Hollywood outsider Tim Burton

Tim Burton


"The Corpse Bride" is a ghoulish animated glee about a shy boy who marries a dead girl by mistake. It's full of crumbling bones, and dead people stealing the show. It all may sound strange, but not to those who know Tim Burton, the director who earned an Oscar nomination for best animated feature.

"Tim's bottled something magical, and I'm drinking it.," said Johnny Depp, the voice of Victor, the groom.

"I've always been interested in the juxtaposition of what people say is fantasy versus reality or what's normal versus abnormal," said Burton. "They always seem different to me."

It's a vision that's as dark and oddly appealing as Burton himself is when you sit down with him, as Mika Brzezinski did for a rare interview.

"I did have somebody say their dog liked my work once," he recalled. "I thought it was quite interesting."

"That's weird. I was watching 'Corpse Bride' this morning and my dog kept going up to the TV," said Mika.

"That's amazing," Burton replied. "Because somebody's dog says they liked "Nightmare Before Christmas," too. To me, those are the best compliments because you know they're pure.

Victor Van Dort (voiced by Johnny Depp) and the Corpse Bride (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter) in a scene from Tim Burton's 2005 film "Corpse Bride." Warner Brothers

Film critic Roger Ebert has been following Burton's career ever since Burton made a very big splash 20 years ago as a very young filmmaker. Burton made such cult favorites as "Edward Scissorhands," "Beetlejuice," and "Big Fish."

"If you go back through all his pictures you find nothing that is conventional," said Ebert. "You find worlds that come completely out of his imagination, as in 'Big Fish,' or 'Pee Wee's Big Adventure,' one of his early films. His 'Batman' pictures have a very distinctive look and feel."

Not to mention successful. "Batman" is well up there on the list of Hollywood's top grossing films.

"Tim is visually astounding, in the way he approaches material," said Danny DeVito, who played the Penguin in "Batman Returns" and also the ringmaster in Burton's 2004 movie "Big Fish."

"Even when you read the script of 'Big Fish,' which is really a terrific script, you don't really get into the world that he's creating until you take that step with him, that first step into a world he's created in his mind," said DeVito.

DeVito even cast Burton in one of his own movies, "Hoffa." Burton was, where else, in the coffin.

"His sort of interests, which are more than slightly off center, and a little outside, his interpretation of them does appeal to the masses, which ultimately I think is a very good sign," said Depp.

Fans love Burton's creative, quirky, fantastical world, along with his outsider take on life. Among young adults who've grown up with his movies, Burton is a cult hero with a celebrity rare for a director.

In a way, Burton's drawings tell his story. By his own account, he was an odd and solitary kid growing up in Burbank, California, with little use for school or parents. He lived with his grandmother as a teenager, and spent his days drawing and dreaming and watching old monster movies. He even lived near a cemetery.

"I did grow up watching monster movies and I did enjoy playing (in the cemetery), but I thought most kids did. It didn't seem that strange to me."

Are you lashing back from being a tortured child?

"Of course. That's part of what's great about having drawing or writing as an outlet. It's a good way to exorcise those things."

Burton's preoccupation with death and monsters was evident from the start. His drawing talent won him a scholarship to nearby CalArts, founded by Walt and Roy Disney. After that, he landed a job as an animator, working on Disney classics like "The Fox and the Hounds."

At age 26, he made a short film for Disney called "Frankenweenie," about a little boy's efforts to revive his dead dog. The Disney folks felt it was too scary too release, but its unique style opened doors.

Next came "Pee Wee's Big Adventure," which became a cult classic, and that led to "Beetlejuice," a sleeper hit that received critical raves and earned tons of money for Warner Brothers.

And that led to his first really big budget movie, "Batman." It was a smash. Suddenly, Tim Burton had Hollywood clout.

The movie he chose to make next was "Edward Scissorhands," probably Burton's most personal film. It's about a creative misfit in a world that oddly mirrors the one Burton grew up in. But it almost didn't get made.

Despite the clout he garnered, movie executive still had trouble giving control to a guy who didn't even comb his hair.

"What they like about you they fear about you," said Burton. "They think you're a somewhat strange person, so they're always a little bit worried."

To play Edward Scissorhands, Burton chose Johnny Depp, who's now shooting Disney's sequel to "Pirates of the Caribbean" in the Bahamas.

"We connected on a number of levels," said Depp. "And it was the beginning of that interesting shorthand that exists between Tim and me."

For Burton, the connection with Depp was immediate and deep.

"He's just somebody who likes to transform," Burton said of his friend. "He's more like an old fashioned Boris Karloff- or Lon Chaney-style actor than he is like a leading man. I enjoy people like that. They're always surprising."

Depp and Burton have gone on to make many movies together, including "Ed Wood," Burton's loving tribute to the man considered by many Hollywood insiders to be the worst director of all time.

"He deserves to be loved, there's a kind of purity to Ed Wood, which, in terms of intent, is not dissimilar to Tim," said Depp.

"I definitely identified with him," Burton said of Ed Wood. "I grew up seeing his movies and seeing how special they were. Just being in the industry you think there's a real fine line between success and failure, and what makes an artist or not.

Ed Wood may or may not have been an artist, but he was obsessed with movie making. One of his more famous stunts took place in his movie "Plan 9 from Outer Space," which featured a very old and very ill Bela Lugosi, who died while the movie was being made. Wood got his dentist to fill in for Lugosi.

"The reason (Burton) wanted to make 'Ed Wood' is that Ed Wood had so much fun making movies," said Ebert. "And that's where Ed Wood and Tim Burton connect. Tim Burton makes films that are a lot better, but he doesn't make them with any more love."

Burton's real life these days seems almost, dare we say it, normal. He lives in England with actress Helena Bonham Carter, and their young son, Billy.

The two often work together. She played a witch in "Big Fish," Charlie Bucket's mother in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," and she's the voice of the "Corpse Bride."

"It's actually quite nice," said Burton. "She knows what it's all about o there's no ego, no problem whatsoever."

One could argue Burton's life is almost like a fairy tale.

"I'm going to turn into a frog and jump off the stage now," said Burton.