A young animator named Timothy William Burton arrived at the House of Mouse in 1979 to find a company in a state of flux. Even 11 years after Walt Disney’s death, the Disney founder’s legacy loomed like Dumbo’s oversized ears, with management afraid to take risks and the Little-Mermaid-led renaissance still a decade away. To say the studio wasn’t ready for Burton’s old-school, dark, fairy-tale sensibilities is an understatement. It wasn’t long before he became disillusioned that he couldn’t draw the Disney way. Even so, it’s unlikely that many other employers would have given Burton a chance for his highly characteristic voice to be heard.
Subsequent Mouse projects followed, including an all-Asian version of Hansel And Gretel for the fledging Disney Channel and the Live-action short ‘Frankenweenie’, a take on the classic James Whale Frankenstein that saw a boy reanimate his beloved dead dog. (Burton would eventually get to make a full-length version of this 1984 short 28 years later in 2012). Initially, Frankenweenie was intended to accompany a re-release of The Jungle Book in theatres, and later Pinocchio, ‘Frankenweenie’ suffered when the MPAA awarded it a less family-friendly PG certificate – parents at test screening thought it would encourage children to play with electricity!
Ultimately, it was relegated to the festival circuit and never rewarded with a proper release. Still, it would soon become Burton’s calling card that he needed to get his first feature film off the ground, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.
The character of Pee-Wee Herman, aka Paul Reubens, has been around for some years before it was decided to take him to the big screen. Having drawn up a dream list of directors, Reubens was disappointed when the studio came back with a single (still unnamed) helmer who Reubens felt wasn’t suitable for it, but he was pointed in Burton’s direction by ‘Frankenweenie’ star Shelley Duvall.
“I had seen Pee-Wee’s show at the Roxy and was a real fan,” explained Burton, “But I was a little worried about going into a film with such an established character. I didn’t see what I could add of my own to it.” Nonetheless, he was suitably tempted by the fact that the script would allow him to experiment in a range of genres, and so he signed up to direct.
As well as launching Burton’s feature film career, Pee-Wee marked the start of a beautiful and long-enduring friendship, as Burton made the unusual move of asking rock band Oingo Boingo’s singer Danny Elfman to provide the score.
The request surprised Elfman, “I don’t know how someone could see this rock band and think this dude could do my orchestral film score,” said the composer of the first of many Burton collaborations. “It defies logic as far as I’m concerned.” What made the choice particularly peculiar was that Elfman had no experience of working with an orchestra – he didn’t even know how to write music. “It’s not weird for a director to come out of the blue, be self-taught and learn while doing films. But for a composer to learn by instinct is unheard of.”
While critical reception to Pee-Wee was mixed, the bottom line in Hollywood has always been dollar signs, and crucially the film made money. People were now knocking on Burton’s door, and though most of the material offered held little to no interest for the director, a script passed on to him by producer David Geffen had what it took to get him excited.
“It was totally opposite from everything else I’d read,” said Burton of Michael McDowell’s Beetlejuice screenplay. “It had no structure, no plot – it just had a weird quality to it that I loved.” Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine a more suitable Burton project than the (admittedly slight) story of a recently deceased couple who call on bio-exorcist Betelgeuse to scare off their home’s new inhabitants, not least because it allowed him to run wild with the surreal visuals.