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Edward Scissorhands

Look, Ma, No Hands, or Tim Burton’s Latest Feat

by Laurie Halpern Smith
Co-Editor of Movieline Magazine
The New York Times
August 26, 1990

“This is the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been in a movie,” said the actor Johnny Depp between puffs on a cigarette proferred by an assistant on a makeshift roach clip. Mr. Depp was clad in skintight black leather from Adam’s apple to toes. His hair was a mass of black tangles, and his face was made up like a mime’s, except that it was covered with prosthetic scars. Most startling of all were the sets of lethal-looking blades where his hands should have been.

Mr. Depp was decked out as the title character in Tim Burton’s new movie, Edward Scissorhands, which was filmed this summer and is scheduled for a late fall release. “I’m strapped and buckled into this,” he said of his clothing and the rig on his hands. “I feel like I’m in an old sailor’s trunk, no way to get out of it.”

Last year at this time another film directed by Mr. Burton, Batman, was well on its way to becoming the most successful movie in Hollywood history. The 31-year-old director was presented the keys to the kingdom.

“I got the chance to do what I want to do completely,” he said. Edward Scissorhands is an idiosyncratic little fable that he hopes will “update what fairy tales were meant to do.” And though he relished the freedom to make such a personal project, he felt a certain amount of pressure, too—not to make another blockbuster, he said, but to make a film worthy of the memories, dreams and feelings that went into it.

“The thing that makes me nervous is that there’s just more meaning to this than anything else I’ve ever done before,” Mr. Burton said. “I’ve never had the opportunity to express how I feel completely before. This is an image that I identify with.”

The story of Edward Scissorhands, though no stranger than those of Mr. Burton’s previous feature films—Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice and Batman—is strange indeed. Edward (Mr. Depp) was created by the Inventor (played by Vincent Price, who off the set happens to be Mr. Burton’s muse), who lives in a mysterious mansion on a hill overlooking a generic pastel suburb. The Inventor always meant to replace Edward’s blades with real hands, but dies before that happens, so Edward must cope with his dangerous mitts. He lives alone in the mansion until one day the Avon Lady (Dianne Wiest) decides to make a call on the eerie old place.

There she discovers Edward, whom she persuades to come back with her to the town. At first the neighborhood embraces Edward, but when he falls in love with the Avon Lady’s beautiful daughter (Winona Ryder), the novelty begins to wear off. After Edward is tricked into abetting a crime, he is forced to flee the town.

“I grew up liking the idea of fairy tales, but I could never really relate to them, you know,” Mr. Burton explained. “And then I started thinking, if you were around at the time that Little Red Riding Hood was written, it would probably make complete sense. Hopefully, with Scissorhands, they will get the same sort of magic and feel out of it, but also relate to it a bit better.”

Mr. Burton surrounded himself with collaborators who shared his quirky vision, from actors to producer to screenwriter to production designer. “The script was funny,” Mr. Burton said. “Of the people who read it, either they didn’t get it, or they loved it. And I was very lucky to get people who loved it.” There was harmony on the set. Ms. Ryder described the group as being “people who are on the exact same wavelength, thinking the exact same thoughts.”

Cast and crew spent 12 weeks filming in Florida, where they found, in the words of the production designer Bo Welch, “a kind of generic, plain-wrap suburb, which we made even more characterless by painting all the houses in faded pastels, and reducing the window sizes to make it look a little more paranoid.” The production then relocated to a set in Los Angeles, where Mr. Welch and his crew created shadowy medieval-looking interiors for the mansion scenes.

On one day it was 110 degrees, but Mr. Burton was wearing a rumpled jacket over his black pants and long-sleeved shirt. He was about to film the scene in which Ms. Wiest comes upon Edward in his lair.

“Johnny, give me a little blade action,” Mr. Burton instructed, and Mr. Depp twisted his wrists so that light glittered from his “hands.” He was crouched in a corner of the attic, where Ms. Wiest, in a lavender suit and pillbox hat, discovered him. At first she was frightened, but then her maternal instincts took over, especially when she saw the scars Edward has inadvertently inflicted on himself.

“They sent me a script a year ago, and I thought it was very strange and wonderful,” Ms. Wiest said. “I hadn’t seen any of Tim’s movies, but I went out and saw Batman immediately. I was as taken with the man as I was with his work.”

Later that day, Mr. Depp, the 24-year-old star of the now-canceled TV series 21 Jump Street and the John Waters film Cry-Baby, exchanged one pair of scissor hands for another in preparation for the next scene. “The script was one of the two or three best things I’ve ever read,” he said. He walked over to where Mr. Burton stood with Vincent Price on a set filled with giant gears and pulleys and a biomorphic assembly line that’s reminiscent of Chaplin’s Modern Times.

Though it looked more like a widget factory, it was the kitchen of the mansion. The scene they were about to film was one in which the Inventor starts to present Edward with real hands to replace his blades, but dies before he actually attaches them, thus sealing Scissorhands’s fate: to never be able to touch people without the possibility of hurting them.

Mr. Burton called “action,” and the scene went smoothly until the end, when Edward had to gently draw a blade across his dead creator’s cheek, leaving a faint trail of blood. The director found it difficult to capture this effect on camera, and the actors went through a great many takes.

Mr. Price’s role in the movie, though little more than a cameo, was something of a talisman for Mr. Burton. “It’s hard for me to describe it, but it really helped me growing up just by watching him,” he said. “It was more than just a fan thing; it’s very deep for me.”

In fact, aspects of Scissorhands can be found in Mr. Burton’s earliest film, Vincent, a five-minute animated work narrated by Mr. Price, about a little boy (unmistakably modeled after Mr. Burton) who has a fantasy life that Poe would envy.

Caroline Thompson, the Scissorhands screenwriter, said that when she saw the Price short, she knew that she and Mr. Burton “cared about the same things and had the same feelings.” So in tune were they, in fact, that Ms. Thompson wrote Edward Scissorhands in three weeks after Mr. Burton showed her a drawing he had done of the character. “The image just struck me so hard. Tim showed me the drawing and said, ‘There’s this character that I think about called Edward Scissorhands.’ That’s all he said. The minute he told me that, we started to talk about it, and the entire story was clear to me.”

-- donated by Joni

-- photos added by Zone editors