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Sleepy Hollow

Tim Burton

by Mark Kermode
The Guardian Unlimited
January 6, 2000

Mark Kermode: The films you make, even though they are live action, owe an enormous debt to animation, in the physicality of them. Do you think that there is a very specific Burton-esque manner of behaving, or is it just the critics' imagination?

Tim Burton: Spastic—that's my own personal behavior. [Laughter] I love movement, and we considered Sleepy Hollow as a silent movie when we were thinking and talking about it and in the old monster movies as well there's something about movement that's just part of character and I think that comes from animation as well. Every aspect of the film from the look and the movement is important to the character of the piece.

It's been said that the story of Sleepy Hollow is incredibly well known, but you describe Sleepy Hollow as a story that everyone thinks they've read but nobody has. Tell us about the relationship between the story and the film.

I think in America, which is a relatively new country, there's not the wealth of stories, folk tales and fairy tales that there are in other countries so I think we were told that story in school because it was one of the only early American folk tales and that's why I was drawn to it. I remembered the story, but I talked to a lot of people who thought they knew the story, and I think it is the power of that image and the setting. I probably remember it more from the Disney cartoon actually. They did two different shorts—Sleepy Hollow, which was 20 minutes, and Wind in the Willows, a Mr Toad cartoon which they put together as a short feature. It's sung by Bing Crosby—which we kept out of our version.

There's also a homage to Hammer films. You grew up in Burbank overlooking the studio. What was it—as an American—that you liked about Hammer films?

It's like your first introduction to sex and the lurid beauty of the horror movie. In the early Universal films [ . . . ] the look and the feel of it was very important to the mood. The dark and lurid colors, the sexiness of it and the strength of them going for it in the way a good folk tale would was always very powerful. They [Hammer] brought that back which had been missing for a while. Those films where the images speak to you, I've seen Black Sunday probably 20 times and I still can't remember the story but the images stay with you forever. That's the kind of film that really speaks to me.

You've said in Burton on Burton that you didn't understand why people got antsy about a film not being narrative because for you the primary cinematic experience was Expressionist, it was to do with remembered images, and I think you described the design as the look inside someone's head. Do you think your films are visual films not narrative films?

In a simplistic way. It's meant as a compliment but it's a weird criticism to say the films just look good which is strange because I wouldn't know how to make a good-looking film; you don't enter into it that way. The place and the mood and the feel of it is very important, it's treated as another character in the piece and it's very nice when you're able to look at an image and go inside as opposed to just thinking about it. Those are the films that stay with me.

In the film, it's upstate New York, but you shot Sleepy Hollow in England didn't you? I imagined like Hammer most of it was sound-stage but you built the village for outside, so how did you blend the two things together?

We tried to make the stage look as real as possible and the stuff out in the location as fake as possible so that it would intermingle and match and we pumped smoke into everything and masked it that way. But I worked here 10 years before on Batman so I had the opportunity to work with the same artists. I really enjoy working here because working away from Hollywood you're able to focus more on the movie and there is a lot of good energy coming from the crew and the cast and the artists. People paint beautiful skies and paint the buildings with beautiful texture and make beautiful props and it's a real good energy.

Do you sketch the thing out and then go to your art designer and say, “This is what it's going to be.”

Not really because my sketches are really crude, it would end up looking like a Charlie Brown Special if they were literally used that way. I've been lucky to work with people who sort of get the idea. I just show a rough sketch or talk about it and it goes through several layers before coming real. I try to rely even less on storyboards because I find people sometimes take them too literally, and with these technical films with all these great actors you don't want to completely follow a drawing from shot to shot.

The thing I remember about Batman is helicopters flying over the set to take pictures and it was this terrible media circus. You seem to have avoided that this time—you assembled your cast and got on with your work.

That's the way it should be, to get all that other stuff out of the way and just focus on what you're doing.

What was it about the British actors that made you choose them?

They're just great, there's just a difference. One of the first scenes we shot is when Ichabod opens the door and there they all are in the room and it actually felt that way with all these great people, it was scary. You open up the door and it's, “Wooah, shall I shut it or go away, I don't know!” [Laughter] There's just a sense of craft and artistry and you learn a lot from these people. It's a different vibe then in America where people get more caught up in the business side of it. Here you just feel the people really acting and it's really enjoyable to watch.

You have this reputation of being an outsider: you don't live in Hollywood anymore do you?

Yes, sort of.

You came up through the Hollywood system, you worked at Disney, you did Batman and people are wont to say that your films are about outsiders. In the case of Sleepy Hollow you've brought Ichabod in from outside—in the original story he's from the town itself. Do you see yourself as that outside loner, that misunderstood person, or are you part of the system?

I always felt that Hollywood has a way of making you feel outside. I don't feel a part of it although I do feel lucky to have done the things that I have done through that system. I look back on it and I can't quite figure it out myself, maybe I just confused them so much that they have just given me some money to go away—I don't know! But I've been lucky.

What's your relationship like with Disney now? You worked on Fox and the Hounds . . .

They were real happy I stopped working on Fox and the Hounds . . . My foxes looked like road kills . . . They were bad. I was not cut out for that style.

Are they now “Yes, Tim Burton the great son of Disney”?

The problem with studios is that there's such a quick turnover it's hard to know who's at what studio. They all become much more corporatized so it's hard to know who's where anymore.

I think your films occupy a space somewhere between animation and real life, with animated characters you treat them as real characters, and with real actors you seem to move them the same way as you would animation. Do you think that's fair or do you get fed up with the animation tag?

No, I don't care because I was grateful for that background, rather than going to film school you drew the sets, and also you did the sound editing and so in some ways it was the perfect film school training because you really got to experience all aspects of it, and also animation teaches you to be more opened up to things in certain ways. So I always felt very good about that background.

Sleepy Hollow is not a film that is scared [afraid] to be scary and I would imagine that in your mind it's aimed at a younger audience, but here it's a 15 certificate and in America it's an R. Do you find it strange that they should be so prescriptive about watching those films?

I have a different attitude to theirs obviously because I grew up watching Hammer Horror films on Saturday afternoon TV and I haven't broken any major laws—yet! [Laughter] Before films, throughout the history of people there have been these stories which are quite gruesome. If you filmed any one of those literally it probably wouldn't even get a rating so we tried very hard to keep it within the realm of fantasy, not to shy away from the graphic-ness but to keep in that realm. Kids are intelligent, some would like it, some wouldn't, and I think people forget that. It's not like TV where you're forced to watch something—you still have a choice. We all knew it wouldn't get any less rating. The studio and the producers were quite supportive of that.

You've had studios turn around despite the fact that it's you, haven't you?

Yeah, I thought that after a couple of times it would get easier, you get lucky with a couple of successes and you think it's going to get easier but in fact it doesn't. Even a low-budget film costs a fair amount of money so they're always a struggle to get off the ground.

There's a very strong Germanic influence in your films—the folklore, Expressionism. Sleepy Hollow is written by an American but it has a Germanic feel.

People did say that like any true American he did rip it off some other country. It was possibly a German folklore which . . .

So it isn't an American folk story?

Well, it is but we started early in America ripping off other people.

Do you dream like a German expressionist director?

I don't really dream, I space out during the day—that's one of my problems; I wander off when someone's talking to me. I can't remember any dreams in my life. There's so much strange in real life that it often seems like a dream.

There's a strong theme of mentors in your work, for example Vincent Price. What is it about those actors which gives you such inspiration?

It's people who you've seen that have given you a lot. In some ways I felt they helped me psychologically because you see these people up on the screen going through torment and being on the outside and somehow you relate to them and it helps you get through life. It's a real honor and pleasure to then meet these people. I've found that the people who play villains are the nicest people in the world and people who play heroes are jerks. It's like people who play villains work out all their problems on screen and then they're just really wonderful people. I think Michael Gough thought I was always laughing at him because of the costume but I was just looking at him thinking, “He was in Horrors of the Black Museum and Konga—these are my favorite films!” It just makes me really happy.

The thing you said you liked most about Ed Wood was that he was enthusiastic about everything. I'm probably going to paraphrase you but you said that “The lovely thing about Ed Wood movies was he didn't let bad acting, bad sets or even bad takes get in the way of telling the story.” Do you think the enthusiasm he and you have is rare in Hollywood directors?

I would think it was common because with all the stuff you go through that's the only bit of positive energy you can get. If someone had said you're going to do a movie where people are dressed like George Washington with all these wigs, [I'd never have believed it], but you see all these great people dressed in these weird costumes and you can't help but get a weird energy from that.

How does your relationship with Danny Elfman [composer] work? Do you go and sing the thing to him?

I don't sing to anybody. We've gone through it all together. The first movie he scored was the first movie I did and he adds another character to it, he helps to set the tone.

Sleepy Hollow has a very particular look, it's somewhere between black and white and color. What have you and the cinematographer [Emmanuel Lubezki] done to get that semi-sepia bleached look?

He's a Mexican; we had the luxury of using Mexican horror wrestling films as our inspiration. In fact we often thought we were making a Mexican wrestling movie—the most expensive Mexican wrestling movie ever! We did a lot of testing before we shot to get the right feeling and tone so we tested colors and fabrics and make-up a lot.

But what is that color, because it's not Hammer color, it's something else.

We did a slight bleaching process to the film which is being done a lot now but we tried to find the right tone of it and then it was just down to the fabrics and the tone and the lighting schemes and the compositions. We didn't really know what we were getting until we did enough tests and thought “Let's go for this zone right here.” But each day it would change, anyway.

Do the financiers always understand what you're doing and take it on the assumption that because it's you it's going to be good?

It helps being 10,000 miles away! And I don't answer my phone too often so that also helps. But they were really supportive on this. There were times that I go through when it's not always that way, but all the way up through the rating they were right there and I appreciated that because they could have easily said, “Cut this, do that, put a head on the headless horseman all the time, take out all the head shots,”—which was the only way we could have gotten a lesser rating.

Do you feel proud of your work as a whole? The film that never clicked for me was Batman because it doesn't feel as if it is specifically your film. On the other hand I love Mars Attacks. In Europe you can go “Ak, Ak” [Mars Attacks alien noise!] and everyone knows what it is, but in America that's not the case. Are your films all equal children?

Yeah, they're all as you say, bodies. I feel close to all of them. It's hard to look at them for a while because you just experience how cold it was that day or how that horse wasn't there at that point. It takes a while to watch it and feel it more objectively.

After Beetlejuice there was a huge outcry when you wanted to cast Michael Keaton for Batman, but you said you knew he could act the part. Do you think you have a particularly close affinity with your actors?

I've liked everybody I've worked with because I'm not really very verbal and up until recently I just sat and didn't really speak much so when you see these great actors bringing things to life that's where I get a lot of positive energy and I've been very lucky to work with people that surprise you and when you deal with the technicalities of these films it's really the thing that keeps the sun shining. You do four takes and all of the people on Sleepy Hollow give it four different levels of things. I wish we could play all of the takes of some of these people because they are so interesting.

What's going to happen to Conversations with Vincent—the documentary you shot with Vincent Price?

I had trouble with the rights with some of the clips and it's been so long now that I want to revisit it and maybe think of it in another context. But it's some of the last footage of him so I would like to get it up sometime.

Your films have such a specific style that I imagined that you would get up and say to an actor “I want this and I want that,” but that's not what you do?

I don't think so. I sort of leave my body so I don't know what I do exactly. When I'm talking to people I see them trying to follow something that I've tried to say and then they usually go [shrugs shoulders] and say “Yeah” [in vague voice] and go off and do something great! I'm not quite sure what I do, I wave my arms around a lot but I'm not sure if any of it's meaningful in any way.

We read all the time that a Tim Burton film is the world seen through a child's eyes, and in Sleepy Hollow you're not particularly reverential about children.

That one scene in the film where the little one gets it. [Laughter] We used to have endless conversations in our neighborhood and in my school we wouldn't go and see movies with kids in them because we hated the way kids were portrayed—they were always given a break, they were always treated cuter. We always loved it when kids were treated like everybody else and so that's what we did here—he gets the same treatment as everyone else. People forget that kids are intelligent and they like to be treated with—well this [Sleepy Hollow] isn't necessarily intelligent—but not given the cutesy treatment.

Do you think you put on screen a genuine version of that child's eye view? Because another thing you said was that you hated being referred to as a child because it sounds like a retard.

[Laughs] Yeah, it's kind of a dismissal but the thing about that time of life is that things are new and interesting and you're not aware of things on an intellectual level yet, you're reacting to things more emotionally which I think is an interesting thing. As you get older you go through experiences and it gets the same and usual, so it is nice to try to keep that sense of things where everything seems a little strange and weird and unusual from that time which it does.

There is a quality of non-judgmentalism in your films which is child-like, you present something strange and people just accept it. You said once in the case of Ed Wood that your favorite scene was when he meets his wife and he says, “I'm a transvestite.” and she says, “Okay.”

That's a really quiet moment, but it's one of my favorites. From very early on there was this constant desire for people to categorize people, and I always thought that was something of a dismissal, it doesn't allow people to be who they are and show different sides of their personality. So when people are open and not judgmental I just find that really beautiful and great and somewhat rare.

There's also an element of wish-fulfillment in for example, Edward Scissorhands, where the jock gets it. It's like the outsider now watching those people now failing.

YEAH! Well, you talk to a lot of film-makers and you realize that they're all the people who couldn't get dates in high school and there is a lot of pent-up “I knew those people would peak in high school.” I just think it's part of the creative spirit.

Has Superman fallen by the wayside? What happened?

I worked on that for a year and I'm sure they'll do it at some point—once they get all their fast food things lined up. That's the problem with these things. In the first Batman you didn't hear the word ‘franchise’ and these movies are hard to make but they make it harder when they come at it the other way round. It was something that had never happened to me before. When you work hard on something and it doesn't happen it's hard to go back.

Is Sleepy Hollow a reaction to your experiences on Superman?

Yes, all those heads are studio executives. [Laughter] Well you know the poster: ‘Heads will roll’—that's our motto!

What is your next project?

I'm still on this really. You spend so much time on a film you want to take a deep breath and have a feeling inside that you can sustain for a couple of years.

When you see the film now is it the film you wanted to make?

I can't watch it right now. I'll watch it in three years and really enjoy it. But I feel really good about it, I enjoyed this, I enjoyed the people, it was the first time to specifically deal with this kind of imagery and it was a great team of artists and that always makes you remember why you love doing it.

Was the windmill scene in Sleepy Hollow a homage to Brides of Frankenstein?

Yes, and to Frankenstein. The great thing about those visual horror films is there's real potential for strong, beautiful imagery. It's the one genre that really lends itself to creating strong images. And I've always loved that idea of windmills—your mind aimlessly spinning. I don't know what the symbolism of it is but it's beautiful.

Do you feel that the extensive coverage that Sleepy Hollow has received on the internet is a good thing?

All technology can be used for good and evil and I think it's got its positives and its negatives. I always long for the days when I used to go and see films and you didn't know anything about them. There is something amazing and beautiful to experience something without knowing the budget and everything about it. People are interested so you have to go along with it, but I do miss that seeing something and being surprised and not knowing anything about it.

Is it intrusive?

It's strange because I've read on the internet all these projects I'm meant to be doing; I'm supposed to be doing. I feel like I have a psychotic or evil twin doing things on my behalf and I don't know about it.

Yes you're meant to be doing The Naked Civil Servant.

Yeah, I read that and it's like “Jesus, What the . . . Urghh! What's going on?” And there's something about the printed word, whether it's gossip or not somehow it has a reality to it which sometimes a little bit frightening.

How important is humor in grotesque films?

Humor was important to us and it's a difficult balance because when you're trying to make something funny and it's also grotesque and you're also trying to keep a dramatic thrust and it's also slightly heightened you're never sure what you're getting. That's why I never like to say whether something is a drama or a comedy—just to keep yourself covered just in cse it's not funny you can always say it was a drama. But when you see these great people dressed this way there's a certain absurdity. I just thought it would come across as so ludicrous if [Sleepy Hollow] tried to be completely, completely serious but they all found the right balance and the right tone of it and it's always interesting to mix those things together.

What modern Hollywood films do you enjoy?

When you're working on a film it's hard to go and see films. You don't get out of an 18 hour day and go: “I wanna go and see a movie!” But it does seem like it's a good time, it seems like a positive time, there's low-budget films and there's more of a wealth of different types of things that are happening so I haven't much lately. I hope to go out now and catch up on things.

How did you first get to work with Johnny Depp, and what's he like to work with?

First of all there was Edward Scissorhands, and he's got these eyes which a silent actor would have and it's nice to work with people who can convey things that way and that character [Edward Scissorhands] really needed that. Johnny was doing this TV show where he's perceived as this teenage heartthrob and he's not that type of a person, so he really understood the dynamics of the character. He didn't speak in that, and in Ed Wood he wouldn't shut up! And he doesn't care how he looks and there's a freedom to that. I remember in Ed Wood his inspiration was Ronald Reagan and I was thinking of a ventriloquist's dummy! And you put those together and he's really good about picking up on that stuff. In [Sleepy Hollow] we were quite excited about the first male action adventure hero as portrayed by a 13-year-old girl, so he gets all those of weird elements in there together and it's quite fun to watch from film to film.

Didn't Scott Rudin [producer] say that in every film Johnny Depp is in with you that he is you?

I don't think that, because I like to see these characters for who they are and I think I would get uncomfortable if I ever felt that way I would turn in another direction. I like to relate to the characters and feel them to a degree.

In the press notes to Sleepy Hollow it says, “in the mould of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro” so that's the thing you're in now.

All I know is that I love working with him and he's great, and each time it gets better because you see something new and that's what I love about film.

What's with the pumpkin heads in all your movies?

Well, you know when you come from Southern California you try to create what you don't have and we didn't have weather, we didn't have texture, it was always sunny—no seasons. I think it is desire to create the things that are missing in your life.

The pumpkin thing is an American thing rather than a European thing isn't it?

It's a symbol of Fall which is one of my favorite times of year. It's the shortest time but it's also somehow magical and exciting.

What else do you enjoy in life apart from movies?

I like drawing, I like to travel. I find there's just not enough time to space out and I think that's where you end up doing your best work when you're not having to think about something and you're able sit back and look at things because things move so fast it seems now that the time of doing that and thinking and looking at things in a strange way is quite helpful and enjoyable.

Haven't you just written a book?

A year ago I did a mental patient poetry book.

You said that making a movie is the most out-of-control thing you can do. Apart from the actors is there anyone else you particularly like working with?

The problem with film is you never know when you're going to be able to make a film so you can't have people waiting around for you. Sometimes it's fun to work with the same people and work with new people and mix it up, and I really enjoyed this [Sleepy Hollow] because it really was an international cast and crew and you really feel close to the people you're working with and it's great to mix it up now and then and sometimes you have to. Working with the same people is fun because you get to see them try different things as well and that be as exciting as working with somebody new who is surprising you for the first time.

And you've developed relationships with people you worked with at Disney, these relationships go back 20 years.

Yes, and it's really nice to work with people who understand and really love the artistry of building sets, it's great.

How long is it before you view films back, and are they what you imagined before?

Three years, and the further away they get the more I like them. I don't know exactly what that dynamic is but it ends up coming full circle to how I felt about it at the beginning. But working on a film you just see so much of it all of the time and it becomes like Chinese water torture you feel this drip on your forehead endlessly and it takes a while to get over that.

And how much of what we see on the screen is that vision in your head?

It is out of control and I think the best thing you can do is hope for is something closely in the zone of it but that's what I love about the B films, it's great when you see the inconsistencies because it somehow makes it more human in a way. I find those films very appealing; they feel much more human to me.

Do you think there will be an end to the mindless blockbuster?

This one feeds into that a little bit but somehow it feels like an interesting time. I think there will always be those types of films, but I think there might be more different types of films to go along with it so there is more of a choice. You can maybe just avoid those ones and go and see some of the others which I think there'll be more of.

How out of step are you with mainstream Hollywood?

You have meetings with executives and they all talk about blockbusters, but the absurd thing is that if anyone knew exactly what that was they'd all be like that. They pretend they know what they're talking about but the thing is to be passionate about it and try and do something that you want to do but that's always a problem, that weird pretending and thinking, like Ichabod pretending you know what you're talking about when you don't.

Are you going to publish any more of your artwork or photography?

Yeah, it's great doing it and not be chained to an animation table and have the opportunity to do it when I can and I do love it. It's a sort of therapy, helping me to think and I hope I'll always do it. If it's not too bad I guess some of it will get published. Right now I just use it as a great form of thinking and enjoyment, and as long as I don't have to draw those foxes I'm fine!

Who are the people who inspire you now?

I always consider my prime film-going experience early on because I think those are the times when things remain with you for your whole life. People from the monster movies and people with whom you can identify when you see their film that they're able to have a feeling that's theirs and anyone who can get that across in film. Luckily there's too many to mention.

Is there anyone you particularly admire that you've never had the chance to work with or meet?

Meeting the people is sometimes scary because you don't know what it's going to be like sometimes it's best just to have that memory and the feeling of the work that they done.

Had you met Christopher Lee before Sleepy Hollow?

No, that was amazing because two hours went by and I realized I had been hypnotized by Dracula. [Laughter]

If you weren't a film-maker what would you be doing?

Be in jail probably! I don't know, I'd probably still have my restaurant job.

Were you any good at school?

I was part of a weird group of kids who got our energy from trying to get through school without doing anything. That's what directing is like in a way, this kind of hovering about! We tried to fake the report . . . I did okay but it was kind of sociopathic. I was lucky the last year of school I broke my right hand and I didn't have to do anything, it was amazing, I thought, “I should have broken my hand earlier—starting in first grade maybe.”

What about violence in the world around you—how do you go about addressing those issues?

I was never scared by monster movies, more by real life. Coming from LA I prefer anywhere else in the world because there was a dynamic of people acting a certain way but not really being that way. The mythology of people friendly and smiling, masking something else which always me feel uneasy and disturbed.

What were you doing at 23?

I was chained to my animation desk, sleeping half of the day. I learned to sleep with my pencil in my hand sitting up at my desk so when the bosses came in I'd just boink. [blinks awake and sits upright] Those were the years of catching up on sleep.

Gags aside, it must have been a good grounding?

Actually it was more interesting at CalArts. Disney was tougher, but I worked with great people like a great animator called Glenn Keen who's still there who took me under his wing and I learned how to deal with a big organization.

How did it feel working with Vincent Price as the father figure in Edward Scissorhands?

He was great, and when I met him—after I'd sent him that short story—he was very open and positive, and it was the first experience I'd had like that where somebody who you admired was also a great person. He did so much; he had an amazing art collection which he gave to a poor East LA college. You see people who get jaded, and to see someone who goes through such a career and is a wonderful person it keeps you going throughout your life, and as with Sleepy Hollow you meet these people all the time and it just helps you when you go through that other stuff with the corporations. It's a real shining light.

-- donated by Theresa

-- photos added by Zone editors