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For Tim Burton, This One's Personal : The director of 'Beetlejuice' and 'Batman' is filming another bizarre movie--but this tale draws on his own childhood images

August 12, 1990|NINA J. EASTON

It's only noon on the Fox lot in Century City but the mercury moseyed past 100 degrees hours ago. Director Tim Burton, weary after three months of filming his new movie, has taken refuge inside an air-conditioned mobile home near Stage 15. Sitting across a formica table, he runs his fingers through his jet black, mad-scientist hair and begins describing his life-long fascination with scissors.

"They're an interesting invention; they cut through things," he says.

If this was any other filmmaker, now might be a good time to call it quits and reschedule the interview after the guy has had a chance to collect himself. But when the 31-year-old Burton turns his skewed microscope on the world, it's usually worth paying attention. The absurdist realities he created in "Pee Wee's Big Adventures," "Beetlejuice," and "Batman" have earned him a reputation as one of Hollywood's most inventive young directors. "There is a wonderful cartoon madness in his work," says Vincent Price, "a kind of madness that doesn't exist anymore in film."

So if Burton wants to talk about scissors . . .

"I mean," the director continues, "scissors are both simple and complicated. They're a very simple design. But I remember as a kid I could never figure out how they worked."

Scissors provide the overriding metaphor for Burton's new movie, "Edward Scissorhands," his most personal feature film yet. In it, Johnny Depp stars as a boy-creature who has sharp metal shears for hands--a curse that befell him when his inventor (played by Price) died before finishing his project. Each "finger" is about 10 inches long, making Depp's hands look more like hedge-trimmers than scissors (though calling the character Edward Hedge-trimmerhands might overextend the metaphor.)

Isolated for years in a Gothic castle, Edward is a social misfit, but one with rare artistic talents: He's a sculptor who creates intricate topiaries for his garden. When an Avon lady discovers him, Edward quickly becomes the neighborhood's favorite oddity. He whips up new haircuts for the women and shapes bushes into bears and deer and penguins for their front lawns. Eventually, though, the neighborhood turns against him.

"The character is both simple and complicated," says Burton. "Both beautiful and off-putting, both creative and horrifically clumsy."

Fox executives have cautiously high hopes for Burton's $20-million movie, one of three films scheduled for release at Christmas. "I hate to use the word 'E.T.'--that's sacrilege," says Fox Chairman Joe Roth. But he used the word anyway, making it clear that Fox hopes "Edward Scissorhands" will connect with audiences the way the 1982 Steven Spielberg classic did.

"We have to let it find its place," Roth adds. "We want to be careful not to hype the movie out of the universe." Drawings and photos of Edward are closely guarded. A spokeswoman says the studio does not want to give away the look of the picture.

Winona Ryder, who worked with Burton on "Beetlejuice," was the first actor attached to the project. Early this year the 18-year-old actress contracted a sinus infection while filming "Mermaids," set in Boston, in which she co-stars with Cher. That forced her to quit her next film, Francis Coppola's "Godfather III," shortly after she reported to the set in Rome. Ryder recovered, though, in time for the production start on "Edward," in which she plays a teen-age girl who alone understands and befriends the boy-creature.

Burton had little trouble assembling the supporting cast. Dianne Wiest, the Avon lady who discovers Edward, read the script and immediately agreed to her role. Price had worked with Burton before, having narrated a short film called "Vincent," and was a big admirer. Kathy Baker saw the part that she was offered as a good chance to break into comedy. Alan Arkin, who plays Wiest's husband, and Anthony Michael Hall, Ryder's evil boyfriend, were both readily cast.

But the lead role of Edward was picked over by a strange assortment of actors before Burton and Fox settled on Johnny Depp, the former star of Fox Television's series "21 Jump Street." Fox urged Burton to consider Tom Cruise for the role, but after several hours of meetings, the two parted ways. (One topic of those meetings, sources say, was Edward Scissorhands' lack of virility.) Michael Jackson was eager to play the role but wasn't offered it. Tom Hanks passed up the project in favor of "Bonfire of the Vanities." William Hurt and Robert Downey Jr. both expressed interest.

The casting of the 27-year-old Depp opposite his real-life fiance, Ryder, was coincidental. Burton hadn't seen Depp's work, but once he did and met the actor, he says he was impressed with Depp's subtlety and ability to "act with his eyes." Burton also was intrigued by Depp's career path. After four seasons of a macho TV role that transformed him into a teen-age heart-throb, Depp did a 180-degree turn, taking the lead role in a John Waters farce, "Cry Baby."

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