Halfway through Monday’s press conference with Tim Burton at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the director’s cellphone went off, emitting a spooky high-pitched tone that could have easily been a musical cue in Beetlejuice.
“It scares me every time it rings,” laughed Burton, who nevertheless put up a brave face amidst questions about Lightbox’s eponymous exhibition (opening Friday), that features a gallery-style presentation of production artifacts, hand- drawn storyboards and other ghoulish ephemera from his 25-year-career.
“It’s sort of an out of body experience, like having your dirty socks up on the wall,” said Burton. “But I felt like I was in good hands, that the stuff was being presented in a way that made it more comfortable.”
What Burton terms his “dirty socks” includes numerous sketches and designs he made in the early 1980s when he was working in the animation department at Walt Disney Studios — a famously frustrating period that eventually led to him seek out his own creative path.
“Those negative things give you a fighting spirit,” he said diplomatically, perhaps mindful of the fact that last year’s box-office-busting Alice in Wonderland was produced under the auspices of the Mouse House.
“So I always looked at those experiences as being quite positive.”
Burton also said that the exhibition — which originated at MoMA in New York before travelling to Toronto — forced him to revisit his work in a way he wouldn’t normally: “I don’t really watch [my movies] after I’ve done them.”
In fact, the film he felt most comfortable discussing was one that he didn’t make: Thai director Apichatpong Weerasathakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which was awarded the Palme D’or earlier this year at Cannes, where Burton was the jury president — and which recently had a successful run at the Lightbox as a result of that rather bold decision.
“That was a film that really hit me,” said Burton, smiling. “What he was doing spoke to me. That’s the beauty of film — you don’t have to speak the same language as someone else to understand what they’re saying.”