Nearly 30 years ago, Tim Burton directed a short film called Frankenweenie. Disney shelved it, deeming it too dark for children. That was before they saw Burton as a creative force to be reckoned with in Hollywood. Now, the film’s getting a second chance at the big screen, this time in stop-motion. We recently spoke to Burton about his original vision for Frankenweenie, 3D and getting his gang of actors together again.
Is this the original scope you envisioned for the first production?
Tim Burton: No. The original, that was it. It was only after many years where — because it was such a memory piece to begin with, I started thinking of other aspects. Other kids I remembered at school and the teachers. When they did that MOMA show, I started looking at some of the drawings I did originally. Loving stop motion, it kind of built up in the sense that to do it in black and white, stop motion, where it could go back to the original drawings and to the architecture of Burbank. So it became a weird, fun thing that I wouldn’t ever do with any other project in terms of thinking about personalizing everything. All those elements made it feel like a whole new thing. It went from Frankenstein to the House of Frankenstein where there’s more monsters and that weird mash-up that they started to do in some of those Universal Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein films. It made it feel different.
For the voice cast, you hired previous collaborators. Can you talk a little about that?
Tim Burton: Well, I love all those people. I haven’t worked with them in a while. Since I was trying to make a lot of emotional connections to it, it made sense. Also, you pick people that are right for something. In the case of Winona [Ryder] I haven’t worked with her in so long, but she was right for that character. I was trying to keep it real and simple. I didn’t give them a bunch of horror movies to watch. For them it was just about being pure and simple.
It felt like an animated movie, but also like a live action film, in that way. In the case of Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short, they’re so great. I just told each to do three characters. They are so good at that. That for me is something I missed working with them because of their improv skills. They go from one character to the next in one session. So that was fun. And Martin Landau has been an inspiration to me. He just felt right for the teacher, Mr. Rykurski. Again, you just try to cast the right people, but in this particular case, it was great to work with the people I love.
What do you think of what 3D has become? Why did you make this particular choice?
Tim Burton: Before there was the argument of 3D or nothing. It was like a Celebrity Deathmatch-scenario about 3D versus 2D. They try to turn it into it’s all or nothing. I still feel like it’s valid in some films, not every film. Not every film should be 3D. But if you want to see it in 3D, you should be able to see something in 3D. If you want to see something in 2D, you should see it in 2D. The more choice, the better. That’s how I feel about all of that.
For me, I was very excited for two reasons: 1) Black and white in 3D, because of the depth you can get and the clarity and shadows. I thought the 3D element would be very fun to see; and 2) The stop-motion end of it. There’s something about the process of having puppets, with real sets and you see the hours that have been put into the models and everything. With the 3D and the black and white, I felt like it shows the artist’s work, and you really feel what it’s like to be on a stop motion set, space and depth. All of those things added up into making it exciting to attempt that one.
Did you ever consider making Frankenweenie in color?
Tim Burton: No, I wouldn’t have done it in color. In fact if the studio had said, ‘It has to be in color.’ I wouldn’t have done it. That was very important to me that it be like this. But they were fine, they were cool about it. I was surprised and grateful for that. It seems like they understood that making it in black and white gives it an extra, weird emotional depth that would have been different in color.
SPOILER ALERT – This movie accentuates the acceptance of loss. How on the fence where you with the decision to bring the dog back? Was that always the plan?
Tim Burton: That was always there. People might think that since it’s a Disney movie, I was forced to put on a happy ending, but no. For me it was always a part of it. Dealing with those issues, it was still a wish-fulfillment kind of fantasy story. It being a Frankenstein story and at the end of it all, it was always that way. The acceptance thing was important as well. It was a double-edge thing.
Was there a line between this and the short that you didn’t want to cross? Were you afraid of the final product being too different?
Tim Burton: I didn’t want to just take the short and pad it out. When I finally felt comfortable was after the time of thinking about the kids and monsters and the House of Frankenstein structure of it. The heart of it then, is still the heart of it now. I just wanted it to feel natural and not pushed. I thought quite a lot about it. Once all the other characters came into place, it felt like it could be a complete thing.
Will the original be released on the DVD?
Tim Burton: I don’t know. I hate talking about the DVD before the films even come out. It’s like, ‘Should we talk about the airplane version?’
Was there a certain satisfaction you got from Mr. Rykurski’s speech in the movie?
Tim Burton: Sure, I love it. I’ve actually talked to a few teachers that appreciated it as well. I’m not sure about the parents. I remember that when I was young, there was always a resistance. Not only to science but art. Anything creatively thinking outside of the box, there was always this resistance to it. It’s grown in certain aspects, which is strange because on certain levels technology is running rampant, even before people have a chance to think about it. And then there are other things that freak people out. It does seem like a strange juxtaposition of these types of feelings.
How important was it for you to cast Victor’s voice as a child?
Tim Burton: That character has to have a simple gravity. A lot of animation is very hyper active. With that character in particular, it just felt like treating it like a live action film. This is a drama and it’s very simple. The hardest thing to do, even for a kid or an adult, is just to be simple and have an emotional gravity to him because that’s the heart of the film. I was just looking at the character, a model of the character and then listening to voices, and when I heard Charlie Tahan’s voice, I said, ‘Absolutely.’
How did you develop Mr. Burgermeister?
Tim Burton: There’s lots of cross name references and stuff. It’s just all based on movies and neighbors. He’s the anal guy that’s worried about his lawn. He’s the scary guy in the neighborhood. It’s based on the classic of the head of the angry villagers, and a real neighbor. Just a mixture of things. Martin Short was talking about Ronald Reagan and Raymond Burr and all sorts of things. I don’t know what finally came about. There’s all sorts of references thrown into it.
How did the different homages to monster films come about?
Tim Burton: I picked the types of movies that I grew up liking. The classic monsters and Japanese monsters. All different types. Because it’s all references, I tried to make sure that the enjoyment is not based on knowing what those references are. It was more about trying to give the flavor of those films. Even if you don’t know those references, you can still get a vibe of it, without having to know. If you know it fine, but I was never expecting, or hopeful, that most people would know about it. For me it was part of the fabric of it.
What did you enjoy most about making this movie?
Tim Burton: Everything. The stop motion, the black and white. The artists and the animators are the ones that are in a dark room for two years making these things come to life. It’s art form that is unlike everything else. You watch something and it might’ve taken an animator a week to shoot, depending on the complexity, and when you see it, it’s just something magical. It’s those kinds of things, the tactile things and the props, all of that is very exciting. Anyone who gets the chance to visit a stop motion set should be very excited. It’s an exciting experience.
Frankenweenie hits theaters Friday, October 5th.