Talking with Tim Burton: “I’m like a vampire. I’ve been killed and resuscitated many times”

Tim Burton invites us into his world to talk Beetlejuice 2, the comic book craze and what motivates him now he’s 40 years into his career.

15 September 2023

By Lou Thomas

Tim Burton

In 2008, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) approached Tim Burton about exhibiting a retrospective of his artwork. The venerable New York institution spent the best part of two years unearthing the director’s distinctive gothic-flavoured drawings, ultimately putting on an exhibition that included 500 drawings, paintings, photographs, sketchbooks, moving-image works and sculptural installations. Burton himself still seems bemused as he recalls seeing MoMa’s efforts: “It was the most surreal experience I ever had, because it was never stuff I thought about. It was all drawings that I just… did.”

Popular with art-lovers and fans of his films alike, The World of Tim Burton began touring in 2015 and reaches Turin in October, where it appears at the National Museum of Cinema. In Italy, Burton will be given the Stella della Mole award, which museum director Domenico De Gaetano and president Enzo Ghigo say is “a recognition of his visionary and innovative contribution with his inimitable style to the history of cinema”.

At the time of writing, Burton is hard at work editing Beetlejuice 2 in the south of France, and is set to be involved in a new series of Addams Family spin-off Netflix series Wednesday once the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) and Writers Guild of America strikes are resolved.

Beetlejuice 2 will be the 20th feature Burton has directed in a career that has seen him kickstart the comic-book movie craze decades before the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Batman (1989), celebrate the director of what some consider the worst film of all time with Ed Wood (1994) and narrowly miss out on making a Superman film with Nicolas Cage. Along the way, he’s ruffled a few studio feathers with his outlandish ideas and designs (it may well have been the box-office performance of his bonkers alien invasion flick Mars Attacks! (1996) that got his Superman film canned). 

Born and raised in Burbank in California’s San Fernando Valley and rolling his sentences back and forth in a relaxed Valley accent, Burton is forthright and fun when we speak on Zoom in late August, laughing throughout.

What got you into animation to begin with?

Like a lot of kids, I liked drawing, and then I liked making little super 8 films. That often involved doing a little stop-motion animation. One of the first films that had an impact on me was Jason and the Argonauts (1963). I’ll never forget seeing that at the Catalina Theatre, inside a giant seashell.

Then, because I could never have a real job, I got into CalArts. So I got into it feeling not different from most kids, then just following through a little bit with it.

How important would you say animation and your artwork has been, as an aspect of your career?

Going to CalArts wasn’t like film school, but it was like film school – because each year you do however many seconds of animation, but you’d storyboard it, animate it, shoot it, edit it, so you really got the full filmmaking package, just through animation. That was quite exciting. It taught you composition, it taught you timing and things like that. It was a very, very valuable tool and feeling, going into filmmaking.

Drawings by Tim Burton, featured in the touring exhibition The World of Tim Burton
The World of Tim Burton
Tim Burton

After you made your first studio short Vincent (1982), is it true that Disney got rid of you because you were too weird?

I did Vincent, and I did Frankenweenie (1984) there, and yes, they did not renew my – I didn’t have a contract – and that’s when I went to Warner Brothers and did Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985). So, without them saying that, yes.

That was the final nail in my coffin at that point. My coffin was unearthed years later, and then I was then re-staked, and put back in. I’m like a vampire. I’ve been killed and resuscitated many times.

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)

You mention Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. You wrote that lovely message on Instagram about Paul Reubens after he died. “I’ll never forget how Paul helped me at the beginning of my career. It would not have happened without his support. He was a great artist. I’ll miss him.” Could you expand on that?

Because he had probably as equal or more say as the studio, in a way. That’s why I was always grateful. I’d only done two short films, and at that time, that was unheard of – to go from doing two short films that nobody saw to doing a feature film. So even I knew that this was very special and amazing. If he hadn’t been supportive, it wouldn’t have happened.

What are your memories of working with Paul on the film?

I love the character. It was a surreal experience for me. All of a sudden, to be working with the crew and all these people with Paul, the surrounding comedians and characters. He was great, because it was the first time working with people that are from improv. Because I didn’t really speak, I’d sit in a dark room with animation drawings.

I got to play in so many funny little genres that it felt quite easy. He felt comfortable with me, and I was there to basically support that character. Luckily, I didn’t know anything [about the difficulties of making films], so I wasn’t scared of anything.

How are you getting on with Beetlejuice 2?

Good, except we had a day and a half left before the strike happened. I feel lucky that we got as far as we did. It is like 98, 99% done. It was a great experience. It reinvigorated my love of making movies.

You’ve been working with some of your old friends – Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara and Michael Keaton in particular – who’ve appeared in several of your films. They’ve become TV stars to new audiences, aside from being movie stars, in things like Stranger Things, Schitt’s Creek and Dopesick. How has that been?

Beetlejuice (1988)

Yeah, incredible. It’s so weird because I don’t overly keep in contact with people, but this was very special, because obviously the sequel had been talked about for 35 years. I truly never quite understood the success of the first one. It’s one of life’s beautiful mysteries.

When I did this one, I didn’t look at the first movie, because it didn’t feel like it would help. I treated it just very much as a project where, after 35 years, the anchor for me is what happened to Lydia, what happened to the Deetz family? What happened to the living people? What happens to people we see at one stage in their life, then you see them many years later? What the fuck happened to that person?

What happened to Catherine? What happened to Charles? This is what interests me. This is what gives it an anchor for me. Where are these people after 35 years?

So that anchored the emotion and the feeling, then working with Michael and Winona and Catherine, and also with Jenna [Ortega] and having these new people, all this beautiful new blood into it. We ended up doing the same idea – no digital effects, puppets, strings, wires, makeup, and tried to shoot it with the same spirit; with all these actors, they’re so good at improv. I didn’t realise until lately, we shot about the same number of days as the first one.

Working with these people again, and seeing them all, it was very emotional for me. Again, just going back to the old, same puppets and techniques. It goes back to the good old days.

What can you tell me about your working relationship with Michael?

Beautiful. He was the same way. He didn’t want to do it [initially] – he had no necessarily burning desire, but I have to say, it was the most fun. It reminded me of back in the old days, this unhinged thing unleashed on the set. I was quite shocked at how easy it was for him to kick it back into it. It was like demon possession.

Batman (1989)

One more word about Michael. You obviously made two brilliant Batman films with him. Why did we never get a third from you guys?

Well, the studio, it was like the earlier Disney situation. They had enough of me for that one. I think I upset McDonald’s or something.

Since your films, the character’s never really gone away from the cinema. Do you feel any responsibility or pride in that?

I felt lucky, because I can still remember this feeling of being there the first time, when it felt new, and there’s always something exciting about that. It’s incredible that it’s gone on and keeps reinventing itself. But one thing that I have that is very personal is that I felt very new at the beginning, and that was exciting. For its flaws and everything, it felt like new territory at the time. I’m very, privately, proud of that feeling. 

You mentioned Jenna, who you also directed in the first four episodes of Wednesday. Are you going to be working on season two, as well?

I mentally put stuff on hold until all the strikes are over. I can edit and do things I can do, but until the veil is lifted, then things get back into it. But yeah, I’ll be involved in some [way]. I’m not quite sure, because everything has stopped at the moment.

Can you tell me more about your collaboration with Jenna?

When I did Wednesday, the reason I loved it is I just related to the character so much. But to me, it could not have been done without her. You can write it good, you can do whatever you want to do, but that kind of a character would need such clarity and purity and strength. A person has to have that. So for me, she basically made the show that way. 

She’s one of the most aware, not only as an actress, but everything, around the camera, the set. She’s a very special talent. And she’s done a lot of horror movies, which I love too. That gave her a special place in my heart. “Oh, you’re doing another horror. Good.”

Some 20 films and almost 40 years into your career, what motivates you now? What’s the key to longevity in Hollywood?

I felt like I was sinking into my own grave there for a second. But honestly, it depends. You get energised making things, whatever it is – it’s a drawing or a film. I think, especially [with] this last one, where you get your energies is the back and forth with working with these artists. 

Earlier this year, The Flash contained a sequence within a multiverse, where they briefly show Nicolas Cage as Superman. In 1998 you were three weeks away from shooting Superman Lives with Nicholas as the star when the plug was pulled after two years of pre-production. Do you have any regrets about that?

No, I don’t have regrets. I will say this: when you work that long on a project and it doesn’t happen, it affects you for the rest of your life. Because you get passionate about things, and each thing is an unknown journey, and it wasn’t there yet. But it’s one of those experiences that never leaves you, a little bit. 

But also it goes into another AI thing, and this is why I think I’m over it with the studio. They can take what you did, Batman or whatever, and culturally misappropriate it, or whatever you want to call it. Even though you’re a slave of Disney or Warner Brothers, they can do whatever they want. So in my latter years of life, I’m in quiet revolt against all this.

The Museo Nazionale del Cinema in Turin presents The World of Tim Burton, the exhibition dedicated to the creative genius of Tim Burton, conceived and co-curated by Jenny He in collaboration with Tim Burton and adapted by Domenico De Gaetano for the Museo Nazionale del Cinema. For the first time in Italy the exhibition will be on view at the Mole Antonelliana from 11 October 2023 to 7 April 2024.

Tim Burton’s Batman screens as part of Batman Day at BFI IMAX on 16 September.

BFI Player logo

See something different

Free for 14 days, then £4.99/month or £49/year.

Get 14 days free