Tim Burton and beyond: Death becomes him

October 22, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

He remembers. The evil king scatters the teeth of the hydra in the ground, and intones the magic curse. The clouds gather, lightning strikes, the music rises, and one by one they emerge . . . the children of the hydra. A phalanx of skeletons with shields and broadswords, they advance on their quarry.

"It was the first movie I ever saw," says Tim Burton, creator of "Beetlejuice," the two "Batman" movies and "Edward Scissorhands," "and it was so . . . primal."

The movie was Ray Harryhausen's 1963 classic of stop-motion animation, "Jason and the Argonauts," perhaps the pinnacle of the technique that combined meticulously animated and photographed puppets matted into a scene with live-action actors. What followed was a dazzling battle between seven animated skeletons and seven men, probably the best stop-motion sequence ever committed to film -- until "Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas," which opens today in about 2,000 theaters.

The scene has other clues to the Burton sensibility as well. It's clearly an expression of the value that has hallmarked Burton's work, his macabre sensibility. In Harryhausen's sequence, skeletons brewed magically from the teeth of a monster pop from the loam to do battle with living men; in Burton's work, skeletal, death-haunted ideas from the loam of his subconscious pop to the surface and become huge movie hits.

"There's death everywhere in my work, I know that," says the director without a trace of embarrassment. "In fact, it's the source of some of my humor. In other countries, death is seen as a normal, fundamental part of life, and it co-exists healthily with life. In our culture it's somehow separate, which has always struck me as something funny. The interpenetrability of the two always seemed to make sense to me. I don't consider it macabre -- to me, it's the way it is, and it's something that should be celebrated."

It is pointed out to Burton that there seems to be an autobiographical quotient to the story.

He laughs. "Yeah, it's about someone who tried to kidnap Santa Claus and got in lots of trouble for it, just like me. Seriously, I never consciously thought of it as biography, but everything you do comes from something. It comes from my subconscious."

Burton's connection to the piece is somewhat unusual. He didn't direct it, he didn't write it, but he did imagine it, years back, when he was an animator and sketch artist at Disney. He wrote the little story upon which it is based, but the real work was done by screenwriter Caroline Thompson and directed by Henry Selick, who did the day-by-day (730 of 'em) filmmaking. In some sense, Burton is so divorced from the project that he can sound as innocently enthusiastic as any fan when he says, "It was incredibly beautiful. It's a very tedious process, so tedious I had to get out of there. It takes a special kind of person to do it. But it turned out really neat!"

That same innocence colors his account of his own career.

"I never proclaimed that I had to be a director. I feel like I've been really lucky. I don't even consider myself a real director. I'm really sort of a loiterer. If people didn't give me all this money to make these movies, I'd be hanging around the 7-Eleven."

At the same time, he's steadfastly resisted becoming a "commercial" director, clinging to his own special sensibility, even to the degree of insisting on making a movie -- a biography of the very strange '50s moviemaker Edward Wood of "Glen or Glenda?" infamy -- when 20th Century Fox pulled out because it wasn't commercial enough. He's now making it for Disney.

"I try hard to resist the 'stuff' of Hollywood," he says. "It's all manufactured, and to buy into it would be a mistake. It's a trade-off. The fame means that some of the projects get easier to make, but you still have trouble with others, like the Ed Wood piece."

It is an enigma that one of the most successful directors of all time would insist on making a film on one of the most unsuccessful.

"Well, very few of my projects mean as much as this one. Some things you just know you'll make some day. I just felt very strongly about this one and there was no question about it."

What on earth could draw the man who made "Batman" to the man who made "Plan 9 From Outer Space."

"Oh," says Burton, sounding wistful, "Ed had a lot of misguided passion. He was just so screwed up."

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