IS TIM BURTON AS WEIRD AS HIS CHARACTERS?
By Jonathan Romney
From The Guardian (London), 02.28.1997
Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! seems like a sure-fire recipe for box-office success–hordes of evil aliens, a cult director with a berserk visual imagination, and a prodigally illustrious cast (Nicholson, Close, DeVito, Bening, Poppy the Chihuahua). But since its Christmas release in the States, the film has made less than the reissued Star Wars managed in a fortnight.
By normal Hollywood criteria, this makes it a flop. Moreover, for all its lunatic black-comic energies, Mars Attacks! is rather like a hi-tech version of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World–all guns blazing but not actually very funny. Yet it’s absolutely compelling as an anomaly, a dissident creative abuse of the blockbuster format. Its America is a neon desert of bone-headed vulgarity just asking to be laid waste by little green men, cackling imps from the Id. Inspired by a set of early 60s trading cards, Mars Attacks! is a salutory raspberry, an adolescent apocalypse.
Some of the film’s tawdry Vegas glamour seems to have rubbed off on Burton. Waiting to interview him, I expect to see the black-clad matchstick man that he caricatured for his quasi-autobiographical Edward Scissorhands. But when he walks in, he’s wearing an electric blue suit with visor-like shades hidden by the familiar coiffure of teased black candy-floss. He meets and greets with the confidence of an avant-garde MTV game show host, then perches on the edge of the sofa in a posture suggesting the ease is only skin deep.
The mystery with Burton has always been how an apparently reticent individual ("nerd", "geek", "nebbish" are frequent epithets) came to be a major Hollywood player. The industry traditionally makes a protective fuss about its "child-like" creatives (Lucas, Spielberg, little Robin Williams), but Burton, the immortaliser of vulnerable outsiders like Pee-Wee Herman, Ed Wood and an unprecedently distraught Batman, is more oddball than most. How does he get to make these strange, moody films which fly in the face of Hollywood wisdom? "I don’t know," he grins, flashing teeth that verge on cartoon goofy. "They don’t really know what I’m doing anyway . . . I have a certain history with Warner Brothers, so they let me. So far, anyway." Burton has always been known for an artisanal approach–he started, after all, as a humble production-line animator for Disney, during the company’s early-eighties nadir. In Mars Attacks! he hops on the digital wagon, but where you’d expect him to take to computer imagery like a kid with a dangerous new toy, he sounds more like the scientist offering Dire Warnings in a fifties monster movie. "It’s great to have it as a tool, but for me there’s nothing more evil than when you see John Wayne in a beer commercial, when they take someone who’s dead . . . That’s just scary! What does it all mean?" Pulp horror was Burton’s staple diet as a child in the Los Angeles district of Burbank, which contains not only the studio complexes but also the trimmed-lawn suburban dystopia he parodied in Edward Scissorhands. His solitary childhood, B-movie addiction, and self-image as an ungainly outsider have been much documented, but how many American film-makers of his generation don’t share those attributes? Yet even by Hollywood brat standards, his imagination was unusually vivid. He dreamed of being the man inside the Godzilla suit, stomping Tokyo to ashes; in Mars Attacks! he effectively seems to have realised that aspiration.
"Since it’s not real," he says, "there’s something cathartic about it. I like these anarchistic characters, not because I consider myself a real hardcore anarchist, but in terms of seeing things in a different way. Kind of blowing away certain conventions that are getting more entrenched in our culture and are moving it in a more bureaucratic way." Among other things, he means the studios. He evokes the anguish of the solitary film-maker no longer sure who’s behind the system. And the more worried he gets, the more his syntax and metaphors get tangled like his hair. "Who do I talk to? Who’s in charge? I always remember the image of the angry villagers in Frankenstein being an embodiment of that. Here you have Frankenstein, and then here you have the villagers–well, who are they? Well, it’s not an individual, but it’s this group sort of attacking this thing, you know? That’s why I admire anyone who does anything individual. Maybe you don’t like what they do, but you got to admire them ’cause they’re not this sort of thing hiding behind this sort of group . . . thing!" Before the ordeal of making Batman, he remarked, "I’m for anything that subverts what the studio thinks you have to do". He could hardly have made a riskier, more ingenuous policy statement. The hugely successful Batman, he admits, bought him time and security. But surely he loses sleep over opening weekend figures, especially when they’re as poor as those of Mars Attacks!? "Oh yeah! It’s my least favourite part of it." He can anticipate that things could get harder for him now, but can’t see himself operating as a studio hired-gun. "I don’t think I’m proficient enough. I admire these directors who can go from one genre to the next–a western, a courtroom drama, it’s like . . . whoah! If I did a courtroom drama, it’d be . . ." He stops, obviously imagining a jury of decomposing ghouls sniggering through various perversions of justice.
Burton seems to have found a perfect counterpart in his partner Lisa Marie–just Lisa Marie, not to confused with the erstwhile Mrs Jacko. After his short-lived marriage, he met the former model and sometime Malcolm McLaren collaborator in 1992. It’s said she has changed him beyond recognition, recharging a moody, taciturn character. "It was something I’d never really had," he says, positively glowing, ‘someone to connect with. We can play–we can do photo shoots, we can do weird costumes, try different things, y’know . . ." Lovestruck directors traditionally put their partners on screen, but Burton has twice cast Lisa Marie in grotesque supporting roles–in Ed Wood as glamour -ghoul Vampira, and now as a Martian invader in cheesecake disguise. It makes sense that a man who presents himself as Young Frankenstein would cast his sweetheart as his dark Bride. "I love those movies, and I think that’s why I was drawn to her. I always loved actors who like putting on weird costumes. I’ve enjoyed that from Lon Chaney on." Not many people, even movie nerds, would talk about their beloved and Lon Chaney in one breath. But it seems Burton and Lisa Marie inhabit the same planet. They tend to be reclusive, avoiding LA and spending much of their time travelling. They live in "Nowheresville, USA," he says. "We may feel we don’t have that many friends, but our friends are that way too. So we see them in Paris, New York, you drift and connect." But how much is Burton really the fragile, abstracted soul he appears to be? He was much wounded by a 1994 Vanity Fair article that suggested he represents himself as a weird waif in order to hide a ruthless, even exploitative real self. "I never approached anything ruthlessly. That piece gave the impression I chewed people up and spat them out. You work with people, then you try something else." But surely no one who’s directed several blockbusters could be a frail hothouse orchid? He was when he started, he insists. "I’d see people get angry and I freaked out–"My God, how could they . . ." Then I started to understand. On Batman Returns, I got so upset I flipped out and I don’t think a couple of people at the studio forgot that–I was so angry, it was scary." On brief acquaintance, it’s hard to gauge Burton’s scary side. But one thing’s certain: it takes an extreme sensibility to do what he does in Mars Attacks!–to graphically and gruesomely behead (albeit digitally) your own pet chihuahua. Burton shrugs. "I always felt I was a dog. I was born in the Year of the Dog, so there’s some connective tissue there."