MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN
Out come the freaks... TIM BURTON welcomes Nick Setchfield to Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children
tim Burton’s latest is as peculiar as you like.
Tim Burton has just caught scent of the weird.
“What’s Slender Man?” he asks, his gaze pinned on SFX.
There’s a genuine and urgent curiosity in his eyes. We’ve been discussing the Hollowgasts, the skinny monstrosities that menace the heroes of his latest film, Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar
Children. There’s a touch of Slender Man there, we reckon, a trace of the lean, besuited urban myth that haunts the twilight corners of the internet. Burton’s never heard of this meme from hell. But he pounces upon the name as soon as it leaves our lips.
“A tall man, really?” he nods, savouring our explanation, clearly thrilled to discover an unexplored sidestreet in Freakyville. “Well, that makes sense. Usually in your dreams they’re not simply creatures going ‘Raargh, raargh!’ It’s something slightly more folk tale, more fairytale. You hear of things in different cultures that sound slightly more humanised.
“I just didn’t want it to be a creature,” he continues. “It was more like a weird person. That’s why they’re wearing clothes. I was trying to go for a slightly more child’s nightmare kind of thing.”
This is the Tim Burton we expected to meet – but he’s also not quite the Tim Burton you imagine. His cartoon self precedes him: Hollywood’s misfit king, the pale, shock-haired visionary with a carnival funhouse attic where his skull should be. He still doesn’t seem to be on speaking terms with sunlight – today he’s dressed in his trademark black – but there’s an energy: a mischief, a crackle, an easy laugh that belies his rep as a floaty goth wraith. He runs into the room, shakes hands enthusiastically. No fewer than three pens are jammed into his jacket pocket, as if arming him against a
You can have success, you can have kids, but there’s that dark pit inside that just stays with you
feverish urge to sketch, to scribble, to nail down his imagination. Perhaps he’ll draw us an impromptu Slender Man…
Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children feels built for Burton’s brand. Based on the 2011 novel by Ransom Riggs, it’s the tale of a boy, Jake (Asa Butterfield), who discovers a strange mansion on a deserted island off the Welsh coast. The house is filled with extraordinary, superpowered orphans, including Emma (Ella Purnell), a girl with the power to control air. They’re under the tutelage of the sternly mysterious Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), a shapeshifter who can rewind and relive time, protecting her charges from the dark forces determined to destroy them. “She’s Scary Poppins!” laughs Burton.
Riggs wrote the book after finding a cache of mournfully creepy old photographs, fashioning a story around the nameless children in the pictures.
“I wasn’t aware of the book, but when I was sent it I really liked what Ransom did,” says Burton. “I collect photographs. And a certain kind of photograph tells you something but doesn’t tell you everything. The way he concocted the story around this collection was really beautiful, so poetic and mysterious. As soon as I saw it I was drawn to it. And also the character of Jake. Once you have those feelings as a child of not feeling like you fit in, or you feel crazy by the time you’re a teenager…
“He’s not even that different. He’s just a kid, you know. He’s awkward, and by that age I felt the same way. You just don’t feel a part of your world. You feel like you’re crazy. There’s just an awkwardness, and that spoke to me very, very simply and clearly.”
Burton smiles as he remembers his first meeting with the film’s young star. “I was looking at him, going, ‘You’re the kid from Hugo? Jesus Christ!’ He’s like six feet tall, right? Film’s a visual medium so all I had to do was look at him. He’s got this sense of intelligence and emotion but also [a sense of ] awkwardness and not fitting in. He’s not this big action movie thing. It was important to me that he was just a person. I don’t think I was unique to those feelings. I’ve known a lot of people that feel that way. He was somebody that just visually embodied that type of person.”
The outsider’s a throughline in Burton’s career. From Edward Scissorhands to Ed Wood, Bruce Wayne to Selina Kyle, his heroes are the beautiful freaks, the glorious loners, the souls in the margins. You don’t need a psychology degree to track this back to Burton’s sense of inner exile growing up in suburban Burbank. What’s genuinely surprising is that it still resonates so profoundly with him.
“It’s probably worse now than ever before,” Burton tells SFX. “You go through waves of it. Once you feel those things, unfortunately, it doesn’t leave you. You can have success, you can have kids, but there’s that dark pit inside that just stays with you. It’s not like I want to do the same thing. I don’t think, ‘Oh, I want to make another weird, lonely person story.’ It just sort of happens. In this particular case I felt connected to that character – not just Jake but the others, and Miss Peregrine, and the world, and the foundation that whether it’s past, present or whatever, you don’t fit into anything.” It’s worse now than ever before? “I can’t really go into those reasons but you know you just go through times in your life when it’s kind of wave-like. It feels like seasonal change. You get better, you get worse, you get better, you get worse.” He gives a goofily self-deprecating laugh. “Hopefully it’s not one of those charts that keeps going down! Like one of those economic charts…”
Burton found a kindred outsider spirit in the movie’s screenwriter, Jane Goldman (Stardust, Kick-Ass, Kingsman: The Secret Service). “There’s a connection. You can recognise another peculiar person. She understands that. All us peculiar people can spot each other, without even talking about it. That’s why I love her. She’s very talented. And you know when somebody knows these feelings.”
He was also happy to reunite with Eva Green after working with her on 2012’s Dark Shadows. There’s something deeply Burtonesque in her DNA, isn’t there? Something moonlit and gothic and misplaced in time?
“I love her because she’s perfect for me,” Burton agrees. “She had all the elements. I guess she’s described as older in the book but I wasn’t looking at it from that perspective. I was looking at it from ‘Who’s got that sense of mystery? Who’s got that sense of power? Who’s got that mixture of weirdness and connection and humour and strength? And also looks like they could turn into a bird?’
“And by the way, yes, I think she actually can [laughs]! She is that type of person. I love her ideas. I remember when I first met her… I’ve had it a couple of times in my
life, a certain psychic connection
that I can’t even explain. I just find her quite powerful. A powerful person, a powerful actress. In this day and age when everybody knows everything about everybody she’s got that old movie star sense of mystery about her, which I thank god for, and I’m impressed with. It’s a rarity.”
home sweet home
There’s another star of the movie. This one’s masonry and timber, not flesh and blood. It’s the title star, Miss Peregrine’s home itself, and, remarkably, it’s a real building, not some soundstage confection.
“That’s what I loved about it,” Burton says. “I looked in England. I’ve worked in England quite a bit and I’ve looked at lots of houses over the years. This one ended up being in Belgium. You see a lot of things that look like institutions or castles but this one needed to feel like a strange home. When I saw it I felt like well, it’s not overly dark and gothic, but it has a funny quality to it. It’s like casting an actor.
“I just felt, especially working with kids, to not over rely on effects, to do as much as you could real and have a real place, to not make it so effects heavy and do it a little bit more intimate – real sets, locations. It just felt more appropriate.”
For all the kids’ unearthly powers, don’t look for a movie that chases the current superhero boom.
“Look, I did Batman,” Burton says. “[Those movies are] very popular but what I liked about this is it’s not so much about superpowers. You might consider them more afflictions, to be honest. If anyone’s expecting X-Men Jnr they may want to wait. I’m sure it’s coming to a theatre near you soon!”
And does Burton have a refuge, a retreat? His own Bat-Cave or Scissorhands castle? His own home for peculiar children?
The patron saint of outcasts laughs again. “I think it might be more of a home for peculiar old people!”
Who doesn’t own a doll’s head on a crab wielding a knife, quite frankly? Someone might need to hire a new gardener… Just watch out that she doesn’t fly away.
Are they avoiding getting too much sun?