they all kind of have them and that’s what I like about the material. It’s not simple like ‘Superman.’ ”

When an initial “Batman Returns” script by Sam Hamm failed to strike any psychological sparks with Burton--"They asked Sam to do something just to see if my interest would get there,” says Burton. “It didn’t"--Di Novi invited Waters on board. The writer of “Hudson Hawk,” “The Adventures of Ford Fairlane” and “Heathers,” which Di Novi had produced, Waters “was very good with female characters and I thought if anyone could capture Catwoman, Dan could,” says Di Novi.

“All I knew was that Tim didn’t want Catwoman to be some Uber vixen purring on a Playboy couch,” says Waters. “Otherwise, writing a film for Tim is like going out hunting in the forest for that thing, that idea, that will bring the prince to life, otherwise he will stay in a coma on his couch.”

That idea turned out to be a decidedly post-feminist take on male-female relationships--"where every man has an inner urge to put on a cape and go out and save the world, while women secretly want to wreck it,” says Waters. “Batman and Catwoman are sort of lovers by day who thrash out their ids on a rooftop at night.”

Keaton, who gave a subdued, internalized performance as Batman and was largely upstaged in the original film by Nicholson’s flamboyant Joker, suggests that Waters’ storyline has made for “a richer, more sophisticated film.” Pfeiffer, who was offered the role of the whip-toting Catwoman when Annette Bening dropped out of the film after becoming pregnant, describes the movie as “surprisingly complex, Catwoman possessing a kind of rage that is not historically considered a feminine quality but one that many women have.”

Burton, however, insists that “Batman Returns,” is no statement of sexual politics. “I just love characters that are symbols for things,” he says. “I used to read those old folk tales of lizard boy and snake girl. They were symbols. That’s the great thing about the Batman story. No one is really evil; they’re a mix of psychological problems.”

Finding a suitable Freudian peg for the Penguin character--played by Burgess Meredith in the television series as essentially a leer, a top hat and a cigarette holder--proved to be the most challenging script problem. “The Penguin was always my least favorite character, because I couldn’t tell who he was,” says Burton. “He was like a guy in a top hat. Sorry, not interesting.”

Although DeVito signed on as the waddling, half-man, half-bird crime boss, even this casting did not erase the need, as Burton says, “to come up with a strong reason, some subtext, for him to be the Penguin. It wasn’t enough to put Danny in that top hat.”

While Burton won’t say so, it is obvious that beyond the film’s use of live penguins, a watery lair and a few grisly scenes of DeVito chomping on a dead fish, the real Rosebud of the Penguin’s character lies in his flipper-like hands and social outcast position--a marked resemblance to Burton’s other pariah, Edward Scissorhands. Where Johnny Depp’s portrayal of the boy with shears for hands evoked a sweet longing for acceptance, DeVito’s Penguin is a vengeance-seeking doppleganger. As he says to Batman, “I’m a genuine freak, you’re only wearing a mask.”

Expanding the Batman rogue’s gallery from two to three protagonists, not to mention the physical demands incurred by using 50 live penguins, added considerably to Burton’s duties as both director and producer. Keaton characterizes the shoot as “tedious for me, but extraordinarily hard to Tim and the crew.”

“It was horrible,” confesses Burton. “I don’t think there was a day where somebody wasn’t getting hooked up to some bizarre contraption. And our schedule was actually based on the penguins. Here you are juggling all this stuff, the biggest name actors, the set, and everything is based on the fact that the molting season is coming.”

The most difficult scenes were, not surprisingly, the ones that involved that penguin fleet. “I remember one day,” says Burton gazing at the ceiling. “The guys from the studio came by, wondering what was taking so long. We’re on a set that is an island surrounded by water that fills up a whole sound stage and we have 50 live penguins of two species, puppets run by people under the floor, we have guys with radio controls and Danny’s wearing 50 pounds of makeup and gee, why is it taking so long?

“I just kept thinking this is like a black-hole epic, except we’re doing this real matter-of-fact, you know, 50 penguins, but everything is meant to be real casual, like ‘My Dinner With Andre,’ only with all this weird stuff going on. . . . Danny’s wearing 50 pounds of makeup and Michael’s got the Batsuit. Everything is in the way of the acting. But that is the thing that is energizing, watching these people just burn through that. I love it.”

By all accounts, including his own, Burton has grown in his ability to direct actors. “You think because he is so visual, that he won’t be good with people,” says Pfeiffer. “But I was surprised at how much attention he paid to the truth of the character.”

“He’s the most articulate inarticulate guy I know,” says Keaton who first worked with Burton on “Beetlejuice.” “He still directs very visually but now he is equally concerned with relationships between actors.”

“I have gotten better,” says Burton. “People still have to finish my sentences sometimes, but I don’t work with anybody who says ‘What? What, what are you saying?’ ”

That thought seems to spark a larger criticism in the director. “Movies are very hard to make and all you want are people to help you,” he says, very articulate now. “And you don’t care if it comes from the studio head or the guy cleaning the toilet. Maybe they are one and the same. But a lot of people don’t help you and a lot of times those are the people giving you money. That’s where the struggle is, this generic us versus them--the filmmakers versus the studios--which is unfortunate because it doesn’t need to be that way, but it’s getting harder and harder.”

Burton catches himself, smiles apologetically and begins to rake his hair over his forehead, a self-conscious tic. “But I hate it when people talk about how hard it is to make a movie. It’s a great job, a dream come true, in a way.”

Burton’s upbringing in Burbank--the oldest son of a former professional baseball player who worked for the Parks and Recreation Department; his mother ran a gift shop specializing in items bearing cat motifs--has been well-documented. He was something of an anomaly, a boy who worshiped Vincent Price as his idol, played in a cemetery down the street and spent a lot of time sketching. In a high school drawing contest, Burton’s design was selected to adorn local garbage trucks. He won a scholarship to CalArts where Disney recruited him in the early 1980s for an odd apprenticeship.

He began as an assistant animator on the “The Fox and the Hound,” and later on the “The Black Cauldron” but he and Disney, in a pre-Michael Eisner era, did not see eye to eye. The studio never used any of his drawings, which Disney executives regarded as too dark, too depressing. They did, however, agree to produce Burton’s experimental film, “Vincent,” a stop-motion animated short about a morbid child who envisions himself as Vincent Price. It was never released. A similar fate awaited Burton’s next Disney project, the 28-minute “Frankenweenie,” a skewed reworking of the 1931 classic film “Frankenstein,” starring Boris Karloff.

That film, however, caught the eye of Mark Canton, then a young production head at Warners who was looking for a director for “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” the first feature-length film using the squeaky-voiced, bow-tied comic persona created by actor Paul Reubens. The critics were less than kind, but the film, shot for $7 million, took in $40 million, enough for Burton to be handed another Warners’ feature, “Beetlejuice,” which became a major hit, earning $70 million.

“ ‘Pee-wee’ was a little movie, a little odd, but you saw this was a guy with talent,” says Warners’ Semel. “But after ‘Beetlejuice,’ the world realized Tim clearly had his own vision, a major talent.” The success of “Batman” and then “Edward Scissorhands,” which Burton co-wrote and shot at Fox, only confirmed his standing as a quirky director who could nonetheless deliver a commercially successful film.

“Even if you take ‘Batman’ out of the mix,” says Disney’s Hoberman, “he’s got an extraordinary vision.”

“Don’t confuse the fact that Tim is a bit eccentric with an inability to function,” says Semel. “The fact is he is a gifted guy who is in great demand.”

“He’s unique and he hasn’t missed yet,” says Joe Roth, chairman of 20th Century Fox Films. “Each movie that Tim makes has its own language but he connects to a lot of people.”

Burton praises Roth and Fox’s quick decision to make “Edward Scissorhands” without a lot of obstacles or interference. “That was the cleanest movie in terms of production,” says Burton. Fox “allows you to become collaborators with the (studio) and I don’t feel like that a lot.” He remains less sanguine about the Hollywood system in general, which he describes as “torture. Making a movie,” Burton says, “involves 100% resistance to what you want to do.”

Like many a film director, Burton disparages studios’ attempts to pigeonhole his talents. “I remember after ‘Pee-wee,’ every script I got had the word adventure in it. And after ‘Beetlejuice,’ I got all these afterlife stories and after ‘Batman’ I got superhero stories. It’s so uninteresting.”

Yet Burton, who is in that rare position of being able to find an audience for almost all his projects--films, animated features, books or even a possible theme park--remains unhappy with the lack of autonomy accorded a director even with a track record such as he has.

“Anybody who has made an expensive movie will tell you it’s not all it’s cracked up to be,” Burton says. “It’s all weaving your way through the politics to get what you want. It’s just there, it’s in your face. And I’m not a confrontational guy. I don’t like to turn hostile toward people, but there were times I got so angry on this movie that I couldn’t think straight. And I don’t want to get to that point again.”

Semel maintains that “we all get along very well, and I have every reason to believe we will make movies with Tim Burton in the future.”

However, when asked if “Batman Returns” can be considered a more personal directorial venture for Burton, Semel asks pointedly “Did (Tim) say that? I think he has made a better movie.”

Di Novi, who has officially parted with Burton’s company for an independent production deal at Columbia, suggests that Burton and Warners have to come to a parting of the ways because, “it was like he was born there and you eventually have to move away from where you were born.”

Burton insists his complaints are not limited to any one studio. “The turnover is so great, you just never know who is going to be there,” he says. “It’s why I don’t get too excited about anybody schmoozing me. People will want to make movies with me if this (“Batman Returns”) works out.

“I find all that (deal-making) very overwhelming,” he adds, pulling his feet on the sofa, hugging his knees to his chest. “My mind gets very scattered and excited about many things and I have my own weird process about what interests me and it’s private and it doesn’t have to do with money.”

Indeed, his move to CAA, Burton says “is a creative decision, not a business one. I resisted it because I liked my agent very much,” he says. “But I had started to get very unhappy and to question whether I could survive (in Hollywood). And then things were said to me (by CAA) that made me realize (one’s career) doesn’t have to happen in normal ways.”

One studio chief called Burton’s move into Ovitz’s camp “irrelevant,” and another characterized it as “a personal choice about which you can make no interpretation.” Di Novi says that “because Tim wants to expand his horizons beyond just movies, CAA is very well adapted for putting those kinds of things together. He wants to do more books and paintings and design toys.”

As for those rumors--"Theme park?” he asks. “Not true"--Burton will only talk about the upcoming Disney feature, “Nightmare Before Christmas.” “I designed it 10 years ago,” he says. “But nobody wanted it. That it is getting made is the one nice thing from all of this.” Otherwise, he says, “I may just go paint faces on rocks in Arizona for a while.”

Burton talks for a minute of possibly leaving Los Angeles, of extending his planned summer vacation in Europe to something more permanent. His four-year marriage to Lena Gieseke, a German artist whom Burton met in London during the filming of “Batman,” the director says, “is going through some difficulties now.”

Friends differ on their opinions of Burton’s current state.

“That take on Tim as ‘weird’?” says Keaton. “I’ve never found him weird. He’s in touch with his creativity, but he knows what the deal is.”

“Tim seems a bit cloistered now,” says Waters. “I mean you don’t see him on the badminton court. The legend of him as this mad scientist is completely untrue, but the more time I’ve spent with him, the more I’ve grown to think maybe it’s half-true.”

Burton himself insists “I don’t want to turn into this isolated interiorized person focused on the work. I go other places and walk around and there is weather and these things seem pretty important and I think that I can do this (filmmaking) away from here, but then there is this dynamic where they want to keep you here, they really do.”

Shaking his hair from his eyes, Burton unfolds himself from his sofa and leads the way to a bulletin board at the far end of his office where the storyboard cards of “Nightmare Before Christmas,” are neatly tacked--a sequence of Christmas trees, jack-o'-lanterns and a skeleton wearing a red stocking cap and a decidedly wistful expression.

“I got out of animation because it drove me crazy to do it,” he says nodding at the drawings. “I can get in a kind of bad mood but I prefer working with actors who want to take something weird and make it come to life. I just want to make movies,” he adds a little sadly. “I didn’t change, but people around you change.”


Advertisement