It’s all very PECULIAR
i nside the head of director tim burton
He grew up in the sun-drenched suburbs of Burbank, Calif., but much of Tim Burton’s childhood was lived in the shadows— quite literally. His parents had bricked up the two large windows in his bedroom, leaving just one small aperture high up the wall. The atmosphere was somewhat odd, his interior world very still. To peer out into the brighter world, young Burton had to clamber onto his desk.
“It was something to do with insulation,” recalls the filmmaker, now 58, “although we were living in Burbank—it’s like 80 degrees! Talk about being buried alive! I felt very Edgar Allan Poe even before I knew who Edgar Allan Poe was.”
Through his childhood years, Burton developed a deep passion for Poe, the author of such 19th-century gothic horrors as “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” although his hunger was for the film adaptations that blossomed during the 1960s rather than for the written words. “My parents used to say that I watched monster movies before I could walk or talk,” he says. “I was always drawn to them and I never found them scary.” He loved the films of director Roger Corman and special-effects guru Ray Harryhausen. The actors Vincent Price and Bela Lugosi were his heroes. As a child, he wanted to be the man inside a Godzilla suit. “I always felt an empathy with monsters,” he says. “In those early films, the monsters were the most emotive characters. The people were the scariest ones.” He adores
the 1931 Frankenstein film by director James Whale, where the frenzied villagers pursue the monster to the windmill. Burton employed that motif in 1990’s Edward Scissorhands and in his Frankenweenie movies—the short film from 1984 and the feature in 2012. “With monsters it was often a case of, ‘Let’s try and kill this thing that we don’t understand,’ ” he says. “It is a really interesting and unfortunate human dynamic. King Kong, Frankenstein, the Creature from the Black Lagoon—these creatures are the most emotional things in the films. ‘I don’t understand you, let’s put you in a cage. I don’t understand you, let’s kill you.’ That’s a motto I have felt my whole life.”
Always the Outsider
Burton is a perennial outsider, always feeling like an oddball, a peculiarity. This is a theme that runs throughout his work, his filmmaking. A patron saint for waifs and strays, he regularly returns to the theme of an unusual child or outsider bidding to make his or her way in a hostile world. Just consider his short film Vincent (1982), about a boy’s wild imagination, or Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985), in which an “adult” behaves like a juvenile. The raffish sprite in Beetlejuice (1988) has been compared to a rogue Peter Pan, while Edward Scissorhands is Frankenstein’s monster packaged as a childlike innocent. Each story is shaded by both light and dark. The theme is persistent. On either side of Scissorhands, Burton made Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992). He was never a great comic book fan but always loved Bat- man, drawn to the idea of a hero with a dual personality, a light side and a dark, which he struggles to reconcile. “It’s a character I could relate to,” he says. He relates both to characters with masks (Batman, Catwoman, a heavily made-up Joker) and to repressed personalities like the Penguin, who are saddled with the baggage of their troubled childhoods, as he is. “There is just something about me. Going to high school was one of the most terrifying things. You are put into a category. And once you are deemed a weird person, you are in the weird group. I had a feeling that I was some sort of alien that didn’t quite fit. I did feel alone, lonely, and while I assume that most people feel that way, it was quite heavy for me. “I was afraid of my parents and my relatives and where I grew up,” he says. “I didn’t feel I had a close relationship with my parents; we seemed to not get along. I felt lonely and bad but it forced me to take the reins myself.” At 18, he won a scholarship to California Institute of the Arts, and three years later he was working at Disney as an animator on The Fox and the Hound. “I put myself through school; I got a job.” That loneliness, isolation and pervasive feeling of peculiarity got poured into Sleepy Hollow (1999) and Big Fish (2003), which feature heroes traversing strange and fantastical lands. It’s there among the misanthropes in Ed Wood (1994), in his version of Planet of the Apes (2001), Corpse Bride (2005) and Alice in Wonderland (2010). It’s there in his one published book, The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other Stories (1997). And, not surprisingly, it is also present in his latest film, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, opening Sept. 30.
“I could make The Sound of Music and people would say, ‘ It’s too dark.’ ”
Meet Miss Peregrine
The story takes its title from the New York Times best-selling novel by Ransom Riggs (2011), but it seems as though it could easily have come from Burton himself. The adaptation features rising star Asa Butterfield ( The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Hugo) as a teenager, Jake, who travels from Florida to a remote Welsh island to join a group of children with odd abilities and afflictions. “One of the themes of the story is about celebrating your peculiarity and your weirdness,” says Butterfield. “It is very surreal and gothic and odd, which I think Tim is best at capturing, compared to any other director. It feels like a Tim movie even when
you read the script.” Indeed, it’s a story that will ring with familiarity to any Burton devotee. It has a coterie of outsiders, children with immense strength or who possess a fiery touch. There are twins who, like mini-Medusas, can turn creatures to stone with just one look. One boy is invisible. Another is full of bees. Jake’s love interest (played by Ella Purnell from Never Let Me Go and Maleficent), meanwhile, is lighter than air and needs iron boots to prevent her from floating away. “Their peculiarities extend into their personalities,” Purnell says. “Miss Peregrine, who is the weirdest of them all, leads them. She can change into a bird and she has a real birdlike quality to her.” Miss Peregrine (played by Burton’s latest muse, Eva Green) is the pipe- smoking, time- watching and shape-shifting guardian who protects the youngsters from their terrifying predators, the Hollowgasts. Green sees echoes of Burton in all the children. “They don’t fit in the outside world, and I think Tim felt like this as a child,” Green says. “Lots of people feel like that and identify with that. I still feel like this. This is a movie that says that you just have to accept it, embrace it and celebrate it. It is beautiful to be different.” The book is certainly very singular, appealing to Burton not only through its outlandish adventure story but also via its presentation. Its author, Riggs, embellished his novel with a series of haunting blackand-white photographs. “What I loved about Ransom was his approach with the old photographs,” Burton says. “They tell you a story without you knowing everything. There is something very poetic, creepy, haunting and mysterious about them. It reminded me why we like folktales and fables and fairy tales. They describe something and there is a mystery to it. It is not literal, necessarily. There’s something hidden about it.” Burton’s film unfolds in a world brimming with fairy-tale tropes, a realm that exists on the boundaries of our own. The story plays out in a landscape studded with topiary centaurs, or gnarled and misshapen trees. The children live in a gothic mansion. Even the real world of Wales is magical, mysterious and misty. And his highly individual stylistic embellishments shine through, whether it’s via a stop-motion sequence with dueling toys or through a nod to one of his favorite movie scenes of all time: the fighting skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts (1963).
The Eyes Have It
Then there are the eyes. Eyes are always important to Burton—he even made the film Big Eyes in 2014, about Margaret Keane, the painter of saucer-eyed waifs—and some of the monsters that hunt the children in Miss Peregrine have lost their own eyes entirely and feast on the eyeballs of peculiar children. The creatures are terrifying, but also rather sad. “They are like something out of a child’s nightmare,” Burton says of the Hollowgasts. “I am a monster fan,
so for this film I tried to find something where there was still this humanity to them.”
This is typical Burton, says Green, who also worked with the director on Dark Shadows (2012). “He has such an understanding of all outcasts,” she says. “All of them are beautiful. Even the evil characters in his movies have humanity. There
“I could wear white linen suits and dye my hair blond and make happy movies and they’d still think, What is he doing? Something is wrong.’”
is something very poetic about his work. Sometimes people say that Tim’s work is dark. I don’t think so. It’s something actually very beautiful, very sensitive.”
Burton has an aversion to categorization and has often felt frustrated by accusations that his work isn’t light and lively enough. “I always get accused of that,” he says. “It happens over and over.
“I could wear white linen suits and dye my hair blond and make happy movies and they’d still think, What is he doing? Something is wrong. I could make The Sound of Music and people would say, ‘It’s too dark.’ Once you get categorized, that’s it. You get, ‘Oh, well, it’s very Burton.’ Well, who am I? I don’t like thinking
of myself as a thing.”
Burton’s desire to explore themes and worlds close to his heart, his ability to make the mundane magical and the magical mundane, has led to the coining of the term “Burton-
Director Tim Burton’ s latest movie, Miss Peregrine’ s Home for Peculiar Children, features a cast of odd “outsider” characters led by a shape-shifting guardian. Visit
Parade.com/peregrine to find out how Burton had fun on the set.
From top: Batman, Beetlejuice, Charlieandthe ChocolateFactory and AliceinWonderland