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Celery Monsters, Beetlejuice, and Beyond: A Look Into the Mind of Tim Burton

Tim Burton uses macabre imagery in a unique way. In movies like Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas, the settings are fairytale-like and magical.  His main characters are always misunderstood outcasts. What’s interesting is that the characters that have a macabre sensibility are not sinister. Lydia Deetz, Edward Scissorhands, Jack Skellington, and the citizens of Halloweentown are just a few examples of macabre but benevolent characters that populate Burton’s world. Burton is more than just a director—he creates worlds. Tim Burton’s macabre wonderlands are reminiscent of German silent horror films from the ‘20s which were heavily inspired by German expressionism. His landscape is full of odd angles and eccentric shapes and designs which create an off-kilter and dreamlike effect.

Born on August 25, 1958, to Jean and William Burton, Tim Burton grew up in Burbank, California. According to the documentary, Tim Burton: The Twisted Story of the Eccentric Filmmaker, by Screen Rant on YouTube, Bill Burton was a minor league baseball player who worked for the Burbank Parks and Recreation Department and Jean had a gift shop dedicated entirely to cats.  

During childhood, Burton retreated into monster movies and drawing. In a 2013 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, “Tim Burton on His Life and Movies Coming Full Circle with ‘Frankenweenie,”, not surprisingly, Burton said that he always loved monster movies.

 Barrett Oliver as Victor Frankenstein and Shelley Duvall as Susan Frankenstein in Burton’s live-action short, Frankenweenie (1984).
Barrett Oliver as Victor Frankenstein and Shelley Duvall as Susan Frankenstein in Burton’s live-action short, Frankenweenie (1984)

I was a big monster fan. I grew up watching the old Universal horror movies, Japanese monster movies, and pretty much any kind of monster movie, that was my genre. My parents said that I used to watch those movies before I could even walk and talk. —Tim Burton

Universal horror’s influence can be seen, specifically with Tim Burton’s homage to Frankenstein, Frankenweenie. Burton’s first job was working for Disney’s animation department. While there, he made Frankenweenie first as a live-action short in 1984, starring Daniel Stern and Shelley Duvall as Victor’s parents. Screen Rant reported that Disney shelved Frankenweenie until Burton’s success with Beetlejuice. Disney released Frankenweenie on home video during the early ‘90s. Frankenweenie was eventually released as a full-length animated feature in 2012. Two of Burton’s films, Frankenweenie and Sleepy Hollow, feature scenes at a windmill reminiscent of the ending of Frankenstein where the angry villagers find both monster and the creator in a windmill. 

Burton added, “In the specific time that I grew up in […] just because you watched monster movies people thought you were weird which I always felt was an odd thing […] because if I liked musicals or westerns would people think you’re weird?  It didn’t seem that unnatural to me. It was quite interesting how quickly you get sort of categorized as a child.”

“I think that’s why I like movies like Frankenstein where you look at the character and he’s perceived as a monster even though he isn’t really he’s just different. And the angry villagers and it was easy to sort of identify that with your neighbors and the sort of mad scientist—I always wanted to be a mad scientist.

 “All of those kinds of things made it easy for me to identify with those kinds of movies.”

When asked how he first discovered drawing, Burton told The Hollywood Reporter:

“It felt quite natural…every kid liked to draw…I go to my kids’ school and I see all of the kids’ drawings—they’re all great. They’re all interesting You can see the joy of it and the fun of it. I think that most children enjoy that as I did. I think as you get older, certain teachers say you’re not good at this or you should draw like that…I remember getting frustrated with that and just decided that I was going to draw the way I wanted to draw and not worry so much about what other people thought of it and just enjoyed doing it as a thing. So, I was lucky enough to just kind of beak through all of that and just not worry so much about my ability and just go with my enjoyment. I had a couple of teachers who were supportive that way and in just sort of letting you be who you were.”

Once he graduated from high school, Burton was accepted to the California Institute of the Arts. Burton told The Hollywood Reporter that he was able to attend since they offered a scholarship for their new animation program. While a student at Cal Arts, Burton produced the short, Stalk of the Celery Monster, which drew the attention of Disney. Burton left the program after two years to work for Disney in their animation department.

A windmill on fire in black in white.
The iconic windmill scene in Frankenstein (1931). The windmill becomes a familiar part of Burton’s landscapes in Frankenweenie (1984, 2012) and Sleepy Hollow (1999).

When asked about his experiences at Disney, Burton told The Hollywood Reporter: “I wasn’t very good at their style of animation…I got the opportunity to just draw and do different things…one of which really panned out.” However, at the time, Burton added, “There was a lot of things that were happening then that were very important to me.”

According to Screen Rant, Burton’s first project for Disney was to come up with ideas for their animated feature, The Black Cauldron. No one appreciated Burton’s ideas. Disney thought Burton’s concepts were too dark. While at Disney, Burton also produced the animated short, Vincent, narrated by his favorite actor, Vincent Price. Vincent is basically a poem about a boy with a macabre sensibility. Like many of Burton’s later films, Vincent is set against a backdrop reminiscent of silent movies, and German expressionism, a dreamlike atmosphere of off-kilter angles complete with monsters reminiscent of the movies he watched as a child. 

Disney eventually fired Burton after he made the short, Frankenweenie, while at Disney. Screen Rant reported that Disney was dissatisfied with Burton’s work, and felt that the aspiring young filmmaker was wasting their resources. However, Frankenweenie would open the door for Burton to direct feature films.  People at Warner Brothers saw Frankenweenie which led to Burton getting the job as director of the feature live-action film, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) starring Paul Reubens as the titular character.

Reubens played the childlike Pee Wee Herman throughout the ‘80s. The entire film is a quirky adventure film that follows Pee Wee as he goes on a quest to recover his stolen bike. After Pee Wee, came 1988’s Beetlejuice, and in 1989, Batman, starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. Burton would work with Disney again on The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). Henry Selick directed and Caroline Thompson wrote the screenplay based on Burton’s concept and characters. Burton and Selick also worked together on James and the Giant Peach (1996), based on Roald Dahl’s 1961 novel.

Over the years, Burton’s work has received mixed reviews. When asked how he feels about how both critics and audiences receive his films, Burton told The Hollywood Reporter, “I think it always affects you…I learned early on movies like Pee Wee got horrible reviews then a few years later people were saying that those were the best movies I ever made. Which was frightening….[laughs].”

Paul Reubens as Pee Wee Herman in Pee Wee's Big Adventure (1985)
Paul Reubens as Pee Wee Herman in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)

Burton said that he’s had movies well-received by critics that made no money at the box office and he had movies well-received by audiences but panned by critics. “There’s never been a real consistency in terms of how things are perceived with me…Batman was too dark and now it’s almost a light comedy compared to things…You do sort of take it personally but it’s hard to take too personally because of all of the conflicting elements that go into it.”

As for all of the dark imagery and dark humor in his films, Burton pointed to more than one aspect of his experiences that may have influenced them. While he did watch a lot of monster movies during childhood, he acknowledged that, at the same time, he grew up in a culture in which death is a taboo subject. Burton said that growing up in Los Angeles, he was exposed to Hispanic culture also had its influence. Specifically, he mentioned Day of the Dead, which he describes as treating death as “[…] a part of life and […] with humor and color and sort of taking a negative subject and looking at more as part of life, and you know, part of the world […] I never felt like I had a morbid fascination with it […] When I watch monster movies I get a sense of joy. I never got a like weird or dark [feeling]…and so I think those kind of films made me feel somewhat more optimistic about things for some reason.”

On whether or not he relates to the characters in his films, Burton told more than one source he tries to relate to all of the characters in his films—it’s part of his process. He told reporter Kjersti Flaa in an interview, “Tim Burton-On Being Shy, Isolated, and Where He Gets His Ideas From (Big Eyes),” on YouTube, “As a director, you try to relate to whatever you do whether it’s created by you or a property presented to you from a studio or a book or whatever…you try to find something of yourself in each thing.”

Johnny Depp as Edward Scissorhands
Johnny Depp stars as the titular character in Edward Scissorhands (1990)

He also told The Hollywood Reporter that he likes to “feel the character” because it helps him communicate with the crew and actors. “I like to feel the character because I certainly many years ago was much more nonverbal, and so for me to try to relate to whatever crew or an actor or something it’s important for me to feel it so I can at least try to impart some emotional clarity.”

As for how he gets ideas, he says that he just tries to be in the moment.  “I remember this image of watching some beautiful event and I look around and everyone’s filming it. They’re not experiencing it. They’re capturing it but not they’re not there at the moment. I think sometimes trying to be at the moment is when you can come up with a lot of your ideas.”

From Vincent to 2022’s Wednesday, Burton has brought us an entire pantheon of quirky, eccentric characters. Many times, the protagonists in his films are strange but misunderstood while the true villain hides in plain sight. He transports audiences into an alternate reality with his dreamlike landscape and unique characters. In Burton’s world, things are never what they seem. Burton knows how to tell tales with timeless themes with an interesting twist. His films are genre-bending, well-blended mixtures of horror, fantasy, and science fiction. All include countless nods to classic horror films. Burton is a truly unique storyteller which is what makes him an iconic filmmaker.

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Written by MD Bastek

Just a person who loves horror and writes about unusual things

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