Gothic Fantasy: The Films of Tim Burton

From Chapter One

'Just remain a human being and try to do the things that interest you and see what happens' - Tim Burton

Tim Burton is a tall man usually dressed in black. His dark hair is often wild and unruly, Johnny Depp stating that 'a comb with legs would have outrun Jesse Owens given one look at this guy's locks'. He is the director behind massive hits like Batman and modern fairytales like Edward Scissorhands. All his films have been affected by his childhood experiences, ones which still have a strong resonance with Tim Burton the man. This personal touch has meant that his movies communicate a deep sense of humanity to those that see beyond the stunning visuals and often playful plotlines.

Born on August 25th 1958, Timothy William Burton spent the first ten years of his life living with his parents and younger brother in Burbank, California. Burbank is the location of a number of film and television studies, including Disney, NBC, and Warner Brothers, so even as a boy he was close to the industry he would eventually become part of.

He couldn't understand why his parents sent him to Sunday school when they weren't really religious or why they had a picture hanging on their lounge wall despite the fact they didn't seem to have any real feelings for it. He also couldn't understand why they blocked up the windows of his bedroom, leaving only high slits for the light to shine through. So, distanced from his parents and younger brother due to his perceived 'difference,' Burton moved in with his grandmother at the age of ten and remained with her until leaving high school.

Feeling estranged from the suburbia which surrounded him, Burton had a profound sense of alienation and it is this sense of the outsider which 'permeates all of Burton's work'. He saw the suburban life as lacking in passion, as a kind of colourless, flat landscape in which no one really knew anyone else beneath the façade of normalcy. He has said of his experience of living in suburbia that there was 'no passion for anything, just a quiet, kind of floaty kind of semi-oppressive blank palette that you're living in'.

In order to escape the oppressive feelings Burton sometimes indulged in creative and quite ingenious pranks. At one time he, with the help of some other children, put debris and footprints in a local park and then persuaded other kids that aliens had crash-landed there. He also faked fights in the neighbourhood and once convinced another child that a killer had died after falling into a swimming pool, their body having dissolved due to the fact that the pool had recently been cleaned with chloride (the tall tale supported by some clothes he'd thrown into the water).

Due to his life in suburbia Burton also believes that society tries to suppress any creativity and passion an individual may feel while at the same time the culture is enforced upon us, almost suffocating any such urges. Because of this he says that individuals need a 'certain kind of strength and simplicity' in order to break through the enforced, cultural framework. This 'strength and simplicity' is exactly what Burton employed in his passion for drawing, a passion which continues to this day. It is also evident in his films on a visual level, making his movies highly identifiable.

His tastes in painters and paintings is very apt considering the symbolism often contained within his films. He likes a lot of expressionist and impressionist work, such as that of Vincent Van Gogh. He says of these paintings, 'they're not real, but they capture such an energy that makes it real, and that to me is what's exciting about movies'. In the same way his films are not trying to assimilate reality, but are symbolic and stylised in order to capture and convey the feelings and emotions within the narratives.

Burton finds drawing both satisfying and cathartic and says, 'I think best when I'm drawing'. When he was a boy he made pocket money at Christmas and Halloween by painting the windows of his neighbours. His art was a way by which to create identity and to express the emotions and feelings he had within. He describes his drawings as being part of an impulse to be seen for what he was, and one of his biggest influences as a child was 'Dr. Suess,' whose books he describes as 'beautiful and subversive'.

Burton's drawings were created for himself, and though this may seem a little contradictory, this is also largely true of his films, which are effectively extensions of his drawings. Burton often uses his work to explain certain elements of his films to production designers, director's of photography, and even actors. For example, he has made sketches of Edward Scissorhands, The Penguin from Batman Returns, and Ichabod Crane from Sleepy Hollow in order to show the kind of look he was seeking from the characters.

Not only does Burton have a passion for drawing, but he also enjoys photography. This is part of his tendency to work things out visually rather than verbally or through the written word and he states that this visual element 'taps into your subconscious,' going on to say, 'it's a more real emotion than if I intellectualise it in my mind. I like just trying something either in a drawing or photo… It's a visual concept as opposed to thinking'.

His boyhood pictures may not have been for show, but his films certainly are, reaching wide and often spellbound audiences. This creates a strange reaction in Tim. He states that he can't watch his films in anything other than small parts until about three years after their release. Burton also states, 'I love the making-of process, but I get very vulnerable at the end of it. It's like I'm afraid to show it to anybody'. This is due to the fact that his movies are reflections of his private interior; his mind. He is fearful of what he has displayed of himself in these films, what he has revealed to the global audience of millions.

Each project is approached on an intensely personal level and so the fact that he is putting so much of himself into the movies cannot be helped. Without this approach we wouldn't have the same depth and feeling in his work, there wouldn't be the same emotional and symbolic depictions on the silver screen, though this leads to his sense of vulnerability. His other major boyhood passion was monster movies and horror films, especially those starring Vincent Price and based on the dark tales of Edgar Allen Poe, such as The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) and The Raven (1963), both of which were directed by Roger Corman. He also enjoyed the British Hammer Horror films, the films of James Whale, such as his 1931 Version of Mary Shelly's 'Frankenstein,' and he also regularly watched 'The Twilight Zone' and 'The Outer Limits.'