Tim Burton

Corpse Bride

Interviewed by Stella Papamichael

“It's more of a love story than a film with skeletons and corpses ”

With films like Beetlejuice (1988), Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Ed Wood (1994) to his credit, director Tim Burton has become a master at blending light and dark. Even big-budget fare like Batman (1989) carries his personal stamp, but Planet Of The Apes (2001) proved he was fallible. More recently Big Fish (2003) and Charlie And The Chocolate Factory (2005) put him back on top and, in his fifth collaboration with Johnny Depp, Corpse Bride is yet another screaming success.

Is it true you kept Helena waiting before telling her she'd passed the audition?

It's true, but as she says, when you're with somebody you want to be more objective. It's easier when you're not with somebody, you probably do take a bit more time to make sure. It's like when I work with Johnny [Depp] - I wouldn't work with him just to work with him. You're friends but that makes it harder because you want to make sure it's right.

So was Johnny Depp your first choice for Victor? It was obviously convenient since you were filming Charlie And The Chocolate Factory at the same time...

I've worked with him quite a lot - but we both only consider it if it's right. I think again you never want to get into a place where you get so complacent with somebody or something that you lose that energy. So with him or her, or anybody that I work with, I always try and make it feel like it's the right thing to do. The one good thing about doing both films at the same time is that he could be Willy Wonka by day and walk into the recording studio and be Victor in the evening. There was a certain convenience to it. It was strange too, because people think we toned the puppet to look like him, but we designed this years before and it was just a weird coincidence. It ended up being good karma that way.

Were you the one to sketch out the designs initially?

My sketches are pretty crude. I met Carlos [Grangel, character designer] through the puppet makers, Mackinnon And Saunders up in Manchester. I was talking about how it's easy to design fantasy characters but human characters are the toughest to design for stop motion because they either look too real or weird and unappealing. Then I saw a picture on a wall and it was something Carlos had designed and I thought that kind of fit, it seemed close to my sensibility. So Carlos took my sketches and just completely fleshed all of them out and worked on them with the sculptors. We cut some characters out actually. We'd take some of the designs to the sculpting stage, and they'd have to change because of whatever physical things. Sometimes they'd ask for little changes because of what the puppets could or couldn't do. It was kind of an organic process all the way to the end of it.

Is Corpse Bride supposed to look like Michael Jackson?

I was going more for a LaToya look! No. She's a corpse. A lot of this is the beauty of the animation and the other advancements in these puppets is in the artistry of the puppet building. In Nightmare we used a lot of replacement heads for expressing changes. In this all the mechanics are built into the head. You stick a screwdriver in the ear to make her mouth move, so there is a subtlety and a beauty to these puppets. Finding the right kind of metallic fabric to flow right, those kinds of things seemed to help advance the medium.

Given that this is mostly aimed at children, did you have conversations about how scary you could go?

I remember this from Nightmare [Before Christmas], when some parents said it was too scary for the kids. But then over the years, little kids like the movie. In fact we felt this one was even softer in some ways. It's more of a love story than a film with skeletons and corpses, which is sort of secondary to the more hopeful, slightly bittersweet love story. That's what I always got from monster movies. From the classics, from the very beginning, the monster was always the misunderstood character. Every boy was afraid of Frankenstein but he wasn't really that bad, he wasn't an evil character. The same goes for these kinds of works I think.

Why are you so drawn to the dark side?

It's to do with growing up in a culture where death is looked upon as a dark subject, which I remember feeling creates a climate of fear in your life. You look at other cultures, like the Mexican Day of the Dead ceremony where it's dancing skeletons and colour and music - it just seems like so much of an appropriate way of dealing with that issue. It's a more positive approach, which for me is a much better way of dealing with life. You don't live your life fearfully. You have a positive feeling all the way up to the end, whatever that is.

Do you have plans to animate Mai The Psychic Girl (based on the manga comicbook)?

That was something I didn't think was even going to be animated. I might have thought of it as live action. Things just happen and you never quite know when something is going to happen. In the case of trying to do a stop-motion film - because so much of it is computer [generated] - a lot of it is to do with getting the right group of animators together. Because it's all moved on to that other world it's harder to find that core group of people.

Have you ever considered doing a full-blown live-action musical?

I'd like to. I've been offered some. I remember being offered a few things a few years ago. I remember they wanted to do Batman as a musical. I don't know though, something about him jumping around on stage didn't feel quite right... I think there's a new trend now where studios will take movies and want to make them into musicals. I would love to do something but I'm not necessarily into making Stealth: The Musical. You've got to be careful I think. But I would like to.

Corpse Bride is released in UK cinemas on Friday 21st October 2005.