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As an adolescent misfit, Hadley Freeman fell in love with the warped movie worlds of Tim Burton. What happened when she met Danny DeVito, Colin Farrell and her idol himself?

When I was an oversensitive, confusedly furious and faintly morbid teenager in the 90s, there was one film director who seemed to know my soul better than anyone. And that director was, of course, Tim Burton. Pee-wees Big Adventure was the first of his films I saw, after being taken by a friends mother, who mistakenly thought it would be a typical kids movie as opposed to one of the more slyly subversive takes on modern US life. I was far too young to appreciate all the jokes, but there was something about the colours, the hyperrealism and the Danny Elfman music that intrigued me. It was like being kissed for the first time: you dont really get whats happening, but youd definitely like to investigate further.

By the time Burtons great late-80s and 90s films came along Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns and Ed Wood (surely one of the greatest movie runs of any modern director), I was primed to fall headlong in love. It is hard to think of another clutch of films that capture in a more heartfelt way what it feels like to see yourself as a freakish outsider. As I entered a rocky puberty, followed by disastrous teenage years, these movies were like my internal soundtrack, each one investigating the subject more deeply as my own hormonal misery deepened.

The trailer for Tim Burtons Dumbo.

Something else was kicking in for me, too. I was starting to see how Burtons movies linked together visually: the model towns, the holes in the roofs, the black-and-white stripes. Even the characters Jack Nicholsons Joker is recognisably an evolution of Michael Keatons Beetlejuice. And I loved seeing Keaton move from Beetlejuice to Batman, playing the weirdo in both. Burton was then considered something of an anomaly in Hollywood, the opposite to your usual director. But the truth is, he taught me how to watch movies.

Looking back at the few photos I allowed to be taken of me during my teenage years, I noticed that the fictional character I most closely resembled was Allison, the self-consciously weird outsider played by Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club. But as I entered my 15th year by then refusing to brush my hair and finding myself riddled with, among other things, OCDs that made me fearful of touching anything, and left my hands cracked and bleeding from compulsive overwashing the one I related to most deeply was Edward Scissorhands. When I read in what was then one of my most treasured books, Fabers Burton on Burton, that when Burton was younger he was so unhappy he used to hide in the closet, pull at his wisdom teeth and bleed all over his office, I knew for sure I had found a kindred soul.

Johnny Depp as Edward Scissorhands: the embodiment of teenage unhappiness.

Its not so much that Burton was my childlike thing I put away as an adult, but there did come a point when we outgrew one another. I stuck with him up to Sleepy Hollow because, even if I didnt love Johnny Depp as much as I did Michael Keaton, I still got such a kick out of seeing Burtons signature in every frame and because I thought (and still think) that making visually bland movies is analogous to writing only in cliche. You are disrespecting your audience by serving up such thoughtless, personality-free fare. Burton taught me that.

But with Sleepy Hollow, it began to feel like what had once made Burton feel distinctive was calcifying into a cliche itself. Then he entered what we Burton fans call the dark ages Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and we clung to promises that his next film would be a return to form, the way Woody Allen fans once did.

Recently, he has returned to form, although, for me, seeing movies such as Dark Shadows and Big Eyes is a bit like meeting up with your teenage boyfriend: youre glad things have worked out for them, but you feel a little wistful for the lost youthful magic; something that has much to do with you as it does with them. But Burtons earlier films still touch a tender part of my heart. When Batman Returns came out in 1992, it was widely deemed a bit of a disappointment compared with the original film, largely, I think, because people felt there were too many characters (ie two villains), a complaint that seems adorably quaint now that we are in the era of endless X-Men spin-offs. But when I watch it now, I find it thrilling to see Burton allied with such obviously kindred spirits, namely Keaton and Danny DeVito, who so effectively embodied his vision that they changed their own images for ever.

Costume designer Colleen Atwood on the Dumbo set. Photograph: Jay Maidment/Disney

And Burton obviously loved both of them, working with DeVito two more times, in Mars Attacks! and Big Fish. So, although I wasnt wildly overexcited when I heard that Burton was directing Dumbo (another Disney remake just what the world needs), my inner teenager melted a little when I heard that DeVito and Keaton would be working with him. And when I was then asked if I would like to spend a day on the set watching Burton directing it, my inner teenager became my desperately overexcited outer adult, and I was on the next bus to Pinewood studios, in the incongruously uncinematic setting of Slough.

If Burton was ever going to direct a straightforward childrens movie, then Dumbo the story of a freakish outsider is clearly a more natural fit for him than, say, Cinderella. And judging from the storyboards I am shown backstage, this one seems sweeter and more geared to children than his Alice in Wonderland was: the sets are all in very un-Burtonesque warm and cheerful colours. There is even a happy parade of pink elephants, a last-minute reference to the 1941 cartoon.

When you work with Tim, you always pay homage to Tim. But with this movie, I didnt put in any of the expected touches, not even a black-and-white stripe, says Colleen Atwood, the films costume designer, and regular Burton collaborator.

Its not fair to have complained in one breath about Burton repeating himself and in the next to whinge that a movie doesnt look sufficiently Burtonesque, so I force myself not to miss the old gothic monochrome too much. And the sets and costumes do look undeniably beautiful, or as Colin Farrell puts it more succinctly when he walks in and does a double-take at all the costumes on their rails: Oh, fuck!

Farrell plays Holt, Dumbos handler, and he proves himself to be a fully paid-up member of the Burton fanclub when he immediately, and somewhat randomly, starts talking about images of Burtons childhood you can find online: Have you seen that one of him from when he was 10 or so, and hes wearing a Halloween costume that is straight out of The Nightmare Before Christmas? Its such a touching testament to how those images in childhood bed into you, and he gets that

When I ask if Burton reminds him of anyone else he has worked with, Farrell instantly names Yorgos Lanthimos, with whom he worked on The Lobster and The Killing of the Sacred Deer: With Yorgos, the work almost destroys him. I dont even know if he sleeps during the shoot. And Tim is emotionally, physically and intellectually invested in every detail. After all this time, he still cares about EVERYTHING. One of the things that surprised me is how much actual set there is here. You know, I was talking to someone from the [live action] Lion King and, Im sure it will look beautiful, but theres nothing on set [because its all CGI]. Its just a fucking cameraman and some green screen. But we have a whole big top here!

At this point, something more vaudevillian than Burtonesque happens (or maybe its just the revenge of the Lion King): Farrells wooden chair breaks underneath him. Farrell braces his elbows on the table as it breaks, so he doesnt fall on the floor, but rather stays in a seated position above a vanished chair. 20th Century Fox better pay for this, he grins, utterly unflustered. Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is a movie star.

Costumes and props on the set. Photograph: Leah Gallo/Disney

DeVito, still in costume as the circus ringmaster, comes into the dressing room. Some actors look disappointingly different off-screen, but he looks even more DeVitoesque in person, wearing a top hat about twice as tall as he is.

Wheres the Guardian? I love the Guardian! You like my hat? Hahaha! he cackles. Right, which ones the trick chair? Youre not gonna get me like you got Colin!

This is DeVito and Burtons third film together fourth if you count Burtons cameo as a corpse in DeVitos movie Hoffa, which DeVito very much does: Wasnt that cool? Theres Tim!

Is Burton the director he has worked with the most? Mmm I think so. Well, except Ingmar Bergman. Ha!

In Burtons films, DeVito invariably plays a top-hatted impresario. Why does he think Burton associates him so closely with top hats? Ha! I dont know. I just feel like Im part of the palette Kandinskys world, because Tim is an artist.

So no worry about repeating himself? Oh God, no. And its really fun that Michael [Keaton]s here, too, because, unlike in Batman Returns, this time hes the bad guy and Im the good one, so thats progression. Ha! Also, I get a naked scene in this. Did you know that? Im in the bathtub. In Big Fish, you got to see my tush, so when Tim said: Danny, theres a naked scene in Dumbo I was like: Sign me up! Anyway, gotta go. Ill keep reading the Guardian! Ha!

DeVito has to film the last scene in the movie, and I follow him out on to an enormous stage set, mocked up to look like the most lavish fantasy circus of any childs dream, replete with a marching band and acrobats. There are 350 brightly costumed extras, half as many as in other circus scenes. DeVito jokes around with them, keeping spirits up during the boring technical adjustments. The whole tent is a rainbow of sepia-tinted colours, except for one small square black tent in the middle which is, inevitably, where Burton is based. He pops out of the tent, all in black, a beetle among fireflies, and pats DeVito on the shoulder. You just start when youre ready, he says exploiting the kind of mutual trust that can only come from a 25-year working relationship.

Danny DeVito as Max Medici in Dumbo. Photograph: Jay Maidment/Disney

But DeVito keeps fluffing his short line, promising the circus audience advancements instead of amazements.

Burton laughs: Never mind! Action!

DeVito continues to garble the line. At last, he gets it. I vote for that one! That was the best take yet! he crows.

What are you doing here? Star Wars is just across the road, you know, ha-ha! Burton says, suddenly appearing next to me, unexpectedly tall and even more unexpectedly cheerful. I cant really talk about the movie because I dont know if its a comedy or drama yet. I never do. Ill let you know when Im done, he says, slipping back into his tent.

Burton has to go back to work and I have to go home. I no longer need Burton, or any film director, to understand my soul, but as I sit on the bus looking out the window at the landmarks of Slough, I think about how I got to spend the day, watching Burton direct DeVito, 25 years after I fell in love with Batman Returns. As Farrell said, the images from our childhood bed in for ever, and Burtons movies will always be among those bedded-in images for me. I suspect hed hate being told that, but I know hed understand.

Dumbo is released on 29 March

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In the latest in our 10-part series, the films we are most looking forward to next year by the worlds most singular directors

Based on a True Story

Now 83, Roman Polanski remains firmly in the public eye, despite not having shot a film since 2013s ropy Venus in Fur. But Carnage, released a couple of years before that, suggested there was life and fire in the old genius yet, and this one has the great advantage of being scripted by Olivier Assayas. Another meta-fictional thriller in the mould of The Ghost Writer, this one stars Eva Green as a writer who becomes involved with an obsessive admirer.

Call Me By Your Name

Maybe the most intriguing among a strikingly tasty-looking bunch of Sundance titles, Luca Guadagninos latest may not feature Tilda Swinton, but it does look of a brilliant, shimmering kind with the likes of A Bigger Splash. Armie Hammer stars as an American academic who starts a summer love affair with an adolescent boy (Timothe Chalamet) while staying at his parents house on the Italian Riviera. Michael Stuhlbarg is the possibly spluttering papa.

The Death and Life of John F Donovan

Dont expect it to show up at Cannes no way, no how, not after what happened last time but still were reserving space for the latest by enfant terrible Xavier Dolan. Another English-language debut, this one stars Kit Harington as a rising US actor accused by gossip mag editor Jessica Chastain of being a paedophile. The supporting cast is as wow-y as that premise: Natalie Portman, Kathy Bates, Susan Sarandon, Michael Gambon.


Heres one that should make someone who, say, might be on maternity leave from March, feel really sore to miss: Alexander Paynes follow-up to the masterful Nebraska. And its his most ambitious to date: a sci-fi comedy drama starring Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig (subbing at the last minute for Reese Witherspoon) as a couple who voluntarily decide to be shrunk. But then she backs out at the last minute. Margo Martindale (star of Paynes fantastic Paris short), Jason Sudeikis, Alec Baldwin and Christoph Waltz co-star.

The Handmaiden


Heres the only one on this list any of us have seen already: Park Chan-wooks simmering adaptation of the Sarah Walters novel Fingersmith. It premiered at Cannes in May and was warmly received as one of the most erotic movies ever made.

Happy End

Michael Haneke and Isabelle Huppert reunite for his first film since Amour and hers since, well, the trio of brilliant hits she had this year. Details are sketchy, but we know it co-stars Amour lead Jean-Louis Trintignant as well as Mathieu Kassovitz, that it was shot in Paris, Calais and London, and that the migrant crisis might be a backdrop. Nous laimons dj.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

The Lobster might not have picked up the acclaim it deserved but Colin Farrell is still in with a shot at the Golden Globes and its certainly upped Yorgos Lanthimoss profile in the US. Hopefully that bodes well for a great launch for this Cincinnati-set drama about a surgeon (Farrell, again) who forms a familial bond with a teenage boy, with apparently disastrous results. Nicole Kidman plays his wife; Alicia Silverstone crops up too, amazingly.

Lean on Pete

Of all the projects to follow 45 Years, Lean on Pete wasnt quite what we anticipated from Andrew Haigh. But whatever that fella dishes out, well take it. Lean on Pete is a racehorse; he and a 15-year-old take the trip from Portland, Oregon, to distant relatives in Wyoming. Steve Buscemi, Chloe Sevigny and Steve Zahn feature.

Mektoub Is Mektoub

The fallout from Abdellatif Kechiches 2013 Cannes win for Blue Is the Warmest Colour did not paint him in the rosiest light. This one is based on Antoine Bgaudeaus novel La blessure, la vraie, about a screenwriter whose personal and professional dealings intermingle during a visit to his hometown on the Mediterranean. Other than that, its a puzzle: the cast is a mystery, but were guessing well find our around late April, when the Cannes contenders are announced.


Its easy to see why Derek Cianfrance might want a change of direction. His last movie, The Light Between Oceans, was a bruising, heartfelt, 100-hankie weepie on which multiple critics poured scorn (leading to Cianfrances wife, no less, writing a letter of protest). The Blue Valentine director this time round is going down the quasi-documentary route with the story of a heavy metal drummer who blows his eardrums out and must learn to adapt to a world of silence.


As one of the few people who liked The Search, Michel Hazanaviciuss follow-up proper to The Artist (never released in England due to the brutal festival reception), Im a nervous for and excited about this biopic of Jean-Luc Godard, about his courting of the then 17-year-old wife Anne Wiazemsky. Louis Garrel plays the director, Stacy Martin the actor. Brnice Bejo is also in the mix; her relationship with husband Hazanavicius may also have informed their involvement in this one.

The Sisters Brothers

Joaquin Phoenix makes his first appearance on this list, this time in the first English-language film from Jacques Audiard. Based on Patrick DeWitts novel, its about sibling assassins (Phoenix and John C Reilly) pursing a gold prospector across 1,000 miles of 1850s Oregon desert. Audiard was the surprise winner of the Palme dOr at Cannes last year for Dheepan; this looks quite wildly different.


Wim Wenders latest sounds faintly bananas. James McAvoy plays an Englishman imprisoned by jihadists in a windowless room on the eastern coast of Africa. Alicia Vikander is a diver prepping to hit the ocean floor in Greenland. The previous Christmas, they had a romance which began on a French beach. How this one will play we have no idea, but Charlotte Rampling co-stars, which suggests swimmingly.


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