Tim Burton was discussing the surreal nature of one of his favorite places on earth: suburbia.
“It’s just, resin grapes, you know?” the director of Edward Scissorhands said, a genuinely puzzled look on his face. “Why are they there?
“If there’s something in your office”—he picked up a knickknack on his desk—“it’s there for a reason. It has some emotional resonance. But you go into people’s houses and they have this weird ceramic dove on the wall. What does it mean?
“I have a feeling if I ever asked where did that come from, (they’d have no idea). It’s almost like the stuff was there when they moved in,” he said. With such unanswerable questions hanging in the air, Burton finds suburbia a wonderful backdrop for his bizarre cinematic fables, such as Beetlejuice and the just-released Edward Scissorhands.
In the new film, a local Avon lady rescues the title character, a boy-monster who has large scissors in the place of hands, and brings him home with her. (“She’s sort of a suburban angel,” Burton said. “Avon has always been, for me, the symbol of cosmetic hope.”) The consequences of her act of kindness are initially amusing but ultimately tragic.
“Growing up in that kind of world, there were bizarre, mystical images that you can liken in some ways to fairy-tale images,” the California native said. “Or, at least, it’s fun to try!”
The 32-year-old Burton reminds one of a neurotic stand-up comedian-say, Richard Lewis, or the young Woody Allen. He seems eager to please but perpetually uncomfortable.
His office smells like a new car, thanks to a newly arrived set of leather sofas, and looks like a 1930s film that Ted Turner has yet to touch. The walls are white, but the furniture is black. The desk is black. And his clothing is black.
He constantly saws the air with his hands as he talks. And he almost never finishes his sentences, taking long pauses at the end of clauses and then racing ahead to an entirely different thought.
He apologizes profusely for rescheduling an interview several times (it ended up at its original hour). He was still tinkering with the film-something about adjusting the color.
“It’s hard to let go of it,” he admitted quietly.
“This is the worst stage for me,” he said of the period in which he can do nothing but wait to see how the film is received. “I’m very nervous about the movie, but then I always am.
“Luckily, I’ve never had that feeling of having to top anything. I feel relatively good about not having that feeling. All the other neurotic feelings are there, but I don’t have that one.”
That is indeed fortunate, since his last movie was Batman, one of the highest-grossing films of all time. Edward Scissorhands has a much smaller budget (less than $20 million) and is his most personal film to date. It is the first one he has co-written and the first based on one of his original ideas.
Images of the character originally emerged in Burton’s mind while he was still a teenager.
“At that time, I, and everybody I knew, was very dark and melodramatic,” he said. The Scissorhands character represents “a very teenage impulse” of wanting to fit in but not understanding how to.
“I think it’s a very universal feeling,” he noted. “It’s a personal feeling, but I think it’s not so interiorized (that others can’t relate to it).”
If the character of Edward arose out of the insecurities of Burton’s childhood, the plot was heavily influenced by his adult observations. Unlike most movie monsters, Edward is at first welcomed by his new neighbors and treated as a celebrity. Only later is he run out of town as an unwelcome outsider.
“America is the only culture I’ve ever been in where people are immediately nice to you,” he said. “Especially here (in California). That really hit me strongly after living in Europe for a little while.
“In another country, it takes time for them to get to know you (and relax around you). That’s always felt more natural to me.
“In Hollywood, the first meeting you have with anybody, it’s wonderful. But at every meeting thereafter, there are more and more complications. I always felt that was twisted behavior.”
That’s precisely what happens to Edward.
Happily, however, Burton was able to avoid the endless round of script conferences. He and his attorney worked out an unusual deal in which Burton and his co-writer, Caroline Thompson, got a small advance and wrote the script without interference. They then presented it to the studio, 20th Century Fox, on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.
“It was like a breath of fresh air,” he said. “It should be (a model) for everybody.”
Burton had similar creative control over the first artwork he ever received recognition for, an anti-littering poster he designed in the 9th grade. It adorned a series of Los Angeles-area garbage trucks.
He never had “any real plan” for a career, he said, though he did know “I could never have a regular job. That realization hits many of us at an early age.”
Having an obvious aptitude for drawing, he entered California Institute of the Arts to study animation. After three years, he was hired by Disney, where he worked on The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron before making his own short, Vincent. It won several awards at the Chicago Film Festival and established Burton as an interesting talent.
“It was a strange time at the company,” he recalled. “It was before the current regime. They were very directionless. They were on the fence between tradition and moving into the future. They were really in puberty. For me, it was the right time (to be there).”
He ultimately directed two live-action shorts for Disney that received virtually no attention; one, he recalled, was “a martial-arts version of Hansel and Gretel.” But with those films providing evidence of his quirky talent, he was hired to make his first feature, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, which marked Pee-wee Herman’s film debut.
Burton plans to make a full-length animated film, and he hopes to make a musical. He isn’t ruling out directing Batman II, but he isn’t committing himself, either.
“I’ve distanced myself from it,” he said, noting he would miss the excitement of working on something fresh. “I’m going to try to base (my decision) on the material.”
In any event, he’s going to keep making fairy tales.
“I always liked the idea of fairy tales, but (in the movies) they’re either these magical things for children or they’re tongue-in-cheek and campy,” he complained. “It’s almost like dismissing the form.
“The idea (with Edward Scissorhands) was to make something that was funny and melodramatic and had all that classic imagery, and yet still treated itself seriously.”
Something, in other words, much like suburbia.