Tim Burton’s cell phone ring tone is exactly what you would expect from the man who has directed some of the most atmospheric films of the last two decades. In Toronto this week to promote an exhibition of his art and films at the TIFF Bell Lightbox Burton was mid sentence when his cell phone went off. The eerie wail of a Theremin filled the room.
“Sorry,” he says fumbling to mute the phone. “It scares me every time it rings.”
Turns out the visionary director of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetle Juice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands and most recently, the billion dollar grossing Alice in Wonderland, values his time away from technology, specifically his phone.
“I always try to at least spend time, as much as I can everyday, staring out into space; staring out a window,” he says. “I find that sometimes you get the most ideas and the most feelings when you’re not involved in things you have to do everyday; especially these days when technology is such that you can be reached any time. I try and avoid that.”
He may call spacing out an “important part of the day” but don’t call him a loner. On set he looks forward to working with others.
“Part of the joy of making a movie is working with collaborators,” he says. “When I first started in animation class you’d draw all the characters, you’d cut it, you’d do everything, which is great because it gives you a great background. But as you go on part of the joy is working with collaborators. People who surprise you. People who you try and tell them what you are doing and they get it and they add something to it, whether it’s actors or designers or whomever. I’ve really gotten to enjoy that process. It keeps things fresh. You get surprised by people and that is part of the joy of making a film.”
Right now Burton is working on full-length 3-D stop motion remake of his own 1984 short film Frankenweenie, a well loved cult classic about a young boy who uses electricity to revive his recently deceased dog.
“I love stop motion,” he says, “so it is kind of fun to keep with that. The tactile nature of it is something I always like to experience.”
Ironically he’s making the film in conjunction with Walt Disney, the same company who fired him in the mid-80s after he made the original short film, claiming it was too scary for young audiences. The House of Mouse and Burton have since kissed and made up—he made Alice in Wonderland for them—and he says now he’s appreciative of the two years of experience Disney gave him as a young man.
“If I had been there at any other time I wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to do what I did,” he says, “because they were so directionless as a company. They were trying to move into the modern world but they weren’t quite ready for it yet so I got to try things that were off the track. It was a strange time but I’m always grateful for it because if it had been any other two years on one side or another [of the time he was there] I wouldn’t have gotten that opportunity.”
Now, courtesy of the Bell TIFF Lightbox working in conjunction with the MOMA, we’re getting the chance to see some of the early Disney work as well as 700 of the director’s paintings, drawings, maquettes, puppets, videos and storyboards.
“This is a strange thing,” he says. “I never really went to museums. A wax museum maybe, so the idea of [seeing my work] here was an out of body experience. It’s kind of like, ‘Look at my dirty socks hanging on the wall. Look at my underwear.’ But reconnecting with yourself is very interesting because I would never have looked at any of this stuff ever again and so they kind of forced the issue. It’s strange, which is fine. I don’t mind a strange feeling.”
The Burton exhibit runs at the Bell TIFF Lightbox from Nov. 26, 2010 to April 21, 2011.