Burton had an often strained relationship with them, but tackled the hard feelings between child and parent in 2003’s Big Fish. At the time, he said: “It was not something that was easy for me to talk about with anybody. But this script was a great way to present that feeling without having to talk about it.”
All these years later, he has become more understanding of the parents who never quite understood him.
“It was that sort of time when fathers worked, mothers didn’t work. And they probably felt pretty trapped,” says Burton. “In the hindsight, you see what people really have to go through as an adult, and how they can feel buried alive.”
His father had been a professional baseball player, but only briefly. “Then he got injured, which I think was quite traumatic for him,” recalls the filmmaker. “Obviously, you’re an athlete and then you have an injury, and you’re not able to do it — it’s kind of something a bit sad.” Bill Burton ended up working for Burbank’s parks, maintaining their sports facilities and teams, which his son now sees as his father’s way of staying close to the thing he loved.
Burton tried to follow his father’s passion, at least as far as he could. “I wasn’t the greatest [at sports,] but I tried,” he says. “I wouldn’t say he pushed me into it, but since it was there, I tried. I would say I wasn’t the worst player in sports. I wasn’t the best player. I was somewhere in the middle. Not great at anything. But I came off the reserve bench every now and then.”
Burton’s housewife mother, Jean, was, as the director says, “kind of a frustrated suburban artist, making owls and Santa Clauses out of pine cones and foil.”
“She had a couple of jobs– I can’t remember what, but kind of secretary things. It was well after I’d moved out of the house,” he says. “She had a strange relationship with animals. She loved animals. She’d always get these wounded animals.”
She later owned a store selling cat novelty items. “I can’t quite describe it — she had a cat store in Burbank. But not real cats,” he says. “Cat mugs and kitty shirts and cat paraphernalia.”
Comparing the photo above, of a fair-haired young Burton, smiling atop a pony, with the picture on the front page of this article, of him as a slightly older child, dressed head-to-toe in a skeleton costume, and it’s easy to think: Before and After.
Though the things he finds fascinating about the world are kind of the opposite of sunny, ordinary Burbank, his hometown helped him define that vision through contrast.
“It’s those early seeds are seeds that make you grow into who you are and they’re definitely a part of you,” Burton says. “They don’t really leave you. You can’t really just erase them and go, ‘I’m moving on.’ It’s part of your DNA.”
So if he could, is there anything he’d change ….