American filmmaker Tim Burton has routinely mesmerised audiences with his fiercely original artistic vision, evident in films like Vincent and Edward Scissorhands, among others. Burton’s love for cinema led him to create his own films from a very early age and ultimately culminated in a spectacular career as a unique director who was well-versed in the visual language of nightmares.
In an interview, Burton revealed: “I never really got nightmares from movies. In fact, I recall my father saying when I was three years old that I would be scared, but I never was. I was much more terrified by my own family and real life, you know? I think it would be more of a nightmare if someone told me to go to school or eat my breakfast. I would wake up in a cold sweat about those issues.”
Adding, “The thing I love about the old monsters is that they had such a strong, immediately identifiable image. I find that a lot of monsters today are just so busy. They have so many little tentacles and flaps and whatever else that they don’t have the kind of strength in their images that the old monsters had. It’s also due to the CGI heaviness. You’re missing the human element.”
On his 63rd birthday, we take a look at some of the finest films from Tim Burton’s illustrious filmography as a celebration of his contributions to the world of cinema.
Tim Burton’s six definitive films:
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
Starring Paul Reubens as the deranged adult child Pee-wee Herman, Burton’s debut feature follows Herman as he embarks on a cross-country adventure to recover his stolen bike. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure still serves as undeniable evidence of Burton’s unparalleled talents as a filmmaker.
“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.”
A bonafide cult classic, this 1988 horror-comedy features Michael Keaton as the title character – a whimsical poltergeist who does his best to scare his targets. Since its release, Beetlejuice’s legacy has only grown in stature and has led to the development of video games as well as a recent musical production in addition to an animated show.
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.”
Adding: “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.”
Regarded by many as the first modern superhero film, Burton’s contribution to the genre is immense. He singlehandedly changed the public perception of superhero films by pitting a morally ambiguous anti-hero (played by Michael Keaton) against an equally dubious antagonist (Jack Nicholson).
“It was an extremely difficult undertaking and Tim is a shy guy, especially back then, and there was so much pressure. We were in England for a long time shooting at Pinewood and it was long, difficult nights in that dank, dark, cold place, and we never knew if it was really working,” Keaton reflected.
He added: “There was no guarantee that any of this was going to play correctly when it was all said and done. There had never been a movie like it before. There was a lot of risk, too, with Jack looking the way he did and me stepping out in this new way. The pressure was on everybody. You could feel it.”
Edward Scissorhands (1990)
In what is one of the finest performances of Johnny Depp’s career, he plays the role of a young man who has been physically modified to have scissors instead of hands. Structured as a dark fantasy set in the suburbs, Edward Scissorhands is a strangely empathetic commentary on our fundamental loneliness and post-humanism.
“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.”
Ed Wood (1994)
A fantastic biopic about “the worst director of all time,” Burton’s poetic masterpiece stars Johnny Depp as the controversial filmmaker who has to deal with the trials and tribulations of being ostracised by Hollywood. While the project was a financial failure, it is now regarded as one of Burton’s greatest achievements.
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.”
Big Fish (2003)
Burton’s brilliant 2003 comedy-drama tells a fascinating story about a young man who tries his best to discern the reality of his dying father’s mysterious life. Based on Daniel Wallace’s acclaimed novel, Big Fish is a beautifully flawed vision of an irresistible fantasy.
The filmmaker revealed: “It’s funny, I did Big Fish, which is a lot about father and son relationships, before I had a son myself. Maybe it was in the air. I try not to make too many predictions about fatherhood. I think you just do the best you can and be as sensitive as you can and not make too many plans.
“Also, losing my own father not long before brought up a lot of stuff, and it really points to a truth about parents and children – that when the parents are like hippies, the kids turn out to be straight arrows, and vice versa. It’s a classic juxtaposition, and something that really appealed to me about this story.”