Tim Burton Discusses The Deeply Personal Nature of ‘Frankenweenie’

By  · Published on September 25th, 2012

No matter how much it may seem to be true in the age of The Internet, a director is not the sum of his or her most recent work. Often we find ourselves caught up in the fast-paced “what have you done for me lately” societal convention and we forget about what someone may have given us in a different time. Such is the plight of Tim Burton. Taken as a whole, his filmography may ultimately stand among the elite of his generation. Edward Scissorhands, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Batman, Ed Wood and Beetlejuice amongst his more iconic works. His gothic style and ability to connect us to the loner at the heart of many of his tales have become a hallmark of his long, successful career. But it’s a career tainted with a few more recent miscues. Ask a number of internet movie lovers what they think of Tim Burton’s movies, and long-term amnesia sets in. All we seem to remember are the recent failures, not the successes of our childhood.

These were the thoughts running through my head moments prior to sitting down with the director for the first time in my career. There, just outside a large wooden hotel conference room door, I was uncharacteristically nervous. Sure, he’s just another director, a public figure ‐ one who has more to lose if he says the wrong thing than I do if I mess up a question ‐ but he’s also a filmmaker and artist whose work could be seen as landmarks through my cinematic youth. It was no small thing.

We met at the impasse, fortunately for both of us. For me, it was meeting and sharing thoughts with a filmmaker I’ve long admired. For Mr. Burton, it was sharing the excitement he felt for his latest film, Frankenweenie. From the onset, he was open about the personal nature of the film, completely engaged in sharing the journey. It was clear that he had brought with him to Austin a film for which he has great affection, a fact that is clear in the finished product.

I was curious, I mean because obviously you’ve had films that have played Cannes, but this is kind of a different experience, I guess.

I haven’t really had films that played at…I think maybe Ed Wood played at Cannes, I think. But not many. I’ve been to Cannes several times but never… Yeah, I’ve seen what it’s like there. I think I’d be quite wary.

Are there any nerves, having Frankenweenie open with this particular audience…

Yeah. Look, I mean any time… I’m like psychotic. You finish a film and you feel very exposed and you feel very… It’s really hard for me to watch a film once I’ve done it. When we have those marketing screenings, I can’t go to them. For health reasons, I just don’t go.

I mean I love the film and I’m very happy about it, and it’s very special to me, but that’s probably what makes it even scarier.

I was just having a conversation with Martin Landau and he said, “This is Tim.” This Victor character. It seems like a really personal thing.

Well, yeah. I mean the original short was based on a relationship, that first special relationship you have is usually with a pet. An unconditional sort of thing. And loving monster movies and Frankenstein, it just seemed like those two stories connected for me.

In the case of this, going back and going back to the original drawings, and stop motion, and black and white, and then the other memories…I tried to make this a real memory piece in the sense of the environment, like Burbank and the other kids, and just the kind of relationship you had with other kids and teachers.

So I tried to sort of personalize everything in it, because it’s one of those stories where that’s where its roots are.

And it seems like I expected, obviously just with the nature of the story, to kind of call back to some classic monsters. But there was some stuff in there that was surprising, like a little bit of Ghoulies, for instance.

The thing that I tried to do… obviously, there’s lots of references. But references are funny because it’s like… And so, I thought long and hard and I tried to make sure… I mean this is something I was aware of throughout the whole process, was even though there’s references, I tried to make sure that… you know, because there’s my generation, there’s whole generations of people who don’t know any of these movies, from Frankenstein onward.

So it was important to me that you don’t have to know anything to enjoy the film. In fact, for kids that don’t know like the classic Frankenstein, those kinds of films, I just thought, well, you don’t need to know about them, but I tried to give the feeling of them.

So at least they got some sort of thing of a feeling of it without having to know references. It was very important that you don’t need to know them to hopefully enjoy the film.

Talk to me a little bit about the stop motion. I’ve been reading a lot of places where you’ve been very hands-on with that.

Well, I’m a lousy animator. No, I do admire them because you’re in a dark room for a [long time]. Also, there’s always so much, because an animator can be working on a shot for a week or longer. So it’s a very slow, slow process.

But that’s great for me because you are able to then get the shots that… you are able to get what you want. It’s unlike a live-action where there’s a few more elements that can kind of get in the way of stuff. There’s a purity to it.

Do you ever have moments of anxiety when they show you something and you go, “Maybe we should do that again,” and you have to put those animators back into that tedious work?

Oh yeah. No, no, no, no, no. But one things that’s good now with technology. We had to redo some shots. Surprisingly not as many as it could be. But what you can do, and I did a lot of this, where if there was a shot where the timing wasn’t necessarily 100%, just slightly retime it from this pose to that. So I did a lot of that.

But that’s minimal. It’s like a live action film. It’s kind of saying like, OK, you are just going to do one take and that’s it. That never happens. So with this, it’s quite surprising how much… And once you get going and you find the right animators that are good at that particular thing, you start kind of casting a little bit. It’s like, ooh, some people are better at the dog motion stuff. Some people are better at the simple action. You know, you find the rhythm as you go along. And because it takes so long, you also find people that maybe they’ll start out as good animators, but by the end they are really great animators. So there is a time to develop it as you are going along.

Shooting in black and white, and also the combination of 3D, it seems like that would present some unique challenges.

Well, no, I was excited about that because I always thought that the potential was really great. Because there’s something about black and white where by depriving color you see other things. Just in terms for also going for the kind of lighting that we did, it just seemed to really lend itself. I was quite excited about the 3D element of it in terms of with the black and white and stop motion.

That’s the beauty of stop motion. When you see a set and you can touch a character and feel it, it’s such a tactile medium. And the puppets and the way the people making the props and painting them…you know, the 3D element actually brings you into what it’s like to be in that process. So, to me it felt very natural that way.

It seems like it lends itself to what I consider the proper way to use 3D, which is depth.

Absolutely. And the black and white, that’s what we tried to go for, that kind of old style lighting where characters are walking in and out of shadows. It just really… for me, it lent itself 100% to it. That was part of wanting to do it, that element.

Is the technology in part why you decided this is right time to come back to Frankenweenie?

No. I mean a lot of it has to do with getting the right group of people, because a lot of people… From Nightmare to Corpse Bride, we kinda started over almost each time. Because you’ve done a movie and then people go off and do other things, so we have to kind of almost start from scratch and find new animators. And then they go off and get paid more doing something else. [laughs] And then start it over again.

There are some people that I’ve consistently work on… you know, like [Animation Director] Tre Thomas and people I’ve worked with since Nightmare. So a lot of it’s that, and a lot of it’s having the time to just, over the years, kind of think about some of these other characters and the kids. So it’s a combination of both of those things. Sometimes it’s nice to have the time to just go back and have those memories and think about other characters without the pressure of like, “OK, the project is going.” So it felt right at the time.

It seems like, having recently watched the short, some of the most characters are a little new, like Martin’s character…

Yeah. I mean I tried to base everything on either teachers or other kids that I knew in school, you know, an amalgam of all of those, and the kind of dynamics of kids in the classroom with the teachers and how kids act with each other and the kind of rivalries.

So, that for me, and also really going more of the pure architecture of Burbank and the kind of memory I had of that. So I tried to really put anything that was a real memory or a real person or people and put it in it.

Frankenweenie is in theaters October 5. Read our review from Fantastic Fest.

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)