In Tim Burton’s animated horror-comedy “Frankenweenie,” opening on October 5, the story of “Frankenstein’s Monster” has been transplanted to elementary school. This time around, Victor is a little boy and his mad experiment aims to resurrect his dearly departed dog Sparky. But with the upcoming science fair kicking into high gear, it gives Victor’s competitive classmates the license to create a zoo of demented monster animals.
This isn’t the first time that Burton has told the “Frankenweenie” story; it was originally a live-action short from 1984. But now working with the backing of Disney, he has turned his gothic fable into a 3D stop-motion love letter to the golden age of movie monsters, complete with references to “Godzilla,” “The Mummy” and “Creature From the Black Lagoon.”
Moviefone spoke with the macabre director about his love of classic horror films and the impact that legends like Boris Karloff and Ray Harryhausen had on his style. He also talked about revisiting the world of Pee-wee Herman and revealed some surprising plans for Halloween.
I love the opening scene with Victor showing off the monster movie that he made with Sparky. How autobiographical was that?
Like a lot of kids I used to make Super 8 movies. You do a little stop motion, dress up your animals, jump off the roof trying to fly, burn models — not women, but the cars. It’s like when you’re a kid and you’re drawing or you’re playing. Making films was just the combination of all that stuff.
I was raised on the Universal Studios monster movies, so this film felt like comfort food.
Well, that’s also why I like black and white. For me, there is something very inviting and exciting and strange and beautiful and emotional about black and white, which is the reason I wanted to do it that way.
What is the appeal of stop-motion animation to you?
There’s just something that’s tactile about it. It just goes back to remembering Ray Harryhausen films and the feeling that those films gave me watching them. You always try to match the medium and the project. The “Frankenstein” stories are about bringing the inanimate object to life and that is actually what stop-motion is. There is sort of an emotional connection to the process that made it make sense for this.
What was the first experience you had watching Boris Karloff’s “Frankenstein”?
I remember it sort of speaking to me, [like] when you see certain movies, and they’re obviously fantasy, but it feels real to you in terms of how that character feels. The angry villagers reminded me of my neighbors [and] you relate to Dr. Frankenstein’s obsession with doing things. So you take those feelings and relate them to your life even though on the surface it doesn’t seem quite connected, but emotionally it is.
I definitely got a Karloff vibe from Nassor.
Yes, definitely. With the voices of Victor by Charlie [Tahan] and Winona [Ryder] as Elsa, those are two characters where I said “You don’t need to watch monster movies because you’re just a real person; treat it like it’s a live action movie and do it with a simple emotional purity,” and that’s what the part of that was. Some of the other characters, like with Atticus [Schaeffer, "E Gore"], you tried to give him a little lesson on Peter Lorre, and obviously Martin [Short], he certainly understood the Boris Karloff reference. The kids in this I remember as actual kids in school. Then there was also the other element of remembering those horror movies, so it was quite easy to link up characters you remember with their movie counterpoints.
You’ve worked with Christopher Lee and you’ve worked with Vincent Price. If you had the opportunity to work with another acting legend from the Golden Age of horror cinema, who would be at the top of your list?
Oh, that’s hard to say. Early on Peter Lorre in the “Mad Love” days was amazing. Karloff was amazing, I’ve heard. Christopher Lee used to live next door to him, so I’ve heard stories of that. I feel lucky though because Michael Gough was like that to me as well; “Konga,” “Horrors of the Black Museum” [he was a] great, great guy. They are all quite amazing, special, humble, interesting and still interested in everything. It was quite inspiring to meet people that you grew up admiring, then you learn that they’re just such cool people as people. So I’ve been quite lucky that way.
As a diehard fan of “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure,” do you think you’ll ever revisit that world with Paul Reubens?
I don’t know. It’s funny because when we were making that movie I remember him joking like, I can see us in twenty years time doing “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane.” I haven’t seen his new show, but I saw him in a clip, and I was quite amazed. It was like a time warp. It’s great to see that he’s still doing well and going strong. People talk about that and they talk about “Beetlejuice” and other things. I think for me, if you’re going to revisit something, I would wait to see the script and read what it’s about and not have any preconceptions about anything and see what happens.
With this year, seeing the release of “Dark Shadows” and “Frankenweenie,” I was wondering, what is your creative process when it comes to picking your next project and pursuing an adaptation versus developing a wholly original idea?
Things come from different sources. Obviously, “Frankenweenie” is different from others, where everything is based on a memory or person or feeling that I can directly relate to. But when I do a movie, if it’s an adaption, I do put the same spirit into it because you have to make everything personal, even if it’s not from you. It’s important because you are: A) working on it for so long and B) I have to try to understand and connect to a character or have something relate to because otherwise I probably wouldn’t do it to begin with.
Now that October is here, what are your plans for Halloween?
We sometimes have a Halloween party in London but we’re still recovering from last year’s Halloween party. The effects have not yet worn off, we’re still coming down from that one. The fact is that we kind of have Halloween every couple of months. In fact, I think we had one about three weeks ago, so it happens quite a lot. You can only take so much. It happens more often than not.
Edgar ‘E’ Gore
Elsa Van Helsing
Mr. & Mrs. Frankenstein