The Burton family lived in the flight path of the Burbank airport, and “one of the games we used to play was counting down when the exhaust left the plane to when it reached us on the ground,” the director says.
“That didn’t make it into the movie,” he says of Frankenweenie, which borrows a lot from his childhood. “That’s sort of another movie.”
The animated film (a remake of his 1984 live-action short for Disney) was inspired by one of Burton’s unusual early friendships — with a fluffy white mutt named Pepe (pictured above, along with their counter-intuitively named gray dog Frosty.)
Pepe was not a healthy pet. “He was a dog that was meant to sort of not live for long and had distemper,” Burton says. But long before being immortalized on film, the ailing pet seemed to hang on forever in real life — inspiring the story of a beloved dog who defies the grave.
“He ended up living quite long,” Burton says. “It just had a good spirit, that dog. The Frankenweenie character wasn’t meant to look like him. It was more just the memory and the spirit of him.”
Eventually, he did lose Pepe. Everyone who has loved and outlived a pet knows what it’s like to lose such a friend.
The trouble was, Burton didn’t feel like he had a lot of friends, so every one counted. ““I don’t think I was unique to this feeling,” he says. “It sort of got worse as I got slightly older. At the time I was a teenager I felt completely alone. Whether it was self-imposed or …” He trails off.
“I always felt like I was a fairly normal person, but at a certain age, I thought, ‘Maybe I’m not because everyone’s saying I’m not.’”
He spent a lot of time receding into his own imagination, and venting what he found there on the pages of his notebooks. “You get into junior high and by high school I felt more strange and isolated,” he says. “But some ages you go through are hard for any kid. You’re 12, and you get to 15 or 16. It’s sort of hard for everybody.”
But it was around this time that Burton made another friend, a much older woman who taught a high school art class, who would forever change his life.