Tim Burton had a bizarre start to his career. He spent over a decade making short films and dabbling in conceptual design and puppetry, but he broke out quick with a big screen adventure for a man-child TV star. He then delivered a ghoul for hire before transforming that same actor into a superhero who has become the center of a multi-billion dollar franchise. Burton graduated quickly, and he did it with some head-shaking choices.
Now there’s a rumor that he’s interested in directing a sequel to Beetlejuice (that presumably doesn’t go Hawaiian). It’s not all that surprising considering that he gave his tacit blessing to Seth Grahame-Smith‘s desire to create a blueprint for a new adventure with the animated corpse nearly two years ago. When we spoke to Grahame-Smith shortly after that development, things were all still tentative, but the screenwriter wanted to be careful about engaging both Burton and Michael Keaton to ensure that the project had the bare bona fides necessary not to get laughed out of the room.
Common wisdom would seem to say that Burton should and will stay away from the director’s chair on this one. He’ll take a producer credit to keep fans from totally wetting the bed, but his true involvement will be as an old master letting some young pupil snatch the pebble from his hand, and then opening a gallery show of his conceptual set designs at the Bell Lightbox. Common wisdom would also say that a rut-stuck Burton doesn’t need to go back to the well for a new project.
But that’s where common wisdom might be wrong.
At this point, when Burton announces something, we know exactly what to expect. It’ll be dark, quirky and Johnny Depp will be starring alongside Helena Bonham-Carter. So my theory is that going back to the old sandbox could be powerful in renewing an experimental delight in the stories Burton tells. Think of it as Stella getting her groove back without half as many back massages and more coconut oil. Or like an old flame emailing you out of the blue to go get a cup of coffee. Or an opportunity to exercise some old demons.
The first element of that revitalization involves exploding the auteur theory surrounding this one. While Beetlejuice is one of those movies where we can’t even imagine another director or actor doing the follow-up unless as cheap imitation, the movie didn’t emerge from Burton’s brain fully formed with Keaton smiling creepily in deadface. It was first a spec from novelist Michael McDowell that impressed the young director with originality (and obviously its macabre subject matter). McDowell collaborated with Burton again on Nightmare Before Christmas, but he passed away in 1999 from an AIDS-related illness.
Warren Skaaren (the Texas Chainsaw champion) and Larry Wilson did rewrites on Beetlejuice, with the former going on to write for Burton again for Batman. Unfortunately, Skaaren also died young, succumbing to bone cancer in 1990.
Are Grahame-Smith and co-writer/producing partner David Katzenberg up to the task of filling those shoes? It’s unclear. Katzenberg is untested as a screenwriter, although the camp-tastic nature of Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter (which Burton produced) is hard to miss despite the movie’s bad action attempt at seriousness. Do it exactly the same with a black humor twist and it could have had “A Tim Burton Film” slapped on it.
The point being that the team that really developed Beetlejuice is no longer with us. That presents a challenge and an opportunity.
Because — and this isn’t revolutionary to say — Burton is stuck in a rut. Even if you believe that he’s merely focused on themes he’s always been passionate about, he seems to be doing it in limbo because his aesthetic and humor are no longer fresh for audiences. Imagine seeing something like Beetlejuice when it originally came out. What would you make of it? How do you process something like that? How do you make sense of it being such a large mainstream success?
That kind of jolt is non-existent in Burton’s work now. It’s understandable, though. Breaking minds is a young artist’s game, Burton still looks like he’s having a stupid amount of fun, and we probably put a too-heavy onus on him because he was such a weird duck in the beginning. Beyond that, for most directors a decades-later sequel would signal a narrowing of their options. Not so for Burton who (Dark Shadows aside) has still done both something wholly critically acclaimed and something that made a bajillion dollars within the past 4 years.
With a potential Beetlejuice 2, expectations would be rock bottom. Exactly zero people would hope for more than a name-recognition cash grab out of it, which means that Burton would be in a position to surprise us again. Plus, he’d be doing it surrounded by professional friends like Keaton and a Danny Elfman also faced with returning to his young work. At the same time, he’d be playing with fresh faces like Grahame-Smith and Katzenberg and whoever else they get in the cast. That’s a potent combination that could result in a new blackly-veiled Burton flick that feels fresh.
And if he committed to doing it 90% practical, we’d really be off to the races.
Correction: An earlier version of this article claimed that Larry Wilson wrote again for Tim Burton for The Addams Family, but while Wilson wrote for that film, Burton was in no way involved.