FOR TIM BURTON, THIS ONE'S PERSONAL
By Nina J. Easton
From The Los Angeles Times, 08.12.1990
It's only noon on the Fox lot in Century City but the mercury
moseyed past 100 degrees hours ago. Director Tim Burton, weary
after three months of filming his new movie, has taken refuge
inside an air-conditioned mobile home near Stage 15. Sitting
across a formica table, he runs his fingers through his jet black,
mad-scientist hair and begins describing his life-long fascination
"They're an interesting invention; they cut through things," he
If this was any other filmmaker, now might be a good time to
call it quits and reschedule the interview after the guy has
had a chance to collect himself. But when the 31-year-old Burton
turns his skewed microscope on the world, it's usually worth
paying attention. The absurdist realities he created in Pee
Wee's Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, and Batman have earned him a reputation
as one of Hollywood's most inventive young directors. "There
is a wonderful cartoon madness in his work," says Vincent
Price, "a kind of madness that doesn't exist anymore in
So if Burton wants to talk about scissors . . .
"I mean," the director continues, "scissors are
both simple and complicated. They're a very simple design. But
I remember as a kid I could never figure out how they worked."
Scissors provide the overriding metaphor for Burton's new movie,
Edward Scissorhands, his most personal feature film yet. In it,
Johnny Depp stars as a boy-creature who has sharp metal shears
for hands -- a curse that befell him when his inventor (played
by Price) died before finishing his project. Each "finger" is
about 10 inches long, making Depp's hands look more like hedge-trimmers
than scissors (though calling the character Edward Hedge-trimmerhands
might overextend the metaphor.)
Isolated for years in a Gothic castle, Edward is a social misfit,
but one with rare artistic talents: He's a sculptor who creates
intricate topiaries for his garden. When an Avon lady discovers
him, Edward quickly becomes the neighborhood's favorite oddity.
He whips up new haircuts for the women and shapes bushes into
bears and deer and penguins for their front lawns. Eventually,
though, the neighborhood turns against him.
"The character is both simple and complicated," says
Burton. "Both beautiful and off-putting, both creative and
Fox executives have cautiously high hopes for Burton's $20-million
movie, one of three films scheduled for release at Christmas. "I
hate to use the word E.T. -- that's sacrilege," says Fox
Chairman Joe Roth. But he used the word anyway, making it clear
that Fox hopes Edward Scissorhands will connect with audiences
the way the 1982 Steven Spielberg classic did.
"We have to let it find its place," Roth adds. "We
want to be careful not to hype the movie out of the universe." Drawings
and photos of Edward are closely guarded. A spokeswoman says
the studio does not want to give away the look of the picture.
Winona Ryder, who worked with Burton on Beetlejuice, was the
first actor attached to the project. Early this year the 18-year-old
actress contracted a sinus infection while filming Mermaids,
set in Boston, in which she co-stars with Cher. That forced her
to quit her next film, Francis Coppola's Godfather III, shortly
after she reported to the set in Rome. Ryder recovered, though,
in time for the production start on Edward, in which she plays
a teen-age girl who alone understands and befriends the boy-creature.
Burton had little trouble assembling the supporting cast. Dianne
Wiest, the Avon lady who discovers Edward, read the script and
immediately agreed to her role. Price had worked with Burton
before, having narrated a short film called Vincent, and was
a big admirer. Kathy Baker saw the part that she was offered
as a good chance to break into comedy. Alan Arkin, who plays
Wiest's husband, and Anthony Michael Hall, Ryder's evil boyfriend,
were both readily cast.
But the lead role of Edward was picked over by a strange assortment
of actors before Burton and Fox settled on Johnny Depp, the former
star of Fox Television's series "21 Jump Street." Fox
urged Burton to consider Tom Cruise for the role, but after several
hours of meetings, the two parted ways. (One topic of those meetings,
sources say, was Edward Scissorhands' lack of virility.) Michael
Jackson was eager to play the role but wasn't offered it. Tom
Hanks passed up the project in favor of Bonfire of the
William Hurt and Robert Downey Jr. both expressed interest.
The casting of the 27-year-old Depp opposite his real-life fiance,
Ryder, was coincidental. Burton hadn't seen Depp's work, but
once he did and met the actor, he says he was impressed with
Depp's subtlety and ability to "act with his eyes." Burton
also was intrigued by Depp's career path. After four seasons
of a macho TV role that transformed him into a teen-age heart-throb,
Depp did a 180-degree turn, taking the lead role in a John Waters
farce, Cry Baby.
"America has been sold this perception of me," Depp
says. "(Fox) had this product ("21 Jump Street")
and in order to sell it they had to generate heat, so they sold
this character I played on TV as if it were me." His real
interest, he says, is to work on offbeat projects with directors
like Burton, Waters and David Lynch.
Depp's role as Edward Scissorhands is anything but macho. "Johnny
played it like a little boy, which is a tough thing to do for
an actor," says Ryder. "(Male) actors have this thing,
they don't want to do anything to make them look innocent, naive,
vulnerable. They all want to be macho, to carry a gun."
Says Depp: "It was strange because it's not like there
was anything to base (the character) on. Edward is not a human
being, he's not an android, he's not an alien. To me he was like
a newborn baby, with that kind of innocence . . . or like a dog
that gives unconditional love." In fact, the film's screenwriter,
Caroline Thompson, says her memories of a dog she once owned
helped shape the character's reaction to the world. "She
had this preternaturally alert quality," Thompson says of
the dog, "but no way to communicate it. But for the physical
constraints, I always felt she could speak."
More than one crew member has commented on the eerie resemblance
between Burton and his lead character on the set -- two slenderly
built black-clad figures with wild black hair. "This film
is important to Tim because it is so personal," says producer
Denise Di Novi. "In a way Edward really is the metaphor
for the artist who does not fit into the world."
Is Burton the artist chronicling his own uneasiness in the world,
his memories of a difficult childhood where he found refuge in
the melodrama of Vincent Price movies? "That (notion) freaks
me out too much," Burton says. "I wouldn't have approached
a film like that. I don't want to get so interiorized that it's
just . . . I'm hoping the feelings are fairly universal." The
film, he adds, "is not a new story. It's Frankenstein. It's
Phantom of the Opera. It's Hunchback
of Notre Dame, King Kong,
Creature From the Black Lagoon, and countless fairy tales."
But Edward Scissorhands is Burton's most intimate expression
since the short films he made while working as an animator at
Disney. Unlike his other feature films, the story of Edward
Scissorhands is his own invention -- fleshed out into a screenplay by Thompson. "It
was a hard movie," producer Di Novi says during one of the
last days of production. "Every detail was important to
Tim, because it is so personal."
Burton first brought the idea to his agents at the William Morris
Agency, Mike Simpson and John Burnham, after the success of Pee
Wee but before he had so thoroughly captured the interest of
critics with Beetlejuice. "It was a very unusual story," Simpson
says of Burton's story about a boy-creature with scissors for
hands. "It didn't jump off the page as a hit picture."
Warner Bros. -- which has produced all three of Burton's feature
films so far -- passed on Edward Scissorhands. But Scott Rudin,
then production president at Fox, agreed to finance a script,
to be written by Thompson -- also a William Morris client. Burton
originally wanted to make the movie as a musical ("it seemed
big and operatic to me," he says) but later dropped the
The Morris agents structured a deal with Fox that gave Burton
enormous creative freedom. He and Thompson wrote the screenplay
without input from Fox; once it was completed, the studio had
a limited time to either greenlight the project or turn the rights
back over to Burton. Roth says Edward Scissorhands was one of
the first films he greenlighted when he took over as Fox chairman.
The three months of filming -- first in a Florida subdivision,
later on the Fox sound stages where Die Hard 2 was shot -- took
an emotional toll on Burton. "It's harder because it's something
I'm completely connected with," he says. "I feel more
volatile. I feel myself in weirder moods. I'm more interiorized.
Emotionally, it's harder, but it's more satisfying."
Harder, even, than Batman, with its $60-million budget, cast
of megastars and stratospheric studio expectations? "Yes,
yes," Burton says, holding on to each "s" as he
thinks back. "I felt like a normal person doing Batman,
actually. I was not a giant comic book fan. I felt like that
movie . . . Making a big budget movie is so absurd anyway . .
. I think back on it . . . " Burton often slips into these
half sentences and allows his words to stray off like that. His
thoughts seem to come racing to his tongue, tripping over each
other before they can get out. Yet for some strange reason, it's
always clear what he's trying to say. As writer Thompson put
it: "He's the most articulate non-verbal person I know."
The social misfit aspect of the Edward Scissorhands character
has appeared in Burton's work before. As a young animator at
Disney in 1982, he made the short black-and-white animated Vincent,
in which a 7-year-old boy has delusions of being Vincent Price,
of sharing his home with "spiders and bats" and wandering "dark
hallways alone and tormented." Price narrates the cartoon,
which won two awards at the Chicago Film Festival.
The images in Vincent were drawn directly from Burton's own
middle-class childhood in Burbank, where his father recently
retired from the parks and recreation department and his mother
runs a small gift shop. "I can't tell you what (Price) meant
to me growing up," Burton says. "This sounds dramatic
but he helped me live . . . When you're a child and a teen-ager
it's not unusual to go through a melodramatic phase. Some people
find release through heavy metal or whatever. But by watching
(Price's) films, there was a catharsis for me. You're not just
watching a low-budget Edgar Allan Poe movie, there's something
else there that's not on the screen. I channeled my melodrama
into that, as opposed to suicide probably."
Two years later, Burton again turned his camera on a little
boy, this time in a 30-minute live-action film called Frankenweenie,
also shot in black-and-white. In it, a young boy becomes a kind
of Young Frankenstein when he brings his dead dog back to life
in the isolation of his attic. The complex reaction of the suburban
neighborhood to the dog is much like that of the neighbors toward
All three of Burton's feature films have done big business at
the box office: Pee-Wee's Big Adventure cost less than $7 million,
but grossed more than $40 million in the U.S.; Beetlejuice, budgeted
at $13 million, had ticket sales of nearly $74 million; And Batman has grossed more than $425 million worldwide, establishing itself
as Warner Bros.' biggest hit ever.
The imaginative looks that Burton brought to all three films
-- his ability to make the grotesque look mundane, even funny
-- have made him a favorite among critics. But at the same time,
he has been criticized for flaws in story structure. Batman,
in particular, drew that kind of criticism.
The Times' Sheila Benson wrote that the Sam Hamm-Warren Skarren
screenplay didn't give "those characters a fighting chance
. . . It flops about . . . and it's disastrously low on the sort
of wit that can make a gargantuan movie lovable." Vincent
Canby of the New York Times complained that the "wit is
all pictorial. The film meanders mindlessly from one image to
the next." While some observers have speculated that the
movie's flaws were the result of factors and people other than
Burton, the director says he is satisfied that Batman reflected
his own vision. "I read a lot that said it wasn't me," he
says. "Actually if there was a reason it wasn't me as much,
it was the time constraint. Everything happened very quickly.
That's where I feel the most dissatisfaction. But I knew that
Burton hopes that Edward Scissorhands will offer his audiences
something meatier than his past work. "The problem I have
with some of the things I've done is that because they have such
strong surface level images, I don't know if people see below
that," he says. In Edward Scissorhands, "I feel like
there is a little bit more below the surface that's obvious.
But I don't know, I can't predict (audience reaction)."
Still, the film has plenty of Burtonesque visuals. Inside Edward's
castle, the inventor left behind an assembly-line of huge black
human-shaped machines -- dripping with cobwebs -- that look capable
of skinning corpses. In fact, this creepy Rube Goldberg contraption
is a cookie-maker.
The castle sits on a hill next to a suburban tract where the
houses are painted in a series of pastels that makes the neighborhood
look more relentlessly uniform than if the houses were all the
same color. Production designer Bo Welch says these "old
circus colors" reflect the "faded optimism" of
middle-class neighborhoods like this.
Alan Arkin says that when he first read the script, he was "a
bit baffled." "Nothing really made sense to me until
I saw the sets. Burton's visual imagination is extraordinary." The
crew went into a Florida subdivision and repainted 60 houses. "They
stripped the houses of any textures," says Arkin. "It
makes it look surreal and yet strangely reminiscent at the same
To achieve that look, Burton brought together a crew that includes
many of his old standbys: Oscar-nominated production designer
Bo Welch (Beetlejuice, The Color Purple); art director Tom Duffield
(Beetlejuice); set designer Rick Heinrichs (Vincent,Beetlejuice and composer Danny Elfman (Beetlejuice, Batman). Newcomers to
Burton's crew include director of photography Stefan Czapsky
( Last Exit to Brooklyn, The Thin Blue
Line); Oscar-winning editor
Richard Halsey (Beaches, Rocky); costume designer Colleen Atwood
(Joe Versus the Volcano, Married to
the Mob) and Oscar-winning
special effects designer Stan Winston (Aliens, Predator).
Burton insists that the neighborhood he created is not just
another film commentary on vacuous suburbia. "A lot of it
for me is the memory of growing up in suburbia," he says. "It's
not a bad place. It's a weird place. It's a place where some
people grow up and ask, 'Why are there resin grapes on the wall?'
(and others don't). We're trying to walk the fine line of making
it funny and strange without it being judgmental. It's a place
where there's a lot of integrity."
Burton doesn't know what his next project will be after Edward.
Sam Hamm is currently working on a script for a sequel to Batman
2, but Burton says he doesn't know whether he will direct --
despite reports that he already has committed to the project. "I
get pressure from studios and other people and agents to do it," he
says. "And then my friends say, 'Don't do it, why would
you want to do a sequel?' I don't take either side of the fence.
I just need to finish this. Otherwise, I'll make a decision based
on being in a bad mood or something."
Warner Bros. is hoping to produce Batman 2 next year for a 1992
release. But a studio spokeswoman said no decisions have been
made about the cast and crew. Meetings between Burton and studio
executives on both sequels are planned in the near future, she
Burton is equally noncommittal when asked about Beetlejuice
2. But he adds that "doing sequels doesn't excite me. I've
been lucky so far. While there are flaws (in my work), the reason
people have generally had a good response is that it feels fresher
. . . I don't consider myself an accomplished filmmaker. I have
to do projects where I have something to offer."
In the meantime, Burton's and Di Novi's unnamed production company
("Let's just called it Vague Productions," Burton says)
is churning out animated projects. One cartoon, Family
views a household through a dog's eyes, is on the upcoming CBS
prime time schedule. Burton declines to discuss the others. Di
Novi is also hard at work on a book of Burton's drawings.
So far, Burton is three-for-three at the box office. And the
huge success of Batman last summer has made him one of the most
sought-after directors in the business. Still, this solitary
artist is not always comfortable with all the hoopla that accompanies
a big hit.
Last summer, as Batmania took hold across the land, Burton was
desperate to get away. He got in his car and took off for a long
drive in the desert. In the middle of what seemed like nowhere,
he pulled into a roadside restaurant. A waitress came over to
take his order. He looked up. She was wearing a Batman pin.