Tim Burton recruits Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara for Frankenweenie

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Since theirSCTV glory days, Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara have rarely been less than busy, and their multiple-personality disorders have always been well designed for big-budget animation. So they come across as particularly well attuned to the strange world of Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie, which opens here on Friday (October 5).

Short is no stranger to Toonville, of course, having most recently given voice to Stefano, the crazed Italian seal in Madagascar 3. And O’Hara has been down the Burton highway before, with notable parts in Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas. In fact, her husband, Bo Welch, production-designed Burton’s breakthrough films, Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands (as well as all three Men in Black movies).

The black-and-white and 3-D Frankenweenie, it must be said, represents a gentler Burton, albeit one who has made a movie about a boy who brings his dead dog back to life. As the parents of young Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan), our wacky TV pals had to play totally normal suburban types. That was a bit off the usual path for the Canadian comic veterans, conference-calling the Georgia Straight from a Toronto media stop.

“Yes, it was a bit more restrained than usual,” Short admits. “That was really Tim. He had a very specific approach in mind, and this was really atypical for animated films, because Catherine and I got to do our lines together, in the same room. He wanted the parents very, very real and very heartfelt. We have a long history together, as colleagues and friends, and I think Tim wanted to take advantage of that chemistry, or whatever you want to call it. That could seem gimmicky, but I think it works.”

“We are no gimmick, sir,” O’Hara says, cutting in. “We are the real deal! No, that was to set up the tone of the film, so we would know who Victor is and what a loving family he comes from. At the same time, the town they live in is really weird; the cemetery reminded me of the house at the end of the road in Edward Scissorhands.”

The dichotomy in tones meant the former SCTVers got to flex their funny bones by using a range of wackier voices as some really odd supporting characters. (Martin Landau has a memorable side role as well.)

“I love that about this movie,” O’Hara enthuses. “It kind of reminded me of our old job, in that we got to play a bunch of different characters.”

“We created those characters, with Tim, over a number of sessions,” her old partner explains, regarding the run-up to voice-recording sessions that, as always, preceded the animation.

“The acting part of the process isn’t really that different from working on his live-action movies,” O’Hara continues. “I mean, he’s the same Tim that he’s been as long as I’ve known him. He’s all about the work, but always in a really fun and loose and collaborative way. Of course, in a live-action film, the focus is on the set and the lighting and everything that’s there, and in animation, it’s all right there in the headphones. As Marty says, it uses a different set of muscles. In this case, we were given some beautiful illustrations to guide us, and I think we just tried to honour that.”

For Short, that meant also keeping improv to a minimum.

“We really want to honour the writer, too, especially when we’re given something as strong as John August’s script. But it’s not like anything’s sacred to Tim. He’s not one of these precious ‘It’s about my process’ people. He’s too modest for that. He approached it like we’d all come together to create an old-time radio show. I don’t remember him ever saying, ‘Let’s throw this away and just go with our instincts.’ But if you changed a word or added a line or a new reaction and he laughed at that, we could go there.”

“I think most of the experimentation was in the first session or two,” O’Hara recalls, “when we were still trying to come up with the voices. In this case, you’re not playing as much with words as with how they’re said.”

With such flexible instruments, it’s not surprising that both actors have delved into musical expression, usually through characters that happen to sing. Think of O’Hara singing “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” in A Mighty Wind, or any number of smarmy showbiz characters the Tony-winning Short created for TV.

“It’s true,” Short says, “that the audience—if one has an audience—makes a deal with you, and if you’re there to make them laugh, you have to respect that. Not that I don’t want to do other things, but I really don’t think anyone really wants to see me singing the songs of Sondheim.”

“But you are such a great singer, Marty,” O’Hara interjects. “You’ve done so much Broadway, and you could do more. You just don’t want to do it without the laughs!”

“That’s true,” he answers, quietly. “When I’m playing it straight, I’m always waiting for the sandbag to fall on my head.”

“Only because you’ve set that up beforehand,” she shoots back.

With Ed Grimley, Jackie Rogers Jr., and all his other memorable creations for SCTV and Saturday Night Live, Short is somewhat surprised to see the enduring impact of his sweatily mendacious, chain-smoking apologist for the tobacco industry.

“Yes, there are a lot of Nathan Thurms out there now, aren’t there? I didn’t know it then, but he was the perfect embodiment of a certain political party south of the border—I won’t say which one. When cornered, they attack.”

“Hey, Marty, if you had stayed on SNL a little longer,” O’Hara offers, “you could have spun that character off into a movie by now.”

“I know that!” he snaps, in full Thurmo-nuclear mode. And she lets him have the last word.


Watch the trailer for Frankenweenie.

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