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Exploring Tim Burton’s Imagination:
Behind the Scenes of FRANKENWEENIE
By Evy Baehr, Associate Editor
Tim Burton’s newest film, FRANKENWEENIE, is coming out Friday. The movie is about a boy, Victor, and his love for his dog, Sparky. When Sparky dies suddenly, Victor is crushed, but is able to do a science experiment and spark Sparky back to life. MOVIEGUIDE® had the chance to interview some of the cast and crew.
Writer/Director Tim Burton
Q: This movie obviously took you back to your Burbank neighborhood. Why has it stayed with you?
Tim Burton: Yeah, I think any place where you are from it is part of your life. You don’t have to go look at the specifics, it’s just more like the memory of it. That was the interesting thing about this project, unlike maybe any other thing I’ve done, is that it was easy to go back and expand upon the memories of that time. Expanding on the thing with the dog and the relationship with that the place in Burbank and the other kids in school you remember, teachers, the whole dynamic of the classroom. That and kinda more the other monster movie references from the short, and stop motion. It was fun to base it on real people and memories, and a mixture of people and things.
You kinda grow up feeling kinda separate and weird, and at the same time feel quite normal and the other kids feel quite weird. A lot of people have memories of feeling kind of alone but yet you are treated as weird. . . it’s that kind of dynamic.
Q: When did it become ok to kill a dog in movies.
Tim: OLD YELLER. Disney has been doing it for years. People forget that. Bambi’s mother, THE LION KING, the list goes on.
Q: Is it a microcosm of your interests?
Tim: This is a movie were everything, whether character or incident, was based on some kind of memory. At the same time, I did try to think about those references and think how well I know them, but most people don’t. You don’t have to know the references to hopefully enjoy the film.
Q: What was the actual reference to Frankenstein the book?
Tim: It goes back to the original thing about the dog, and having that be the first pure relationship, and the dog. He had this thing called distemper, and he was sad he wasn’t going to live for very long. I had this intense relationship. They said the dog wasn’t going to live very long, [but] the dog ended up living quite a long time. There was always this sort of spectre and that’s kinda the first time you deal with those kind of themes and issues. At the same time growing up with movies like FRANKENSTEIN, that idea of bringing something back, that wish fulfillment. It sort of connected it that way.
Q: Experiments work better when love is involved?
Tim: Good and evil can be used for good and bad, and that’s true of technology, science, humanity, and everything.
Q: Does an intense interest or love of doing something help make the project go better?
Tim: I always go into a project loving it and wanting to do it.
Q: Can you talk about handling that topic of death of the dog at the very beginning?
Tim: I never felt like it was over the top. I tried to be real with it and honest and not overly graphic with anything. Obviously, you are affected when the dog gets hit, but you have to go a place to go somewhere else. You can just have everything be nice and cute, because there wouldn’t be Walt Disney movies if everything was just cute. They do deal with those kind of issues. I thought it was a real positive way to explore those themes. At some point, you deal with it, and I just felt like this was a safe way to do it.
Q: Was there ever thoughts of doing this in live action? Did you ever think to do this in live action?
Tim: No, they are different things. I mean obviously there’s immediacy about the live action that is interesting and fun, but there is a beauty to the stop motion. Again, when you see a puppet that comes to life, there is an excitement that’s different than any other kind of animation. There is something coming to life, it is different than any other form of animation or live action. So they are both different.
Q: Can you tell us where you got the “weenie”?
Tim: It’s just the way people have pet names for people or things. I just meant for it be small and not imposing.
Charlie Tahan (voice of “Victor”) & Atticus Shaffer (voice of “Edgar ‘E’ Gore”)
Q: How did you prepare your voice?
Atticus Shaffer: They told me, if possible, to do a Peter Lorre impression. I love doing impressions and accents at home. It was almost like a challenge. I just studied Peter Lorre’s voice and accent and his emotions and everything and formed what I formed.
Q: How was it doing animation?
Charlie Tahan: I actually think the voiceover is a little bit easier then the live action.
Atticus: You focus all your energy into your voice and how the character is supposed to be and they can record an endless amount of dialog.
Q: What was your first impression when you first read the script?
Charlie: Victor is not like a crazy character. Victor is based on Tim’s childhood a little bit. He’s just like a real kid.
Q: What was your favorite scene to see on screen?
Charlie: I liked the scene when Victor brought back Sparky for the first time. I thought it [was] just visually really cool.
Atticus: I really loved the scene where all of the monsters where coming out. They all create chaos and havoc.
Allison Abbate (Producer) & Trey Thomas (Animation Supervisor)
Q: What do you do because every character has bizarre proportions?
Allison Abbate: Mom’s proportions make it so she can’t really sit down properly or her legs looked ridiculous sitting down, so we had to make sitting down legs; and, things like that sometimes you don’t plan for because you don’t realize until someone tries to sit down and her knees come up over her forehead. So those are the kind of things with Tim’s design that you have to be kind of cognizant of. We have a sitting down Sparky that is only for sitting. . . and a lying down Sparky that’s only for lying down.
Q: Why do you keep working with Tim?
Allison: I love them so I would go to them even if I didn’t work on them I would go do them.
Q: Did you find that certain colors worked better?
Trey Thomas: We ended up making everything as black and white as possible.
Q: How hard is it to get the expressions on Sparky?
Allison: Hard. Really hard.
Trey: It has to go beyond just the expression on his face. He does have a little smile mechanism in his cheek. The way he moves, the way his pupils move. You have to work with every little bit of him to sell the emotion. It’s way more than the expression on his face. It has to do with the way his eyes move, the way he postures himself, the speed at which he does things. Use everything at our exposure to try to portray his emotion, cause it’s such an emotion heavy movie.
Martin Landau (voice of “Mr. Rzykruski”) & Winona Ryder (voice of “Elsa van Helsing”)
Q: What is it like to get that call from Tim Burton to do his next movie?
Martin Landau: It’s always joyful actually, cause working with Tim is joyful. I understood why he wanted to do it and why he wanted to do it 30 years ago and couldn’t do it. And, still had the burning passion and ferver to do it the way he wanted to do it, not the truncated half hour live action version he did which never really fulfilled the need to make this movie. I was thrilled that he was finally going to do it.
Q: Can you talk about the process?
Martin: I don’t do a lot of it, but this one I wanted to do cause I knew how important it was to Tim and I wanted to do it for him; but also, I created a dialect sort of Slovak, sort of something else. But, the interesting thing is, when you relinquish your voice, you know I’m used to behaving on camera and that’s how a character behaves is what I do. When I saw this movie, if I had been on camera, I would have played it exactly how the animators had done it. I saw him that way, and, when I did it, I felt him that way. I was overjoyed, I can’t tell you! They captured [everything] from the voice.
Winona Ryder: For me to be a part of something that was so personal to him, and that I’d been hearing about for 25 years, was a huge honor. He is also someone that I really have a deep deep love for and I feel like really gave me a career in a big way. Is maybe one of my favorite people to be around. What was nice about the voice work is, that I hadn’t done a lot of it – I did a couple of SIMPSONS – it doesn’t feel like work really, I mean it does, but it’s not agony, you could do it forever. He’s the same guy that I met 25 years ago. . . . Tim would be watching you and he would be like “wait, wait someone’s in the shot,” and it was Tim!
Martin: When I was doing that scene, before I could finish it, hold it, someone’s laughing, someone’s laughing! And, it was Tim. Because it was fun.
Martin Short (voice of “Mr. Frankenstein”) & Catherine O’Hara (voice of “Mrs. Frankenstein”)
Q: How was it doing voice?
Catherine O’Hara: It’s just another muscle.
Martin Short: And, you’re working with Tim Burton, so you’re excited. It’s like doing a sequel to a movie. Everyone’s so relaxed cause they know they trust the director, the director’s good, they know their characters, and there’s an ease to it. In this case, you know it’s Tim. And, you know he’s doing something so from his heart, he’s not gonna blow this or he wouldn’t revisit it.
Q: How was it doing three voices?
Martin: You do them all at once. You do it very specifically, and you maybe start with the father and mother in our case, and then you take a break and say can I hear my voices as Mr. Burgemeister. . .
Catherine: You focus on one.
Q: What did you think of the story when you first read the script?
Catherine: I hate to admit that I didn’t read the script. We only had our character’s lines. Of course, they told us, it wasn’t a big secret, but that was his decision to not give us the whole story. He just gave us those scenes, and, of course, knew the story, and they showed us as they built footage. We got to see bits of it. So, I was totally blown away when I saw it.
Martin: Usually the first passing death experience a child has is a pet. So, that’s why it becomes so personal to people.
Don Hahn (Executive Producer) & John August (Writer)
Q: Can you talk about making this into a feature, and why it took so long?
Don: This iteration of the movie started back in 2005. Tim was doing CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY in London. I took it to London and pitched it to him along with several other ideas. And, he jumped on it because he’s been thinking about it for probably about 30 years.
Q: What is the process of working with Tim Burton?
John: The longest meeting I have ever had with Tim was probably like 30 minutes, which seems impossible. Tim sits down and is like it’s like this and like this. You just get what he is going for and you come back to him with something.
Q: How do you decide the balance between scary Tim Burton and appropriate for children?
John: Yeah, I have a 7-year-old daughter, so she was one of my benchmarks, that she would find it engaging, but not so terrifying that she couldn’t get past it. You know with FRANKENWEENIE you have two steps. You have dealing with the loss of your pets, which is a huge big deal, and I was going through that when I was writing the movie. And then, you have monsters. Finding out a way to make sure the monsters are fun and scary, but not so scary that you’re running from the theater. It’s just that balancing act. One of the challenges for me, that I had personally as a father, making sure that the way that the animals are brought back, didn’t feel like any other kids is going to like going to try to plug their hamster into a light socket. So, I wanted to make sure that the world felt magical. So, very early in the story, we say that there is something in the wind in the air and the windmill slowly turning so it doesn’t feel like it’s electricity, that there is something special about the lightning that makes it all happen.
Q: Finding a balance between the sadness of the dog dying and moving on?
John: Yeah, it’s a matter of understanding where that moment’s going to happen in the story. Being really honest about it, letting it land, but not just dwelling there, and moving on to the next thing quickly.