For me, Tim Burton has always been more of a visual stylist than a master storyteller. His films always have a great look and feel to them, but some clearly work better than others—Charlie & The Chocolate Factory vs. Sleepy Hollow, Nightmare Before Christmas vs. Planet Of The Apes. Artistically, however, he is remarkable as a purveyor of visual sumptuousness and freaky visions of the macabre. As a producer, Burton’s track record is better, and 9, Shane Acker’s expansion of his Academy Award-nominated animated short of the same name, is an excellent example—weird, creepy, beautiful to look at, and like the best of Burton’s work, hauntingly original.
I had the opportunity to chat with Tim about 9—about why he chose to produce it and what it represents to him, what he, as an artist-producer, can bring to the table in support of other artist-filmmakers with like sensibilities.
Mike Sargent: What attracted you to Shane Acker’s original short “9”?
Tim Burton: You don’t see a lot of personalized animated films. That’s what I liked about 9, it didn’t fit into a category, per se, it had a certain poetry, a certain emotion to it which I found unique. Not that other animated films don’t, but not in quite the same way this one does. When I was an animator back at Disney it was the Dark Ages of animation, not many films were being done, now every type of animation is being done…a couple of years ago, cell animation was proclaimed dead again, and now they’re making a few more that I’ve heard about. If you’re an animator, it’s a great time, there are a lot more tools, and it’s become a lot more accepted as a medium. And there’s still room to grow.
We’ve seen lots of films with post-apocalyptic imagery; it’s a genre in and of itself. But even with that, and this being a very simple story, there is a kind of a weird spiritual poetry and humanity to it. There is a message, but it’s more about how you put your own feelings into it. There’s a quiet mystery to 9 which I really, really like. Ultimately it’s a very positive film, even though it deals with some dark imagery.
As a producer, I’m wondering—do you end up producing things because you yourself would like to see them?
Yeah—when I saw Shane Acker’s short, I could relate to his design sensibility. It felt natural to expand it and have it become a feature…it felt like part of a feature anyway. [Being the producer] I approached this by thinking about the kind of help I would have wanted as the director. Because, you know, sometimes you get some help, and sometimes you get more problems than help. One of the reasons I got involved was that I liked what he did, so my goal was not to impose my style on him—I already felt close to what he did. So the goal was to take what we liked, and just let him do it.
The film is so visually beautiful that it almost works without dialogue; was there any discussion or thought as to putting it out without any dialogue?
There was. In fact that was my first inclination because in the short is very textural. The idea with the animation was to do it like stop-motion and go more naturalistic. We wanted the same thing in the voices. When you do an animated film, the instinct would be to go broad, even if you’re doing something dramatic, it gets broader and more animated, but our actors did a really good job of keeping the performances naturalistic. It helped the movie have a more human quality. I’ve often been accused of, “Oh the movies looked good but there’s no story,” but I disagree with that in theory and 9 is a perfect example for me because the feel, the texture, and the look of that world, and those characters, is the story. That’s a major component of why you feel the way you do when you’re watching it.
I’m curious for you, as a director, having been through what you’ve been through and being the kind of artist you are, what do you feel you bring, now, as a producer?
Working on Nightmare Before Christmas I had endless arguments, like the studio saying, “You can’t have a main character that’s got no eyeballs!” “How is anybody going to feel for somebody with just eyesockets?” You know? So, it’s those kind of things that really wear you down. It’s like, imagine you’ve got an athlete, and you want to him to win the race, and right before the race you just beat the shit out of him. That’s the way a lot of people deal in Hollywood. It’s a really negative thing.
Although in the case of 9, the studio’s been great. But again, the director has got to make the film, and he’s got a lot of work to do. I don’t want somebody feeling like they have to take our comments. Shane’s a grown boy—if he likes the comment, he’ll take it, you know? That was the spirit of it.
Mike Sargent is a nationally quoted film critic for WBAI-FM in NYC. His latenite radio shows website is: Lifeislikesciencefiction.com that just about says it all.