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Tim Burton: 'I've never made a scary movie'

By Sarah Jane Griffiths
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

image captionBurton, seen here with the puppet of Frankenweenie's dog Sparky, wanted to use "beautiful" stop-motion, in black and white and 3D

Nearly 30 years after Disney fired Tim Burton because his short film Frankenweenie was "too scary" for children, the director - who has made a feature length, 3D stop-motion version of the story - insists he has "never made a scary movie".

The black-and-white animation pays homage to his favourite, classic horror movies, which Burton's parents say he was watching on TV "before I could walk or talk". It is also just in time for Halloween.

But Burton says his intention has never been to make a frightening film.

"I don't think I've ever made any scary movie, ever, even if I've tried to. I've never made a scary movie," insists the director, whose visually stunning, darker-than-average films include Beetlejuice, Corpse Bride and the recent Dark Shadows.

He also points out that serving up "scary" subject matter to children is nothing new.

"You know I grew up on Disney movies and I always thought that's what partly made Disney movies. From Snow White on, they've always dealt with some [scary] imagery.

"Those are the most memorable parts of the movie as far as I was concerned," says Burton.

He was "never afraid" of the 1930s horror films such as Dracula and The Mummy but as a young boy growing up in Burbank, Los Angeles, who felt "a little isolated", he instead identified with the title characters.

"I just linked up the feeling with Frankenstein with the way I felt. The creature, and also the mad scientist. And my neighbours were the angry villagers," he explains.

Childhood memories

In true Burton style, Frankenweenie deals with death and darkness with a light touch.

image captionFrankenweenie's Victor is based on Burton as a child

It tells the sweet story of young science buff Victor Frankenstein, who tries to bring his pet dog Sparky back to life.

Burton based Victor on himself as a boy: "On an emotional level anyway, obviously it's not real.

"I liked making little Super 8 films and I was a lacking sportsperson. [I] loved my dog," explains Burton.

Sadly for the film-maker, his dog Pepe also died. But as well as loss and bereavement, the film also touches on issues of making friends and finding your way in life.

"I think a lot of kids feel like they're just sort of loners," explains Burton.

"But you also get along, you go to school. In fact I always felt like the other kids were much stranger than I was, which I tried to reflect a little bit in the film."

Victor's schoolmates, ranging from toothy misfit Edgar 'E' Gore to Boris Karloff lookalike Nassor and the wide-eyed Weird Girl with her fluffy cat Mr Whiskers, certainly seem to reflect Burton's views of his classmates.

"What was fun for me on this is to really delve back into the memory bank. We tried to base everything on a real actual person or memory or a combination of people. And then also how those [horror] movies kind of helped me through those years."

'Powerful combination'

Created by Burton and screenwriter John August, Frankenweenie's characters were brought to life as stop-motion puppets at Three Mills Studios in east London, with each animator painstakingly creating just a few seconds of footage in an average week.

They were inspired by the original drawings Burton made while working at Disney in 1984.

Burton chose to use stop-motion and black and white as they are a "powerful combination" for 3D technology which "shows the artist's work more".

"I just felt it was more emotional in black and white than in colour, and more real in a strange way," says Burton.

image captionBurton worked again with Catherine O'Hara, Martin Landau and Martin Short on the film as well as Winona Ryder

As usual, Burton called on actors he could trust to voice the characters, from Edward Scissorhands star Winona Ryder, to Ed Wood's Martin Landau - who plays Victor's inspirational science teacher Mr Rzykruski.

In fact both Catherine O'Hara (Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas) and Martin Short (Mars Attacks!) voice three characters each.

O'Hara - who met her husband on the set of Beetlejuice more than 20 years ago - voices Victor's mother Mrs Frankenstein, Weird Girl and the school's overbearing PE teacher. The director persuaded her to base the latter on an "obnoxious" woman on US TV.

"The monsters in Tim's life are these scary people who take themselves seriously, and are arrogant and oppress others," explains O'Hara.

'Risky business'

Working with people "who just believe in you and basically take a shot" is also Burton's way of negotiating the business end of Hollywood, where "everything is risky".

Despite having achieved box office success with films like Batman, he says each project can still be "a struggle to mount".

So far critics have raved about Frankenweenie, which opened the London Film Festival last week. But Burton remains unsure of what the public's reaction will be, and is even primed for some "initial resistance".

"When I did my first couple of films, Pee Wee's Big Adventure or Beetlejuice, they were on the 10 worst movies of the year list! A few years later people change their minds."

image captionThe original Frankenweenie was deemed "too scary" for children

Producer Allison Abbate - another longtime Burton collaborator - hopes parents will give it a shot, rather than assuming the animation is too dark.

"We've had parents say, 'I like this movie because I can talk to my kids about stuff'. It does seem like a pity if people can't find the movie because they think it might be too scary.

"But once kids see it and say 'I wasn't scared', more people will go and see it."

With such a personal project as Frankenweenie, the stakes are higher than usual for Burton.

"You're always worried, you always feel a bit exposed. I get quite vulnerable and actually depressed."

Burton continues: "I never know. Every movie I've ever done could go either way.

"I've heard 10-year old girls say they love Sweeney Todd. On other movies people say, 'When one of your films comes on, my dogs love watching it'!"

Frankenweenie is released in UK cinemas on 17 October.

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