Edward Scissorhands director Tim Burton is discussing the subtleties of scissors: ”There’s quite an interesting design to a pair of scissors, if you really look at them. How do they work? What do they do?” Burton punctuates his questions by furiously skewering the air with his large-knuckled hands. ”They’re both simple and complicated, creative and destructive,” he concludes. ”It’s that feeling of being at odds with yourself.”
On this day, the former animator who went on to startle critics and audiences with his artful visual dementia in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice — then awed studio accountants with his megablockbuster, Batman — also seems more than a little at odds with himself. Holed up in a dimly lit hotel suite, just two weeks before Scissorhands’ release, the 32-year-old director sips coffee, nibbles finger sandwiches, and contemplates the sprawl of rush-hour Manhattan. ”I’ve had, uuhhh, too many of these today already,” mutters Burton, pouring his fifth cup of coffee, or is it his sixth?
”This is a tense time, a tough time,” he says, drawing thin fingers through his tangled twist of black hair. After Batman’s success, the director suddenly had unmatched clout in Hollywood. He could have made almost any movie he chose, but instead of aiming for another surefire hit, he pursued a project that had obsessed him since he was a teenager: the strange story of a boy with scissors for hands. In Burton’s warped fairy tale, Edward is a kind of teenage Frankenstein’s monster, created by a half-mad inventor (played by Burton’s lifelong idol Vincent Price) who dies before he can replace the boy’s hedge-clipper hands with suitably human ones.
Though he claims not to worry about the box office, Burton has a lot riding on Scissorhands: If the movie is a hit, the director’s status as Hollywood’s weird wunderkind will be unassailable. But Edward Scissorhands — despite having the real-life teen-dream couple of Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder in the lead roles — is by no means guaranteed to warm the hearts of holiday moviegoers. With his spiked hair, ghoulish makeup, and grotesque scissorhands, Edward looks like a cross between Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp and A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger. Studio executives were so jittery that Edward’s image would put audiences off they tried to keep pictures of Depp in his full regalia under wraps until the movie opened. And, though it has plenty of humor, Scissorhands is essentially a moody, somewhat forbidding fable. ”I tend to, you know, see the dark side of things,” Burton says.
Perhaps only someone of such a mindset could be so ambivalent about his own success. ”I came up in a way that was very Hollywoodesque, which is, uh, kind of shocking to me,” he says. ”I have this natural reaction against it.” In person, Burton seems to do all he can to undermine one’s image of the powerful Hollywood film director. He wears his childish eccentricities — the frazzled hair, the deliberately obscure, fragmented speech, the wicked, rippling giggle — almost like a protective shield. Take his perverse insistence on dressing totally in black: black jeans, black T-shirt, black sneakers — Burton even drinks his coffee black. ”I just don’t feel good in bright colors, I don’t feel that way,” he insists. ”I’m a human mood ring: I feel black.”
In Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Batman, Burton built movies around characters conceived by others — Paul Reubens’ Pee-wee Herman and cartoonist Bob Kane’s superhero. But given the chance to film his own creation, Burton produced a character that resembles, more than anyone else, Tim Burton. The comparison sets the director on edge.
”I wouldn’t have been able to deal with it if I’d made that connection directly,” he says. ”It’s dangerous to get that close to a character, especially when it’s so, you know, weird-looking.” But he admits that Edward was partly drawn from his own somewhat troubled adolescence growing up in Burbank, Calif. Burton shared an uneasy relationship with both his father, who is retired from the parks and recreation department, and his mother, who operates a small gift shop. By the time he was 17, he claims, he couldn’t wait to get out of the house. ”Edward is a very teenage inspiration,” says the director. ”I think that’s a time generally when you’re at your most traumatic, in terms of feeling dark, operatic, melodramatic.”