An outsider who makes very successful films, Tim Burton is the director whose dark vision was behind 'Beetlejuice' and 'Edward Scissorhands'. His latest film, 'Sleepy Hollow', is a gothic fairy tale about a headless horseman. In a rare interview, Emma Forrest finds a man with a twisted and extraordinary mind.
Portrait by Mary Ellen Mark.


Tim Burton is the most imaginative director of the decade, but the mishaps that befall my interview with the 41‑year‑old recall a terrible screwball comedy. We are each given different times for the appointment, so that when I get to Manhattan's Four Seasons hotel, Burton is slumped in a chair waiting for me. He looks like a child who has somehow been coerced into playing bass for Siouxsie and the Banshees. With hair like a tar covered haystack, he wears dark glasses and swings his long legs in front of him as if he mistakenly believes them to be too short even to touch the floor. It's not the first time I wonder if Tim Burton is seeing something the rest of the world can't.

Arranging ourselves in the hotel's conference room, we are chatting amiably when the batteries in my tape recorder begin to fail. 'Sorry about this,' I mumble as I fiddle with the Duracells.

“Oh, no! I love to watch you change batteries!” he replies, as if this were some regular session he had been paying me to keep for decades. You can bet that if Burton did pay for some form of deviancy, it would be something as innocent as a battery fixation. No Hollywood sleaze he. As dark as they may appear on the surface, Burton's films are all about the triumph of good in the face of cynicism. Pee Wee Herman is a childman with a talent for trouble but impeccably good intentions; Batman is a crusader for good; Edward Scissorhands recalls the otherworldly goodness of Herman Melville's Billy Budd. Ed Wood is the true story of the good hearted Hollywood outsider who made outlandishly bad and unsuccessful Fifties films. Burton is the good hearted outsider who has made outlandishly good and successful films.

An unlikely Christmas hit in America, his latest opus, Sleepy Hollow, took $30 million on its opening weekend. The Nightmare Before Christmas, filmed entirely in stop‑motion animation for less than $18 million, brought in $51 million at the box office when released in 1993. Batman revived the high‑concept movie and reversed the fortunes of the ailing Warners studio, bringing in $47 million in three days. Edward Scissorhands was an instant classic, so much so that it even features in an episode of Seinfeld (Kramer declares that he'd “like to have shoehorn hands”).

I replace the batteries, but then the tape‑recorder shuts down. I'll tell you now that I am left with just over 20 minutes of tape from a one‑and‑a‑half‑hour interview. I will also tell you that you are not missing anything. Tim Burton never finishes his sentences. He doesn't operate in speech.

Burton, like his movies, is all about visuals. Attempting to answer the easiest of questions, his arms flail, his hands wobble, his tangles of black hair dance madly. As a human being, he makes more sense when you look at him than when you hear him speak his voice is West Coast, dreamy, as if he were thinking of spiders and merry-go‑rounds and clouds in the shape of penguins. Pale and wide‑eyed, he looks a lot like Edward Scissorhands. Johnny Depp ‑- who stars in Sleepy Hollow as Ichabod Crane ‑- worked with Burton for the third time and says that in Edward Scissorhands, the film that broke him out of teen pin‑up purgatory, he is essentially playing the director. 'It's in the hands. The way he waves them around in the air almost uncontrollably, nervously tapping on the table. The stilted speech. Tim is Edward.”

Burton's films do not have great dialogue, structure or narrative. Sleepy Hollow was scripted by Andrew Kevin Walker, writer of Seven, and polished by none other than Tom Stoppard. Sleepy Hollow is being called 'the most visually gorgeous film ever made'. But the words are still secondary. He wanted to film Washington Irving's story (about a headless horseman who decapitates his victims) because he loved the idea of the detective Crane, who lives entirely inside his head, doing battle with someone who doesn't have a head at all.

'We all look at people's eyes to categorise them,' he says. 'You look at their eyes or face. But here you've got this powerful, elegant character without a head. The headless horseman represents the subconscious. Ichabod is the conscious mind, thinking too much, bullshitting his way through everything, which is perfect, appropriate...' he tails off. So that's something you relate to? 'I suppose my films are a visual form of the subconscious. Sally in The Nightmare Before Christmas is stitched together because these are symbols of the way I feel. Being loosely stitched together and constantly trying to pull yourself together, so to speak, is just a strong feeling for me. In a great fairy tale you always get these weird images that are symbolic of something else.'

Beetlejuice, the rambling, structureless ghost comedy that was his breakthrough hit, contains some definitive Burton visuals. A deceased shark victim sits on a chair, a small shark still attached to his knee. A magician's assistant's two halves sit at either end of the sofa. In Burton's world the afterlife is amusing in its similarity to the grind of daily living a branch of accountancy, if you will. Surprisingly, for all the ghosts, murders and mayhem in his films, Sleepy Hollow is his first conventional horror story.

'I talked to a lot of people who thought they knew the story,' says Burton. 't thought I'd read the book but it was just in my subconscious.'

He likes the idea that his films might be like 'a song you really love, but you can never quite hear all the lyrics to, so you kind of go away and make up your own. The headless horseman is someone you can't actually identify but he's strong and there. I love anything that you can't quite categorise.'

If Sleepy Hollow is modelled on anything it is the campy Hammer House of Horror films starring Vincent Price, Peter Cashing and Christopher Lee. Lee makes a cameo appearance and Christopher Walken appears as the headless horseman (in flashback, he actually has a head). Burton excitedly notes that Sleepy Hollow contains Christopher Walken's first ever screen kiss. And because his teeth are sharpened, the recipient ends up with a mouth full of blood.

As he pours milk into his dainty cup of coffee, Burton muses on how Walken, who was originally a conventional leading man, ended up an icon of the perverse. 'He must have done one weird thing and then that's it. We all get pigeonholed.'

Burton's pigeonhole is that he is a goth, a mad genius, depressive and painfully shy. The goth and genius part seems fair, but he is hardly melancholy, shy or mad, although his constant giggle betrays a man slightly off kilter. The night before our interview, at the screening of Sleepy Hollow, he greeted the world's press and distributors with few words and much physical contact. Grabbing each and every viewer by the hand, he chirruped, 'Thank you so much for coming to see my film!' Standing before the giant screen as the velvet curtains slid back, he added, 'I hope you like it!' beaming cheerily, as if it were a film about daisies and buttercups and snowdrops on kittens.

Nowadays, he has no problem doing the corporate thing. But he stopped caring during Batman: he fought hard for Michael Keaton as the lead ‑- even though the actor was then perceived as a clown ‑- and he fought hard not to have Michael Jackson on the soundtrack . But he has always been happy to work within the studio system.

He has previously been somewhat harsh on Batman, saying he felt totally disconnected from the film. Legs crossed on his chair, he recants, “I do like Batman. A lot. But it's like a relationship. It's all‑consuming. You get through it. And then you have to give it a few years before you can be nice about it again.'

Burton was married, in 1989, to the German painter Lena Gieseke, but they broke up a few years later. Since then, he has lived with his constant companion and muse, the actress‑model, Lisa Marie, who looks like a cross between Morticia Addams and Jessica Rabbit. 'Sometimes she reminds me of Sharon Tate,' he says dreamily, referring to the actress, murdered in 1969 by the notorious Manson family. 'She has that same other‑worldly quality.'

David E Kelley has said that the neurotic heroine of his TV comedy Ally McBeal is a love letter to his wife Michelle Pfeiffer. What then, of the fate defined for Lisa Marie by Tim Burton in Sleepy Hollow? She plays Ichabod Crane's virtuous mother who is crushed to death in a nail‑encrusted casket. One tenet of gothic writing has it that the flipside of true romance is darkness. If so, Tim Burton really loves Lisa Marie. 'I just think she looks so incredibly beautiful in that scene, it catches my breath.'

There is a sketch in Burton on Burton (Faber and Faber) called 'When animals are frightened they join together to form a larger creature'. That's what he and Lisa Marie have done. 'Our neuroses fit together,' he says. 'They complement each other. That's as much as you can ask from a relationship.' In Sleepy Hollow she is quite the most perfect vision of womanhood. Her skin shimmers and her breasts swell up over her bodice (speaking of cleavages, Christina Ricci's bust seems to be the focus of the Sleepy Hollow marketing campaign. Her breasts tower above LA's Sunset Strip as if they had been given star status of their own). Burton disdains the post‑Gwyneth emphasis on skinniness. 'I like shape. I like the shape of women. You get that in the Hammer films.'

He also loves the innocence of Hammer movies, because he is pre-irony. In Sleepy Hollow, as in Edward Scissorhands, Batman and Ed Wood, love is pure, untouchable and redeems all.

It is at this point that my tape-recorder completely breaks down. He keeps talking anyway and I pretend  I can do shorthand, sketching little ants  up and down the page of my notepad.

'What are you doing?' he asks, peering at the useless little ants.

Uh, I don't know.

Apparently satisfied with my answer, he starts doodling, too, scratching a pen into life like a vampire being woken from a coffin. He sketches a spindly Biro leg. Then a long nose, sad eyes.

'Is that a dog?' I ask, aware that, although his mother runs a store in Burbank, California, entirely devoted to all things feline, Burton is a dog person.

'No,' he demurs, running a hand through the spiders sprouting from his scalp, 'I think it's a fox.'

In 1979, a 20‑year‑old Tim Burton went to work at Disney as an animator on The Fox and the Hound. Recreating his stint there, he fleshes out the fox on his Four Seasons hotel notepaper. The fox is bug‑eyed and skinny and looks like it has been squished and then poked with sticks. This, he explains, is precisely the kind of thing that put an end to his time as an animator at Disney. 'I just couldn't do it. Being forced to draw these big‑eyed, cute animals--it was torture for me.”

Was Uncle Walt really that bad?

Totally. It was like The Prisoner. Everyone was really nice. But I never knew when I was Goint to get out.”

If anything has stuck from his time at Disney, it is his depiction of women. They are smiling, pretty and -- with the exception of Catwoman and Bettlejuice's Lydia Dicta -- secondary to men. In Sleepy Hollow, he puts Christina Ricci in a long wheat‑blonde wig, just as he did Winona Ryder in Edward Scissorhands. It's like seeing Liz Hurley being forced to cavort with puppies in the Estée Lauder ads.

'Well, the long blonde wig is supposed to be Dutch,' he says. 'It's right for the time and the setting.'

I push the point, until he confesses that he cast the notoriously rebellious uber‑brunette Ricci in the unlikely role of an ingenue in order to 'torture her with that horrible blonde wig. I laughed so hard every time I saw her.'

Why are your roles for women not nearly as fleshed out as your male leads?

'Because I'm a boy!' he protests, and his eyes go wider than ever behind his dark glasses. The boy swings his long legs again, imagining them short, not touching the ground. Maybe his little-boy‑lost persona and characters are a result of his somewhat disjointed childhood. Growing up in Burbank, seeking solace in late‑night monster movies, he went to live with his grandmother at 12. I ask why and he brushes off the question with a casual, 'I didn't really click with my parents', as if his parents were kind‑hearted creatures who cared for him after discovering him crawling from a pod in their back garden, but never quite understood him.

Burton's first ever relationship with a girl fared badly, too. 'You've seen Carrie, right? Prom night and all. I went on my first date to this girl's prom. I was wearing a yellow and black tux. I guess I went dressed as a bumble bee. It didn't go real well.'

Johnny Depp says that he has never seen someone 'so obviously out of place fit right in'. He adds that 'the majority of whatever success I've been lucky enough to have is because of Tim Burton. Because of Tim's belief in me, Hollywood opened its doors, playing a strange game of follow the leader.'

With Sleepy Hollow, the outsider continues to flourish in Hollywood, making films rather like the 'successful director' shades he wears throughout our conversation. They seem dark at first, but they're really tinted blue, which means that they're never too dark to see the little boy lost behind them.

'Bye!' he beams, pumping my hand. And as the lift doors close, he calls after me, 'I really liked watching the batteries being replaced.'

Sleepy Hollow is released on January 7.