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A Freak’s Eternal Conflict

December 5, 1990

NEW YORK (AP) _ Tim Burton is young, only 32. His hair is long, too long, falling over his face and sticking out at the sides. His dreamy eyes gaze as if a movie screen is on the distant wall. He has a lazy grin and a nervous, unsettling laugh.

Hardly the kind of person you’d put in charge of a major motion picture, but Burton has managed quite well. He’s one of Hollywood’s hottest properties, the director of the mega-budget, mega-smash ″Batman,″ and the offbeat hit ″Beetlejuice.″

It makes perfect sense to him; he simply points to his high school experience. There were three kinds of (male) students, he recalls: athletes, very popular with the girls; academics, preferred by the teachers; and the ″freaks,″ people meant, perhaps, to find themselves a little later in life.

″I went to my 10-year high school reunion a few years ago,″ Burton recalled in a recent interview. ″It was so amazing. Some people peaked in high school. Everybody I saw who was considered an outcast, I didn’t see one example where this wasn’t true, they were incredibly attractive and successful.

″You got to get it out some way. If you get everything you want, you’re not going to have those desires. You don’t have that eternal conflict of getting something out.″

His new film, ″Edward Scissorhands,″ is a holiday fable about a ″freak″ (Johnny Depp) rescued from his broken-down mansion high above town and taken to the nice, suburban home of a friendly Avon Lady, Dianne Wiest.

A punk in whiteface and black leather, Edward was constructed by an aging scientist (Vincent Price, of course) who died before he could make a pair of hands. An array of scissors are there instead.

The neighbors all take to Wiest’s unusual guest, who endears himself by using his ″hands″ to artfully trim hedges, poodles and women’s hair. But Edward also has a soul. He’s in love, with Wiest’s beautiful and popular daughter (Winona Ryder, Depp’s girlfriend in real life), and must fight nasty boyfriend Anthony Michael Hall for her affection.

″It’s a classic fairy tale, an image of creation and of destruction, beauty and horror, touching and not touching,″ Burton said. ″It’s an externalization of how you feel at odds with yourself, two-sided.″

″Beetlejuice″ fans will appreciate the campy sets, with brightly painted, monochromatic houses, as well as matching clothes and billboards (food, too). Burton says he was trying to be funny and also wanted to make a point: How people see others on just one level, applying catchall phrases that deny any complexity.

″People say, ‘You’re this, you’re that.’ I think there’s a necessity for people to categorize. I think it helps make them comfortable. And some of the weirdest people I’ve known get it the worst. If people can’t put you into a category, they’re inclined to just write you off as a freak.″

Burton, who grew up in Burbank, Calif., watched science-fiction and horror films as a kid and first showed talent as an artist by designing an anti- litter poster in ninth grade that graced the sides of local garbage trucks.

After high school, he attended the California Institute of the Arts on a Disney fellowship and soon joined Walt Disney Studios as an animator, working on ″The Fox and the Hound″ and ″The Black Cauldron.″

Price was the inspiration - and the narrator - for his first film, ″Vincent,″ an animated short completed when the director was just 23. His next project was ″Frankenweenie,″ his first live action film.

″It happened just by osmosis, that need to want to do something. I didn’t care how it manifested itself. I didn’t care if it was drawing, animation, whatever. Animation was a little too tedious for me. Live action was better because it was immediate and helped me come out of my shell,″ he said.

He followed with ″Pee-wee’s Big Adventure″ and then ″Beetlejuice,″ the wacky ghost story that helped make stars of Ryder, Michael Keaton, Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin.

The script had ″no story,″ Burton recalled. It was ″incredibly vague, and contradicted itself all over the place. I can’t to this day say if it was good or not. You just felt someone’s personality in it.″

Burton’s confident he’ll keep getting better. He thinks history - Hollywood history - is on his side. Some of the great directors - John Huston, Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges - hadn’t even made films at his age. He’s still developing, still learning to express himself.

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