Taking a Look at the Burton Filmography
When thinking of what director I wanted to cover for my first director spotlight on the blog, I struggled. Part of me truly wanted to do a write up on George Romero, as he is the grandmaster of the modern zombie and it would fit perfectly into this season. But I think that we will cover him a great deal when we review “Night of the Living Dead” so I decided to focus in on another director. And I decided that this director, although not a “horror” director, has affected the genre in similar ways to Wes Craven, John Carpenter and Romero himself. That director is Tim Burton. I have talked about Tim Burton before on the podcast. I think there is probably no other director outside of perhaps Martin Scorsese that has affected my life more. Tim Burton’s films are so gorgeous and have a heart that so many major motion pictures lack. I am not going to claim that this is going to be comprehensive of his life and work, but I am going to try my best to cover the main points and hopefully be an enjoyable read.
Burton was born in Burbank, California in the year 1958. His love of making film started at a young age, as a preteen he would make short films in his backyard. He has said that his early inspiration for his art and film came from Dr. Seuss and Roald Dahl. Burton would go on to attend the California Institute of the Arts to study character animation. His work here attracted the attention of the Walt Disney company, who offered him an apprenticeship with their animation studio. He worked on such films as “The Fox and the Hound”, “Tron” and “The Black Cauldron”. It was during his time at Disney that he made his first short, “Vincent” (1982), about a boy who dreamed of being his hero Vincent Price. Burton was even able to get Mr. Price to narrate the film, the first collaboration between the two. The short premiered at the Chicago Film Festival. This was followed up by a live action film, “Hansel and Gretel” that only aired once on the Disney Channel in 1983. This was the source of legend as copies of the film were very hard to find. But when Burton brought his art to MOMA, this was available for viewing. Next for Burton was another live action short, “Frankenweenie”. This would be the last project that Burton would work on under the Disney umbrella for awhile, as he was fired because “Frankenweenie” was deemed too dark for the target audience.
Burton’s first major theatrical release would be “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” (1985) starring actor Paul Reuben as Pee-Wee Herman. Reuben specifically chose Burton to direct the film after seeing the “Vincent” short, knowing immediately that he would be the only man for the job. Burton reached out to songwriter for the music group Oingo Boingo, Danny Elfman to do the music for the film. Elfman and Burton would collaborate on almost every other project that Burton directed going forward (exceptions being “Ed Wood”, “Sweeney Todd”, and “Miss Peregrine”). The film was shot on a budget of $8 million and grossed $40 million at the box office.
His next major motion picture was one of my personal favorites, “Beetlejuice” (1988). Burton came across the script while working on a pet project of his (Batman, which we will get to later) and fell in love with it’s originality. He originally wanted to cast Sammy Davis Jr. as the titular character, but was convinced by others to give Michael Keaton a chance. Burton cast Winona Ryder in the film after seeing her in the romantic comedy “Lucas”. Burton has said that outside of these two, the other actors needed convincing to join the project because of how weird the script was. One crazy note is that although the budget was $15 million, only $1 million was given to visual effects. For anyone who has seen this movie, that is crazy as there are multiple set pieces, a giant sandworm, Betelguese’s magic and other crazy things. The fact that Burton made this work made him a legend. The film grossed $74 million at the box office and solidified him as a bankable, creative director.
Remember that pet project I mentioned earlier? Ya, the studios were willing to give Burton the money to shoot it now, so his next film was 1989’s “Batman”. Burton decided to cast Keaton as Bruce Wayne after their successful collaboration on “Beetlejuice”. At the time, fans freaked out because Keaton was more known as a comedic actor and not really all that physically fit. Burton held is ground and held the position that Batman should feel more of an everyday man who fights crime at night. He cast Jack Nicholson as The Joker, and this casting calmed the masses slightly. Fun note, his second choice to play the Clown Prince of Crime was Tim Curry!! Burton has said he used the graphic novel, “Batman: The Killing Joke” as inspiration on his film. The film was shot on a budget of $35 million and went on to gross over $411 million and had both critical and fan approval.
Burton kept this success train going right on to the 1990’s, with his next project being “Edward Scissorhands”. Burton co-wrote the script, and brought on a killer cast to nail the project. It is his first film working with Johnny Depp, Vincent Price is the eccentric scientist who creates Edward (in what would be one of his last film appearances), and Winona Ryder played the love interest of Edward. In my opinion, I think that this film best describes Burton’s ideals as a filmmaker. A dark love story surrounded by bright and fake surroundings, showing the the dark is brighter than the faux surroundings. Elfman’s score also brings the emotional punches and I tear up every time I watch this movie. The budget was $20 million and it went on to gross $86 million at the box office.
With the financial and critical success of “Batman”, Warner Bros pushed Burton to make a sequel to the film. But Burton demanded that he be given full creative control over the project. This is how we got the hauntingly beautiful “Batman Returns” (1992). Keaton reprised his role as Wayne, and Michelle Pfeifer and Danny DeVito were brought on to play Selina Kyle/Catwoman and Oswold Copplepot/Penguin respectively. Burton again focused more on the villians instead of The Great Detective, which polarized the fanbase. It didn’t matter in the end, the film was shot on a budget of $80 million and grossed $267 million at the box office.
Now, it is time to talk about a movie SO many people confuse Burton with directing. And that is 1993’s “A Nightmare Before Christmas”. Burton did produce the project, but passed the directing duties to Henry Selick due to Burton’s scheduling constraints with “Batman Returns”. This was a psuedo Disney project, but due to their fear of how dark the story was, they released it under Touchstone Pictures. The film took over 100 people and three years to make, because of the stop motion nature. But all the work paid off in the end, as has become the usual for Burton’s projects. It was made on a budget of $18 million and grossed $80 million at the box office. The characters in this film, being led by Jack Skellington (voiced by Danny Elfman by the way) are pop culture icons even twenty six years after its release, Nightmare plays a huge role in the cultural zeitgeist.
Burton’s next feature film was on a much smaller scale than the two blockbusters he had previously helmed. He teamed up with Johnny Depp again to direct “Ed Wood” in 1994, a film focusing on the titular director who many claim to be the worst director of all time. This is a tricky film in Burton’s resume. It was a financial failure, shot on a budget of $18 million and only grossing $6 million in North America. But Burton was praised by how gently and accurately he portrayed the real life people that were being shown in the film. It also won two Academy Awards; one for Best Supporting Actor for Martin Landua’s portrayal of Bela Lugosi and for Best Makeup. The film currently has a cult following, and showed that perhaps Burton was just ahead of his time with this kind of bio-pic. As mentioned earlier, this is one of the movies that Elfman did not score with Burton. The reason being is that they had a spat while working on Nightmare and were not on speaking terms at the time of “Ed Wood”’s release.
The next film Burton directed is another cult classic, 1996’s “Mars Attacks!”. The cast for this film is incredible, from Danny DeVito to Jack Nicholson to Michael J. Fox to Natalie Portman to Tom freaking Jones!! It is based off of the popular trading cards from the 1960’s, and Burton brings the zaniness of the old sci-fi B-movies to life. Elfman and Burton were back to being friendly at this point and he scores the film. Also, it was only coincidence that it followed the release of “Independence Day”, and not intended to be a spoof of that film. I remember as a kid how terrifying this movie was, and to this day I get the chills watching poor Marty McFly get vaporized. It was shot on a budget of $70 million and grossed $101 million at the box office. I feel like I am repeating myself, but there is a strong cult following to this film that has it still popular in today’s pop culture.
Burton returned to the supernatural fair with 1999’s “Sleepy Hollow” starring Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci. This film is an adaptation of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, which definitely held firm to the more horrific aspect of the story. The film when originally designed in 1993 was meant to be a low budget slasher film, but after negotiations with the previous director fell through, Burton was brought on in 1998 and made the film more of his vision. Shot on a budget of $70 million, the film would gros over $200 million at the box office. The film won the Academy Award for Best Art Direction. Burton’s next film would be a sharp departure from all of his previous work, with a dabble into action.
This next film may very well be the most controversial entry in Burton’s filmography. It was the adaptation of the 1968 film of the same name, “Planet of the Apes” (2001). This film has a long and complicated production history, but to make it short and sweet Burton was not the first choice to direct this film and it had been in development since the 1980’s. Many criticize the film because of how it lacks the originality of the original, but admit that the B-movie charm does end up helping the film in the end. Shot on a budget of $100 million, the film would gross $362 million at the box office.
In 2003 Burton would release his next directorial project, “Big Fish”. This film stars Ewan McGregor and Jessica Lange, and is a very unique story about a father recounting his life to his son. It is a very beautiful movie, and if you haven’t seen it you should make the time to see it. The film was nominated for several Golden Globes and an Academy Award for Best Score, although it did not win any. Fun trivia note, this film is Miley Cyrus's first feature film and she is credited as Destiny Hope Cyrus. Shot on a budget of $70 million it would gross $123 million at the box office.
The next film may be my least favorite of all of Tim Burton’s movies. I have always liked “Willy Wonka and the Charlie Factory” and I credit a lot of that to Gene Wilder’s performance as the titular character. In 2005’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, Johnny Depp takes on this role. I really feel that Depp’s portrayal of Wonka is just way too weird, and it is hard to not compare his performance to Wilder’s and Wilder always wins. Burton’s film was a more faithful adaptation of the source material from Roald Dahl, but it just doesn’t have that haunting beauty of the original (or that wonderful song). Shot on a budget of $150 million, the film would gross over $475 million at the box office.
The next movie is one of my all time favorites. Burton would shot his first full length feature film using stop-motion capture with 2005’s “Corpse Bride”. Fun note, the project was specifically created for Helena Bonham Carter, who voices the role of the titular bride. Johnny Depp gives his voice talents for Victor and Danny Elfman voices Bonejangles (his first time acting under Burton since playing Jack Skellington). This is the first film in several years that Burton was really able to show his voice as a director, and I personally feel that you can tell it while watching the movie. Shot on a budget of $40 million, the film would gross over $117 million.
Burton returned to live action but stuck with musicals for his next big theatrical release. This was his adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s classic, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (2007). I remember seeing this while in high school, and being blown away that a musical could be so gory and yet so beautiful at the same time. It stars Depp, Carter, Alan Rickman and Sacha Baron Cohen. It was Burton’s first live action musical, after having dabbled in it with his animated features previously. Shot on a budget of $50 million, it would go on to gross $151 million. The film was praised by critics upon release, earning an Oscar nomination for Depp as Best Actor, an Oscar win for Best Art Direction, and the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy.
Still with me? Good! We are almost done and are now in the 2010’s!! His next film was his adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland” (2010), starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Mia Wasikowska. The film was a crazy movie to behold with the mix of practical and CGI effects, the set pieces, and Burton’s take on what happens with Alice ten years after the Lewis Carrol novice ends. Shot on a budget of $150 million, the film grossed over $1.05 billion dollars. It also took home two Academy Awards, Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design.
The next film to me is when Johnny Depp being Burton’s muse came to an end. In 2012 Burton brought to the big screen an adaptation of the gothic soap opera from the 1960’s, “Dark Shadows”. Both Depp and Carter appeared in this film, as well as Eva Green and Chloe Grace Moretz. My biggest problem with this movie is that it was at times super gothic while at others being bright and optimistic in a very jarring manner. I truly feel that if the film had a better voice, that it would feel a lot better and my feelings about it would have been more positive. Shot on a budget of $150 million, the film grossed $251 million at the box office.
In the same year as “Dark Shadows”, one of my top three Burton films was released. Remember that short film that got Burton shot while working for Disney? Ya the one that got him fired? Disney realized that they made a huge mistake and gave Burton the budget to make the short film into a full length film. “Frankenweenie” had the voice talents of Winona Ryder, Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara. It had the same basic plot as the short, with young Victor trying to bring his poor puppy back to life. I saw this movie three times in theaters, with two of those times seeing it at a drive-in theater, which was amazing. It is just like “Edward Scissorhands” with a perfect mix of light and dark themes. I also named my dog, Colossus, after one of the zombie pets in the movie. It’s budget was $39 million and would gross $82 million.
Burton’s next film would be more similar to “Ed Wood” and “Big Fish” than the rest of his filmography. This project was 2014’s “Big Eyes” starring Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz. The film is about artist Margaret Keane, who’s husband was taking credit for her art work back in the 1950’s. The screenplay was written by the same writers behind “Ed Wood”, which explains its similar tone and pacing. Fun little trivia, the film was supposed to star Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Reynolds when originally conceived but talks fell through. Shot on a budget of $10 million, the film would gross over $29 million. It was nominated for three Golden Globes (Best Actor - Comedy or Musical, Best Actress - Comedy or Musical, and Best Original Song) with Amy Adams bringing home the award.
Burton would reunite with Eva Green for the second time with his 2016 adaptation of “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”. The film revolves around exactly what the title says, and it is similar in tone to Burton’s previous work. It also has Samuel L. Jackson, marking the first time Burton has worked with the actor. This is another project where Burton did not work with Danny Elfman, instead with the score being composed by Mike Higman and Matthew Margeson. There is a pretty haunting song done by Florence and the Machine, “Wish That You Were Here” playing during the end credits. Shot on a budget of $110 million, the film grossed $296 million at the box office.
Phew that was a lot. Before we get into Burton’s legacy, I want to touch briefly on future projects of his. His next feature film releases this March, a live action adaptation of “Dumbo” for Disney. I am really excited about this movie! Not only is the cast amazing (Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito and Eva Green) but “Dumbo” has always been one of my favorite Disney movies and I am excited to see Burton bring it to the big screen in live action! His next film after is highly rumored, but many believe we are going to see a sequel to “Beetlejuice”! Now, listeners to the podcast know that I am not the biggest fan of sequels and reboots. But with Burton attached to direct the project with a script from “Pride & Prejudice & Zombies” novelist Seth Grahame-Smith and Winona Ryder and Michael Keaton returning to their roles, let’s just say my hype is very real. More about the project needs to come forward before I get too excited, but I am hoping I get to see this happen.
I think if you take anything away from this very brief dive into Burton, you should take away the following. First, Burton has a very unique vision and voice for how he wants his projects to develop and look upon completion. Disney tried their damnedest to silence his voice, but Burton stayed true to himself and got himself fired in the process. But now Disney is going back to him time and time again because of the very creative voice they tried to shutter. Next, there are not a lot of directors that can say that the majority of their projects were financial successes. With the exception of “Ed Wood”, all of Burton’s movies have raked in millions of dollars over the budget. Audiences respond to Burton’s authenticity, and know that whenever they go to see one of his films exactly what they are in store for. I love Tim Burton and I am forever grateful for the wonderful characters he brought to life for me to enjoy.