SANTA MONICA, California — In hundreds of interviews, an entertainment reporter relies on one mandatory question: “So, what’s coming up next for you?” Answers range from blank stares to huge news scoops, but filmmaker Tim Burton had a brand-new response: “My lunch!” He then pretended to vomit.
His two-word response sums up the 48-year-old director’s legendary career — take something repellant, and then help us embrace the fear with humor. In many ways, it’s the same message behind Halloween — and Burton is to Halloween what Frank Capra was to Christmas.
So as another Halloween approaches and Burton returns his beloved “The Nightmare Before Christmas” to theaters in 3-D, we caught up with the director in the hope that he’d make us cower, laugh and possibly vomit.
MTV: With the exception of “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” “Nightmare” is the only mandatory must-watch Halloween animated special. Was it your intention that people would want to watch it every year?
Tim Burton: Well, the idea of the project actually came years earlier, growing up watching “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” those sort of annual events. Those kind of projects inspired what this ended up being: those traditional, holiday, weird animated films.
MTV: In the early ’90s, tons of teenagers went to the mall to buy a “Nightmare” T-shirt and toys. Thirteen years later, new generations of teens have done the same thing. How does Jack Skellington avoid fad backlash?
Burton: Well, one thing I want to say [to those mall shoppers] is, come to London, in Camden Town, because you don’t have to spend all that money. There are knockoffs. There are all these stores that have illegal “Nightmare” things — so come to London where you can buy your “Nightmare” products cheaply.
MTV: Your girlfriend, Helena Bonham Carter, once told us that you signed away all your rights to make money off the “Nightmare” merchandise.
Burton: Well, that’s why I’m suggesting to come to London. [He laughs.] … The Disney police are now going to stomp down on the Camden Market and arrest them all.
MTV: Usually, people think of Halloween as death and monsters, and they associate Christmas with love and family. Should the holidays be segmented like that?
Burton: No. There are many Christmas slasher movies like “Black Christmas” [the 1974 original and the remake that’s in the works], and they’ve been combining things for years. Then there’s space travel and Christmas, with [1964’s] “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians,” so you get lots of crossover in the history of movies.
MTV: You were something of an outcast as a teen, like so many of your subjects. Of all the characters in your movies, which is closest to the real Tim Burton?
Burton: Well, they all have their moments in a way, but [“Nightmare”] has a lot. It comes from a certain emotional place. And things like “Edward Scissorhands” perhaps, or “Ed Wood,” has certain themes. You try to put a lot of yourself into whatever you are doing, even if it’s a mindless Hollywood blockbuster.
MTV: So the actual character of Edward Scissorhands is reminiscent of you when you were a teen?
Burton: That was based on feelings. It was a symbol of those feelings you have as a teenager. Not so much literally but emotionally, and that dynamic of not touching and not being able to connect with people. There were very strong feelings at that time, yeah.
MTV: A decade and a half after you reinvented things with “Batman,” we are now getting bombarded with a superhero movie every month, each one darker than the last. Are you happy that these guys are moody and conflicted rather than campy and cartoonish?
Burton: I know. They should all just get some therapy. [He laughs.] Either that or I have got to send them all a nice, brightly colored costume for a change. I think we’ve taken them down the dark path far enough. We have been there too long.
MTV: So did you go see “Batman Begins” and think, “Why did I start this?”
Burton: It’s funny, because all I remember is getting a lot of criticism for doing those [darker] things. I remember there being a lot of criticism over all of it, but it’s still hanging around! I enjoyed doing it at the time, and I felt that it explored it in a way that felt new to me. … I think the dark brooding thing, it does feel a little old.
MTV: Whether we’re talking about Halloween or your movies like “The Corpse Bride” and “Beetlejuice,” why do you think we find humor in death?
Burton: Growing up in a certain culture where things are somewhat puritanical, they get on the case of things like Halloween and monster movies, and I think those things help you grow up and are quite cathartic in your life. You see other cultures, like the Hispanic culture, when they celebrate the Day of the Dead … [death] is part of life. It’s much more positive, and I’ve always seen that in [my] movies and monster movies.
MTV: Over the past few years, we’ve seen torture flicks like the “Saw” and “Hostel” franchises make big bucks. Do they take things too far? Would you ever do a torture movie?
Burton: Maybe. That’s kind of hard to do, but it would be really fun to do a scary movie. Growing up on what we perceived as scary movies didn’t scare me. Real life and other things like going to school was the most terrifying thing. You have to find what is right for you to make really scary, because it’s all open for interpretation. I like all of those kinds of [torture] movies. I don’t really have a problem with them. I’ve always watched gory movies.
MTV: So “Saw” and “Hostel” don’t scare you?
Burton: No. I mean, an episode of “Friends” scares me.
MTV: Lots of directors influence other filmmakers, but you’ve probably inspired more bands than any other director. My Chemical Romance, Marilyn Manson, AFI, She Wants Revenge — do you see a similarity between the art of these bands and your own?
Burton: Yeah. It’s always great to hear people doing different sorts of things, because you get to hear music in a different way. It’s interesting to see that. But I go back to when I’d go to see [“Nightmare” composer] Danny Elfman in Oingo Boingo — they were just a band. They weren’t doing movie scores, I wasn’t doing movies. But there was something very cinematic about their music. Obviously Danny has that very much in him. Weirdly enough, I do hear a lot of bands now that each have their own individual voice, but you feel like there is something quite cinematic.
MTV: For better or worse, you’re a patron saint of the so-called “goth” movement. How do you feel about that?
Burton: People get scared of people like that, but they really are quite sweet, great people. It’s that image versus what people have in their heart versus what people think people should look like — that always causes a problem.
MTV: On the flip side, though, goth kids are often linked with things like suicide and cutting. Have you ever had an encounter with a fan who ultimately took the goth thing too far?
Burton: Well, I can only speak for myself, and I know responding to that kind of imagery didn’t make me worse. It made me feel more at home and psychologically able to work out certain things. People argue the opposite, that it creates that kind of problem, but most of the people are using it to work out things in life.
MTV: What does Tim Burton do on Halloween?
Burton: I just like to go with the flow. … I don’t usually plan too much. … Being in London is like Halloween all the time anyway.
MTV: What is the one movie that you would recommend to somebody looking to really scare themselves this Halloween?
Burton: I always found “The Ten Commandments”  to be quite frightening. It’s one of the most underrated horror movies. Have you seen that one lately? The guy starts out as kind of this regular guy, and by the end he’s like this zombie, you know? It’s really long, but if it’s sped up it could be quite a shocking horror film.
MTV: Would you ever want to remake “The Ten Commandments,” bring back Charlton Heston and put zombie makeup on him?
Burton: Well, he does a fine job himself. He’s amazing, really.
Check out everything we’ve got on “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
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