Filmmaker Tim Burton returns to his stop-motion animated roots this Friday with “Frankenweenie,” a black-and-white 3D movie about a boy who uses science to bring his beloved dog back to life.
This film is from Walt Disney Co, which fired him more than 20 years ago for his first, short version of “Frankenweenie.” Burton, 54, spoke about wish fulfilment and why the story is so personal for him.
Q: “Frankenweenie” takes its roots from a relationship you had with your dog as a young boy. Tell us about the dog.
A: “I had this strong connection with a mutt we had named Pepe, and it was a good connection. Like your first love. It was very powerful. The dog was not meant to live very long because of a disease he had, but he ended up living quite a long time. So you have this strong connection, and then you think: ‘Well, how long is this going to last?’ You don’t really understand those concepts of death at the time.”
Q: “Frankenweenie” was a live-action short film that you directed for Disney in 1984. What made you decide to do this feature-length film as stop-motion animation?
A: “It feels like the right medium for this. I always enjoyed the structure of movies like ‘Frankenstein’ and then later on ‘House of Frankenstein,’ where they incorporated other monsters ... I tried to be very clear not to just pad out the short. So I took the heart and sprit of what ‘Frankenweenie’ (the short) was, took the Frankenstein story, and went in to the other Frankenstein structures where the other kids - or monsters - come in to play.”
Q: Why “Frankenstein?”
A: “I knew about death from watching ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Dracula.’ Though you don’t really understand it, you get it. And that’s the whole purpose of those stories - to kind of prepare you for the abstract things that you don’t really know.”
Q: The original short got you fired from Disney because they felt it was inappropriate for children. Do you think they were right about that?
A: In this ‘Frankenweenie’ film, I make a reference to ‘Bambi’ because Disney founded itself on exploring those things - Bambi’s mother dying, for example. Or ‘The Lion King’ - there’s death all over that movie. I find that people at the company forget the history of Walt Disney movies. ‘Old Yeller,’ ‘Snow White’ - the movies had scary elements. I felt ‘Frankenweenie’ was a pretty classic Disney movie.”
Q: How scary is the new one?
A: “There’s no yelping and screaming. No bodies being crushed. I felt like it’s the safest and most positive way to explore those themes. It’s more of a fantasy, a wish fulfilment. Do I really want to bring my dead dog back? My dead grandmother? My dead parents? Not really.”
Q: Obviously Disney must be happy with this film. You didn’t get fired this go-around!
A: “I’ve been in and out of Disney both positively and negatively. (Getting fired) has happened to me so many times! I will say that there were no fights about (shooting this movie) in black and white, which was great because I wouldn’t have done it without doing that. They could have made that an issue and they didn’t. I’m always grateful for anything like that - where they at least try to see it the way you do, and then accept it.”
Q: Pepe was a mutt in real life, but in the live-action short and in this film, both dogs are bull terriers. Why that breed?
A: “My original drawings for the film are quite abstract. They don’t really identify a breed so much. I was trying to make the dog more general with the right kind of spirit. But when it came to going with a real dog, (using a bull terrier) definitely felt like the right type. They’re quite special-looking. The ones I’ve known have got good personalities.”
Q: Working with real dogs is one thing, but what about clay ones?
A: “They break a lot. We had a puppet hospital because there’s a lot of wear and tear. The mouth splits, things open up, there are tears in the legs and you need more stitching.”