Visionary filmmaker Tim Burton knew that he’d found his next project when he first picked up Ransom Riggs’ best selling novel, Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children.
“I don’t know if I saw the book when it first came out, but somebody sent it to me,” he says. “I didn’t really know that much about it, and it was good in a way because you get something fresh where you don’t have any preconceptions about it.
“It felt like a discovery to me, even though it had been out for a little while. I wasn’t reacting to whatever The New York Times said – I was just sort of reacting to it, and there was something very positive about that. There were no outside influences that way, you could just respond to the book purely.”
Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children stars Asa Butterfield as Jake who grows up in suburban Florida believing that he is an ‘ordinary kid’ listening to stories told by his much adored grandfather of his time in a magical home on a Welsh island and of the strange children with remarkable abilities who live there.
Jake believed that the stories came straight from his grandpa’s vivid imagination but then a frightening chain of events leads him to believe that the home -– and the “peculiar” children who lived there protected by Miss Peregrine – might indeed be real and he sets out to find it.
When he does, Jake is entranced by the eccentric band of youngsters who live there, trapped in a time loop living one day in 1940 over and over again. He also discovers that – just like his grandfather before him – he has a pivotal role in keeping them safe from the evil ‘hollowgasts’ who are hunting them.
For Burton, the director who has made contemporary classics including Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood and Alice In Wonderland, Riggs’ story, and Jane Goldman’s screenplay, was a classic tale of outsiders trying to survive in a “normal” world. The children’s unusual abilities are not of the classic superhero variety, he points out.
“Obviously the superhero genre is alive and well, but with this I never quite saw it that way. I always felt this was a more human version of that kind of thing, and I always saw it as less of a superpower and more of an affliction,” he explains.
“Each kid had their own peculiarity, that’s what I was interested in. It wasn’t, ‘We’re going to save the world.’ It was, ‘We are who we are and this is our thing, and maybe we can help to get out of a problem, or deal with an issue.’ It was a much more down-to-earth human level to me that I was attracted to.”
The stellar cast that includes Eva Green as Miss Peregrine, Dame Judi Dench as Miss Avocet, Terence Stamp as Jake’s grandfather Abe and Samuel L. Jackson as the terrifying Barron.
Asa Butterfield (The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas, Hugo) is Jake, Ella Purnell plays Emma (who is lighter than air), Finlay Macmillan is Enoch, who can make inanimate objects come to life, and Lauren McCostie is Olive, who can create fire from her fingertips.
Burton was born in Burbank, California and began his career as an animator. His first full-length feature was Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985). His other films include Beetlejuice Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, Mars Attacks!, Sleepy Hollow, Planet of the Apes, Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dark Shadows and Big Eyes. He has twice been nominated for an Academy Award: Best Animated Feature for Corpse Bride in 2006 and Best Animated Feature for Frankenweenie in 2012.
Q: When you first read Ransom Riggs’ book, what did you make of the photographs in it?
A: Well that’s what drew me to it. That’s the thing I liked the most about it, was that the story was based on those old photographs. I don’t have as big a collection as he has, but I look at and collect some photographs, and I just love the mystery of them and the poetry, and the creepiness, and that there’s a story but you don’t really know what it is. It just sort of spurs your imagination to make up your own story about these things and I just thought it was an interesting way to approach the book.
Q: Did the visual element of the book make it more complex to adapt?
A: The thing about the photographs is that you sort of feel things but you don’t really know everything. To try to keep the mystery without explaining everything, that aspect of it was important, just to try to get the vibe of that, so that it’s not about, ‘Well why does this boy have bees living in him?’ It’s just to try to keep that slight air of mystery about it, where you can make up your own mind and find out your own feelings about it.
Q: Rolling Stone have described this as your ‘ode to otherness’, but it strikes me that the same term might be applied to any of your films. Are you drawn to strange characters, outsiders?
A: I just have always been drawn to that kind of material, because that’s how you feel at a certain point in your life. Even if you change and you can become verbal, or have friends, or success, or popularity, those kind of feelings that you have at that time of your life stay with you forever. I think that’s why I’m attracted to that kind of material. Also, telling a story without knowing everything about it, keeping the mystery of things, is something I like.
Q: Why did you choose to film in Blackpool, the seaside resort in the north of England? Am I right in thinking that you have filmed there before?
A: I hope to one day become mayor of Blackpool (laughs). That place says a lot about me! I did a Killers video there. There’s just something about it. I grew up on the west coast of California, and the Santa Monica pier was a similar thing. They shot a few movies there – they did this movie called Night Tide where Dennis Hopper plays a sailor who finds a mermaid. I used to go as a teenager, that sort of Quadrophenia lonely person on the dilapidated amusement pier – that just always spoke to me, and I think that’s why I kind of like Blackpool. It’s faded, but there’s something that’s quite emotional and tragic and poetic and fun and visual about it. I think I was always drawn to places like that.
Q: When did you first become familiar with the book?
A: It was a couple of years ago. I don’t know if I saw the book when it first came out, but somebody sent it to me. I didn’t really know that much about it, and it was good in a way because you get something fresh where you don’t have any preconceptions about it. It felt like a discovery to me, even though it had been out for a little while. I wasn’t reacting to whatever The New York Times said – I was just sort of reacting to it, and there was something very positive about that. There were no outside influences that way, you could just respond to the book purely.
Q: How did the adaptation come about?
A: I think that (screenwriter) Jane Goldman, who understands peculiar people, had written it already, and it was something that was on the books. I got on board because I loved the material.
Q: Some have pointed out the similar premise to the X-Men film. How does Miss Peregrine fit into the landscape of superhero films?
A: Obviously the superhero genre is alive and well, but with this I never quite saw it that way. I always felt this was a more human version of that kind of thing, and I always saw it as less of a superpower and more of an affliction. Each kid had their own peculiarity, that’s what I was interested in. It wasn’t, ‘we’re going to save the world.’ It was, ‘we are who we are and this is our thing, and maybe we can help to get out of a problem, or deal with an issue.’ It was a much more down-to-earth human level to me that I was attracted to.
Q: So is there a blur between ability and disability?
A: Yeah, it’s just part of them. It’s like a kid who burps too much or farts too much, or something, or has trouble walking – these are just more extreme versions of those kinds of things.
Q: Did you have favourite peculiarities going into it? Or any that you were looking forward to filming?
A: Well they all had their own peculiarities. Again, I think, for better or for worse, the interesting thing is that we use effects not in the traditional sense of like, ‘You’ve got to save the world.’ It’s slightly more personalised, and again that’s why I felt like it just touched on people and kids and the way that they feel, and that kind of thing of, ‘This is just who I am.’ It could be used for good or for bad or for making honey or for nothing – there’s just something more grounded to me about that.
Q: What do you think about the direction superhero movies have gone in?
A: I mean, I just find it funny because it’s like, the Batman I did was commercially successful, but it wasn’t the most critically successful thing. It’s funny that after all this time, people are still talking about the funny costumes and everything else. It’s interesting that it hasn’t really faded – it just keeps on getting stronger and stronger, which is very interesting to me.
Q: How dark is Miss Peregrine going to be?
A: Well, I mean I’m the worst person to ask, because since the beginning of my career, everything I did was too dark (laughs). Batman was too dark, and now it looks like an ice skating show. Nightmare Before Christmas was too dark, but three year-old kids are singing it and their dogs like it, too. I never saw anything I ever did as dark. I mean, there are some little creepy elements, but you’d have to ask somebody else, because from the beginning of my whole career, I never saw anything as dark.
Q: Why is it important for children to see stories like this?
A: If you go back before films to fairy tales – those are horrible stories. They’re graphic, grotesque, with mothers eating their children. I just always believed, and I believed it for my own self and my own kids, that when you’re new to life, everything is just abstract. It’s horrible imagery, but they’re somehow processing something that you don’t intellectually understand yet as an adult. I think that’s an interesting thing about the power of those kinds of stories, or myself growing up with monster movies and fantasy movies. They’re not real, but they are real to me, and they help process whatever psychological things you’re trying to understand in your life. The abstraction is actually quite important that way. The things that may seem kind of creepy, I was trying to mix in with humour and some emotion, so that it’s not just weirdness for weirdness’ sake. You just try to do it so that you’re getting all those elements that make a person into one thing.
Q: You found the house we see in the film – the home for peculiar children – near Antwerp. Did you search for a long time to find the right place?
A: I’ve shot a lot of films here in England for many years, so I looked at lots of different kinds of houses all over the country, then we just spread the net out a little further. The thing about this house was it just felt like a house, as opposed to an institution or an insane asylum or a hospital. It was important that it had the feeling of a house and, I don’t know, it’s just something I saw in it. It’s like when you meet an actor, or whatever, that sort of speaks to you. I just went through the bushes and saw the house and it felt like a home for peculiar children. Rather than building it, it was nice that it was a real house, to get us into the feeling of it. Especially with the kids, we try to minimise everything being a special effect or green screen, so they can actually feel the place, and for it to be a home for peculiar children. So it was a good find, that one.
Q: Why did you have to go to Belgium for that house?
A: It has interesting architecture there. It’s something where I liked all the different weird elements to it, but it kind of creates a whole thing of itself. It surprised me, too, because I’d never really been to Belgium.
Q: In the story the children are living the same day on a loop. Have you had any filmmaking experiences so gratifying that you’d relive them on loop?
A: (Laughs) Well, every day feels like it’s a loop on a film – you know that. it’s a weird concept, and I didn’t want to get too involved in the overly technical aspect of it. Growing up in Burbank or wherever you live, you feel that kind of feeling a lot, like you’re in this kind of weird bubble, and you’re in this sort of weird time warp. It’s something that didn’t feel that unusual to me, that feeling.
Q: Why did you choose to work with Eva Green, who plays Miss Peregrine, for a second time on this?
A: I always just have this strange thing, with Eva – and that’s why I felt she was really right for this – and it’s that she’s just got an old movie star mystery about her. I know her, but I don’t know her, and I like that about her. It’s like, in this world where everybody knows everything about everybody, it’s nice that you meet somebody that you really connect with and you don’t know everything about them. I found that really beautiful in her, and she’s got great ideas, and she also looks like she could turn into a bird (laughs), which was a big thing! She’s got that quality to her. I just have a real connection with her and she felt really right for it.
Q: How do you see this film within the context of your career?
A: Well, the problem is – and this is the part that makes me uncomfortable – is that that I’m not finished (laughs). It’s like when you have to pick a school for your kid before they’re born, there’s something uncomfortable about it. I’ve got a couple more months before finishing it and I guess the only thing I could say about it is that I don’t look for these kinds of character, but they find me. It’s something I can relate to. These are the kinds of character I identify with.
Q: What were you like as a child?
A: Well, I mean, I feel a bit like Benjamin Button. I’ve talked to a lot of kids this way. When I was young, I felt like I was about 80 years old, and I think just this morning I hit 13. That’s why I give kids more credit. Parents go, ‘Oh, that’s too scary.’ It’s like, kids know their own boundaries with this sort of stuff, and like I said, this is pretty safe. I think that you sort of always feel the same way, in a funny way. I was kind of the same as now, only smaller.
Q: Was part of the attraction to this project the historical backdrop to a fantastical story? The loop is an interesting element.
A: Well, it’s just part of the weirdness of the book. There were lots of weird elements. It had elements of sort of folk tale, of fable, it kind of mixed up the past and the present, and the feeling of peculiarity. It was like something that wasn’t a set thing. I liked the juxtapositions of all that stuff in it, because it was sort of unexpected and it didn’t follow a traditional path in a certain way, so I think that’s one of the things I liked about it.
Q: Is Ransom Riggs a fan of your previous work?
A: Well I talked to him a little bit and I didn’t ask him about that, but I think he was. You’d have to ask him. He’s really great. I’m surprised how young he is; he could be my grandson, but he’s just got a great spirit. For me, the hardest thing is if you like a novel. It’s like, how do you get what you like about it and do it in a different medium? When you’re doing something like a novel, you always hope the writer will like it, when they see it. It’s scarier than showing it to an audience, when you show an author – showing Stephen Sondheim Sweeney Todd, or something like this – you really get that feeling of when you were a child, going to the principal’s office. I felt when I met him that he was a certain kindred spirit in a way, and he was always very supportive.
Q: He said it was a very surreal experience for him.
A: It must be weird. Even if he likes it, it’s got to be weird. I’ve had those instances when somebody takes something you did and reinterprets it. I remember when Matthew Bourne did a version of Edward Scissorhands, and I didn’t have anything to do with it. I went to see it, and I actually could feel myself leaving my body and floating off into the ceiling into some sort of dark void. It’s just a weird phenomenon. I can imagine what it’s like for people to have something sort of translated.
Q: What were your visual references for this, apart from the photographs?
A: In the book there’s photographs, but what I got was a sort of poetry and mystery and simplicity, in a certain way. I didn’t want to do too much. It’s a simple kind of discovery story, and so you try to let the visuals sort of follow that tone that you’re trying to do, and not be overly flashy. Because the elements are so peculiar, you try to keep the more human aspect of it and the things that people can identify in terms of human emotion.
Q: Why was Samuel L. Jackson right for the part of Barron, the bad guy?
A: Well, Sam is a guy I just always wanted to work with. He works a lot, but he’s one actor where I don’t get tired of him. If he’s in a movie, I just want to see it. Also, it was great to give him a look that he’s never had before, and to give him a different vibe. The poor guy, it’s like, ‘Would you mind if we wire you and yank you across here?’ or ‘Oh, we’re going to set you on fire today.’ And, ‘By the way, you have to act through all this.’ But he was brilliant, and I’d work with him anytime.
Q: You managed to get Judi Dench holding a crossbow. What was that day like?
A: Again, she’s been in a lot, but I thought, ‘she’s never held a crossbow or been yanked through a window by a monster.’ So there’s always something new for somebody, even with all those awards (laughs).
Q: With a reputation like yours, do you become more self-aware of how a ‘Tim Burton’ movie feels?
A: It’s a very interesting point, and if you ask anybody who is around me, to my own detriment, I’m very techno shy – I don’t go on the internet. I spent my whole life as a child always categorising that I was that thing, I was ‘the weird kid’. So you spend your whole life trying to become a human being, and then I kind of hit a point where I became a human being, and then I became a thing again, so I just avoid that very strongly. I don’t like hearing about myself, I don’t go on the internet. I just don’t do it, because of that reason. I always try to have time to just look out a window and think about things without thinking about me, or financially – ‘Is this movie going to make money?’ – all this stuff that is part of the deal. I try to avoid it and maintain why I want to do it, and just focus on trying to have as artistic a time as you can in this business.
Q: How does technology change the process of filmmaking for you? Is it more enjoyable now? The underwater sequence could be taken from an action movie.
A: Yeah, but it’s not really used in an action movie way, and that’s what I loved about the effects in this. There’s a little bit of it that’s used for stopping the bad guys, and that kind of stuff, but at the same time, we used the effects more for, ‘Eh, we’re going here anyway, so we’re just going to go here in a different way.’ I think for me that’s what I liked about it. We did try to make it not rely overly on all that – it’s not that kind of method where it’s all green screen. I’ve done things where the technology is amazing and then who could ever forget the Academy Award winning visual effects for Beetlejuice (laughs)? We were throwing things onto the set, using fake eyeballs. It’s fun every which way you’ve got. You try to use it to whatever the project is that you’re doing, and use it to its best effect.
Q: How does having a cast of children affect the process? Some were studying for exams. Is that an added stress?
A: They’re all different ages so it was all over the place. It was interesting because they were all doing that, but they bonded. That made me feel good because they became a group, just fending off their own school work (laughs). They were a good bunch of kids, but no, you’re right, it does take patience… there were not many animals, which is good (laughs).
Q: How was it to work with Judi Dench?
A: Oh, well she’s great. She caught the crossbow on the first take (laughs). She’s a real professional. Again, it’s funny to work with these kinds of people, like Sam and her, in a different way than they’re kind of used to. It’s not your typical Dame Judi Dench type movie, whatever that is. But the amazing thing is, and this is one of the great things about the job I get to do, is meeting people like that that have been through so much, and that they still have that spark and curiosity and artistry and positive spirit. As negative as I get as a person, I always try to think of those people and it helps me to get through the day. It’s a real boost to meet people like that and work with people like that.
Q: Do you enjoy the day-to-day? Is being on set the biggest thrill?
A: It’s the most interesting, because it’s where it’s all happening and everything goes wrong, so you feel like a manic-depressive – ‘Have I taken my medication today?’ You’re up and down. Look, there’s no complaints because there are much worse jobs to have, and it’s a great thing. Yes, I much prefer that than I do, say, trying to pitch it to the studio (laughs), or talking about it afterwards. Because you’re just kind of in there, and all the outside bizarre bureaucratic things go away, and you’re just left with the elements, which is the best.
Q: You’ve been working with (costume designer) Colleen Atwood for so long. Do you even have to discuss it with her anymore?
A: I don’t like to talk, that’s true. But also at the same time, with people that you’ve worked with time and time again, you never want to get complacent. And it’s a two way street; we would never go, ‘Do that like you did on the other thing.’ But this goes way back. I could do a little sketch and she gets it. I think in any artistic collaboration, you’re always trying to think about not doing the same thing.
Q: You filmed a portion of this movie in Florida. Is that your first time shooting there since Edward Scissorhands?
A: Yes. In fact I visited the neighbourhood there, and the thing that struck me the most was that the trees were like 50 feet tall. That made me feel really old. You go to this neighbourhood and don’t recognise it. It’s a funny place, Florida. But that was in the book, so I didn’t make that one up.
Q: That segment was with Terrence Stamp who plays Abraham, Jake’s grandfather. How was that?
A: When I first met him, he was talking about when he did the Fellini film, The Spirits of the Dead, and I just sat there listening to him for like two hours. You gain so much from these people. It’s just such an honour, and it’s one of the perks of it that you get to meet people that you really admire and then see them in action.
Q: And you filmed in Cornwall – that’s quite a road movie, Florida and Cornwall…
A: Yes, we did Cornwall, Blackpool, Florida, Belgium – all the hotspots (laughs).
MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN is now available to own on DVD.