Frankenweenie is easily the best Tim Burton movie in a decade. I was almost braced to dislike it, so it was a wonderful surprise to find myself concurring with Brad’s glowing review. In the film, a young Victor conducts a science experiment to bring his beloved dog Sparky back to life, only to face unintended, sometimes monstrous, consequences.
I recently sat down with screenwriter John August (Big Fish, Go) to talk about how he approached the expansion of Burton’s original 25 minute short into a feature length piece. We also discuss some of the amazing speeches made in the film by Martin Landau’s no BS teacher Mr. Rzykruski. They’re quite refreshing to hear given how timid a lot of mainstream films are in regard to these things.
The voice cast includes four actors who worked with Burton on previous films: Winona Ryder (Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands), Catherine O’Hara (Beetlejuice, The Nightmare Before Christmas), Martin Short (Mars Attacks!) and Martin Landau (Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow), while Charlie Tahan and Atticus Shaffer were later added. Over 200 puppets and sets were created for the film, and that several of the character names—Victor, Elsa Van Helsing, Edgar “E” Gore and Mr. Burgermeister — were inspired by classic horror films.
This is actually my favorite Tim Burton film in a long time.
Thank you very much!
I was thrilled with Mr. Rzykruski’s (voiced by Martin Landau) speeches. We live in such a dangerous time politically in terms of taking basic civil rights, not to mention funding for science education, off the table.
I was thrilled to see it stay in the movie. I was so excited for those speeches and was so relieved when they made it through. And that’s a testament to Tim. Most monster movies are anti-science. They’re about the dangers of science. And I pitched from the start that I wanted a pro-science movie. And Rzykruski was a way to have someone talk about science as a tool. Tools can be used for both good and evil and we see that throughout the movie. So I was happy that it made it through and I’m happy that it made an impression on you.
People are so afraid of alienating the audience. Are you prepared for any blowback from what’s actually an honest speech?
Yeah. I think one of the luxuries we have in the movie is that it doesn’t seem to be taking place at any one time. We talk about Pluto not being a planet anymore, but there’s also not a lot of modern technology. So it can be comforting for an audience to watch the movie and say, “oh back then we didn’t believe in those things but now we’re much more progressive.” And hopefully that can back up a more current belief in science.
It was so hard to see everyone standing on their roofs to see the space shuttle fly by. I was like, “that’s science flying by!” There’s a difference between an artist outsider and a science outsider and it’s strange to see science become sort of an outsider phenomenon.
There are many Tim Burton movies that I love. But I haven’t loved the last few, I felt like they were unfocussed narratives. This one fixes that. It’s economical and impactful. What was it like building outward from the original 25 minute short?
I looked at it as an adaptation. It could have been a book or a collection of drawings, but he told the story in that form. And it was an amazing version of the story. Some stuff is different and some stuff is the same. But I knew we had a chance to explore Victor and Sparky more before the accident.
And I wanted to explore the town. I wanted the kids to feel real, I wanted the parents to be supportive but worried about their kids. I wanted them to be grounded and believable.
Tim also gave me a gift in the form of a list of monsters he wanted to see. So I thought of the kids who would make them and thought of the unifying theme that would bring it all together was the science fair.
I think one of the more deceptively complicated characters in the film is Edgar. He’s sweet but he’s also manipulative and almost a villain.
I treated him like a real boy. Even though his animation is crazy, he’s written as real. He has no idea about how to make friends but he wants people to like him and that kind of sets everything in motion. He is sweet, but manipulative. He’s a little boy.
I very much like the film’s message about the acceptance of loss. But then you have Sparky come alive again, which surprisingly doesn’t really mute that message. Was there ever a discussion about ending it differently?
If there was any back and forth it never made it to me. I always felt that Sparky would come back at the end because the real transformation is that of the town. Those are the people who have changed. They distrust the outsider, distrust science and distrust the monster yet they all band together to bring the monster back to life. I wanted to see that rewarded. We also didn’t want the kids to be weepy messes on their way out of the theater.