Auteur of the Week: Tim Burton

I have loved the work of Tim Burton as long as I can remember. I’ve seen all of his films – except his remake of Planet of the Apes; the original series is too dear to my heart and I refuse to have them tainted. Incidentally, I saw all but two of his feature films in the order that they were released, and most in theaters.

What I love so much about Burton is how distinctive his style is. You see one of his films and you know you’re watching a Burton film. He is unlike any modern filmmaker and no modern filmmaker is like him. His gothic style is a little heavy-handed sometimes, but I don’t care. I love taking a trip into his worlds and I’ve only been disappointed by him once. For the most part, Burton creates these whimsically gothic worlds, filled with sweet, wonderful, memorable characters. He also often gets wonderfully sincere performances from his actors, regardless of the fantastical worlds they find themselves inhabiting. I’ve seen many complaints (mostly from younger people who either haven’t seen his early work and/or form uninformed opinions based on surface observations) that he must not be a great director because so many of his films have products being sold at Hot Topic. First of all, don’t place the value of a director’s work based on where it’s sold. Secondly, he has always had a gothic style and always appealed to those who love gothic things (as well as those who don’t), so it makes sense that products from his films are sold at a shop aimed at those who love gothic things. The film industry is a business and one must never forget that. Basing your opinion of a director based on how the company that owns his films markets them and tries to make extra money off of them is just ridiculous and amateurish.

Tim Burton was born in 1958 in Burbank, California. Burton always had an interest in film and would make short films in his backyard using crude stop motion animation techniques or shoot them on 8 mm film without sound. He attended Burbank High School before attending the California Institute of the Arts to study character animation, where he studied along with John Lasseter, Brad Bird, John Musker and Henry Selick. He graduated in 1979 and was hired at Walt Disney Productions’ animation studio. While there he worked as a concept artist on The Fox and the Hound (1981) and The Black Cauldron (1985).  Burton made his first major short while at Disney in 1982. Vincent is a six-minute black and white stop motion film based on a poem he wrote that is about a young boy who fantasizes that he is his hero Vincent Price, with Price himself providing narration. Burton’s first live-action production was a Japanese themed adaptation of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Hansel and Gretel for The Disney Channel, which climaxes in a kung-fu fight between Hansel and Gretel and the witch. It aired once at 10:30pm on Halloween 1983 . I’ve never seen it, but boy do I wish I had. He then made the live-action short Frankenweenie which stars Barret Oliver, Daniel Stern and Shelley Duvall. Producer Griffin Dunne then approached Burton to direct 1985’s After Hours after it  had been passed over by Martin Scorsese. However, financing for Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ fell through and Burton bowed out of the project out of respect for Scorsese. Burton got his big break when Paul Reubens saw Frankenweenie and hand-picked Burton to direct the cinematic spin-off of his popular character Pee-wee Herman. The film was made on a budget of $8 million and grossed more than $40 million at the box office. Burton was a fan of  Oingo Boingo and asked songwriter Danny Elfman to provide the music for the film. Since then, Elfman has provided the score for all but four of Burton’s films.

This film is an homage to and parody of 1931’s Frankenstein, based on the classic Mary Shelley novel. It’s the tale of a boy and his dog Sparky, who is hit by a car and then brought back to life. Apparently Burton was fired by Disney after the film was completed because the studio claimed that he had wasted company resources and felt the film was too scary for young audiences. It was released on video in 1994 however, because at that point Burton was quite famous and had several hits to his name. I don’t know why Disney thought this film was too scary for kids. I remember being very young when I first saw it and I loved it to death. For the last few years Burton has been working on a full length, stop-motion remake of this film. I’m sort of apprehensive about this. I suppose this is because the original is so dear to me as a child and I don’t want to see it messed with. But I trust Burton, so perhaps it will be wonderful. It’s scheduled to be released by Disney in 2012.

As I said earlier, Burton was hand-picked by Reubens to direct this film.  This was another film I loved as I child and I believe was the first Burton film I ever saw, although at the time I had no idea who Burton was and actually, I didn’t even know Burton directed it until a few years ago. To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember much about the film itself. I do, however, remember how much I loved it as a child, so it will always be dear to me.

Burton’s next film was 1988’s Beetlejuice, which he picked due to the script’s originality. The film was made on a $13 mil budget, only $1 of which was budgeted for special effects; it grossed well over $73 mil. The special effects in the film include stop-motion, replacement animation, prosthetic makeup, puppetry and blue screen. Burton has said he wanted to make the film in a style that was similar to the B-movies Burton grew up with as a child. I really love this film. I think it is one of both Michael Keaton’s and Winona Ryder’s best performances. Also, considering how little money was spent on the special effects, I think they are quite fabulous and even to this day still look amazing. The film won the Academy Award for Best Make-up. This is one of those movies that I will always watch when it’s on television. It never gets old and I don’t think I’ll ever be sick of it.

His next film was 1989’s Batman. The film starred Michael Keaton as the titular hero and Jack Nicholson as The Joker. Apparently, Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner, Charlie Sheen, Pierce Brosnan, Tom Selleck and Bill Murray were all considered for Batman. I love Keaton’s Batman, he’s my favorite film version of the character, and yes I mean I like him more than I like Christian Bale as Batman. Although I think Bale plays Bruce Wayne better than Keaton did, if that makes any sense. The film opened on June 23, 1989 and grossed a record-breaking $43.6 mil in 2,194 theaters during its opening weekend. It went on to gross $251.2 mil in North America and $160.15 million internationally, totaling $411.35 mil. It was also the first film to earn $100 mil in its first ten days of release. This film was one of the first movies my parents owned on VHS and I remember watching it A LOT as a child. Nicholson’s Joker still gives me the creeps. I think it is unfair to compare Burton’s Batman films to Nolan’s Batman films. They come from two very different directors and all four of those films are phenomenally good, in their own ways. The two post-Burton, pre-Nolan Batman films, however, are nowhere near as good though (although, they do have some pretty great realization of Batman villains).

1990’s Edward Scissorhands, along with John Water’s Cry-Baby, introduced me to Johnny Depp as a child and I have been in love with him ever since. Apparently Burton conceived the idea for this film based on his childhood upbringing in suburban Burbank, California. The film had a $20 mil budget and had a limited release in the United States on December 7, then opened to a  wide release on December 14, where it earned $6,325,249 in 1,372 theaters. The film eventually grossed over $56 mil in North America, and over $29, mil  internationally, with a worldwide total of $86.02 million. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Make-up and Johnny Depp received his first of eight Golden Globe nominations for his performance in this film. What I love so much about this film is how it truly feels like a fairy tale, even though it’s set in modern-day suburbia. Depp and Winona Ryder have such amazing chemistry in this film and Diane Wiest gives one of her best performances. The story is so tender and real and the art direction/costume design is just so wonderful. This would mark Burton’s first collaboration with both star Depp and costume designer Colleen Atwood. Depp has worked with Burton seven times and Atwood has worked with the director eight times. Incidentally, Atwood has worked on eight films starring Johnny Depp, three of which were not directed by Burton.

I saw 1992’s Batman Returns in theaters and Danny DeVito’s performance as The Penguin gave me nightmares. For years. I also really love Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance as Catwoman. She is pure sex in that film. The film was released on June 19, 1992, earning $45.69 million in 2,644 theaters on its opening weekend, making it the highest opening weekend in 1992 and the highest opening weekend of any film up to that point. The film grossed $162.83 mil in North America and $104 mil worldwide, with a worldwide total of almost $267 mil. The film was nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Visual Effects and Best Make-up. This would mark the last Batman film with Burton as a director and Keaton as the titular hero. Although the film did not receive as great reviews from critics than his first Batman film, Burton has said he liked it better. I liked it better too. I feel like this film has more of Burton in it than the previous film, which I suppose is probably why it wasn’t received as well.

I didn’t see Ed Wood until I was in High School, but I loved it when I finally did see it. I love that Burton chose to film it in black and white. I love how close it is in feel to the B movies Burton grew up with. I think it may be one of Burton’s finest films. It marked his second collaboration with Johnny Depp, another role in which Depp was nominated for a Golden Globe award.  It had a limited release on September 30, 1994, then opened with a wide release on October 7, 1994 in 623 theaters, where it grossed just shy of $2 mil on its opening weekend. The film went on to gross just shy of $6 mil domestically, well under it’s $18 mil budget. Although it had such a low box-office gross, it is one of Burton’s most critically acclaimed films. The film was nominated for three Golden Globes awards: Best Musical or Comedy, Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy  – Johnny Depp and for Best Supporting Actor – Martin Landau (he won). Landau also won a Screen Actor’s Guild Award and an Academy Awards for his performance as Bela Lugosi. Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski were nominated for Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen by the Writers Guild of America and Rick Baker won an Academy Award for Best Make-up. The film also holds the #200 spot on IMDb’s Top 250 user-rated list. Much like the films of the director on which the film is about, Ed Wood has become a sort of cult classic in its time.

This movie freaked me out SO MUCH when I first saw it in theaters. Mostly because the green, brain-headed aliens scared me. A LOT. And then, of course, when we got home for days and days my brother and my dad would try to scare me running around the house going “ACK. ACK. ACK. ACK.” just like the aliens. In fact, for years any time we watched that film they would spend the next few days doing that. Years later, when I was in college, I watched it at about 3AM after I’d just had a party and I think it was the first time I got to fully appreciate the film for what it was without being terrorized by a family member. It is such a perfect homage to Ray Harryhausen and all those great space invasion movies from the 50s. It also contains one of the greatest ensemble casts of the 90s. I mean, just look at this cast list: Jack Nicholson, Lukas Haas, Annette Bening, Jim Brown, Pierce Brosnan, Sarah Jessica Parker, Glenn Close, Martin Short, Michael J. Fox, Jack Black, Natalie Portman, Rod Steiger, Tom Jones, and Danny DeVito. Everyone in it is just so perfect. The film’s final production budget came to $100 million. It was released in the United States on December 13, 1996, earning $9.38 million in its opening weekend, and eventually made $37.77 million in US totals and $63.6 million elsewhere, with a worldwide total of $101.37 million. It was noted by many at the time that it had a very similar plot to Independence Day, which had been released the July 4th weekend of that same year. Burton remarked on the coincidence, “It was just a coincidence. Nobody told me about it. I was surprised how close it was, but then it’s a pretty basic genre I guess. Independence Day was different in tone – it was different in everything. It almost seemed like we had done kind of a Mad magazine version of Independence Day.” I think it’s kind of unfair to compare the two films; they may both be about alien invasions, but one is clearly a more serious, action-y kind of film and the other is a straight up comedy. I love both films equally.

1999’s Sleepy Hollow became his 3rd collaboration with Johnny Depp and one of his most acclaimed films. I loved this film the minute I saw it in theaters and  I think I’ve seen it more than any of his other films, except maybe Big Fish. I think everything about this film is perfect, from the cast to the art direction and costumes. Everything about it was just so perfectly realized. I also must mention that there is a tree on the U.C. Berkeley campus that looks JUST LIKE the infamous Tree of the Dead from this film and the first time I saw it on campus I nearly died of fright. The film had a $70 mil budget and grossed over $30 mil when it opened on November 19th, 1999. Domestically it grossed over $101 mil and internationally it grossed $106, with a world-wide total gross of over $207 mil. It was nominated for three Academy Awards: Art Direction-Set Decoration (it won), Cinematography – Emmanuel Lubezki (who is one of my favorite cinematographers) and Best Costume Design – Colleen Atwood. This is one of those films that I can watch over and over and over and always find something new to love about. It is one of my all-time favorite films and probably always will be. It also contains my favorite of Depp’s performances. I love him as Ichabod Crane. He is just so wonderful in this film.

I haven’t seen 2001’s Planet of the Apes, nor to I intend to, so I’m going to skip forward to 2003’s Big Fish, which is not only one of my all-time favorite films but also my favorite of Burton’s films. I think it is a perfect film. The film had a $70 mil budget and had a limited release on December 10th, 2003 before its wide release in the U.S. on January 9th, 2004. It grossed $13.81 million in its opening weekend, eventually grossing $66.81 million in the U.S. totals, $56.11 million in foreign countries and a total of $122.92 million worldwide. It currently holds the #202 spot on IMDb’s Top 250. It was nominated for four Golden Globes: Best Supporting Actor – Albert Finney, Best Score – Danny Elfman, Best Original Song – Man of the Hour by Eddie Vedder and Best Musical or Comedy; it didn’t win a single award. It was also nominated for seven BAFTAs and Tim Burton was nominated for Best Director at the Critic’s Choice Awards and Danny Eflman’s score was nominated for an Oscar. I have watched this film countless times and I think I will always love it. It’s warm and whimsical and Ewan McGregor gives one of his greatest performance as the young Edward Bloom. It also contains a very sweet supporting performance from future-Oscar winner Marion Cotillard as Albert Finney’s daughter-in-law.

2005 marked Johnny Depp’s 4th and 5th collaborations with Tim Burton, the first of which was as Willy Wonka in his interpretation of the classic Roald Dahl book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The film actually received better reviews than both Sleepy Hollow and Big Fish, making it his best reviewed film since Ed Wood. I find that kind of odd, because I enjoyed this film but I do not think it was anywhere near as wonderful as those other two films. The film had a $150 mil budget and was released  on July 15, 2005 with an opening weekend gross of over $56 mil and stayed at #1 for 2 weeks. The film eventually grossed over $206 mil in the U.S., over $268 mil in foreign countries and had a worldwide total of over $474 mil. Johnny Depp received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy and the film was nominated for Best Costume Design at the Academy Awards.

Later that year we got a second pairing of Burton and Depp (and Helen Bonham Carter) with the animated film Corpse Bride. I actually hadn’t seen this film until Monday. I’m not sure why I never watched it before, it just managed to slip past me somehow. I really enjoyed it. It wasn’t too long, the songs were lovely,  the voice performances were great and the animation was fabulous. Tim Burton was nominated for his only Oscar, as a producer for this film. It lost the Best Animated Feature award to Nick Park’s Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (which also featured a voice performance from Helena Bonham Carter). It had a $40 mil budget and grossed over $53 mil domestically and over $117 worldwide. I think it was a really sweet love story and a fine use of stop-motion technology. I’m glad films like this and Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox and Burton’s upcoming Frankenweenie still utilize stop-motion technology. It’s beautiful form of art and a refreshing change from all the uber-CGI we get bombarded with every year.

Burton’s adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Tony Award-winning 1979 musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was both a critical as well as box office success. This was Burton’s 6th collaboration with Johnny Depp and his 5th with Helena Bonham Carter. The film wound up on several critics’ Top Ten lists for 2007 and was nominated for four Golden Globe nominations – Best Actor in a Musical/Comedy – Johnny Depp (he won), Best Actress in a Musical/Comedy – Helena Bonham Carter, Best Director – Tim Burton (his first, and so far, only Golden Globe nomination) and Best Musical or Comedy (it won). It was also nominated for three Academy Awards – Best Actor – Depp, Best Costume Design and Best Art Direction (it won). Burton was also nominated for Best Director at the Critics Choice Awards (his second nomination) and was named Best Director of the year by the National Board of Review. The film had a $50 mil budget and was released on December 21st, 2007 grosssing over  $9 mil in its opening weekend. It grossed $52.9 million in U.S., $99.62 mil in foreign countries, with a worldwide total of $152.52 mil. I really enjoyed this film when I first saw it, but I’ve yet to see it since. I remember really loving how stylized it was and its wonderful use of deep, dark colors.

Which brings me to Burton’s latest effort, Alice in Wonderland, which was released on March 5th earlier this year. This is the only Burton film that I did not really like at all. I thought it was kind of…boring? Flat. Something was just off. I mean it had a great cast, Depp’s 7th collaboration with Burton and Carter’s 6th, Colleen Atwood’s costumes were wonderful and the art direction and visual effects were all great. Yet somehow the film just did not add up at all for me and I probably won’t watch it again. It received very mixed reviews, which makes me glad to know I wasn’t the only one who thought it was off. It had a budget of $200 mil and despite its mixed reviews did insanely well at the box office, although this is partly due to 3D surcharges. It opened at the #1 spot in the box office in North America, grossing $41 mil its opening day, setting a new March opening-day record. It grossed an estimated $116.1 million in its opening weekend. The film grossed $94 mil internationally its opening weekend, with an opening weekend worldwide of $210 mill.It When the film closed in theaters on July 8, 2010 it had a total gross of $334,191,110 in the United States and Canada, and $687,600,000 internationally and has a worldwide total of $1,021,791,110. It is the fifth-highest grossing film of all time, the second-highest grossing film of 2010 in the United States and Canada behind Toy Story 3 and is only the sixth film ever to surpass the $1 billion mark worldwide. The one thing I can say about the film is, since it was such a huge box-office success, it helps Burton’s bankability as a director and will most definitely allow him to continue as one of the most influential directors working in Hollywood today.

Currently Burton is working both on his stop-action remake of Frankenweenie, slated for a March 9th, 2012 release, and a big-screen adaptation of the long running day-time soap from the late 60s/early 70s Dark Shadows. The latter of which has been a pet project of Johnny Depp’s for a long time. He is set to star as Baranabas, making the film his 8th collaboration with Burton.

If you’re interested in buying any of Burton’s films you can do so here.


About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on August 11, 2010, in Auteur of the Week and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Hi! I enjoyed reading your article. Tim Burton is indeed an auteur director. I totally agree with you on Big Fish. I truly love that movie. Although it’s not as dark as his “usual” movies, you can actually recognize that it’s a Tim Burton movie: his films are comprised of the theme individual-versus-society conflict as well as celebrating the individual’s difference.:)

    However, I think you’re forgetting something: The Nightmare Before Christmas. It’s one of his most remarkable works that made popular to younger audiences.^^

  2. Apes was even flatter than Alice.

  3. I absolutely love reading your Auteur of the Week and there is no doubt Tim Burton is a Auteur. I love they way you analyze there films in such a personal way. Your insight to the films personally makes it very interesting to read.
    I think it would be really interesting and beneficial to talk about each Auteur’s different personal styles. Like for example how every movie Tim Burton has ever made there has been checkers and stripes somewhere. Or how his style stems from german expressionism. When talking about the auteur theory I just personally think it is an interesting and important part.

    Keep it up your articles are very interesting and well wirrten.
    I have so many directors I would love to see you write about.

  4. Reblogged this on rosetech67 and commented:
    A great find 🙂

  1. Pingback: Auteur of the Week: Tim Burton « the diary of a film awards fanatic | Batman

  2. Pingback: Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride [Blu-ray] Reviews | The Blu-Ray DVD Stores

  3. Pingback: Auteur Case study – Annabelle Mason

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