TIM BURTON: THE ROLLING STONE INTERVIEW
By David Breskin
From Rolling Stone
, n 634-635, 07.09.1992-07.23.1992
Tim Burton, like his work, is a wonderful mess. He's falling-apart funny and
completely alienated; he's morbid and ironic; he's the serious artist as goofball
flake. A self-described "happy-go-lucky
manic-depressive," he's like a bright flashlight in a very dark place: the
grim factory of Hollywood. Burton is a true visionary. Our culture usually doesn't
use that word for people whose visions look like cartoons and go down like dessert,
but Burton is spitting in the eye of our culture while simultaneously celebrating
it. That's the fabulous, odd thing about his work: He's angrily spitting something
Burton was born in Burbank, California, in 1958 and has lived near Hollywood
all his life. He has a brother and two parents from whom he's always felt distant.
Growing up, he did feel close to Edgar Allan Poe and Vincent Price and many monsters
from many bad movies. He also took sanctuary in the confines of his own imagination;
for him, drawing was a refuge. Burton's first vehicle of public acceptance was
a garbage truck - in ninth grade, he won first prize in a contest to design an
antilittering poster, and his work graced the refuse trucks of Burbank for a
year. Wanting a career for which he wouldn't need too much schooling, he studied
animation at the California Institute of the Arts. Upon graduation, he went to
work for Disney.
Unhappy on the animation assembly line, Burton eventually won some measure of
freedom within the Disney kingdom, directing his first animated short, Vincent
in 1982. With narration by Vincent Price, this five-minute black-and-white piece
of stop-frame animation, heavy on German-expressionist sensibility, chronicled
the miserable life and liberating fantasies of a seemingly normal but deeply
disturbed suburban boy, quite like young Tim. Then
in 1984 came Frankenweenie
, a half-hour exploration of the Frankenstein
myth come to the suburbs. This lovable little mutt of a movie, which announced
the outsider-in-town theme Burton would later develop in Edward
, was buried by Disney until this spring, when it released a
Burton's first full-length feature, Pee-wee's Big Adventure
, was an inventive,
well-modulated romp built around the singular, screechy talents of Paul Reubens.
The critics paid little attention, but the picture did great business. Next,
Burton enlarged his visual signature on the campy, surreal Beetlejuice
a black laugh of a ghost story. Starring Michael Keaton in a comic tour de force,
the film was an over-the-top lob into the irrational, a cherry bomb tossed into
the gray classroom of mortality. It didn't all coalesce, but when it worked,
Burton's pie-in-your-face existentialism worked like magic. The critics paid
little attention, but the picture did fabulous
Never particularly a fan of comic books or cartoons, Burton was nonetheless chosen
to direct Batman, one of those blockbuster properties that had been in development
forever, with the studio executives clustered around it in dumb wonder, like
cave men around their first fire. Burton went deep into the myth and deep into
the dark and produced a flawed but fascinating pop epic. The movie had a grand,
rotten urban texture and a brooding tone. It was weighty but not ponderous, and
it was great fun - with Jack Nicholson taking the comic turn - but the fun was
somewhat submarined by awkward action, narrative glitches and inappropriate music
by Prince. The critics paid all sorts of attention, and the picture did historic
business. This gave Burton the freedom to direct Edward
, a deeply personal project he had first conceived as a teenager.
A simple fairy tale gift-boxed in a sophisticated design package, the story concerned
a castle-bound boy with shears for hands who's plucked from the fortress of his
solitude by an angelic Avon lady and thrust into the banal wonders of suburbia.
Yearning and sentimental, the movie felt like Burton's
After waffling for some time, Burton decided to do the inevitable Batman sequel.
He tried Batman Returns
largely for the chance to take a whack at some
new characters - Catwoman and Penguin - and take the myth more in his own direction,
exercising a control that the overwhelming success of the first movie brought
him and that his added experience would naturally provide.
The first film also brought him his wife, Lena Gieseke, a German painter, whom
he met while filming in London and married in February of 1989. In addition to
directing major motion pictures, Burton draws constantly and paints occasionally.
A coffee-table book of this art is in the planning stage, as are some children's
picture books he plans to author. He's also shot and appeared in a documentary
about Vincent Price and is developing a full-length animated
feature, Nightmare Before Christmas
I spoke with Burton twice in March of 1992, in his production-company office
Warner's Hollywood lot. Before our first session, he was in the midst of
preparing Batman Returns
to show to studio executives - he said he'd "rather
show it to aliens" - and he was even more nervous than usual. Burton talks
with his hands cutting the air, covering his face, pulling his hair. He struggles
to make sense of himself, starting four or five sentences for every one he finishes
and dicing his words into bits. (I've chosen clarity rather than interview verite
in the editing and punctuation of our conversation, in hopes that what you lose
in the way he thinks - his Veg-O-Matic style of verbalization -- you gain in
actually understanding what he thinks.) The fact is, English seems like a foreign
language for Burton: He thinks visually. Everything he says carries with it the
burden of translation.
Let's go back to the world of your childhood. I'm curious as to whether you
think your character was almost fully shaped by the time you were five years
No. 1, I really hate, more than almost anything - because it seems to be bubbling
up - that fucking "child within" bullshit. Do you know what I mean?
I don't know whether you've heard that shit. They say, "I've never lost
that touch of the child." It's the remnant of some yuppie bullshit, that
whole "tapping into the child within you," and that it's important
to make films that do. And I find that actually a form of retardation. [Pause]
What are you? That truly is a very interesting question. But not to the point
where people perceive you as maintaining that "childish" quality.
Well, in the past you've said that you were, in the films, working out or
from a lot of "childlike feelings" and that you felt you would move
Yeah, I find it very interesting, because I think it holds the key to everybody
- that question of what you are. Children are not perverted in a way. It has
more to do with the culture. When children are drawing, everybody draws the same.
Nobody draws better than everybody else. There's a certain amount of strength,
there's a certain amount of passion, there's a certain amount of clarity. And
then what happens is it gets beaten out of you. You're put into a cultural framework,
which gets beaten into you. To punch through that framework, you have to maintain
a certain kind of strength and simplicity.
Do you think that as a kid, there was an attempt to beat things out of you
that you wanted to hold on to?
I think the atmosphere that I grew up in, yes, there was a subtext of normalcy.
I don't even know what the word means, but it's stuck in my brain. It's weird.
I don't know if it's specifically American, or American in the time I grew up,
but there's a very strong sense of categorization and conformity. I remember
being forced to go to Sunday school for a number of years, even though my parents
were not religious. No one was really religious; it was just the framework. There
was no passion for it. No passion for anything. Just a quiet, kind of floaty,
kind of semioppressive, blank
palette that you're living in.
How young were you when you first felt that?
From very early on. As long as I can remember. My grandmother told me that before
I could walk, I always wanted to leave. I would just crawl away, I would crawl
out the door. And then when I was older, if anybody was going anywhere, I always
wanted to go. I had that impulse. And I had the impulse for horror movies - that
was a very strong thematic thing.
As a child did you want to spend time alone?
Absolutely. Absolutely. To this day I'm happiest when I'm . . . I look forward
to sleeping. And I did, even then. And I love talking to people who like to sleep.
There are a few things that just calm me down: when I hear about somebody making
mashed potatoes and when I hear about somebody sleeping and liking to sleep.
I get this sense of calm, and it's a wonderful feeling. And in Hollywood, nobody
likes to sleep - they're losing out, they're not on top of it. I love to
But you don't remember your dreams?
No. I have like five dreams I remember.
Do they repeat, consistently?
I only have one dream that's recurring. A great dream. There was a little girl
on my block who I was in love with, and she moved away. Every ten years I'll
dream about her, at the age we are now. We lost contact, but I have this clear
image of what she looks like.
What are the other four dreams you remember?
My parents went bowling, and there was this weird place that they stuck the kids.
I guess it was like a day-care center, but it was all Gothic, it was all rotted
wood. There were a few of us morose kids sitting there, and we saw this light
- a skeleton was coming in with this candle. And the skeleton looks at me, and
it opens a door, and I fall through a trapdoor, and I fall into my parents' bed.
And I remember waking up in my parents' bed. Weird, huh? Whoa! [Manic
I remember the ones that are so strong that I just couldn't forget them, and
I remember each feeling, each detail. I remember one when I got into an ax fight
with somebody. I remember every chop. I remember chopping off this person's face.
None of us died, but we just went through this thing, in sort of a Western setting.
There was another where there was this horrible [shudders], this horrible seaweed,
like this tough, purple, rubberish sea plant that was growing out of my mouth.
And I kept tearing it away, and it kept growing and growing and growing. That's
all it was, a long dream about the feeling of that, and the wacky high jinks
What was the kind of taste and smell of childhood for you?
This is funny, but I think I've always felt the same. I've never felt young,
like I was a kid. I've never felt like I was a teenager. I never felt like I
was an adult. I just have always felt the same. I guess if there was a flavor,
I guess childhood was a kind of surreal, bright depression. I was never interested
in what everybody else was interested in. I was very interiorized. I always felt
kind of sad.
Were you lonely?
I never felt . . . yeah. Yeah. I've always likened it to that feeling, when you're
a teenager, that grand feeling - which is why I liked punk or some people like
heavy metal or Gothic. You've got to go through some kind of drama. I've always
seen people who are well adjusted, and actually, they are not that well adjusted.
Everybody is going to blow at some moment or other. In fact, the ones that come
across as the most well adjusted are like human time bombs, waiting to go off.
I just think that kind of dark catharsis, that kind of dark, dramatic, depressed,
sad, moody thing, was kind of healthy.
I'm curious about your attraction to the horrific - monsters, ghouls and demons.
One take might be that in the kind of nothingness of suburbia - the almost slyly
attractive no-feeling nothingness of suburbia - which you can project anything
onto, the kind of deep feeling of the monsters is
Exactly. I love it. Lookit, all monster movies are basically one story. It's
Beauty and the Beast. Monster movies are my form of myth, of fairy tale. The
purpose of folk tales for me is a kind of extreme, symbolic version of life,
of what you're going through. In America, in suburbia, there is no sense of culture,
no sense of passion. So those served that very specific purpose for me. And I
linked those monsters and those Edgar Allan Poe things to direct feelings. I
didn't read fairy tales, I watched them.
Did you identify with the monster?
Completely! Every kid does. They were always taking the monster and kind of prodding
him and poking him, especially the ones of the Fifties. The way those movies
were structured, the heroes were always these bland actors with no emotion. They
were the suburbanites to me.
And you were the creature from the black split-level.
Sure! Of course. You've got to feel, you've got to go for the drama. If I didn't,
I just felt I would explode.
You've said you grew up at the end of the nuclear-family experiment, and that
it didn't work. Did you mean yours, or the whole idea?
I think the whole thing. There was no sense of connection to emotions. In our
culture, what you were taught about America in school is the way things should
be - success and family, what they call traditional family values - and things
are not that simple. So when it's not working, rather than going, "This
isn't working, this is fucked," people just feel like they are
And the last twelve years in Washington, they've been shoving that "family
values" idea down our throats.
And it's completely frightening, because they don't understand. The same thing
about "America." It's just bizarre to try to maintain this feeling
about America. And you see it most strongly in Los Angeles. America to me always
seems like a country that's based on a movie. Here you've got presidents spouting
lines from Clint Eastwood movies, and it's getting more and more that way. It's
hard to find people to work with because nobody wants to be what they
are: "Oh, I'm sorry, I'm not this, because I'm really this." This level
of success that's thrust upon you - you've got to be successful, and you've got
to be a certain way - nobody is what they are, because of this dream. And it's
great to have a dream, and none of that should be taken away from people, because
that's all people have, but not this materialistic dream. That's the problem,
and everybody is fucked up from it.
Do you remember when you first had the impulse to draw?
I think it started when it started for everyone. I'm just lucky that it wasn't
beaten out of me. I was very lucky that I maintained a passion for it and didn't
give a fuck what my third-grade teacher thought of it.
Were your drawings stuck up on the fridge by your parents?
I got the normal parent routine. It's actually quite funny. Mom's reading a book,
and you show her a drawing, and she has X-ray vision through the book, where
she can actually see your drawing without looking from her book. [Manic laugh]
That's the classic routine. So my drawing was always more private. I feel kind
of lucky, because I think if they had supported it, I probably wouldn't have
A couple of years ago you said you "freaked" because you didn't
even know the most basic things about your parents, like where they were born.
What caused you to freak about that?
I think it was in the period I was in therapy, where I was trying to figure out
what the fuck was going on. I felt a bit more depressed than usual. The fog got
a little grayer. It's hard to see through it as it gets down a little bit closer
to you. I was just not connecting to anybody. I was starting to feel too lonely
and too isolated and too abstract and depressed. And it was around that time
that it was pointed out to me that I didn't know anything about my parents. [Manic
laugh] It was kind of shocking.
David Lynch indicated that one of the reasons he never pursued psychoanalysis
or therapy was that he was afraid it would block his creative
That can be interesting. I went through that process a little bit, and I completely
unraveled [laughs]. There's so much about yourself and other people that's interesting,
but I just unraveled too quickly! I had a therapist who was very good, and they'll
tell you that one of their main concerns is not to let you unravel as you're
They want to let you hold on to your defenses until you have some new things
to hold on to.
Exactly! And I just dived right in and immediately went to the bottom level of
antidepressants and everything. I couldn't handle it.
How did the shrinkage relate to your work?
[With Brooklyn accent, as old-time director] Well, luckily I was in between pic-chahs!
[Laughs] I was just a ball of yarn there. There are times in your life when you
feel stuck. And I was wanting to burst through something, what it was I didn't
know. Depression. Throughout my life, there is some form and level of depression
that has always hung over me. And I don't think it's bad necessarily, but sometimes
when it gets bad - and there have been a few points -
it keeps you kind of stuck.
How long did you stick with it, before it became intolerable?
A couple of years. I had a couple of shrinks. I had one guy, he didn't talk to
me the whole time. [Manic laugh] It was hilarious. That was my problem: I never
spoke to anybody. So I found the perfect therapist, who just sat there for an
hour and didn't speak. It was like being in any other relationship - I didn't
say a word. He checked his watch every now and then. Weird. We didn't say anything
to each other. Maybe we were speaking Vulcan-style.
In the past, you've brought up making films as therapy a number of times,
both as a metaphor and almost literally in the case of Vincent - that
was therapy for you to make that film.
People don't realize, because of the surface way the films look and the cartoonish
nature of them, that the only thing that keeps me going through a movie is that
these characters mean something to me. My process is such that I look at all
these characters and get a feeling out of them that I find very meaningful. And
thematic. That's the only way for me to approach it. I could never approach it
like it's just a funny movie or it's a weird-looking
How do you feel your background in animation shaped you as a
What I feel really good about, really happy about, is that I did not go to film
school. I went to CalArts and went through animation, where I got a very solid
education. You learn design, you draw your own characters, your own backgrounds,
your own scenes. You cut it, you shoot it. You learn the storyboarding process.
It's everything, without the bullshit of film school: the competition, the feeling
like you're already in the industry - you don't get a chance to
But being attached to the animator's desk was traumatic.
I couldn't handle it. At Disney, I almost went insane. I really did. I don't
ever want to get that close to that certain kind of feeling that I had. Who knows
what a nervous breakdown is? Or who knows what going off the edge is? I don't
want to get that close again.
Was the monotony your biggest enemy?
No. 1 is, I was just not Disney material. I could just not draw cute foxes for
the life of me. I couldn't do it. I tried. I tried, tried. The unholy alliance
of animation is you are called upon to be an artist, but on the other hand, you
are called upon to be a zombie factory worker. And for me, I could not integrate
Also, at the time they were making kind of shitty movies. And it took them five
or six years to make a movie. There's that cold, hard fact: Do you want to spend
six years of your life working on The Fox and the Hound? There's a soul-searching
moment when the answer is pretty clear.
Your connection to animation was really only because it was linked to drawing,
which was something you did, and still do, obsessively and
Well, sure. That's why the one thing I had to learn about live action, which
is still a struggle for me, is to speak. In animation, you would communicate
through drawings, and I was perfectly happy to communicate that way. So what
you're saying is true: There was a direct link. You're able to maintain that
privacy much more in that relationship, because there's nothing else happening,
You've admitted that your movies are "flawed" and that they could
be shot full of holes.
I think it stems from story. It makes me a little sad sometimes. People peg you.
The feeling is that "Tim can't tell a story out of a paper
bag." And every time, when you're developing a script and you're talking
to the studio and you have these stupid script meetings with them, I can say
that if there is a problem with the movie, it is nothing that you discussed.
you're fighting that, it does make you a little sad. And Beetlejuice
kind of the one movie for me that gave me, again, that feeling of humanity, that "Fuck
everybody!" That made me feel very good, that the audience didn't need a
certain kind of thing. Movies can be different things! Wouldn't it be great if
the world allowed David Cronenberg to do his thing and people could tell the
But studios have the expectation that each film will be like one of those
cookies coming off the cookie assembly line in Scissorhands and that there
are only a few different shapes of cookies allowed.
Well, they're wrong! It's like with Warner Bros., because that's where my history
has mainly been. I'm always amazed - movies that they fight tooth and nail and
are always the weirdest, those are the ones that end up making them all the money.
All they have to do is look at their fucking slate of movies! The proof is there.
So why not, if something is going to be flawed, why not have it be interestingly
flawed, as opposed to boringly flawed?
Forgetting the "they" for a while, I'm interested in what you feel
the flaws of your films are.
It's funny - there's two levels to that. On an emotional level, I never feel
bad about it. I don't have children, but to me it's like giving your child plastic
surgery. I accept them, and on a very weird level I love them for their flaws.
Now, there's a technical side of me that sees I could have cut this, or that
could have been shorter; that's the boring technical side. But on the emotional
side, you accept them. What if you had a five- year-old with a whatever - would
you give him plastic surgery? I wouldn't do that, because part of the joy in
life is in the flaws. I feel a very strong emotional connection to them as a
part of myself. The only movie I feel colder about is the first Batman
In that movie, Vicki Vale [Kim Basinger] asks Bruce Wayne [Michael Keaton]
about his mansion, because she thinks it doesn't seem like him, and he says, "Some
of it is very much me, and some of it isn't." And I felt that was Tim Burton
talking there, about his movie.
[Laughs] Sure! Sure. That's why I decided to do another one. Because I love the
themes of it. I have to have those little links with it, because that's the only
thing that really keeps me going; otherwise I couldn't do it.
I'd like to go through each of your five features, beginning with Pee-wee's
Big Adventure. Although that was perceived as a children's picture, there
was a lot of very adult stuff in it.
Well, I don't think of kids or adults. What's child? What's adult? Everybody
is everything. It has more to do with a feeling. You don't get rid of who you
are or where you come from, but the point is, everybody is trying to get back
to a certain kind of purity anyway. Why are people looking for escape in movies
or drugs or drinking or amusement parks? Or anything? Why does anybody read?
Because it's a form of escape, or a form of recapturing - not a "childish" impulse,
but a way of looking at the world as if it were fresh and interesting. It has
less to do with being a child than it has to do with keeping an open, wonderful,
twisted view of the world.
Did it occur to you during the process of making that movie how phallic the
[Laughing] I mean the whole thing . . . you strip down any story or any fairy
tale, and you pretty much come down to the same thing, don't you?
I grew up with a fascination for people that were dangerous. Why a fascination
with clowns? Why do I like clowns so much? Why are they so powerful to children?
Probably because they are dangerous. That kind of danger is really what it's
all about. It's that kind of stuff that I think gets you through life. Those
are the only things worth expressing, in some ways: danger and presenting subversive
subject matter in a fun way. I link this stuff to the power of fairy tales. All
roads lead to them, for me, because of what I think
their purpose is.
What's the purpose and the function of fairy tales?
I think it does have to do with whatever that young impulse is - Who are we?
How are we created? What else is out there? What happens when you die? All that
stuff is unknown. Life is unknown. Everything is under the umbrella of life and
death and the unknown, and a mixture of good and bad, and funny and sad, and
everything at once. It's weirdly complicated. And I find that fairy tales acknowledge
that. They acknowledge the absurdity, they acknowledge the reality; but in a
way that is beyond real. Therefore, I find that more
Does there need to be a moral or something edifying to make a fairy tale
Well, we're talking about the movie industry. There are things to be dealt with.
I don't think it's necessary, personally. As a culture, and as an industry, people
are looking for that, for sure. Especially the whole "happy ending" routine.
They always like a happy ending.
Why do people seem to need that? You don't.
I don't need a happy ending. I feel much happier coming out of a movie like Sid
and Nancy than I do . . . Ghost or something. I feel like yes, I understand,
and I love it and I get it, and because it acknowledges a certain way that I
feel about life, I actually feel better. I see something like that, and it makes
Because tragedy is what makes sense to you.
It does make sense. I think life ultimately is tragic but in ultimately a very
positive way. We all die. It is tragic. You go through many tragic things in
your life, but that's not necessarily bad. That's what I love about playing with
tragedy in a fun way [laughs]. That's what I loved about Pee-wee. He was into
something in a passionate way, and it didn't matter what it was about. He was
Pee-wee says to the girl who desires him, brushing her off: "There's
lots of things about me you wouldn't understand, you couldn't understand, you
[Manic laugh] So I didn't ask! Because I understood.
We could say the same thing about all of your protagonists: Beetlejuice, Bruce
Wayne, Edward Scissorhands - they're all misunderstood.
Definitely. Who can pretend to know about themselves? It's too complicated, there
are too many crossed signals, split sides and dynamics. Does anybody know who
they are, really? Does anybody feel integrated? I mean, I don't know anybody
who does. I certainly don't pretend to know myself. So for me, I find this dynamic
to be realistic. And I enjoy it. It's often fun not to know things about
What about the kind of sexual threat from women that hangs over the Pee-wee
character during the whole Odyssey he's on?
I guess the Pee-wee character is immature. It does go back to childish impulses,
in a way. My take on what he's doing is that it's a perversion, there's no question
about it. That's what's great about it. This weird, alternative character who's
protecting - who's fighting off things in the world - and has mutated into something
that's separate. I just see him as an outside character dealing with the world,
in a heightened way. It had less to do with his bike than it did the idea of
passion about something that nobody else cares about. I kind of feel that way
about . . . the movies! [Laughs] I make these things that are very hard to make
- that are not pictures with a message by most people's standards - so I identify
with a character that is passionate about something that nobody else really cares
Edward Scissorhands is also "an outside character dealing with the
world." But you brought more baggage to him, since you'd had the idea first
in high school and had lived with it, and there were clear correspondences between
Tim Burton and Edward Scissorhands.
Yeah, well, it was a different thing for me, and I tried very hard not to be
too self-involved. See, I saw that character more thematically than personally.
Again, I saw it as much more fucked up. I tried to make it . . . you
Yes, you said you tried not to make it too personal, because you wanted it
to be universal. But the more personal you make something - whether it be a poem
or a song or whatever, if it's true and pure - the more universal it is. So why
the fear that the tighter the bond between you and Edward, the less universal
I guess because I don't know enough about myself. I'm not integrated enough yet.
I don't know if that will ever happen. It just shows you how unintegrated I am,
because the kind of characters that I enjoy are the kind of characters that aren't
integrated [laughs]. So that's about as personal as it could get. Let's put it
this way: I'm interested in the personal, because I take everything personally.
I take Pee-wee and Beetlejuice and Edward and Batman - I feel very close to those
characters. I really do. I feel like they are mutated
It's where you find meaning in the movies.
Exactly. But there again, these characters are all fucked up. They are impurely
pure. If Batman got therapy, he probably wouldn't be doing this, he wouldn't
be putting on this bat suit, and we wouldn't have this weird guy running around
in a cape. So there is a form of things not being integrated that is quite appealing.
So I don't know if I'm stuck or if I enjoy being stuck. Know what I mean? There
is a charm about characters that know not what they do but do it purely. Even
Beetlejuice is that way. There's a charm in that that I
Let me play Satan's helper here. Edward Scissorhands is a pathetic, beautiful,
ridiculous but funny character whose heart is always breaking - it's Tim Burton
saying how sensitive he is, that he's the oversensitive artist, who as a child
could not touch, could not communicate, without hurting. That's obvious. That's
an obvious reading of the film.
[Laughs] Sure. Right.
How does that make you feel when you get that reading?
Well, I guess it makes me feel that I wasn't one-hundred percent successful.
When you do a fairy tale, you are a little bit at odds with yourself. Because
a fairy tale is a romantic version of certain things. Taking something real and
heightening it. So what you have is an inherent balancing problem between the
real and the unreal. I think that's where I run into trouble a lot of the time,
because of the unwieldy nature of it. And then you've got Johnny Depp [who played
Edward], who brings a certain thing to it himself. Actually, it turned into more
my perception of him, in a way, what I saw in him, what he goes through, how
he's perceived, than it did even myself. It's unwieldy, it's unbalanced, and
there's a constant desire on my part to find the right balance. And you know
what? I'll take the hit and miss with it, because it's the only thing that really
makes it fun. So that thing probably
does make me uncomfortable, but I did it.
Since these characters are the repositories of meaning for you, I'd like to
talk about each of them. We've talked about Pee-wee already. What does Edward
mean to you?
I loved the idea - and this did go with an impulse that I felt and still feel,
and I think a lot of people feel - of feeling misperceived, the feeling of being
sensitive and overly sensitive and wanting things you can't get. I remember going
through a very strong feeling, a very teenage feeling, of not being able to touch
or communicate. I had that, very strongly. I've never been a very physical person.
I didn't grow up in a way that was very physical. And I always resisted that.
So there are simplistic things like that - which I would call the melodramatic
teenage impulses. And then the subtext of presenting yourself in such a way that
is not the way you are meaning. For me, I saw that character as all of that.
He is a way that you feel: What you say is not coming across, what you want is
misperceived. And just on a humorous level, I love a character that is open and
sensitive to everything. There is something very funny and tragic about that.
I've known people like that, that are overly sensitive, and you know what? It's
sad. I've known five people in my life that are overly sensitive, and the pain
and torture they go through - it's almost funny.
You wouldn't include yourself in that group?
Again, I don't analyze myself. [Pause] I have that tendency, yes.
Where's the meaning for you in the Beetlejuice character?
He's a classic character, a true fantasy. The good side of being labeled and
misperceived and put in a box is that even though that is being done to you,
also have, in some ways, a complete freedom.
You're not responsible to anybody's idea of you.
Yes. You can dress how you want. You can act however you want. You can be however
you want. "Well, that's just Tim." The freedom that comes with that
is a sad kind of freedom - there's a freakish quality to all of that - but it's
got its benefits. And I think Beetlejuice shows the complete positive side of
being misperceived and being categorized as something different. He can do whatever
he wants! He's horrible and everybody knows it, so he's a complete fantasy of
all of that. That's part of the lure of movies, in a simplistic way - just the
freedom. People respond to it. And then you put him up against the other characters,
which are really about repression.
About the tyranny of their desires.
Yeah, they've got their house, they've got their world. I just love the dynamic
between them. It's just very much like life.
Let's turn to Batman, the first one. Now there were, Tim, some rough
narrative spots. There were periods on that shoot where the script was being
changed every day and you didn't have time to reflect upon the changes
Yeah, it was bad.
-- and you were, in your own words, near death.
I was probably as sick as I've ever been, on a movie, all the time. I was out
of it. I was sick. See, the problem is, it was my first big movie. There's all
these people around. There's a different energy. There's no way to prepare. No
way to prepare. More money. More tension. More fear. Everything: more, more,
more. More. And I just let something happen, which I'll try to never let happen
again, which is to let the script unravel.
See, lookit, people in Hollywood, it's like territorialism, it's like animals
peeing on little patches of ground. Unless they can do that, they don't think
they're being creative. Hollywood is not real, it's not founded on reality, so
there's a lot of subconscious paranoia. There's a lot of deep-down fear, people
thinking: "What's my worth? Am I necessary to this process?" It's filled
with that. And what happened on Batman
, and I let it happen, is that the
script unraveled. Here we started out with a script that everybody said - again,
it's classic Hollywood - everybody goes, "Oh, it's a great script, it's
a great script." But at the end of the day, they basically shred it. So
it went from being the greatest script in the world to completely unraveling.
And once it unravels, it unravels. You're there, you do it. I remember Jack Nicholson
going, "Why am I going up the stairs?" I was
like "I don't know, Jack, I'll tell you when you get up
there." [Laughs] And a lot of it had to do with dealing with the energies
of the studio and the producers and everybody just being there and doing it -
there was no one thing; it was a big animal.
Well, a lot of those problems don't show up in the movie, or they show up,
but we don't care about them, because we're swept forward by other things. But
the one thing that everybody did care about is that the tension leading up to
Vicki Vale's finding out that Bruce Wayne is Batman is completely unresolved.
She just walks into the Batcave and --
And obviously, that was one thing I got killed for. It was rough. I'll tell you
exactly what the impulse was. The initial impulse for me, and again, this is
where I can go . . . 'cause I . . . I . . . my problem is, I can be a little
belligerent. I can respond to things, like maybe when you read about those little
kings in England or Egypt, who go, when they're really young, [as petulant, spoiled
child] "I don't care!" My impulse was, I said to
myself, "Fuck this bullshit!" This is comic-book material. I thought,
you know, who really cares? But it was a mistake. It went too far.
We expect, at least, Bruce Wayne to play off of the fact that he's discovered
there, by her, for the first time. But he doesn't. So the audience is left
wondering, "Did he already know that she knew who he was? Did we miss
something?" And we don't know. So we're sort of thrust out of the
This is the trouble I have. This is where sometimes there will be big gaps in
something that I do. I try very hard to create my own environment. And so far
it's worked out. But sometimes there will be a leap that people don't buy, they
don't buy, they don't buy. They go, "Whoa!" and it takes them out of
it. I don't want to take people out of something. I spend a large time trying
not have that happen.
The other thing in the first one that felt horribly intrusive was the Prince
music. We're in this Tim Burton world, and all of a sudden, like him or not,
Yeah, it's true. It's the unholy alliance of me and . . .
Warner Bros. marketing, pure and simple?
This is what happened. You learn something new every day. Now, here is a guy,
Prince, who was one of my favorites. I had just gone to see two of his concerts
in London, and I felt they were like the best concerts I'd ever seen. Okay. So.
They're saying to me, these record guys, it needs this and that, and they give
you this whole thing about it's an expensive movie so you need it. And what happens
is, you get engaged in this world, and then there's no way out. There's too much
money. There's this guy you respect and is good and has got this thing going.
It got to a point where there was no turning back. And I don't want to get into
that situation again.
It had to be painful for you to put that music into that movie.
It was . . . it was . . . it completely lost me. And it tainted something that
I don't want to taint. Which is how you feel about an artist. And actually, I
liked his album. I wish I could listen to it without the feel of what had
What's Batman about to you? Bruce Wayne's depression?
It's about depression, and it's about lack of integration. It's about a character
. . . unfortunately I always see it being about those things, not about some
kind of hero who is saving the city from blah-blah-blah. If you asked me the
plot of Batman
, I couldn't tell you. It's about duality, it's about flip
sides, it's about a person who's completely fucked and doesn't know what he's
doing. He's got good impulses, but he's not integrated. And it's about depression.
It's about going through life, thinking you're doing something, trying very hard.
And the Joker represented somebody who got to act however he
He's playing the Beetlejuice character.
Yeah. There are two kinds of people, even with double personalities. The ones
that are fucked, and they're still trying to muddle through life, and then the
ones that are fucked and get to be completely free and scary. And they're basically
two fantasies. There are two sides.
Which one are you closer to?
Well, I'm probably closer to the Bruce Wayne character, but I much prefer the
fantasy of the other. That's much more the liberating side of it.
It's curious that Bruce Wayne-Batman is actually the only character in the
movie who's not a cartoon character but is a human being.
I get the most gravity out of him. That's why I like Michael Keaton in it. He's
got that . . . all you got to do is look at him, and he looks fucked up. So for
me, the context is immediately there. He's an unintegrated, kind of goofy, sad,
passionate, strong, misguided, in some ways quite clear and in some ways completely
Why didn't you explore that more?
Because I found that the deeper you went, the more of an intrusion it was. Maybe
there's a way to do it I haven't figured out yet. I always felt trying to figure
him out more would be too intrusive.
You don't want to demystify?
Yeah, there's something about not knowing, which I like. That was always the
I assume there was a challenge for you in directing the sequel. Because you
said a number of times that sequels don't interest you, unless there is a challenge
- something for you to discover, which you know nothing
New characters. New characters. New characters. New characters. I like them very
much. Catwoman, Penguin and the Christopher Walken character, I like him, too.
It's a smaller cast. It's much more . . . uh . . .
Yeah! I don't know what it is, but there's a different energy about it. It has
to do with an energy and finding another field. And I feel good about that. I
don't know what it means. It could be bad for the movie; I don't know. But I
much more interested in it. And I find these other characters very
Do you go out to the movies?
I think because of living here - this sounds like a stupid cop-out, but I don't
have any other explanation, to tell you the truth - it just feels redundant.
It's such a one-industry town. I grew up here, I live here, you go out, and it's
all movies. It just feels redundant.
So how do you see work you want to see? Go to screenings? Rent
I guess, right now, I'm feeling kind of bad about it. For the past few years,
I just didn't go out and see movies very much. I rent things on videos, but not
new stuff. I haven't seen much new stuff. Somehow, when I'm in a video store,
I go to the lowest common denominator. When I walk into a video store, I'm not
going for the latest Martin Scorsese, I'm looking for the latest Chainsaw Massacre
Babe-a-Rama fest. I can't help it! There's something about video where you seek
the level of the medium.
Is there anybody's work out there that you feel connected to or are interested
Well, I don't have a good answer. My answer is bullshit in a way. I mean, I know
who I'm for. I do like David Cronenberg. He's great. Basically, you got to like
anybody who's doing their thing, don't you?
Why bother making another movie, Tim? You hate putting them out.
It's like some sort of drug or virus that takes over your body. The desire to
it is there.
What terrifies you so much about putting them out?
It's funny, I question it. It's a split. Obviously, I do this stuff. I'm talking
to you. I'm not holing up in my castle in Switzerland, away from anybody, but
have a strong fear of letting this stuff out for some reason.
What do you think you're afraid of?
I think because I don't know who I am. I think I haven't figured myself out.
It's personal. The movie is my baby, and I'm putting it out there into the cruel
world. It's scary, that's all. Really scary.
What's the worst thing that could happen?
See, the worst thing that could happen would be something you could understand.
I wish they would tear down the screen if they didn't like it. That would be
the worst "good" thing that could happen. The worst "bad" thing
would be . . . I don't know. It's fear of the unknown. Is anybody going to like
this? It's judgment. Being categorized and judged. I have a very strong aversion
to that. I don't know where that comes from, but there it is. I'm in my little
world, trying to do this film, then boom, it's out there. The film may have its
unreality, but the people that watch it are 100-percent real people. And they
always look angry. Every time I go to these fucking screenings, the audience
always looks very angry to me. They look very
scary. It's just fear.
You're not afraid of failing, are you?
It's funny - in some ways I'm not, and in some ways I guess I am. I will not
base my decisions on what to do based on the thought of "success." So
in some ways, I'm not afraid of that - I'll do what I want to do and hope for
the best. The fear just has to do with that aspect of showing it to people. I
don't know if that's failure or just the fear of coming out into the
You really kind of want to be in a cave, hanging upside down, with your
Yeah, but again, I've been through that. At Disney, I was in my own little cave,
and I was not getting out, and that's no good. Definitely, you want to get out,
and you want feedback. I think I am just afraid of it. I think that my impulse
is to hide in a cave. Again, it's the split, it's Batman. It's classic, really,