FANTASTIC FEST: Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie History And The Beetlejuice Connection
Sweeping into Austin to present Fantastic Fest’s opening night film Frankenweenie in his signature tinted glasses, director Tim Burton extolled the virtues of one of his most favored art forms: Stop-motion animation. “It’s such a beautiful, rarified medium,” said Burton, who returns to many of his roots — stop motion, black and white film, monster movies, macabre kids tales, and his own 1984 short film of the same name, about a boy who brings his beloved dog back from the grave — in the feature-length October release.
Speaking to press alongside producer Alison Abbate and voice cast Charlie Tahan, Winona Ryder, and Martin Landau, Burton waxed nostalgic about his long journey with Frankenweenie. It all started in Burbank, Calif., where the filmmaker grew up, in Burton’s own relationship with his childhood pet.
“The dog I had had this disease called distemper and was not meant to live for very long,” Burton said, “but ended up living a long time. There was always this specter of death hanging over it, which as a child you don’t always understand, but growing up Frankenstein movies were sort of your introduction to death. That’s why it seemed like such an easy fit, it seemed quite natural.”
Years later as a young employee of Disney, Burton channeled that childhood experience into a live-action short starring Barret Oliver, Shelley Duval, and Daniel Stern; the resulting film, a black-and-white cult classic, got him fired from the studio, who insisted it was too scary for children.
How did Burton walk that line in the feature-length version of Frankenweenie, a second go-round with Disney? He didn’t.
“I remember when we first did the short and they were going, ‘This is too weird,’ and then they showed Pinocchio and kids were running out screaming in the theater,” he recalled. “Disney founded its company on having things that were scary and I think people forget that. To me, this was really safe. I never was worried about it because they’re little puppets, for God’s sake.”
Ryder, who starred in Burton’s Beetlejuice, voices hero Vincent Frankenstein’s next door neighbor, a quiet but sympathetic little goth girl named Elsa. The visual resemblance is strong in itself, but Ryder deliberately conjured the spirit of her Beetlejuice character for the part. “I drew on a little bit on my character Lydia from Beetlejuice,” she explained. “I imagined her as a little girl — and also I imagined what Tim was like at that age, that sort of shy but super creative.”
According to Ryder, Burton coached her during the Frankenweenie production in a similar fashion to when they worked together over twenty years ago. “Tim actually used some of the same direction and same words that he used the first time on Beetlejuice, which was just to keep it very real,” said Ryder.
As for the Beetlejuice sequel that Burton is developing, don’t expect any updates just yet. “A writer’s writing it,” Burton allowed, “but I just said ‘Surprise me, so I don’t know when it’s coming, if it’s going to be any good, whatever.”
Frankenweenie is in theaters October 5.
Stay tuned for more from Fantastic Fest!