In 1984, Paul Reubens was looking for a director. The film in development was Pee-wee’s 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 Frankenweenie—Tim Burton’s 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 office.
Of course, these days, Burton doesn’t 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 Burton’s work—a 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 films—a 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 life—parents, teachers, school, breakfast—far more terrifying than monsters or movies. What are zombie pet dogs, after all, compared to real-life threats like dullness and loss? Burton’s 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 York’s 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 drawings—including versions of Jack Skellington, Edward Scissorhands, Sweeney Todd, and Batman. His next film, Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, due out next month, is a suitably trippy semi-animated adventure featuring Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter (Burton’s partner), Anne Hathaway, and Crispin Glover. Danny Elfman, who has been composing music for Burton’s 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 artist—and about what really scares him.
DANNY ELFMAN: Okay, we’re rolling. Be aware that we can stop and start; we can even redo a question if you don’t like what you’ve said. You can suggest a topic. No pressure.
TIM BURTON: I say stream of consciousness, and whatever happens, happens.
ELFMAN: Then let’s 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: Bava’s Black Sunday  is probably the one that did it. I remember, in L.A., I’d watch a whole weekend of horror movies. And after you watched about two movies in a row, you’d 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 I’m 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 don’t 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 don’t have the kind of strength in their images that the old monsters had. It’s also due to the CGI heaviness. You’re missing the human element—like 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 that’s important. It’s always an interesting challenge to see if you can create a character that’s 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. It’s like society. In fact, it’s 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 you’re dealing with a vague bureaucracy, where no one’s in charge when there’s a problem. [laughs] So I think that’s 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 don’t.
BURTON: There are certain movies that really don’t. 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 don’t 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 didn’t exist then and they have to get past that.
BURTON: That’s true. Even before kids watch a movie, they’re already accustomed to video games and stuff. So that sense of slower pacing is already gone. It’s unfortunate because there’s 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, didn’t you? I’m assuming that was because it was very peaceful and calm there, that going to graveyards allowed you to be introspective.
BURTON: People think that it’s 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 weren’t supposed to be.
ELFMAN: Did you ever believe—or half believe—in ghosts?
BURTON: Yeah. I’ve seen things and felt things. I think most people do. I think it’s just how much you suppress it. I don’t go out and say, “Oh, my god, I was abducted by a UFO,” or “I’ve seen these ghosts.”
ELFMAN: Did you feel any hauntings at the graveyards where you hung out?
BURTON: You feel an energy. Most people say about graveyards, “Oh, it’s just a bunch of dead people; it’s creepy.” But for me, there’s an energy to it that is not creepy or dark. It has a positive sense to it. It’s like all of that Day of the Deadimagery. That, to me, is the right idea. It’s a celebration. It’s much more lighthearted. There is humor involved—color 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 happened—as things usually don’t. Have you ever been in a room where you might have had an experience?
BURTON: I’ve 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 ain’t gonna happen. It always seems to occur when you’re sort of open but not thinking about it. So, no, I’ve 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: It’s 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 wouldn’t respond, but he responded pretty immediately, and he seemed to really get it. That made me feel really great. He didn’t just see it as a fan thing. That’s why it was really special to me. It’s hard to get projects going—and also hard to meet somebody you’ve admired. You never know what they’re 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 moments—those surreal, special moments—and 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 guy—that he was so into art, and helping this college in East L.A., giving lots of artwork, and still curious about everything—it helps you to keep going when you feel jaded.
ELFMAN: In art school, you had an epiphany where you didn’t 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. It’s never happened to me again quite that same way. From that moment on, I just drew a different way. I didn’t draw better, I just drew differently. It freed me up to not really care. It reminds me of when you’re drawing as a child. Children’s drawings all look pretty cool. But at some point, kids get better at drawing, or they say, “Oh, I can’t draw anymore.” Well, that’s because someone told you that you couldn’t—it doesn’t mean that you can’t. It taught me to stick to what’s inside of me, to let that flourish in the best way it can. I’ve been waiting for that feeling to come back ever since, and it hasn’t 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 didn’t fit the mold there, but your talents didn’t go unnoticed either.
BURTON: Again, it’s one of those weird timing things. If it had happened at any other point in the company’s history, I probably would’ve 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 don’t 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 didn’t start with a script. Instead, you had a story and a series of amazing drawings.
BURTON: That’s why I’m very grateful for the show at MoMA. It hasn’t been about categorization—like, “Oh, that’s film. This is art. That’s photography.” It’s trying to show that it’s 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, he’s in a rock band. Now he’s 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 thing—an idea—whether it’s written or drawn or a piece of music or whatever.
ELFMAN: I’d 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. I’m 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 it’s the head that I found in the lake,” from The Nightmare Before Christmas. It’s 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: It’s only your third feature, and you’re still the new kid on the block. You don’t even have a reel—other than comedies, you don’t 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 “Who’s 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 the radar.
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: I’ve 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 wasn’t 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. It’s only gotten worse in this era. When I did Batman, you actually didn’t hear the word “franchise.” That wasn’t even in the language.
ELFMAN: Right. It hadn’t 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 point—he 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 he’s really not that person. That’s just how he was perceived by society—and thus who he was. And that’s exactly like Edward: “I’m not what people think I am. I’m something else.”
ELFMAN: You got all that just from meeting him?
BURTON: Yeah, absolutely. That’s the thing. I could tell that he understood. You can always feel if someone understands the dynamic. There’s a certain pain in that. Johnny’s not Tiger Beat, even if that’s how the rest of the world saw him—as a page of a teen magazine. He’s got a lot more depth, a lot more emotion. There’s a certain sadness when that happens to people. So it’s very easy to identify without even really talking too much about it.
ELFMAN: You’re known for working on amazing sets and compositing shots that use as few effects as possible—maybe 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: It’s completely opposite from the way I usually make a film. Usually the first thing I know is the vibe and feel of a scene. It’s the first thing you see. Now it’s the last thing you see. It’s like actually being in Alice in Wonderland. It’s completely fucked up. You understand that when you’re shooting—that some percentage of what you’re filming isn’t going to be exactly like what it ends up being, because so many elements are added later. It’s in your head, and it can be unsettling. I did find it quite difficult because you don’t see a shot until the very end of the process. Even when we were making Nightmare or Corpse Bride, you’d get a couple of shots and know what the vibe was. This is completely ass-backward.
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 don’t have the kind of strength in their images that the old monsters had. It’s also due to the CGI heaviness. You’re missing the human element.Tim Burton
ELFMAN: We’re 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, it’s those things that I always loved. People say, “Monster movies—they’re all fantasy.” Well, fantasy isn’t fantasy—it’s reality if it connects to you. It’s like a dream. You have a nightmare, and it’s got all this crazy imagery, but it’s real. You wake up in a cold sweat, freaking out. That’s 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 what’s scary to a little kid? When they hear one of their relatives coming home and knocking over furniture because they’re drunk. That’s 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. That’s terrifying!
ELFMAN: [laughs] Okay. Animals. How did animals play into your perception of reality?
BURTON: Well, I had a dog—a 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 it’s pretty sad, but it can be the strongest emotional tie you have. There’s a purity to that love. It’s very good to remember and good to hang onto and aspire to on the human side. At least it shows that it’s possible.
BURTON: We’ve 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 with.”
ELFMAN: Good and evil.
BURTON: Hard to tell sometimes. That’s the thing. Especially when you’re making a movie, you experience good and evil about 20 to 100 times a day. You’re not quite sure where one crosses over into the other. It’s 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 it’s nice to reconnect to those abstract feelings. It’s good as an artist to always remember to see things in a new, weird way. It’s 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 it’s great.
ELFMAN: Last question. You don’t have to answer it—this is just a personal question. I’ve always wondered, but I’ve never really asked you: Why in the world did I get hired to do Pee-wee’s Big Adventure? Because it didn’t make any sense, even to me.
BURTON: [laughs] We never talked about it, did we? It’s very simple to me. I used to come to see your band play at places like Madame Wong’s.
ELFMAN: But that’s so different from film scoring.
BURTON: It wasn’t to me. I always thought you were very filmic in some way. I don’t even know what that means! There was a strong narrative thrust to what you were doing. And it was theatrical. Also, because I hadn’t 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 point.
ELFMAN: Well, Johnny and I both owe you.
BURTON: It’s all great. Like I said, what’s great is that I’ve known you longer than anybody. There’s 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, that’s for sure. But let’s have you watch it, and see if you want to quit.
Photo credit: Tim Burton in New York, July 2009
Danny Elfman is a singer-songwriter and an Academy award–nominated composer. He has scored the music for movies like Batman, Milk, and Tim Burton’s upcoming Film Alice in Wonderland.