Friday, July 08, 2005

A word from Tim Burton on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Director Tim Burton has been making films since the early '70s, but it wasn't until 1985 and Pee-wee's Big Adventure that he really started to get attention. Twenty years later, he comes full circle, replacing one beloved children's personality with another with his adaptation of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Considering that "chocolateer" Willy Wonka is even stranger than Pee-Wee Hermann, it might not seem like much of a departure.

Burton once again called upon his regular leading man Johnny Depp, who has starred in three of the director's previous films, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood and Sleepy Hollow in 1999. Depp returns to the fold having received two consecutive Oscar nominations. Besides being one of the elements that lets people know that "Charlie"is a "Tim Burton film," Depp also helped the director find his Charlie in young Freddie Highmore, who starred opposite Depp in Finding Neverland after appearing in a movie with Burton's wife, Helena Bonham Carter.

Besides the element of magic and fantasy that has been in many of Burton's films, "Charlie" also returns him to the world of big budget summer blockbusters, which he last explored with his 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes and the "Batman" franchise. It's certainly an interesting choice to act as his follow-up to the very personal Big Fish.

Recently, ComingSoon.net went down to the beautiful island resort of Atlantis in the Bahamas to talk to Burton about the movie, his leading man, and how he combined his distinctive style with the Roald Dahl's original vision.

CS!: What's the attraction or appeal of doing a remake or adapting a much-loved book like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, rather than working from an original idea?
Tim Burton: This project had been floating around for a while when the studio offered it to me. It seemed like it was a project that I was interested in. When I first read the book as a child, [Dahl] was like an adult writer for children. He didn't speak down to them, and it's kind of a book that you can read at any age and get something out of it. He was very clever at kind of being both specific and kind of subversive and off-kilter and leaving you guessing a little bit. We did try to keep that feeling in what we were trying to do.

CS!: Were you worried how fans of the first movie might feel about you doing a new version of the book?
Burton: I didn't feel as daunted by the [first] movie, just because it didn't have quite the same impact for me as other movies. Even though we changed things, the intent for me was to try to be what I felt was more true to the spirit of the book.

CS!: What did you think of the Gene Wilder portrayal in the original film?
Burton: I think he was great. None of us on the production were ever trying to top it. Our goal, except for the little bit of back story, was to try to be a bit more true to the spirit of the book, and instead of having a golden goose and an egg, to have the squirrels and the Nut Room.

CS!: This film has been in development for many years, but John August is the only credited screenwriter. Was anything kept from the previous incarnations of the movie?
Burton: The studio developed it a lot, and they did things like make Charlie more proactive or take out the father figure and make Willy Wonka the father figure. Willy Wonka is not a father figure, I'll tell you right now. There were some good things in some of the other scripts, but we just decided to start fresh so with John, we just said let's go to the book. The book is the book, so obviously, all the stuff was in there to some degree.

CS!: Did you deliberately try to design the look of the movie so that it would be different from the first movie or from anything else you've done?
Burton: It's all organic. I never think about it. Like I said, the blueprint of the book was there, but the great thing about [Dahl's] writing is that he leaves a lot open for interpretation, so we had complete freedom to devise what each of the rooms looked like, the Bucket House, the town, and all of that. We didn't feel like we were constrained by anything, and it had quite an experimental feel as we were making it to me, and that was fun. I enjoyed not quite knowing exactly what kind of plants we were going to make or if we were going to find the right consistency for the chocolate, so it didn't look like a brown water. The beauty of film is that it's very collaborative, so with the designers, the costume designers, the actors, it all kind of comes together. It's a big dysfunctional family.

CS!: Was there ever any doubt in your mind that Johnny Depp was your Willy Wonka?
Burton: No, but it was the first time that I didn't have to talk anybody into it. Before I could even open my mouth, it's like the studio goes "What about Johnny Depp?" And I go, "Well, okay if you're going to force him on me." (laughs)

CS!: You've worked with Johnny so much now that you two have become intrinsically linked. What would you consider his main appeal as an actor?
Burton: Well, it's because he's a character actor in a leading man's body. He's ready to do anything. He's probably more like Lon Chaney than he is a leading man. He wants to transform, and he likes to be different characters in different movies. He's an actor that you would think about, perhaps even for female roles. He can do it all. He's very versatile that way.

CS!: What is it about your relationship that keeps you two coming back to each other?
Burton: Well, I mean I love working with him, but I don't think either he or I would just make a movie just to make a movie together. I think we're friends enough that if the part was right and he was into it, of course we'd always [do it].

CS!: How did the two of you come up with Wonka's look and mannerisms?
Burton: You know, Johnny and I have this process where we kind of speak in the abstract to each other, and yet, can still somehow understand each other. But we never like to use one reference. I mean, I never say to Johnny, make it like this. I remember we did have conversations, and one of the things we did talk about was that in our childhood, in every city, there's some weird children's show host that's got a weird name and usually has a funny haircut. Then, as you got older and think back on him, you go like "That guy was f'in weird, man! What was that guy all about?" It's like Captain Kangaroo and Mr. GreenJeans…who are these people? Each city had their own kind regional one that kind of spooked you out a little bit, so we were kind of using that sort of reference point. I think the great thing about Dahl's writing is that he left that character kind of ambiguous. There's sort of a mysterious nature to that character that even though we gave him a little bit of a back story that was not in the book, still that weird, mysterious nature of the character felt important.

CS!: So was being able to add that back story what made this project attractive?
Burton: We just felt that if you have an eccentric character--and it works fine in the book--I just felt in the movie, that if you got this guy acting that strange, you kind you some traumatic experiences in your life.

CS!: Are you concerned that Wonka might come across as being slightly psychotic?
Burton: No, I just think he comes across as emotionally repressed and stunted. When people get traumatized, they just sort of shut down. Related to that, I've met people that are kind of geniuses in one area, but are completely deficient in every other area of their life. The mixture of those things was what I sort of thought him as.

CS!: Some people have already been making a connection between Willy Wonka inviting kids into his factory with recent allegations about a certain pop star and his California ranch. Are you worried people might have that perception?
Burton: See, here's the big difference. Michael Jackson likes children. Willy Wonka can't stand them. (laughter) To me, that's a huge difference in the whole persona thing. Honestly, the truth is I never made that connection for the very reason I just mentioned. We never talked about that at all. I guess you could say that they both have problems, but we all have problems. It says more about the people making that reference, because I can't think of any larger difference. It's almost like night and day.

CS!: Like some of your other films, Willy Wonka has father issues. Is this some reflection of your own relationship with your parents?
Burton: Yeah, I got some problems. You've seen me enough to realize that by now, haven't you? My parents are dead so the answers will remain unanswered. Those kind of things in your life. In movies, you try to work out your issues, and then you realize, those kind of traumatic issues just stay with you forever, so somehow, they kind of keep reoccurring. No matter how hard I try to get them out of my head, they sort of stay there.

CS!: And what made Freddie Highmore the best candidate to play Charlie?
Burton: I was lucky to get Freddie. The physicality of [Charlie] was important, and I wanted Freddie to look undernourished. The grandparents are really old and they didn't have much to eat, and if a strong wind blew, Freddie might just blow away. Those were all important elements and the simplicity of that character, to me, was important. That's why I was lucky to get him because he's just got that gravity and that was really important to it.

CS!: Could you talk about how you found the four other kids and were they able to deliver what you wanted?
Burton: Yeah, well casting kids is harder than casting adults. The good news was Freddie. I hadn't seen Finding Neverland, but when he walked into the room, I just knew he was right. I was glad that I hadn't seen the other movie, cause you like to have more of an instinct, and it was with that with all the kids. You see a lot of kids that could be good, but it was almost like if you were doing a television movie. These kids all had what I would call a cinematic quality. When they walked in, there was just something that I said you could see them on the big screen, and they were the more cinema version of those characters. Even though they're all good kids, there had to be a seed of what they are [in the characters], especially the ones that hadn't acted before. It was important that they had something of their character in them as people.

CS!: This is the most extensively you've worked with children. Did this coincidentally align with your own fatherhood?
Burton: No, I don't think it has anything to do with that. It's not like all of a sudden I'm going to be making the Teletubbies movie or the Wiggles feature film debut any time soon. I don't think it has altered my thinking. In fact I'm more inclined to think about making porno movies or something then I am to make children's films.

CS!: Did you ever consider casting Helena [Bonham Carter] as Violet Beauregard's mother rather than Charlie's?
Burton: (laughs) Yeah, but then I described how many days she'd have to be on the set doing that. Nah, she had other things to do.

CS!: Can you talk about the decision to use actor Deep Roy to play all of the Oompa Loompas?
Burton: Well, to me there were three options. You either hire a cast of Oompa Loompas, or the more modern approach would be to make them all CG. I've worked with Deep before, and to me, he's just an Oompa Loompa. You know what I mean? There was no question in my mind. To have the human element, not be all CG special effect, was of want to get a flavor of why he's the way he is. Otherwise, he's just a weirdo, and you want to at least have a sense of why he's acting strangely, and why's he got some problems. If your father were a dentist and Christopher Lee, you could see where that might cause problems. It felt kind of Dahlesque and surreal to make him be everybody, just because something felt right about that. Also, on the technical term, it was more cost effective, then doing all special effects shots because we could actually use him in certain shots, certain lenses and camera angles so that he could interact with Johnny and the kids on occasion so he wasn't always having to be added in later. There were lots of reasons why that felt right to me.

CS!: Do you think the squirrel sequence might make the movie too scary or dark for younger kids?
Burton: No, and that's the thing, I go back and look at the book and the original film, we're probably even lighter in a certain way. There's something when you read about it in the book, it almost seems almost more traumatic and horrible, and yet, this is a children's classic. I think adults forget sometimes what it's like to be a kid. That's why I like the book and why I think it remains a classic. He kind of explored those edgier aspects of childhood.

CS!: You're once again using Danny Elfman to do the music for this one, but was it a conscious effort to have him revisit his Oingo Boingo days with the Oompa Loompa tunes?
Burton: Yeah, exactly. That was fun, because I used to see Oingo Boingo in clubs as a student, never even knowing that I'd ever be able to make movies. It did kind of remind me of going back to those sleezy clubs and hearing them play. I enjoy working with him, and he's my friend, but I always feel like he's another character in the film.

CS!: Did this film alter your relationship with chocolate in any way?
Burton: (laughs) If you'd been in the chocolate river room like in the last week we were shooting there, it started to smell so bad. Literally, you would open up the stage doors and people were complaining. It smells kind of like parts of this hotel…but worse.

CS!: What would you like audiences to take away from this film?
Burton: What was good about [Dahl's] writing was that he laid his messages in there, and in a weird way, it's kind of a spiritual journey. Charlie is the toughest character, because it's the simplest. All the other bad kids get their just desserts, so to speak, and the purity and simplicity floats to the top, and to me, at least in my life, what you want to do is try to reach a place where you can find that simple purity in a perverted world.

CS!: You proceeded this movie with Big Fish, which was a much more personal piece. Is it important for you to break things up and do smaller movies like that in between the larger ones?
Burton: No, I try to treat it, so that each time it's a personal thing. It has to be, because you spend so much time on it, you have to personalize it. After doing a big one, you do kind of get traumatized by it, and maybe the next time, you do think about maybe not doing that again. It's not necessarily a hardcore rule, but I can certainly understand that.

CS!: What's going on with Corpse Bride and was it hard to keep the two movies separate?
Burton: We're still finishing that, but it was good, because we could only work with the kids so much during the day so sometimes, we'd work a day and then go over to sound booth and do some voice work on the other. It was kind of a chaotic situation, but I'm excited about that one. The animation is such a slow-motion process, it would only be a few seconds a week to look at. In fact, it was good in a certain way, because I was obviously hardcover on 'Charlie', but since 'Corpse Bride' is slower, I can have a bit more of an object feel for it.

CS!: If this film does well enough, would you be interested in directing Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator?
Burton: No, and you can count on that.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory opens everywhere on July 15.




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