wed 17/08/2022

Close Up on Film Director Tim Burton | reviews, news & interviews

Close Up on Film Director Tim Burton

Close Up on Film Director Tim Burton

Cinema's Mad Hatter converses

When Johnny Depp first met Tim Burton, twenty years ago in a Los Angeles coffee shop, he was struck by the otherworldiness of this "pale, frail-looking, sad-eyed man." While the two men traded fragmentary insights about the raw power of velvet Elvis paintings, the nervous young actor marvelled at his new acquaintance’s wide, glaring eyes, his uncontrollable hands, his scarecrow hair. "A comb with legs would have outrun Jesse Owen, given one look at this guy’s locks," recalled Depp later, in his foreword for Faber's excellent collection of interviews with the director. A surreal metaphor worthy of Burton himself.

That odd, comical meeting was an interview for Edward Scissorhands (1990) and the two men have since made six films together. Depp became a major star and Burton’s career, too, prospered. But in the process it seemed as if the director was losing his visionary strangeness. His early live action and animated short films were way out there: Vincent (1982, see the clip below) was the touching, funny portrait of a misfit boy who bore a striking resemblance to the director. And the gallery of geeks on view in Beetlejuice, Ed Wood and Edward Scissorhands looked like further incarnations. But things began to change. Burton’s impersonal remake of Planet of the Apes and the egregious sentimental whimsy of Big Fish suggested, fans thought, a terminal drift towards the mainstream. He was, in short, selling out.

Of late all the signs are that Burton, 50, is returning to the murky backwaters of his youth. Following his last film, the ghoulish Sweeney Todd (2007), he's working on an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. Depp plays the Mad Hatter, naturally: a short clip of him in character was unveiled this Tuesday at the Walt Disney Company’s AGM. Alice won’t open until next spring. But meanwhile appetites may be sated by the toxic sugar-rush of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a gorgeous, gilt-edged oddity re-released on Blu-Ray on 6 April.

In this adaptation of Roald Dahl’s dark children’s book, Depp plays Willy Wonka, a reclusive chocolate magnate with glassy eyes and a bright, disturbing smile who invites five children to visit his factory. There four of them meet a horrible fate and frankly deserve it. Set in a retro-futurist world, half Victorian Gothic, half Goldfinger (the film was partly shot on the James Bond stage at Pinewood), it’s conceived on a grand scale with astonishing sets and gruesome musical set-pieces.

charliechocolatefactoryThe director first came across Dahl at school and detected a kindred spirit. "His sense of humour matched my own," he recalls. "Did he like children? Hate children? Is it light? Dark? Is Charlie considered such a classic because it’s such a nice little book? No, it’s got all this stuff going on. That’s part of its charm."

Dressed, as ever, entirely in black, Burton looks better fed these days - indeed almost jowly. Schooled by years on the interview circuit, he has become (relatively) slick and articulate, vague only when lobbed a question he does not much care for. We are in a shadowy hotel room, but his eyes, sad or otherwise, hide behind huge tinted specs. The hair, though, a woolly dark straggle, would still send a comb scurrying for cover.

His private life has stabilised too. In 2001, Burton hooked up with Helena Bonham Carter after casting her in Planet Of the Apes. Their son, Billy Ray, was born in October 2003 and their daughter, Nell, in December 2007. However, rather than rehearsing the normal platitudes about how fatherhood has changed his life, Burton insists it hasn’t had an impact on his thinking. "I don’t now have this overwhelming desire to make The Teletubbies versus the Wiggles. it's not like I feel, like, 'La-la-la, off into Kiddieland'." Well, that’s a relief (though you do feel, with a slight sense of regret, that Burton’s take on Teletubbies might well be something to see).

As it happens, children are likely to relish Charlie's noxious combination of candy, comedy and gore, and the film has the blessing of Dahl's widow, Felicity (with whom Burton had previously worked when he produced an animated version of James and the Giant Peach). In America, on the other hand, critics laced their admiration for its soaring flights of fancy with disdain for the bizarre subtext. "Burton's gifts ensure you won’t be able to take your eyes off the screen, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be happy with what you’re seeing," said the Los Angeles Times. "Vaguely creepy," concluded Variety.

Burton admits he was pressured to make things more uplifting. Demands were made by the studio, Warners, for a cosier, healthier relationship between Charlie (played by the gifted British child actor Freddie Highmore) and Willy Wonka. "There was always this thing of needing to see a connection between them because Willy's a father figure. Well, Willy Wonka is no father figure of mine, I’ll tell you right now. He's a weirdo." Which, coming from Burton, means that we are looking at an 11 on the Richter Scale of weirdness.

Attention fastened on the parallels between Willy and Michael Jackson: the incredible secret fantasy world, the deathly pallor, the dandy’s attire, the effeminate manner - all made transcendently eerie through Depp’s performance. It comes as no surprise that Burton is keen to deny it. “Johnny and I never brought Michael Jackson up, not even once, to each other. Michael Jackson likes children and Willy Wonka can’t stand them. It’s like night and day.”

In a further curious development, Gene Wilder, who starred in the original, 1971 film version - titled Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory - attacked the remake, saying, "It’s all about money… I don’t see the point." A couple of weeks later, he performed a nimble volte-face, hailing Depp as a "magical" choice." Burton (who says he has not met Wilder or anyone associated with the earlier movie) becomes agitated. "I read some article that said, 'By making this movie we’re destroying millions of people's childhood memories of a beloved classic.' It made it seem like we were taking copies of the movie and burning it." He raises his voice. "Go watch the f****** movie if you love it so much! What do you want, Gene Wilder and Johnny to get into a boxing ring and duke it out ?"

Burton and his brood are based in London. “I first came over for Batman and immediately felt at home,” he says. “Working here wasn’t so much about business, it was more of an artistic endeavour. There’s something about Londoners. They’re more accepting of people’s differences.” In Burbank, California, where he grew up, he always felt like a foreigner, he says. He was once apprehended as an illegal alien. “The police once came round to my parents' house and asked if they had a son who looked like a Mexican.”

Bonham Carter has had substantial roles in Burton’s last five films; she also plays the Red Queen in Alice. Presumably, then, working together causes no domestic disharmony. "It's fine but you'd probably have to ask her. She probably thinks I've gotten less nice to her, but I don’t know if that’s true. But it’s fun. She's willing to put in funny teeth." At mention of marriage, though, he emits a big sigh and an anxious laugh. "Oh, why don't you ask me something I can answer? I gotta see if my kids recognise me before they go off to college. At the moment it's, like,'‘Who’s that manic-depressive, dark-looking character who occasionally wanders in through the door?'"

Explore topics

Share this article


Hey if Tim would like a coffee with me maybe he will discover me as an actress....

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters