Only In Hollywood

Tim Burton reveals the origin of his famously dark fantasies

By: - Columnist
/ 05:02 AM May 04, 2012

“MAKING movies is a much cheaper therapy for me,” says Burton. RUBEN NEPALES

LOS ANGELES — “I could see from my room the hospital where I was born and the cemetery where my whole family is buried,” said Tim Burton in a recent interview, recalling his days working at Disney’s Burbank lot. “So it was like the Bermuda Triangle for me. I would sit there, stare out the window all day and go, ‘That’s where I was born, that’s where I’m going to be buried. This is where I’m working.’ Gee, you know, it was a bit strange.”

The director was gamely reacting to a comment that for someone born and raised in sunny Burbank, California, he had such a “uniquely dark fascination.” He wore his trademark dark sunglasses indoors and was clad in his favorite all-black ensemble with frayed cuffs. His famous shock of unruly hair is now graying.


“Even as a kid living in the Valley, I was not in sync with my surroundings,” Burton professed.  “I did have an Edgar Allan Poe problem though, because when I was a child, I had a bedroom with two normal windows. For some reason, my parents walled up my room, so I had to stand on the desk to look out! (He demonstrated how he looked out that small window high up on the wall.)

He continued: “What’s that Edgar Allan Poe story where the husband walls up his wife? (We’re guessing ‘The Cask of Amontillado,’ in which a narrator buries a friend alive. It was adapted in ‘Rod Serling’s ‘Night Gallery,’ where a wife attempts to seal her husband in a basement.) I started to have these connections to those kinds of things. It’s probably little incidents like those that shaped my life and made me start thinking about strange things.”


Asked if he ever found out why his parents walled up his bedroom, Tim replied: “They mentioned how it kept out the heat. But I said, ‘It’s hot like the desert in here every day. What heat does it keep out?’ That didn’t seem like a very good excuse to me.”

Into the macabre

Pressed to delve more into his fascination with the macabre, the 53-year-old filmmaker peered from the top of his sunglasses and said, “I’ve had a lot of therapists. Actually, I don’t know how much that helped.  I had one therapist who just sat there and looked at me for an hour every day. I finally said, ‘You’re not helping. Part of my problem is I don’t communicate with people. You haven’t spoken to me for a whole hour. I’m leaving.’ He goes, ‘See? I’ve helped you. You said something.’ Okay, great. That was $100. I said goodbye. So I’ve stopped analyzing and all that stuff.”

Tim joked that he had found a better method: “Making movies is a much cheaper therapy for me but it’s expensive for the studio!”

What kind of impact did success have on the lonely, isolated kid who didn’t know how to communicate? “I just became a successful, lonely, isolated adult,” he cracked.

Tim, who currently lives in London, maintained that he’s still that alienated child at heart. “I’ve been very lucky but you tend to retain those feelings,” he said. “I don’t think you ever lose them. It’s not even a bad thing. They sort of become part of you so I think those feelings are just kind of there, inside … ”


Does he see himself in any of the cast of dysfunctional characters in his latest film, “Dark Shadows”?

Character association

“I sort of thought of myself as Mrs. Johnson (played by Ray Shirley),” he said, referring to the elderly maid in Collinwood Manor, the estate owned by Barnabas (Johnny Depp).

“She’s my type of character,” Tim pointed out. “The thing is, you try to relate in some form to each character. I have to try to understand them, whether I’m using remembrances of my own family or other people or relatives whom I’ve seen. It’s something that you have to feel so you can impart it to the character. Otherwise, you’re in the shade about it.”

He also claimed affinity with Barnabas, “a stranger in an even stranger time,” — the 1970s. As a wealthy playboy-turned-vampire, Johnny anchors Tim’s film adaptation of the cult classic TV series which aired from 1966-1971.

The film also stars Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green, and Chloe Moretz.

“There is something about the Barnabas character,” Tim admitted. “One of the reasons I wanted to set the film in 1972 was because that was more or less the era when the show ended. It was also the era when you went from kid to teenager and felt out of place more than usual. That’s why I related to the show. It just felt out of place. I gravitated toward the idea of Barnabas being this kind of guy not in sync with his surroundings. It was something that I had always felt close to.”

Monster lover

Barnabas is, of course, the latest addition to Tim’s roster of outsiders in his films. “I like all monsters,” he said, then added, “I am an equal-opportunity monster lover. Pretty much anyone.”

Tim said the idea he liked from the original show was: “Every family, my own included, is strange … Once you get involved in somebody’s family, rich or poor or any culture, weird things happen. That’s the beauty of a family, too. Whatever is happening in the world, there’s always strange family politics and dynamics, which is amazing … It was a strange show but I loved it.”

While “Dark Shadows” is his eighth collaboration with Depp, Burton said each film with the actor always felt different. “You can see from every film that Johnny likes to do different things,” Tim explained. “I never feel like I’m working with the same person twice, which helps. That’s always something you do when you work with anybody more than once. You always like to keep an edge and keep something feeling like it’s the first time and fresh. Johnny’s got that quality as a person and as an actor.”


On Helena Bonham Carter, his other frequent collaborator and real-life partner, Tim said: “She’s a great actor. My only problem is, I have to see the whole process at home. She’s a bit of a Method actress so I have to hear her rehearsing her lines and doing her horrible accents. I am always concerned about what film she’s doing next, because then I have to hear some horrible accent for months and months.”

He admitted however, that “I haven’t asked her to do the most glamorous parts. I say, ‘You can work with other people for those.’”

Tim joked that when Helena worked with him, it was more like, “See how we’re going to kill you this time? She’s game for it, though. That’s the great thing.”

He maintained that his personal relationship with Helena didn’t make it easier. “But when you consider that most people split up after doing this a couple of times, I think we do pretty well. We both realize it’s about giving people the space they need to do what they need to do. We’re both aware of that. I think that helps a bit.”

(E-mail the columnist at [email protected] Follow him at

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