Henry Selick reflects on his groundbreaking classic, a misleading headline, a Shadow King and the road ahead.
Henry Selick isn’t quite like the rest of us. While most of the modern world can’t help but rewatch The Nightmare Before Christmas on an annual basis, he admits he managed to hold off for a good three years before caving in and returning to Halloween Town during the Montreal Stop Motion Festival.
Celebrating its fifth edition, the three-day event saw the famed director join a sold-out crowd of animation aficionados (and fellow animator Anthony Scott) for a screening of his beloved classic, which first mesmerized audiences twenty years ago this month. Much like the film’s hero Jack Skellington, Selick now finds himself at a rather interesting fork in the road, having played in the worlds of both stop motion and live action and experienced his share of highs and lows in Hollywood. Taking stock of a couple of recent letdowns and a rather surprising misquote in Variety, he is happy to begin a new chapter of his career with thoughts of one of this greatest successes still fresh in his mind.
“It was originally conceived by Tim [Burton] in a very simple format as a TV special,” he recalls of his friend’s poetic pitch for Nightmare back in the early ‘80s, when they both worked for Disney. The story of a certain skeleton spooked the Mouse House in spite of its reverence for other holiday fare, like the Rankin/Bass classic Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. Though Disney chose to shelve the quirky project, they eventually changed their tune when Burton directed a string of live action hits for other studios in the years that followed, culminating with 1989’s box office smash, Batman. To bring him back into the fold, Nightmare was greenlit for production and Selick, a noted stop motion filmmaker, was brought on board to direct. “As Peter Schneider, who was the head of Disney Animation, explained to me, ‘it’s a gift to Tim Burton. We don’t really care that much whether it succeeds or not – it’s to get him to come back to the studio.’ It was an odd kind of knowledge to have,” Selick concedes, “but it really took the pressure away.”
To hear him speak of the months his team spent toiling away on the San Francisco-based production is to understand why the final film seems imbued with a sort of carefree joyous energy. “There was just about zero politics. I had to follow no notes at all and we had incredible freedom to make the best film that we could. Seriously, you can’t believe how happy the place was. It’s not just looking back through rose-colored glasses,” he states. “Yeah, there were difficulties, many problems we’d never faced before, but it was just the most pleasurable filmmaking experience I’ve ever had and I think anyone on the crew would agree. It simply didn’t matter how hard it was because we never expected to ever have this opportunity. It was a great story, Danny Elfman’s songs were wonderful, Caroline Thompson eventually got the screenplay working to connect all the dots, Joe Ranft who was our head story artist in the department was brilliant and we had the best animators going at the time.”
Of course, Disney remained skeptical that family audiences would relate to the film’s gothic aesthetics and creepy characters. “I always thought it funny that Disney wanted to do it but didn’t want to put their name on it. They put one of their subsidiaries’ names on it – Touchstone. Of course, years and years later it became a Disney film. It eventually earned its place.”
History views the release of Selick’s masterpiece as the moment that reinvigorated Hollywood’s interest in the medium. The director, however, asserts that it wasn’t quite as simple as that. “It’s funny…Nightmare opened the doors to more stop motion which lead to my directing James and the Giant Peach as a follow-up project,” he explains, “but during the course of making that film, the Toy Story film came out and that had a monstrous impact. It was almost like just as we were getting on our feet with stop motion, CG came out and kind of crushed us. I was told by the Head of Production at Disney that they didn’t see stop motion as a viable way to make movies anymore.” As is often the case in the movie industry, everything boiled down to a question of box office receipts. In that regard, stop motion couldn’t compete with the novelty of CG. “Did it change anything? It gave us a lot of hope and then it was all kinda dashed a few years later,” he laughs.
Selick has grown accustomed to curveballs, as well as the media’s tendency to complicate matters by adding their own spin. After sharing his thoughts on current trends during the Marc Davis Lecture Series at Siggraph this July, he found his words completely misinterpreted by Variety’s David S. Cohen. The headline? “Henry Selick Slams Despicable Me 2”. The truth? “I really have nothing against Despicable Me 2 and I think it’s really funny,” he clarifies, hoping to set the record straight. “I like the on-going conflict between family and emotions and the premise itself. I also think the character designs are exceptional. They’re better-than-average animation designs by far. I’d say that it’s one of those rare sequels that is as good if not better than the original.” The suggestion made by the headline, he insists, “was never intended. It’s just the usual bullshit.”
The concerns he was attempting to voice were aimed more at the kinds of movies that get overlooked by major studios. “Why does Hollywood make sequels to everything? It’s a simple, less fearful way to make your money but I’d like to think that there would also be room for smaller films,” he offers, before switching gears to reference the recent success of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. “The studio didn’t believe in it, it was put into turnaround and then picked up by another studio [...] it takes them years and years to make it and then it’s this huge hit and all the critics love it and deservedly so. And so what’s the lesson learned? Well, they’ll learn for ten minutes that maybe a film with interesting characters by a great director and a great producer can deliver success.”
The struggle to get those kinds of projects made can be ongoing. The adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book which Selick was slated to direct is still apparently in production, but ended up going to someone else. “It’s one of those things where no one even bothers to tell me and it got to the press, but they’ve shifted that to a live action with effects movie. I think Ron Howard may be attached to direct it. A lot of the fans were upset to hear it wasn’t going to be a stop motion film, but that happened shortly after The Shadow King was shut down,” he sighs, referencing the puppet project he was making in collaboration with Disney. That partnership concluded before the film could get fully underway, leaving Selick with only seven minutes of completed footage. As a treat for the Montreal Stop Motion Festival audience, he debuted a short scene from King which showed a young boy sneaking off into his closet in the middle of the night to attempt making shadow puppets with his unusually uncooperative fingers. The audience responded with great enthusiasm, especially to the boy’s roommate, who stole focus by taking on some unexpected personalities in his sleep.
It’s that applause and audience support that helps keep Selick optimistic about the future. “I am still talking with a good group of people who like The Shadow King […] so we’re redeveloping it and there’s that possibility.” And word has officially spread about his latest gig, directing the big screen live action version of Adam Gidwitz’s book, A Tale Dark and Grimm, which follows Hansel & Gretel through a series of wild fairy tale adventures. “It's going to have a Terry Jones sort of vibe with lots of stop motion monsters,” he teases of the project, which will also explore the complex emotional journey of forgiving one’s parents.
“Let me just step back for a second and say that I never set out to have a ‘Hollywood career’, and whatever bad experiences I’ve had, which are plenty, the good ones outweigh them. If I only got to direct Nightmare and Coraline, I’d still be pretty damn happy because I got to take stop motion places it had never been,” the soft-spoken animator states. “It’s easy to bellyache when things haven’t worked out, but honestly, I’m very grateful for the projects I’ve gotten to work on, the success that we have had with those projects and the rest of it? It doesn’t really matter that much. Look, it’s great to be talking about a film I directed twenty years ago and still has a life! That’s pretty wonderful! Sometimes an artist is gone before their work finds a big audience, so I’m glad I’m around to appreciate this.”
For more information on the Montreal Stop Motion Festival, visit www.stopmotionmontreal.com.
James Gartler is a Canadian writer with a serious passion for animation in all its forms. His work has appeared in the pages of Sci Fi Magazine, and at the websites EW.com and Newsarama.com.