Tim Burton interviewed for “Mars Attacks!”

From the archives!

Here is my interview with director Tim Burton, first published in December, 1996.

Over the past decade, Tim Burton has proven himself to be one of the most imaginative filmmakers around. His willingness to take risks has somehow paid off; commercial success and originality don’t always go together. He has applied his signature style to such films as the contemporary Gothic myth of Batman and Batman Returns, the tender fable of Edward Scissorhands and the delicate fantasy of Nightmare Before Christmas.

Now with Mars Attacks!, Burton has made a foray into a genre where his imagination can really let loose. Burton has applied his characteristic dark, deft humour to a classic theme of the silver screen; the Martian invasion of Earth. Evoking the alarmist horror classic of the fifties, with their quaintly unsophisticated conception of advanced Alien culture, Mars Attacks! found its genesis in a series of bold trading cards once considered too racy for the marketplace.

More than a simply a spoof on Independence Day, Mars Attacks! hilariously exploits our greatest hopes mixed with dread; that there is intelligent life out there. The recent confirmation by NASA of the possible existence of life on Mars only feeds this theme. Citizens of Earth face their doom as little green men from outer space gleefully annihilate and terrorise the planet.

After the release of his homage to the best ‘bad’ director of all time, Ed Wood, Burton was trying to determine what his next directorial effort would be. He says he recalled the low budget, double feature fare of his youth and realized that he truly wanted to do an Ed Wood movie.

Burton – “I wanted to do something fun with a bunch of Martians with big brains. Basically, make a modern version of Plan 9 From Outer Space or The War Of The Worlds.”

During the time of his conversations with Warner Bros., Burton encountered the trading card series ‘Dinosaurs Attacks!’ issued by the Topps company in the late seventies. Warner had once owned the rights to the cards, which featured carnivorous prehistoric monsters who had returned from extinction to devastate contemporary cities, but the rights had expired and somehow they couldn’t get them back. But this gave Burton the idea to follow the trace of another game card series and that is when he came upon the Mars Attacks! series.

Due to the nature of some of their images, which were highly gory and bloody but also very sexy, the cards were never distributed nationally in the States and were pulled from the market after a few months. Over the years the cards developed a cult status and they currently bring high prices in the collectibles market. Warner quickly secured the rights for Mars Attacks! and Burton immediately began imprinting his own creative vision onto this story of defenseless Americans facing a seemingly invincible foe.

Playing the earthlings under siege is a glittering galaxy of stars in the ensemble cast of almost twenty lead roles, led by Jack Nicholson. Although if he had had his way, Nicholson would have followed in the footsteps of Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers and played almost every role in the film.

“I really wanted to try something different. The only time I had ventured into bringing together several high-profile stars was for the Batman movies and here I wanted to repeat this experience on an even bigger scale. There are more than twenty lead roles in Mars Attacks! so it was quite a challenge for me to put together this cast. The first role I cast was the one of Lisa Marie, my girlfriend, who is truly from another planet and who could be the only human being able to play a Martian. She’s got such a fluidity and a remarkable sense of her body that she truly was mesmerizing and created a real eerie feeling.”

To portray the Unites States President James Dale, Burton needed an actor of impressive stature, someone who could reasonably fill the shoes of the leader of the free world and who wasn’t afraid to stumble over those shoes as the character bungles his overture to the Martians again and again — and again! Burton had worked with Jack Nicholson during the Batman period and it was with a natural ease that he approached him.

“I remember that at first Jack wanted to create a multi-role tour de force’ performance and when I asked him which part he wanted to play, he replied, How ’bout ALL of them?’ This is how we developed the two characters for Jack, the one of the President and the one of this decadent Las Vegas mogul trying to set up a new hotel franchise with a Martian theme. There is no better actor to go up against the Martians than Jack. I was very lucky. I enjoy seeing someone who is really strong at what they do and who just goes for it. Jack is willing to do anything, no matter how crazy it seems. He’s the greatest and to see him in two parts is amazing.”

And then Burton asked some other stars, such as Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Michael J. Fox, Danny de Vito, Pierce Brosnan, Natalie Portman, Martin Short, Sarah Jessica Parker and the outrageous, extravagant Tom Jones to join in the fun.

“Oh yeah! And what fun it was to come on a set full of stars, quite bizarre. There were scenes where I was directing all of these bigger-than-life stars and I really was blessed to have such great actors working against imaginary green men. That was the most surreal thing. All of these stars came in and they basically reverted to play-acting. They all got into the spirit of it and it was a joy to watch them, to watch this firework display of talent sparkle in front of the camera.”

At around $80 million, Mars Attacks! is possibly the most expensive B-movie of all time and the biggest challenge was bringing the Martians to life. For as many stars are in Mars Attacks! you have countless more three foot Martians who weren’t so easily cast.

“It sure was a trip. It really was a challenge to figure out how to bring them to life and give the illusion that they truly exist. Because they definitely have a real nature, they are like anarchistic kids you can’t understand. You don’t really know what they want and there is really no clear motivation for their behaviour. The Martians are just like bad, hyperactive teens.”

Although Burton reportedly worked for eight months with a team of seventy stop-motion animators before the film was even green-lit, he eventually went with computer animation. Larbour intensive and costly, stop-motion animation is an arduous process. Nick Park and Aardman Animation, for example, take up to three years to complete every half hour Wallace and Gromit instalment.

“I knew we had to create the aliens with the help of CGI animation [Computer Generated Images]. Every type of animation has a different vibe and it’s something you can really analyse. And there is something about the computer medium that seemed to work with these characters because they are all the same and they have a certain jumping quality to their movement.”

After meeting with several companies, he decided that the Martians would be created as three- dimensional computer generated characters by Industrial Light and Magic (ILM). ILM had gained fame for their ground-breaking techniques in computer animation for films such as Twister, T2 and Jurassic Park.

“I entirely put my belief into their hands. I think they truly helped us to find the quirky, eccentric behaviour of the Martians and in this aspect for Mars Attacks! they completely fulfilled my expectations.”

With little over a year before the film’s slated release, ILM got to work creating the invading Martians in their spacesuits as well as the Martians who reside in the flying saucers. In addition to the Martians themselves, the script contained 120 shots of global destruction, airborne saucer sequences and the Martian landing in the desert. Warner Bros.’ newly-formed visual effects facility, Warner Digital Studios, was responsible for designing and animating these sequences. For the main titles alone, they had to generate two-and-a-half minutes’ worth of saucer animation as legions of Martian spaceships depart the Red Planet for Earth.

Other than the full blast of horror, gore, blood and explosions that were the basic elements of the trading cards, there was also the strong, sexy appeal to some of the pieces.

“I remember the cover of and issue, illustrated by artist John Pound, featuring a Martian lifting its disguise of a buxom, blonde, beehive-wearing vixen to reveal a bulging green brain and bloodshot eyes. This was very much in the spirit of the sixties kind of sci-fi movies that I was trying to re-create and I remember always liking those movies where there was some sort of weird alien girl.”

Burton redesigned this femme fatale so that it had a slightly different feel to that of the card. With all the other aliens created via computer-generated imagery, the character of the Martian Girl would hold the distinction of being the only Martian to be played by a live actor. From her role as Vampira in Ed Wood Burton was really impressed with Lisa Marie.

“And I don’t say this just because she is sharing my private life. I truly believed she had this mix of eeriness and sexiness to play the part, a mute part which was some sort of challenge. Lisa Marie is in complete harmony with her body, therefore she really speaks when she blinks an eye or stretches her arms. With this character, and the incredible performance of Lisa Marie, I gave a wink to the tradition of the sixties sci-fi films that provided a little titillation amid spaceships and action-packed excitement.”

Burton laughs – “I remember the young kids in line were going to see the Martians and the older kids were going to see the girls, like in Queen Of Blood or She Monster. A little something for everybody.”

Do you believe in Martians and UFOs?

“I have to admit I’ve had two UFO encounters in my life, and twice with Lisa Marie. So I can only be one of these believers who thinks we are not alone in the Universe. Now, when it comes to the abuse, on the commercial level, of revelations such as the one of NASA, indicating the existence of simple life on Mars, I think this must be a cheap publicity stunt by the studio to promote my movie. I believe that the ongoing appeal of the invaders from outer space’ genre is not related to scientific discoveries. The only reason for making a film like Mars Attacks! is actually something very basic. I just like Monsters!”

From the monster movies in the fifties to the catastrophic movies in the seventies, such as Airport and Towering Inferno, so now it seems, in terms of taste and fashion, alien invasion movies and disaster flicks are back. But it is also, perhaps, because of the end of the millennium. These modern fairy tales allow us to exorcise our fears and explore the abstract, the unknown in the universe and within us, in a visual and concrete way. Art has always served the purpose of relieving men and women from their daily burden by opening the door of a parallel world to explore. With this movie, Burton proposes a fantasy of what may happen with a Martian invasion.

Is it your intention to say that, in a way, WE are the alien, we have our enemy within us?

“In a way, yes. The Martians are symbols for different ideas and mainly the idea that things aren’t necessarily what they seem and that some things, maybe, are, but we can’t figure them out. I think it is always overly pretentious and worthless to try to pretend to understand and know everything and this movie is a little bit of an allegory of that concept. The question is not whether the Martians are good or bad and what are their motivations. The question becomes what kind of human beings are we under such pressure? Are we willing to sell out our friends and family? Are we cowards for trying to avoid the fight? What are we? I believe that it is in such times of high pressure and stress that you get to the heart of your soul and you face your demons. Sometimes the enemy isn’t the aliens or your neighbours or your family. Sometimes we are our own enemy.”

Hip, funny and bizarre in a retro kind of way, Mars Attacks! is Tim Burton at his wackiest.

Pauline Adamek

Pauline Adamek is a Los Angeles-based arts enthusiast with twenty-five years' experience covering International Film Festivals and reviewing new Theatre, Film and Restaurants.


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