By Christopher Michaud
NEW YORK (Reuters) - During auteur director Tim Burton's tenure drawing animation at the all-American Disney studios, blood flowed in the halls. Well, dripped anyway.
The man who brought the dark, neo-Gothic worlds of "Batman" and "Edward Scissorhands" to such vivid on-screen life was seen as decidedly "weird" by his Disney colleagues.
The lavish, big-budget, star-filled "Sleepy Hollow" opening Friday, with its tag line "heads will roll," is unlikely to change their opinions. Starring Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci, the film, set in 1799, is a bloodily loose adaptation of Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," the tale of the Headless Horseman who terrorizes the isolated hamlet.
But the "weird" tag, which Burton said has dogged him since childhood, has had its advantages. "At a certain point I just sort of got into it," he told Reuters in an interview.
"When I worked at Disney people thought I was weird, so I sort of had a freedom that nobody else had. If I fell asleep in the closet nobody thought two things about it. Or if I went down the hall bleeding from my wisdom teeth -- dripping blood in the halls of Disney -- they sort of allowed me my space."
And he also seems aware that the odd, quiet child is often the one who grows into a great artist.
Burton, wearing dark glasses and with a head of impossibly frantic hair, mused that "When people put you aside it's easier for you to look around and to see other things. So I would often take note that I was being deemed as weird when I thought everything else around me seemed weird. The mask of normalcy is quite spooky -- or people that say they're normal."
Still, it is clear it both puzzles and bothers him. "I learned the two sides, the freedom and the repression of that, and I don't forget it. It still stays with me," he said.
TWELVE STEPS TO ADULTHOOD?
Burton's darkly expressionistic films often take place in an almost dreamlike state of childlike wonder and awe, which is most always invaded by menacing forces driven by ignorance or malice. It is a seemingly contradictory style that might be called "romantic macabre."
In "Edward Scissorhands," a laboratory-created boy (Depp) with scissors for hands is first embraced, then hunted down and attacked by townspeople. In stop-motion animated "The Nightmare Before Christmas," which Burton produced, the well-meaning but misguided pumpkin king attempts to hijack Christmas, delivering disembodied heads and snakes to terrified tots. Little ghouls sing "kidnap the Santa Claus, hit him with a stick."
"Sleepy Hollow," which was shot almost entirely on sets and sound stages, evokes those same qualities, which grow directly from Burton's very personal vision and experience. Ask him about his childhood and the first thing he says is, "I think I'm still recovering from it, obviously."
While the simple fact is that he "grew up watching and loving monster movies -- I still deal with that imagery because that's the kind of imagery that fed me, and still feeds me," Burton explains that "it's not that you want to remain in this sort of retarded world of being a child."
"It just means you see things in a way that's more pure, more abstract, more symbolic, more interesting in a way. I find a lot of times as you get older people sort of lose that perspective," said Burton, who is given to preceding or following his musings with a reflective "mmmmmmm, ohhhhhhh," punctuated by an epiphanic "yeah!"
While the dark, expressionistic style seen in the first two "Batman" movies has won him devoted fans, it also has a fair measure of detractors, which again he does not understand.
"I've been criticized for things looking good and there not being any substance, and that always sort of upset me. But the films that had impact on me as a child, I could never remember any of the story, what I could remember was images which were burned into my consciousness," Burton said.
"It's FILM," he added, with an implied 'Duh.' "When you read a book you get something different. I don't even know what something that looks good is, in a way ... my desire is to create an image that ... stays with you, where the image is part of the emotional makeup of it," he said.
"It's part of the story. It's like a folk or a fairy tale, where they come more from the subconscious, as opposed to thinking or seeing things literally, on the completely intellectual level."
CONGRATULATIONS MR. BURTON, YOU HAVE A HEALTHY BABY FILM
"Sleepy Hollow" seems set to dredge up that old Burton chestnut, with an early review in Variety calling it "as beautifully crafted a film as anyone could ever hope to see." The positive review went on to note that the main character, Ichabod Crane, "obviously like Burton himself, is adamant about seeing things his own way."
The New Yorker, however, directly criticized Burton "for not making a more involving movie around a great visual idea."
Mixed reviews are something he has come to see as part of the package, and even the worst ones, such as for his last film "Mars Attacks!" do not derail him.
"I've been equally surprised by a movie succeeding or failing," he said, adding that with the "Batman" box office bonanzas under his belt, "they think that you know what a hit movie is, when in fact you don't. All you have is your own passion for what you're trying to do, and you try to make it as good as possible."
So he had the same feelings about his hits like "Edward Scissorhands" and "Batman" as he did with the box office bombs "Ed Wood" and "Mars Attacks!" The latter which was also critically lambasted despite an all-star cast including Jack Nicholson and Glenn Close in a satire of 50s alien movies.
"I love all my movies, it's like they're your children with their warts and defects and all," he said. "I'll be kicking that one around for a couple of years," he said wryly, explaining that it takes him several years to be able to look back and view his films with the proper detachment.
The main lesson from "Mars Attacks!" so far is that "I should move to Europe," where it did well, Burton said with a laugh. "I felt like some people got it better there."
Still, he admits it was a bit of a jumble, "almost like an animated film."
A decade after Disney, he is still living, and sometimes battling for, an animated world -- or at least his twisted version of one.
"Working on 'The Fox and the Hound' was bad news because I couldn't really draw that style very well," he said of the typically sickly-sweet Disney film. "If they had done a scene where the Fox had been hit by a car I might've done well, but road-kill foxes ..." he added, trailing off.
One can only imagine what he would do to "Snow White."