Big Fish in His Own Pond

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MATTHIAS CLAMER FOR TIME

Because he tends to dress like a mortician and has made a fair number of films that romanticize gloom, Tim Burton has emerged as one of those directors who are not just makers of myths but subjects of them too. The most prevalent Burton myth is that he is dark and possibly a little disturbed. In addition to his clothes and movies, there are eerie bits of biography to support this view, like the fact that Burton's parents blacked out the windows of his childhood bedroom, apparently to save on heating bills. (Burton grew up in Burbank, Calif.not a notoriously difficult place to heat a home.) The second Burton myth is that his mind is still trapped in the eremitic universe of that darkened bedroom. Evidence includes his lavish re-creations of '60s pop trifles (Batman, Mars Attacks! and Planet of the Apes) as well as more personal films (Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood) that center on misunderstood emotional savants with a likeness to a certain director.

Cross the wires of the Burton myths, as Hollywood studios often do, and — it's alive! — you get Frankenstein's multiplex monster, a developmentally arrested auteur capable of turning out an almost consistently profitable brand of kooky horror. Naturally, Burton loathes these myths. "You get pigeonholed very easily in Hollywood," he says, "even if you do something they were leery of to begin with. I try not to think about it, but, oh, it kind of drives me out of my mind."


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Burton, 45, has no desire to be understood outside of his movies, but he wouldn't mind being, as he puts it, "un-Burtonized." His new movie, Big Fish, will probably help matters. Big Fish has chimerical elements, but they're in the service of a life-affirming story about fathers and sons, the kind of thing Steven Spielberg keeps returning to. (Spielberg was at one point attached to direct the film, as was The Hours' Stephen Daldry.) The movie stars Albert Finney as a man on his deathbed who recalls his younger self, played by Ewan McGregor, as a force of indefatigable buoyancy; Finney's son, played by Billy Crudup, believes his father is just an indefatigable liar. Big Fish is rooted in a conflicted adult world, and for the first time in a Tim Burton film, it is the parent — not the child — who is whimsical and misunderstood.

On one count, the un-Burtonizing process turns out to be fairly easy. Burton's home in north London (he has lived off and on in London for several years) is neither a cave nor a haunted mansion but a series of four cottages in a sylvan courtyard that he and actress Helena Bonham Carter, his girlfriend and the mother of their new son, lovingly renovated into a single cozy home. It is the kind of place Hansel and Gretel would run to. Inside, a coal fire hisses softly, and Burton, in clothes of muted color, but color nonetheless, sock-slides his way across the wood floor and into his study, where he flops with charming gracelessness onto a red velvet couch. He is as brooding as a Muppet. "People really know me know that I'm not dark at all," he says. "I mean, at all. Like, yeah, I like monster movies, but it's cathartic. I don't even ... I don't know where ... I don't know."

Burton is warm, funny and optimistic. He is also incapable of finishing a thought. He begins conversations with a symphony of dancing hands and flopping hair, only to end up drifting in deep verbal space. Even simple topics can be tough for him. When he mentions that he used to live around the corner, Burton scans the ceiling and the words emerge warily, as if he were debuting a shiny new piece of vocabulary but were unsure of its pronunciation. "I had a flat on ... Belsize ... Park ... Gardens?" Later he acknowledges, "I didn't leave the house very much."

Which brings us to Burton myth No. 2, that of the sealed adolescent universe. This one is a bit more difficult to dismiss. When he's not making a movie, Burton doodles a lot (he usually has at least two pens tucked into his shirt pocket). Otherwise, he says, "I can't really account for my time. It kind of spooks me out because I don't really know how I spend it. I'm a little scattered. I think about things and do things, but I don't seem to have a specific thing that I do. Somehow the day goes by."

Burton needs movies not just as an excuse to get up in the morning but also as a means of exchange between himself and the real world. "Half the things I've ever worked on are these big behemoths where there's a release date before there's a script," he says, but the other half are abstract attempts at autobiography. "I'm amazed at people like Robert Wise [The Sound of Music, The Andromeda Strain] who can go from genre to genre, and every movie seems different," he says. "I never felt that I could do that. I need some sort of connection. The doing of it — making a movie — is a cathartic experience, so there's got to be ..."

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