The Making of the Original Frankenweenie

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Once upon a time there was troubled young boy who loved monster movies and lived in a bright, clean suburban neighborhood. He dearly loved his playful dog but felt estranged from his own parents. He spent his spare time not associating with his schoolmates but creating homemade 8mm movies.

That was not only the real life story of legendary filmmaker Tim Burton but also the storyline of one of his early short films, Frankenweenie (1984). The Walt Disney Company will be releasing a stop-motion feature-length version of Frankenweenie later this year. Even when Burton was making the original short film, he told interviewers that the film could easily be expanded into a feature, so it will be interesting to see if the story has enough substance that it can be stretched to more than three times its original length.

For those readers not familiar with the original black and white, live-action film inspired by Universal’s classic 1931 movie, Frankenstein, here is a short synopsis:

A young boy named Victor Frankenstein (played by Barret Oliver) finds release for his alienation from his suburban neighborhood by making 8mm home movies sometimes featuring his beloved pet bull terrier, Sparky. After Sparky chases a ball into the street and is hit by a car, the heartbroken boy learns in his school science class how electrical impulses can result in muscle movement thanks to a demonstration on a dead frog. (Or as teacher Paul Bartel says, in an homage to the famous Monty Python dead parrot sketch, an “ex-frog”.)

The boy converts his attic into an elaborate makeshift laboratory and, just as in the classic film, uses the electrical power in a bolt of lightning to revive the corpse of his dog. While young Victor is joyful at his success, his neighbors are terrified of the stitched together canine with bolts sticking out of his neck, an homage to Jack Pierce’s iconic make-up for Boris Karloff in Frankenstein.

Running away from these upset neighbors, Victor and Sparky find themselves at the local miniature golf course and hide in the windmill structure. An angry mob accidentally sets the windmill on fire and an unconscious Victor is rescued by his dog who is once again killed in the attempt.

The repentant mob uses their cars and jumper cables to re-charge Sparky and bring him back once more to life. It is a happy ending for Sparky, who falls in love with a poodle whose hairstyle resembles the classic hairstyle of the monster’s bride from the film Bride of Frankenstein.

At the age of 25, Tim Burton directed Frankenweenie. It was an approximately 30-minute black and white short costing the Disney Studio about $1 million.

Frankenweenie came out of some drawings and some feelings, and then thinking maybe this could be good, maybe we could do this as a featurette…You have a dog that you love, and the idea of keeping it alive was the impulse for the movie…” stated Burton when the film was finished.

“I had just seen Frankenstein again and started thinking for some reason about a dog I had when I was young," Burton told writer Michael Mayo in 1985. "I started thinking just how incredible the whole idea of Frankenstein really is, of bringing something dead back to life. But all the versions of it so far have just dealt with the horrible aspects of the idea. At some point, the idea of my dog and Frankenstein just connected and we started developing it. I put the idea on storyboards and pitched it to Richard Berger [then production chief at Disney] and he liked it. We got a writer named Lenny Ripps to write the script and continued to develop it from there."

Ripps, a well-known comedy writer, had written everything from the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special (where he learned from George Lucas himself that Han Solo was supposedly married to a Wookie wife and had been raised by Wookies as a child) to eight episodes of the TV show Bosom Buddies, to material for Redd Foxx, Joan Rivers, Rodney Dangerfield and others. He is still a prolific comedy writer today and some feel it was his writing that brought a warm softness to the strange macabre world of Burton’s concept.

“I learned that essentially everything you write is autobiographical, from something you experienced, felt, or perhaps just observed. I always begin by writing about things that happen to actual people, then funny can follow. Somehow, for me, going from being funny first is backwards,” Ripps told an interviewer in 2000.

Unfortunately, it is a sad reality that we all outlive our four-legged childhood friends and that final goodbye can be extremely painful as Burton remembered about his own dog from his early days in Burbank.

“His name was Pepe — we lived in a Spanish neighborhood," he said. "Our dog had this thing called distemper, and wasn’t supposed to live more than a couple of years. He lived much longer than that, which kind of fed into this Frankenstein mythology as well. He was a mix, kind of a mutt, with a bit of terrier, and a bit of something else. I don’t know what it was. It was kind of a mixture."

“It’s such an unconditional relationship," he continued. "A lot of kids have that experience – I certainly had that experience with a first pet. You’ll probably never have it again in your life in that way, it’s so pure and memorable. What’s more pure than the story of a kid and his first pet? Mix that with the Frankenstein myth and it causes problems. Ultimately, we try to go with the slightly more positive aspects of keeping that [boy-and-his-dog] relationship going.”

Berger asked an executive in the story department, Julie Hickson, who had worked with Burton on the aborted Trick or Treat project to produce the film.

“I think that if you look at Tim’s drawings, aside from the artistry involved, there’s a lot of ideas there…they’re really jam packed, and it’s exciting to work for someone like that… We did a version of Hansel and Gretel for the Disney Channel that didn’t turn out to be a big hit. It was a candy-land martial arts version of the story with an all-oriental cast that didn’t have a big budget but we had a lot of fun doing it,” said Hickson in an interview with Mayo in 1985.

It was Hickson who approached actress Shelley Duval who she knew casually because Duval had tried unsuccessfully to sell Disney on her idea for a series to be called Faerie Tale Theatre. Hickson wrote to her, feeling that if she got the material to Duval directly that the actress would respond to it. Actor Daniel Stern came on board because he had wanted to work with Duval. Actor Paul Bartel, always a strong supporter of small independent films, loved the material, as well.

“Basically, we got this cast for no money because they all wanted to do it,” Hickson recalled.

“They [the actors] were all great. All of these people, they knew I had never done anything before, but they liked the idea (of the film). They felt that I cared. I think what they did was make me feel comfortable and I started to learn that you have to communicate with people,” Burton told another interviewer a decade after the film’s release.

The final cast was Shelley Duval (Susan Frankenstein), Daniel Stern (Ben Frankenstein), Barret Oliver (Victor Frankenstein), Joseph Maher (Mr. Chambers), Roz Braverman (Mrs. Rose Epstein who has a dachshund named “Raymond”), Paul Bartel (Mr. Walsh, the school science teacher), Sofia Coppola credited as “Domino” (Ann Chambers), Jason Hervey (Frank Dale), Paul C. Scott (Mike Anderson), Helen Boll (Mrs. Curtis), Bob Herron (Street Player), Donna Hall (Street Player), Rusty James (Raymond) and Sparky as Sparky.

The original Kenneth Strickfaden electrical equipment for Universal’s Frankenstein was used in the attic laboratory. It had been in storage for decades, but was found and used in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974) about 10 years earlier.

“It was hard for Disney to understand why we wanted the equipment so badly until they saw it,” Hickson said.

Rick Heinrichs, who produced Burton’s stop-motion short, Vincent, was the associate producer on the film. Vincent has a short moment foreshadowing Frankenweenie, where a mad doctor version of Vincent is wiring up his dog to electrodes in an imaginary attic laboratory.

There was only enough budget for about two weeks of pre-production time for Frankenweenie since Disney was trying to keep production costs down because of all the studio overhead.

“The actual production was a fifteen day shoot with a couple of months for post-production,” Hickson said.

Burton intitially complained about shooting a black and white picture on color film stock, but the final film has strong, crisp contrasts between light and shadow.

In later interviews, Burton has tried to explain how he utilized the connection between the classic Universal horror film and his short film. Interesting, the lead character in Burton’s film is named “Victor” just as in Mary Shelley’s original novel. (The Universal film renamed the character “Henry.”) Young Victor’s breakfast mug is in the shape of Lon Chaney Jr.’s head as he appears in Universal’s classic horror film, The Wolf Man. Right next to that mug is a carton of Donald Duck orange juice.

As Burton remembered in the book Burton on Burton (1995):

“We did Frankenweenie as if the original story had never existed. This suburban family is the Frankenstein family and the little boy is Victor, but it’s not a nudge in the ribs type of thing. We don’t have the family watching the Universal original as a foreboding of things to come. I don’t think this is a dark or macabre story, and we didn’t try to make the dog something horrible. He brings the dog back to life because he really loves the dog.

“For some reason, I was always able to make direct links, emotionally, between the whole Gothic/Frankenstein/Edgar Allan Poe thing and growing up in suburbia…Growing up in suburbia there were these miniature golf courses with windmills which were just like the one in (the big climatic scene of) Frankenweenie. There were poodles that always reminded you of the bride of Frankenstein with the big hair. All those things were just there. That’s why it felt so right or easy for me to do—those images were already there in Burbank.

“It’s very, very important to me, even though there are feelings from Frankenstein that I do not make direct linkage to it. If I was to sit down with somebody and we were to look at a scene from Frankenstein and say ‘Let’s do that,’ I wouldn’t do it, even if it’s an homage or an inspired kind of thing. I try to make sure in my own mind that it’s not a case of ‘Let’s copy that’…The writer, Lenny Ripps, was that way. He got it. He didn’t want to sit there and go over Frankenstein. He knew it well enough. It’s more like it’s being filtered through some sort of remembrance.

“For Frankenweenie I didn’t look at anything. I remember thinking the skies in Frankenstein were really cool because they were painted. But I didn’t go and look at the film because I didn’t want to say, ‘Do it like that’. I wanted to try to describe it the way I remembered. So I would decribe something, and say, ‘It was like a painted backdrop, but the clouds were more pronounced. It was a much more intense, wild sky.’ Then when I finally looked at Frankenstein, I saw that the sky was not quite the way I had described it. That was my impression, but I would still rather go with that. I feel when somebody is just borrowing something, they don’t have any feeling for it themselves.

“I never considered myself a writer, even though I do write things. I feel whether or not you write it, you have to feel like you wrote it. I could see it a little more clearly by having somebody else write it. I’ve always felt as long as they get me and get what it is that I feel, then they can bring something to it themselves. Then it’s better. It opens it up a little bit more.”

Originally, the film was scheduled to go into production early in 1984 to play with the summer 1984 re-release of The Jungle Book. Disney decided instead to delay shooting until later summer and have the film be shown with the Christmas re-release of Pinocchio in 1984. Pinocchio was Hickson’s favorite Disney animated feature and Burton was excited, as well.

“We’ll have a beautiful black and white film with one of the best color movies ever made," Burton said. "When I look at stuff we asked them to make from the designs, I don’t think we could have gotten it from any other studio.”

Two test screenings in September 1984 with mothers and young children resulted in the short earning a PG rating from the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America). Mothers were concerned that the film would encourage their children to play inappropriately with electricity among other things including the general “intensity” of the film.

“It freaked everybody out that Frankenweenie got a PG rating, and you can’t release a PG film with a G-rated film," Burton said. "I was a little shocked, because I don’t see what’s PG about the film: there’s no bad language, there’s only one bit of violence, and the violence happens off-camera. So I said to the MPAA, ‘What do I need to do to get a G Rating?’ and they basically said, ‘There’s nothing you can cut; it’s just the tone.’ It was supposed to be released with Pinocchio and I think Pinocchio has some intense moments. I remember getting freaked out when I was a kid and saw it. I remember kids screaming.“

The film had a very short limited theatrical run in Los Angeles in December to try to qualify for Academy Award consideration. It did receive a small release in the U.K. on a double bill with Touchstone Pictures PG rated Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend in 1985. The film finally appeared on videotape in 1992 to take advantage of Burton’s new reputation as a big box office filmmaker. The short is one of the extras on the Nightmare Before Christmas DVD.

“It was right at the time when the company was changing [Michael Eisner and Frank Wells were now in charge]. I remember being frustrated that the old regime was out, the new one was in, and again a 30-minute short is not a high priority. [The feeling was] ‘Oh, this is great but we have no plans to release it. Ever.’ By that point I was really tired of Disney. It was a case of doing a bunch of stuff that nobody would ever see. It was kind of weird,” Burton recalled.

Of course, a new administration had little interest in promoting the accomplishments and projects of the preceding administration.

Luckily, in 1984, Paul Reubens was looking for a director for a film idea he had been developing for many years. At a Los Angeles party, Reubens was asking around for suggestions and one of the guests had just seen Frankenweenie.

Horror writer Stephen King had seen Frankenweenie, and strongly recommended it to Bonni Lee, an executive at Warner Brothers. Lee then showed the film to Paul Reubens. (By the way, writer King had covered similar ground of bringing a beloved childhood pet back to life with the release of his novel Pet Sematary in 1983).

Reubens arranged a meeting with Burton and the two men immediately bonded.

Some of the folks involved with the production of Frankenweenie ended up in Burton’s first full-length live-action film, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure: Bob Herron did stunt work, costumer Sandy Berke Jordan did the same role for the feature film, animal trainer Christy Miele coordinated animals for the feature and Jason Hervey played the spoiled brat actor Kevin Morton.

That film opened up a new creative career for Burton as a director of live-action feature films.