Tim Burton's latest film
Edward Scissorhands director Tim Burton is discussing the subtleties of scissors: ”There’s quite an interesting design to a pair of scissors, if you really look at them. How do they work? What do they do?” Burton punctuates his questions by furiously skewering the air with his large-knuckled hands. ”They’re both simple and complicated, creative and destructive,” he concludes. ”It’s that feeling of being at odds with yourself.”
On this day, the former animator who went on to startle critics and audiences with his artful visual dementia in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice — then awed studio accountants with his megablockbuster, Batman — also seems more than a little at odds with himself. Holed up in a dimly lit hotel suite, just two weeks before Scissorhands‘ release, the 32-year-old director sips coffee, nibbles finger sandwiches, and contemplates the sprawl of rush-hour Manhattan. ”I’ve had, uuhhh, too many of these today already,” mutters Burton, pouring his fifth cup of coffee, or is it his sixth?
”This is a tense time, a tough time,” he says, drawing thin fingers through his tangled twist of black hair. After Batman‘s success, the director suddenly had unmatched clout in Hollywood. He could have made almost any movie he chose, but instead of aiming for another surefire hit, he pursued a project that had obsessed him since he was a teenager: the strange story of a boy with scissors for hands. In Burton’s warped fairy tale, Edward is a kind of teenage Frankenstein’s monster, created by a half-mad inventor (played by Burton’s lifelong idol Vincent Price) who dies before he can replace the boy’s hedge-clipper hands with suitably human ones.
Though he claims not to worry about the box office, Burton has a lot riding on Scissorhands: If the movie is a hit, the director’s status as Hollywood’s weird wunderkind will be unassailable. But Edward Scissorhands — despite having the real-life teen-dream couple of Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder in the lead roles — is by no means guaranteed to warm the hearts of holiday moviegoers. With his spiked hair, ghoulish makeup, and grotesque scissorhands, Edward looks like a cross between Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp and A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s Freddy Krueger. Studio executives were so jittery that Edward’s image would put audiences off they tried to keep pictures of Depp in his full regalia under wraps until the movie opened. And, though it has plenty of humor, Scissorhands is essentially a moody, somewhat forbidding fable. ”I tend to, you know, see the dark side of things,” Burton says.
Perhaps only someone of such a mindset could be so ambivalent about his own success. ”I came up in a way that was very Hollywoodesque, which is, uh, kind of shocking to me,” he says. ”I have this natural reaction against it.” In person, Burton seems to do all he can to undermine one’s image of the powerful Hollywood film director. He wears his childish eccentricities — the frazzled hair, the deliberately obscure, fragmented speech, the wicked, rippling giggle — almost like a protective shield. Take his perverse insistence on dressing totally in black: black jeans, black T-shirt, black sneakers — Burton even drinks his coffee black. ”I just don’t feel good in bright colors, I don’t feel that way,” he insists. ”I’m a human mood ring: I feel black.”
In Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Batman, Burton built movies around characters conceived by others — Paul Reubens’ Pee-wee Herman and cartoonist Bob Kane’s superhero. But given the chance to film his own creation, Burton produced a character that resembles, more than anyone else, Tim Burton. The comparison sets the director on edge.
”I wouldn’t have been able to deal with it if I’d made that connection directly,” he says. ”It’s dangerous to get that close to a character, especially when it’s so, you know, weird-looking.” But he admits that Edward was partly drawn from his own somewhat troubled adolescence growing up in Burbank, Calif. Burton shared an uneasy relationship with both his father, who is retired from the parks and recreation department, and his mother, who operates a small gift shop. By the time he was 17, he claims, he couldn’t wait to get out of the house. ”Edward is a very teenage inspiration,” says the director. ”I think that’s a time generally when you’re at your most traumatic, in terms of feeling dark, operatic, melodramatic.”
With his bizarre deformity and lunar ignorance of the ways of humans, Edward feels freakish, clumsy, and misunderstood — as would most any sensitive teen — after an intrepid Avon lady (Dianne Wiest) visits his castle and brings him down to the baffling world of suburbia. But he also discovers his creative genius, using his clippers to fashion delicate ice sculptures, surreal haircuts, and wild topiary confections. Though Burton prefers to downplay the connection, the similarity here to a director who has turned his sense of alienation into dazzling pop entertainment is obvious. Edward Scissorhands is a portrait of the artist as a young misfit.
Burton began working seriously — and somewhat secretively — on the picture two years ago, even before the release of Batman. Though Warner Bros. (the studio that also released his first two features) passed on the project, Burton found Twentieth Century Fox receptive to the idea. He hammered out a script with writer Caroline Thompson. ”We kept it between ourselves, so that there weren’t, you know, 15 executives telling us what we should write in the script,” he says. Fox gave the project the go-ahead, and so began what Burton describes as a battle for creative control. Once Batman met with thunderous success, however, he was in a stronger position to demand and get that control. ”I wouldn’t have done the movie otherwise,” he says.
Casting was the next major hurdle. Fox wanted a big name like Tom Cruise for the leading role. ”They’ve always got their list,” says Burton. ”There they are, the top five, ding, ding, ding.” He favored a lesser-known actor, but finally compromised and got Johnny Depp. When it came to control of the story and visuals, however, he stood firm. ”I was very specific and said things to them like, ‘I’m saying this right now, no matter what, the ending is not going to change,”’ he says.
The job of physically translating Burton’s fantasies to the screen fell to his tight-knit production crew, which included such Burton veterans as production designer Bo Welch and art director Tom Duffield (both worked on Beetlejuice), plus such newcomers to the group as Oscar-winning special effects designer Stan Winston (Aliens, Predator). According to members of Burton’s inner circle, a prerequisite for being on his team was the ability to decipher his fragmented verbal instructions. Interestingly enough, almost everyone who works with Burton claims to communicate with him telepathically. ”I don’t believe in it, but that’s how we connect,” says Caroline Thompson. ”He’s so articulate, but he never talks.” Bo Welch confirms that Burton’s strongest communicative tool is his visual sensibility. ”If you spend any time with Tim, you realize he does communicate verbally, but it’s mostly through images.”
One of Burton’s main concerns in Scissorhands was to capture the exact mixture of surrealism and banality that — to him at least — represents life in the suburbs. Burton recalls feeling completely at odds with his Burbank environment as a child. ”It had this very drug-like, surreal feel about it,” he says. ”Everything was very textural, very tactile. You know, the shag carpeting, these white walls with those strange ceramic birds floating on them and those resin grapes on the wall. Yeah, what are they for?” He wanted to recapture that disconnected feeling by viewing the setting through the eyes of his central character. ”The idea was to treat it from Edward’s point of view,” he says. ”We wanted the sense of, you know, the normalcy and the wonder.”
Before filming could begin, Burton and production designer Welch went looking for a suitable neighborhood. After considering several communities in California and Florida, they settled on a small subdivision outside Tampa, Fla. Then, Welch transformed it to Burton’s peculiar specifications. Distinctive ornamentation — elaborate foliage, unusual shutters — was removed to emphasize the community’s relentless blandness. To create a sense of fantasy at the same time, Welch painted the houses in pastel shades and decorated them with ’60s-inspired pop-culture details. ”The idea was to heighten it, but not beyond the realm of real suburban decoration,” says Welch, who adds that many of the real occupants were still in residence during these fantasy restorations. ”Initially they didn’t like it,” he admits, ”but I think they got used to it. It made it more of a fun place.”
The neighborhood’s strangest addition was the herd of wild topiary constructions — dinosaurs, reindeer, ballerinas — that adorned the yards. Though the shrub sculptures were supposedly clipped by Edward out of ordinary hedges, Welch reports that they actually consisted of green plastic material painstakingly stretched over an elaborate mesh of steel bars. But he says that the most difficult visual backdrop was the fairy tale-inspired castle, which stands on a hill overlooking the suburb. On the set in Florida, Welch constructed a four-story, 85-foot exterior for the castle. The interiors, which were built on a Fox soundstage in L.A., are littered with weird flourishes, including shadowy, ghost-like statues and a fantastic hanging staircase.
Burton’s desire to remake the world according to his own powerful vision didn’t end with the set. He remade the actors as well. Winona Ryder, known for playing moody, dark-haired teenage rebels, was transformed into a glossy suburban cheerleader with golden tresses. Her sunny normalcy becomes the perfect foil for Edward’s freakishness. ”I loved the blond hair, it was so funny, she felt so alien,” says Burton. Ryder, who also appeared in Beetlejuice, didn’t mind. ”He’d laugh at me every day. He really got off on it,” she says. ”But I loved doing it because it was so different.”
Ryder’s new look, however, was nothing compared with the transformation Burton worked on Johnny Depp by turning him into a vulnerable, man-made creature with snippers for hands. ”When you look at Johnny, you get a feeling, and it’s more than skin deep — and it’s not just that he’s handsome or beautiful,” the director says. ”He’s got this image of being this teen-idol creep, this macho tough guy, and he’s so much not like that. He has that pain, that darkness inside. That’s why I really felt Johnny could respond to the material.”
Despite the weight of his costuming and makeup, Edward is perhaps the most human character in Scissorhands. Using little more than his expressive face and oddly mechanical body language (Edward rarely speaks), Depp manages to convey a touchingly gentle quality that’s one of the movie’s biggest surprises. He says his restricting costume actually helped him to develop the character: ”It gave me this feeling of being completely bound up. I couldn’t function normally.” To prepare for the role, Depp studied old silent movies, particularly Chaplin’s famous Tramp shorts. ”I watched a lot of Chaplin stuff, because he was a genius at expressing himself without words,” he says. ”The one thing Tim stressed was keeping the character of Edward pure without begging people to feel sorry for him. To me, Edward is that feeling of insecurity — the feeling you get when you’re growing up and nothing you do is right, everything you touch breaks.”
Perhaps it makes perfect sense that Burton’s troubled, dangerous misfit would capture the audience’s sympathy. In several of Burton’s movies, the monsters — the Joker in Batman, Michael Keaton’s Betelgeuse in Beetlejuice — tend to be more compelling than the human characters that surround them. Like most kids in the ’60s, Burton grew up on a diet of monster movies. Unlike most kids, he identified with the monsters. ”There were these stiff actors, and then the monsters, you know, behind tons of latex, emoting,” he says. ”It’s incredible when you feel worse for the creature in the black lagoon, who’s a guy behind four inches of rubber, than you do for the flesh-and-blood actors.”
Those who know him insist that, even with the relentless pressures of Hollywood success, Burton will manage to preserve his warped sense of wonder, his childlike oddness. ”When you grow up, you lose so many things,” says Caroline Thompson. ”For some reason Tim hasn’t. He’s gained a tremendous amount of self-confidence, but he just can’t be anything other than himself. He just doesn’t have this inflated vision of himself. He’s, well, damaged.” Consider the director’s final word on his desire to wear black. ”If everyone in the world wore black and had the same kind of car,” says Burton, ”that would be fine with me.” Still, one gets the sense that he is being deliberately obscure, perversely misleading. If everybody else wore black, you know Tim Burton would inevitably switch to white sneakers.