by James Killough
Most directors just direct: they make a series of decisions and hope the myriad variables intrinsic in the process all line up to make a decent product, which in the case of feature narrative film is not easy. Akira Kurosawa believed all directors should master scriptwriting before taking the helm, and as a writer-director I agree with him. A few directors come from the editing or cinematography departments. Even fewer emerge from a photography background, which can be as hit and miss as any other; Lynne Ramsay (Morvern Callar, We Need to Talk About Kevin) is probably the most successful photographer that I can think of ever to transition to film.
And then there are the ones who map their quests hand-drawn: the illustrators, the doodlers, the cartoonists, like Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton. I love their work visually—it’s always highly entertaining even at its bleakest—but I can never connect with it emotionally. I enjoy realism, not caricature.
I believe that not only should a director have a high degree of proficiency in scriptwriting, but he should also have some experience performing. He needs to understand viscerally, experientially what it means to take on another character and make that real, to hit your mark and say your line the way it was written, not the way you want to say it, then say it this way, then that way, turn more to the light, please… right, that’s it… However, if you are just directing an adaptation of a cartoon or a horror film, then the above is overkill. A background in high-end commercials is sufficient because that is all the producers are looking for: technical know-how.
Burton is the subject of an extensive retrospective currently up at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), which right off the bat is somewhat of a wrong placement because his isn’t art, or not in the sense of fine art. But if you start to quibble about the difference between art and cartoons/illustrations, one would have to point out that the very same museum has another exhibit up featuring illustrations from medieval Islamic manuscripts, which are more or less the same thing.
So let’s just say that, from a modern art standpoint, Burton’s work is artistic. More than anything, it is imaginative and amusing.
Burton is also a very clever writer, as evidenced in his macabre children’s book for adults, The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy, and by the script for my favorite piece of his, the stop-motion animation short Vincent. It would seem that his writing ambitions stop there. Considering that both pieces are either outright poetry or prose poems, his scripts might be too weird for studio approval. Or, more likely, he has too much else to worry about, like storyboards and sets, than the tedium of the scripting process.
It is fascinating for a filmmaker to see this exhibit, except you would rather it weren’t so popular with non-filmmakers, i.e. the Fatties and Freaks From the Flyovers (the FFFFs), who will go to the Universal Studios theme park the day after taking in this show. You can always learn something from how someone else approaches putting together a film. Burton’s technique and vision is certainly unique, but trying to absorb it and apply it to your own experience while playing Body Bumper Cars with the FFFFs is incredibly annoying, and I went to see the show mid-afternoon mid-week.
For the kind of film I make, it’s all about the script, and endlessly refining that script, beyond rehearsal, right until you’re on set. When you are a writer-director and you see a line isn’t working, you don’t need to call a break and hustle the writer off to his trailer to hammer out new scenes. You walk up to the actors and work it out with them then and there. If they’re any good, they have at least as good a sense of who they are playing as you do, and in my experience always they have something to contribute. And the fact they have contributed deepens their buy-in to the project.
It’s pretty clear from a correspondence with Johnny Depp on view in the LACMA show that he has substantial say in a Burton script. In fact, I’ll bet he tinkers with all of his lines, probably with his preferred writer on hand, which isn’t at all unusual. The note from Burton asks Depp what he thinks about this line from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: “Everything in this room is eatable. Even I’m eatable. But that is called cannibalism, my dear children, and is in fact frowned upon in most societies. Enjoy.’ Which sounds a lot like one of James Tuttle’s quips.
The collaboration between Depp and Burton, from Edwards Scissorhands through Alice in Wonderland, is enviable. Depp is clearly a straight transvestite, and there is nothing to hate about that; even frat boys love throwing on a frock and a bit of lip gloss now and then, and that’s appealing to someone whose dream in life is Ashton Kutcher. You can just see Depp and Burton pushing through a script and budget for Ed Wood at Disney back in the early 90s. What a laugh they must have had making that. The pink angora sweater from Ed Wood is on display at the show, as are Colleen Atwood’s costumes for Scissorhands and some of Burton’s lesser movies, like Planet of the Apes.
Seven hundred illustrations, short films, costumes, maquettes, designs, storyboards are jammed into the space, culled no doubt from tens of thousands of others from the spiderwebbed attic of Burton’s glittering career. This man is a true auteur; his imprint on his movies is distinctly his. He loves everything he does and has a great time doing it, and the studios happily shell out for it, so what’s not glittering? Lucky, lucky (very talented) bastard.
The problem is always LACMA itself, regrettably. They keep tinkering with the design of this building, adding this and that, relentlessly sewing that sow’s ear into what is now a silk backpack, but it remains a lump, and always will be. It feels like a mall from the eighties, like the Beverly Center down the street, a setting for a John Hughes movie. Maybe all museums are malls in the end because they are just a collection of big halls, but I’ve seen some damned inventive ones in my day. LACMA just isn’t one of them.
From time to time while I was being buffeted about, waiting my turn to get a closer look at a collection of drawings or an early short film, I turned inward and watched the crowd itself, the horde of FFFFs, who were enjoying a glimpse into a big-time director’s creative process as much as I was, albeit for less professional reasons. You could see Burton’s inspiration right there, milling about and gawking at itself: the tall and spindly geeks, the squat families of dumplings, the young, wide-eyed ingénue couples in striped shirts and beer-goggle glasses holding hands.
Indeed, we are all of us a bottomless crypt of caricatures, none more glaring than Burton himself. And what about that wife of his, Helena Bonham Carter, who day by day becomes more of a Steampunk version of a Dicken’s character? A dinner with the two of them couldn’t possibly be dull.