Tim Burton reflects on ‘Frankenweenie’ box office, plots his next step

Feb. 15, 2013 | 11:10 a.m.
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Tim Burton at the "Frankenweenie" exhibit at Disney's California Adventure in Anaheim. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

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A scene from Tim Burton's original 1984 "Frankenweenie" short film, starring Barret Oliver and Shelley Duvall. (El Capitan Theater)

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Victor, voiced by Charlie Tahan, and his pet Sparky in a scene from "Frankenweenie." (Disney)

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Variations of Sparky in the sculpting department for the movie "Frankenweenie." (Disney Enterprises)

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"Frankenweenie" director Tim Burton and producer Allison Abbate review character maquettes in the Puppet Hospital. (Leah Gallo / Disney Enterprises)

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"Frankenweenie" animation director Trey Thomas, left, holds up the Mom puppet for director Tim Burton. (Leah Gallo / Disney Enterprises)

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"Frankenweenie" puppet modeler Sam Holland works on a Victor model. (Leah Gallo / Disney Enterprises)

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Nadine Petterson, a crew member for "Frankenweenie," touches up an Edgar puppet in the Puppet Hospital. (Leah Gallo / Disney Enterprises)

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"Frankenweenie" hair modeler Alex Williams, left, and supervising puppet modeler Andy Gent work in the Puppet Hospital. (Leah Gallo / Disney Enterprises)

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"Frankenweenie" producer Allison Abbate reviews characters in the sculpting department with Ian Mackinnon. (Disney Enterprises)

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"Frankenweenie" lead puppet modeler Angela Pang reviews Sparky's eyelids in the Puppet Hospital. (Leah Gallo / Disney Enterprises)

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"Frankenweenie" lead puppet modeler Valma Hiblen works on a puppet in the Puppet Hospital. (Leah Gallo / Disney Enterprises)

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Puppet modeller Angela Kiely works on a Sparky puppet for "Frankenweenie." (Leah Gallo / Disney Enterprises)

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"Frankenweenie" director Tim Burton reviews a puppet mold in the Puppet Hospital. (Leah Gallo / Disney Enterprises)

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Tim Burton at the "Frankenweenie" exhibit at Disney's California Adventure in Anaheim. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

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Tim Burton signs autographs before the world premiere screening of "Frankenweenie" on Sept. 20 during Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. (Jack Plunkett / Associated Press)

It was only Wednesday, but sitting at a small table in the restaurant at the Chateau Marmont, Tim Burton looked a little defeated by the week, and not simply because of the sling supporting his arm. A fall in London in December fractured his shoulder — a nasty injury that he said will likely limit his range of motion for about a year — but it was a recent bout of Hollywood glad-handing that had the filmmaker most excited to return to his home in England.

Two days earlier, Burton had attended the Oscar nominees luncheon – his most recent film, “Frankenweenie,” is up for the Academy Award in the animated feature category. That evening, he’d appeared at the American Cinematheque for a screening of the movie, a black-and-white love letter to Universal horror films and his Burbank youth, along with an earlier stop-motion project, 2005’s “Corpse Bride.”

Those kinds of public appearances aren’t easy for the filmmaker: “I’m not a very social person, I’m quite sort of reserved,” he said, awkwardly attempting to stir his green tea.

It was an effort to help bring more attention to “Frankenweenie” that had the director venturing into the spotlight. The movie, which opened last October, was hailed as Burton’s best work in years, but it grossed only about $35 million in its theatrical run. Some attributed its lackluster performance to the fact that Burton chose to make the movie in black-and-white, though he dismisses that theory as too simplistic.

“I’ve heard that. I can’t really pin it on that. I hope not. I wouldn’t have done it any other way. If they had said, ‘We’ll let you make this, but it has to be in color,’ I just would have done something else. What is so strange, when I talk to kids, they forget it’s in black-and-white. None of them mention it, and a lot of them actually like it. That’s the thing about kids, they’re quite emotionally sophisticated. I was that way. I always felt like I was 80 years old. They’re more intuitive than they’re given credit for.”

Based on his own live-action short from 1984, “Frankenweenie” tells the story of young Victor Frankenstein, a bright, solitary boy who loses his beloved pet Sparky when the dog is hit by a car. Inspired by his teacher Mr. Rzykruski (voiced by Martin Landau), Victor hits upon a scientific way to resurrect his pal and sets in motion of a series of surprising events in the sleepy hamlet of New Holland.

The movie has all the classic hallmarks of Burton’s work — a lovable outsider; a kooky cast of supporting characters; sly, sweet humor and a touch of subversive satire pointing up the fundamental oddities of modern life. It’s the third stop-motion feature from the director, but he associates it most strongly not with predecessors such as “Corpse Bride” or “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” but with his 1994 biopic “Ed Wood.”

Like “Frankenweenie,” that film was shot in black-and-white and featured a memorable turn from Landau as legendary actor Bela Lugosi. It was also a project that grew out of Burton’s childhood fascinations, winning over critics and nabbing Landau an Oscar, even as it largely failed to connect with a broad base of mainstream moviegoers. It seems that “Frankenweenie” might now be poised for a similar fate.

“I do feel like people were scared of that concept of death,” he said. “There is a moment of sadness — it is a quiet moment and it probably makes some parents uncomfortable. I’ve never met a kid who’s seen it who’s had a problem with that at all. It’s what the story is. It either happens to a grandparent or a parent or a dog — at some point as a child you deal with it. It’s a part of life. This is the most sort of life-affirming, fun, positive version of that.”

As a boy, Burton knew the work of Ray Harryhausen, Ishiro Hondo and Ed Wood before Orson Welles. Harryhausen, of course, was the special-effects wizard whose stop-motion artistry brought to life all manner of otherworldly creations and ignited the imaginations of a generation of future filmmakers.

“I remember seeing ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ on the big screen,” Burton said. “It was at the [Avalon] Theatre on Catalina Island. It’s one of those old theaters with beautiful murals inside. It’s designed like a weird seashell kind of thing. Seeing that movie there, I remember that. That one definitely had impact on me.”

So too did the Rankin and Bass stop-motion holiday specials from the ’60s and ’70s. “I have such a fond burning feeling for those things. It’s part of your energy; I remember every year getting excited to watch them,” Burton said. “The Christmas specials, they’re so tactile, they burn in your memory, those movies. It’s a weird thing to say but there’s a reality to the medium. There’s something tangible and handmade.”

Landing an animation job at Disney after graduating from CalArts, Burton made his most famous early stop-motion effort, the 1982 short “Vincent,” an adorably macabre little tale about a young boy who’s obsessed with Vincent Price movies. But his most widely beloved stop-motion brainchild — if the inescapable presence of Jack Skellington lunchboxes and hoodies are any indication — remains “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”

Fellow CalArts alumnus Henry Selick directed “Nightmare,” but the story of the misunderstood Skeleton King who longs for something novel to shake up his routine is entirely Burton’s. He was insistent that the movie be made using stop-motion; his goal was to evoke the same feelings in others that he’d had watching the Christmas specials. But it wasn’t an easy sell — “I remember these discussions with Disney,” Burton said. “I seem to recall them being disturbed that the lead character didn’t have any eyeballs.”

"The Nightmare Before Christmas." (Disney)

Jack Skellington fills in for Sandy Claws in “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” (Disney)

Fifteen years passed between the release of “Nightmare” and Burton’s subsequent stop-motion movie, “Corpse Bride,” which was based on a Russian folk tale about a Victorian era groom-to-be who inadvertently finds himself wed to a lovely dead woman from a day-glow underworld. By that point, “Nightmare” had grown from a marginal success into a pop-culture touchpoint — its characters achieving the same kind of immortality as red-nosed Rudolph and his friend Hermey, the bicuspid-obsessed elf – but “Corpse Bride” didn’t catch fire in the public imagination in quite the same way, though Burton and co-director Mike Johnson were nominated for an Oscar in the animated feature category for the film.

“Frankenweenie” is in the rather unusual position of being nominated in the category alongside two other stop-motion movies (“ParaNorman,” “The Pirates! Band of Misfits”) and two computer-animated films (“Brave” and “Wreck-It Ralph”). (Asked if he’s prepared an acceptance speech, Burton quite plainly said, “No.”)

Despite all he’s done to advocate for the art form, Burton is still reluctant to take real credit for the resurgence of stop-motion. “Let’s put it this way,” he said. “I see the reality of the fact that there weren’t a lot of stop-motion movies out there. We got to make ‘Nightmare,’ and from that point on there’s been more stop-motion animated movies, which is good.”

It hardly takes a studied glance to see recurring motifs in Burton’s filmography. For the director’s ardent fans, he creates with a consistency of voice and vision; to detractors, his movies have a disappointing sameness. Unlike such filmmaking contemporaries as Ang Lee or Danny Boyle, one could argue that Burton is retelling the same fundamental story over and over: the outsider longing for connection in a strange, lonely world, a tale deeply rooted in his personal experience.

“Once you feel that way in your life, you always do,” Burton said. “You think maybe one film sort of exorcises that, but it doesn’t. It’s sort of an ongoing trauma or character trait. Whether it’s Edward Scissorhands or Ed Wood or Sweeney Todd, you try to make [the audience] feel for those characters. Emotionally investing yourself in those characters, it’s a kind of catharsis. You’re able to release how you felt and how you feel. For me, stop-motion is a more pure way to release those certain kinds of emotions.”

As for the idea that the movies he makes are perhaps too dark for younger viewers, Burton bristled in frustration.

“I’ve been told that my whole life,” he said. “’Batman’ was too dark. Now it looks like the TV show. ‘Beetlejuice’ was too dark. Even ‘Pee-wee’ was too dark. I’ve heard that from day one and it’s so not true. In retrospect, I’m Mr. Lighthearted.”

Tim Burton signs autographs before the world premiere screening of "Frankenweenie" on Sept. 20 during Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. (Jack Plunkett / Associated Press)

Tim Burton signs autographs before the world premiere screening of “Frankenweenie” on Sept. 20, during Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. (Jack Plunkett / Associated Press)

If anything, Burton might have more in common with a director such as Universal Studios showman James Whale, who crafted the ultimate wounded outsider story with Boris Karloff in “Frankenstein,” than some of his Hollywood A-list brethren.

“His mixing of humor and horror and emotion, ‘Frankenweenie’ owes a bit to that,” Burton said of Whale. “I think that influenced me quite a lot. I remember ‘The Invisible Man’ being so weird and visual and sad and emotional and funny and scary.”

Burton directed two movies last year, “Frankenweenie” and the cult-TV adaptation “Dark Shadows,” and produced a third, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” He said that working at such a rapid clip left him ready for a break, and that he hasn’t settled on what film he’ll do next — though some reports have suggested that he’ll try his hand at a different kind of puppet story in “Pinocchio.”

“It’s a project I’m interested in, definitely,” Burton said. “I’m a little put off on a personal level. All the fairy-tale movies are kind of freaking me out. When did that become a thing?”

Maybe after Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” made more than $1 billion at the box office?

“I know,” Burton allowed. “I kind of feel bad about it. I’d like to make a public apology.”

Tim Burton and Richard D. Zanuck

Tim Burton and Richard D. Zanuck confer on the set of “Dark Shadows.” (Warner Bros.)

Turning more serious, Burton said there are a number of factors playing into his decision about what projects to tackle, including the death last year of his longtime producing partner, Richard Zanuck. “I’ve underestimated how much that emotionally affected me,” he said.

He was optimistic that he’ll make a film this year, though he wasn’t quite ready to commit to any one thing. When the time is right, inspiration will strike, he said.

“I’m just taking a deep breath,” he said. “You’ve really got to feel what you want to do. I don’t know what that feeling is. The feeling will come. I’m confident of that.”

– Gina McIntyre

twitter.com/@LATHeroComplex

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Comments


9 Responses to Tim Burton reflects on ‘Frankenweenie’ box office, plots his next step

  1. BURTONIST says:

    I LOVE YOU TIM BURTON!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Jean says:

    A match made in heaven..Tim Burton and Disney. I love it.

  3. jsevan says:

    Me and my daughter both loved Frankenweenie, she loves all his movies, he seems to be able to tap into kids psyche in a way you wouldn't expect, his films always really capture my daughters imagination.

  4. Jenny Leigh says:

    What an excellent article!

  5. tommy says:

    great read, thanks for this article!

  6. Maria Gonzalez says:

    I love Tim and his imagination. I love that my very young child can watch enjoy and love the stories too. I have loved Burton films and am obsessed over his movies. Thank you for your honesty and love put into every film. You are a blessing in this cruel world of money hunger.

  7. Matt says:

    I'd love to see him direct an original story again soon. Between dark Shadows, Alice, and Sweeney Todd it's time we got another Ed Wood, Big Fish, or Beetlejuice.

  8. Krystle says:

    Great read and story telling!

  9. Rob Weiss says:

    Great reporting, wonderful glimpse of Tim Burton and what he feels and sees. His success doing what he loves with his own vision is substantial enoughl that it allows minimal returns on great films to not stop his ability to finance his projects. I have loved everything he's done over the years, only the degree of that love varies from film to film.

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