Sitting down with Indiewire at Austin’s Four Seasons hotel on Thursday, Tim Burton said he was a little jetlagged. With Burton, it’s hard to tell if he’s tired or just being his usual groggy self. Like the man, Burton’s style hasn’t changed a whole lot over the years, as his new stop-motion animated movie “Frankenweenie” proves beyond a doubt. In Austin, where “Frankenweenie” opened Fantastic Fest Thursday night, the filmmaker addressed how his experience making this gothic adaptation of his 1984 short — in which a young boy resurrects his dead dog with electricity — related to the entire arc of his career. He also explained why the flop of his last movie, “Dark Shadows,” left him unfazed, and why he has considered leaving the studio game behind once and for all.
I saw the movie at a promo screening that had a lot of young children in the audience. They giggled a lot during the sillier moments, but it was really interesting to hear their confusion and fear during the creepier parts, particularly when the dog dies. Since this is a Disney movie, were you thinking about how kids would react to it?
Yeah. The interesting thing about it is that parts of it make people uncomfortable — probably parents and maybe Disney a little bit — but at the same time, it’s just one part of the film. I always felt like at the end of the day it’s a Disney movie. I think people forget that, in “The Lion King,” a guy gets killed, and that was rated G! (laughs) For me, it needs to go through certain emotions to get to where it’s headed.
But this is much more blatantly a movie about death. You can’t say that about “The Lion King.”
Well, that reminds me. The inspiration for all this was when I was a kid and I had a dog that had this disease called distemper, which meant he wasn’t supposed to live very long. But this was a very strong, pure relationship I had with this pet, and there was always a specter of death hanging over it. I always thought this was a really safe way to explore those things for kids without being really hardcore about it because at some point when you’re young, either a pet or a grandparent dies, and it’s a bit abstract. But for me, I grew up on monster movies, and with “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” that’s what they’re all about. I was initiated quite early on to the whole thing.
The movie is pretty faithful to your original short, and the story goes that Disney fired you after you made the first version because it was too dark. For the feature, did the studio push back on anything?
No, they were really good. They accepted the whole black-and-white thing.
Well, I wouldn’t expect your decision to shoot in black-and-white would be the biggest issue for the studio.
Well, it could be. In the past it has been, but not in this case. People get slightly afraid when they get an emotional response. If Disney had an issue with any emotional response, they would’ve cut out some of the best parts of “Snow White” and “Pinocchio.” I was recently watching “101 Dalmatians” and I was surprised by some of the lines in there: “Kill them! Boil them! Skin them! Bash them over the head!” Stuff that now I bet they’d have a problem with. It’s a weird situation.
When I spoke to you a few years ago, you had just started working on “Frankenweenie,” and said you wanted it to be a low budget project that allowed you to revisit your original drawings. Did the ensuing experience satisfy your expectations?
Definitely. That’s why I wanted it to be in 3-D as well. There’s something beautiful about the stop-motion process, being able to touch the puppets. That’s such a personal feeling, even the medium itself, seeing the characters on the set with the lighting and everything. It’s like actually bringing something to life. It’s not the same feeling you get with a computer, where you can do amazing things, but there’s something about moving something and then seeing it come to life that connects you to the beginning of movies. That’s just a feeling; you can’t even really describe it.
Since you’re so attracted to this handmade process, why bother making studio movies? You have enough of a brand now where you could work independently and not worry about making compromises.
That’s true. Who knows what will come next? You’re right. It’s something I think about. It’s funny, because I’ve only worked at studios.
On the other hand, you got burned by Disney pretty early on.
Well, yeah, it’s actually been like — how many times? Five? (laughs) We have a revolving door policy.
Do you pay much attention to indie animation? Filmmakers like Don Hertzfeldt and Bill Plympton make their livings with their animated short films.
Oh yeah, sure. Obviously, technology has made it easier to do that, which is one good thing. I’ve definitely been thinking about stuff that way. When you don’t have the pressure of gigantic budgets and dealing with certain things, it can be good. Since I’ve only done studio things, it’s like stepping into a whole other world. At some point, I should be ready for it.
When you made the shorter version of “Frankenweenie,” your style wasn’t internationally known. Now you face audience expectations.
Yeah, that’s why I don’t follow myself too much, I don’t go on the internet, I don’t think about it too much. You spend your whole life trying to become a person, and then you become a thing, and it’s kind of horrible. It’s dehumanizing in a way. I try not to think about whether I have a style or that I’m going to do this because that’s what I do. Even if I’m dealing with things I’ve done before, I don’t try to think about how this is what people expect. I really do exorcise that.
You’re one of the few mainstream filmmakers able to make commercial movies with such dark sensibilities. It’s gotten to the point where whenever one of your movies doesn’t do well, as was recently the case with “Dark Shadows,” people talk about it. Does that impact your motivation?
No, because every movie I’ve ever done could’ve gone either way. Even right up until the film comes out, I don’t know how it will do. “Ed Wood” was probably my best-reviewed movie. Anybody who talks to me says it’s one of their favorites. And yet that was maybe the biggest bomb of all. And then some movies that people think are shit go off and make a bunch of money. I never know.