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Interview: Tim Burton Talks 'Frankenweenie'

There is no mistaking a Tim Burton movie for anything other than a Tim Burton movie. The director of huge hits like Beetlejuice, Sleepy Hollow, and Alice in Wonderland has become a brand unto himself. Even the most casual of movie fans know that a Tim Burton movie means off kilter, macabre-tinged humor and art design. And that certainly is still the case with Frankenweenie, Burton’s second film this year after Dark Shadows.
This black-and-white, stop-motion animated film is actually a remake of the live-action short film that got Burton fired from Disney in the ‘80s for essentially being too scary for kids. Now, over 20 years later, he’s re-teamed with the studio to make the movie he dreamed of, and the result is a heartfelt story about a boy who reanimates his recently deceased dog, only to have it set off a chain of events that threatens life in his entire town.
Frankenweenie doesn’t open wide until October 5, but it just enjoyed its world premiere at Fantastic Fest in Austin, TX, which is where we sat down to chat with the iconic director about what it was like to finally make the movie that almost killed his career.
Q: Of possible films or ideas to revisit all these years later, why Frankenweenie?
Tim Burton: It was a couple different things. One was I was looking at the drawings that first started it, and they were something you couldn't quite capture in live action. The idea of doing that story in stop-motion and black and white was really exciting to me, and it was important that whatever I did felt like a new project. Because it's such a memory piece, there were so many other memories of weird kids in school and teachers, and the architecture in Burbank. It was very dreamy. Other monsters came up over the years and that made me feel like doing it in stop-motion and black and white felt like more of a complete movie, as opposed to just, oh, there once was this short and let's flesh it out. All those elements really made it feel like a new project to me.
Q: Were there any unexpected memories that came up once you did start revisiting everything?
Burton: I don't think anything was unexpected, I just felt really good. I discussed with the DP the kind of look, and as we were doing it, all those initial reasons for doing it, I felt a real...Yeah! That's why we're doing it! It made it emotional, just looking at shots reminded me of my neighborhood. Doing the short was great because it gave me the opportunity to do live action, which I'd never done, so it was fun to do it that way. But going back and doing it in a way that was more pure really made it much more emotional in a certain way.
Q: It's a period piece visually and thematically, but the movie never actually dates itself. Are there specific ways you try to make it timeless, or are these just timeless sentiments?
Burton: You almost treat it like a folktale or a fable. If you really analyze it, there are elements in there that are a bit more modern, and others that are a bit older. I never said let's set it specifically on this date, which you sometimes do. So like I said, for me it was just more about memory. And memories are funny, because they're not necessarily accurate. I tried to treat it on that level; like everything was a dream or a memory. It is going back, so it is a period piece, but I tried to get everyone into that vibe of it not being so specific, because then it becomes a whole other thing. As long as you keep it in its own world, maybe you don't question the date so much.
Q: Had you attempted this version of the movie in, say, the mid '90s, do you think it would have been the exact same movie? Or has something changed that resulted in the way it is now?
Burton: I think it probably would have been the same, but sometimes there's a chemistry that comes into play. For example, for Nightmare I had it ready and wanted to do it, but it still took ten years to get it made. Now, the reasons for that was just because the right elements took that long to come along, and it wa the same thing for this. Sometimes with these kind of projects, it just takes awhile to percolate. It probably would have been similar, but sometimes it just takes a while. You've really got to think about the kids, and think about other things, and it was never the pressure of "Oh, God, we've got to get this done!" It was very dreamy. In another time it probably would have been similar, but probably not the same. I like the times when you're not feeling that pressure, where you can really let it dream in your head a little.
Q: Have you found that's a freedom you've earned at this stage in your career? Because in a way this is a somewhat subversive movie for a Disney animated kids film.
Burton: I don't know. In a way it is, but to me I always thought it was the perfect Disney movie. I mean, it's a boy and his dog! Disney has a million of those stories! I always found it fascinating when even people in the company would say that, because if you go back and look at Snow White or look at other early Disney movies, there's some scary stuff in there. And that's why [Walt] Disney was Disney-- he got that! And as a child, you always remember those parts. You remember those scary bits. So for me, it was a Disney movie whether it was made by Disney or not.
Q: One of the surprising things about the movie is its pro-science message. While most Hollywood movies fear experiments in science, Frankenweenie really embraces it and champions the experimental spirit, even when things start going wrong.
Burton: It's not just Hollywood, it's people. Whether it's art or science, there seems to be a lack of interest in... things. I don't know why, but it's true. And for me, most of the teachers I had weren't inspiring, but I do remember having one or two who were inspiring and it makes all the difference. It makes you want to think, it makes you want to explore, to think about science and think about things outside the box. To me that was an important message.
When it comes to art and science, people don't like a lot of either. Instead of being open to it, they're closed off about it. It just seems like, for whatever reasons, that seems to becoming more of an issue.
Q: Has Frankenweenie rekindled any desire to revisit old films or abandoned original projects that you were never able to fully realize in the past?
Burton: Not really, but I don't know what’s next yet. This one for me was really special, so it's almost hard to think about anything else. Plus, we just finished it, so I'm sort of still in it. But, certainly it was nice to do something I felt really, really strongly about. I feel good about any movie, but this one in particular was that way.
Follow along on Twitter @PeterSHall and @Fandango
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