Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted in 2006, when The Nightmare Before Christmas first came back in a 3-D version. It returns in fall 2007.
Just in time for Halloween, Tim Burton’s stop-motion classic The Nightmare Before Christmas gets a very prominent facelift for its 13th anniversary: It’s been made into a 3-D movie, to be shown in a theater near you starting Oct. 20. (Did you see Chicken Little in 3-D? Same concept, better movie.) We chatted with the director — he of the big hair and the bigger imagination — about this transformation, a couple other upcoming projects, and the aliens that run Hollywood.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So The Nightmare Before Christmas is now in 3-D!
TIM BURTON: It’s great. In some ways it was originally made in 3-D, because it’s all puppets and sets. I actually think it makes the movie better, because you see all the work that the artists put into it. You see details that you don’t really remember; you can see the texture of the puppets more. It really seems to fit the medium. It was halfway there to begin with.
Is there any significance to the fact that this is the 13th anniversary of the movie?
Well, no. But it does sound like a great Disney marketing campaign, doesn’t it? I never really thought about it. [Laughs] Whoa. You’re kind of freaking me out.
Oh, yeah, I’m sure you hadn’t thought of that.
I actually hadn’t! But you know what? It’s a brilliant marketing ploy!
Well, you can have it.
Sure. But seriously: Why now? Is it just because the technology exists?
It’s the technology. There’s a lot of talk about 3-D now and a lot of people doing it, and I think this is one of the first where a film wasn’t really meant to be that way. It had its advantages, because we still have the puppets that they could use for scanning [into CGI].
I guess I don’t really understand the technology all that well. I’m sure you do.
Well, to some degree. But it’s top-secret. If the information gets out… [Laughs] No. They’ve got their methods and all. But what I was very impressed about was the care with which they preserved the quality of the film. It actually helped deepen it.
So they take the original film and show it in one of your eyes, and then they take a digital version and show it in your other eye?
Yeah, and six months later you see it in your left eye. And then your brain is supposed to fuse the two together in a beautiful memory of seeing something in 3-D. [Laughs] No… You need to separate your left eye and right eye. So your left eye is [seeing] the original film, and the right eye is [seeing the film digitally] created again and set at a particular distance to create the depth. I have to admit, this is the first time I’ve watched a 3-D movie and one of my movies and not gotten a headache.
And you weren’t worried about them mucking it up?
No. I was very enthusastic from the beginning, because it just felt right. It has the effect of those old View-Masters. Because these are dimensional figures and not just CG, they have this extra dimensional quality to them that just fits that kind of thing. I wouldn’t say this much, but I think it actually strengthens the film in a weird way. And [the 3-D isn’t] in your face all the time, so you kind of forget about it after a while, which is kind of interesting. It’s not like a spear-between-your-eyes kind of a thing.
Are there certain scenes that stand out to you?
We tried to be respectful of the story and do [the 3-D] where it seemed to make sense. Certain shots lend themselves more than others. But I particularly liked when Jack was up flying in the sky, the sort of sky dimension. That had a really simple, amazing quality. But they did the whole thing very artfully.
So there won’t be people trying to grab the space in front of their head?
Like I said, it’s got more of a View-Master quality to it, rather than those things where they’re planned for 3-D and they go out of their way to have stuff jumping out at you. But it’s surprising how there are a few moments where it actually works, like when Jack is describing Christmas and he kind of leans in to the camera — there’s a couple moments where he kind of comes into the audience a little more. It’s kinda cool.
The other part of this that’s awesome is the soundtrack with all the hip artists — Fall Out Boy, Panic! At the Disco, Fiona Apple — singing the songs from the movie. It’s great — do you think it’ll introduce the film to a new audience?
I’m amazed that it still has the life that it does.
I don’t know. It’s just interesting and, I mean, it’s great because a lot of people put a lot of work into it, so it at least makes you feel that you see people still respond to certain artistry on things.
Did it weird you out to hear Fall Out Boy’s version of ”What’s This?” though?
No, I think it’s great. I mean, that’s part of a certain aspect of art, is other people doing variations on things. People do it with movies. Anything that makes you look at or hear something in a slightly different way I think is valid.
You’re totally in with all the cool bands now, too, ‘cause you’re directing a video for the Killers?
Yeah, I’m just finishing that.
How’d you get hooked up with them?
They just asked me, and I like them. I’ve never really done one before, so it was fun to do.
Is it their Vegas sensibility that appeals to you?
Well, I did spend a lot of time in Vegas in my life. Sort of my spiritual hometown.
And it’s a combo of concert footage and…
No, no concert footage. Standard cheesy video.
Will there be tigers?
[Laughs] No tigers! Why would there be tigers?
I don’t know — you said ”standard cheesy video.”
Oh, like Siegfried and Roy? They’re still in quarantine, I believe.
Speaking of things you’ve done that are now being done a different way: Are you interested to see what Chris Nolan and Heath Ledger do with the Joker (in the upcoming Batman sequel The Dark Knight)?
You know, these things are like folk tales. Everybody has their version — which is good. I think that’s what these things require and deserve. There’s a reason why they stay around.
Did you think 16 years later people would still be making new Batman movies? After a certain point, don’t you want to claim the definitive one and tell everyone else to go away?
No! Look it: The franchise world is a lot bigger than us puny humans. [Laughs]
Nice. Glad to hear you’ve been beaten down.
Finally. It just happened right now, in this very moment.
Sorry. Anything you can share with us about your version of Sweeney Todd [in which Johnny Depp will star as the demon barber of Fleet Street]?
No. Because, you know, once I decide, being a mere puny human, there’s a whole alien intelligence out there that knows so much more than I.
That is not true.
[Laughs] Unfortunately, it is.
The people I would be worried about if I was doing Sweeney Todd would be the Sondheim freaks.
Yeah, but he’s been real cool and open about the whole thing. He’s a real artist. He gets it. He gets the fact that it’s a movie and — you know, it’s exciting. I don’t know. We haven’t really started, so it’s hard to describe how it’s gonna be.
There will or there will not be singing?
Oh, yeah, there will be. There will be blood, and music… and pies. For everyone.
Do you foresee a time when you and Johnny Depp will be sick to death of each other?
[Laughs] No. I’ve been through enough with him, and he’s pretty open to things, and that’s the exciting thing about working with him.
I guess the good thing about him is you don’t so much have to pick projects with him in mind as much as just know that he can be whatever you need.
I think when we work together we try to do it when it feels new or feels right, and hopefully those projects will always be there somewhere.
Thanks. Good luck with everything. Try not to feel too puny.
It’s just, you know, the alien forces are stronger than you think.