Travels with

A Journey Through the Macabre with Tim Burton

A tour from suburban America to Victorian England with the director with a taste for magic and the macabre

To keep pace with Tim Burton, step inside the mind of an outsider. The frizzy-haired filmmaker was always a misfit, starting from when he was a child growing up in the sunny suburbs of Burbank, California. While other kids watched Saturday morning cartoons, a young Burton delighted in grisly horror flicks and Japanese monster movies. He loved to draw and to think alone among the gravestones of a cemetery near his home. If that wasn’t enough to make him the odd boy out, his parents bricked up his bedroom windows and his mother operated a cat-themed novelty shop.

Credit: dpa picture alliance/Alamy Live News

Amid this awkward upbringing, Burton became adept at finding the surreal in the suburban. In 1984, while working at The Walt Disney Studios, he directed black-and-white short Frankenweenie, about a young boy and his resurrected zombie-dog. It was Mary Shelley’s monster classic reimagined in the cookie-cutter communities that make up the American dream. Deemed too dark for children at the time, the short was shelved and its maker fired. Fortunately, Frankenweenie got a second chance at life; almost three decades later, it was remade as a full-length stop-motion animation by Burton and Disney and released to rave reviews.

In Edward Scissorhands, a story about a misunderstood social outcast with razor-sharp limbs, Burton found a replica of his own past in the small town of Lutz, Florida, where he created the film’s off-kilter suburban universe. He adorned its manicured lawns with animal-shaped topiary and, with permission from the residents, painted the houses in what the film’s production designer Bo Welch called a palette of ‘sea-foam green, butter, dirty flesh and dirty blue.’

Collection Christophel © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Burton seems most at home away from his original suburban upbringing. He concocted his ghoulish comedy Beetlejuice on a lonely hill in rural New England (the film’s set in Connecticut but was shot in Vermont). And then there’s actual England, where the auteur lives. The Victorian era would have been the ideal time period for him but it’s nothing that a touch of the Burtonesque – a whimsical mash-up of the magical and the macabre – can’t bring back to life in the modern age. You’d see what I mean if you visited his workplace in London’s Belsize Park. A century ago, it was occupied by Arthur Rackham, the illustrator known for his fantastical and sometimes sinister takes on tales like Alice in Wonderland (Burton released his own cinematic vision of Lewis Carroll’s tale in 2010). Today, it’s littered with Burton’s boggle-eyed drawings, as well as movie posters and odd paraphernalia.

Credit: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy Stock Photo

You could also visit Fleet Street, the original setting of Sweeney Todd, the tale of the murderous barber Burton adapted from the Sondheim musical. Then head north to Hertfordshire. There you’ll find Knebworth House, the grand Tudor-style estate that appeared, always in shadow or darkness, as Wayne Manor in Burton’s unlikely gothic-superhero hit, Batman. Many of Burton’s other features, including Sleepy Hollow and his most recent, Dumbo – an update of the 1941 Disney classic – were also filmed in England.

Robert Harding/Alamy Stock Photo

Be warned – Burton is not a voluble travelling companion. He’s known to be more comfortable communicating visually than vocally. He also has a reputation for snatching up paper napkins at bars and restaurants to doodle on. But if you don’t mind being left with the occasional dab of mustard on your lips, you’ll be enchanted by drawings so weird and wonderful they’ve been celebrated in numerous books and exhibitions, including a 2009 retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

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