Last week in Anaheim, Disneyland hosted a press junket for the upcoming horror movie for kids, Disney and Tim Burton's Frankenweenie. Here's what the screenwriters of the film had to say.
Staci Layne Wilson reporting
Q: John, you take great care, and Don too, great care in handling the topic of death of a beloved pet. Talk about finding the right tonal chord.
JOHN: Um, I loved the short. And so I wanted to make sure that we kept that final relationship between a boy and his dog, and the story of like bringing this love of your life back. Um, I had my own dog who passed away as I was writing this thing, and so I was having the same, literally the exact same words I used in the movie is what I used for my daughter, um, to talk about sort of, you know, when someone dies, you know, really go with saying stuff that’s in your heart. And, uh, which is why I maybe can’t see the movie quite yet because, you know, it just is...you stole that from that from my life. [LAUGHTER]
Uh, but yeah. And so, you know, look, I love making myself cry and so writing this thing is like, you know, you write through tears and then you get through it, and then the challenge becomes how do you stay honest to that moment, and this just happened, and then get right back out into the adventure of the story.
Q: This, and “Big Fish” made me weep.
JOHN : Good, thank you, absolutely. Mission achieved.
Q: Did you work with Tim during the writing process?
JOHN: Um, so everyone thinks like, oh, you must hang out with Tim all the time, and figuring out stuff. Um, no. A long meeting with Tim Burton is about thirty minutes. And so you go in, he’s like, oh so I wanted to do...short...all that’s good. And then I want, I just listed like, the other monsters. And like the kids are making these monsters and then like it all, it all wraps up. He said, okay. And so then you figure out like, here’s ways that I can try to bring this through, and so, and make this all unified. So like, the science fair is a good way to have kids doing stuff.
Um, this town, it’s suburbia, but there’s windmills. So I had to get a windmill. Like, how about we call it New Holland? And try to figure out sort of, um, unifying ways to get everything to fit nicely together. And then it’s just, you know, I go off and I try to write things that will make Tim happy. And, um, so Weird Girl, you know, and sort of the- the telepathic cat. Like that’s something that’s going to make Tim happy, and he’s going to be excited to see that. Um, but no, it’s not a lot of sort of sit in your room, get down to it. I’m met with department heads, like Rick does sets and Danny does music.
Q: When did it seem like he’s going to do it?
JOHN: Um, quite early on. I’m not sure that it was on his initial list, but I knew that there weren’t going to be, uh, he wanted some watery kind of creatures in there. And so sea monkeys felt like the right kind of addition.
DON: Which was a very lengthy negotiation with the big time toy company that owned Sea Monkeys. [OVERLAPPING]
DON: Yeah, well we had to license them because they’re not our characters and they’re owned by a toy company.
Q: You should take them on for the fact that they don’t look like those little things with...
Q: There was definitely a Gremlins thing happening.
Q: And that seemed to be the most up to date, or current reference in the movie, other than Pluto not being a planet. But everything else seemed to be from the ‘70s or ‘60s.
JOHN: In terms of time periods, the deliberate choice did not make it any one specific time. So it’s sort of a feel of ‘50s, the ‘60s, the ‘70s, um, but Pluto’s a more modern reference. There’s other things that are happening that are current day things. I didn’t want it to feel like it was all in a time capsule and like, oh back then they didn’t know about, they didn’t trust science. Back then these things...like no. It’s sort of a present day story. And, uh, and so the Pluto reference and things are trying to keep stuff a little bit more up to date. And it takes place in its own little special bubble that’s not now, or then. Um, we’re not seeing cell phones but it could be taking place now.
Q: How much of this is Tim’s voice and how much is yours?
JOHN: I think the spirit is just Tim. I mean like the, the...the way the world works and fits together is very much a Tim Burton universe. It’s his childhood, it’s, you know, it feels like Burbank. Um, some of the- the pointed science speeches I’m so happy made it through [LAUGHTER] I mean we all sort of recognize, um, when the mob sort of descends and decides what’s good and right, and what’s not good and right. And, you know, these are stories that think outside and push the edge. And art is going to push the edge, and science is going to push the edge as well.
Q: You know it’s kind of happening now.
JOHN: Yes it is. And so that’s sort of, um, the, um, the anti-intellectualism that happens, um, in cultures, is a- is a current frustration.
Q: Was there any concern of Universal getting on your back about being a little too close to their monster types, or?
DON: No, we thought about it. All those monsters have come from literature or some other source before Universal got a hold of them, and so they’re out there in the public domain. Uh, so no, not, certainly not on a legal front.
Q: They did give Hotel Transylvania a list of things they couldn’t do. On the Frankenstein...
DON: Yeah, I’m sure. Well we didn’t get that list, so... [LAUGHTER]
Q: It was lost in the email.
DON: It was lost, yeah.
Q: How did you decide which monster would fit with each particular animal?
JOHN: Um, Tim, Tim gave me a list that sort of, these are the kinds of things he’d like to see in there. And so I was figuring out like sort of what makes sense from a- from a pet perspective. Um, what characters would, would work well with those, um, those creatures. And, uh, there’s back and forth, and there’s also a lot of great ideas from the artists and animators who worked on this, trying to figure out sort of how, the best versions of all these characters.
Q: Chronologically, this movie started about two years ago?
JOHN: More than that.
DON: Yeah, when I first talked to Tim about it in 2005, so about seven years ago, and then, uh, it took awhile to kind of get people onboard and get the studio onboard. Tim was there immediately. I mean we didn’t have multiple meetings, we had the same half hour meeting. And he was like, yeah, got it. Let’s go. And, uh, and then we brought John in about two, three years later and so we’ve been really active, active animation for about two years. Uh, but a lot of set building and prep and design before that time. So the actual sitting down making the puppets move has been about two years.
Q: Does Disney ever say, sorry? I mean this is born out of a rejected short film, Nightmare Before Christmas, you know, as I understand it, they took one look at it and said, well we’re not releasing it as Disney, it’s going to Touch Stone.
DON: That’s correct, yeah.
Q: And Tim has joked about his rejection by Disney. Like a jilted lover.
DON: Uh, it’s so true. And, and, you know, yeah, there’s always, I suppose there’s always that- that confluence of art and commerce that always rubs. And it didn’t a lot on this movie, but it did here and there. We- we were, our black and white kind of aspect was accepted really early on, and so the studio was cool with that. I just think it’s always- when you try something new, there’s eighteen animated movies coming out this year and a lot of them look the same. And when you try something like a black and white 3D movie that’s an homage to the pet who got hit by a car, that’s new.
It’s fresh, it’s different, and there’s always going to be debate and conversation about it. I think why- why the studio was always supportive is, at its heart, it was a really simple, great, true story about a boy and his dog. And you could, you could hang a lot on that. It was emotional. It was pure. Um, and- and that’s why the studio was always behind it. But yeah, they say no a lot. A lot.
Q: This summer there’s sort of morbid kid animation as well. There’s Hotel Transylvania, ParaNorman, and three stop motion movies. Is it sort of flavor of the week?
DON: It seems like we all call and talk to each other, but we don’t. The, um, the stop motion, actually, is becoming really fashionable though. You know, it was just, you would see one every once in awhile. Henry Selick would do one, or you would see Fantastic Mr. Fox, but now if you, if you go to animation schools or talk about the industry, it’s actually become really fashionable again, for whatever reason.
Q: And Henry kind of got shut down.
DON: Yeah, for...and movies come and go. You know, certainly that was disappointing for Henry and all of us to see that movie get shut down. But it happens. And movies come and go that way. But the style itself, the technique itself, has become really fashionable these days.
Q: Is a lot riding on the box office for this movie?
DON: Yeah. Not as much as maybe other large budget movies, because it’s not a huge budget movie by any stretch of the imagination. Um, and I think with this one we’re really proud of the storytelling and the artistic accomplishment. But we’re also, the early reactions have been really great and we’re- we’re kind of bullish on what it might do at the box office, too. So we’ll see. We’ll see. We do the best we can and we’ll see what the, uh, movie gods give to us.
Q: Was there anything in the animation that you had to change your plan? Or was the animation team, whatever you said, they made sure they would accomplish?
DON: Well they are- they are really trying to accomplish everything that John wrote, or that Tim wanted to do. And you should be able to. Animation should be able to do everything. Sometimes there’s limitations to puppets and how they can move. But this crew especially were willing to take on anything like a million sea monkeys and, you know, crowds of Dutch people.
JOHN: Yeah. One of the things you don’t do in, in stop animation, is crowds, or like there’s a bunch of things happening all at once. And this was going to have a bunch of that. And so God bless them, they didn’t panic when I broke Dutch Day, and like the crowds going out. It’s like, you think about it, you know, in a live action movie like we bring extras, and the extras are running around, they’re milling about. Like, there are no extras in this. There’s only the puppeteer making, and each one of them has to move bit by bit. And it has to stay alive from frame to frame to frame. And, God bless them, they did an amazing job from that.
So on Corpse Bride I remember there was, I knew at one point, like you know, this character can’t sit down. Because like, but really the way the puppet was made like it couldn’t sit down. And she’s like, that’s ridiculous. Like, well we’ll break the puppet in half and the character will sit down. So, and you know, they’re very resourceful and they’ll always find a way to do it.
Q: Whose idea was the psychic poop?
JOHN: Well I’ll take...I- I’ll second poop [UNINTELLIGIBLE]...
DON: Proudly so.
JOHN: And, uh, I needed some good ways... You know, honestly it was a way of showing some things that happened before and, um, and just made her awesome. And so it made for the, like the little moments to keep coming back.
Q: What was the rewrite process like? Did you have a set script and that was it? Could you change if you were inspired?
JOHN: Um, I wrote the script early on, in 2008, um, did a quick rewrite, um, that sort of cut one character out. Elsa’s younger brother who was useless. Um, uh, cut- cut out, just sort of trimmed out stuff down to what it was supposed to be. And then I was sort of hands off. And so this is sort of like, you know, in some ways, like a friend from camp. Said, oh, I remember you, hi. So long ago. Um, because the animators and story department, they take the script. They break down into scene by scene, shot by shot, figure out what they need and if they need to move stuff around they can.
If they have a great idea for a shot, a line, or whatever, they’ll- they’ll do it. And then they’ll see if it works. And Tim is the ultimate arbitrator sort of what stays in the movie and what goes. And, um, and he’s quality control there.
Q: Was there any character or situation you had to cut that was painful?
JOHN: Honestly, I was delighted that everything made it through. I’m amazed when something made it through. So I’m- I’m really happy and grateful about that. Um, you know, Tim was there, sort of steward it.
Q: Have you been talking to him about other projects?
JOHN: We don’t have anything on the books right now, and so I, I don't know, I’d love to be constantly employed writing a Tim Burton movie. But, uh, at the moment there’s nothing I’m doing for him right now.
Q: Is there something you’d like to be doing?
JOHN: Um, whatever he wants to do. I mean the thing is like Tim has very specific kind of movies that he’s interested in doing. And, um, if one of those comes into my universe that I can do for him, I’m happy to.
Q: Don, where do you see animation heading in the next ten years?
DON: Um, it’s kind of a boom time right now. A lot of studios are in the business, a lot of studios are getting into the business. Uh, and I also think the lines between animation and live action are disappearing. Uh, it used to be that only animation could make elephants fly and all...it’s, but no. And so you get the Peter Jacksons and the James Camerons of the world coming in and making, you know, essentially animated movies. And I think that’s really positive. I think it’ll only get, you know, when you see Ranjo- Rango win Best Picture for animation last year from a guy who’s never directed an animation- animated picture before, I actually think that’s exciting.
Because otherwise we’ll get stuck in a rut, otherwise everybody’s going to try to just, you know, make the same movie that succeeded over and over and over again, and I don’t think that’s a great way to grow the art form or compete. So I think the competition and the fact that a lot of live action directors, the, you know, looking at Tin Tin and those movies, um, really push the art form forward and are a good thing. And I think what is animated and what is not animated will eventually go away.
Q: You think the category will?
DON: It could. It could. It’s not, it’s not as distinct. It’s like a foreign language film, even, or a documentary. It’s really a technique. So you’re awarding a technique that used to have a very specific place in the world. If that technique becomes ubiquitous over all kinds of movies, then, yeah, it could.
Q: Is that part of the larger issue of saying motion capture...
DON: Yeah, there’s a lot of debate about that. I feel like it’s, uh, it’s all moot. The motion capture has been around since Snow White. You know, they shot live action for all the live action characters on Snow White and used it as a guide on Peter Pan, Cinderella and all those. So the essence of motion capture has been around for a long time. But I think the audience, you know, knows that it’s animated. Because it’s not real.
Q: Well it’s the Andy Serkis of monsters ...
DON: [OVERLAPPING] Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well that is really interesting because should Andy Serkis get a best, you know, best actor nomination or something for that performance, or should an animator from this film who animated, you know, Mr. Rzykruski get a supporting- I don’t know. It’ll be interesting to see how that sorts out.
Q: You say it’s a boom time for animation. It’s also been a boom time for shorts. How do you see that playing in the future?
DON: It- it- it’s always been the training ground for new directors and new techniques. So the way Pixar and Disney uses it is exactly as that. So you see shorts being made by people who might be directing features in three or four years, and trying out techniques that maybe need to, you know, get pushed ahead somehow. So it’s just an experimental ground that you don’t have to invest a whole movie in, to figure out how to do a certain technique, or try out a certain director. And that’s why shorts have always been really useful in animation.
Q: Is there a bar raised for technological innovation?
DON: Yeah, I think always. I mean you try to- try to do that. It’s a paradox because you try to raise the innovation on each movie and try something different. Uh, but the paradox is you don’t want the audience to know it or care. So five minutes into Frankenweenie, if you’re still thinking about puppets and stuff we’ve not done our job really well. So you can just suspend your belief enough to say, well I’m into the story. I admire the artwork, but I’m into the story now and I don’t care that it’s done with puppets or computers or whatever. So, uh, yeah, always trying to push the art form and always trying to make sure you don’t notice.