Peopled with lonely little monsters, dancing corpses and boggle-eyed creatures from the underworld, Tim Burton’s cult universe came to Paris this week with a show that journeys through his life’s work.
Some 500 sketches – the starting point for all Burton’s films – whisk visitors deep into the U.S. director’s surreal inner world, with gothic doodles dating back to his misfit childhood in Burbank, a bland suburb of Los Angeles.
“These are things that were never meant to be seen by anyone,” the filmmaker told a news conference introducing the traveling exhibit, titled “Tim Burton” and first set up for New York’s MoMa in 2009. “But I am so grateful to the creators!”
Film clips, photos and props complete the picture, from a pumpkin-headed scarecrow from the 1999 “Sleepy Hollow,” to a life-sized “Martian Anatomy” chart from the 1996 “Mars Attacks,” or black rubber masks from “Batman” in 1989.
When Ronald Magliozzi went rifling through Burton’s accumulated possessions, the curator initially planned a show looking back at his career.
“We discovered he had these vast archives,” he said. “His parents had saved every last drawing he had ever done. We realized this would be an exhibit of Tim Burton’s art – art that we didn’t even know existed.”
Gems include Burton’s earliest animated film, made in 1974 and unearthed by a former art teacher: a 33-second long, gory attack by a pair of pliers on a green plasticine monster.
Burton’s world is always shot through with humor. “I never try to make it just dark,” he said. “I’m always drawn to material that’s both funny and sad, light and dark.”
Paired with witty little poems, his sketches come under headings like “Childhood,” full of bandaged little mummies, or “Couples,” one of them of a man and woman tucking gorily into each other’s shins.
“Drawing keeps your hands busy. And it keeps depression at bay,” said Burton, who doodles constantly, including on restaurant napkins – with dozens from the Paris Ritz lined upon display.
Glow-in-the-dark creatures, all eyes and tentacles, spin on a carousel like a kind of “monster-go-round,” while a gallery of polaroids from the 1990s features a macabre mother and child, deathly blue and covered in Frankenstein stitches.
When the show was unveiled in New York, “the art world was a little rude – perhaps that’s the best way of putting it,” said the director. “But the best compliment I got was from kids, who thought ‘Well if he can do it, maybe I can as well.”
Looking back to his own childhood in Burbank, home to both Disney and Warner film studios, he remembers a deadening place to live, “with no sense of history, no sense of culture, no sense of passion for anything.
The director, who sought refuge in B-movies and horror stories, in which “the monsters were the most interesting characters,” said that “growing up, I was made to feel like an alien.”
Burton sees a kinship between his work and Europe’s fairy-tale tradition, and insists that when it comes to scariness, “Kids are the best judge of what they can take.
“Fairy tales are basically horror stories,” he continues. “They have always been a way for kids – in a symbolic way – to start to understand the world. My 3-year-old watched ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and loved the scary parts!”
Today, Burton gives thanks for crossing the path of inspiring art teachers, “Ones who just said ‘Draw what you feel. Draw what you can.’”
Later on, working as an animator at Disney – during a period when he now reckons he was suffering from depression – Burton would hide in closets to nap during the day.
He also remembers that time, in the early 1980s, as “a fertile period”: “They sort of locked me in a room and let me draw whatever I wanted.”
Thirty years on, Magliozzi says Burton’s ability “to work as an independent filmmaker within the Hollywood system, is what makes him unique.”
Burton himself says he “realized very early on that every film is a struggle to make, which is a good thing in a way. Once you get labeled a weirdo, they always think there is something wrong with you. ‘Is he going to do something crazy?’”
“But I never quite understood their take on it. I always felt quite normal,” he said.
“Tim Burton” runs until Aug. 5 at the French Cinematheque alongside a retrospective of Burton’s film work.