Tim Burton interview

The director talks to Time Out before his film, 'Frankenweenie', opens the London Film Festival

If Helena Bonham Carter is the queen of this year’s LFF, her partner Tim Burton is its dark overlord. Dave Calhoun visits the director’s gothic mansion.

Phil Fisk

There is a bath in the corner of Tim Burton’s office. He looks sheepish when I point it out. ‘I didn’t put it in,’ he mumbles, flopping into a chair like a marionette that’s had its strings cut.

Burton is one of Hollywood’s premiere league directors. In the late 1980s, the runaway success of his second film, ‘Beetlejuice’ (subsequently the go-to for a million Halloween costumes), gave him the keys to Tinseltown and the reins of the first ‘Batman’ franchise. Ever since, he’s brought to life the stuff of his oddball, leftfield imagination – the undead, reclusive eccentrics – in movies that destroy the box office.

Today (and every day, you suspect), the 54-year-old is dressed all in black: black suit and black shoes, sunglasses poking out the pocket of his black shirt. And he’s just been thrown off guard by something as banal as a bath. ‘I’ve never really… er… I don’t know if it works.’

Burton doesn’t do small talk. If there were a bath in one of his films, it would be overflowing with blood, like the sinks in his cutthroat musical ‘Sweeney Todd’ (2007). Or dancing about in a forest surreally, like something out of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ (2010). It wouldn’t be the focus for anything as humdrum as washing.

He is one of the few Hollywood directors, along with Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, you’d probably recognise on the street. His hair is dark, wild and curly. His goatee is flecked grey and his clothes are from the same unkempt, boho wardrobe as Johnny Depp’s, his friend and the regular ringleader of his travelling circus.

Burton is American, but he’s lived in London for over a decade. Work brought him; romance kept him here. He and Helena Bonham Carter have been an item since making ‘Planet of the Apes’ in 2001. Unlike her, he refuses to talk about their home life, and I’ve been given strict orders by publicists to stay on the subject of movies.

Burton has invited me round to his house to talk about ‘Frankenweenie’, his new film. He shoots most of his films in the UK and has been filming on and off at Pinewood Studios since ‘Batman’ in 1988, when he lived here for two years. ‘It was weird,’ he recalls. ‘I remember feeling like I’d lived here before, and I liked it. Then I made “Sleepy Hollow” and stayed for 18 months. Since then, I’ve tried to do everything here.’

The Victorian pile he currently shares with Bonham Carter is located in north London’s prime celeb territory; there’s a blacked-out Range Rover in the drive and assistants loitering in the doorway. It’s a little bit of LA in NW3, but it’s also exactly how you’d imagine the director of ‘Ed Wood’, ‘Edward Scissorhands’ and ‘Corpse Bride’ – films born of his obsession with horror movies – would spend the spoils of success.

The place has a gothic feel, with wooden beams, dark brickwork and a looming, oversized tree dominating the front garden. You can imagine Burton plotting the bloodletting of ‘Sweeney Todd’ here, or the vampiric larks of ‘Dark Shadows’. Then, on the walls of the staircase to his first-floor office, there are the huge, vintage posters; framed shrines to old horror flicks like ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ and ‘The Horrible Dr Hitchcock’.

Appropriately enough, Arthur Rackham, the early twentieth-century illustrator who gave a sinister twist to fairytales, used to live in the house. Burton’s approach is similar. He often brings kids’ tales to the screen, but what’s memorable about them is their visual weirdness, their yearning for the dark side: what we remember about ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is Bonham Carter as the Red Queen with an immense, digitised medieval-looking forehead. Or Depp’s intensely creepy eyes as the Mad Hatter.

‘This was Rackham’s studio,’ Burton says, gesturing around his vast study-cum-den. It looks like the rectory office of an artsy rural vicar: there are paintbrushes poking out of cupboards, art books piled on shelves. ‘Then another woman lived here with her family and at one point this was her bedroom.’

We talk a bit about the new film. ‘Frankenweenie’ is a full-length version of a short film that the director made in 1984 when he was in his twenties, after he quit his job as a lowly animator at Disney (‘I wasn’t very good’). The film is full of nods and winks to Burton as a boy – a quiet, introverted child, obsessed with old horror movies and living in the Los Angeles suburb of Burbank. ‘It’s the ultimate memory piece,’ is how he describes the film.

What he was like as a kid? ‘I always felt old. I felt like an old man. I don’t know why. I was slightly melancholy and internal. Like I thought I knew what was going on. It’s strange. I’m definitely regressing.’ He starts sniffing and wipes his eyes. ‘I’m getting all emotional,’ he croaks, producing a tissue. Is Burton crying? No: he’s got a cold. He doesn’t seem to be the sentimental sort, but his new film is full of sweet emotion, gentle laughs and tender sadnesses.

‘Frankenweenie’ is about a boy, Victor, who brings his dog back to life by harnessing the power of lightning. The original short was live-action, but this ‘Frankenweenie’ is a stop-motion animated version of the story and harks back to Burton’s other films made with the same method, like 2005’s ‘Corpse Bride’ and the much-loved ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’ (1993). The new film is in 3D and it’s black and white.

Did anybody at Disney, the studio behind it, worry about making it in black and white? Or is Burton such big business (‘Alice in Wonderland’ took more than a billion dollars) that nobody batted an eyelid?

‘Yeah, yeah, this is the first time I didn’t have to struggle with it,’ he laughs. ‘I had trouble with “Ed Wood” [in 1994]. I think they [the studio] finally understood that black and white is not just an artistic choice, it’s an emotional one as well. The emotion is stronger in black and white.’

Nor does anyone seem to have persuaded Burton to scale back the scares: ‘Frankenweenie’ is a family film but it has its frightening moments. Burton’s attitude is simple: it never did him any harm. ‘I grew up on horror,’ he says. ‘I loved monster movies, films they don’t show on television nowadays. It never bothered me. I was three, four, five years old watching these movies!’

Burton has his own kids, with Bonham Carter. Has fatherhood changed his ideas about what’s suitable for children? He shakes his head.‘I’ve always felt kids are their own best barometer of what they can take. My little girl is four, and when we read fairytales, even I’m a bit shocked. Fairytales are pretty hardcore, but they’re also a way of kids exploring things like death without it being too traumatic. What fascinates me more is that parents forget all that.’

Tim Burton films