For the better part of 30 years now, Hollywood has been harboring a secret. Something that threatens the prevailing public perception of one of the town's more talented filmmakers.
"People always mistake Tim Burton for the characters who appear in his movies. They figure that Tim has to be this dark, twisted guy who's socially awkward. But that couldn't be further from the truth," said Catherine O'Hara. "The Tim Burton that I know is a complete sweetheart. Easy to work with, always open to suggestions, quick to laugh. Which is why -- once you work with Tim -- whenever he calls and says that he's got another role for you for play in a new project of his, you immediately say 'Yes.'"
This sentiment was echoed by O'Hara's "Frankenweenie" co-stars during a recent media junket for this new Walt Disney Pictures release. Take -- for example -- Martin Short's memories of the very first time he worked with Burton on 1996's Mars Attacks!
"It was my first day on set with Tim. We were getting ready to shoot this scene where I'm supposed to be seducing this statuesque blonde who's later revealed to be a Martian in disguise," Short recalled. "And I figured -- given that all of Tim Burton's movies have such a distinctive look -- that he'd then have some very specific directions for me. But that really wasn't the case. Tim turned to me and said 'What do you think your character would do in this scene?' And I thought for a moment and then said 'Well, it might be funny if he jumped on the bed and then tried but failed to strike a seductive pose.' And Tim laughed and said 'That'd be great. Let's shoot that.' And that's how that scene wound up playing in the finished version of Mars Attacks! "
Martin Landau (who won an Oscar for playing Bela Lugosi in Burton's 1994 film, Ed Wood) also had plenty of praise for Tim and his directing style.
"I've worked with some of Hollywood's very best directors over the course of my 50 year career. Alfred Hitchcock, Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen," Landau stated. "And I'd put Tim right up there with those gentlemen because -- just like with Hitchcock, Coppola and Allen -- Burton doesn't really direct his actors. He just creates this safe & welcoming atmosphere on set where the actors are encouraged to contribute. To offer up suggestions about how their scenes could possibly be staged, what their character might do in a particular scene. And when an actor gets that level of trust from their director, when they actually have some say in the collaborative process, that's when you get some really great performances."
But it's not just Tim's light hand as a director that his actors admire. O'Hara was equally effusive when it comes to how generous Burton is with his performers.
"When my agent initially contacted me about Frankenweenie, I was told that Tim was thinking of me for three roles in this film. So I figured that this was really some sort of an audition. That I'd go in, record sample tracks for all three of these characters and then Tim would decide which of these characters I'd actually wind up voicing in the finished film," Catherine remembered. "So I went in and record dialogue for Victor's Mother, the Weird Girl and the Gym Teacher. And then -- three months later -- when they called me and asked me to come back in and record more dialogue for Frankenweenie, I asked ' Well, which character did I wind up voicing?' And the answer was that Tim still wants you to be the voice of Victor's Mom, the Weird Girl and the Gym Teacher. And Tim's only note to me was that he wanted my voice for the Gym Teacher to be a little less like Jane Lynch in Glee. Which was a shame, because I wasn't really basing that voice on Jane's performance. But -- rather -- on a gym teacher that I had in Junior High who really did sound like that."
So what's the best part about working on a Tim Burton movie? It's those moments when you get to make this director laugh.
"Tim has the greatest giggle. I remember when we were trying to settle on what Mr. Bergermeister should sound like. And I suggested that this character should have a gravelly sort of voice, as if he'd been this four-pack-a-day guy who'd just quit smoking," Short said. "And I then gave him a sample of what I thought Mr. Bergermeister should sound like. And Tim just giggled & giggled."
Which isn't what you'd expect to hear about the guy who brought us Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas and the title character in Edward Scissorhands. Or -- for that matter -- Victor Frankenstein in Frankenweenie.
"But no, Tim Burton isn't dark and twisted. He's a perfect, nice, normal young man that I'd happily work with again. Tim just has to pick up the phone and call and I'm there," Martin Landau concluded. "But as for Alfred Hitchcock... Boy, the stories I could tell you about that guy."
Jim Hill is an award-winning entertainment writer who lives in New Boston, NH. Over the past 30 years, he has interviewed hundreds of veterans of the animation & themed entertainment industry and written extensively about The Walt Disney Company.
Jim is currently working on a behind-the-scene history of the development & construction of Disneyland. For his more immediate musings on movies, TV shows, books and theme parks, please check out his blog, jimhillmedia.com.