The strange true story of Tim Burton's normal hometown
There are no mist-shrouded haunted houses in Tim Burton’s spick-and-span hometown of Burbank, Calif. The only blood suckers out at night are mosquitoes. No corkscrew trees claw the sidewalk on Evergreen Street, where the filmmaker grew up in the 1960s and early ’70s in one of its many neat little cracker-box houses.
But then, at the end of his road was a sprawling graveyard.
With the filmmaker’s new stop-motion animated movie Frankenweenie debuting in theaters this weekend, it seemed like a good time to go back and tell the strange story of Tim Burton’s otherwise normal hometown, and how it shaped his twisted cinematic visions.
The director not only spoke with EW about those years growing up in Johnny Carson’s backyard of “beautiful downtown Burbank,” but also dug into the old family albums to share some of childhood photos, such as the one below from many, many Halloweens ago, which appears to reveal the subconscious origin of Jack Skellington.
While it may have seemed eerie to some, the Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery at the end of his quiet suburban street was a sanctuary for the teenage Burton. “It didn’t quite feel morbid, although people probably think it is,” he says. “It felt more exciting and lonely and special and emotional.” Burton was an introverted kid, after all — and nobody bothers you when you’re sitting alone in a cemetery. “I guess it was a good place to think.”
It’s not hard to imagine the 54-year-old filmmaker as some gothic teenage rebel, draped in black, peering out between clumps of stringy hair and provoking fear and dismay in the clean-cut citizens of his hometown. That’s what we’ve come to expect from his creepy, misfit characters in movies such as Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and the stop-motion animated Frankenweenie, a PG-rated dark comedy about a boy who freaks out his town by using mad science to bring his deceased dog back to life.
But Burton wasn’t like that at all — although some of his happiest memories are a little twisted. Above you see tiny Tim (left) with mother Jean, gray pooch Frosty, beloved white dog Pepe, and little brother Daniel (“The shrunken head…I remember buying that,” the director says. “He got it off me.”) His father, Bill, was snapping the photo.
The Burton family lived in the flight path of the Burbank airport. “One of the games we used to play was counting down when the exhaust left the plane to when it reached us on the ground,” the director says. “That didn’t make it into the movie. That’s sort of another movie.”
Frankenweenie borrows a lot of other things from his childhood. The animated film (a remake of his 1984 live-action short for Disney) was inspired by one of Burton’s unusual early friendships — with a fluffy white mutt named Pepe, along with their counter-intuitively named gray dog Frosty.
Pepe was not a healthy pet. “He was a dog that was meant to sort of not live for long and had distemper,” Burton says. But long before being immortalized on film, the ailing pet seemed to hang on forever in real life — inspiring the story of a beloved dog who defies the grave.
“He ended up living quite long,” Burton says. “It just had a good spirit, that dog. The Frankenweenie character wasn’t meant to look like him. It was more just the memory and the spirit of him.”
Eventually, he did lose Pepe. Everyone who has loved and outlived a pet knows what it’s like to lose such a friend.
The trouble was, Burton didn’t feel like he had a lot of friends, so every one counted. “I don’t think I was unique to this feeling,” he says. “It sort of got worse as I got slightly older. At the time I was a teenager I felt completely alone. Whether it was self-imposed or …” He trails off.
“I always felt like I was a fairly normal person, but at a certain age, I thought, ‘Maybe I’m not because everyone’s saying I’m not.'”
He spent a lot of time receding into his own imagination, and venting what he found there on the pages of his notebooks. “You get into junior high and by high school I felt more strange and isolated,” he says. “But some ages you go through are hard for any kid. You’re 12, and you get to 15 or 16. It’s sort of hard for everybody.”
But it was around this time that Burton made another friend, a much older woman who taught a high school art class, who would forever change his life.
“I was lucky to have one teacher in high school — you have one, maybe two teachers that break through and just make you feel like, ‘You’re okay. You’re maybe different. You don’t follow the path that everybody else follows.’ But they try to nurture you,” Burton recalls. “They support you in your path that’s not exactly the same as everybody else, because everybody is different.”
Who was that person for him …?
“Her name was Mrs. Adams,” Burton says. “She nurtured you but also kind of said you were okay, at that time when people who did art were deemed as weird. You see it in a John Hughes movie: ‘Oh, you’re in the art class. You’re a weirdo. You’ve got dark thoughts. You wear strange clothes,’ and whatever, or you’re slightly anti-social, or not even anti-social, just introverted, quiet, not the life of the party.”
Doris Adams was in her early-50s when she met the young filmmaker, who tended to sit quietly in the back of her art class, where she encouraged her students to get up and explore the different materials in her closet to make their creations.
As a boy, Burton was more of a wallflower than what people might consider a weirdo, she recalls. “He did not have long bushy hair,” says the 91-year-old, now living in a retirement home in Aliso Viejo, Calif. “He looked like any other kid. He didn’t dress in any strange way or act in any strange way.”
A student like that might be easy to forget, especially nearly four decades later. “Oh, I have vivid, vivid remembrances of him,” Adams says. “He was very quiet, but he drew the most wonderful, fanciful figures you could ever imagine. Instead of getting in trouble, he would just take his pen and be lost in his drawings.”
Adams had a film camera in her classroom and gave Burton his first lesson in stop-motion animation, where he collaborated with some other kids in the class on a short film starring none other than Gumby. But mostly, he just drew, drew, drew.
“What I remember most about him was the kind of art he would draw in his spare time. When he had finished the assignment, his hand would still be going. His hand was never still with a pencil in it.” Creatures, skewed views of people, and comical figures. Adams says they were the kind of things few people could even imagine. “But he could imagine them and put them on paper. Every time I’d pass his desk, I’d ask him, ‘What are you doing now?'”
Coming from others, that might have sounded like a judgment, but Adams was one of the few who started telling a teenage Tim Burton that his sense of creativity might make a good job someday. “I said, ‘These are just great, you keep it up and don’t ever stop,'” she said.
Adams has kept up with all his movies over the years, like a proud creative parent. They were out of touch for decades, but when the traveling exhibit of Burton’s work came to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last year, Adams attended the opening gala with her family and approached him anonymously, wearing a handmade spiral mask.
She supplied some of her own family photos of that reunion. “That was a real joy to see her,” Burton recalls with a laugh. “She surprised me, which was amazing. It was really nice to see her after all those years.”For Burton, hearing support from an adult, instead of just frustration or criticism, was a gasp of air at a time when he felt a kind of social suffocation. “It was great because I think as a teacher, it’s something that you would feel good about,” he said. “[She] should feel good about it, because she had a really good effect on me.”
Adams does. “I just wanted to make sure that he knew I thought he should go into art, and it would be a great loss if he didn’t.”
Burton’s mother and father never really got their son in the same way, though he is hardly the only child in America who had that experience. As he looks back at his parents, all these years later, Burton finds he’s starting to understand them a little better, though. Bill and Jean Burton are both gone now. He died in 2000, and she passed away just two years later.
Burton had an often strained relationship with them, but tackled the hard feelings between child and parent in 2003’s Big Fish. At the time, he said: “It was not something that was easy for me to talk about with anybody. But this script was a great way to present that feeling without having to talk about it.”
All these years later, he has become more understanding of the parents who never quite understood him.
“It was that sort of time when fathers worked, mothers didn’t work. And they probably felt pretty trapped,” says Burton. “In the hindsight, you see what people really have to go through as an adult, and how they can feel buried alive.”
His father had been a professional baseball player, but only briefly. “Then he got injured, which I think was quite traumatic for him,” recalls the filmmaker. “Obviously, you’re an athlete and then you have an injury, and you’re not able to do it — it’s kind of something a bit sad.” Bill Burton ended up working for Burbank’s parks, maintaining their sports facilities and teams, which his son now sees as his father’s way of staying close to the thing he loved.
Burton tried to follow his father’s passion, at least as far as he could. “I wasn’t the greatest [at sports,] but I tried,” he says. “I wouldn’t say he pushed me into it, but since it was there, I tried. I would say I wasn’t the worst player in sports. I wasn’t the best player. I was somewhere in the middle. Not great at anything. But I came off the reserve bench every now and then.”
Burton’s housewife mother, Jean, was, as the director says, “kind of a frustrated suburban artist, making owls and Santa Clauses out of pine cones and foil.” His mother made this skeleton costume for him one Halloween, using a snowman decoration for a bobbling head. It bears an uncanny resemblance to Jack Skellington, the main character in Burton’s stop-motion animated hit The Nightmare Before Christmas.
“She had a couple of jobs– I can’t remember what, but kind of secretary things. It was well after I’d moved out of the house,” he says. “She had a strange relationship with animals. She loved animals. She’d always get these wounded animals.” She later owned a store selling cat novelty items. “I can’t quite describe it — she had a cat store in Burbank. But not real cats,” he says. “Cat mugs and kitty shirts and cat paraphernalia.”
Comparing the photo of a younger, fair-haired young Burton, smiling atop a pony, with the picture of him as a slightly older child, hidden head-to-toe inside a skeleton costume, it’s easy to think: Before and After.
Though the things he finds fascinating about the world are kind of the opposite of sunny, ordinary Burbank, his hometown helped him define that vision through contrast.
“It’s those early seeds are seeds that make you grow into who you are and they’re definitely a part of you,” Burton says. “They don’t really leave you. You can’t really just erase them and go, ‘I’m moving on.’ It’s part of your DNA.”
Now that he’s got a lot of physical and chronological distance on his old life and is a father himself with two young children with actress Helena Bonham Carter, Burton looks back on his Burbank childhood with more acceptance. Maybe even gratitude.
So would he change anything about how he grew up?
“No,” he answers immediately. “I felt quite miserable in a lot of ways and depressed. But no, I wouldn’t [change that], because it’s something that makes you who you are. I don’t think I would change anything, really, even though if you asked me back then I would have changed every single thing.”
When Burton visits Burbank now, it’s usually for work, where he might have meetings at Warner Bros. or Disney. Still, he sometimes finds himself detouring through his old neighborhood, driving down Evergreen Street and stopping in front of that house where a new family lives — just down the road from the old cemetery.
“It’s haunting,” he says. “It’s quite emotional.”
Not all of Burton’s ghosts are the scary kind.
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