I Don’t Consider Myself Dark

He is one of the most celebrated directors of his generation. Tim Burton is the man behind “Batman,” “Beetle Juice,” “Sleepy Hollow,” “Edward Scissorhands” and “Ed Wood.” This year, the 47-year-old director added two more soon-to-be classics to his resume: “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Corpse Bride.” With “Batman” and its sequel “Batman Returns” released on DVD this week, he spoke to Newsweek’s Ramin Setoodeh.

NEWSWEEK: Hi. You’re in London now. What’s the weather like?
Tim Burton: It’s raining.

It’s raining here in New York, too. It looks like the set of one of your movies—it’s so dark outside.
Well, I like it. I’ve been here for several years. I’ve done like three or four movies here. The weather and the environment suits me.

Are you working on anything now?
After finishing “Charlie” and “Corpse Bride,” two at once—you need to . . .

Take a break?
I’m not doing anything right now.

I read somewhere that Johnny Depp says there might be a sequel to “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?”
I don’t think so. For him as an actor, with him doing “Pirates,” he likes revisiting characters sometimes. For me, doing sequels is not a good idea. I don’t really see it.

But you did a sequel to “Batman.”
I got some flack on that one. That’s what made me feel like I shouldn’t do sequels. A lot of people got on my case on that.

Right, and I don’t understand why, because I think it’s the best “Batman” film.
It was a weird phenomenon. I remember going through a lot of press stuff—and half the people would go: “This is much lighter than the first movie.” And it was split down the middle: “This is so much darker than the first.” How could a movie be lighter and darker? It just didn’t make any sense to me. It was a confusing experience.

Well, do you think it was lighter or darker?
I didn’t think much about it, really. It’s more of a label that’s put upon you. I don’t consider myself a dark person. I don’t think I’m going to make a lighter movie or a darker movie. You let the material be what it is.

The reason I like “Batman Returns” so much is the richness of the villains.
That’s why I think “Batman” is my favorite comic. I love the Joker and Catwoman and the Penguin. I love giving them a back story. It’s easier with the Joker. But with Catwoman and the Penguin, I think that’s what spurred me out. Where it got a lot of flack was I spent too much time on those characters and people kept thinking Batman was a secondary character. I was just trying to respect who I thought that character was. He was a guy who likes to remain as hidden as possible. He’s not trying to be as flamboyant as the villains and do James Bond one-liners. That’s why I never gave him a Robin character. He wants to be alone, you know.

But I thought originally Robin was supposed to be part of “Batman Returns.”
There was always talk about it. But for me, at the end of the day, I felt like I couldn’t go there. It just didn’t feel right with who the character was. The whole point of him is that he’s repressed and he has a lot of issues and he’s hiding in a cave. If you bring somebody else to live with you in a cave it turns in more into—I don’t know—a caveman movie.

Did you know you wanted Michael Keaton right away after “Beetle Juice?”
No. We were looking at a lot of traditional, superhero types—square jawed, chiseled actors. Then it dawned us that Batman is a guy who isn’t that. He’s trying to create a persona. He’s trying to become something that he’s not. After working on Michael with “Beetle Juice,” he had a wildness in his eyes, a pent up energy. He just really felt right.

But later in the series, we get George Clooney, Val Kilmer, Christian Bale. They’re all chiseled.
But we were in new territory at the time. At the time it felt right to me, from a psychological point of view. I kept thinking if the guy was such a strong looking, tough looking guy, why would he make this bat suit? Why doesn’t he just put on a mask and go kick the shit out of people? That, for me, fed into the effect of somebody trying to create this weird persona of something that they’re not.

What about Catwoman. Did you know you wanted Michelle Pfeiffer?
Actually, we had cast Annette Bening. And she got pregnant. She would’ve been great—but Michelle was just fantastic. She did things that amazed me. I really admire her. First of all as an actress. But then doing things like skipping around with a whip on sloped wet roofs on three-inch Manolo Blahniks is harder than it looks.

Is there another comic book adaptation that you would die to do?
Well, now I feel like every version is a dark comic book. I don’t know. I think you almost want to switch and see some guy in yellow tights with purple underwear who’s not so tormented.

Have you seen the new Batman movie?
No. Which I’m kind of glad about.

Because you’re afraid if you didn’t like it . . .
No. It’s not that I’m afraid that I won’t like it. I just think it’s unfair. The media likes to pit people against other people. The people out there can decide for themselves which movies they like and which movies they don’t like and that’s the point really.

What about the Joel Schumacher versions?
I have trouble watching my own movies. We’ll start there. I didn’t watch those, because it was material I felt close to. It felt weird to me. It was too close at the time for me to watch them.

So you’ve never seen them?
No. I mean, I’ve seen parts on cable. But I haven’t.

Do you find criticism that “Batman” was too scary unfair? After all, you’re not making these movies for kids.
I grew up watching movies where peoples arms got torn off. They’d run their bloody stumps down the steps. A monster would bite and tear off a piece of flesh from a doctor’s neck. You’d watch this on TV. They’re like dark fairy tales. I always feel like in that myth, fable world, kids can take more than adults think.

“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” was for kids. And you still got stung—with people comparing Depp’s performance to Michael Jackson.
Yeah. We were quite saddened because we were basing it on LaToya Jackson. (Pause.) It’s something we never talked about. It’s one of those things so obviously in the culture at the moment, it’s easy to see what people are thinking. It’s certainly not something that he and I ever talked about.

What’s your favorite movie that you’ve done?
I don’t really know. It’s hard for me to choose, really. As time goes along, your perspective changes really. The further away you get, the more you like them. It’s kind of organic that way. I feel there are films that I feel closer to. I guess “Scissorhands” or “Ed Wood” or the stop-motion movies because of the artistry involved in them.