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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

The social misfit aspect of the Edward Scissorhands character has appeared in Burton's work before. As a young animator at Disney in 1982, he made the short black-and-white animated "Vincent," in which a 7-year-old boy has delusions of being Vincent Price, of sharing his home with "spiders and bats" and wandering "dark hallways alone and tormented." Price narrates the cartoon, which won two awards at the Chicago Film Festival.

The images in "Vincent" were drawn directly from Burton's own middle-class childhood in Burbank, where his father recently retired from the parks and recreation department and his mother runs a small gift shop. "I can't tell you what (Price) meant to me growing up," Burton says. "This sounds dramatic but he helped me live . . . When you're a child and a teen-ager it's not unusual to go through a melodramatic phase. Some people find release through heavy metal or whatever. But by watching (Price's) films, there was a catharsis for me. You're not just watching a low-budget Edgar Allan Poe movie, there's something else there that's not on the screen. I channeled my melodrama into that, as opposed to suicide probably."

Two years later, Burton again turned his camera on a little boy, this time in a 30-minute live-action film called "Frankenweenie," also shot in black-and-white. In it, a young boy becomes a kind of Young Frankenstein when he brings his dead dog back to life in the isolation of his attic. The complex reaction of the suburban neighborhood to the dog is much like that of the neighbors toward Edward Scissorhands.

All three of Burton's feature films have done big business at the box office: "Pee-Wee's Big Adventures" cost less than $7 million, but grossed more than $40 million in the U.S.; "Beetlejuice," budgeted at $13 million, had ticket sales of nearly $74 million; And "Batman" has grossed more than $425 million worldwide, establishing itself as Warner Bros.' biggest hit ever.

The imaginative looks that Burton brought to all three films--his ability to make the grotesque look mundane, even funny--have made him a favorite among critics. But at the same time, he has been criticized for flaws in story structure. "Batman," in particular, drew that kind of criticism.

The Times' Sheila Benson wrote that the Sam Hamm-Warren Skarren screenplay didn't give "those characters a fighting chance . . . It flops about . . . and it's disastrously low on the sort of wit that can make a gargantuan movie lovable." Vincent Canby of the New York Times complained that the "wit is all pictorial. The film meanders mindlessly from one image to the next." While some observers have speculated that the movie's flaws were the result of factors and people other than Burton, the director says he is satisfied that "Batman" reflected his own vision. "I read a lot that said it wasn't me," he says. "Actually if there was a reason it wasn't me as much, it was the time constraint. Everything happened very quickly. That's where I feel the most dissatisfaction. But I knew that going in."

Burton hopes that "Edward Scissorhands" will offer his audiences something meatier than his past work. "The problem I have with some of the things I've done is that because they have such strong surface level images, I don't know if people see below that," he says. In "Edward Scissorhands," "I feel like there is a little bit more below the surface that's obvious. But I don't know, I can't predict (audience reaction)."

Still, the film has plenty of Burtonesque visuals. Inside Edward's castle, the inventor left behind an assembly-line of huge black human-shaped machines--dripping with cobwebs--that look capable of skinning corpses. In fact, this creepy Rube Goldberg contraption is a cookie-maker.

The castle sits on a hill next to a suburban tract where the houses are painted in a series of pastels that makes the neighborhood look more relentlessly uniform than if the houses were all the same color. Production designer Bo Welch says these "old circus colors" reflect the "faded optimism" of middle-class neighborhoods like this.

Alan Arkin says that when he first read the script, he was "a bit baffled." "Nothing really made sense to me until I saw the sets. Burton's visual imagination is extraordinary." The crew went into a Florida subdivision and repainted 60 houses. "They stripped the houses of any textures," says Arkin. "It makes it look surreal and yet strangely reminiscent at the same time."

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