Martin Short interview: Frankenweenie and working with Tim Burton

In the last of our Frankenweenie interviews, we spoke to Martin Short about his sterling voice work on the film…

From his breakthrough work in Saturday Night Live through to his subsequent stage and screen career, Martin Short’s long demonstrated an ability to create a wide range of characters, from the chaotic to the disarmingly sympathetic. Some of his memorable roles include the hypochondriac supermarket worker turned unlikely hero Jack Putter in 1987’s Inner Space, or the preening, licentious White House press secretary Jerry Ross in 1996’s Mars Attacks! 

In Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie, Short exercises his talent for embodying wildly different characters by taking on three roles: first, Mr Frankenstein, the gentle father of science prodigy hero Victor; second, Mr Burgermeister, the grumpy Mayor and Victor’s next door neighbour; and third, Nassor, Victor’s young nemesis.

To mark the arrival of Frankenweenie in UK cinemas, we spoke to Mr Short about voice acting, breathing life into characters, and working with Tim Burton. 

Did you relish the chance to work with Tim Burton again on Frankenweenie?

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Oh, I adored it. I mean, when you get to work with an artist, you’re just very happy. Because I love acting and creating with someone in charge where you’re in an uncensored situation. Anything that comes out, any thought comes out, and someone’s catching the best moments, and wisely letting the bad ones go.

When you’re worried about a director, then in a way, you’re censoring everything that you’re doing. Even when they say, “That’s great!” you’re kind of going, “Is it? I’d better think before I speak.” As I say, if I’m censoring myself, it’s not the best way.

You have to have that trust there, I suppose.

Yeah. But when the trust is there, you feel empowered.

So you’re encouraged to improvise then, within the boundaries of your characters? 

Yes. But I can’t… you know, I think you’re encouraged to improvise if you’re an improviser. And if you’re there, tape is very cheap. It’s not like if you’re shooting in the mall, you have to be out by noon and you have to pay triple extra. They’ll say, “Do you want to try something else?” and if you say, “Can I try something?”, no one’s going to say no. 

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But I will tell you, this was such a strong script. But you do so many takes, it’s hard to know what is the script – you’d have to hold it up and see the lines and see what’s in and what’s in and what’s out. I’d say the script would be the big winner. 

Is there a potential for voiceover work to be quite sterile, if you’re on your own in a sound booth?

Right. But I think it seems more like that than if you’re an actor doing it. If you’re an actor, it’s a different muscle, it’s a different situation you find yourself in. It’s like being in a play. One might say, “That’s much harder than being in a movie, because in a play you have to cheat out to the audience, but you can’t look like you’re cheating out.”

It’s all just a different technique. And if you’re alone in a studio, you’re creating what you need to create around you. Someone might say, “Can you do that line again, and put more of a smile on it?” Well, if the camera’s on you, you just kind of smile. And maybe, for the situation you’re in, you do a big smile, so your voice can convey a little smile. It’s just a different routine.

For a character like Mr Burgermeister, for example, he’s quite an angry man. Is it quite difficult to generate that kind of anger?

I think what you’re trying to find is an original way to be angry. I mean, anyone can just be angry. [Adopts throaty, five-packs-a-day husky voice] But if you’re kind of sinister…

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He’s not evil. A lot of people are so convinced they’re right, that they think differing opinions represent an adversary as opposed to just a differing opinion. Those people are maybe the bad guys, but they’re not evil. And Mr Burgermeister is convinced, I think, that what he says is right.

There were people in your country and mine that were convinced that if you invade Iraq, then this is the smartest decision that could be made. It doesn’t make them evil – it makes them convinced. As we later found out, a lot of people suffered for that decision, and it wasn’t necessarily right. But those people were convinced. And it’s conviction without being open that can be more ominous than just cliché evil.

And that brings an extra dimension to the character, too, that justification in their heads.

Right, right.

Did you get to see any of the footage as the film was being made? Did that help with building the character?

Not really. I mean, the first thing I saw was the sketch, and then maybe later on I saw the doll. And then they’d show you, yes, maybe a minute. But there’s a tendency, when people are working… like, I’m doing a play in New York, and I don’t want friends to even come to a preview. Previews are for me to work it out. I want them to come after I open. Let me do my work.

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So there was an element, I think, with Tim, to show us a little bit to inspire us, but he doesn’t want to say, “This is how it’ll be.” You’d rather say, “Wait, and you’ll see what it is.” Especially with this kind of stop-motion.

So it must have been a big surprise, then, to see the finished film.

It was not only a surprise, you completely lost yourself. Sometimes, when you’ve done an animated movie and you’ve done the voice, you’re very aware it’s your voice. You might even say, “I wish I’d done that again,” but in this, you just lose yourself. You forget you’re even a part of it.

And Tim put the credits at the end, so people wouldn’t know who’s doing whom.

I was wondering who was playing who as I was watching it. Did you get to meet any of the other voice actors during the production? 

Well, Catherine O’Hara and I actually recorded together. We did the parents together. But she’s a very, very close friend. We did a very well-known television series, SCTV, over there, and I’ve known her since she was 17.

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Does preparing for a role differ at all from performing in a live-action movie?

I think that you, again, going back to the phrase ‘tape is cheap’, you tend to be more in the moment. A friend of mine did a movie with a famous actress, and she said – and this was a few years ago – she said, “I wish someone had told me she wouldn’t learn any lines. I would have added more to the day.”

Well, in the actress’s defence, her approach was, I’ll learn the lines while I’m doing take after take after take, because then I’ll learn how to do them in the situation. That’s my process. Some said Brando did that. Some said, no, he just couldn’t be bothered to learn his lines [laughs]. But whatever the process is, you can’t negate what the end result was.

In this, tape, as I say, was cheap. So when you’re trying out things, you’re kind of in the moment of try this, try that. And Tim’s saying, “No I like that. Try it again. No, no, that’s good. I want that.”

When he directed Victor’s parents, that’s when he was most specific. “Quieter, quieter.” Very heart-warming, the parents. They’re good, good parents. You don’t need any spin on it.

Finally, what can you tell me about your next film, Dorothy Of Oz?

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Oh, it’s spectacular. I’ve seen some of that, it’s really moving. Great songs by Bryan Adams, he’s written some brilliant songs. Lea Michelle is wonderful as Dorothy. Danny Ackroyd [as Scarecrow]. I’m the Jester – I’m the Wicked Witch, basically.

Martin Short, thank you very much.

Frankenweenie is out in UK cinemas now.

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