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Hollywood Outsider
Tim Burton: A Real Hollywood Outsider


September/October, 1999
By George Higham

This fall, heads will roll--one way, or the other! Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow hits theaters dor Thanksgiving '99, and the talented director's own head is on the chopping block this time around. After the disappointing returns from Mars Attacks, hig last outing three years ago, and his recent string of pictures preceding that, studios are a bit nervous to have Mr. Burton at the helm.

He's an amazing visionary film-maker who has made a career out of glorifying the outsider, living his own life on the edge of Tinseltown politics and glamour.

Looking like he rolled out of bed after a bad night, Burton arrived on the "scene" in 1985, bringing us Pee Wee's Big Adventure. The cartoonishly bizarre exploits of man-child Pee Wee Herman (Paul Reubens), an "outsider" if there ever was one, was his feature debut.

Followed by the quirky but successful Beetljuice, this new kid on the block was paving his way into the heart of Hollywood, while still retaining the eccentricities that followed him all his life. The 30-ish "wunderkind" was then given the dream job that pushed him way over the top--Batman.

He was chosen because he was an up and coming visionary genius with fantastic ideas, but no real love for the "Batman" comic book. He personally identified with the dual nature of the mask-wearing, angst-ridden "hero", but had no desire to be religiously faithful to the long running D.C. comic. That's exactly what the studio wanted--a "Batman" for the pop-culture masses, not just comic book geeks. The geeks were appalled with Burton's choise of Michael Keaton to play the lead. The controversy led to great publicity, and Burton & Batman were a record shattering success.

He has since questioned his own part in the film, recognizing that it was a monstrous media event waiting to happen, whether he was on board or not.

Edward Scissorhands was next up, a tale of the ultimate outsider. Edward is a gothic-looking young man (wonderfully portrayed by Johnny Depp), with a collection of blades for fingers. His "fish out of water" adventures in modern suburbia did well at the box office, but Warner Bros. had something bigger in mind.

Expecting history to repeat itself, the studio then gave Burton Batman Returns. Now surer of himself and more in control, Burton created a dark, twisted Gotham City populated by a myriad of outlandish characters. Criticized as being too dark with an unfocused story, it was not the hit that was hoped for.

Trouble was brewing for Mr. Burton.

During this time, Disney pulled out Burton's pet project from the 80's, that he had conceived while in their employ, Nightmare Before Christmas. he wasn't to direct this tale, but it was his "baby". Disney wanted to jump on the 'Burton bandwagon', and green lighted this bizarre puppet-animated story of the outsider's outsider--Jack Skellington. This cadaverous anti-hero is the epitome of spookiness in his haunted Halloween world, but he longs for something different. Denying his own true nature in seeking "normalcy", disaster results.

People were starting to just not get Tim Burton's work. His quirky characters and strange worlds were beyond the grasp of people that just wanted another Batman.

Maintaining his vision of the heroic outsider, his next project was the bio-pic Ed Wood. With a scaled down budget of $18 million, Disney (Touchstone Pictures) once again took a chance on Burton. From the start, this was an off-beat picture, shot in black and white with an admittedly limited appeal. They were more interested in having 'Tim Burton - the director' in their stable, though, than having much faith in this particular project. It was a way to get him on board--or so they thought.

He soon signed away to another studio, leaving them with a film that they really didn't know what to do with.

Released with little fanfare, the critics liked it, but the audience never showed up. It's really too bad, as the story of cross-dressing film director Edward D. Wood, jr. as told by Burton is compelling, and probably his best film to date. Obviously, Burton is mirrored in the character of Wood, a film-maker with a love of the fantastic, that while physically in Hollywood, is always on the "outside".

Three years ago, his big-budgeted Mars Attacks was released. With this film, the man who could do no wrong in Hollywood years before, finally really missed his mark. Considered a financial disaster, Mars Attacks pushed Burton back into the fringe. The outsider theme was still there, but this time on the grandest scale money could buy. It's the few outsiders that not only end up stopping the Martian invasion, but assuming control of our planet themselves at the film's conclusion.

Now, in 1999, Tim Burton is back! The outsider this time around is Ichabod Crane, a New York City cop exiled to upstate N.Y. to investigate a series of mysterious beheadings using his revolutionary new "scientific methods". The closed communtiy of witch-fearing rustics is not ready for the modernity that this outsider brings with him. The dark, supernatural force that he encounters is darker than anything that Tim Burton has tackled before. However, the familiar themes are there, as well as a few familiar faces--Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane, and Christopher Walken (Batman Returns) as the Headless Horseman! A few faces are around as well, most notably the talented Christina Ricci.

The gruesome script by Andrew Kevin Walker (SE7EN) is a morbid tour de force, including such snippets as: "putrid innards", "sack of heads", "bloated corpse", "Two-headed wolf", "Exposing rotten flesh & maggot infest muscle", "creature/old crone", and "four other severed, decaying heads are held by ingrown roots within the dewy inards"....WOW!

It will be interesting to see how Mr. Burton handles such disturbing imagery in a way that the public will accept and enjoy.

The footage from the trailer looks very close to the script, an exciting and stylish excursion into the dark realm of Sleepy Hollow 200 years ago. Lush cinematography and looking like a Hammer film on steroids, Sleepy Hollow promises to be a gothic blockbuster! While Washington Irving might be spinning in his grave, the rest of us can enjoy this take on the Headless Horseman and his reign of terror from beyond the land of the dead! Horrific action scenes, supernatural mystery and creepy atmosphere abound...

After all, when Tim Burton and the writer of SE7EN get together, you'd better believe that they're going for the throat!


For more information about Tim Burton, check out My Art and Films by Tim Burton, Burton on Burton, edited by Mark Salisbury or Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography by Ken Hanke. For more about Sleepy Hollow, visit http://members.tripod.com/~VanTassell/index.html for a great site with many links.

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