Fantastic Fest: Sharing Stories and Spirit with Martin Landau and ‘Frankenweenie’

By  · Published on September 24th, 2012

Photo Credit: Jack Plunkett/Fantastic Fest

Actor Martin Landau has been in the business of making movies and delighting audiences for over 50 years. There isn’t much, at this point, that he’s not seen. From working with directors named Hitchcock and Coppola to winning an Oscar in the role of Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, he’s had more than a few moments worth remembering. It’s the kind of talent that demands reverence. The kind of man you’d like to sit with and listen to for hours on end. No questions. No soundbytes. Just stories.

The premiere of Frankenweenie at Fantastic Fest 2012 brought just that kind of opportunity. Before I was even able to sit down at the table for our interview, there was an energy about him. There, in an otherwise large and empty conference room at the Austin Four Seasons hotel, sat a man ready to tell me a story. Before I made contact with the seat, he was already off like a shot. While he may not be as physically nimble as he was earlier in his career, never has a mind been sharper. And in me, he found a captive audience ready to listen and share.

At this kind of stage in your career, how big of a role does who is directing play in your choice of a role?

Well, a lot. Always. A good director creates a playground for actors. He casts people and he lets them fly. I truthfully have not been directed in 30 years, because the people who seem to want me want me because they don’t quite know what I’m going to do and I don’t quite know what I’m going to do until I get there. I’ve never had two people who were alike in life. So I try to create an individual with particular predilections and…

Woody Allen does not direct anybody. If he doesn’t like what you do he fires you. I mean literally. The Purple Rose of Cairo started off with Michael Keeton. After weeks he then got Eric Roberts. Another week went by then it was somebody else. And then finally it was Jeff Daniels, but it was like two months later and he couldn’t use any of that stuff.

But, you know, if you cast the right people… All an audience wants to believe is what’s going on is happening for the first time ever. And that’s what good acting is about, just feeling that two people are…

And in this instance it said [my character in Frankenweenie] was European but not specifically, and purposefully not specifically. Whereas in Ed Wood I was Hungarian. I even said to Tim, “if after five minutes they say Landau isn’t doing a good job, we don’t have a movie. They’ve got to forget it’s me and believe it’s Lugosi.” This is sort of a generic European. But he’s a bit eccentric. I mean he loves science. He is the catalyst. He picks a kid off to do this. And he also is not diplomatic in any way, shape, or form. You certainly don’t keep your job as a teacher if you call the parents stupid. Kissinger he isn’t.

So I mean I liked the character. The interesting this is if I were to play it live action, once I had this idea, and Tim, as I say, creates a playground for you. And I saw the character… I mean obviously, if you are doing a voice and it’s not animated yet, you see it behaviorally. I would have played it virtually exactly as it’s depicted, which is strange, really. I mean the voice generates a particular kind of behavior and the animation came after this stuff was laid down.

That was actually one of my questions: what comes first, development of the voice or the character?

When I did 9, which Tim produced ‐ I don’t do a lot of voice stuff ‐ that was voice too. So this character, in an odd way, looks almost like a caricature, extensive caricature, of me, younger, also a little like Vincent Price, too. And behaviorally, it’s pretty much what I would have done physically, which is like, wow.

So the voice that I laid down propelled the animators to do pretty much what I envisioned when I read the script. I saw a picture, which Tim sent me a little book with the characters, of [in character voice], “Where is Rzykruski? He’s a strange man who was here…” I lowered my voice and I put this accent…

It’s a little Russian, it’s a little…

It’s a little of this, it’s a little of that, but it’s sort of generic action purposefully, because it said it’s European but not specifically from any country. I mean the script actually said that. So it’s a little… it’s not quite Russian. [in Russian accent] Russian is different. You’ve got all of this, that… Those sounds are not quite the same. It’s not Hungarian, it’s not Russian, it’s European.

But I liked the character right away and I saw the arc in it. The fact that he gets fired is… I mean he’s a zealot. Yet, he’s very sympathetic. He spots Victor as a special kid. And he’s a little nuts.

But he makes a good point about the good and evil of science.

Well, he actually is a catalyst. And showing the frog, it clicks… He doesn’t know Victor is going to pull lightning. But, you know, it’s Tim. Edward Scissorhands was Tim. He was an odd kid in a neighborhood with a nice row of houses in Burbank, California. This kid, Victor, is Tim. And the fact that he had this movie in mind 30 years ago is kind of wonderful, that he never lost… he did do that half hour live action, but that wasn’t the movie he wanted to make.

The great thing is if he had done it then, it wouldn’t be in 3D. So that’s an added thing. And yet, it’s not stuck on in a sort of way; it’s just there.

I think the picture is funny, moving, and scary ‐ all the things that Tim is. I think it just reflects…Have you seen it?

Yeah, it was very enjoyable.

It’s wonderful. I mean someone said to me, “It’s the best film I saw all summer,” and it’s someone who goes to the movies all the time. That’s quite a statement.

Do you find yourself kind of amazed with the way the technology has grown? I mean probably one of my all time favorite movies is still North by Northwest, which you happen to be in. Our ability to create magic…

I think that’s what movies are about. And we’re getting away from it a little more, and more, and more, and more, sadly. Character driven films are films that really stimulate the imagination. Whereas, fireballs and characters climbing up and down buildings and car chases, yeah they evoke a certain kind of thing, but enough already.
There’s room for comic strips. There’s room for a sports section. There’s less and less character driven films made today. A lot of them fall through the cracks. Around Oscar time you see certain [types of films], but there are other pictures that I know about that no one ever sees, and it’s sad.

So yes, it’s about making magic. I still believe that. And taking people on a trip to places, both emotionally, physically, and spiritually, where they haven’t been before. All an audience wants to believe is what’s going on between two people is happening for the first time ever. And that’s what good theatre is about, that’s what good acting is about, that’s what good films are about. I don’t want to see the rehearsals. I don’t want to see the slickness. I want to see two people, or more people, communicating or not communicating as if it never happened before. That’s what I care about. That’s what it should be. It’s getting to be less and less of that, sadly.

But the fact that you asked that question means that you think that way too. We’re kindred spirits.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)