Exclusive: Burton’s biographer breaks his silence

Burton's Sweeney Todd

Burton's Sweeney Todd

Today we have a guest post from Gerard Elson, Burton-obsessive and editor of the film blog Celluloid Tongue. Here he interviews the prolific international film critic, former editor of Empire Magazine and Burton confidante Mark Salisbury.

Foremost, can you talk a little on your own personal relationship with Tim’s work – what was it that initially struck what must have been a pretty profound chord in you as a film fan, given your now lengthy professional relationship?

It began a long, long time ago when I went to see a Disney dinosaur film called Baby: The Secret Of The Lost Legend and before the main feature they showed this wonderfully strange black and white short called Frankenweenie. It was funny and delightful and odd and personal and charming and I loved every frame of it, so much so that I made a point of remembering the name of the director – Tim Burton.

I can’t quite remember the order of my next exposure to Burton, whether it was ‘The Jar’, his episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents… which I watched on TV in the UK late one night, or Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, but whichever one it was, the proverbial light bulb went off as I saw his name again, remembered the short and thought, “This guy’s really interesting…”

I was fortunate enough to meet Burton at a Warner Brothers christmas party while he was shooting Batman in England, and the following week actually went out to dinner with him and Clive Barker and a few others. As Clive and Tim chatted, I recorded the conversation for a piece in Fear magazine. A few years later, I was sent to Rome to interview Burton about Edward Scissorhands for The Guardian newspaper — by which time his place in my film fan’s heart was firmly established. It was a few year later, after Faber & Faber began their Filmmakers series, that I thought Burton might be a suitable candidate and the rest, as they say, is history…

Having now come to know Tim personally, as well as having spent so much time documenting the production of his films and chronicling his career, how has the way you appreciate his work changed?

That’s an interesting question and the answer is probably one to do with process. Initially I was viewing Burton’s films first and foremost as a fan. Then, when I started working on Burton, it became more analytical — trying to uncover themes and links both visual and thematic in the work. Now, because I’m so lucky to get to spend a lot of time on his sets, I find myself concentrating more on the filmmaking process. The downside to that, of course, is it often takes me several viewings of Burton’s latest to distance myself from the process itself, to appreciate the film for a film, rather than my brain subconsciously noting to itself, “I was there for that. I was there when they shot that scene.” That’s not to say it isn’t possible. Watching Sweeney Todd for the first time, I felt I was very much a ‘virgin viewer’ despite having spent many days on set and written the ‘Making of’ book. That’s not to say I’m not interested in the analytical/thematic side of his work, rather having got to know Burton somewhat over the years, I think I have more insight into those personal links to his work and rather than try to find those which conform to type, I’m uncovering those that don’t.

Edward of the scissory hands
Edward of the scissory hands

Finally, Tim seems to inspire quite strong loyalties in both his fans and collaborators. Having blurred that line for two decades and counting, what do you think it is about him and his work that not only affects people, but continues to engender such impassioned devotion?

Without sounding too profound, and talking from the impassioned fan perspective rather than mainstream success, I think Burton’s work — be it in film, prose or on canvas or paper – has that ability to touch people at their core, to speak to you directly about loneliness, vulnerability, and individuality, to say it doesn’t matter if you’re different or if you feel different, I understand, I was like that, I am like that… Okay, that did sound a little profound.

In terms of Burton’s collaborators, I think it’s a case of people really want to work with him – actors love him, fellow artists love him. He’s great fun and exciting to be around, he’s very giving, he respects people’s opinions and their skills, he allows them to flourish, he allows them the freedom to dream and to be creative. He doesn’t try and stifle anyone’s creativity or artistic expression. The by-product of that is they’re party to something truly unique, something that people want to see, something that will, ultimately, stand the test of time.

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4 Responses to “Exclusive: Burton’s biographer breaks his silence”

  1. Leah 15. Sep, 2010 at 5:06 pm #

    Very interesting! :)

  2. ACMI 15. Sep, 2010 at 5:18 pm #

    We thought so too!

  3. Evie 15. Sep, 2010 at 7:26 pm #

    I saw the picture of Sweeney Todd *sighs*, and I decided I HAD to read this. I am happy that I did! Very interesting! :)

  4. Luke 16. Sep, 2010 at 7:30 pm #

    Very good read.

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