It's March 22nd, 2011, at the Three Mills Studios in the East End of London, and Tim Burton is taking us for a walk around the three giant sound stages for his new stop-motion animation offering Frankenweenie. A big-budget reanimation of his 1984 half-hour short of the same name, the tale is pure Burton - small, awkward outsider kid alleviating the dull, safe suburban life by letting his dangerous imagination run away with him. This particular kid is called Victor Frankenstein, which gives you some idea of what he gets up to when his beloved mutt gets hit by a car and dies.
It's very familiar territory for Burton, and not just because he's remaking his own early offering. Much of the crew is from his 2005 stop-motion animated offering Corpse Bride and Danny Elfman's on soundtrack duties once again, whilst the cast of voices read like a Who's Who of the director's past work. The heavy presence of Winona Ryder (Edward Scissorhands), Martin Landau (Ed Wood) and Catherine O'Hara (The Nightmare Before Christmas) lets you know that we're deep in Burtonland.
When he mentions there was a struggle getting Frankenweenie greenlit, I'm surprised. Burton had just given Disney one of their biggest box-office smashes ever - surely, I say to Burton, they've given him the key to the golden toilet by now?
"There's no such thing," he jokes "There's no such thing... It's always a struggle to make the film you want, I don't think any studio wants to give over complete control, not when there's so much money at stake. And I can understand that. It's a business for them, and they have to be sure that what they're putting their money into has a good chance of making a profit. As a filmmaker, you're aware of that, but you still want to have your flights of fancy. And Frankenweenie is a flight of fancy, a dream come true. To be able to make it on this scale, almost 30 years later, that's wild to me."
The walk is shared with some other journalists, and it soon turns to the technical aspect of working without actors on the set ("The thing with voices is that you do six or seven or eight sessions, and then piecing it all together as the film progresses"), the shading needed for black & white ("We did a lot of testing with these colours, because in black and white, the colours can act strangely", the facial expressions for the puppets ("We have a few alternative heads, but generally we work the one head"), the main challenge of adapting one of your own films ("I don't see it as a challenge; it's more about finding the true inspiration in those original drawings"), shooting in the UK ("Well, I live here").
I ask Burton about his stated aim to get away from the traditional gothic imagery associated with his work. Isn't he paying tribute once again to early Hollywood horror here? "It's a mixture. That's the great thing with the lighting here - there's that Expressionist horror lighting, where characters are in and out of the shadows. So, it has that vibe, but in a suburban setting."
And then we're off to another of the sets, the New Holland pet cemetery. "When we have Victor walking through the cemetery," says Burton, "we want his torch to be the main source of light." Are there are deliberate references to that early half-hour short. "There's a few, but we're not trying to hide too many Easter eggs in that respect. There are plenty of those for fans of those early Hollywood horror films."
With four or five plates spinning at all times, overseeing Frankenweenie is something of a busman's holiday for Burton. "There are no real surprises," he says. "There's so much planning, you just don't have that problem of suddenly having bad weather ruin a day's shoot, or one of your actors falling sick. It takes a long time, so, there are no real split decisions. We're kind of aching for more to do, if anything, back in the editing room."
So, does Burton ever feel like Dr. Frankenstein himself, with all these Igors burrowing away in basement rooms, bringing Frankenweenie to life?
"Well, it does take a special talent to do this," he says. "A lot of patience, for a start, which I never had. There's a lot of artistry in this form. The only positive thing for them is that they can be in an environment where they can play. It's slow, but they can play. It is the Frankenstein story - they can take a dead thing and bring it to life."
When it came to shooting in glorious black'n'white, Burton could always argue with Disney that, although they fought him on Ed Wood, that one worked. "That was a real fight, Ed Wood, and since it didn't do all that well at the box-office, they were able to beat me with that a little. But they understood that the character of the story needed black'n'white, and they were great about this one. They were willing to go with this because it all fitted together. It made sense to be in black'n'white. It's part of the emotion of it..."
And with that, we're all whisked back to the front door. "Pardon me if I don't stick around," says Burton as he departs. "I was never a fan of school tours, and this feels like I'm back there. And I'm the boring museum curator. So, I'll let you all have a half-day, so you can go and enjoy the beautiful sun outside..."
Words - Paul Byrne
Frankenweenie is now showing in Irish Cinemas