In 1984, Paul Reubens was looking for a director. The film in development was
Pee-wees Big Adventure (1985), and Reubens, who had been working
on the perversely juvenile conceptual-art project for about 15 years, was desperate
to find someone he could trust to direct it with style. So, as people in Los
Angeles do, he asked around at a party. One of the guests had just seen FrankenweenieTim
Burtons 1984 live-action short about a dog that is brought back to life.
Burton had no previous experience as a feature-film director, but the two men
immediately bonded. Only 25 at the time, Burton got the job, and the pair watched
as their strange but imaginative film earned more than $40 million at the box
Of course, these days, Burton doesnt need to rely on word of mouth to
find work. Throughout the many stages of his 30 years behind the camera, there
has remained a consistent underlying emotional current in Burtons worka
delicate balance of sadness, humor, and horror that matches his eye for gothic
beauty and mythical surrealism. The 51-year-old filmmaker has written, directed,
and/or produced more than 20 movies. Between 1988 and 1996, he was responsible
for Beetlejuice (1988), Batman (1989), Edward Scissorhands
(1990), Batman Returns (1992), The Nightmare Before Christmas
(1993), Ed Wood (1994), and Mars Attacks! (1996). It was also
during this period that he began working with Johnny Depp, who has acted in
seven of his filmsa transformative relationship for both men.
Burton grew up in the suburbs of California, and has often said that, as a
kid, he found the realities of everyday lifeparents, teachers, school,
breakfastfar more terrifying than monsters or movies. What are zombie
pet dogs, after all, compared to real-life threats like dullness and loss? Burtons
characters are born outcasts, perpetually at odds with their identities and
in some ways monsters themselves. His fairy-tale endings are a little messier
than most standard Hans Christian Andersen fare; Edward Scissorhands
does not get the girl.
Last November, New Yorks Museum of Modern Art honored Burton not only
for his film work but also as a visual artist, with a retrospective that displayed
a large collection of his drawingsincluding versions of Jack Skellington,
Edward Scissorhands, Sweeney Todd, and Batman. His next
film, Disneys Alice in Wonderland, due out next month, is a suitably
trippy semi-animated adventure featuring Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena
Bonham Carter (Burtons partner), Anne Hathaway, and Crispin Glover. Danny
Elfman, who has been composing music for Burtons films since they worked
together on Pee-wee (and who also did Alice in Wonderland) spoke
to him recently about how he has made his way as an artistand about what
really scares him.
DANNY ELFMAN: Okay, were rolling. Be aware that we can stop and start;
we can even redo a question if you dont like what youve said. You
can suggest a topic. No pressure.
TIM BURTON: I say stream of consciousness, and whatever happens, happens.
ELFMAN: Then lets start with something easy. Growing up, which films
and directors had the greatest impact on you?
BURTON: Well, being a big monster-movie fan, the Universal monster movies and
the Japanese science-fiction movies, like the ones by Ishir¯o Honda. Then
there were the Italians, like Mario Bava.
ELFMAN: Which particular films really got under your skin?
BURTON: Bavas Black Sunday  is probably the one that did it. I
remember, in L.A., Id watch a whole weekend of horror movies. And after
you watched about two movies in a row, youd go into this dream state,
and sometime around 3 A.M. on the weekend, Black Sunday came on. It really was
like your subconscious, like a dream, almost like hallucinating. I also think
that Im one of the few fans who actually likes dubbing in foreign films.
I love Fellini or Bava dubbed because it adds a surreal nature. I prefer dubbing
because the images are so strong you dont want to take your eyes away
to read the subtitles.
ELFMAN: Did any film give you nightmares?
BURTON: I never really got nightmares from movies. In fact, I recall my father
saying when I was three years old that I would be scared, but I never was. I
was much more terrified by my own family and real life, you know? I think it
would be more of a nightmare if someone told me to go to school or eat my breakfast.
I would wake up in a cold sweat about those issues. I think that movies probably
help you sort those kinds of things out and make you feel more comfortable.
I did get freaked out when I saw The Exorcist  for the first time,
but that was about it. Images like the ones in Black Sunday stay with
you. I always just enjoyed them.
ELFMAN: That takes me to monsters from our childhoods. How do you think they
stack up against the monsters of today?
BURTON: The thing I love about the old monsters is that they had such a strong,
immediately identifiable image. I find that a lot of monsters today are just
so busy. They have so many little tentacles and flaps and whatever else that
they dont have the kind of strength in their images that the old monsters
had. Its also due to the CGI heaviness. Youre missing the human
elementlike Boris Karloff, who actually played the monsters. Even in Creature
From the Black Lagoon , the guy had a complete costume, so you felt
like there was a human being underneath. I think thats important. Its
always an interesting challenge to see if you can create a character thats
got emotion. It can be done and it has been done.
ELFMAN: You once said that monsters are usually more heartfelt than the humans
around them in those movies. Do you still feel that way?
BURTON: Oh, yeah. Its like society. In fact, its probably gotten
more extreme. We sort of equate the monster with the individual, getting devoured
by bureaucracy. Even in making films with studios, you used to be able to deal
with people as individuals. Now youre dealing with a vague bureaucracy,
where no ones in charge when theres a problem. [laughs] So I think
thats only intensified over the years.
I never really got nightmares from movies. I was much more terrified by
my own family and real life, you know?Tim Burton
ELFMAN: I guess there is a certain nostalgia for early cinema. Some of those
old movies hold up and others dont.
BURTON: There are certain movies that really dont. But the ones that
you really love, I think they do. Obviously, the pacing of movies has gotten
much quicker, but the old ones have a slower dreamscape that weaves its way
into you. When you watch older movies, you dont think, Gee, I wish this
cut were quicker.
ELFMAN: It does make it harder to play them for our kids, because they expect
a pacing that didnt exist then and they have to get past that.
BURTON: Thats true. Even before kids watch a movie, theyre already
accustomed to video games and stuff. So that sense of slower pacing is already
gone. Its unfortunate because theres something very introspective
about movies that give you a chance to dream.
ELFMAN: You used to hang out in graveyards when you were a kid, didnt
you? Im assuming that was because it was very peaceful and calm there,
that going to graveyards allowed you to be introspective.
BURTON: People think that its morbid, but it really was much more quietly
exciting. There was a mystery about it, a juxtaposition of life and death in
a place where you really werent supposed to be.
ELFMAN: Did you ever believeor half believein ghosts?
BURTON: Yeah. Ive seen things and felt things. I think most people do.
I think its just how much you suppress it. I dont go out and say,
Oh, my god, I was abducted by a UFO, or Ive seen these
ELFMAN: Did you feel any hauntings at the graveyards where you hung out?
BURTON: You feel an energy. Most people say about graveyards, Oh, its
just a bunch of dead people; its creepy. But for me, theres
an energy to it that is not creepy or dark. It has a positive sense to it. Its
like all of that Day of the Deadimagery. That, to me, is the right idea. Its
a celebration. Its much more lighthearted. There is humor involvedcolor
and life. We talked about it when we did Corpse Bride . That was going
more toward the Day of the Dead culture, which is much more positive.
ELFMAN: Once, a long time ago, we went into a room at CTS Studios that was
supposed to have a child ghost haunting it. Do you remember? Everyone in the
studio kept telling us about it, so we went in there and just stood in this
dark, creepy room for a while. Nothing happenedas things usually dont.
Have you ever been in a room where you might have had an experience?
BURTON: Ive been in certain hotel rooms in Venice.
ELFMAN: Did you make it a point to go into these rooms?
BURTON: I think anytime you try, it aint gonna happen. It always seems
to occur when youre sort of open but not thinking about it. So, no, Ive
never held a séance.
ELFMAN: I want to ask you about Vincent Price. When I first met you, you told
me how much of a hero of yours he was. Then I saw the animated short you did,
Vincent , which was inspired by him. Had that been brewing for
a long time?
BURTON: Its obviously based on the feeling of watching his movies. I
felt connected with him, and that helped me get through life. I had written
it all and done it in a kind of storybook or storyboard fashion, and I just
decided to send it to him. I had no idea what would happen. It was most likely
that he wouldnt respond, but he responded pretty immediately, and he seemed
to really get it. That made me feel really great. He didnt just see it
as a fan thing. Thats why it was really special to me. Its hard
to get projects goingand also hard to meet somebody youve admired.
You never know what theyre going to be like. They could be a complete
asshole, you know? But he was so great and supportive, and even though it was
a short film, he helped get it made. That was my first experience in this kind
of world, and it was a really positive one. It stays with you forever. When
times are tough, all you have to do is remember back to those kind of momentsthose
surreal, special momentsand they really keep you going. To discover that
somebody like Vincent Price, who had been in the movie business for a million
years, and to see that he was still such an interesting guythat he was
so into art, and helping this college in East L.A., giving lots of artwork,
and still curious about everythingit helps you to keep going when you
ELFMAN: In art school, you had an epiphany where you didnt care anymore
about drawing the way your teachers wanted you to. What happened exactly?
BURTON: It was at the farmers market. We went out to draw people. I was
sitting there, getting really frustrated trying to draw the way they were telling
me to draw. So I just said, Fuck it. I truly felt like I had taken
a drug and my mind had suddenly expanded. Its never happened to me again
quite that same way. From that moment on, I just drew a different way. I didnt
draw better, I just drew differently. It freed me up to not really care.
It reminds me of when youre drawing as a child. Childrens drawings
all look pretty cool. But at some point, kids get better at drawing, or they
say, Oh, I cant draw anymore. Well, thats because someone
told you that you couldntit doesnt mean that you cant.
It taught me to stick to whats inside of me, to let that flourish in the
best way it can. Ive been waiting for that feeling to come back ever since,
and it hasnt yet. At least it happened once. [laughs] It literally happened
at that moment; the drawings changed right there.
ELFMAN: Then, interestingly, you became an animator at Disney. Clearly you
didnt fit the mold there, but your talents didnt go unnoticed either.
BURTON: Again, its one of those weird timing things. If it had happened
at any other point in the companys history, I probably wouldve been
fired. But the company was so directionless then, and I was under the wing of
a great animator, this guy Glen Keane. I was kind of his assistant, and he tried
to help me draw foxes and do all of that, but I was useless. They eventually
realized that, too, but instead of firing me, they gave me other projects because
they liked my drawings. That lasted a year. And then I drew where I wanted for
a couple of years. And that was very formative because out of all that came
things like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Vincent.
ELFMAN: I dont know if many fans are aware of the depth of your infatuation
with drawing and art. When I describe how I got started writing songs for Nightmare,
people are surprised that it didnt start with a script. Instead, you had
a story and a series of amazing drawings.
BURTON: Thats why Im very grateful for the show at MoMA. It hasnt
been about categorizationlike, Oh, thats film. This is art.
Thats photography. Its trying to show that its all just
a process and that there are different ways to approach things. I think both
you and I hate categorization. People are always trying to stick you in a box
and say, Oh, hes in a rock band. Now hes a composer, but he
only composes this kind of stuff. You fight that every single time you
do something. The MoMA exhibit shows that each different approach is all part
of the same thingan ideawhether its written or drawn or a
piece of music or whatever.
ELFMAN: Id like to touch on a hidden talent of yours, which is writing
rhymes and lyrics. When I began the songs for Nightmare, I was surprised
to see that you had already written a lot of the great lyric pieces, all of
which got assimilated and incorporated into the final songs.
BURTON: When I was growing up, Dr. Seuss was really my favorite. There was
something about the lyrical nature and the simplicity of his work that really
hit me. Im always amazed by people that can do it in the simplest way,
but yet it is sophisticated and emotional and telling.
ELFMAN: For the record, my favorite lyric line is Perhaps its the
head that I found in the lake, from The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Its your line, not mine.
BURTON: But you made it sound good.
ELFMAN: Now I want to take you to the Batman moment in your career:
Its only your third feature, and youre still the new kid on the
block. You dont even have a reelother than comedies, you dont
have a commercial track record. And as I recall, the pressure was enormous.
The production was enormous. The budget, for the time, was enormous. How did
you cope with that?
BURTON: It helped being in England. Not much was going on there at the time.
You could really go and focus on the movie and not be involved in all of the
hype, like Whos going to play Batman? Oh, they picked Michael [Keaton]all
this kind of hoopla, which is just a waste of time. So being in England was
very helpful. Even though it was a big-budget thing, it was still slightly under
ELFMAN: So you got a little bit of protection.
BURTON: A little bit. Jack Nicholson was obviously a big star. He was very
protective of me. He had a lot of clout, and when people were getting on my
case, he could use it to cut me some slack. He was very supportive.
ELFMAN: Ive always wondered if part of the reason for moving on to Edward
Scissorhands right after Batman had something to do with wanting
a smaller project with less pressure attached to it.
BURTON: I think it was a bit of that. But the weird thing was that trying to
make it low budget, after doing Batman, was very difficult. Everyone
thought, Oh, you made this big movie, so this is another big movie. But it wasnt
a big movie. I was out in the swampland in Florida, and people wanted to charge
me a million dollars to use it because I had just made Batman. So there
was a lot of having to walk away from certain things just to get the movie made.
But, yes, it was nice to go back to a smaller project. Its only gotten
worse in this era. When I did Batman, you actually didnt hear the
word franchise. That wasnt even in the language.
ELFMAN: Right. It hadnt entered the vocabulary yet. For Scissorhands,
you had great faith in Johnny [Depp] right from the get-go. He was pretty much
unproven at that pointhe really only had a TV show [21 Jump Street].
As I recall, you were under some pressure to cast someone else. How were you
able to find the faith to see something beyond what Johnny had shown in his
TV work? There was clearly more to him, and you saw that.
BURTON: It was exactly for that reason. Meeting him, you realize that there
is this perception of him as a teen idol, but hes really not that person.
Thats just how he was perceived by societyand thus who he was. And
thats exactly like Edward: Im not what people think I am.
Im something else.
ELFMAN: You got all that just from meeting him?
BURTON: Yeah, absolutely. Thats the thing. I could tell that he understood.
You can always feel if someone understands the dynamic. Theres a certain
pain in that. Johnnys not Tiger Beat, even if thats how the rest
of the world saw himas a page of a teen magazine. Hes got a lot
more depth, a lot more emotion. Theres a certain sadness when that happens
to people. So its very easy to identify without even really talking too
much about it.
ELFMAN: Youre known for working on amazing sets and compositing
shots that use as few effects as possiblemaybe with the exception of Mars
Attacks!, and even then you had sets and actors and animated Martians that
were realized pretty quickly. Now we are about to see Alice in Wonderland,
which is a totally different animal. What has it been like working on that?
BURTON: Its completely opposite from the way I usually make a film. Usually
the first thing I know is the vibe and feel of a scene. Its the first
thing you see. Now its the last thing you see. Its like actually
being in Alice in Wonderland. Its completely fucked up. You understand
that when youre shootingthat some percentage of what youre
filming isnt going to be exactly like what it ends up being, because so
many elements are added later. Its in your head, and it can be unsettling.
I did find it quite difficult because you dont see a shot until the very
end of the process. Even when we were making Nightmare or Corpse Bride,
youd get a couple of shots and know what the vibe was. This is completely
I find that a lot of monsters today are just so busy. They have so many
little tentacles and flaps and whatever else that they dont have the kind
of strength in their images that the old monsters had. Its also due to
the CGI heaviness. Youre missing the human element.Tim Burton
ELFMAN: Were going to end with a little free association here.
BURTON: Uh-oh. Always a bad sign.
ELFMAN: Reality. [Burton laughs] As a kid, what was your idea of reality?
BURTON: Well, its those things that I always loved. People say, Monster
moviestheyre all fantasy. Well, fantasy isnt fantasyits
reality if it connects to you. Its like a dream. You have a nightmare,
and its got all this crazy imagery, but its real. You wake up in
a cold sweat, freaking out. Thats completely real. So I always found that
those people trying to categorize normal versus abnormal or light versus dark,
yada yada, are all missing the point.
ELFMAN: I remember what you said to me when you were fighting the R rating
on Batman Returns, which was absurd because there was nothing really
violent in the whole movie to put an R rating on. You said, You know whats
scary to a little kid? When they hear one of their relatives coming home and
knocking over furniture because theyre drunk. Thats frightening
to a kid. Not monsters!
BURTON: Exactly! Or when an aunt who has blood-red lipstick and lips three
feet long comes to kiss you dead-on on your face. Thats terrifying!
ELFMAN: [laughs] Okay. Animals. How did animals play into your perception of
BURTON: Well, I had a doga couple of dogs.
ELFMAN: Maybe a raccoon, too.
BURTON: And a raccoon. Two dogs and a raccoon can very likely be your heart
and soul. I guess its pretty sad, but it can be the strongest emotional
tie you have. Theres a purity to that love. Its very good to remember
and good to hang onto and aspire to on the human side. At least it shows that
BURTON: Weve all been called that before. [laughs] When I hear that word,
I hear, Somebody that I would probably like to meet and would get along
ELFMAN: Good and evil.
BURTON: Hard to tell sometimes. Thats the thing. Especially when youre
making a movie, you experience good and evil about 20 to 100 times a day. Youre
not quite sure where one crosses over into the other. Its quite a slippery
slope, that one.
ELFMAN: Has your sense of reality shifted, now that you have children?
BURTON: Obviously, you get more grounded, but at the same time it gets more
surreal. And its nice to reconnect to those abstract feelings. Its
good as an artist to always remember to see things in a new, weird way. Its
like weird, twisted poetry, the way kids perceive things. And quite beautiful
sometimes. They kind of blow your mind and ground you at the same time. So its
ELFMAN: Last question. You dont have to answer itthis is just a
personal question. Ive always wondered, but Ive never really asked
you: Why in the world did I get hired to do Pee-wees Big Adventure?
Because it didnt make any sense, even to me.
BURTON: [laughs] We never talked about it, did we? Its very simple to
me. I used to come to see your band play at places like Madame Wongs.
ELFMAN: But thats so different from film scoring.
BURTON: It wasnt to me. I always thought you were very filmic in some
way. I dont even know what that means! There was a strong narrative thrust
to what you were doing. And it was theatrical. Also, because I hadnt made
a feature-length film yet, I just responded to your work. It was very nice to
be connected to somebody who I felt had done so much more than I had at that
ELFMAN: Well, Johnny and I both owe you.
BURTON: Its all great. Like I said, whats great is that Ive
known you longer than anybody. Theres something quite exciting when you
have a history with somebody and you see them do new and different things. We
have our next challenge set out for us, thats for sure. But lets
have you watch it, and see if you want to quit.