Shooting the breeze with Tim Burton and Co; The Frankenweenie interviews

Tim Burton is an incredible moviemaker, with an extraordinary imagination. His ability to tell a story and then bring it to life with such uniquity has cemented him as one of the best in the business. With his latest creation; Disney’s Frankenweenie, opening this year’s London Film Festival, Mr Burton was in town, and I was lucky enough to catch up with him along with Producer; Allison Abbate, Executive Producer Don Hahn and cast members; Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara and the legendary Martin Landau, to ask a few questions about the film.

Nick: Frankenweenie was made in London, and you are an adopted Londoner. How does it feel to be opening the London Film Festival?

Tim: It’s amazing, it’s special, and it’s strange, because when we first started the film, there was no Olympic Stadium, and when we were all finished, it was all done, so it shows you how long a film like this takes to make.

Nick: This is a film that you have come back to in a way, as you started it as a live action short film in 1984. What made you want to re-visit Frankenweenie almost 30 years later?

Tim: Well, I was looking at some of the original drawings and at some point Don Hahn had mentioned it as an idea. It was such a memory piece, you know, the drawing and the stop motion, black and white and 3D and I kept thinking about other kids that I remembered from school and weird teachers, parents. It just became a real memory piece. The purity of stop motion, and for me the idea of seeing black and white in 3D stop motion was an exciting prospect and obviously, being able to work with all these people that I have worked with in the past that I love, just made it all the more special.

Nick: As Tim just mentioned he has worked with everyone here, I would like to ask every one of their memories of their first impression of Tim Burton.

Allison Abbate: I guess I just thought he was so energetic, so fascinating when I meet him on Nightmare Before Christmas, and so young.

Martin Short: On Mars Attacks I was so thrilled to meet Tim, I was such a fan of his, but what I was really excited about after the experience of Mars Attacks was how unbelievably collaborative Tim is. I mean, he’s done the job, he’s hired the actor, he’s hired you and so, the buck stops there, but he really wanted to know what you thought, and then you kind of felt free to put anything out in the atmosphere and he would hone and refine it. It was really an ideal working situation for an actor.

Catherine O’Hara: I was called to meet Tim for Beetlejuice, I flew to LA, and I was told to meet him at Warner Brothers Boulevard and that’s where Warner Brothers Studio is, but I looked it up in the LA map book and found a Warner’s Boulevard in Anaheim and I drove and drove and drove, and I thought to myself, “Whoever this guys is, he is so far outside of show business that I’m not sure that I want to work with him.” Finally I had to phone somebody, I had stopped at a phone booth as I didn’t have a cell phone and found out I was in the wrong place. Finally got back about two hours late and found a note under the door saying. “I’m really sorry I missed you.”

Don Hahn: I worked with Tim years ago at Disney. Disney really didn’t know what to do with Tim, but to their credit, did give him a little money to do a short film called Frankenweenie and Vincent. It was amazing, because they never knew what to do with those shorts, never quite knew how to release them, didn’t want to put the Disney name on them. To come around full circle now, all these years later and be able to revisit that and have the studio support and celebrate what Tim is trying to do is really odd in a way, but terrific. It’s just interesting how things come full circle.

Martin Landau: I remember seeing Beetlejuice and I was very taken with the film. I saw it with my daughter at the theatre and I said, “My god, who directed this? I like to work with whoever it is.” I mean, I had no idea who Tim Burton was at that time and I said, “I’d love to work with this guy, he’s got an imagination that is mind boggling,” and, here we are. It was a joyous experience working on Ed Wood, with Johnny [Depp] and Tim. I mean, I found that half the time he wouldn’t finish a sentence . He’d say “Lets rehearse” I’d say “Okay.” We’d rehearse. He’d come up and say, “You know what?” And I’d say, “Yeah” (laughs). It was an amazing experience, because he created a playground for the actors, and he still does that, and good directors do that. It’s a fun place to work with Tim Burton. Anytime he’d ask me to do something, I’d drop everything, including my pants!

Nick: Picking up on Don’s point about Disney not knowing what to do with you when you were younger, legend has it that you were fired when you delivered the print for Frankenweenie. I was wondering if you could comment and reflect on that? And are you surprised that your outlook on the world is now part of their cinematic mainstream?

Tim: Well, that’s sort of right, you know it wasn’t like The Apprentice, “You’re fired,” you walk in and Alan Sugar at Disney is pointing his finger. It was a bit more Disney friendly, like, here, let Goofy and Minnie show you to the nice beautiful exit with little cherubs on, and go out the magic forest door.

(Martin Short jumps in with his best Mickey Mouse impression saying “You’re Fired”, which brings a chorus of laughter)

It was a strange period in the company’s history. It’s obviously changed over the years; it’s a whole different place. It was a low point for animation, not just for Disney, but for everything. Nothing was really going on, but at the same time, I got the opportunity to do the film, so even though they weren’t released the opportunity to do them was really great. So I have always been grateful to them for giving me the chance to do it.

Nick: Tim, turning the first impressions round, what has it been like to meet heroes that you have grown up watching such as Mr Landau or even Vincent Price?

Tim: It’s so inspirational, when I talk to Martin about working with Alfred Hitchcock, and being on Space 1999, you know, I told him how I had a Space 1999 lunch box which I proudly displayed.

You learn so much from people like him, it’s such a joy. Meeting these people just keeps your energy; it’s why you like to keep making movies. In terms of Catherine and Martin I have been a fan of theirs forever, that’s why I said, ‘Guys do as many characters.’ It wasn’t because we didn’t want to pay other actors, it was because they are so great it just made it part of the creative process.

Coming in, it was like a weird kind of demon possession thing doing three because they were doing different characters in one session.

Working with the people that I have worked with in the past, made it very special for me on this project.

Nick: Picking up on that, Martin and Catherine, I understand you acted opposite each other for the parents, which is unusual for animated films, how did you find that, and what was that experience like, coming up with three different characters?

Martin Short: I felt, Catherine and I doing the parents together was very smart. Because we have a long history together and I think Tim had a very specific idea of what he wanted from those characters, very intimate and very real. So by doing it together it was easy to achieve that. The other two characters I did in the film, Nassor and Burgermeister, were experiments that Tim and I would go on, you’d start with British, you could do French, but then you’d land in a kind of Lionel Barrymore meets President Ronald Reagan and then at one point I said to Tim “What if he smoked 10 packs a day and then just quit two months ago?” you know, that kind of pre Emphysema sound.

Tim: I think we even talked about a constipated Raymond Burr.

Martin Short: We did, because that’s what I always thought about the Canadian health system and people say, it’s worse in the United States, and say yeah, well look at Raymond Burr.

Catherine: I think it was very smart on Tim’s behalf to bring us both in for the Frankenstein’s, I mean, it cut down on the amount of times that he’d have to say “Erm, why don’t you say it like a human being.” I was so happy when I saw those scenes; they were so beautiful and private. It’s so discrete how Tim shoots this family and those figures act so beautifully, I’m just so proud to be their voices.

Nick: How important was it for you, that Frankenweenie was filmed in black and white?

Tim: The black and white was a crucial element. It’s hard to put it into words, but for me it made it more emotional and the idea of seeing it in black and white, along with the 3D element, to me that helped support what the people who worked on the film did. When you look at these puppets and you see the reality of them, the tactile nature of them and every little prop and how they are hand made and all. The black and white and the 3D process really shows the work that the artists put in to it.

Nick: With the success of Pixar movies, did you find any problems with Frankenweenie in terms of the tone and the style?

Tim: I hope that all forms of animation will survive. I remember a few years ago after Pixar took off and computer animation took off, they said that they weren’t going to make anymore hand drawn movies. Thankfully they changed that, and I hope it’s the same for stop motion, I think it’s a beautiful art form and I just hope that all forms of animation can flourish.

Nick: How much would you say Frankenweenie is a tribute to the horror genre and how does that transcend to children who may not have experienced the likes of Frankenstein and Dracula?

Tim: Well that’s an interesting point, because obviously there are a lot of references all based on, for me, a love of those kind of movies, but we thought very hard throughout the film, that, we didn’t want to make it reference dependant. We tried to shoot it and make it feel like one of those movies. So, you could feel what those movies were like, even if you didn’t understand the references, because we wanted to make sure that you could enjoy the movie without having to know exactly every reference. There was always something in the back of my mind to make it more of a feeling of those films, so that people who didn’t know the references could still enjoy the film.

NICK: Martin, your character Mr Rzykruski, looks like Vincent Price, but doesn’t sound like Vincent Price. Was that a deliberate decision, on your part?


Martin Landau: Tim sent me a picture of Mr Rzy… (purposely struggles with the name, laughs). It’s like an eye chart, this name (more laughter), no, Rzykruski is the name. The wonderful thing about it is behaviour, when I’m acting it’s a part of everything and in this instance I had a picture of this character, but I relinquished the behaviour to the animators. Of course, when I saw the film, I was dumbfounded, because if I’d have been on camera I’d have played it the exact same way. I knew that the character looked a little bit like Vincent, and a little bit like I did earlier in life, but I saw him as a completely singular person, a wonderful teacher, not a very diplomatic person. When I read it, I felt that he probably lasted only two months at any school he taught in, you know, having a conversation with the students parents and you call them stupid or simple, is not very… erm… anyway. I don’t think Vincent would have played it the way I did, I think it would have been a different thing, but I think there’s physicality, there’s no question. I always felt too that Tim was attracted to Ed Wood in a sense, because of Ed Wood’s connection to Bela [Lugosi] and his appreciation of Vincent Price’s work, which I loved as a kid as well. Well I say kid, I mean young actor, I would always go out of my way to see a Vincent Price movie.

Nick: Martin, I was wondering if I could ask you about Alfred Hitchcock, because he is getting quite a bad rap of late. What was he like?

Martin Landau: (Said in his best Hitchcock voice) Well I got along with him very nicely, thank you. He certainly did not make advances to me. I have read some of the things that some of the actresses have said and I didn’t see any of that behaviour. He was a practical joker and I got along very well with him.

Nick: Don, this iteration of Franknweenie began with you in a strange way, didn’t it, because you went to Tim with the idea?

Don: Yeah I did, it wasn’t a big leap, all I did was go to Tim’s office and say, “Look, you made this great story years ago, there’s got to be more,” and there was more, I think he understood the Frankenstein mythology and to be able to go back into some of the ideas that were turning around in his head for probably years, and all I had to do was mention the name and he took off running. We had great collaborators, and that’s the other thing I love about working with Tim. He surrounds himself with people that he trusts and lets them do their work. John August came in and wrote a great screenplay for us and it kind of took off from there.

Nick: I loved the score in Frankenweenie, I just wondered how important you felt it was to work with Danny Elfman again?

Tim: I worked with him from the beginning of my career basically. First feature film we both didn’t know what we were doing, so I feel quite close to him. I feel that he is another character in the movie that helps to solidify the emotions of whatever’s going on, because there is usually a mixture of things going on, and I’ve always felt he was very good at guiding as another character, in setting the tone of what the film is.

Nick: Death seems to play a prominent role in a lot of your stop motion films. What’s your fascination with bringing dead characters back to life?

Tim: When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a mad scientist. It’s not so much about bringing dead things back to life; I find that quite creepy actually. It’s more about creation, and doing things, and making things. That’s why I think I always loved the Frankenstein story, because it’s partially about creation and making things. That’s what filmmaking is and that’s what stop motion is, for me that’s the fun of it, that’s why we like doing it. It’s not so much about the business, box office or reviews, it’s about actually making something. That’s why this was so special, with a smallish group of people and real artists; it’s a more pure version of why we like making movies.

Frankenweenie is out now on general release.

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