Mars Attacks! Was Inspired By This Paul Newman Disaster Classic

Hollywood is filled with creative minds ... and then there's Tim Burton. When it comes to bringing improbable worlds to life, Burton is in a league of his own. Few films can match his unique visuals and bizarre narratives. But even the ambitious director met his match with a project that came from an unlikely place of inspiration.

Beginning with his directorial debut of "Pee Wee's Big Adventure" in 1985, the animator-turned-director had an incredible run of success. His hits in the following decade included "Beetlejuice," "Batman," and "Edward Scissorhands." By 1995, everyone in Hollywood wanted to work with Burton. His next project would include a Hollywood all-star list that included Jack Nicholson, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan, Sarah Jessica Parker, Glenn Close, Danny DeVito, Martin Short, and Jack Black.

Despite the all-start cast, Burton's next film would nearly drive him from Hollywood. In 1996, the filmmaker would push the envelope of Hollywood and audience expectations, and it was all because of a chance encounter in a gift store. Even for Burton, the origin of "Mars Attacks!" is stranger than fiction.

A film with no heroes and everybody dies

"Mars Attacks!" is an anomaly, even for a Tim Burton project. It is a satirical sci-fi movie and an homage to 1950s disaster flicks where Martians attack Earth and inflict ridiculous harm on humans (including putting a Chihuahua's head on Sarah Jessica Parker's body). It was Burton's cynical, comedic take on Hollywood blockbusters, something audiences weren't quite ready for. This was, after all, smack in the middle of the optimistic Clinton years.

There are no heroes in "Mars Attacks!" and all the important characters are killed off in preposterous ways. Authority figures are seen as bumbling idiots, incapable of leading during a minor crisis much less an alien attack. Pre-9/11 audiences weren't in a head space for such a snarky, distrusting take on society.

Though the narrative sounds like a made-for-TV SYFY film along the lines of "Sharknado," the film was produced by Warner Bros. with a massive budget of $70 million. And not surprisingly, there was plenty of studio pushback. According to Inverse, screenwriter Jonathan Gems admits that Warner Bros. asked for changes that he refused. He cites the burning cows at the beginning of the film as something he kept in every draft despite the studio's objection to the scene. Warner Bros. eventually fired Gems (the burning cows stayed).

Warner Bros. never really understood the type of movie Burton was trying to make. What they and others didn't know at the time was that "Mars Attacks!" was inspired by a series of trading cards, a classic Paul Newman disaster film, and a bit of herbal assistance.

A stoned Burton found humor in a diaster movie

As Gems remembered, he was lookng for a birthday gift for Burton when he stumbled across two sets of cards featuring oil paintings of disastrous events. One was labeled Dinosaurs Attack and the other Mars Attacks. Gems thought the visuals would appeal to Burton and got them for the director as a gift.

It turns out those cards inspired what would become "Mars Attacks!" Initially, Burton was attracted to the dinosaurs, but the work of another filmmaker caused him to pivot. Gems said:

Originally, it was going to be 'Dinosaurs Attack.' But then we found out Steven Spielberg was doing a sequel to 'Jurassic Park,' and they were going to have dinosaurs attacking Los Angeles.

Burton decided instead to use the Mars Attacks deck as the basis for the film and turn it into a disaster movie. Gems remembered watching the 1974 Paul Newman disaster film "The Towering Inferno" with Burton while the pair was stoned and observing how funny it was. And the idea for a comedic disaster film was born.

The original script was darker, but across town, Roland Emmerich was making the big-budget sci-fi film "Independence Day." This pushed Burton to make "Mars Attacks!" in a way that had never been done. A disaster film with no saviors, inept heroes, and a biting commentary on society and his own industry. The confusing reaction to the film and battles with the studio caused Warner Bros. to scrap Burton's planned Nicholas Cage "Superman" movie. The battle with the studio led to Burton's brief haitus from the movie business. And though audiences weren't ready for the film in 1996, after watching our political leaders fumble their way through a global pandemic, Burton now looks like a soothsayer.