Tim Burton January 12, 2007Posted by Sandsquish in Profiles.
Characteristic films include Batman, Batman Returns, Beetlejuice, Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride, Edward Scissorhands, Frankenweenie, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and Sleepy Hollow
Tim Burton was raised in the suburbs of Los Angeles. He was struck by the lack of individuality he saw around him.
“I grew up in a subtext of normality,” he says. “It’s weird. It’s American. There’s a very strong sense of categorization and conformity.”
Although Tim Burton would probably not consider himself a conformist, he seems to suffer from the same sort of repression that he sees in the rest of our society. He feels unable to communicate verbally, and most of his interviewers appear to agree that he is difficult to understand. He has felt isolated for most of his life and has been depressed for as long as he can remember.
The horror movies he watched as a child provided a link between him and the rest of the world. He was able to empathize with the monsters and villains. He saw an honest release of emotion in those characters that he couldn’t find anywhere else.
“The heroes were always these bland actors with no emotion. They were the suburbanites to me. Vincent Price was my psychologist. Those movies were very inspirational.”
He considers horror films, and his own films, to be modern fairy tales. Burton believes that the purpose of a fairy tale is to create a heightened version of reality that links feelings to society. Throughout his interviews, Burton uses the words purity, passion, and strength interchangeably. To him they all mean the same thing: sincere emotion.
Burton began to draw when he was very young. He felt like he could express himself through his art. Monster movies and drawing were both methods of manufacturing images that became symbols for feelings. After high school, he went to the California Institute for the Arts and studied animation. He worked for Disney after he graduated, but that didn’t work out.
“I just could not draw cute foxes for the life of me,” he says. “I almost went insane. I really did.”
And most of the main characters in his films are not cute. They may be funny, absurd, terrifying, pathetic, or bizarre, but they are rarely cute. His films deal with isolated misfits who are perceived by the rest of society as threats. These characters deal with loss and the callousness of society imaginatively, and they always pursue something with obsessive passion. Man-made objects, or artifacts, are closely associated with the main characters. Since Burton manufactures art as an outlet for emotion, why shouldn’t his characters?
The dog in “Frankenweenie,” for instance, is a man-(re)made object that is the result of a young boy’s imaginative, and determined, wish to see his companion resurrected. Pee-Wee Herman goes on an epic, and absurd, journey in search of a bicycle. Edward Scissorhands is a man-made object that expresses himself through his topiary and hairstyling. Bruce Wayne uses his family fortune to create an alter-ego that is entirely dependent on technology, and he obsessively hunts down anyone whose behavior resembles that of the young thug who killed his parents. The art-destroying Joker is the product of an accident in a vat of industrial chemicals, and he goes to the trouble to manufacture and market a commercial product to get his revenge on an entire city. Ichabod Crane relies on his investigative gadgets to lead him to the truth, and shield him from bizarre social attitudes. And Willy Wonka went so far as to build a whole world for himself inside of a surreal candy factory.
The insane clown is another recurring element in Burton’s films. From the manic Bettlejuice to the whimsically callous Willy Wonka, Burton’s clowns behave in frighteningly unexpected ways.
“Why a fascination with clowns? Probably because they are dangerous. That kind of danger is what it’s all about.”
Clowns represent an extreme reaction to emotion and the freedom that can come from being different. In a way, they also symbolize the “real” world, as opposed to the “semi-oppressive, blank palette” of American society.
“They acknowledge the absurdity. They acknowledge the reality. Life is unknown … a mixture of good and bad, and funny and sad. It’s weirdly complicated.”
Many of Burton’s cinematic techniques look as baroque as his own outlook. Danny Elfman’s overpowering classical music reverberates throughout his films, and any on-screen music tends to be banal pop songs that drown out the rest of the soundtrack. Burton’s sets are always very dense and stylized, and his in-frame compositions are meticulously balanced. He’ll often contrast the brilliant colors of one location with the de-saturated palette of another. And, frequently, the vividly-colored settings represent the landscape the hero must navigate to reach his goal, whether it’s the garish pastels of suburbia in Edward Scissorhands, the vivid nightmares of Crane in Sleepy Hollow, the lively underworld of Corpse Bride, or the cartoonish factory in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
It’s probably no coincidence that both Burton and a surprising number of his protagonists dress in black, or that many of his films are set in fall or winter, or that his characters, such as “Frankenweenie’s” Victor, Beetlejuice’s Lydia, Bruce Wayne, Ichabod Crane, and the Corpse Bride, are either obsessed with, or horribly scarred by, death. Fairy tales do deal with death, after all.
The actors who play out these fables are instructed to behave in either a stylized-and-exaggerated or simple-and-understated manner. Generally, the antagonists and clowns are stylized while the sympathetic characters are understated. The clowns, of course, display exaggerated emotion, but the characters who represent society-at-large are stylized in an attempt to portray the hypocrisy of people who fit in, despite the fact that the roles they have accepted may not represent what they really feel or believe. Meanwhile, Victor in “Frankenweenie,” Lydia in Beetlejuice, Bruce Wayne in Batman, Kim in Edward Scissorhands, and Katrina in Sleepy Hollow are all presented realistically.
Burton says that he has a lot of admiration for misguided characters who pursue something with passion. His films are absurd and bizarre, and they concern characters who are trapped in confusing and surrealistic worlds. Burton seems to see the world as a painful, but painful in a funny sort of way, place.
Quotes taken from interviews in GQ (Nov. 1993, v. 63, no. 11), Newsweek (Jan. 21, 1991, v. 117, no. 3), and Rolling Stone (July 9, 1992, no. 634)