Burton bites back
Victor Frankenstein, voiced by Charlie Tahan, with Sparky, in a scene from Frankenweenie. Picture: AP Photo/Disney, File.

Stopping short at the business of resurrecting the dead, Frankenweenie serves as director Tim Burton's most autobiographical film yet.

For, long before Glee made it cool to be uncool, Burton began his career by embracing the outsiders and misfits, closely identifying with the loners portrayed in his early films like Edward Scissorhands through to his more recent Dark Shadows.

But in Frankenweenie, he utilises far more personal memories, including his own parents, childhood dog, school classroom and teachers.

"Mr and Mrs Frankenstein of the film are the optimistic versions of my parents although, in some ways, I had a slightly more troubled relationship with my parents (than in the film)," Burton reflects. "And Frankenweenie was based on my own childhood dog, Peppi. If I could have brought him back to life, I would. I did it in film instead."

Burton made his four-legged Frankenstein movie not once but twice, first in 1984 as a live- action short and today as a black-and-white stop-motion animation 3-D feature film. The first version resulted in him being sacked by Disney. In comparison, today's reimagining was heralded with much trumpetry during a recent weekend of festivities at Disneyland attended by the company's top brass.

Revisiting Frankenweenie after 28 years, during which time he has risen to become one of the most celebrated directors in Hollywood, Burton is in nostalgic mood casting long-forgotten former collaborators Winona Ryder and Martin Landau as key voice talent.

"A lot of Frankenweenie caused me to reflect on the past, in particular my schooldays. The dynamic of the classroom, and the way the other kids were, and the way only kids can feel strange. Also the teachers who were quite scary and intimidating but also inspirational. I remember a few different weird girls in school too," says Burton, who cast Ryder as the voice of Elsa van Helsing, the film's quirky girl next door.

Delighted to be back in the fold having not worked with Burton since her breakout roles in Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands more than 20 years ago, Ryder says: "It was thrilling. This is a very special one. Everything about Tim is special. I love him so tremendously both professionally - he's given me a career - but also just personally he really changed my life with Beetlejuice in terms of letting me feel like it was actually OK to be like Lydia (her Beetlejuice character) when I met him. I sort of looked like that anyway and I wasn't expecting to be very successful in Hollywood but his allowing me to do that role gave a voice to that part of me and led to other things.

"Today, I'm just so honoured to be part of something so personal for him. I would literally read the phone book for him and I'm sure he would make it incredibly masterful by me just reading the phone book," she laughs.

Likewise, Landau, 84, won an Oscar for his performance in Burton's Ed Wood. "Artists like Picasso build on their own predilections and tastes, and Tim does that too but he's probably the only A-lister director who can make any movie he wants that tickles him," says Landau, who also appeared in Sleepy Hollow.

"Can you think of anyone else? Woody Allen has to go to Europe to get financing now but Tim still works in Hollywood. Think about it. It's pretty amazing."

At 40, Ryder is thrilled Burton thought of her to play a schoolgirl, albeit a trippy one.

Raised on a commune where she was home-schooled during her formative years, Ryder later attended Petaluma High School in California, recalling: "I had one particular teacher, Mr Frank, a history teacher who was inspiring and who taught us about history in more of a story way. I remember him well because he was so engaging, he would even play Monty Python records, The Holy Grail, when we were learning about the crusades."

Populating Frankenweenie with oddballs and quirky characters, at the heart is a boy - Victor Frankenstein - who aches to fit in, absorbing himself in making home movies and playing with his dog.

"The parallels are pretty obvious," smiles Burton. "I made my first movies when I was still at school. A lot of kids did, I think. And you could use it for school projects just like with drawing or playing. It just seemed to be a fun thing to do. Once I started doing it in school, you could have fun making a film and get a decent grade because it had a novelty of making a little film. It was a very easy way to get good grades."

If he still identifies cinematically with the misfit, then in his private life he has found happiness and peace within his 11-year union with Helena Bonham Carter, whom he met while making Planet of the Apes. Adopting his partner's British homeland, the couple have a nine-year-old son, Billy, and a five-year-old daughter, Nell.

On screen, he's collaborated with Bonham Carter six times. He has found comfort in that close bond, just as he did with his earlier romantic muse Lisa Marie, who featured in his films Ed Wood and Mars Attacks! But his greatest muse remains Johnny Depp. First working together on Edward Scissorhands in 1990, the pair would re-team for a further seven movies.

But Frankenweenie is quintessentially an American tale with no place for either the very British Bonham Carter or for Depp, given the hero is a schoolboy voiced by child actor Charlie Tahan.

Burton is satisfied he's finally made the Frankenweenie that he dreamed of almost three decades ago: "It's like a fine wine, it takes a while to mature. I remember Nightmare took 10 years for that to get made. I don't know why but I think stop-motion (animation) is such a rarefied world that it's a lot about timing and getting the right people together."

But back in 1984, the novice filmmaker was accused of wasting Disney's resources on a film too dark and scary for young audiences.

Far from feeling any sense of vindication at finally getting his original vision of Frankenweenie made, Burton says instead: "I've been through those 'full circle' moments a few times, and it's more funny than anything. It just shows you how absurd life is. I've been hired and fired by Disney three different times. I'm used to it."

Frankenweenie opens October 25.

The West Australian

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