“Now, you know, like, ‘legend weekend’ – you must’ve had quite a time up here,” says Tim Burton. It’s the day after Halloween, and the film director, dressed in gray jeans with holes in the knees and oversize blue sunglasses, has just arrived for a visit to Sleepy Hollow’s historic Philipsburg Manor (think Colonial Williamsburg but just outside Tarrytown). “Oh, yes, we had the best time,” the curly-haired tour guide exclaims in a nasal upstate accent.
A flock of slush-colored sheep crosses the bridge where, legend has it, Washington Irving set the original tale about Ichabod Crane and the skull-craving Headless Horseman. “We had bonfires and s’mores and pumpkin-roasting; a booth with Captain Kidd; the Headless Horseman riding around in this pasture here; and, for the first time this year, a whole cast of trolls – the trolls were under the bridge, of course,” she says, all in one breath. Burton laughs knowingly. “Of course they were!” he says.
A pair of beige horses gallop by as the Philipsburg staff, abandoning their usual clientele – restless seventh-graders in Champion sweatshirts – to crowd around Burton, offer a Headless Horseman key chain from the gift shop as a keepsake and a taste of pumpkin pancake cooked over a traditional open hearth. “I came down to see Mr. Burton at the set in Yonkers,” says the gray-haired restoration supervisor. “Mr. Burton, if you see three scarecrows around here that look a little like yours, please don’t sue me for the copyright!”
“Oh, you guys do whatever you want,” says Burton with a chuckle. “This is just great – the kids must love it – living history and all.”
“Eh, we just make it all up,” jokes an elderly man in a feathered tricorn.
“Now, you know that’s not true,” scolds a woman who looks like Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother. “We have an extensive training course.”
Burton turns away and stifles a laugh. “This is getting kind of … goofy,” he whispers.
It takes a lot for Burton to think something is goofy. The wild-haired, 41-year-old illustrator turned director of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, Batman and Batman Returns, Beetlejuice, Mars Attacks!, and now Sleepy Hollow has been telling expressionistic gothic folk tales for twenty years, proving to be as successful at injecting his half-human characters into the popular consciousness as the admen who created the Taco Bell dog. “The second Batman was just a joke,” says Burton, shuffling past some noshing brown cows. “I mean, I had to design characters for the Happy Meal before I could design the film.”
As one of Hollywood’s most indulged directors, Burton has created whole alternate worlds in his movies, from the polyester suburbia of Beetlejuice to the $80 million-plus UFO-movie spoof Mars Attacks!, a colossal 1996 flop that makes Sleepy Hollow such an important test of his blockbuster power. Hyperdesigned and sepia-toned, starring Burton’s favorite actors – Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane, Christopher Walken as the Headless Horseman, and Christina Ricci as the blond-tressed love interest – Sleepy Hollow is a silly-scary gorefest clearly influenced by fifties horror movies. Nearly everyone’s head rolls. “I don’t know why they didn’t release it for Halloween,” says Burton. “They – you know, they – probably thought that since people look like George Washington and the Pilgrims in it, it would be a good Thanksgiving movie. Like some sort of Thanksgiving pageant.”
On a warm November day, Burton was exhausted when the Town Car came to pick him up for an 8 a.m. photo shoot, but once he reached Sleepy Hollow’s bosky Old Dutch Church cemetery, full of early-nineteenth-century family plots with names like McBride, Elder, and Jealous, he could hardly stop twitching, he was so excited. “This is why people think I’m a druggie, even though I hardly touch the stuff,” he says. “Now you’re seeing the way I get when I’m on set – I get so into things.”
“The Warner Bros. people ran their Batman franchise into the ground, and I think they don’t want to take a chance on my ruining another one. I’m devastated.”
Giddy, he runs back to the car to grab his own Polaroid. The sky is bright blue, the darker blue of a clear late-fall day, and all the trees are in peak fall colors – he crouches under an orange willow, snapping away. His L.A. publicist follows behind with a hair-and-makeup woman in a Bone Collector hat, even though Burton insists that he doesn’t want makeup. “God, some of these colors I’ve never seen before,” says the publicist, and she breaks a branch off a flaming-red oak to take home. “It’s amazing!” says Burton and gives her a short, excited hug.
Near a huge, dappled-gray cross, Burton puts his camera down on the ground, which is covered with wet yellow leaves. “Oh, it’s going to get wet,” says the photographer’s assistant, who picks it up. “No, no, don’t worry about it,” says Burton. “You really shouldn’t have to carry it – you have enough to do.”
A graduate of Cal Arts who directed his first movie at 21, Burton just bought an apartment on lower Fifth – “They try to make you think you have to live in L.A., but you don’t” – with his girlfriend, actress Lisa Marie, whom he met at the strip club Goldfingers on New Year’s Eve 1991 (both were just watching). He’s planning to take a little time to travel after Sleepy Hollow, since plans to direct Kevin Smith’s script for Superman Lives, starring Nicolas Cage, were recently canned. “I worked on that movie for a year,” says Burton sadly. “But the Warner Bros. people ran their Batman franchise into the ground, and I think they don’t want to take a chance on me ruining another one. I’m devastated – I don’t know when I’ll get over it.” Burton has also published several books, one of them an illustrated collection of mock children’s tales called The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other Stories. One poem in it reads:
The Boy with Nails in His Eyes
put up his aluminum tree.
It looked pretty strange
because he really couldn’t see.
“Tim, can’t I get just one sec with you?” asks the makeup woman. “No, no, I don’t need makeup, I don’t want to look like George Hamilton,” he says. “Unless you’ll get into trouble or something?”
She shakes her head and gives up – there he is, pale as a ghost, with ridiculously mussed hair, staring into the camera through bloodshot eyes. “He likes to look scary, huh?” she says with a wink. “But he’s really a mensch.”