A Look At The Early Career of Tim Burton

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, fairy tales were dark, un-PC affairs that existed well beyond the safety zone of a PG certificate. Take the gruesome finale of Cinderella, where the ugly sisters are told to cut off their toes and heels to squeeze their feet into the glass slipper. Or the Little Mermaid’s bargain with the witch – tongue snipped out in return for legs. Or even the highly controversial decision taken by Hansel and Gretel’s parents to lose their kids in the woods (not to mention the scenes of graphic witch-burning that follow). But dismemberment and witchicide have never sat comfortably on kids’ lunchboxes. Thanks to Disney’s all-powerful influence, the old-fashioned fairy tale has become more cloyingly sweet than the porridge that transfixed Goldilocks.

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.

Born into the Edward-Scissorhands-like suburbia of Burbank, California, Burton was, by his own admission, a loner throughout childhood. He recalled: “As a child, I was very introverted. I like to think I didn’t feel like anybody different. I did what any kid likes to do: go to the movies, play, and draw; it’s not unusual. What’s more unusual is wanting to do those things as you go through life.”
The son of an official for the town’s Parks and Recreation department and the proprietor of a cat-themed gift shop, he grew up in a world where the TV was king, and it was on the small screen that his love for B-movies blossomed.
“Every kid responds to some image, some fairy-tale image, and I felt most monsters were basically misperceived,” explained Burton. “They usually had much more heartfelt souls than the human characters around them – because I never read, my fairy tales were probably those monster movies.”
Otherwise, his childhood remains an enigma, and it’s widely assumed that the common themes running through his films – outsiders like Edwards Scissorhands, Lydia in Beetlejuice and Bruce Wayne in Batman, bland suburban settings – are autobiographical in the same way as Spielberg’s recurring absent father motif.
“It’s weird, but the only experiences I remember from my childhood are the ones which had a major impact,” he claimed. “Fearful things, like from a scary movie.”
By 1976, Burton was skilful enough with a pencil to give most artists a run for their money, and he won a scholarship to the Disney-funded California Institute of The Arts. At the time, many of the ‘Class of Snow White’ were still on the studio’s payroll, and other animators were training the new blood in a sort of Disney boot camp. “Like a lot of people who grew up liking to draw, I thought Disney would be a great place to do it,” he said, and he spent three years studying before his short, ‘The Stalk Of The Celery Monster’, won him a job at the studio.
However, he soon became disenchanted with the Disney regime, mainly because the bland characters he was drawing for the forthcoming The Fox And The Hound left little room for the visual creativity that would later become his trademark – he described the animals he drew as “like roadkills’. As he explained: “They were saying, ‘This is Disney –   the most incredible gathering of artists in the world’, and yet at the same time they were saying, ‘Just do it this way; shut up and become like a zombie factory worker”.
Realising that working for five years on such a project would be a close approximation to Hell, Burton contemplated returning to the restaurant work that had seen him through college, but then he managed to land a job as a conceptual artist on The Black Cauldron. He was given the freedom to let his huge imagination design weird characters for the film – even if none of his creations ended up in the finished movie.
Luckily, it was enough to get him noticed by his superiors, who took the almost unprecedented step of allowing him to direct an experimental venture into three-dimensional animation called ‘Vincent’.
He and producer Rick Heinrichs hoped that; “We could convince the hierarchy that a feature-length, model-animated film with the Disney logo on it could be commercially viable, and ‘Vincent’ was our way of showing them.” It also allowed Burton to work with childhood idol Vincent Price, who provided the narration for the short and soon became a friend of Burton.

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.

As Heinrich, who worked on Beetlejuice as visual effects consultant, explained, “Tim was the style-setter. He was the one who found the material in the script in the first place, and it conjured up a lot of stuff for him.” Or, as visual effects supervisor Alan Munro more eloquently it: “It was like Walt Disney had thrown up on you.”
Reactions at preview screenings proved positive, but the studio was still unsure about the title. Burton recalled his backers’ remarks; “Beetlejuice doesn’t test well, but House Ghosts is going through the roof.’ I remember going, ‘House Ghosts? Then I joked, ‘Why don’t we call it Scared Sheetless? And they considered it until I threatened to jump out the window.”
In the end, Beetlejuice was a good enough name for cinemagoers, and it earned enough money for Warner Brothers to finally give the green light to its long-gestating Batman movie.
The Dark Knight had languished in development hell since the studio purchased the rights from DC Comics in 1979. Burton and screenwriter Sam Hamm had been hired to whip the script into shape after Pee-Wee, but it wasn’t until Beetlejuice’s strong box-office performance that Burton was trusted with the potentially lucrative franchise.
The fact that earlier attempts to adapt the comic had failed – Burton criticised the fact that initial treatments were simply retreads of the first successful SUperman movie – made the duo confident enough to do exactly what they wanted with the story, and they opted for a darker tone reminiscent of Alan Moore’s 1988 classic The Killing Joke and Frank Miller’s 1984 gamer changer that was The Dark Knight Returns – needless to say, it was a far cry from the camp Sixties TV show.
Of course, hell hath no fury as a fanboy scorned. While Batman fans had no problem with Jack Nicholson as the Joker, the choice of Beetlejuice star Michael Keaton to play the caped crusader (at the time, widely perceived as a comic actor) proved somewhat controversial. 
For Burton, however, it was more than just a case of exercising the actor loyalty he’s shown throughout his career. He argued: “With Michael, the bottom line is, I could see him putting on a bat suit because he’s not a square-jawed hulk of a guy.” Even so, Warners had to release advanced pictures of Keaton in costume to appease the fanbase.
Aided by a saturation promotional campaign that would ultimately come to frustrate Burton, Batman became the first film in history to make $100 million in its first ten days. Meanwhile, Burton was keen to take on something a little more personal – probably the most personal film of his career (until Big Fish) and the chance to make the fairy tales he’d always loved for himself.
“I wanted to make a story involving scissors, coiffured dogs and snow,” said Burton of Edwards Scissorhands. “Forming the narrative around those images was always my intention. I just didn’t know how to do it at the time.” Helped by screenwriter Caroline Thompson, he crafted a story about the ultimate outsider, a man-made boy unable to touch or feel because he has blades for hands.
Fox wanted Tom Cruise to bring his star power to the role, but Burton reckoned that he, like the studio’s other suggestions of William Hurt, Tom Hanks and Robery Downey Jr, would be completely unsuitable. (it’s also rumoured that Michael Jackson was keen to play the role.)
Instead, the role went to the star of the TV show 21 Jump Street. Keen to break away from his perceived pretty boy persona, Johnny Depp was desperate for a role he described as “one of the two or three best things I’ve ever read”, and helped by the fact that then-girlfriend Winona Ryder had already been cast as female lead Kim, he managed to secure a meeting with Burton. It was the first of eight collaborations between the duo, with Burton becoming Scorsese to Depp’s De Niro. When Burton saw the first rough cut, it was a job well done: “I burst out crying myself. From that moment on, I didn’t care what anyone else thought, and I’ve never felt that way about anything I’ve directed since.”
Burton’s first four feature-length movies were enough to leave an indelible mark on Hollywood, and subsequent outings allowed him to hone his unique visual style further –  the darker, more characteristic Batman Returns, the brilliant (but under-rated) Ed Wood, the manic B-movie inspired Mars Attacks and gothic horror Sleepy Hollow all followed. He’s become one of the few mainstream directors whose touch can shine through the sanitising effect of big budgets – it’s no coincidence that Planet Of The Apes, arguably Burton’s least impressive outing behind the camera, bears the least amount of his stylistic hallmarks. 
Having come full circle, Disney has become one studio that has recently used Burton’s talents on a few occasions, with the live-action remakes of Alice In Wonderland and Dumbo. But what’s really exciting is that Burton is returning to his roots with Beetlejuice 2. Has the master still got the talent to pull off a worthy sequel? We think he has. 
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