It’s hard to imagine someone being instantly in sync with Pee-wee Herman, but in 1984, when 26-year-old Tim Burton was asked to direct his first feature, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, he brought something special to the party: a passion for wacko individualists. “I believed Pee-wee,” Burton says, without a trace of irony. “So I thought, ‘Let’s just go through the movie and believe him, whatever he does.’ I love extreme characters who totally believe themselves. That’s why I had fun with Betelgeuse.”
Betelgeuse, played by Michael Keaton, is the anarchic superspook of Beetlejuice, which Burton has directed like a cheerfully indulgent parent – he lets his little monsters run wild, to the exclusion of pace, point and structure. This isn’t your standard, slick ghost comedy – the plot chases its own tail, and the jokes are a blend of the brainy and the infantile. The picture, a whatzit, has provoked its share of bewildered reviews. The fat guy and the other one didn’t like it, and The New York Times said it was for people who think a shrunken head is funny.
Luckily for Burton, millions of people think a shrunken head is funny, especially when it sits on top of a full-sized body and stares out of bulging, doleful eyes. Beetlejuice grossed about $32 million in its first two weeks, and Burton has relaxed and made the most of his movie’s addled reception.
“I’ve been enjoying the bad reviews,” he says ebulliently. “These bland newscasters, they have to say the word ‘Beetlejuice,’ and they have to show a clip – and I don’t care what anybody says, it makes me wanna see the movie. It’s really funny. It’s like you’re watching some hallucination, like somebody’s putting something else behind them that they don’t know about. It was like the feeling I got when I saw Andy Warhol on The Love Boat.”
Burton, a former animator, thrives on weird juxtapositions – they’re the key to his genius. His style is dork chic: he wears shapeless, oversize jackets, and his hair is shoulder length. Under heavy lids, he has sad, spacey eyes. He’s the sort of guy who uses words like “nutty” without ironic emphasis, who pronounces something “great, great, great – like, so cool” and then, to illustrate a point, casually sketches a bizarre creature with a second head coming out of its mouth.
Amiable and unpretentious, he has a whiff of stoned melancholy about him, like someone who thinks too much and makes sense of too little. And that’s where he nestles his movies, in that twilight zone between the humdrum and the flabbergasting. If the two don’t quite gel, so much the better – and funnier.
“The things that interest me the most are the things that potentially won’t work,” Burton says. “On Beetlejuice, I could tell every day what was gonna work and what wasn’t. And that was very invigorating. Especially when you’re doing something this extreme. A lot of people have ragged on the story of Beetlejuice, but when I read it, I thought, ‘Wow! This is sort of interesting. It’s very random. It doesn’t follow what I would consider the Spielberg story structure.’ I guess I have to watch it more, because I’m intrigued by things that are perverse. Like, I was intrigued that there was no story.”
Beetlejuice is a haunted-house comedy turned inside out: Its heroes are a pair of attractive, lovable ghosts driven bats by ghoulish people. When they can’t take any more, they call in the title character, a “bio-exorcist.” As played by Michael Keaton, with frazzled hair, rotted teeth and fungoid cheeks, the scuzzy con man blasts the movie into slapstick heaven – he’s a sleazeball wizard.
Until his entrance, the picture has been funny in spurts but something else, too: goggle-eyed, a little sad. At the start, a couple (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) are killed in a freak accident; as ghosts, they learn they must remain in their rustic New England home for 125 years. Into their afterlives come the new owners: a screechingly tasteless sculptor (Catherine O’Hara); her geeky husband (Jeffrey Jones); and their sweet but morbid daughter (Winona Ryder), who dresses like a witch to express her inner weirdness. The ghosts aren’t malicious – they just hate seeing their cozy domicile turned into a Soho house of horror. So they do things like sever their own heads – while the living, who can’t see them, remain oblivious.
If you’ve ever felt out of place, you’ll plug into the ghosts’ awkwardness – and into Burton’s dopey, matter-of-fact surrealism. Aside from Betelgeuse (the spelling has been simplified for the title), no one quite fits in. The afterlife isn’t grand and Spielbergian but a mangy series of typing pools and waiting rooms, in which you have to take a number to see your caseworker. Next to you sit horribly mutilated people in the state they were in when they bit the big one, but used to it now, so they’re blasé, as if they weren’t charred or squashed.
When Burton first read Michael McDowell’s script, he thought he could have written it himself – it carried his trademark blend of the outlandish and the matter-of-fact. In Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, for instance, the trucker Large Marge turns toward the camera and her eyes balloon out of her skull; then they retract and she goes on talking, as if nothing unusual had happened. And in Beetlejuice, Keaton’s head spontaneously gyrates on its shoulders; when it stops, he asks, slightly peeved, “Don’t ya’ hate it when that happens?”
The deadpan style resembles the great Warner Bros. cartoons, and the best gags are like jack-in-the-boxes – they zoom out of the screen and then snap back in. The disorientation is exhilarating. In Beetlejuice, Burton deftly blurs the line between a large model of the New England town (in which Betelgeuse, bug size, makes his home), “real life” and the afterlife. Bo Welch, who designed the sets, describes it as “a hierarchy of reality that leads you into unreality. Tim would encourage me to push that border. I’d go a certain distance, and he’d say, ‘Let’s go further,’ and I’d go, ‘Arrghhh!’ and then be thrilled when we did it.”
Burton lets his actors push that border, too. Catherine O’Hara at last has the sexy confidence she had on every episode of SCTV and considers Beetlejuice the closest she has come to her SCTV experience. Under bright-red hair, her blue eyes give her an otherworldly derangement; in a celebrated set piece, she rises at a stuffy dinner party and – against her will – leads her guests in a spastic dance to the banana-boat song “Day-O.” “The idea was, we were possessed by Harry Belafonte’s recording,” says O’Hara, giggling. “We tried to get that our bodies were really into it but that we were trying to get out.” The scene is a prime example of Burton’s Inconstant: It’s as if the little incongruities formed a chain reaction and mushroomed – a comic atom bomb. “The first time I saw an audience react to it, I got, like, frightened,” says Burton. “I got chills, I was truly terrified. I don’t know why. I guess it’s the power.”
“I think Tim must be very secure,” says O’Hara. “He knows what he wants, but he’s also open to ideas.” Take, for instance, Burton’s collaboration with Michael Keaton. Keaton last had this gonzo edge as the enterprising morgue attendant in Ron Howard’s Night Shift (1982) but settled down into more mundane roles. His last four movies have been disappointments, and he wasn’t up for another.
“I turned down the role because I didn’t quite get it, and I wasn’t looking to work,” says Keaton. In the original script, Betelgeuse was underwritten, vaguely Middle Eastern and more evil. But Burton wanted to change the tone and invited Keaton to come up with his own shtick. “I went home and thought, ‘Okay, if I would do this role, how would I do it?’ ” Keaton says. “You clearly don’t create him from the inside out. Meaning, what motivates this guy – his childhood or whatever. You work from the outside in.”
Keaton really gets going when he talks about Betelgeuse, the way he must have when he wandered around his house for hours, trying out bits. “It turns out the character creates his own reality,” he says. “I gave myself some sort of voice, some sort of look based on the words. Then I started thinkin’ about my hair: I wanted my hair to stand out like I was wired and plugged in, and once I started gettin’ that, I actually made myself laugh. And I thought, ‘Well, this is a good sign, this is kind of funny.’ Then I got the attitude. And once I got the basic attitude, it really started to roll.”
And what was the attitude?
“It’s multi-attitudinal. The attitude is ‘You write your own reality, you write your own ticket. There are no bars, I can do anything I want and under any rationality I want….'”
He stops himself from analyzing it too much. “At some point,” he says, “you show up on the set and just go fuckin’ nuts. It was rave acting. You rage for 12 or 14 hours; then you go home tired and beat and exhausted. It was pretty damned cathartic. It was rave and purge acting.”
“The thing I love about Michael is that he gets into it,” says Burton. “He’d say some funny thing that wasn’t in the script, and we’d get ideas from that. I enjoyed working that way. My animation background — you sit around with a bunch of guys and talk about what would be a good idea to do. The whole cast was like that. It was this hallucination we were all involved in. We knew what we were doing, but we didn’t know what we were doing.”
“Credit to the cast,” says Keaton. “Everybody said, ‘We’re in this.’ Everybody agreed to go along with this experiment. This picture is not without faults, but I’ll tell ya, I feel very good about being part of a project that has broken some rules and is at the very least innovative, imaginative, creative – just plain funny.”
Like Keaton, defenders of Beetlejuice are the first to admit its flaws. But since when do great comedies have to be seamless? As its biggest champion, Pauline Kael, wrote in The New Yorker, “The best of W.C. Fields was often half gummed up, and that doesn’t seem to matter 55 years later. With crazy comedy, you settle for the spurts of inspiration, and Beetlejuice has them… enough… to make this spotty, dissonant movie a comedy classic.”
The comedy classicist has an unlikely home town – Burbank, or “the pit of hell,” as Burton calls it. “Probably his out-of-place-ness comes from growing up there,” says Bo Welch. “It’s in the middle of the movie business, but it’s so mundane that it forces your imagination to work overtime.” As a kid, Burton loved to draw, put on shows and play pranks – like the time he covered his brother in fake gore and pretended to hack him up with a knife. (A neighbor phoned the police; Burton still shivers when he talks about it.)
From college at Cal Arts he landed a plum job with Walt Disney Studios. “They were trying to train new animators,” he says. “All the old guys had retired, so what was left in charge was these second-stringers. They were older; they were bitter that they weren’t the ones that were in the limelight. So a lot of things besides creativity leaked in. What drove me nuts is, here you are at Disney – ‘Best animation in the world,’ they say. ‘A dream come true.’ And on the other hand, they say, ‘Remove part of your brain and become a zombie factory worker.’ The split that it created drove people nuts. So you either succumb to it or you leave.
“Classic example: I was at Disney, I was in animation for a year, I was totally freaked, I was so bored. They liked my designs, so they said, ‘Why don’t you do some for The Black Cauldron? Great, great, go wild.’ So I spent months, I came up with everything under the sun. One thing I thought was really creepy: It had these birds and their heads would be like hands with eyes; instead of beaks there’d be hands grabbing you.
“Finally, they brought in this other guy, Andreas, that you would consider classic Disney – cutesy little animals and stuff. And it was, ‘Your stuff’s a little, kinda out there, Tim, but we want to get you together with this guy – maybe the two of you can come up with, like, Disney but, like, a little different.’ By the end of two weeks, we didn’t get along – he was doing his thing and I was doing mine. He’d take my drawings and try to translate ’em. So finally the producer comes in and says, ‘Tim, here’s a graph. This is Andreas and this is you. We wanna go somewhere right about here in terms of the style.’
“From that I moved into live action,” Burton says.
In 1984, Burton directed a live short for Disney called Frankenweenie, the story of a boy who brings his dog back to life. The movie was meant to accompany Pinocchio, but the ratings board found it disturbing and slapped it with a PG rating; when Disney was shaken up in 1984, the film got lost in the shuffle. (The company still hasn’t released it and won’t even give Burton a copy.)
Frustrated by Disney’s inaction, Burton was liberated by a friend at Warners, who screened Frankenweenie for Pee-wee Herman and his producers. “It was the easiest job I ever got,” says Burton of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. “I had a much more difficult time getting that busboy job six months earlier.” In spite of horrible reviews, the daft little sleeper grossed $45 million domestically.
In August, Burton will begin shooting in London his most expensive picture: Batman, a $20 million action comedy that promises to go way beyond the comic books and TV show. In keeping with his taste for incongruity, Burton wants “to get a little more real with it” than you’d expect. “There’s tension and insanity,” he says. “We’re trying to say this guy is obviously nuts, but in the most appealing way possible. I go back to what I thought comic books gave people. People love the idea that once they dress up, they can become somebody else. And here you have a human being in what I would consider the most absurd costume ever created.
“The villain is the Joker, the coolest of all. And also the flip side of Batman. Here you got a guy [Batman] who is rich, and something bad happened to him, and instead of getting therapy, he fights crime. But it’s still kinda schizophrenic – it’s something he questions in his own mind. And the Joker, something happened to him, too, but he’ll do or say anything, which is another fantasy that all of us have – it’s total freedom. So you’ve got two freaks. It’s so great.”
The split is pure Burton: One unhappy character dresses up to express something but still feels hopelessly out of place in the real world; another, an extremist, creates his or her own demented reality. Burton clearly identifies with the former, but the latter – Pee-wee, Betelgeuse, the Joker – charges him up, inspires him to dazzling heights.
Both types have attempted to impose their personalities on a void – which is sort of how Burton grew up, as an awkward, artistic kid in Burbank. Maybe that’s why he’s drawn to any organic expression of character, no matter how clumsy. As a child he was moved by bad movies, the kind it’s trendy to laugh at. “There’s a lot of weird stuff in them – somebody had an idea. It went really wrong, and yet you can see somebody’s strange mind. I love that.”
Hollywood tends to quash such self-expression – it lives by formulas. But Burton slipped through the net, and he’s hopping with joy. “If Beetlejuice turns out to be successful, I will be so happy,” he says, “and so perversely happy, I’m for anything that subverts what the studio thinks you have to do.”