Tim Burton is laughing. For the master of such gothic darkness as Batman and Ed Wood, laughter isn’t exactly something you associate with the man. Hallowe’en hi-jinks maybe. A touch of glossy dark camp, of course. Yet here he is, hugging himself as a veritable belly-laugh escapes his black-clad frame. We’re in the middle of an interview in a beautiful beach pavilion on the Lido in Venice, mere hours after the world premiere of his stop-motion gem Corpse Bride . I really hadn’t meant to say anything funny. I just asked him whether Corpse Bride was in any way autobiographical.
It’s a fair point. The film concerns a gloomy and neurasthenic young man Victor (voiced by Burton regular Johnny Depp) pushed into marrying the well-heeled daughter of impoverished aristocrats (grotesque figures voiced by Albert Finney and Joanna Lumley). These people think Victor is common as muck and certainly don’t go out their way to make him feel comfortable in their stuffy mansion house. Intimidated, Victor goes for a walk and before you know it he’s actually proposed to a dead woman by mistake: the corpse bride of the title. She’s voiced by Burton’s other half and mother of his son, Helena Bonham Carter – the great-granddaughter Henry Asquith the prime minister, with sundry hereditary peers and Rothchilds amongst her near family.
‘Are you saying,’ Burton coughs and gargles, pushing his thick-rimmed tinted spectacles up his nose, ‘it’s all based on her family?’
Well it had occurred to me, I reply, nervously. Not to malign them in any way. But Burton is thoroughly entertained by the notion (later I read that Johnny Depp’s whole acting style with him is a constant effort to make him laugh). ‘Albert’s character looks exactly like her grandmother, yeah’, he exclaims, still enjoying the idea. Then he seems to collect himself, not wanting to get into trouble with the in-laws, one would assume. He puts a hand through his frizzled chestnut hair. He calms himself. ‘But no. I don’t know much about her family. We’re from such different backgrounds. I’m kind of white trash and she comes from lord and lady whatever – so it’s kind of a funny difference you know’.
It is one of the most unlikely of combinations, after all. Tim Burton had been dating the statuesque model Lisa Marie for most of the nineties, but after he worked with Helena Bonham Carter on Planet of the Apes, where she is dressed in an ape-suit, and makes an impressive primate, they began dating. He’s a Californian hipster and B-movie loving goth with a background in animation. She’s a public school girl who was for so long a kind of Merchant Ivory pin-up, forever gadding about in frocks and twirling parasols.
If cursory impressions are anything to go by, though, they clearly adore each other. They seem like two big kids having a whale of a time, during the interviews they both did and during the premiere.
Burton talked about the five years it took to make the movie, about how he doesn’t have the patience to animate any more, and relied heavily on his co-director to do the day-to-day work. He oversaw the footage on a highspeed link from Pinewood. Johnny Depp would finish work on Charlie many evenings and then step into the animated shoes of Corpse Bride.
‘I’ve always been misrepresented,’ he says. ‘You know I could dress in a clown costume and laugh with the happy people but they’d still say I’m a dark personality!’ It all dates back to his childhood, when he was a quiet little boy who liked to watch Godzilla movies.
A little later I met Helena Bonham Carter. She too feels that her image is something foisted on her by other people, though she didn’t exactly help matters by admitting to me she used to think she could ‘go back in time if I got inside the television and dressed up in costumes’ and that her first crush wasn’t someone from Duran Duran but ‘Jeremy Irons in Brideshead Revisited – I kind of stalked him, scary, then I met him once and it was all over’.
They now both live in Belsize Park, just down the road from Hampstead in London, where they are raising a two year-old son named Billy. She shows us his picture in a necklace round her neck with a flutter of her Moschino-scented hand (she’s taking him on the beach after she’s finished with us – ‘chuck him in, see if he sinks,’ she snorts, a bit Joyce Grenfell for a second). ‘It’s a lonely thing, being a director,’ she says. ‘It’s just you and you have all the responsibility’. He manages to leave most of his work in the office. ‘But he does do a lot of venting when he’s angry. And I get it. But it’s not about me’.
She did the voice-overs for both Corpse Bride and Wallace and Grommit was she was pregnant, traipsing up to Hampstead to lay down the soundtrack while Burton was down the road making Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in Pinewood. It wasn’t until she told Burton she was doing Wallace and Grommit that he piped up ‘hang on a minute I was going to ask you to do a stop-motion picture’. She laughs. ‘So it’s like London buses, two come along at once’.
How did he direct her in the movie? It’s now the fourth they’ve done together. The dynamics between couples in such situations can be tricky. History is littered with the disastrous situations of directors directing their wives followed inevitably by divorce. ‘Well he wasn’t always there,’ she recalls, ‘but he was there for the last session – he just told me to keep my voice up, since my voice is naturally quite low and he wanted a higher register. And try not to be so harsh, he said – maybe something to do with our relationship! Like I’m a husband-beater.’ And she leapt at the chance to sing a song in the movie, scored by Burton regular Danny Elfman, for my money the best composer in Hollyw ood. ‘I love show tunes,’ she exclaims brightly. ‘I’m a gay man at heart’.
Some have suggested that Burton’s work is not dark any more, since the two have become an item. Even she admits that for all its gothic and macabre flourishes, Corpse Bride is rather an optimistic movie, where the dead seem to be having a good time. Does she feel guilty about this profound change? ‘I don’t think I feel that guilty about it,’ she says, without an ounce of defensiveness. ‘I’d rather Tim was happy and other people were disappointed’.
She explains that it wasn’t until the end of filming Planet of the Apes that ‘ding and it was obvious’ and they started dating. Friends were not surprised. It was only her who hadn’t seen it. She felt ‘immediately comfortable and safe’ with him, and what was more he was more than happy to move to London, claiming that Hampstead ‘was the only place in the world I feel at home in’ after staying there during the making of Sleepy Hollow. ‘Years later he came to live there with me, it seemed like serendipity’, she says. ‘He loves the rain - the only person in England who likes the rain’. And she adds, after thinking about it, ‘he has an old soul – yeah, he’s been around the block’.
Her relationship and having a child has definitely made acting take second place, though she is also due to appear in a TV production in November called The Magnificent Seven as the mother of seven autistic children. ‘I’ve had relationships before but this is family,’ she admits. ‘Acting has definitely become a satellite activity. It’s not where I put my sense of self or self-esteem. I don’t need it to feel real’.
She likes her life now, she says. ‘I don’t need to reinvent myself or escape’. And does a return to what originally made her famous, the costume or period drama, hold any appeal these days? ‘Actually I haven’t done one since about 1998 and I wouldn’t mind doing another you know’.
Time to dust down those parasols.