Weirdo. Loner. Outsider. These are some of the terms director Tim Burton uses to describe himself. You will notice `creative genius’ isn’t one of them, however, the term is being thrust upon on the quirky filmmaker thanks to Tim Burton: The Exhibition which opened at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne on Thursday. The show is an extension of an exhibition curated by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, which attracted more than 850, 000 visitors and made it the third largest exhibit at MoMA ever, behind Picasso and Matisse.
It is a remarkable feat for someone who is firstly, not a mainstream artist, and secondly, alive.
“Most of this stuff was never meant to really be seen,” says Burton, sitting cross-legged in an ACMI room in his signature uniform of black jeans, a black shirt and black oversized cardigan. His famous curly hair frizzes out at all ends and his hands, fluid and always moving, add to its state by running through it as he describes the `freedoms’ of being labelled a weirdo.
“As soon as society says you’re a weirdo, then you’re a weirdo, whether you like it or not,” says the 51-year-old.
“After a certain time you just accept it and it gives you a sense of freedom because if you want to wear a bag over your head society will just accept it because they thought you were weird anyway.
“Like when I was at Disney they thought I was weird, so I would work under my desk for half the day.
“Sometimes if they couldn’t find me I’d just be in a dark cupboard working, like my private confessional.
“So there’s an amount of freedom when you’re categorised a certain way. “
Growing up in Burbank, California, Tim Burton was fascinated by the visual image and spent his formative years sketching, painting, animating and filming what he saw around him.
“When you circle outside of society, when you’re kind of, you’re not in there, you’re looking at things,” he says.
“A lot of it has to do with feeling out of society so you have a lot more observation.”
These observations make up the first part of the exhibit, Surviving Burbank, and include, among dozens of sketches and early short films, a handmade book he submitted to Disney in the 1970s and the accompanying rejection letter. Several years later Burton achieved his goal and began working at Disney’s Burbank studios as an animator. Some of his early work for the company was as on family hits The Black Cauldron and The Fox and the Hound, which Burton physically shudders remembering.
“I was never good at drawing foxes, especially the cute ones,” he says.
“That’s why I can’t look at the exhibit because it freaks me out too much.
“I know they’ve done a good job, but it’s like seeing your dirty laundry hanging up.
“`Oh there’s my underwear from 1973 and there’s some dirty socks.’
Personal embarrassment aside, the exhibition is an in-depth look at the creative processes and twisted imagination of Burton, featuring more than 700 works including drawings, early films, sculptures, concept art, installations, puppets, costumes and cinematic ephemera. The second part of the exhibition, Beautifying Burbank, follows Burton’s step away from the Disney studio and his first early film and animation works, including his rarely seen Japanese kung-fu version of Hansel and Gretel and better known works Frankenweenie and Vincent, the latter based around one of Burton’s great inspirations - horror movie icon Vincent Price.
The final section, Beyond Burbank, looks at his feature film career, which has spanned over two decades. From his early works, such as Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, to more recent films like Charlie and The Chocolate Factory and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street, Burton has made the leap from cult to commercially successful filmmaker. His latest film, Alice In Wonderland, has grossed more than $1 billion at the international box office and gone on to become the fifth highest grossing film of all time. But Burton is quick to write-off his recent success and says if spending half his lifetime in the movie-making business has taught him anything, it is that filmmaking is a `humbling process’.
“I remember after making Batman I thought `oh, that was a success, I can go and do anything now’,” he says.
“And so I went and pitched them Edward Scissorhands and they gave me a completely blank look.
“Nobody wanted to do that and nobody wanted to do Ed Wood, so I had to go about it in other ways.
“Then I remember pitching a musical version of The House Of Wax with Michael Jackson that he was into but they, the studio, were definitely not into.
“It’s always a struggle to make a film.”
Despite the many `challenges’ faced when trying to get a project off the ground, Burton says he has faith that everything works out for a reason. He cites the studio not letting him have Sammy Davis Jr play Beetlejuice as an example, because `it opened the door for Michael Keaton’ who also went on to play Batman in Burton’s two adaptations of the comic book superhero. Another near-miss occurred when, after three hours of auditioning, Burton talked a young Tom Cruise out of wanting the role of Edward Scissorhands, which was later filled by Johnny Depp, who has become a frequent collaborator and one of Burton’s closest friends. Failed projects and major successes go hand in hand for Burton, who says he has learned `not to regret anything’.
“I don’t really regret, it’s always important not to,” he says.
“Every movie I’ve done, whether it’s turned out or not, I’ve still enjoyed aspects of it, you know?
“I mean I think the one I got the most slack with is Planet Of The Apes because that was messing with a classic.
“But I still enjoyed seeing talking apes."
One of the highlights of the exhibition is the 2.7kg costume Depp wore in Edward Scissorhands (above), which is stationed at the entrance to the exhibit along with one of the scissor hands on display in a glass cabinet. Other featured works which will have the legions of Burtonites, the name given to passionate Tim Burton fans, gushing is the famous outfit Michelle Phfieffer wore as Catwoman in Batman Returns, original puppets from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas borrowed from the Disney archives, costumes and sketches from Alice In Wonderland and the Burtonarium, a carnival tent buried deep within the exhibit which houses a light emitting sculptural work by Burton called Carousel (pictured at the very bottom).
ACMI Head of Exhibitions Conrad Bodman says the `diversity’ of the exhibits represents Burton as a filmmaker and goes a long way to explaining his loyal fan base.
“One of the things that Tim has always done is work across a range of film genres - action films, animated films, family films, horror films - and I think all of those types of films have different audiences and when you pull all those inspirations together in the one place, people want to come,” he says.
“What we’re showing in the exhibition is a lot of original concept artwork for his major feature films and we’re kind of looking at the process of his feature filmmaking over the years.
“People can see that often the hand drawn is the starting point for some ideas and then that turns into a visual reality for a whole process of development.
“Tim still does a lot of that kind of drawing, painting and making puppets for himself and people will be fascinated to see that process in action.”
Unlike many other filmmakers, Burton says he has been able to maintain his artistic integrity and stay connected to his creative roots by separating himself from the industry.
“I don’t live in Hollywood,” he says.
“I moved away many years ago and once you start doing things they try to treat you as a commodity, a thing.
“You know, you spend your whole life to be recognised as a human being and then they try to tag you as a thing.
“Like `oh, you’ve done this and that’s what we expect’ so I don’t go back and look at my films too much because I try not to become a `thing’.
“I try to keep human. . . no person or people should be described as one thing.
“I think everybody has lots of different aspects to their personality.
“Some are dark, funny, sad, there are so many words for each person.”
Considering Melbourne was originally to be called Batmania, after one of it’s founders John Batman, it seems appropriate that it is to be the home of Tim Burton: The Exhibition, which runs until October 11. Already ACMI has experienced a fevour amongst Burton’s Australian fans, with all of his public appearances selling out within 24 hours of going on sale and hundreds of fans queuing through Federation Square to be the first to enter the exhibit when it opened on Thursday and have copies of the exhibition guide signed by Burton himself. It is ironic that his work and films are so accepted by the society he once considered himself `outside’ of. It is a phenomenon best summed up by Burton’s partner and regular collaborator Helena Bonham Carter, with whom he has two children. In a book on the art of Tim Burton she says; “When I see him surrounded by flushed and hyperventilating young fans I feel it’s a triumph of the lonely misunderstood outsider child he once felt he was. Now he’s the most understood misunderstood person I’ve come across in the world.”
In the meantime Burton says he is enjoying a lull between live action projects, while busying himself with a feature-length adaptation of Frankenweenie (concept art above), due for release next year. He emphasises the stop-motion animated film is the only project he is working on and committed to, despite online reports which have linked him to adaptations of The Addams Family and super-natural TV series Dark Shadows, both which he blatantly denies were ever `considered’.
“That’s why I never go on the internet because it always seems like I have some sort of evil clone out there that is doing all these projects,” he says.
“I’m still recovering from the last one.
“Whenever I read this stuff I get tired, I think `God, I must be busy’.
“The studios often have a release date before they have a script, which is such a mistake.
“I’m trying to get out of that and, you know, into this strange concept of having a script before you announce a release date.”
There is a full program of events surrounding Tim Burton: The Exhibition and the details can be found at www.acmi.net.au