The Real Mayor Of Halloween Town; Henry Selick on A Holiday Classic And What’s Growing In the Pumpkin Patch

Nearly a decade after its release, Tim Burton’s stop motion epic The Nightmare Before Christmas has become a holiday institution, as evidenced by packed screenings at the El Capitan movie palace in Hollywood.

This is the second year the historic theater has treated fans to a big screen presentation of the animated musical. The event has already become a tradition, considering that the first screening on Friday had nearly sold out before press announcements had even been made. The excitement was due in part to a special panel discussion featuring the film’s director, Henry Selick, co-star Glenn Shadix (voice of the Mayor of Halloween Town) and actor Shelley Duvall, co-star of Burton’s short Frankenweenie, which was also screened along with the filmmaker’s first short, Vincent.

During the discussion, Selick noted, "Making Nightmare Before Christmas was the smoothest filmmaking experience I’ve ever had." He recalls, "Tim and I never disagreed except once. I proposed a completely different ending to what Tim wanted. I sprung it on him — a big surprise — all storyboarded, temp voices and music and everything and I thought I was going to hit it out of the park. He looked at it, his jaw dropped and he walked outside and kicked a hole in the wall."

Animation Magazine Online recently caught up with Selick and spoke with him about the making of a holiday classic.

AMO: When you set out to make a holiday film, it’s assumed that the aim is to create a classic that will stand the test of time. Do you think that 20 years from now audiences will still respond to it the way they do the Rankin and Bass films?

HS: I don’t know if they’ll respond the same way. Clearly the Rankin and Bass films have held up for a very long time. It’s nine years and counting for Nightmare, so I believe that there will still be a very strong response 20 years from now or 50 years from now. We were never thinking of it as a classic. It just seems to have happened accidentally.

AMO: It seems like it’s become more of a favorite among adults than children. Is it aimed more at an adult audience?

HS: It was really never aimed at anyone. It’s a full-blown musical. Most of the movies at the time had maybe four or five songs max and this one has 10 songs. I think it’s close to an operetta. So I guess musically speaking, it was aimed at an older audience. Disney released it as a Touchstone picture. They didn’t put the Disney name on it. So I don’t think they ever thought of it as a kids’ film. But right from the get-go, very young kids, as young as three years old, liked it and were not afraid of it.

AMO: It’s certainly not Rudolph The Red-nosed Reindeer. Was the darker tone and the scariness of it a concern at all?

HS: There was very little that we changed. There was only one thing in the entire film that Disney asked me not to do. It was the clown with the tear-away face. The first design, when he tore his face away, was bloody and awful. I didn’t have a problem changing it because it never quite felt right. And there were other things, like where Sally gets her arm pulled off. I stuffed leaves in there where some of the guys working on it wanted to make her like Frankenstein, made of real body parts. A big thing was the ending of the movie. I spent a long time planning the battle between Oogie Boogie and Jack. The point where Oogie Boogie gets skinned alive and there’s all these bugs, that wasn’t seen [by Burton] until it was finished and it was too late to change it. That was the biggest risk in the movie — whether we’d gone too far or not.

AMO: Any digital technology used?

HS: We used computers to plan camera moves and clean up mistakes that were made — light pops and things like that. The only real CG in it is at the very end where the snow is falling. The movie is 99.9% handmade.

AMO: If it were made today, do you think it would be made with CG or is there something about it that begs to have the look and feel of stop motion?

HS: I think most people would make the mistake of assuming it should be CG. But if I were making it again, even with all the advances in CG, I would definitely go stop motion. The built-in flaws give it a charm and there’s a tactile quality. You know that what you’re seeing really existed in some form or another. For the right story, stop motion is still appropriate.

AMO: How do you perceive the future of stop motion?

HS: Right now all the smart money’s on CG because that’s where all the biggest successes have been. So it’s about what’s in fashion and where people want to risk their money. I think there will always be some stop motion films, but it’s not like everyone’s going to get involved. It’s too difficult. It takes too long. I’m a little disappointed with Aardman taking so long to get their next feature up and running after Chicken Run. I think they’re going through the Jeffery Katzenberg story development hell. He’s going to make sure it’s absolutely perfect, work it to death.

AMO: For viewers who haven’t seen Nightmare on the big screen for a while or have never seen it at all, is there anything we should look for?

HS: If you really know it, it’s not like you have to follow the lead characters. I would make a practice to avoid looking at the key elements in a scene because there’s always something amazing going on in the background. There are layers and layers of beautiful things in the film. If you think you’ve seen the movie a lot, you’ll want to watch it again. Don’t just look at Jack and Sally. Look at what’s happening around them.

AMO: Can we ever look forward to a sequel?

HS: Hard to know. This past spring, for a few days, I was talking with Disney about a sequel. We got down the road a little bit. I was disappointed that even Disney wanted to do it CG and that didn’t feel right to me.

AMO: Why do they want CG?

HS: I think probably they thought of it as a way to modernize it, to make it sexy and new. A big mistake. [A sequel] will really be up to Tim Burton, if he’s in the mood.

AMO: I’ve heard a rumor that he has a stop motion feature in the works, something called Corpse Bride.

HS: Yeah, it’s an old Eastern European folktale. The Corpse Bride has been performed in plays and is in a lot of storybooks. It’s something he’s been working on for six years. I was involved for a little while, trying to figure out a story about four years ago. But I guess he’s going to go forward and do it in England. There’s a lot of good stop motion people there.

Selick is currently adapting the Neil Gaiman novel, Coraline, with production company Pandemonium. The Alice in Wonderland-esque film will be primarily live action with animated elements and is slated to go in front of the camera late spring or early summer of 2003.