There’s only a handful of directors who’re household names, and fewer than that whom have earned both respect and a loyal following. One of those very few is Tim Burton. The genius behind the likes of “Beetlejuice”, “Batman”, “Edward Scissorhands”, “Mars Attacks”, “Ed Wood”, “Big Fish” and “Sleepy Hollow” has decided to do something quite kid-friendly and helmed an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s acclaimed 1964 novel “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”. But don’t think he’s gone all soft, “Charlie” is still a Burton movie through and through and he recently spoke with the international press in the Bahamas about why he decided to take on this challenge:
Question: The characters in your films often have “father issues”, and here we are again, with Willy Wonka. Is this because your parents locked up up in a room as a child?
Burton: Yeah, I got some problems. You may have seen me enough to realize that, haven’t you? My parents are dead, so the answers will remained unanswered as to why they sealed me in a room — I guess they didn’t want me to escape. I don’t know. But no, those kind of things in your life, in movies you try to work out your issues, then you realize those kinds of traumatic issues stay with you forever. So they somehow kind of keep recurring. And no matter how hard I try to get them out of my head, they sort of stay there.
Question: You’ve worked with Johnny Depp several times now, Is it a different process every time you get on the set? How did you come up with the Wonka character?
Burton: Well, you know, Johnny and I have this process where we sort of speak in the abstract to each other and still somehow understand each other, but we never use one reference, I mean I never say “Johnny, make it like this”. but I remember we did have one conversation, we kind of like the same kind of things, but one of the things we did talk about was, you know, in our childhood, every city — and I’ve talked to other people about this, too — in every city, when you’re a child there’s some weird children’s show host that’s got a weird name, usually has kind of a funny haircut, and you watch them as a child and then when you grow older and you think back on it, you go, like, “That guy was fucking WEIRD, you know, what was THAT guy all about?” You know, it’s like, Captain Kangaroo and Mister Greenjeans — who ARE these people? Each city had their own sort of regional one that kind of spooked you out a little bit, so we’re kind of using this sort of a reference. Because the great thing about Dahl’s writing is that he left that character kind ambiguous, you know, the sort of mysterious quality or nature to that character that, even thought we gave him a bit of a backstory that’s not in the book, but that kind of weird, mysterious nature of the character felt important.
Question: Have people brought up a similarity between your Willy Wonka and Michael Jackson? Was it intentional?
Burton: Here’s the deal, okay? Big difference — Michael Jackson likes children, Willie Wonka can’t stand ’em. To me that’s a huge difference in the whole persona. No, we never talked about that at all, because the truth is, I never made that connection for the very reason I just said, you know, Willy Wonka really can’t stand children if you really look at it in a certain way, you know, he’s got some problems. I mean, I guess you could say they both have problems, but we all have problems, you know? Because it says more about the people making that reference — because like I said, I can’t think of any larger difference — it’s almost night and day if you look at what I’m saying about the response to somebody liking children and somebody who can’t stand the sight of them — to me that’s like night and day.
Question: Did you have reservations about making a movie of a children’s book?
Burton: Again, that’s what I like about the book — you know, in Dahl’s writing and that’s why I wanted to do it. You know, when I first read the book as a child he was like an adult writer for children, he didn’t speak down and it was the kind of book you could kind of read at any age and get something out of, and he was very clever at kind of being so specific and kind of subversive and off-kilter and kind of leaving you guessing a little bit, and that’s you know, we did try to keep that feeling in what we were trying to do.
Question: How did you make the decision to have Deep Roy play all of the Oompah Loompahs?
Burton: Well, to me there were three options: you either hire a cast of Oompah Loompahs, or a more modern approach would be to make ’em all CG, but you know, I’ve worked with Deep before and you know, to me, he’s just an Oompah Loompah — there was no question in my mind. And to have the human element and not have it all CG special effect was important to this, and also just for my own feeling, it felt kind of Dahl-esque, kind of surreal, to make him be everybody Just because somehow, something felt right about that. And it was also kind of, on a technical term, it was more cost-effective than doing all special effect shots, because we could actually use him in certain shots, with certain lenses, and camera angles where he could interact with Johnny, on occasion, so he wasn’t always having to be added in later. So you know, there were lots of reasons why that felt right to me.
Question: Why did you feel the need to add a backstory for Willy Wonka?
Burton: Well, we just felt that if you have an eccentric character, you know — it works fine in the book, but it just felt in the movie, you’ve got a guy that’s acting that strange, you kind of want to get a flavor of why he’s the way he is, otherwise he’s just a weirdo. You know, and you want to kind of at least have a sense of why he’s acting so strangely and might have some problems. I mean, if your father were a dentist and Christopher Lee, you could see where that may cause you some traumatic experiences in your life.
Question: What do you think of Gene Wilder’s Wonka?
Burton: I think he was great, you know? Yes, I mean, I think he did great. We were never trying to — none of us on the production were ever trying to either top that or look at that, I think our goal was — except for the sort of little backstory — was to be more true to the spirit of the book. You know, instead of having the golden goose and an egg, to have the squirrels in the nut room — and in some cases, we tried to be a bit more true to the spirit of the book.
Question: Do you think your version is darker?
Burton: No, because — that’s the thing, I mean, I go back and look at the book and the original thing, I mean, we’re probably even lighter in a certain way, I mean, you read about this — you read a book and it almost seems more traumatic and horrible, and yet, this is a children’s classic. I think adults forget what it’s like sometimes to be a kid, and you know, that’s why I like the book and that’s why I think it’s remained a classic, he kind of explored those kind of edgier aspects of childhood.
Question: You do have a shot of the kids leaving the factory, which isn’t in the other film — is that in the book?
Burton: You do see them going out in the book. You do see them.
Question: Plan B, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston’s production company, was behind “Charlie” — were they involved at all in the production?
Burton: No, I mean, Brad Grey was around a bit, but then he got another job.
Question: Can you talk about the casting of the children?
Burton: Casting kids is harder than casting adults, I find it more difficult, But the good news is, you know, it’s like Freddie — I had not seen “Finding Neverland”, but he walked in the room, I just knew he was right. And I was glad I hadn’t seen the other movie, because you want to have more of an instinct. And it was like that with all the kids. You see a lot of kids that could be good, but, the meat of it is that, (they would be good) if you were doing a television movie. These kids all have what I would call a “cinematic quality”, you know, when they walked in, there was something that you could see them on the big screen and they were the more cinema version of those characters. You also had to find, although they were all good kids, there had to be a seed of what they are — I tried to find the seed of what they were because especially the ones that hadn’t acted before, it was important that they had something of their character in them as people.
Question: Were you hesitant to make another version of a beloved film?
Burton: I just felt for this book, I didn’t feel as daunted by the movie just because it didn’t have the same impact on me as other movies or things, so the intent for me was to try to, even though we changed things, is to try to be what I felt was more true to the spirit of the book.
Question: Sidney Lumet wrote in his book that he does two films for the studio, and one for himself. Do you practice a similar approach?
Burton: I try to treat each, each time it’s a personal thing — it has to be, because you spend so much time on it, you have to personalize it. So.. but yeah, if you’re doing a big one, you kind of get traumatized by it a bit, and the next time you think about maybe not doing that again. So it’s not necessarily a hardcore rule, but I could certainly understand that.
Question: Did you ever have anyone else in mind for Willy Wonka?
Burton: No, but it was the first time that I didn’t have to talk anybody into it. Before I even open my mouth, it’s like they go, “What about Johnny Depp?” and I go “Well, okay, if you’re going to force him on me, okay.”
Question: Is “Corpse Bride” finished?
Burton: We’re still finishing that. But it was good because we could only work with the kids so much during the day, so sometimes we’d work the day and then go over to the sound booth and do some voice work on the other, so it was kind of a chaotic situation, but I’m excited about that one.
Question: Did you worry about confusing the two projects by working on them at once?
Burton: No, because again, animation is such a slow-motion process that sometimes a few seconds, it’ll be a week to look at, so, no — I mean, in fact, it was good in certain ways because for me, I was obviously hardcore on “Charlie”, “Corpse Bride” was a bit slower, so I could have a bit more of an objective view, so in some ways it was really good.
Question: Was it fun to have Danny Elfman writing songs again?
Burton: That was fun, because I used to go see Oingo Boingo in clubs, before I — when I was a student, not even knowing I’d be able to make movies ever, so it was kind of fun, because it did kind of remind me of going back to those sleazy clubs and hearing him play.
Question: Is it just a given now that he’ll do music on your films?
Burton: No, we’ve — I mean, I enjoy working with him and he’s my friend, but who knows, we may have a huge fight one day and — I doubt it, I love working with him and he’s like another character in the film, I always feel.
Question: A lot of people think you directed “A Nightmare Before Christmas”. Did you take a co-directing credit on “Corpse Bride” to make that more clear?
Burton: No, I think it’s hard to explain, and I’ll try to explain it quickly. With “Nightmare”, it was so completely my developed thing, you know it was complete, so I felt so comfortable about what it was, and it was so clearly delineated in my mind, that I felt comfortable, and I knew Henry, and so I just felt completely, because it was my material completely. With “Corpse Bride” there was a seed of an idea, you know, and so it took more development, so I had to be involved in a slightly different level, so to speak. And that’s why I got a little more in-depth into this one, and got a little bit more into that side of it as well.
Question: Have you seen any movies this summer?
Burton: I have interests, but literally on my way to the Bahamas here I was just in the screening room finishing up this one so, you know, it’s kind of, actors, you spend 15 hours a day working on you film and in the screening room, it’s not kind of like, “Okay, let’s go see a movie”, you know?
Question: Did you feel a pressure to recreate Dahl’s world exactly?
Burton: It’s all organic, I never sort of think about it — the blueprint of the book was there, but the great thing about his writing is that he leaves a lot open for interpretation, so it was just about we had complete freedom to devise what each of the rooms would look like, and you know, the Bucket house and the town and all of that, so that was just fun, you know. We didn’t feel like we were constrained by anything, it had a quite experimental feel as we were making it to me, and that was fun — I enjoyed that not quite knowing exactly what plants we were going to make, and finding the right consistency to the chocolate so it didn’t look like brown water, you know…
Question: And the designers helped with that?
Burton: Well yeah, it’s very collaborative, that’s the beauty of film. The designers, the costume designers, the actors, you know — it all kind of comes together. It’s like a big dysfunctional family. If you’d been in the chocolate river room the last week we were shooting there, it started to smell so bad, I mean literally — you’d open up the stage doors and people were complaining. It kind of smelled like parts of this hotel, but worse…
Question: Did you save anything from the set?
Burton: I don’t try to save too much. I did keep the Oompah Loompah psychiatrist’s chair, which is very appropriate, and it’s very comfortable, actually — very big.
Question: If “Charlie” is a success, would you be interested in directing “Great Glass Elevator”?
Burton: No. And you can — yeah. You can count on that from me.
Question: Do you feel any sort of special connection to the book?
Burton: No, I feel like it’s all timing — this project has been floating around for a while and the studio offered it to me, it seemed like it was a project I was interested in, it’s all about timing and fate sometimes, making a movie and sort of how it gets made.
Question: Can you talk about Johnny Depp and how he’s had such an interesting career?
Burton: It’s because he’s a character actor in a leading man’s body — he’s ready to do anything. It’s like, you know, he’s probably more like Lon Cheney than a leading man, he wants to transform, he likes to be different characters in different movies, he’s an actor that you don’t think about — perhaps even for female roles — he can do it all, he’s very versatile that way.
Question: Did you ever consider casting Helena Bonham-Carter for Violet Beauregard’s mother?
Burton: Yeah, but then when I described how many days she’d have to be on the set, you know, doing that, no — she had other things to do.
Question: Does your directing a children’s book coincide with your own recent fatherhood?
Burton: You know, I don’t think it has anything to do with that — I’m not all of a sudden going to be making the Teletubbies Movie or the Wiggles feature film debut anytime soon. I don’t think it’s altered my thinking — in fact, I’m more inclined to think about making porno movies or something than I am children’s films or something, I don’t know.
Question: Where are the Golden Tickets now?
Burton: You’ll have to ask the Warner Brothers people — probably on eBay.
Question: What would a Tim Burton porno look like?
Burton: I would only make G-rated porno movies.
Question: What about Oyster Boy — do you have anything in store for him?
Burton: I think I saw him out there in the fishtank earlier.
Question: Do you and Johnny look for projects to work with each other on?
Burton: You know, I love working with him, so — I mean, I don’t think either he or I would make a movie just to make a movie together, I think we’re friends enough that if the part was right and he was into it, you know, of course I’ll always, I love working with him.
Question: How do you feel about your goth following?
Burton: Well I live up in sort of north London near Camden, and it’s beautiful, they’re like, like we’re back in the late seventies, and they’re beautiful. Yep. In fact I was out in the English countryside a few weeks ago and I ran into a girl with a “Nightmare Before Christmas” purse and it was just so beautiful and touching, and that’s the amazing thing — I encounter people every now and then that make me realize that’s what you make movies for, you know?
Question: How do you feel about the Disney “Nightmare” attraction?
Burton: Well, it makes me laugh because when we first made the movie, they didn’t even want to put out a trailer for the movie, you know? So it went from that to what it’s turned into. I just wish — I was a little upset that they didn’t invite me to the opening of it, so I have a bit of an issue with them, but it’s also great, too and they just did it in Tokyo, which I wish I could have gone to — I was invited to that but I couldn’t go, but I saw a tape of it and it was very touching, very good.
Question: How about the Todd MacFarlane “Corpse Bride” toys?
Burton: Well, I haven’t seen — I’m hoping they turn out. The good thing about stop motion is it’s a bit different than live action, you can look at the puppet and go, “Just make it look like THAT” — it’s quite easy, it should be anyway, so I’m hoping they turn out because the puppets are really beautiful. And so there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be good.
Question: What is the message of “Charlie”?
Burton: You know, what was good about his writing is that he sort of layers messages in there, and I think it’s kind of in a weird way, look at the Charlie character — it’s the toughest character because he’s the simplest, and it’s like, all the other bad kids, they get their just desserts, so to speak, and so the sort of a purity and simplicity kind of floats to the top, and that to me, at least in my life what you want to do is kind of reach a place where you can find that simple purity in a perverted world.
Question: Do you have any attachment to the new “Batman” movie, having directed the original?
Burton: Did I have some attachment to it? When you’re working with a studio, you want them to do well, because if they’re happy, you’re happy. And if they’re not happy, you know, you may feel their angst a bit more. So of course.
Question: How do you feel about the direction they’ve gone in?
Burton: Well, I don’t know — all I can say is I felt lucky to do it back then when there hadn’t been this sort of, you know, what I would call a darker, slightly psychology-lite but still dark vision of a comic book, which from that time on, I kind of wish I could see — now you see so many dark comic book adaptations that I’m looking for the next guy to come in with the pink tights and yellow cape — let’s go in the other direction now for a change, shall we?
Question: Did “Charlie” go through other iterations before it got to you?
Burton: Well, cause the process, I could tell by the studio, they developed it a lot, and they do things like, you know, let’s make charlie more proactive or let’s take out the father figure and make Willy Wonka the father figure and I went, Willy Wonka is NOT a father figure, I can tell you that right now. You know, and so that’s the kind of, with John, let’s go to the book and try to do, there were some good things in the other scripts, but we just decided to kind of start fresh and go, like I said, back to the book. No, but the book is the book, so obviously there’s things that, the inventing — all the stuff was in there to some degree, you could see them trying to do things to, you know, like, “Well Charlie’s just a normal kid so he needs to do something, you know, we wanna see a connection between him and Willy Wonka, and it’s like, no, I mean — that’s why I was lucky to get Freddie — you know, I wanted Freddie to look, you know, the physicality of him was important, we wanted him to look like he hadn’t — he was undernourished, you know, and the grandparents were really old, you know, and they didn’t have much to eat and a strong wind might, Freddie might just blow away, and those were all important elements. And the simplicity of that character was important to me, and that’s why I was lucky to get him — because he’s got that gravity, you know, and that was really important to me.
Question: Do you think Willy Wonka comes across as a bad guy?
Burton: No, I think he’s just — I think he comes across as emotionally repressed and stunted, you know when people get traumatized you know, they just sort of shut down — and also related to that, I’ve met people who are kind of geniuses in one area but are completely deficient in all other social, or you know, completely deficient in every other area of their life, so sort of a mixture of those things was what I sort of thought of.