Tim’s Vision: Allison Abbate on Frankenweenie

The producer talks about why animation inspires her, Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio and why audiences love Tim Burton.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

Allison Abbate is just not your everyday producer. When I sat down to talk with her about the forthcoming feature-length Frankenweenie (Tim Burton, 2012), she had not only brought a few of the stop-motion puppets with her, she explained why she did it. She told me that she thought it was a nice thing for people to be able to have some tangible closeness with the figures from the film. In this case, Allison had two figures of Sparky, the dog who gets resurrected from the dead by his young owner, Victor Frankenstien (voiced by the young Charlie Tahan) an “experiment” that has surprising and somewhat adventuresome results.

Abbate herself is not averse to the adventuresome project. Having worked with Wes Anderson, Brad Bird and Tim Burton before this, her attraction is towards the interesting and unusual but she seems to be able to achieve a quite high success rate. We spoke about the things that she has worked on, animation projects and why she has such an eye for these kinds of narratives. We began talking about some media issues and she had some interesting things to say in the way of film theory and critical thinking where it has to do with the area of production in and of itself.

Allison Abbate: It’s nice to sort of bridge the medias, because I do sort of feel that sometimes people get too sort of… I studied at Brown and we had a thing called semiotics, and I was recently talking to the Brown woman and they said “Why semiotics?” and I said “Because I feel like it made us better filmmakers because it made us look at media and communication and signs and symbols and all of that stuff, not just film language. And so, to me, the people who come from the Brown program are more well-rounded as far as filmmakers go because they look at the topic and the subject matter and the storytelling in a very different way."

CraveOnline: So what was it like to work with Tim Burton?

It was pretty great. He is definitely an amazing man to work with. He is funny and sweet and endlessly inventive. His ideas make you cry and laugh at the same time and it’s been a thrill actually to be able to be working this closely with him for so long.

How does Frankenweenie fit in with the rest of the films that you have worked on in your career?

You know, I like tucking into and making movies that speak on a lot of different levels and tell stories that have multiple audiences, and certainly Tim’s movies do that. At first glance it’s a little bit of a horror spoof or a horror movie, quirky, edgy, but at the end of the day there’s a reason why people all over the world love his movies and its because he has true characters that are truly heartfelt. And so even if you look at this movie, even characters with very few lines, Toshiaki, Elsa, you feel for them, you care about them. In just a few scenes, a few brush strokes, a few designs or sketches, he conveys a world of personality for these characters and I love that and it’s really the way that I like to tell stories so working with him is great. Also I like working with interesting directors who will teach me things, who will take me on journeys that I had not thought of going on.

Who would you say would be other directors who have taken you on that same kind of journey within your working relationship?

Certainly Wes Anderson with The Fantastic Mr. Fox was a real departure for me, I love his movies and that was such a different take on animation and stop-motion especially. I worked with Ivan Reitman and Joe Dante on two Looney Tunes movies, and I love the Looney Tunes, and those were two very different takes on how to reinterpret those characters for the new generations. I worked with Brad Bird on his movie The Iron Giant, so I feel like I’ve been really lucky in being able to work with very different kinds of creative visionaries and find a way to get the crews to adapt to those creative visions and kind of create what they are looking for. It’s been a really fun part of the job.

What do you find the most inspirational about animation or animated-style filmmaking?

The process of animation is what inspires me because what I will say is that you are literally making a film one frame at a time. And so, I am a control freak in many ways and so the idea of being able to really control anything that anyone sees in a frame is really interesting to me and it’s a huge responsibility because you know that anything that’s in there has been put in there and it’s not by chance. For me, you need to take the responsibility for the creations that you’re making but also you can really hone things and hone a story one frame at a time and one sequence at a time and it is a slow process so as you’re creating it and developing your characters, you might find that you want to add more scenes or more lines and you can, so you can constantly be adapting it and changing it and making it better. You know, if we haven’t shot it yet, there’s time to fix it! I think you always have to have an open mind to that kind of thing.

You’ve worked on some pretty offbeat but wildly successful and popular stories. What appealed to you about those scripts in particular? I mean, I know people who won’t even allow their copy of Iron Giant to leave their house, they treasure it so much.

Oh, absolutely. They are beloved. I am usually just drawn to a project because I like the story, certainly Iron Giant was based on a Ted Hughes poem and the way that Brad adapted it was so interesting and so topical and so current at that time, and so to me that was an interesting way of going, “Oh that’s a really interesting story to tell,” and an interesting time period to be showcasing in Maine and all of that was just… fresh. And I like movies that speak on a lot of levels and that movie had an amazing message, which is why I think that people won’t let go of their copy because it seems that there’s more meat to it than you would think. And I felt that Corpse Bride was another one of those movies like that. This is a movie about a woman who is lonely and looking for love in all the wrong places and I was that person and we’re all that person and she really has to learn how to make peace with herself in order to find the freedom to sort of transcend to the next level. So the idea of making an animated movie that has that at the heart of it, to me, was just so exciting!

You know, I want to make people cry and feel elevated at the end of the movie so to me that was right up my alley. Fox was a hoot! You just read it and were like “This is funny and this is fresh and this just feels different.” Why should we make movies that all look the same and that all fit into some cookie-cutter storytelling style. And people were like “Wes doesn’t come from animation,” and it was like “Good! Let him shake us up! Let him shake up the process so we can speak to different audiences and also are unique!” So for me those are just some movies that just had some different things that just appealed to me. A lot of times it’s also just working with cool directors that I’d like to get to know. It’s a great excuse to work with great guys!

Frankenweenie is a film with a past. Were there any production hiccups to speak of?

Not really. By the time we got to the point of where we were making this movie, the studio really had to be behind it, they knew it was going to be in black and white, they knew Tim wanted to do it in 3-D, they knew it was going to be in stop motion, so I feel like I’ve had a lot of really great support from the studio. I was anticipating more of a fight for things but I feel like they’ve been really respectful of Tim’s vision and very clear about what they needed from the movie and when we delivered those, on the heart of it, the depth of the story and the nature of the themes, they really got it and really responded to it. So I don’t feel like I got any residual resistance to any of the elements of it. I’m sure that they prayed that Tim would want to make it in color at some point but they didn’t really pressure us to do it and I don’t think they ever really banked on that in any way.

I know that your current project is the Guillermo Del Toro Pinocchio. Could you speak to how that’s going?

Yeah, that’s still in the early days for me because it’s been through multiple iterations but now Guillermo is directing it and that man is one of the most charismatic men I have ever met in my whole life and his take on Pinocchio feels very interesting and true to the original source material and impassioned. So it’s going to be cool. But it’s still early days for me.

Do you have any favorite moments of the production that you can think of?

I think certainly working with Mackinnon & Saunders on the puppet creation, going from Tim’s sketches to finished puppets with really no middle man was sort of risky and scary but also really satisfying because when you look at the Sparkys they look just like Tim’s drawings! Tim’s drawings can be so sketchy and yet all the personality is in there and those guys were really able to translate that to a 3D puppet so that was really great. Working with the voice cast on this movie? Finding Atticus and Charlie was such a thrill for me, just because anytime you’re trying to cast a little boy you have to look far and wide, and then for Atticus, to find a child who can play Peter Lorre as a 10-year-old, and also an antagonist that you love and care about and don’t want to see harmed at the end, it’s a tall order for any actor, let alone a kid. I remember once when we were talking to Atticus and he said, “Peter Lorre. Do you want the conniving Peter Lorre or the obsequious Peter Lorre?” This from a little child! And you’re like, “Huh?” Because he hadn’t really watched any Peter Lorre movies and so when he was auditioning for the job he just wanted to get a sense of it and he was just so precocious and so bright and it was like, “I’m thinking a little bit of both.” It was just sort of funny because he challenged us to sort of think more about what this character was.

And then finding Charlie was hard because, you know, we were finding young Tim. So Ronna Kress is our amazing casting director and the minute that she and I saw the tape of Charlie we were like, “That’s the little boy,” because he has that kind of sincerity and that kind of soulfulness of Tim but isn’t precocious in that he’s a real kid. He likes his dog, likes to do experiments, doesn’t see the impediments or roadblocks in his way because he’s open-minded and that’s Charlie. And he has that great voice, and it’s so sincere, so finding a kid that doesn’t sound like a kid but has the wisdom of a man in a kid’s persona, and Charlie just fit the bill. It was exciting, feeling like you found new names and new faces.