Collider spoke with Tim Burton for an in-depth discussion on his latest passion project, the stop-motion feature, Frankenweenie. The filmmaker discussed why he's working with some of his old collaborators on this project after many years (and why Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter aren't lending their voices), where the film is now in its production, dogs from his own childhood, why he is directing this animated film solo, and much more:
Question: Going from your original idea, when did you decide to turn your Frankenstein movie into a monster movie?
Tim Burton: Probably way back ‘cause I would always do little added things that went into a folder or file. When we did the short, we thought, “Without much trouble, this could go more into a feature.” It took a few years to do the Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein mix-up, which is something that pretty much came up, probably right after the short. The core was always that, and I wanted to keep the core. That’s the through-line of the story. We just tried to weave in the other stuff, as naturally as possible. One of the things that I was also interested about was going back to a bit more of the classroom and the kids, and the kids’ politics and the rivalry with kids and the experiments of kids. That world seemed like it worked with this House of Frankenstein motif. But, we tried to fold that in naturally, so that didn’t feel like two different stories. The original boy with his dog story is the root of it.
What is your personal relationship to this storyline, and where did this original idea come from?
Burton: I recalled that first relationship with a pet, where it’s that unconditional love. You walk out the door and when you walk back in, it’s like you’ve been gone for three years. And then, because animals usually don’t live that long, it’s also the first pure relationship and then first death that I experienced. That was a very powerful combination of the two. That’s where the story came from. It was the idea of never forgetting the emotional trauma of losing that kind of relationship, but easily relating it to the Frankenstein story, which is another love. It was easy to marry the two things without it seeming like a stretch.
Was there a specific dog that you were referring to?
Burton: Yeah, I had a dog.
How old were you?
Burton: It was around the time of about five to nine. That area. It wasn’t like having a goldfish. If I had been in love with my goldfish, then I might need some help. At least a dog is slightly different and has more going on, you hope.
In the past decade, you’ve worked a lot with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, but they’re not involved with this film. However, you do have Martin Landau, Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara doing voices, and you’ve worked with them before, but not for a while. Was that purposeful?
Burton: Yeah, there was a little something to that. This is such a personal thing that I wanted to do whatever I could to keep it personal. Always, the voices have to be right. With Martin [Short] and Catherine [O’Hara], they’re so good. That’s why I had them do three voices each. To me, there’s a great energy with that. And Winona [Ryder], I hadn’t seen for many years. Same with Martin [Landau]. Anything like that just makes it that much more personal.
Would you say that this is the most personal film you’ve ever done?
Burton: It’s probably close. It’s got all the elements stuffed in there. It’s probably close-ish. I don’t know.
You produced The Nightmare Before Christmas, you co-directed Corpse Bride, and now you’re all over Frankenweenie. How has this medium changed for you?
Burton: It hasn’t really changed, since the beginning of film. That’s the great thing about it. There’s a few little tools that help, but the great thing about this medium is that it really doesn’t change. For the people who like doing it, that’s the thing that they like about it. Technology has a few things to make it slightly easier to gauge and monitor, but for the most part, it doesn’t change.
Was it different to be a solo director this time?
Burton: No. We were always trying to do these things for a budget. I think, in the case of this, the whole goal was to just rein it in a little bit and not hire too many designers. We wanted to keep it more in-house, and as personal and handmade as we could.
Is it creatively invigorating for you to work on something wholly your own, instead of working from existing material?
Burton: Yes and no. With anything, you make it your own. Even if you’re doing something that the studio sends you, or something that’s based on a book or story, at the end of it all, you try to make whatever it is your own. This is based on my love of horror movies. Everything is based on something, in some way.
Are you hoping that younger audiences will want to explore the monsters that you’re paying tribute to in the film?
Burton: Yeah, I think so. It is interesting. With my own kids, because the world changes and there’s video games and things are so much faster, I wonder how kids think about these old movies, like Frankenstein, that are very slow. It’s very much not a rhythm of contemporary life. My kid is a product of the fast computer lifestyle, but if you put something like Frankenstein on, they still are into it because it’s like a weird dream. It’s quite fascinating to see how kids respond to anything, but especially with these old horror movies.
Was it fun to infuse the film with so many different references?
Burton: I always think that you should never do references just to do them. I just always try to have them, but if you don’t know them, it goes by and the story is the thing. It shouldn’t be a thing where you have to know what it is.
You could make a movie that looks like this in a computer, but it wouldn’t have that handmade quality and feel. Is there a degree of striving for imperfection, in that sense?
Burton: It is a good point. It’s an interesting point because technology can blur the lines. We had such good puppets on Corpse Bride that a lot of people thought Corpse Bride was computer done, which it is and it isn’t. Once you start blurring the lines, it gets into a problem. Each form has its great elements. There’s great computer animation, great drawn animation, and great every kind of animation. What you hope for is that, what you like about a certain form, you don’t lose that. We tried to let our budget limitations work for us. We had to shoot a lot of stuff on twos and a lot of it is kind of rough, but that’s what we love about it. You just go with it.
Would you like to make a more traditional animated film?
Burton: Well, to me, this is the most traditional you could possibly do.
Well, as far as hand-drawn, or something for Pixar?
Burton: No. Some things are best computer, some things are best [stop-motion], some things are best drawn. I think you just try to pick whatever the right project is. I always want to keep a hand in this ‘cause I love it as a medium, but you wouldn’t do any project with this. Some are more appropriate than others, I think.
What was it like to take your original drawings, which you hadn’t even necessarily intended for other people to ever see, and work with collaborators to make this film?
Burton: Well, with just the nature of stop motion, things change. You can do a drawing, but then, when they start to make the puppet, that drawing doesn’t work. There’s a constant back-and-forth, in terms of what it comes out to be. That’s just a normal collaboration. It doesn’t feel that different from anything else, in a weird way. It just becomes a part of what it is and what the final outcome is.
Sparky bears a resemblance to the dog from Family Dog. Was that intentional, or was Family Dog based on original drawings you had done for Sparky?
Burton: No, it was probably based on the fact that all my drawings look the same. That’s probably true. That probably has more to do with it than anything. It’s like someone asking the guy who draws Charlie Brown, “Can you draw it differently? We like the character, but does his head have to be so round?”
The kids in the classroom all look and sound so vastly different. Do you intentionally work on them to make sure they look so different from each other?
Burton: Yeah. It’s always based on a sketch or drawing, so there’s a certain amount of things that are similarly in the design. The design is usually organic. It’s not like this was based on a book and we’re going to lovingly recreate every illustration. It starts that way, from the beginning.
How is directing stop-motion different from directing live-action, in terms of your own man hours? Are you there, all the time?
Burton: No, you wouldn’t want to be, and they wouldn’t want me there. That’s the thing. You get a few seconds a week. The great thing about it, for me, is that I can be working on a live-action film and be working on the crossover with this. I find it really stimulating and good. The good thing about animation is that you can affect it. If something is not working, then you just fix it. You usually can fix it before you even get there because you’ve got things more planned out and everything is there, so you know what you’re getting. The only other element you get, and usually it’s a good surprise, is when the animator animates it well. Usually it’s at least okay. Usually it’s good, but sometimes it’s not. It’s just like anything else.
Do you really have to put a lot of trust in the people you’re working with on the film?
Burton: Yeah, but no more than anything else. Live-action is different because it’s a quicker animal. With the stop-motion, you plan it. The element of surprise is not as much in there, as it is with live-action.
What was it like to direct this, nearly 30 years after the original short?
Burton: I’m not one of those people who is like, “Now the effects are better, so now we’re going to go back and update all of the effects.” I was grateful that the short was live-action because, if it had been animation, I probably wouldn’t have gotten into live-action. It was a very lucky break, in a way. Now, the animated version makes sense. And, I think there are enough new elements, and the stop-motion medium is a different medium. Even though it feels like something that’s personal, it definitely felt like something new. It didn’t feel like I was treading over old territory. It was a way to explore it in a different way.
What was it like to post-convert this to 3D?
Burton: Whether you shoot it [in 3D] or it’s a conversion, you need time. You can see bad 3D or a bad conversion, or good both. It’s just a question of spending the time with it. The great thing about something like this, and it was the same on Nightmare, is that it doesn’t get any clearer than this, in terms of what the sets were and the position and the distance. All the information is there to make the conversion the way it needs to be.
At any point in the casting, did you reach out to Daniel Stern or Shelley Duvall?
Burton: No, I didn’t, and not for any reason ‘cause they were great. There were certain elements that I thought were appropriate to do, as was, and then there were certain other elements that made it personal for other reasons, like working with Catherine [O’Hara], Martin [Short] and Winona [Ryder]. They weren’t on the original project, but it’s a similar thing in a different way.
This is a very busy time for you, with two movies coming out this year that you directed (Dark Shadows and Frankenweenie) and one that you produced (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter). Have you started to look forward yet?
Burton: No. I think I should [take a break].
Was doing Frankenweenie any kind of a reaction to how difficult it was to doing the huge production for Alice in Wonderland?
Burton: Yeah. Well, first of all, I wouldn’t plan it where they all come out like this. That, I definitely wouldn’t plan. Frankenweenie has been in the works for a long, long period of time. The joy about that, though, is that it is smaller. You look at the shots and what you see is what you get, which is really nice. That’s what’s great about this medium. I can see why animators, as hard as it is, can get energized by it. They’re moving something, and then you see it come to life. It is kind of cool to have that energy.
How much more work do you still have on this?
Burton: I have editing, music and sound.
Did you always plan on directing this by yourself?
Burton: All by myself. I’m a big boy, now. No training wheels, nothing. No, these things happen quite organically. Each project is different. In the case of this, we wanted to make it a little bit more handmade, so we scaled back on everything. Another project would be different. Each one has its own energy. This one just felt right to make it like this. Less is more.