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You Ain’t From Around Here, Are Ya, Boy?
By Dave Shulman
First published in L.A. Weekly, December 18, 2003. (Cover story.)
Tim Burton of London, England, formerly of Burbank, shot Big Fish, a movie about a big fish, over a period of four consecutive months in downstate Alabama. During that time, Burton was one of a select few Alabama residents who was not crushed flat onto a two-lane highway outside Montgomery.
“It’s the most amazing roadkill state I’ve ever been in,” Burton tells me, some 2,140 miles west of the crime scene. “I don’t know what the hell they do, but it’s like Jackson Pollocks all over the road. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Not even. That’s the thing. You’d be driving down the road and . . . [craning neck left] Oh, jeez! [and right] Aw, fuck!! [and making a Large Marge face] Oh, GOD!! OH! MY! GHOD!!! WHAT WAS THAT??!! It was incredible. I don’t know what kind of vehicle you’d use to hit these things, to make them look like that, and the kind of speed, and then . . . I don’t know . . . go back for more?
“I’d drive by every day and see this little black kitty playing by the side of the road, and then, one night . . . there it was. Looked like the cat from Re-Animator. Like not only was it hit, but it died of fright and . . . it just looked horrible. Have you ever been there?”
“Alabama? No,” I admit. “I’m afraid of the South. When I was a kid, my dad used to drive us down into the Ozarks to torture us for summer vacation, and there’d be those . . .
“. . . ‘Squeal like little piggies’? . . .”
“. . . yeah, those Deliverance guys. They’d be hanging out on the front porch with rifles and sneers, and ‘Looky there — carload o’ Jooz in a Plymouth!’ — that was South enough for me.”
Burton and I sit in some kind of . . . I’m not sure what it is. A subterranean boardroom-adjacent minilounge, I suppose, in a beachfront Santa Monica hotel.
“Yeah,” Burton sighs. “You know, like anywhere you go, there’s great people, and then there’s people who completely freak you out. The amazing thing where we were is that they’re always talking about fishing, but I never saw one fucking fish the whole time I was there. Ever. Not one. I’m not sure there really are any.”
“‘Big Fish,’” I read out loud from the promo pack, “‘has been rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for a Fight Scene, Some Images of Nudity and a Suggestive Reference.’ Trying to figure out what that means. What is a ‘Suggestive Reference’?”
“Yeah — what the fuck does that mean?” says Burton. “You know what? I swear to God, I’ve never made a movie that’s as ‘safe’ as this one. I think that somewhere, way back, someone got in their mind that I was trying to be offensive to somebody, and now it’s just like, ‘Well, we’re not quite sure, but it’s probably offensive in some way or other.’”
“To the .0003 percent of the population who decides what’s offensive.”
“I swear to God, I couldn’t even guess what that is. I’ve never understood the ratings board, really.”
“I liked back when there was M. ‘M for Mature.’ And remember, for a little while, before there was PG, there was GP? But when you’re a kid, going to an M felt exciting. It felt . . . M.”
“It did feel exciting. And there was X, too. And not just porno.”
“Yeah, just a single X, like Midnight Cowboy.”
“X was kind of good. I liked when something was rated X.”
That reminds me. One of the characters in Big Fish is a carny named Amos Calloway, played by Danny DeVito. With a zany mustache, shoulder-length black hair and no clothes, DeVito looks remarkably (from the waist up) like porn star Ron Jeremy.
“Danny DeVito’s resemblance to Ron Jeremy: Intentional, or not?”
“Actually, I was thinking about that today! I swear to God! I’m not kidding you — I was thinking about how after you make a film, you flash upon different moments, and I was flashing upon how every day of shooting was like a different movie, and that day [naked DeVito day] was like a porno movie. The next day, that place was under 3 feet of water. It was tornado weather, and there’s all these people standing around, and there’s Danny, and he’s naked, and he looks just like Ron Jeremy. We didn’t plan beforehand for him to be Ron Jeremy–esque. It just sort of happened that way.”
“So now, Ron Jeremy will probably star in the porno version. But they’ll have a hard time trying to come up with one of those porno-movie zany-pun titles, since it’s already called Big Fish.”
“They don’t always come up with funny names, though. I mean, Edward Penishands isn’t a funny name. That’s just Edward Penishands.”
“Edward Schlongdigits, most folks prefer.”
Burton’s currently preparing to shoot Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, based on Roald Dahl’s kick-ass children’s book (and not a sequel to 1971’s Willy Wonka), somewhere around London. Should be ready for consumption sometime in 2005, with the porno version following in early 2006. To make time pass more slowly while we wait, I spend five incredibly boring minutes rattling on about Joseph Schindelman’s illustrations in the paperback Charlie I read in fourth grade.
“So the illustrations,” I conclude at last, waking Burton up, “made Charlie Bucket’s life seem even sadder, because they were done in a style that was used almost exclusively to depict cheerful, happy people.”
“Exactly,” says Burton. “See Jane run.”
“Or Mormons in Heaven,” say I.
“I don’t think I’ve seen that one.”
“You haven’t seen the Mormons in Heaven movie? You gotta see the Mormons in Heaven movie. They show it at the temple.”
“The one here?”
“Yeah, in West L.A.”
“Can anyone go in there?” Burton asks. “It seems like it’s a kind of Dr. No, or something.”
“It is, but you just make an appointment with Elder James. At least when I went, it was Elder James.”
“Really? Is it like that movie, Lost Horizon? Do you enter a new world when you go in there?”
“Yes, you do. And that is the world we’re all living in, right now, for I have seen the truth and light, and they are One.”
“So they expect that of you — you go in one way, and you come out . . . Brother Zontar.”
“Zontar,” Burton repeats.
“Who’s Brother Zontar?”
“I don’t know. Or maybe you come out like the guys in The Omega Man.”
“Oh yeah!” I heston. “‘It’s getting dark! They’ll be out soon!’ I loved that fucking movie.”
“That is one of my favorite movies. Where else can you get Charlton Heston reciting lines from Woodstock? Fantastic. Sleeps with a black woman? Fantastic. Forced laughter? Fantastic. And that jump suit with the sailor cap? I mean . . . you can’t . . . it’s a near-perfect movie. Everything about it. Jump suits, the whole thing.”
“Did you see that piece-of-shit third Matrix movie? Anthony Zerbe’s in it. He’s on the Council of Zion. I think he plays Elder James.”
“Matthias!” we heston. “Matthias!”
“And now,” I announce, moments after we’ve recovered from our hestons, “I must force you to listen to a personal anecdote that, like the rest of the interview, has little to do with anything.”
“Good,” says Burton.
“Okay. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was the beginning of the best date — and one of the best days — of my life.”
“Really?” Burton feigns interest.
I feign humility. “You betcha. First love and everything. Saw it on a Thursday afternoon, with this girl, Catharina, and then we went back home and basically stayed in bed for three days. And that was the beginning of this surrealistically whirlwind romance that became my first real relationship. So I basically fell in love for the first time during the movie.”
“Really? Wow! Movies are . . . I remember when movies were very . . .” (I’m happy to discover that Burton and I share the habit of finishing sentences with things other than words.) “. . . I remember,” Burton continues, “how movies would . . . do movies still do that? I remember very specific things that . . . movies would . . . like my first date, seeing A Clockwork Orange.”
“Holy fuck! Both?”
“At a drive-in. Double feature.”
“Holy fucking shit!”
“Yeah. And my date got sick and was throwing up in the back seat throughout all of A Clockwork Orange.”
“It was called the Victory Drive-in.”
“Off the 5?”
“No, that was the San-Val. This was . . . no, wait. It wasn’t the Victory, it was the Van Nuys. Yeah. That was amazing.”
“Yeah. That was a good double bill.”
“My God,” I heston, but just slightly. “So you were being all horny and shit . . . ”
“. . . and then ‘and now for this evening’s second rape scene’ . . .”
“Yeah. And I’ll never forget it. Watching A Clockwork Orange and hearing the sound of somebody vomiting in the back seat.”