The Disembodied Director

Maybe Tim Burton isn't twisted. Maybe he's as sane as they come.

Bill Burton, the father of the young man who created "Edward Scissorhands...... Batman," "Beetlejuice" and "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," was trying to explain the early warning signs of his son's peculiar "vision." It seems that when the Burtons redecorated the back room in the family's Burbank, Calif., house, Tim came to inspect the site. Looking out the back window, he contemplated a gray wall with a stack of lumber and a dead tree leaning against it. "God, you've got a great view!" said Tim. "My wife and I looked at each other," Bill recalls. "It was just a dead tree against a gray wall. But he was deadly serious."

Tim Burton is now 32, and without doubt the most successful director his age in the world. "Edward Scissorhands," a comic and melancholy Frankensteinian fairy tale about a boy with shears for hands, is well on its way to being the fourth Burton hit in a row (it has grossed close to $40 million so far), and "Batman," as everyone knows, made so much money so fast ($406 million in theaters around the world and an additional $150 million in video sales) it practically redefined what a hit could be.

This success does not exactly fill Burton with joy. "To me the success doesn't have much to do with the movie itself. If it hadn't been 'Batman' and I'd made the exact same thing . . ." Characteristically, he doesn't finish the sentence, but it's clear he thinks it was the "Batman" mystique, not the movie, that drew in the crowds. It freaked him out when he'd go to Hollywood parties and people would say, "'Oh, you must be incredibly happy.' As if my happiness was based upon that. If it ever got to that it would be a sad life indeed. All that Hollywood hype - it's depressing. It's dangerous. I could never embrace it. I wish I could embrace it a bit more. I often question why I make movies because I hate showing them, I don't get enjoyment out of sitting with an audience, it takes me a couple of years to look at something I've done - now the Peewee movie is the only one I can enjoy."

When Burton talks about the movie business, success, life in Hollywood or his childhood, three words repeat themselves with a regularity that would perk up the ears of any dime-store shrink: "scary," "dangerous" and, most frequent of all, "disembodied." As in "Why does everything feel disembodied to me?" which is how he describes his childhood in suburban Burbank and which is the feeling that he was trying to capture in the surreally tacky interiors of the tract homes in "Edward Scissorhands."

These are the classic words of the alienated artist. Indeed one's first, superficial impression of the black-clad director, with his unkempt tangle of dark hair and drooping eyelids, seems to confirm the stereotype of a morose outsider. This is a guy, after all, who grew up on horror films and made the cemetery down the street his playground. A guy whose childhood idol was the Vincent Price of ghoulish Roger Corman B movies. A kid who woke up howling in terror from nightmares and started at 12 making 8-mm movies about Christmas trees that turn into monsters.

The paradox of Tim Burton is that he is probably the sanest, best-adjusted alienated artist in Hollywood, To quote him is to misrepresent him, for you can't hear the shot of laughter that accompanies his angst filled speculations, or see the spark that animates the eyes. "He's not full of darkness," explains his good friend Glenn Shadix, an actor Burton cast in "Beetlejuice." "He's laughing at the darkness." Friendly, funny-and said by all who've worked with him to be unflappable under the pressure-cooker conditions of filming-Burton doesn't seem to have a pretentious bone in his body. It may of course be that only someone who is radically alienated from the Hollywood scene could qualify for sanity. "People do things in Hollywood that in organized crime you'd be killed for," Burton says. "It is the Wild West." "He hasn't changed in the past five years," attests Shadix. "He works at not taking things too seriously."

There are directors actors hate, and ones they admire, but the testimonials that gush from Burton's charges are in a special league. "My performance is like a love letter to Tim," swoons Johnny Depp. "There is just something about him. When I look into his eyes there is a force that just grabs you." Here's Winona Ryder: "I would do anything for Tim Burton. I would bring him water or be the coffee girl on one of his sets just to be with him. He's the most incredible filmmaker I've ever met. There is not another person on this planet like him." Caroline Thompson, the "Scissorhands" screenwriter: "He is the most articulate person I know but I couldn't tell you a single complete sentence he has ever said. This script is my love poem to Tim Burton."

Even in backstabbing Hollywood, it's hard to find anyone who will knock this guy. Veteran Dianne Wiest also fell under his spell: "I don't know anyone I've responded to in this way. People love him. I really love him. I would do anything for him. When I think of Tim Burton it's a feeling, not a thought. I feel somehow there is so much pain and thankfully so much talent with which to express it. His is an absolutely unique and innocent point of view about the world."

Does this sound as if she were describing Edward Scissorhands himself? "Tim is Edward," says Vincent Price, though here things get a little fuzzy. Thompson cautions against such a literal interpretation of the movie. She insists she based the character, which Burton invented, on her deceased dog Ariel. "It's more the portrait of the artist as a young dog." When Burton first discussed the character with her, back in 1985, "there was an instant clarity. It was the perfect metaphor for how many of us feel. It's more than feeling like an outsider, it's feeling dangerous ... yearning to touch and knowing when you do, you destroy." Burton himself feels much of the character is built on Johnny Depp: "He's more that character than anything else he's done. There's a sadness about Johnny I just respond to-and I find it kind of funny." Though he'll allow that there are "things" in Edward "that are very strong for me," he denied it's a selfportrait. "That would be very pretentious of me. I couldn't have done it. I had to look at Edward and be able to laugh at him."

"Scissorhands," which folds Burton's ambivalent personal feelings about the surreal disconnectedness of suburbia into a fairy-tale form, isn't the first time he's been inspired by "Frankenstein," which he deems his favorite story. In his mid-20s, when he was working, unhappily, as an animator at Walt Disney, he made a 30-minute short called "Frankenweenie." This auspicious black-and-white film, about a boy who brings his dog back to life not once but twice, is a kind of dry run for "Scissorhands." His bold, neoprimitive graphic style was evident from the start, along with a macabre streak of humor and an uneasy sense that the surface gregariousness of middle-class life can quickly turn threatening. But though there are dark intimations in all his work, Burton's vision is essentially comic: from the demented playground of Pee-wee to the demonic toy-shop surrealism of his hauntedhouse fantasia "Beetlejuice" to the pastel Gothic fancies of "Scissorhands," Burton constructs alternate worlds with the playfulness of a boy building multimillion-dollar model kits. "What distinguishes Tim as a director," explains Denise Di Novi, the president of his production company, "is that he makes movies that are very offcenter and yet very accessible to the public. It's just who he is. He is a combination of light and dark ... he has a childlike sweetness. His is a different darkness from David Lynch's. It's not horrific, ugly or even disturbing. It's more Grimm's fairy-tale dark."

After much internal debate, he has decided after all to direct "Batman 2." The sequel's script will be written by Daniel ("Heathers") Waters, and Bo Welch will most likely replace Anton Furst as the production designer. Rumor has it that Catwoman and the Penguin will pop up in this one. Burton's company-which is basically just Burton, Di Novi and two secretaries-is also coproducing with Steven Spielberg's Amblin a half-hour animated TV series called "Family Dog," and they are working on an animated feature for Disney called "Nightmare Before Christmas," about a skeleton's desire to be part of the holidays. Burton wrote it himself. His work as an artist (he's fond of clowns as a subject) will appear in book form, and there are several other features in various stages of development, to say nothing of the "Beetlejuice" Saturday cartoon.

Bill and Jean Burton's strange little boy has ridden his nightmares straight to the top. It's not a place where he feels at home. "I have always felt lucky I didn't have a specific goal. I have a built-in safety mechanism that protects me from doing things for the wrong reasons," he says, not boastfully but with the self-knowledge that he will always remain someone "on the edge of things." His personal alienation has been considerably assuaged by marriage: he met his German wife, Lena Gieseke, an artist, while filming "Batman" in London. "I enjoyed living in London. There was a wonderful unhealthy atmosphere that I felt so comfortable with. " He and his wife now live in the Hollywood Hills, where they have converted their living room into a studio where both of them can paint and sketch together. He may have "a very disembodied feeling right now." He may feel ill at ease in grimly health-conscious L.A. He may find the world of Hollywood unreal. But as a self-described "cheerful depressive," he's on friendly terms with his demons. Somehow one knows that when he looks out his window, the view is still great.