The Secret Garden of Caroline Thompson

With movies like The Addams Family, Edward Scissorhands, and the upcoming The Incredible Journey, Caroline Thompson's become one of the most sought-after screenwriters in town. Here she chats with an old friend about new projects, old pets and her current boyfriend, composer Danny Elfman.


Screenwriter Caroline Thompson, who's pretty much taken Hollywood by storm with the success of The Addams Family and Edward Scissorhands, is adamant that she didn't move to Southern California because she hoped to become part of the movie business. "I just wanted to live as far away from where I grew up as I possibly could, and still stay on the same continent," the native of Washington, D.C. says. "I felt completely at home in L.A. from the first moment I got here, which was in 1964 when I was eight years old. My parents brought us out here to visit Disneyland, and I immediately announced to them that I'd be moving here when I grew up."

Fifteen years later, after attending Harvard and graduating summa cum laude from Amherst College with a degree in English and classic literature, that's just what Thompson did. She began her writing career, at age 26, with her novel First Born, a dark tale that got the attention of Hollywood filmmaker Penelope Spheeris, who wanted to make a movie out of it. Thompson agreed to let Spheeris develop the project if she'd teach her the rudimentary skills of writing screenplays as part of the bargain.

As Thompson explains in the following interview, this fleeting encounter with Tinseltown led, in turn, to her meeting fledgling director Tim Burton, with whom she developed a close friendship that came to involve professional collaboration.

Tell Thompson that none of her academic East Coast beginnings are evident when you visit her charming, roughhewn ranch in the San Fernando Valley, and it's readily apparent that nothing could please her more. She'd like visitors to think that she's always been a part of the L.A. landscape, living, as she does, among dogs, horses and chickens on a spread that captures the timeless feel of the area's "old adobe days."

Thompson's good pal Eve Babitz recently visited to talk to her about her busy schedule of movie projects, which include adaptations of The Incredible Journey, The Secret Garden, Sweeney Todd, One Hand Clapping, and Rouge, as well as such original projects as Midknight, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and The Geek--to name only a few. Babitz reports that Tim Burton probably summed up Thompson's enviable, relaxed lifestyle best when he said, "I have the money, but Caroline has the life."

EVE BABITZ: It's just been announced that Agnieszka Holland is going to direct your screenplay of The Secret Garden. That's not based on the Broadway musical, is that right? It's a new film version of the book, isn't it? I just love that book.

CAROLINE THOMPSON: I do, too. No, it's not the musical. I read the book when I was little. And in 1982, when I read about it being developed at Warners, I went green with envy, hoping and wishing to do it. And so when they offered it to me, eight years later, I was in heaven.

Q: I love the movie of it, too.

A: There's already been a movie made out of it?

Q: Yes, at MGM in the old days. Dean Stockwell was in it, and Margaret O'Brien.

A: I didn't know that. I've never seen it.

Q: So, what are you up to these days?

A: Well, I'm about to go off to Paris for two weeks to work with Agnieszka Holland. She directed Europa Europa. It's like having Bertolucci doing the movie...

Q: Only not having Bertolucci doing the movie.

A: Which is both fortunate and unfortunate, because if he were doing it, I could go to Rome.

Q: But if he were doing it, it would be a long, boring movie.

A: Well, it won't be boring with her. She sort of does the impossible. I mean, Europa Europa was about a Jewish kid during Nazi Germany who survived by pretending he was a Hitler youth and you'd think you'd never want to see this movie, but it's so beautifully done, so funny, charming and light.

Q: So where are you going to stay in Paris?

A: Hopefully in the nicest hotel they have. Everyone asked me if I wanted an apartment. I said, "No, no, no, I want to be taken care of..."

Q: That's true, you'd have to clean your own apartment.

A: And feed myself.

Q: Well, I finally saw The Addams Family the other night in Pasadena, but the lights went off 10 minutes before it ended. Can you believe it? They kicked us out during the ballroom scene, which was so beautiful.

A: Wasn't Wednesday wonderful?

Q: She was so great, and she reminded me of you.

A: She did? How?

Q: She was so somber, she was how you would be if you could ever get mad. Speaking of anger, I know that other writers worked on The Addams Family after you and your partner Larry Wilson wrote your script. In the final film, did you see enough that you recognized as yours?

A: Oh, here and there you could feel us.

Q: Well, I thought there was a sort of cuteness and fuzziness that was sort of you.

A: It's hard to say, because when you're writing something, you imagine it--and unlike my experience on Edward Scissorhands, it turned out really different from how I had imagined it. So it was really hard for me to watch it and see what was there, you know?

Q: But it had some great, poetic stunts...

A: The physical parts were us. But in addition to that, we had gone in for some dry humor that got sort of made wet...

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