/Film Exclusive: Tim Burton Discusses 'Frankenweenie,' Autobiography, And The Reliability Of Memory

With Frankenweenie, Tim Burton goes back to a couple periods of his own history. One is his childhood, during which he was alienated from average school life, and found solace in monsters and movies. Another is his early career, when he created a short film for Disney that, creatively, was his first big success, and professionally his first major failure. Meant to run before the re-release of Pinocchio, the original Frankenweenie, about a boy who reanimates his dead dog, was deemed too dark and weird, and shelved for years.

Today Burton sees the release of a new, feature-length version of Frankenweenie in which the characters are gloriously rendered via stop-motion animation. The film is a nostalgia trip on many levels, but it is a loving one. Burton came to Fantastic Fest a couple weeks ago to present the film, and he and I sat down for a conversation about going back to your past, and the reliability of memory.

/Film: I'm curious about the degree to which Frankenweenie is autobiographical. It's easy to watch the film and assume certain things about the level of representation of your life, but I also wonder about it being a film about the perception of your life. 

Tim Burton: Well, this was definitely a real memory piece, because I mean the original short was based on the kind of relation I had with my first pet, that kind of relationship, and Frankenstein films and monster movies. What made me want to go back to the material was a couple of things, one was the stop motion, which I love, and going back to the original drawings, as there was something in those drawings that you couldn't quite get in live action which I wanted to explore. Then just beyond that initial relationship, it made me start thinking about the other kinds of kids in school, the place I grew up, the teachers... a lot of other kinds of monsters. There were lots of elements that came up that fit into that same sort of world, so all of that together made it feel like a new project to me and something very special. I tried to link almost everything up to somebody I knew, you know like kids and types of people that I remember and the types of relationships you had with other kids and stuff. So almost everything was based on something of a memory.

One line that really stuck out was when Victor's father discusses reanimating the dead, and says it is "upsetting." Over the course of your career you've played a lot with notions that are upsetting to a certain general population. I'm wondering if the notion of "what is upsetting" or what you think other people might find upsetting has changed over the years.

It's always funny to me, because I always think... because you're right, and then I go "Well I grew up on Disney movies" and there's a lot of weird shit in those movies, you know? People, as they get older they forget these things I think. It's interesting. I always found it a strange phenomenon. I mean I remember when the short came out and they were all freaked out with "It's too weird. It's too dark." It was meant to go out withPinocchio as kind of a featurette and "yeah, it's too weird and too dark" and then they showed Pinocchio and the kids are screaming and running out of the theater, because there's some scary stuff in it. I just remember them like on Batman Returns, "It's so much darker than the first one." Or "It's so much lighter." Like half the people would say it was "darker" and half the people said it was "lighter." It's like "How can something be lighter and then half of you say..." So I've always had a strange kind of... So at the end of the day it's a mystery to me. (Laughs) It just kidn of makes me laugh now, because I still to this day don't understand it.

Are there things that are upsetting to you? Are there concepts that you think "Okay, no. That's just something that shouldn't be explored."

A lot of movies now are just such torture, I mean there are things that are hard for me to watch, certain violence, even though I grew up watching Hammer Horror films and I loved... My level of torture porn is probably like Dr. Phibes or Theater of Blood, you know? (Laughs) That's about my level.

How did you work with John August on the script? Was that a very close collaboration?

Yeah. I showed him the original thing and we started riffing. I wanted to expand it and go like... "Remember what they did in the original? This was like later with Universal when they did like House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula where they brought in other monsters or Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein." There's something about those that I always loved, the idea, so that was a sort of framework, but then it was just trying to be about, for me, as personal, like "This kind of kid, that kind of kid" and finding the right... I gave him kids and monsters and talked about the framework of it all and he's quite good and he knows me, so he got it pretty quickly.

Among the characters, you've got the kids who are clued into what's going on, and you've got their teacher, who's two generations up. In the middle are the parents who are just flailing around. Is that consistent with your own experiences growing up?

Yeah, I would say so. I tried to treat all of the emotions as real as possible and also just the weird kid politics. Also, with Victor, it's like he's a loner in a certain way, but at the same time he is the most normal one in a certain way and that to me felt like it was an accurate feeling. I remember feeling like an outsider, but I also felt quite normal, and I also felt like everybody else was weird, and that dynamic of how kids are with each other and how there are certain teachers where you don't really know what they are talking about and have a certain power to them. So all of those kind of things were based on real people and real feelings.

Do you ever go back to those memories and start to wonder "are these memories actually legit?"

Well yeah, it's true. I think, especially as time goes on, how you remember something isn't necessarily the way it was. Also, even though you might grow up feeling like you are completely alone, if you asked any other kid they would probably feel the same way. So I think that you can only use your own experience and for me it wasn't so much... Memory, you try to treat it as such. A memory can remain very powerful and there's validity to that and as long as your not trying to say "That's exactly it," because obviously with this it's not a historical piece. So there's a bit of looseness to that.

Do you have any artifacts of your own childhood that you can go back to to say, "Oh, I can pinpoint how I was feeling at this point."

I can go to Burbank and look at all of the houses I grew up in and all of that stuff and get a weird vibe, yeah. So there's that, which somewhat has remained kind of the same. It's a strange place. It hasn't really changed that much.

I was really struck by some of the attitudes towards science in the film. [Ed: there's a thing about science needing to be tempered by love.] Was that you, or was that John?

For me, well again I grew up with Dr. Frankenstein and all of those mad scientist characters. I mean I always loved that and I link that to science and art and creativity and how I remember growing up there was a real kind... There was a suppressing of those emotions in people and trying to suppress creative thinking or science and thinking about things in a different way. It seems like even more so now there's a kind of suppression of those kinds of feelings. So that was an important message with science, art, or anything where people are thinking, to let that flourish and not let that be suppressed.

So those impulses are closely connected for you, artistic and scientific?