From Disney comes acclaimed filmmaker Tim Burton’s “Frankenweenie,” a visually stunning, black-and-white, stop-motion animated film in 3D, featuring the talented voice cast of Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau, Charlie Tahan, Atticus Shaffer, Robert Capron, Conchata Ferrell and Winona Ryder.
“Frankenweenie,” which opens in theaters on October 5th, is a heartwarming tale about a boy and his dog. After unexpectedly losing his beloved dog Sparky, young Victor harnesses the power of science to bring his best friend back to life – with just a few minor adjustments. He tries to hide his home-sewn creation, but when Sparky gets out, Victor’s fellow students, teachers and the entire town all learn that getting a new “leash on life” can be monstrous.
At the press day for “Frankenweenie,” Burton talked about directing his first animated feature film for Disney, why he’s a big fan of classic horror movies of the past, what personal childhood memories and influences inspired the story, and why he was excited about making the black-and-white, stop-motion film in 3D.
Question: When did you start thinking about making a feature-length “Frankenweenie”?
Tim Burton: Well, these things always take a long time to get going, but I think it was many years. Honestly, after doing the live-action short, which was great, I got to go on and do other things, and so I didn’t really think about it for a while. The moment people came to me and wanted to do that show, I started looking at older drawings. There was something about the drawings, and loving stop-motion and the idea of doing black-and-white stop-motion, 3-D. Because it was such a memory piece, I started thinking about other things, besides the thing with me and my dog. I started thinking about other kids that I remember in school, and other types of kids, and certain weird teachers and other monsters. All that new stuff made it feel like a whole new project, and that’s when I started really thinking about it.
Q: The main character of “Corpse Bride” was also Victor and here we have Victor again in “Frankenweenie.” Is there any reason why you used the same name in this?
Burton: Because I guess I’m bad with names. (Laughs) I’m just not very good with names. No, I don’t know. Again, I never really think about it. I just try to look at the character and see what a name feels like. So, it’s more based on that than it is about overly thinking it too much.
Q: If it is semi-autobiographical, are Mr. and Mrs. Frankenstein based on your parents in any way?
Burton: Well, I think they’re more optimistic versions of them (Laughs). In some ways, I had a slightly more troubled relationship with my parents, but on some level, yes. My father actually was a professional baseball player, and he got injured, but he still worked in the sports department of Burbank, so that whole dynamic of trying to get me into sports, that’s all fairly accurate…in a cartoon kind of way. (Laughs)
Q: Did we see Sparky in “Corpse Bride”?
Burton: No, that was a skeleton dog. (Laughs) Unfortunately, I have a very limited range, so my drawings end up kind of looking like each other. But no, this one has skin. The other one didn’t.
Q: In making this film, what were the most memorable episodes that you drew upon from when you were growing up?
Burton: Well, I just tried to put everything in this that way. The genesis again is the relationship with the dog. But then, going back, so unlike the short film, with this I tried even with the architecture and the design to go much more with the architecture of the place I grew up in Burbank, and like I said, the other kids, the dynamic of the classroom, the way the classroom looked, the way the other kids were, and the way all the other kids felt kind of strange. I tried to link every character to people that I remember — like a few different weird girls that I remember in school and teachers that were quite scary and intimidating, but also inspirational. Everything in the movie was based on some personal memory of the place or people. So, it is more general that way. It wasn’t so much one incident that captured it. It was the overall feeling of it.
Q: This movie is like an homage to horror movies of the past. Why are you such a big fan?
Burton: I don’t know. I think it’s just because I could always relate to it. With Frankenstein, I think a lot of kids relate to it and you feel a certain way. It was easy to relate to the monster in the sense that he’s kind of alone, and I remember growing up you could feel those feelings. And the way you feel about your neighbors is that they’re like the angry villagers, you know. So, it was easy to make connections that were slightly abstract, but the feelings were there in those films.
Q: What scares you now?
Burton: I was never scared by monster movies really because I felt like they were always the most emotional characters, at least in those old films. I guess maybe it’s slightly different these days, but the monsters were always the most emotional characters. And so, for me, it was just more like real life and I could watch a monster movie, but if I had one of my relatives come over, they’d be terrified.
Q: What about things like spiders or creepy crawlies?
Burton: I’m not a big fan of spiders, rats, especially if they’re like — I got up one morning on a holiday recently, and there was a centipede in the bed that big. I wasn’t very happy about that. (Laughs) So, you know, that kind of stuff I’m not too happy about. (Laughs)
Q: Why did you want to shoot this in black-and-white and 3-D?
Burton: Well, I just find the black-and-white very beautiful, and I was very happy that the studio went along with it, because I said I’d only make it in black-and-white. If it were color, I wouldn’t have done it, because it’s part of the emotion of it, the black-and-white. Also, I was quite excited about seeing black-and-white in 3-D, because there’s a depth in the black-and-white and the clarity in the image, which I love.
Also, the 3-D element in the stop-motion process I find really works, because if you’ve ever been on a stop-motion set, it’s like you could touch the puppets. You’re in a set and the light and the characters are going in and out of shadows for real. So, there’s something quite beautiful, and also just the paint and what the artists put into it is so beautiful. So, black-and-white and the 3-D for me helped enhance all the work that people put into it.
Q: Did you try to negotiate how dark the film could be with Disney, or did they let you do whatever you wanted?
Burton: Well no, I always felt quite confident in my mind that it was a traditional Disney movie. I mean, Disney movies, like “Bambi” and “The Lion King,” have dealt with issues that are not dissimilar in some ways, and I would just find people forget. I mean, even probably people at Disney forget that [it’s been that way] from the beginning, from “Snow White.” Why people remember Disney films is that there’s a certain element of danger in them or darkness, and if all of that stuff was out of every Disney movie, they wouldn’t have any power to them. So, I always felt quite confident in that the themes were positive and it’s got a happy ending. (Laughs) I never felt like it was pushing the boundaries very much from my point of view.
Q: Do you dream in black-and-white or color?
Burton: (Laughs) Do you mean like a dog? Yeah, both. I’ve had black-and-white dreams and color dreams, but I love black-and-white. I always have. I think there’s a real beauty to it. Not for every project, but when you take color out of something, sometimes you start looking at other things, other textures and the characters. I don’t know. It’s just something quite interesting, I think.
Q: When you were doing the 1994 short film, did you already have the whole story in mind that we see today?
Burton: Well, that was the original. I mean, that was the original thing, and I think as I was saying earlier, it’s just that other memories came up. I was never interested in revisiting just to remake something. I didn’t want to feel like it was this idea and then it was just padded out. So, it took a while, but once all the other characters and the kids and the House of Frankenstein mash-up of things came into play, then it felt like it was a complete movie as opposed to adding on or just padding out.
Q: Will the original be on Blu-ray or DVD?
Burton: I don’t know. (Laughs) Let’s not get into that. I know they like talking about DVDs, but I hate talking about DVDs before the movie’s even opened up, but I guess that’s the modern way.
Q: What was your own childhood dog? I know you had a dog called Pappy.
Burton: Yeah, but this dog is a just a non-descript whatever. It wasn’t meant to be like a literal translation of my dog. It was just more of an emotional translation.
Q: But do you like Bull Terriers?
Burton: I like all dogs, but again it’s like dogs are like people or animals are like people. If you like cats, I’m sure you’ve had a favorite cat, and it’s the same with dogs. I’ve had maybe two or three out of the series of pets that you really connect with, and I think that it’s like people. You never quite know which one is going to have that kind of emotional connection.
Q: What dog do you have right now?
Burton: I don’t have a dog, because I travel too much. I mean, I don’t want to just leave it abandoned. (Laughs)
Q: Do you have any other pets?
Burton: No, my kid has a tortoise and three terrapins, but that’s about all we can handle at the moment. (Laughs)
Q: What inspired the Japanese character, Toshiaki, and the inanimate creature he brings to life in the film?
Burton: Well, I’ve said it many times before. When I grew up, one of the genres of movies was Japanese monster movies and science fiction films. So, those obviously [influenced me]. That’s why I put, not so much of a Gamera (giant turtle monster), but just a Japanese monster kind of thing, because that, again, was one of the things that I loved growing up. That kind of stuff is a reference. I tried to make sure that you didn’t have to know the references to enjoy it, because most people won’t know references. I thought about just giving the flavor of those movies and not necessarily people having to know what those references are to hopefully enjoy the film.
The kids in the movie are based on real people — not necessarily one person, but people that I remember, and so, a little bit has to do with references of real kids, and then those kinds of, you know, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, dubbed Japanese movies that I remember seeing, every type of movie and person, but also then like I said relating it to the real people that I remember.
Q: Victor makes a movie in the movie. When you were a kid, did you used to do that?
Burton: Yeah. A lot of kids did, I think. It was like drawing or playing. It was just like doing little science projects and things. It seemed to be a fun thing to do, and once I started doing it at school, I’d have fun making a film and get a decent grade, because it was a bit of a novelty making a little film. It was an easy way to get good grades. (Laughs)
Q: Were these films live-action or stop-motion?
Burton: It was a mixture of stop-motion and single frame — you know, mixed. Sometimes it’d be stop-motion. Sometimes it’d just be live. Sometimes I filmed drawings. It was just a mixture of things.
Q: What about the science projects? Was there a favorite one?
Burton: No, but the idea of science, I mean like the little short filmmaking and doing science fairs and projects, building volcanos, and things like that, that was kind of all in a similar vein, you know. It was the idea of making things, and creating things, and things that you had to think about, because I always treated the science thing and the art thing as quite similar thematically.
Q: Has anybody ever approached you and told you that they identified with any of these memorable characters you’ve created in your films?
Burton: Well, yeah, that’s the best thing that ever happens to me, you know. It’s not so much the reviews or box office. I mean, obviously you try to make money back for the film and all, but when you get people coming up to you, that’s the most [rewarding]. The nicest thing is when it’s not like oh, here’s a script where — it’s like a real connection, and that’s really, really nice. That, to me, means more than anything, because that’s the reason why you do something, and when you have that kind of personal connection, it’s really nice.
Q: What’s been your most bizarre fan encounter? Do you have a strange experience you can talk about?
Burton: No, but sometimes you get people that show you tattoos that are quite strange based on your work. (Laughs) That’s always an interesting one, strange places, strange tattoos.
Q: Have you ever seen your face tattooed anywhere?
Burton: Oh, yeah. (Laughs)
Q: How many times?
Burton: Yeah, that’s (Sighs) — that’s — that — don’t remind me. (Laughs)
Q: Who do you admire the same way that people admire you?
Burton: Oh, I’ve been very lucky that I’ve met a lot of people that I grew up being inspired by and that I got to work with like Vincent Price, or meeting Ray Harryhausen, and Christopher Lee, and Michael Girard. I’ve been quite lucky to meet people that have inspired me. There are lots of people.
Q: If you could bring someone back to life —
Burton: No, no, no. (Laughs)