The Peculiar World of Director Tim Burton

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Ms Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children Director Can Relate To His Characters

Ms Peregrines Home for Peculiar Children

He grew up in the sun-drenched suburbs of Burbank, California, but much of Tim Burton’s childhood was lived in the shadows—quite literally. His parents had bricked up the two large windows in his bedroom, leaving just one small aperture high up the wall. The atmosphere was somewhat odd, his interior world very still. To peer out into the brighter world, young Burton had to clamber onto his desk.

“It was something to do with insulation,” recalls the filmmaker, now 58, “although we were living in Burbank—it’s like 80 degrees! Talk about being buried alive! I felt very Edgar Allan Poe even before I knew who Edgar Allan Poe was.”

Through his childhood years, Burton developed a deep passion for Poe, the author of such 19th-century gothic horrors as “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” although his hunger was for the film adaptations that blossomed during the 1960s rather than for the written words.

“My parents used to say that I watched monster movies before I could walk or talk,” he says. “I was always drawn to them and I never found them scary.” He loved the films of director Roger Corman and special-effects guru Ray Harryhausen. The actors Vincent Price and Bela Lugosi were his heroes. As a child, he wanted to be the man inside a Godzilla suit.

“I always felt an empathy with monsters,” he says. “In those early films, the monsters were the most emotive characters. The people were the scariest ones.” He adores the 1931 Frankenstein film by director James Whale, where the frenzied villagers pursue the monster to the windmill. Burton employed that motif in 1990’s Edward Scissorhands and in his Frankenweenie movies—the short film from 1984 and the feature in 2012.

“With monsters it was often a case of, ‘Let’s try and kill this thing that we don’t understand,’” he says. “It is a really interesting and unfortunate human dynamic. King Kong, Frankenstein, the Creature from the Black Lagoon—these creatures are the most emotional things in the films. ‘I don’t understand you, let’s put you in a cage. I don’t understand you, let’s kill you.’ That’s a motto I have felt my whole life.”

Always the Outsider

Burton is a perennial outsider, always feeling like an oddball, a peculiarity. This is a theme that runs throughout his work, his filmmaking. A patron saint for waifs and strays, he regularly returns to the theme of an unusual child or outsider bidding to make his or her way in a hostile world.


Just consider his short film Vincent(1982), about a boy’s wild imagination, or Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985), in which an “adult” behaves like a juvenile. The raffish sprite in Beetlejuice(1988) has been compared to a rogue Peter Pan, while Edward Scissorhands is Frankenstein’s monster packaged as a childlike innocent. Each story is shaded by both light and dark.

Batman Returns

The theme is persistent. On either side of Scissorhands, Burton made Batman (1989) and BatmanReturns (1992). He was never a great comic book fan but always loved Batman, drawn to the idea of a hero with a dual personality, a light side and a dark, which he struggles to reconcile. “It’s a character I could relate to,” he says. He relates both to characters with masks (Batman, Catwoman, a heavily made-up Joker) and to repressed personalities like the Penguin, who are saddled with the baggage of their troubled childhoods, as he is.

“There is just something about me. Going to high school was one of the most terrifying things. You are put into a category. And once you are deemed a weird person, you are in the weird group. I had a feeling that I was some sort of alien that didn’t quite fit. I did feel alone, lonely, and while I assume that most people feel that way, it was quite heavy for me.

“I was afraid of my parents and my relatives and where I grew up,” he says. “I didn’t feel I had a close relationship with my parents; we seemed to not get along. I felt lonely and bad but it forced me to take the reins myself.” At 18, he won a scholarship to California Institute of the Arts, and three years later he was working at Disney as an animator on The Fox and the Hound. “I put myself through school; I got a job.”

Alice in Wonderland

That loneliness, isolation and pervasive feeling of peculiarity got poured into Sleepy Hollow (1999) and Big Fish (2003), which feature heroes traversing strange and fantastical lands. It’s there among the misanthropes in Ed Wood(1994), in his version of Planet of the Apes (2001), Corpse Bride(2005) and Alice in Wonderland (2010). It’s there in his one published book, The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other Stories (1997).

And, not surprisingly, it is also present in his latest film, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, opening Sept. 30.

Meet Miss Peregrine

The story takes its title from the New York Times best-selling novel by Ransom Riggs (2011), but it seems as though it could easily have come from Burton himself. The adaptation features rising star Asa Butterfield(The Boy in the Striped PajamasHugo) as a teenager, Jake, who travels from Florida to a remote Welsh island to join a group of children with odd abilities and afflictions.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

“One of the themes of the story is about celebrating your peculiarity and your weirdness,” says Butterfield. “It is very surreal and gothic and odd, which I think Tim is best at capturing, compared to any other director. It feels like a Tim movie even when you read the script.”

Indeed, it’s a story that will ring with familiarity to any Burton devotee. It has a coterie of outsiders, children with immense strength or who possess a fiery touch. There are twins who, like mini-Medusas, can turn creatures to stone with just one look. One boy is invisible. Another is full of bees. Jake’s love interest (played by Ella Purnell from Never Let Me Go and Maleficent), meanwhile, is lighter than air and needs iron boots to prevent her from floating away.


Courtesy of Parade


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