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Tim Burton on Frankenweenie’s Oscar Nomination and His Broken Shoulder

Tim Burton's Frankenweenie has been racking up the accolades from film critic associations and even an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Film, but the filmmaker hasn't been out celebrating or collecting statuettes — he's been convalescing. After a nasty spill on the streets of London, Burton was in the hospital earlier this month for a broken arm and shoulder. ("I have a metal plate in there, so I'm part robot now," he jokes). This means when his peers and rivals see him at the Oscars, they should refrain from slapping his back as congratulations, grabbing his arm, or bothering him if he hides in a corner. ("Should I put a sign on that says, 'Don't touch'"? he wonders). But even if he's absent at the awards shows or only lurking in the shadows, Burton's quite pleased with the attention the film's getting, given its evolution as one of his first short films and its inspiration from the death of his dog Pepe. He gave Vulture a call to take his mind off the pain and chat with us about balancing critical and commercial success.

Do all the nominations and awards help make up for the film's less-than-blockbuster box -office performance?
It's really nice, especially for a film like that. Everybody works really hard for something like this, especially the people who work in a dark room for a couple of years. The thing about stop-motion is that it's such a slow, painful process — one frame at a time. The positive side is that it helps keep the medium alive. It's not high on to-do lists for studio execs to make stop-motion, let alone black-and-white stop-motion. There's still a bit of a stigma, so any sort of positive response is meaningful.

You would think after The Artist there would be less opposition to black-and-white — especially when it comes to films about Hollywood. Argo also got a lot of awards love partly because it's about Hollywood helping to save the world. And Frankenweenie celebrates classic horror films. Hollywood loves nothing more than celebrating itself.
That's true, now that you mention that. Even last year, films like Hugo did that. But I never really thought of that. It's certainly not my perception of the world. For me, it's just what inspires me, and those monster movies stay with you on some kind of level. Those early things are still inside of me. It was just fun to play around with words and themes and memories, because you don't get to do that on every project.

Loved the shout-out to Mary Shelley with the turtle's name, by the way.
[Chuckles.] My son's turtle was named Shelley. When you have a pet as a child, that's the first pure relationship you have. It's unconditional love. And it's your first experience with death as well, so it was an easy emotional connection to make to Frankenstein and monster movies. Those first relationships are very important. And to me, the Frankenstein story is about creating things, not the business of creating things.

But you still want it to be successful.
No one wants to feel like they weren't, unless they're doing some kind of weird art-house thing: "I hope nobody sees this film! And if they see the film, I'm selling out!" You hope for success, but it's a strange phenomenon. You have a movie that gets shitty, crappy, horrible reviews but makes a lot of money; you have a movie that gets good, decent reviews, but then no one goes to see it. I've been lucky, even if a film didn't do that well [at the box office], I end up meeting people who connected with it, and that evens the score.

How do you feel about the critics who say you should stop using Johnny Depp so much?
I'm in a no-win situation. Some say I use him too often, and then others say, "How come he's not in this one?" Whatever. I'm strangely used to that from the beginning. I don't decide to make a film because of the actors first, even though there are a lot of people I love. I don't think I've ever gone, "Oh, I want to work with that person," and then specifically found a part with that person just to work with them. For Frankenweenie, I hadn't worked with Winona Ryder, Catherine O'Hara, Martin Short, or Martin Landau in a long time, so that was great. But the project drew me to them because they're all so talented.

With Catherine, not since Beetlejuice. People want a sequel for that one.
Those were fun characters, but I'd have to see what the script was like and if it was worth doing — I can't just make it because it's one of the worst ten movies of the year! The first two films I did, Pee-wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, made the ten-worst-movies-of-the-year lists. Then, years later, people said they were my best movies. What? So if those were my best, I'm in real trouble. [Laughs.] The point is, even if I wanted to analyze it, I'm not going to make everyone happy. It's easier when you're starting out and people don't really know what you are. But then you become a thing, and that's not really what you want. I never really targeted my films for kids. It's just what I like to make. But then people were saying The Nightmare Before Christmas was too scary for kids — too much singing, too scary. And then the kids loved it. So I've had conflicting information from the beginning.

How is The Nightmare Before Christmas too scary? It's no scarier than any fairy tale ...
Exactly. When you were a child, did you ever see Disney movies? There's some scary stuff in there. That's what made Disney movies to a large degree, but as people get older, they kind of forget that. There's a new generation looking at fairy tales now, and that's what monster movies were for me. I've always been interested in those kinds of stories, the ones that have been around for ages. When I go back and reread "Red Riding Hood," it's so bizarre, so weird, so fascinating, and we forget how strange they were, even if they've stayed in our consciousness for ages. Fairy tales are amazing, intense, psychological horror stories. But if you ask most adults, they immediately think it's all princesses and happy endings, and it's so not. Obviously.

Are you still thinking about doing Pinocchio next?
It's really hard to think about doing anything when I've got a throbbing pain in my shoulder! The painkillers are not that good here. The doctors are like, "Take two aspirin."

You're in London. Codeine is over-the-counter there!
Yeah, but it's a pretty weak form of codeine, probably. But you're right. I should do that. [Laughs.] I'm hoping the pain subsides soon, but it's like when you have a toothache, and it's hard to think, hard to do things, hard to focus on what's going on when it's throbbing away.

Once the pain subsides, then you can consider Pinocchio, or perhaps a Walt Disney biopic starring Ryan Gosling. Have you seen that poster?
The story at Cal Arts was that Walt was cryogenically frozen and somewhere in the basement. We used to spend Friday nights looking for him. So that's the story. Listen, I'm open to ideas at the moment!

Photo: Patrick McMullan