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Tim Burton Is Nostalgic For A Time When 'Franchise' Wasn't A Hollywood Buzzword

"Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" is the director's latest.

I met Tim Burton earlier this week at a site that feels like the setting of a Tim Burton movie. We sat in a dim room at the McKittrick Hotel, a once-abandoned tavern that used to attract Manhattan’s upper crust and now plays host to the macabre interactive-theater project “Sleep No More.” Its dim corridors could house any of the peculiarities from Burton’s 31-year career, during which he has directed such contemporary classics as “Beetlejuice,” “Batman,” “Edward Scissohrands” and “Ed Wood.” 

Burton’s latest, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” opens in theaters this weekend. Based on the Ransom Riggs novel about a teenage boy (played by Asa Butterfield) who befriends a tribe of shape-shifting eccentrics at an abandoned orphanage, “Miss Peregrine” is right at home in the pastel fantasies of the Burton oeuvre. So, we talked about exactly that. 

I live a few blocks over from the Tim Burton–themed bar.

Oh, really? Oh, shit! I heard about it, but I’d be too scared. I’ll have to send a pre-scout to see what it’s like.

Imagine if the patrons saw Tim Burton walk in the door.

It’s too scary, even for me.

Because it’s too much of your own work in other people’s hands?

Yeah, I don’t even like watching my own movies. I am curious about it. And it’s still open. That’s amazing!

Asa Butterfield and Ella Purnell star in a scene from "Miss Peregrine's Home for Perculiar Children."
Asa Butterfield and Ella Purnell star in a scene from "Miss Peregrine's Home for Perculiar Children."

I feel your movies have gotten a bit more family-friendly in the last decade.

Really?

Things like “Miss Peregrine,” “Alice in Wonderland” and “Dark Shadows” retain your aesthetic, but they’re not quite as edgy as some of your previous work. Do you think having children has influenced that?

No, I don’t. It’s a possibility, but it’s certainly not something conscious. I did show my 5-year-old “Sweeney Todd.” Is that family-friendly?

I wouldn’t call that one family-friendly. It’s the post-“Sweeney Todd” Tim Burton. What did she think?

She liked it. I’m a weird person to ask because I grew up watching weird movies all the time. Who am I to know? But it’s a possibility, even though I’ve never consciously thought of that.

There’s a lot of chatter right now right now about studios’ reliance on reboots, sequels and adaptations.

Yes, I’ve done my fare share of those.

Is it harder now than when you first started to get a “Frankenweenie” or an “Edward Scissorhands” made?

Maybe, yeah, it’s possible. It feels entering a new era. The rebooting or the redoing used to be infrequent, but now they basically reboot things every year. They do the same stories, just with different actors, which is a new phenomenon. “Spider-Man” is the same “Spider-Man” with a different cast.

Johnny Depp stars in a scene from "Edward Scissorhands."
Johnny Depp stars in a scene from "Edward Scissorhands."

In thinking about the evolution of blockbusters, it’s hard to deny that “Batman” is one of the most influential movies of the past few decades. It helped to usher in a new model for commercial filmmaking.

Well, I do feel lucky to be part of something that felt new at the time. That was the days when the project felt like a new way of doing a superhero film, but also you’d never heard the term “franchise” before. Ah, it was so pleasant not to hear that word. Is it a movie? Is it a fast-food chain? What are we talking about? What does “franchise” mean?

You didn’t even know there would be a sequel.

No, we had trouble even to begin with. Warner Bros. obviously was into it, but it was different territory.

It was an early example of fan acrimony emerging before the product has even been shelved, which is ubiquitous now. People were so upset that Michael Keaton wasn’t a buff hero type.

Oh, yeah! No, I know, and it was so funny, over the years, because when the movie came out, it was financially successful, but it was not a critical success.

Oh, I don’t know ...

Believe me, I was there. And then there was a lot of criticism about Michael Keaton, as you said, even by other actors. And then, all of a sudden, you see every Batman, they all [deep Batman voice] talk like this ― and it’s like, what is this, some kind of Elvis imitator? You guys hated it, then why do you sound like him?

Michael Keaton peers in to the camera on the set of "Batman."
Michael Keaton peers in to the camera on the set of "Batman."

You could argue that, in Hollywood, there’s pre-“Batman” and post-“Batman.” Are you a fan of the superhero saturation that’s taken hold?

Eh, I liked Batman. That was my favorite character, just because I liked the fact that he was human and I liked the fact that he had the dual, split personality ― the light and the dark. That’s why I like Michael Keaton. You look at his eyes and he’s crazy. And he also needs to dress up like a bat, so there’s all that psychological underpinning, which I loved about him.

You love those dual worlds. That’s a recurring theme in your movies. It’s in “Batman,” “Corpse Bride,” “Big Fish,” “Edward Scissorhands,” “Miss Peregrine,” the list goes on.

But that’s life, you know? People are always trying to categorize, like, well, this is real, and that’s not real, or this is fantasy, that’s reality. It’s like, really? Turn on the news. If you described real events, you’d say they’re fantasies, or you’d describe these fantastical things and they’d be real. People try to categorize and separate the two, when in fact they’re not. Everything is a weird combination of the two. That’s what dreams are, that’s what movies could be. It always makes me laugh when people try to separate the two.

Do you think that’s a symptom of adulthood?

Yeah, I don’t know. It’s something I resisted my whole life, this categorization. That’s why being labeled a peculiar child or a weird child ― I never felt weird. I felt like a kid. And that’s what I liked about this. If you didn’t know what their peculiarities are, they’re just kids. And I do think you’re right ― I think as you get older, maybe you’re trying to grasp onto things in a crazy world. You’re trying to put things in a box, and certainly where I grew up, in the time I grew up, in Burbank, there was a real strong sense of trying to pigeonhole people, and I just never liked that.

Tim Burton directs Johnny Depp and Sarah Jessica Parker in a scene from "Ed Wood."
Tim Burton directs Johnny Depp and Sarah Jessica Parker in a scene from "Ed Wood."

Does having a distinct aesthetic palette become limiting as a director? People have a fixed idea of the types of projects you do.

Yes, now, it gets a bit limiting. At the beginning, it was all a surprise, “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” and “Beetlejuice.” When I got “Beetlejuice,” I thought, “Really? A studio wants to make this movie?” They didn’t know what it was. So the element of surprise with “Batman” was similar. It’s like, whoa. And as that goes on, it becomes more of a thing, you know what I mean? Instead of a human being, you’re some kind of thing.

You’re an idea.

Yeah, people say, “This would be perfect for you,” and I go, “I don’t think that way.” I don’t think, “Oh, this is my kind of thing.” I just respond to whatever I respond to. It does get a bit strange. That’s why I don’t go on the internet much. That’s why I don’t read much about myself or think of myself. I always try to respond to things emotionally and not like, “Oh, this is my kind of thing.”

I think of “Alice in Wonderland” as the ultimate Tim Burton project, like your career was building to it. The dual worlds, the trippy characters, the protagonist’s restlessness. But it was so computerized, which is different.

Oh, yeah, that movie was the most backward movie I ever made. We used computers, but we used lots of different elements. We really used a mixture of things, making people’s eyes bigger or their heads bigger. There was never any one element on the set at any time. It was the biggest puzzle I’ve ever been involved with.

Lots of people star in a scene from "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children."
Lots of people star in a scene from "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children."

Your list of unrealized projects is long. I was really surprised to learn you were briefly attached to “Jurassic Park.”

Was I? [Laughs] That was the quickest one ever. It was like, [motions picking up phone] “Can we? Oh? No? Spielberg’s doing it?” [motions putting down phone]. I was attached maybe for 10 seconds. [Laughs]

Your entire career could be different. What would a Tim Burton “Jurassic Park” look like?

I don’t know. That was so quick I didn’t even have a chance to think about it.

If you had to pick one of your movies for the proverbial canon, what would it be?

I don’t know, it’s hard to say. I guess probably “Scissorhands” or “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Those are the ones that are real close to me.

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