Twenty-five years after Tim Burton created his original short, Frankenweenie returns: on the big screen, in glorious black and white, and as a stop-motion film that has come to define Tim Burton’s style. But how does one go about adapting a 20-minute live-action short into the Frankenweenie that stormed into theaters this weekend? We went to screenwriter and long-time Burton collaborator John August for the scoop.
What was the process like, adapting Tim Burton’s short film into a feature animation?
Tim called and said he wanted to make Frankenweenie a feature and told me to see the short film. I said, “Of course I’ve seen your short.” Tim knew he wanted to know what the short film did - tell the story of a boy and his dog, and bringing the dog back to life - but he had this idea that the other boys in class would want to make their own monsters, and [Tim] had a list of “monsters” he’d like to see. From that, it was just building out the rest of the world to support that. I pitched back that I wanted to make a weirdly pro-science movie. I wanted a science teacher to come in, I wanted a science fair, I pitched New Holland, this suburban town that, for some reason, has a windmill, which could be used as a set piece at the end.
Did having source material make it easier or more difficult to come up with the complete script?
It was remarkable having that short to go back to because that short showed a boy and his dog, and bringing his dog back to life. I knew that emotional core was great and pure and strong. There was nothing we wanted to change about the Victor/Sparky story. Knowing we had that, it was a question of where else did we want the story to go. The stuff that we already had that we loved help create the rest of this world.
Does doing the film as a stop-motion animation as opposed to live-action allow you to go a little wilder with your imagination?
When I’m writing a script that I know is going to be animated, I am mindful of how each scene is going to look, but I also have to write as if each scene was real; as if these were real people in a real town. So in my head I am seeing a movie with real kids, and a camera down at their angle, and seeing everything from their perspective. So I try to write it like I would for a live-action feature, but I try to go back through it to make sure that it is going to make sense in black and white, in 3D, and with puppets. Sparky the dog is brilliantly animated, which is a testament to everyone’s hard work, so it feels like a real dog because they made the effort to create a real dog.
That was one of the things I noticed: that Sparky didn’t feel like a cartoon dog; he felt like a real dog.
Tim wanted to make sure, at the script phase, that we weren’t making Sparky do anything that a real dog couldn’t do. So Sparky isn’t anthropomorphic in the sense that he isn’t smarter than other real dogs. He acts in a dog-like way to most of the things that happen.
How did your whole collaboration with Tim Burton get started? You’ve been with him for a number of films.
The first movie we worked on together was Big Fish. I wrote the script for Big Fish and we had another director who was supposed to shoot it. When he didn’t do it, we threw a hail mary and said, “Maybe Tim will do it.” And Tim said yes. So we didn’t really work very much on Big Fish because it was ready to go, and he wanted to shoot what I had written. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was the first time I came in and specifically wrote a script for Tim, and that was great. He knew what he wanted and I could pitch back what I thought I needed to do, then go off and write it. As a writer, that’s a dream: to give someone a movie they are excited to shoot.
You have a wide range of genres to your credit. Is there one you prefer over others?
I say this too often, but my favorite genre of movie is movies that get made. So much of the life of a screenwriter is creating these movies on the page, then hoping hoping hoping someone will want to film them. The nice thing about writing films for Tim Burton is that there is a better than good chance that he will actually shoot them. But there is no one genre I like better than others. I like doing many different things.
Are you adapting Big Fish for the stage?
I am. That has been a great process. I wrote the book and, not unlike Frankenweenie, it is a chance to go back and take something you loved from another form and look at it in a new medium. So far, it has turned out great.
Can you tell me a little bit about this rumored Monsterpocalypse?
Monsterpocalypse was a movie I wrote for Tim, but I don’t know that we are shooting it. I don’t know any plans for it.
Well it has an awesome title.
Yeah, it is a great title. It’s a movie I would love to get made. It is tremendously expensive, like a lot of big movies are, so we will see.