“Movies are like an expensive form of therapy for me.”― Tim Burton
American filmmaker Tim Burton has established himself as one of the most unique artistic voices with his surreal gothic films like Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands among others.
His films won eight Academy Awards, six BAFTA awards and four Golden Globes while the director himself is the recipient of prestigious accolades like the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. In 2019, he received the David di Donatello Lifetime Achievement Award for Cinematic Excellence from the Italian Film Academy.
Burton was interested in filmmaking since his pre-teens, he would make stop-motion animations in his backyard and shoot them on 8mm film without sound. His earliest known work is a short film called The Island of Doctor Agor which he made when he was 13. He enrolled in the California Institute of Arts to study character animation and in 1982, he made Vincent.
“Visions are worth fighting for,” the filmmaker once said, adding: “Why spend your life making someone else’s dreams?” and in that quote alone it offers a fascinating insight into the surreal world and mind of Tim Burton.
On his 62nd birthday, we look back at some of his greatest works as a tribute to the truly special talent of Tim Burton.
Tim Burton’s Top 10 Films:
10. Corpse Bride (2005)
Set in a 19th century village, this beautiful stop-motion animated film features Victor, a young man who is taken to the underworld and married to a zombie while his real fiancé waits in the real world. Burton shared directorial duties with Mike Johnson for this film. The whimsical plot is underlined by a bittersweet and sad tone.
The filmmaker said, “Corpse Bride, I find, is even softer in a certain way. It’s basically a love story, an emotional story [with] humour. And like any kind of fable or fairy tale, there may be elements that are somewhat unsettling. But that’s part of the history of those kinds of stories.”
9. Big Eyes (2014)
This biographical drama follows the story of the extremely talented painter Margaret Keane (played by Amy Adams) and her problems with her domineering husband (Christoph Waltz) who claimed credit for his wife’s works in the 1960s. It is a subtle yet powerful portrayal of a woman who found her artistic voice before she found her liberty. Burton efficiently investigates the problems of artistic integrity and patriarchal oppression.
“What probably influenced me was the mixture of emotions that you get by looking at the images,” Burton observed. “There’s sort of an eerie quality and sadness, as well as a darkness and humour and colour. All those things together obviously resonated with people. There were a whole other artists that tried copying it, but couldn’t quite capture that unique strangeness of the images.”
8. Batman (1989)
Often regarded as the first modern superhero film, Burton’s 1989 effort changed how Hollywood’s conceptualisation of comic book stories. Burton brought his unique vision to the already extensive mythology of the legendary character. He blurred the distinctions between the binaries of good and evil by making his Batman nuanced and complex, very similar in a lot of ways to the primary antagonist Joker (brilliantly played by Jack Nicholson).
“He’s a very modern superhero character,” the director said of his vision of Batman. “It’s a guy with problems. I mean the guy has problems. He’s a bit of a split personality, and that’s the whole point of him.”
7. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
A gripping and terrifying tale about revenge, Burton’s musical is based on the famous Broadway production and features Johnny Depp as the legendary barber/serial killer who slits the throats of his enemies provides the filling to his partner’s lucrative meat pie business.
Tim Burton received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor because of his work in this film. The film itself won an Academy Award for Best Production Design as well as a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture (Musical/Comedy).
Burton explained, “Our inspiration for this was the old horror movies so we wanted to make the characters look like that – Johnny and I always talked about old horror movie actors so it was the opportunity to do that so you set the world in that. For the flashbacks you just try to treat it like the story.
“That was the happier time in his life so you know it is a bit more lurid, sort of the opposite of flashbacks which are usually more desaturated, we inverted that because it seemed more appropriate of the telling of the story”
6. Frankenweenie (2012)
Based on a short film that Burton made in 1984, Frankenweenie is Burton’s own charming to one of his favourite childhood films, Frankenstein. The film follows the story of a young boy who tries to reanimate the corpse of his beloved dog only to face disastrous consequences. It is a chaotic immersive and truly surreal experience.
While talking about his childhood influences, Burton said, “The inspiration for all this was when I was a kid and I had a dog that had this disease called distemper, which meant he wasn’t supposed to live very long. But this was a very strong, pure relationship I had with this pet, and there was always a spectre of death hanging over it.”
He added, “I always thought this was a really safe way to explore those things for kids without being really hardcore about it because at some point when you’re young, either a pet or a grandparent dies, and it’s a bit abstract. But for me, I grew up on monster movies, and with Frankenstein and Dracula that’s what they’re all about. I was initiated quite early on to the whole thing.”
5. Batman Returns (1992)
Although the sequel to Burton’s iconic 1989 film was criticised at the time of its release, Batman Returns is a wonderful film to return to. Time has proven that Burton’s carnivalesque romp, full of memorable characters like Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, Danny DeVito’s Penguin and the fun antagonist played by Christopher Walken, will always remain a unique addition to the saturated corpus of superhero films.
“At the time with the first Batman, you’d never heard the word franchise. On the second one, you started to hear that word,” the director said. “On the second one, we started to get comments from McDonald’s like, ‘What’s all that black stuff coming out of the Penguin’s mouth?’ So, people were just starting to think of these films in terms of marketing. That’s the new world order.”
4. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
Burton’s first feature film starred Paul Reubens as the iconic, borderline deranged man-child Pee-Wee Herman. The memorable character travels across the US mainland to search for his precious bike that was stolen in broad daylight. Burton delivers a fantastic commentary on the American Dream, contemporary politics and personal obsessions through this allegorical tale.
“Actually, I had to talk the studio out of a director they thought should direct the movie,” Reubens recalled. “I told them they had the wrong director and they grudgingly gave me one week to find someone else who’d be approvable, available and affordable. The three ‘A’s’.”
He watched Burton’s 1984 short version of Frankenweenie and decided he was the one, “I screened it the next day and knew about 20 seconds into it that he was the guy. And the rest is history. I could tell by halfway through the film, and certainly when I met him in person, that he was the absolute right decision.”
3. Beetlejuice (1988)
Michael Keaton is fantastic as the titular poltergeist in Burton’s 1988 whimsical and nightmarish film about the undead. It is funny yet menacing and boasts a stellar cast of top actors like Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Winona Ryder, and Keaton. The film is a manifestation of a vision that could only come from Tim Burton’s imagination.
“The things that interest me the most are the things that potentially won’t work,” Burton elaborated. “On Beetlejuice, I could tell every day what was going to work and what wasn’t. And that was very invigorating. Especially when you’re doing something this extreme.
A lot of people have ragged on the story of Beetlejuice, but when I read it, I thought, ‘Wow! This is sort of interesting. It’s very random. It doesn’t follow what I would consider the Spielberg story structure.’ I guess I have to watch it more, because I’m intrigued by things that are perverse. Like, I was intrigued that there was no story.”
2. Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Johnny Depp stars as Edward, a creation of The Inventor (played by Vincent Price) who gave the artificial young man scissors instead of hands. This was Depp’s first collaboration with Burton and marked the beginning of a long partnership. Burton’s dark suburban fantasy explored important concepts like alienation, psychological conflicts and post-humanism in a deceptively simple and touching manner.
“One night over drinks, Tim told me about this drawing he’d made in high school of a character who had scissors for hands, and I instantly knew what to do with that image,” Caroline Thompson (the film’s screenwriter) said. “So I wrote a 70 page treatment in about three weeks and gave it to him. And that’s basically the movie we ended up with.”
1. Ed Wood (1994)
Ed Wood, considered to be the “worst director in history”, was a Hollywood outcast who was known for his strange and confusing films. Burton’s black-and-white biography features Depp as Wood at a point in his life where he had a more optimistic view of his situation but still riddled with doubts. Tim Burton paints a charming and touching portrait of one of the most endearing outcasts of Hollywood.
Burton had this to say about Wood’s works, “The films are unusual; I’ve never seen anything like them, the kind of bad poetry and redundancy-saying in, like, five sentences what it would take most normal people one, which I can also relate to. Yet still there is a sincerity to them that is very unusual, and I always found that somewhat touching; it gives them a surreal, weirdly heartfelt feeling.”