Director Tim Burton: ‘Everything I’ve done has apparently been too dark’

Tim Burton talks to The National about his movie Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and how his films are not nearly as dark as many people think.

Tim Burton. Photo by Leah Gallo
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Tim Burton is renowned for his ­fascination with the ­fantastical and the bizarre.

His filmmaking career spans three decades and includes almost 20 movies as ­director, including Beetlejuice, Alice in Wonderland, Batman and Edward Scissorhands, plus numerous credits as ­producer, writer and animator.

Even by Burton’s standards, however, a desire to become mayor of Blackpool seems an unusual ambition.

Burton shot parts of his latest film, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, in the rundown Northern English seaside town, which is best known for its three piers, Eiffel-inspired tower, ballroom dancing, and the Pleasure Beach amusement park. It was not his first time filming there.

“I use Blackpool a lot in this film, and I shot a Killers music video there, too,” he says. “I really hope to one day become mayor of Blackpool.”

The conversation takes a turn for the even more weird and ­Burton-esque when he says the resort reminds him of his childhood in the United States.

"I grew up on the west coast of California, near ­Santa Monica, and it's kind of similar," he says, without a hint of irony. "I used to go there as a teenager – you know that kind of Quadrophenia, lonely person on the dilapidated pier thing – and I think that's why I like Blackpool. That faded beauty – there's something emotional and tragic and poetic about it. I'm drawn to places like that."

It should come as no surprise, then, that Burton was also drawn to Ransom Riggs' off-kilter book Miss Peregrine's School for Extraordinary Children. Part-photo journal, part-novel, it tells the story of Jacob Portman (played by Asa Butterfield), an orphaned teenager who embarks on a journey guided by his late grandfather's photograph collection, which leads him to a secret school for children with extraordinary powers, who are under threat from a dastardly plot by Mr Barron (Samuel L Jackson) and his horde of evil wights.

The movie is ostensibly a kids’ film, but, as is often the case with Burton, his natural fondness with the dark side should ensure grown-ups love it too.

The director says that he does not ever intentionally set out to make dark films.

"Since the beginning of my career, everything I've done has apparently been too dark," he says. "Batman was too dark. The Nightmare Before Christmas was too dark, even though 3-year-old kids were singing it and their dogs liked it ... I could film an ice-skating show and it would be too dark.

“I never saw anything I ever did as dark. There may be creepy elements but, I don’t know – you’d have to ask somebody else because I don’t think anything I’ve ever done is dark.”

Burton also does not want the film to be viewed as a superhero movie, even though the central characters have powers – including Eva Green’s Miss Peregrine, who can transform into a bird.

“The characters do have special powers, but I don’t think it’s a superhero movie,” he says. “The superhero genre is clearly alive and well – but this is a more human movie.

“The children’s abilities are less of a superpower and more of an affliction – just a part of each kid’s peculiarity. I’m not interested in saving the world, but who they are. It’s much more on a down-to-earth, human level for me.”

A big fan of American author Riggs’s book, which was published in 2011 Burton seems genuinely nervous about adapting it.

“The hardest thing was, how do I take this novel and put it in a different medium?” he says. “The photos are so unique. When you look at the photos, you kind of feel things, but you don’t really know what it is. It’s harder to do that on screen. It’s like when I showed Stephen Sondheim Sweeney Todd, I felt like I was a child going to the principle’s office.

“Honestly, showing it to the writer is scarier than showing it to the audience. I never asked Ransom if he was a fan of my work, but we had certain connections. You’re always hoping that the writer will like it.”

Burton can sympathise with the intense feelings writers might feel seeing their creations reimagined by someone else as he has had a similar experience on the other side.

"I remember when Matthew Bourne did a ballet adaptation of Edward Scissorhands, and I went to that," he says. "I actually felt myself leave my body and float up to the ceiling on some strange, dark voyage. It's just a weird phenomenon – so I can imagine what it's like for people to have something they created translated like this."

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is in cinemas now