Frankenweenie, from director Tim Burton and screenwriter John August, is a charming, macabre and heartwarming tale, about Victor (voiced by Charlie Tahan), a young boy who, after unexpectedly losing his beloved dog Sparky, harnesses the power of science to bring his best friend back to life, but quickly faces unintended and sometimes monstrous consequences for his actions. The voice cast also includes Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau, Winona Ryder and Atticus Shaffer.
At the film’s press junket, actress Catherine O’Hara (who has also done Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas with Burton) spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about her experiences working with Tim Burton as a filmmaker, how mind-blowing it was to see the final film put together, how she approached developing the voices for each of her three characters (Victor’s mom, the gym teacher and Weird Girl), getting to record with Martin Short (who plays Victor’s father), why Burton’s films are so special for so many people, and what it’s like to be a part of work that’s so enduring for the fans. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
CATHERINE O’HARA: It hasn’t happened that much, but yeah, absolutely. Of course! Who wouldn’t?! Think how many people he could call and they would say yes. Pretty much anyone, I think. I think, if he called any actress, they would say yes. If Meryl Streep was called and told, “Tim Burton wants you to do three characters,” she would go for it. She’s got a great sense of humor and she’s cool, so she would do it. But, I got to do it, and I feel very fortunate. I really do.
What do you remember most fondly about your experiences, working with Tim Burton?
O’HARA: After Beetlejuice, he’s directed by osmosis. You wouldn’t remember exactly what he said to get you where you needed to be in a scene, but you knew what he wanted somehow. He has an absolutely unique way of speaking and expressing himself, but if you’re listening, you really do get what he’s saying. He’s scared of the same people that I’m scared of, and he loves the same people that I love, so I feel like we share sensibilities about life and a sense of humor. He never takes the common path, but he’s not being different for different’s sake. It’s truly who he is. He’s true to himself, and he doesn’t take himself seriously. It’s really a great experience to get to work with him. He deserves all the praise he gets, but he doesn’t take it too seriously. He just really wants to keep working, I think, and create art. He’s a great artist, to begin with. Whether or not he was a director, he’d still be a great artist. His parents must have done a great job because nothing got in his way.
Since you only got the parts of the script that you were recording, was it fun to see everything put together?
O’HARA: Yes! As much as I think I understand about stop-frame animation, it just blows my mind to see it. It’s pretty much impossible to really appreciate the physical work that goes into it and all the creativity because that’s not the idea. The idea is for it not to look like a labored project that’s going to drag you through a couple of hours. The whole thing is a delight that’s sweet-natured and sweet-spirited.
O’HARA: I didn’t know that, no. I’m not agreeing, either. Isn’t that funny? The phone call I got was, “Tim Burton wants you to voice three characters.” And then, they sent me an email that said the three characters were Mom, Gym Teacher and Weird Girl. I was like, “Weird Girl?!” They said that she was a classmate of Victor’s, and I was like, “Oh, that’s great!” Right away, I could think of people I knew, who probably looked at me, the same way.
Did you get to see illustrations of the characters prior to voicing them, and then mold how you wanting to voice them from there?
O’HARA: Yeah, but I even started working on it before I looked at them because I was on my way to go for that first session. You want to arrive with something to offer. It was Tim, so I knew that, even though I’m scared to open my mouth the first time and always have been, I could try things. I just want it to be right, so it’s scary to open your mouth for the first time and make an attempt. Allison [Abbate] is a great producer, and she was there, too. She was really open and encouraging, in every way. You know that, with Tim, you’re going to be taken care of, so you go ahead and make that leap. So, I thought about what those voices might sound like, in the days before I went and met with him. I figured Mom would be close to my own voice, but he got Marty [Short] and me to the performance that he wanted for the scenes. With the other characters, I also thought about it, but then it’s still a collaboration with Tim.
Was it fun to actually get to record the scenes with Victor’s parents with Martin Short?
O’HARA: Yes, I was really grateful that we got to do the parents together. The other characters, we did separately. It was so smart, on Tim’s part. That’s part of why he’s a great director. He could have brought us in, separately. For our first sessions, we were working out the voices individually. So, it really helped. When we went it, it’s not like we were going that back. It was like what we’ve done on other animated jobs. But, Tim brought us into doing it smaller and more intimate, and I’m so glad he got us there.
O’HARA: Yeah, there are sweet scenes with them, at home. I love how he shows them his little movie. It makes it clear that they’ve encouraged him, to that point. He says, “You’re the first people I want to show this to.” How great is that, as opposed to the kid going off with his friends and the parents never hearing about him doing this. That’s a completely different family. In this family, they’re the first audience. And I think he goes out into the world with a real nice sense of himself. He’s confident in his creativity. He’s not caught up in all the crap that the other kids are caught up in. He has a real healthy self-confidence. From the time my kids were born, I thought that would be the best thing I could give them. I don’t know if I’ve achieved it. They’re 18 and 15 now. But, that’s the dream, to give your kids a good, healthy sense of self-confidence.
People always talk about how you can tell a Tim Burton movie is a Tim Burton movie, from the moment it starts. What do you think it is that really encompasses a Tim Burton movie, and why do you think they’re so special for so many people?
O’HARA: First of all, visually, you see that he’s a great artist. He can draw anything, but he has a beautiful particular style, too. There are certain visuals that reoccur in his work, with the stripes and certain female figures. You can tell the things he loves in life, that he likes to draw. If you want to his show that started at MOMA, you can see that he’s been drawing faces and characters. He loves people. The curator told me that there were 10,000 pieces of work to choose from. That’s freaky! How did he know [to do keep all of that], or did his parents keep everything? That is wild! I draw. I’m no Tim Burton. I’m not comparing myself, at all. But, I’ve drawn faces most of my life, and I have four of them. I’m not saying they’re near as good, but I could have thought they were good and kept them. It’s incredible that he knew to keep his work. So, visually, he’s got so much to offer. And then, there’s always a sweetness about his stories. He loves the underdog, and he loves the outcast. People who are considered scary or odd or even monsters are so often the people that just need love and someone to care for them. The people who present themselves as normal and nice and good are often the scariest monsters in the world. I think he might believe that in life, and I think I do, too. I often meet up with that. And his work always has a beautiful mix of dark and light, and there’s always great humor. But, it’s probably the sweetness that sticks with you.
O’HARA: It’s really nice. That’s how people greet you. If people come up to me and say they’ve watched something since they were a little kid, or they’ve watched something every year, I’m like, “Aww.” Oh, I’m going to cry now! Some people are shunned when they come in a room. What a great gift I’ve been given, to be greeted with that kind of welcome. It’s very nice. When you do something that people watch and enjoy as children, that’s great because it stays with you, throughout your life. The things you loved as a child stay with you, and so do the people who were in those things. I meet so many people who have their full bodies tattooed with the characters [from The Nightmare Before Christmas]. They just love Tim, and they feel like Tim is speaking to them. They’re always the sweetest people, who you know get looks from strangers that present themselves as the normal people.
Frankenweenie is now in theaters.