Tim Burton Revives "Frankenweenie" With All-Star Cast of Old Friends

Frequent Tim Burton collaborators recount early experiences with the director.

By Scott Huver
|  Thursday, Oct 4, 2012  |  Updated 5:31 AM PDT
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 "Frankenweenie's" Cast of Old Friends

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(L-R) Actors Martin Landau, Catherine O'Hara and Winona Ryder at Disney's "Frankenweenie" premiere in Hollywood, California.

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When Tim Burton decided to revisit one of his first forays into film with the feature-length “Frankenweenie,” he chose to invite some longtime collaborators to accompany him on the trek down memory lane.

The ever-eclectic Burton has long been known for his enduring screen partnerships, most notably with actor Johnny Depp (eight films), composer Danny Elfman (15 films) and the director’s off-screen companion Helena Bonham Carter (seven films) as well as several other performers and behind-the-scenes talents. For “Frankenweenie,” a stop-motion animated remake/expansion of his experimental 1984 live-action short of the same name, Burton recruited a number of players from his past to reconvene in the recording booth.

Though Depp and Carter sit this one out (Elfman is present, musically) the voice cast includes a quartet of prominent Burton alums: Winona Ryder (“Beetlejuice,” “Edward Scissorhands”), Martin Landau (“Ed Wood,” “Sleepy Hollow”), Catherine O’Hara (“Beetlejuice,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas”) and Martin Short (“Mars Attacks!”).

“Because it was a project that means a lot to me, it was nice to have somebody like Winona, who I love, and Catherine and Martin [Short] and Martin [Landau],” explains Burton of why he called in his old friends. “It was important on this to have that type of connection, and it made it more special to me. It’s interesting – the people you love, you can see them every day or not see them for a couple of years, and it it’s like I saw [them] yesterday. Those are people that mean a lot to you, and you still have that connection.”

Here the actors shared their memories and their unique connection to the filmmaker:

Wynona Ryder: When I met Tim 25, 26 years ago, I had done two little movies and I didn't live in L.A. To go to an audition my parents would have to drive to L.A. from the Bay Area, which is long – people thought somehow that I was very picky, but it was really just this drive. When I got the 'Beetlejuice' script and I was like, 'Oh, please can we go?' I went on the lot and I was sitting in this waiting room. This guy came up and we were talking, just talking about music and movies for like 25 minutes. Then I was like 'Am I in the right building, because do you know when this Tim Burton guy is coming?' He was like 'Oh, that's me.' I was like 'WHAT?!' because I had no idea at that age that a director could be someone that I could sort of hangout with. I thought he was like a messenger or from just the art department or wherever. I just don't know what kind of roles I would've gotten if I hadn't of done that movie. So I do feel like a very strong bond with him. 'Edward Scissorhands’ is one of my favorite films to watch, even regardless that I'm in it. It's just so beautiful.

Martin Landau: My phone rang and a voice gets on the phone and says, 'Hello, this is Tim Burton. Can I speak to Martin Landau?' I figure this is one of my friends doing a number – I don't know Tim Burton. It's not a casting director, it's not an agent – it's Tim, but I didn't know it was Tim, and I answered frivolously – God knows what I said. He said, 'No, this IS Tim Burton. There's a script on it's way. Check out the part of Bela and get back to me. This is my number at the studio and this is my number at home.' About 20 minutes later a messenger came with the 'Ed Wood' script, and I read it and I loved it. I said, 'It's got to be Tim Burton because no one else in the world would do this movie.'

I called and he said, 'Can we get together tomorrow?' I went to the studio and we talked, and I loved him immediately. How this all happened was oddly strange, really: he said, 'I'm supposed to do this movie on Frankenstein's wife with Julia Roberts, but I like this one better, and if you'd do this movie I'll do this movie instead.' I talked to Johnny Depp and Johnny wants to play Ed Wood, but if you don't do it, I'm going to do the other movie.' It took me aback. I said, ‘I don't understand – there's a hundred thousand actors in SAG.' He said, 'I don't know anyone else who could do it.' I said, 'I don't know if I can do it.' I said, 'It's a 74-year-old Hungarian morphine addict alcoholic. That would be hard enough, but it's got to be Bela Lugosi?' He said, 'Well, what do you think?' I said, 'Can we do a test?' and he said yes.

We did a test and the test was dismal. It was in color, and I was Lugosi for about one fraction of the time, and then I wasn't me and I wasn't anyone I recognized with the makeup. Then one day I was sitting in front of my fax machine, shortly after that, and ran these color Polaroids that I had taken in Rick Baker's makeup chair through the fax machine. They came out black and white, and I said, 'That's it! That's what's wrong: color. Lugosi never made a color movie.' The phone rings and it's Tim: 'I've got a problem. Columbia won't make the movie the way that I want to make it. I want to make it in black and white, so I'm taking it over to Disney, and they'll do it any way I want to do it, but it's going to take another month. Are you still onboard?' I sat there with my mouth open, saying 'Yes.'

Catherine O’Hara: For me, I just feel like I appreciate and relate to his sensibilities. I love his balance of dark and light. And the people in life that he finds scary are the same people I find scary: the people who come off like non-scary people but are really scary, and the people who look like you should shun them can actually be the sweetest people. His sense of humor I just love. I didn’t know him and he didn’t know me at all when we started “Beetlejuice,” and I just instantly liked him, and he’s the same guy he was then.

Martin Short: What’s surprising is when I first worked with him, I didn’t know what to expect. Maybe the set was going to be brooding – this is a film with Rod Steiger, Jack Nicholson, Pierce Brosnan, we were in an Oval Office, and people are taking pictures of the chairs all lined up with names. And I thought ‘What’s Tim going to be like, I wonder?’ Because we really hadn’t met much. And he was so loose and funny, and you’d do a joke and he’d laugh and he’d do a joke and you’d laugh – and you weren’t faking the laugh just because he’s the director. It was kind of an immediate immediacy. That’s what I always feel like when I run into him and see him. He’s very warm and very funny and very loose and very creative in wanting your involvement in his process.

Landau:
He's unique in Hollywood because he's an A-list director who's allowed, and I used the word allowed, to make the movies that interest him, period. That doesn't happen very often, usually...Working with Tim, it doesn't matter if you're standing on your head, it's fun, because a good director like Tim creates a playground for actors and lets you play. Whether you're on camera, whether your voice is on camera, or whether your toes are on camera, it's a creative and fun time.

O’Hara:
The people around him treat him seriously and he has so many acolytes, disciples. I’ve met people who have every character from 'Nightmare Before Christmas' tattooed on their bodies for life, and they’re the sweetest people, and it means so much to them. But he doesn’t seem to take himself seriously in that way. He’s not his own follower, which is really nice.

Ryder: I feel so much gratitude, but also just tremendous love for him. He's someone that changed my life, in a real personal way, in a professional way. He has such a strong vision. I know 'Beetlejuice' really was his vision, and I just feel so lucky that I got to be a part of it. I like to think that I brought a little something, because I was sort of like that, but he invites us in, in such a warm, interesting way. He's not like anybody, ever. Can you guys even remember, like, what it would be like without Tim? He kind of was the original. There has been a lot of people that have been inspired by him, but before him, was there anyone like him?

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