It has been documented that one of Tim Burton’s toughest times were the productions for his Batman films: 1989’s BATMAN being his “least personal film,” after getting overwhelmed by other interests from the studio, and 1992’s BATMAN RETURNS, in a reverse reaction, more satisfactory for Burton but being a controversial episode that made the filmmaker more of an unpopular name for the studios and public. Indeed, after finding his original Batman film to be the most detached one of his career, it is no wonder that the main demand for his sequel was creative-control. The freedom allowed him to change much more his superhero follow-up, almost from point to point in comparison to the original one, relocating his sense to a different vision – or rather, a return to his more traditionalist style: constant use of miniatures and some obvious constructed sets, a difficult narrative, an odd tone and macabre characters. He was crucified by the fanboys and the studio for his change in vision. As it turns out, “A Tim Burton Film” label isn’t that different from “An Ed Wood film” label.
Always identifying with the outsider who is unable to co-exist with others, Burton’s Ed Wood (Johnny Depp) is an artist that is disapproved of by fans and studios, but is approved by himself. While this might seem like a convetional trope from Burton, it is depicted from what seems a more personal perspective, directly channeling feelings as a filmmaker and his regard for those that don’t share his qualities and dismiss him, which is to dismiss them in return. Indeed, as a director who by his own admission needs to heavily identify and relate to his characters in some shape or form, his rebelled emotion steaming out of his times of frustrations with studios and audiences a couple of years earlier made this opportunity to create a film about the infamous Ed Wood an ideal channel to uncompress Burton’s resentment.
The film is a celebration of the outcast, and as Wood’s constant grin would indicate, the cheerfulness and pride of odd personalities and visions, even if they are a distain for those who opinion on them. Similarly, Burton’s self-satisfaction of his work and his ignorance of others, like his Ed Wood, is never more evident than in the DVD commentary for BATMAN RETURNS, where he argues that critical praise for his films has been “mixed, at best,” yet he still desires to make films (even if his notion is not entirely accurate), and in the following quote in regard to his criticism:
“Some people are really good at narrative and some people are really good at action. I’m not that sort of person. So, if I’m going to do something just let me do my thing and hope for the best. If you don’t want me to do it, then don’t have me do it. But if I do it, then don’t make me conform. If you want it to be a James Cameron movie get James Cameron to do it.”
The main criticism Burton faced in light of his second Batman film was the notion that the material was too dark and macabre, the studio and general audiences argued – the reason as to why the franchise ultimately took a lighter path with Joel Schumacher, after all. In many ways, Burton’s ED WOOD is facetious to those that criticized Burton’s style as morbid and horrific by exposing it then as harmlessness and loveable in a perspective that is not so much “twisted,” but just different. Burton is focused on horror, plus all things abnormal, as more of un-threatening and innocent elements instead of something that is random and horrendous, changing categorizations through different perspectives. Both the filmmaker behind the camera and the one in front of it share their respective successes (even if Wood’s is accidentally) in finding conformity in what for others is uncomfortable; what for others is unusual, for them is usual; what for others is bad, for them is some sort of good. Burton, as someone who has even recented the term “A Tim Burton film” or that he has a specific demographic, what ultimately attempted is to uncategorized the most universally labelled and judged figure in the history of cinema.
Burton’s films are often in pursue of locating ambiguities and blurriness between brands, whether it is questionable heroism or questions between fantasies and realities. His work is heavily driven by the unknown amid different forces and perceptions, with results in which most of the time there are no definitive answers, just existential questions. Often, finding how villains like Sweeney Tood (Johnny Depp) are heroes, and how heroes like Batman (Michael Keaton) might be villains, the interactions between categorizations always blur their distinctions. Thus, for someone as Tim Burton to label Ed Wood a “hack” would’ve been a goal too uninspired. Being Hollywood’s contrarian, and a persistent defender about ambiguities within people, he makes a film about Ed Wood on how a “bad” and “great” artist meet and share qualities, putting together what makes different people the same and the same ones different in other qualities, all in the purpose to argue for individualism and a distinctiveness that defies classification; the hack is also a visionary; the man is also a woman.
ED WOOD is not just a film that makes focus on characters whose lifestyles contrast others, as most of Burton’s films, but further pays attention to visions that contrast each other and never seem to coincide purely. Whether Wood was accidentally talented or plain talentless, Burton congratulates his character for sheer passion and distinction in a society that opresses the individual if not part of the collectivism (in contrast to the Hollywood hacks of today, who obey orders for profit), relating to him as in the scene where Ed Wood meets Orson Wells, the great artist and the greatly bad artist sharing the same battle of fighting for their individual visions against studios, producers and fans. In particular, one scene that Burton surely took identification with is the one in which Wood’s gang joins in on their premiere and are essentially mobbed by young male moviegoers, which could be a microcosm of Burton’s own experience with the millions of Batman fanboys he alienated a couple of years earlier with BATMAN RETURNS, because his vision diverged from theirs.
As Tim Burton’s quote below indicates, his two post-Batman films were an exploration of artists who were rejected by an American society as non-conformists, distinctive individuals who cannot connect conventionally and try do so differently through what others categorize as rebellious. For Edward Scissorhands (Johnny Depp), it’s the conflict between the bourgeois and artistic, and through that reality versus fantasy – whether the physical realm is more powerful and important than the feelings and visions of the mind. His gift is his curse. What makes him original also scars him. What allows him to create his art is what keeps him from integrating into society. For Ed Wood, it is the same case of an artist’s curse, yet as mentioned above, unaware of pain and celebrated by Burton through his badness as an exclamation point:
“[ED WOOD] and EDWARD SCISSORHANDS both seem to be clear statements about the intolerance of nonconformity in suburban America and Hollywood. [...] You’ve often talked of an estrangement from mainstream American values; one of the big ideals is winning, or success. Celebrating cinema’s greatest loser is therefore a political statement.”
“America, especially in the era I grew up in – in the aftermath of the Fifties nuclear family – it’s all about winning and the American dream, and we’re all individuals and free. I remember conformity and categorization from the very beginning, so where is all this individuality? The people I have known who have been individuals have always been tortured. There’s this predatory love-hate thing in this culture; they get preyed upon and devoured. For me there’s a fine line between what is a winner and what is a loser, especially nowadays, where people who kill people become celebrities and people who do bad things start selling books. I wasn’t trying to make a comment on that so much as an observation on the personal nature of how people are perceived and how you perceive yourself, the contradictions of life. That’s why it was important for me to put those final overly dramatic supers at the end.”
The ending of ED WOOD is ultimately a commemoration to fantasy and symbolic of the changes in different perspectives: PLAN 9 is some sort of success, Wood proposes and drives through a rain, always ignoring and dismissing the imperfection around his tale. It becomes emblematical as to how individual imagination should triumph over the expected compliance and what is considered “reality” by others, since to what to others may have been a tragedy, for Burton it is happy; for him, it is all a matter of perception. The credits roll, and the characters are shown as successes out of badness; again, it is the trouble of shallow categorization and the blur that is the “so bad is good” term that Wood came epitomize and Burton’s hate of absolute labeling. After all, here I am, participating in a blogathon about Ed Wood decades later. They surely had to do something right.