Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara go way back with director Tim Burton. But it’s been a while since they’ve all worked together. This week, they’ll reunite in the black and white, stop-motion version of Frankenweenie. Both Short and O’Hara were assigned three characters each. It was something Burton believed they could handle with ease. We recently spoke to the actors about the director, Frankenweenie’s message and their eccentric characters.
In Frankenweenie, you guys get to play husband and wife. That’s not your usual experience on an animated movie is it?
Martin Short: Yes. What was great is that we–usually in animation you do it by yourself, and we did scenes together.
Catherine O’Hara: Yeah. Especially for the parents because the tone was set for the movie, and it helped us get the intimacy that we needed.
Did this experience compare to the old days when you worked together?
Catherine O’Hara: Oh it always [does]. But I’m fortunate enough to see Marty a lot in life. We live not far from each other so…
Martin Short: And we have cottages north of Toronto near each other.
Catherine O’Hara: So we goof off all the time.
Martin Short: Yes. This is no big revolutionary world.
On the first day you got together, even though you see each other a lot, did it bring back memories?
Catherine O’Hara: Oh yeah. Well it scared me. Because…
Martin Short: Hahaha! It scared you?
Catherine O’Hara: The few times that we’ve worked together we don’t behave well [Laughs].
Martin Short: Yeah. We have an unfortunate history.
Catherine O’Hara: We did a CBC pilot.
Martin Short: We did a CBC pilot in ’78. A bit different.
Catherine O’Hara: Don’t even give the name! We were so bad [Laughs].
Martin Short: I mean, I can’t remember the…
Catherine O’Hara: They found a copy. He found a copy of it and gave it to me this year. I was like, ‘Oh my Lord, no wonder we got bad reviews.’ We were just like – we were kinda cute actually.
Martin Short: You know what? I thought, yeah, I thought we were kinda cute.
Catherine O’Hara: Yesterday at the press junket, I just spend way too much time laughing and being kinda foul-mouthed with Marty. [Laughs] But this is our first one today so you’ll get the clean version.
Martin Short: We’re recharged with our elegance.
Catherine O’Hara: But Tim kept us in line.
Did you see sketches of your characters, and the environment you’d be working in before recording?
Catherine O’Hara: Absolutely.
Martin Short: What’s amazingly rewarding for an actor to work with Tim is that he, you know obviously he’s hired you. So the buck stops with him and starts with him. So he’s saying, you know you see a sketch and then for the first session or two he wants to hear how you see it. And when he starts laughing, then you know you’re on the right track. And not necessarily laughing out of something’s funny been said, but laughing because now it’s fitting in to how he saw it. I mean he had images – Burgemeister would be an example of someone he didn’t know what he would sound like, but he knew he should be disturbing, weird, odd. I remember at one point I said, ‘What if he just had been a four packs a day smoker but had recently quit?’ With Tim that’s just the kind of thing.
Catherine O’Hara: Yeah. They had these drawings on easels in the first recording session. I mean we went individually at that time. But they had these beautiful drawings of these characters that you see in the movie and then they tell you a bit of the story and I find with that kinda of work, when you have such a beautiful thing to work from–
Martin Short: Did you say from or with?
Catherine O’Hara: I’m working from it.
Martin Short: I thought you were talking about me again [Laughs].
Catherine O’Hara: No. That you want to honor that. Because first of all you did the short film 20 years ago, so that’s been in his head, and then people are imagining that this is a more personal story for Tim than some of his other movies. So I felt a great responsibility and also a great, you know, honor to be able to voice those characters that had been in his head. Because then we get to collaborate with him and actually – well how are these people actually – he knows them but how are they going to sound? And we get to be a part of that.
Martin, have you ever done Boris Karloff before?
Martin Short: I haven’t. And what I would do again, there’s no real idea of what these characters are going to be, but then the suggestion of Boris Karloff. And so before each take, I said this in the beginning, I would YouTube the old TV series Thriller. It’s going to be a thriller. And then this voice became a little more like a lisp. And so I’d have to get like—oh and let’s do it! Cause my retention is not good.
Both of you have worked with Tim before, so how did he approach you for these roles? How is it different working with him as voice actors?
Catherine O’Hara: Well I got a call through my agent saying, ‘Tim wants you to come in and do three voices.’ I went, ‘Really?’ They told me, ‘Yes, they’re Mother, Weird Girl and Gym Teacher.’ I was like, ‘Weird Girl?! Okay that’s great.’ But I thought, ‘I guess he’s giving me a shot at three voices.’ I did not for a second assume I was going to be playing all three characters. Each time I went in and every time I thought, ‘Oh I’m still doing three voices! I’m still doing three characters! Alright I’m still doing it.’ But when you see him again, he’s just the same as he was for me on the set of Beetlejuice. Really fun and loose, but absolutely knows what he wants… You know he’s so confident about knowing that he’s going to achieve what he wants. He’s so playful and let’s you do whatever and offer whatever. And when you first open your voice I think it’s scary, whether it’s live action or recording but especially if it’s voice. And he makes you feel safe. So you just sort of jump in and start playing and have fun with him. He’s the same guy that way.
Martin Short: Yeah I find that, you know, I worked with him on a film called Mars Attacks! and I wasn’t sure what it would be like to work with Tim Burton you know. And right away you’re struck by, he’s just like a funny guy who wants to laugh and isn’t particularly dark at all, but just joyful and really enthusiastic. And very much wants to hear what your take on it [is] — even a scene. I remember we were doing a scene in Mars Attacks!, which was complicated blocking. He said, ‘Well just go and try it.’ And then when you think of it, as I said earlier, he has hired you. So that’s been his first decision. But I found that he was the exact same now 10 years later, or 15 years later. On this he’s joyful, playful — what do you wanna do? Let’s try it. And then as it narrows down he gets specific as to what he hears. He likes this, he wants that. I don’t find that he was particularly different. It was a new piece of art that he was creating.
Catherine O’Hara: When you look at the drawings like that, I don’t take it as personally. Except the times when you show up on a set for live action – or not show up but you start talking about the movie, you start working out what they’re going to look like and how they’re going to present themselves. I take that very personally and I wanna have a hand in it. I wanna help and make decisions about what my character looks like. But in this case, that character is there. And so much is given to you already that you just kinda wanna do it with respect. You know? Treat it with respect.
Do you find it more or less difficult to communicate emotion with just your voice? You can’t fall back on your facial expressions and such.
Catherine O’Hara: That’s a relief. For me. Mine moves too much.
Martin Short: I think that it’s just a different muscle. It’s like saying is it different to work on film than in theater? And it is a little different. If you’re doing a play, you have to – you can’t just talk to someone like this. You have to get the director to make sure that you might convey the same thought while going down stage to tie up your shoe. Because the audience is right there. And when you do voice, you are just working with your voice. So you can “grrr” and create sounds. But if you were being filmed you wouldn’t perform that way. You’d make it organic and one. But this is one in that case and you follow that. So it’s just a different exercise for an actor.
Catherine O’Hara: And very focused. Very focused. I think most people I know kind of freak when they hear their own voice. For the first time. You think you sound like something and then you hear yourself and on the recording and go, ‘What?’ And you know in a recording session you’ve got the headphones on so your voice is just really big and you hear every breath and if you haven’t swallowed properly you’re hearing that and you’re hearing everything in your lungs. You know. So it’s just, it’s so focused. On the set with live action, everybody is in the scene, you know? And the set is in the scene. But when you’re recording, in that moment, it’s just your voice.
Martin Short: And you don’t have to do a shade and you don’t have to…
Catherine O’Hara: Oh no. Don’t dress.
Martin Short: And I’ve always felt that I have a face for animation [Laughs].
Have you seen a growth in Tim as a director?
Catherine O’Hara: Well his work is, I think, ever-growing and ever-changing and although he certainly has great consistency in taking care of his characters and his visuals. But he seems like the same guy to work with.
He was considerably younger then.
Catherine O’Hara: Yeah he was. And I remember I think they were waiting to see how Peewee’s Big Adventure was going to do before they would give more money for Beetlejuice or give it a release date. I remember there was talk about this movie Peewee. Everything was rested on how that was going to do because he’d done that before Beetlejuice, right? Yeah. So, that was kinda hanging over like we’ll see, we’ll see. And then that came and I was like wow. Well that’s who this guy is. But when you spend time with him he’s the same guy.
Was there a need to exaggerate or embellish the characters in this more than Beetlejuice or Mars Attacks!?
Martin Short:Peewee is a perfect example. What was brilliant that I thought about Peewee’s Big Adventure is that he took Peewee Herman, which was a broader than life character, but then he created the world to be as odd as Peewee, and then the equal equation was that it was all normal. So, I mean we live in a world where you go to the market and there’s a guy selling fish and he’s, you know, wearing kulots on his legs, and you know one of those bad shirts that are cut here and it guts out. And he’s not trying to do a sketch on Saturday Night Live. This is, he’s sincere. And that’s why it’s funny. So I think that you look at a sketch like Mr. Burgemeister and you – or Massor in my case – and you wouldn’t necessarily say, ‘Oh I know how he speaks. (alters voice) Hello I’m Burgemeister.’ No, you have to create something that fits that. And you start in a void and you start experimenting, experimenting, especially the first session. And then like all things you just… We were talking earlier that when we did SCTV, sometimes we wouldn’t particularly know what a character was going sound like. But you’d sit in the makeup chair, they’d put a wig on you, you’d look in the mirror, and then something clicks.
When the movie was completed and you saw it, was there anything different about it that you weren’t expecting?
Catherine O’Hara: Oh yeah, everything. Oh I was blown away. By the stop frame animation. You totally appreciate it as a story and you care about the characters and it’s just a beautiful, touching, funny, great movie. But it’s almost impossible to appreciate the work. The meticulous millisecond-by-millisecond handling of the characters in the set that goes into the flow. When you see that dog Sparky in the movie and the way he moves and jumps around, the little ball, it’s just so real and so alive. You need to watch a six-month making of to appreciate it. I mean six months solid. Non-stop watching it. Yeah, you’re on the toilet and there’s food brought to you. [Laughs] Not thinking about moving! I went there again.
Martin Short: You did. I agree. I think is kind of endearing about this project particularly you know Tim is a wealthy, successful man. So when he takes on a project, particularly something this personal, his agenda is to make it as good as possible. There’s no like ‘Yeah whatever I gotta go to dinner.’ It’s a real work of love and art here. So, I think sometimes you lend your voice to an animated movie and you see it, you kind of go, ‘Oh!’ But you hear yourself a lot. And you kinda go, ‘Oh I seemed a little flat, I wish they’d done that.’ In this you just get completely lost because you’re such a small part of the wheel.
Was there any one scene that popped out at you?
Catherine O’Hara: Well the dog blew me away. I don’t know why. Just, it, well its such an important character in the movie. But just the way it moves. It’s little bum and then the tail. I can’t imitate it but you know—
Martin Short: Oh go ahead [Laughs].
Catherine O’Hara: I’m trying and it’s pathetic. That and for our scenes as the parent’s with Victor I was really happy with how lovely they felt to me watching it. And I loved how they looked, and Charlie’s voice is so lovely as Victor. And those moments I think it felt better than live action [Laughs].
Martin Short: I was surprised with the amount of emotion. Sometimes, again in animation, emotion is – we’re told to feel emotion. The score sores, the tear drops. This is a little more sincere than that.
Catherine O’Hara: Oh and I’m sorry. And the cat changing. The cat whiskers transition is insane. Can you imagine? What is that? Six months? That is six months of stop frame animation. That is crazy. It’s like you see every atom in its body change. Oh it’s just madness.
Catherine, did you access an inner weird girl?
Catherine O’Hara: Well yeah. For the first session I really wanted to show up with something to offer. I remember just trying to think of people that I went to school with that you try to avoid and say, ‘Oh please don’t let me be made partners with them.’ But I’m sure –I don’t mean to say this meanly about anybody else ‘cause I’m sure people felt this about me too. But yes! Definitely. But I think they have to have a soft way about them, because if they don’t sneak up on ya, you’ll-you’ll see them coming and they won’t getcha. So, they have to have this soft way that’s her way to—I felt it was going be soft and-and then I basically stole John Candy’s swallowing and not being able to get a thought out, John Candy—dear soul—did it in SCTV. He was doing a version to our makeup artist on, in a scene that I wrote. He was playing a kid. So I feel like, I wrote this scene so it’s okay. John wouldn’t mind.
Martin Short: OOO HOO HOO!!!
Catherine O’Hara: Thank you Johnny. [Laughs] The softness and the sneaking up kind of and of course it was written that she takes herself so seriously as a lot of those weird kids in class do. It’s like really? I’ve gotta listen to this? You know. And the poo. That the poo. [Laughs] The first time I saw that in her hand I was like what?! That was great.
Given that this is a personal film, did he discuss when he was screening the 1984 short film? Was there any discussion about that?
Martin Short: There wasn’t with me.
Catherine O’Hara: No. No. And we’d seen it.
Martin Short: I mean I’d seen it too but I don’t think that he was saying, ‘Okay now listen, part of your homework…’ When you are as successful as Tim you can be this way. Which is you don’t have to prove anything. You don’t have to walk into the set and say now look I’m the most important person here.
Catherine O’Hara: I’ve been living with this for twenty years.
Martin Short: Yeah. There’s none of that because we already know it. Everyone knows it. So he’s had so much success, he’s been so vindicated, that he couldn’t sit in a place-although he was like this-and he’d been successful-but he was like this in 96 when I worked with him.
Catherine O’Hara: Yeah he was. I don’t think—it’s almost sounding, and I know you don’t mean this at all-that he takes it for granted and he doesn’t either.
Martin Short: No, I think that he’s just walking in a saying, ‘I’m thrilled that to be working with you, how do you see this?’ He’s not coming in and saying, ‘Well first of all let me tell you about my journey…’
Frankenweenie opens in theaters Friday, October 5th.