On the discovery and atrophy of artistic inspiration, and what happens when directors become brands
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children 20th Century Fox
Director: Tim Burton
Screenplay: Jane Goldman, based on the novel by Ransom Riggs
Starring: Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Ella Purnell, Lauren McCrostie, Finlay MacMillan, Chris O'Dowd, Georgia Pemberton, Hayden Keeler-Stone, Terence Stamp and Samuel L. Jackson
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 7 minutes / 1.85:1
September 30, 2016
(out of four)
"I'll do it!"
Movie director Tim Burton slammed down the porcelain receiver of the vintage candlestick telephone sitting atop his antique late-19th-century hand-carved mahogany Gothic-style writing desk, wholly satisfied with the selection of his latest project. The calls had been coming in all morning. But this one ... this was the one he had been waiting for. He knew it would eventually. As an established brand, Burton knew it was only a matter of time. But he wouldn't put his name to just anything. What he needed, he frequently told associates and colleagues, was a project that really had that Tim Burton feeling. "Victor," he would say, turning to his assistant (whose real name was Kenneth but whom the two-time Academy Award nominee insisted on calling Victor), "find me something that really has that Tim Burton feeling."
Those once-rare, once-inimitable, once-personal somethings had taken on a life of their own ever since Burton had become a Highly Sought-After Hollywood Commodity. They were now handled more like entries in a franchise than individual concoctions - a branded line of streamlined niche products, a new one rolling out every couple of years. They were, quite simply, a reliably sound business decision, and Burton was the reliably predictable engineer who could deliver them. (After all, whimsical adolescent dark fantasies don't just make themselves.)
The artist in him was still present - still fighting the good fight from somewhere inside him - but he had long ago resigned himself to being a Brand. A one-man Snapchat filter. And such a distinct and palatable one that it could easily be applied to any existing property or brand name - indeed, had been, time and again already. Since the turn of the century, this status of his had resulted in five movies that could accurately be defined as remakes - established stories funneled through a Burton translator. Two classics from the late '60s/early '70s, one vintage TV series from the same period, one many-times-adapted literary fantasy, and even one of Burton's very own early (short) films. Only with his most recent effort had he put the Burton Business on hold, making a departure with the art-world legal drama Big Eyes in 2014. This, he now felt, had been a mistake. He had resolved to not make the same mistake again - and to redouble his efforts at reinforcing the brand he'd so carefully cultivated and institutionalized, and which represented something so specific to the ticket-buying public.
It was simply good business. And the possibilities had been flying in for months now. Victor and the switchboard secretaries (Burton had had a vintage mid-20th Century switchboard installed in his basement some years earlier) could hardly keep up with the offers. It seems everyone thought their IP could use a little Burton. Young-adult fantasy novels, Saturday-morning cartoons, epic poems, card games, video games, board games, underground comic books, off-brand action figure collections, antiquated radio programs (programmes?), Internet memes - the choices were coming from all over. But the 1990 Daytime Emmy Award winner was waiting for just the right recipe.
On the morning of the fateful call, Burton was in his study, placidly brushing his hair, as he often did. (His hair was particularly lopsided and unkempt that day - just the way he liked it.) Kenneth Victor confidently transferred the phone call from Quirk Books over to Burton's personal extension, and watched as his eyes lit up. "It's called," said the voice on the other end of the phone, "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children."
"I already love it."
Burton listened intently as the project was described to him in detail.
"So let me get this straight. You're telling me this is a nostalgic fantasy about a group of pale-faced outcasts with special abilities ... and that it's dark, but in a harmless sort of way ... and that it's scary, but in a childlike sort of way ... and you're telling me it's Gothic?! ... and that the whole thing is grounded in a bygone era, with a sense of tenuous innocence that rests right on the precipice of certain doom ... and that there are skeletons and large animals carved out of shrubbery in it?!”
The voice on the other end of the line was reassuring. "That's exactly what I'm telling you."
"Well then I've just got one more question, and this one is very important," Burton answered. "Does the main character have deep-seated issues with his father?"
There was a brief pause. "You're damn right he does."
"Well, hot dog!" Burton shouted, twirling around in his oversized leather chair with glee. "Now that's what I call a real Tim Burton Picture."
He set to work immediately, his mind racing with an array of on-brand ideas. He also had to think about casting, including the primary role of a teenage boy, Jake, who journeys to a remote Welsh island looking for answers tied to his recently deceased grandfather's apparently magical past. It didn't take long for him to recall, years earlier, seeing Martin Scorsese's Hugo in his own personal screening room (a refurbished single-screen grindhouse from his childhood hometown that, years earlier, he had uprooted and transported to his estate, keeping the cobwebs and the tattered seat covers perfectly in place). "A nostalgic movie about a lonely child and a mysterious handmade robot? You know who could have directed something like that?" he had said, impishly pointing at himself as he delivered the question.
After an awkward pause, Burton added, "Did you know I even won a Hugo Award once? I mean what are the odds."
He hadn't realized it yet back then, but the wheels were already in motion for him to one day tell his own story through the sad, innocent eyes of Hugo star Asa Butterfield. And now that time had come.
Equally as essential was the title role itself - Miss Peregrine, the time-manipulating shapeshifter who runs the titular home, stuck forever on a single day that resets (by her own hand) each night just before Luftwaffe bombs strike the idyllic rural estate at which Jake's grandfather had once resided and mysteriously departed. Having seen how The Magnificent Eva Green singlehandedly salvaged as much as humanly possible of Burton's Dark Shadows just a few years prior, the director knew she had exactly the presence and light comic touch the character of Miss Peregrine required. So once Johnny Depp turned down the role, she was the natural choice. "In fact," Burton muttered to himself, "she should probably take on comic roles more often. The woman's a natural."
Then there was the villainous Mr. Barron - a mad scientist and fellow shapeshifter trying desperately to locate Miss Peregrine and her children and, in time, regain his human form, feasting on the eyes of Peculiars to do so. Burton had always enjoyed using heavyweights for his villains - your Jack Nicholsons, Michelle Pfeiffers, Christopher Walkens, Michael Keatons and, um, Anthony Michael Halls. This time, Burton wanted - needed - Samuel L. Jackson himself, knowing he would not disappoint (he never did), knowing he would have as much fun chewing into the character's diabolical doings as any actor alive.
Casting aside, the various Peculiars at the home opened up some of the most exciting possibilities for Burton to explore. There was the young woman who was lighter than air and had to wear lead shoes to keep her grounded. There was the invisible boy, and the girl with the super strength, and the other girl with a massive mouthful of sharp teeth in the back of her neck. Then there was the guy who could resurrect the dead, and the girl he was in love with (a pyrokinetic forced wear gloves to avoid setting everything she touched ablaze), and the young boy who could project his dreams through a monocle, and who hosted his own subconscious Movie Night for the other children each evening. There was even a kid who was filled with bees, for some reason. (The director wondered aloud if Johnny Depp would be willing to play all of the children's roles - Burton was thinking about using the same compositing he'd used with Deep Roy in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the film he was most embarrassed about - but after some serious consideration he decided against it.) Beyond that, there were the Wights (Mr. Barron's white-eyed minions) and the Hollows - monstrous, eyeless, long and semi-spidery figures always on the pursuit for Peculiars and invisible to nearly everyone. It had all the Tim Burton signatures. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children would, if nothing else, be instantly recognizable.
Burton had heard the criticisms. The whispers. Oh, he had heard them all right. That he had become a self-parody. That he was a factory churning out perfunctory visual delights - movies with a similar sort of ornate detail as his early work but little of the idiosyncratic imagination. He knew this to be, at least partially, true. He knew that he would never again achieve the heights of Sweeney Todd or Sleepy Hollow or Edward Scissorhands or Ed Wood - the film he knew to be his masterpiece, made over two decades earlier. He still felt like an outsider back then.
He knew people made fun of his particular brand of twisted darkness. Mostly because he knew they misinterpreted it. His darkness had always had an innocence to it - despite the prevailing sentiment among many that his Gothic stylings lacked edge. "Don't they understand," he thought to himself sadly, "that I am Edward Scissorhands? Macabre but gentle?" He stared out the small window at the top of the clock tower that doubled as his workshop - a bit on-the-nose, he knew - and once again felt misunderstood.
But if he had to say so himself, he felt more inspired this time around than he had in several years. For one thing, the personal, handmade qualities of the characters and the world of Miss Peregrine lent themselves to his most intrinsic sensibilities. He would forgo the over-reliance on CGI that had marred many of his recent productions. He wanted to create something more tactile, using his visual effects more subtly, and it wound up resulting in an attractively achieved middle ground between physical and digital.
As the film began rounding into shape, he knew he had made something charming and memorable, if lightweight. His visual concepts - crafted by his great, long-time costume designer Colleen Atwood and a team of art directors and production designers new to the Burtonverse - were dazzlingly inventive, executed on a smaller and more intimate scale than many of his recent pictures. But deep down Burton knew that this was a movie - and a story - that spoke most to the younger artist in him. The one that had been inspired to make movies in the first place, and whose entire aesthetic had since been streamlined and standardized and de-personalized. He knew that Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children was a good movie. He was happy with it. And still he lamented that it hadn't come across his desk 25 years ago. "Just imagine what I could have done with it back then. What a film I could have made."
He took one last look at the final cut of his new movie. "This," he said both with pride and bittersweetness, "is what I call a real Tim Burton picture."