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Courage To Connect: A Letter to Tim Burton

Courage To Connect: A Letter to Tim Burton

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Day 10 of the Ralph Waldo Emerson “Self-Reliance” project. Click here for my project archives.

Dear Mr. Burton,

Today is the day, after years of thinking about it, I finally sit down to write you a letter. I never did it before because I always felt it was so corny, so cheesy to actually write someone I admire so much. How many bazillions of these letters do you get, anyway? Millions of bazillions I imagine. Throwing cheddar into the wind and I’m going for it.

Dear Mr. Burton,

In my 32 years of a globally nomadic existence, your art has been one of the few stable things I’ve known. Before you think I travelled around in a gypsy caravan or family carnival, it was not so (but how I wished!): my American mother worked for UNICEF and carted my Sri Lankan father, sisters and I around the world from post to post.

I was living in Islamabad, Pakistan (after living in Sri Lanka, Zambia, and Thailand) when I saw my first of your films: Beetlejuice. My mother freaked out and made us shut it off, she was uber-disturbed by the imagery. I remember sneaking downstairs later that night and watching the film in secret. I adored Lydia, she was my first soul mate, the sister I always wished for, and I had to see how it all ended. Beetlejuice terrified me, and the Maitland’s story made me want to cry. I was fascinated with the world you created and I could see myself fitting into that world far more easily than I seemed to fit into the “real” world.

In spite of how glamourous my childhood may sound, getting to travel around the world and what not, family troubles created a violent and toxic environment. I was constantly searching for escapes, through writing angsty poems in my journal to reading Stephen King novels and obsessing over the few films of yours I had access to overseas.

My mom finally gave up and let me buy a VHS copy of Beetlejuice, and when we would visit my grandparents in Milwaukee she’d let me watch the cartoon even though she found it weird and disgusting. Clucking and shaking her head, she’d watch on, smoking her cigarettes as I did my best to pretend like there was no other world than Lydia’s and I was her best friend.

You were the person, Mr. Burton, who introduced me to superheroes. My family happened to be in Milwaukee when Batman came out in theatres. I insisted on going. My mother agreed because Jack Nicholson was in the film (a credible actor, hence the movie must be quality) and because she had fond memories of the television show. Needless to say, she and my grandmother hated it, but at least my gramma laughed instead of getting furious like my mom. I, on the other hand, was captivated from the very first moment. A labyrinth! YES! A dark avenger! A photographer! Monsters! YES! YES! YES! Add to the mix Prince’s soundtrack plus Danny Elfman’s score was like a unicorn and mermaid having the world’s most perfect baby.

I was in love.

I grew up watching all kinds of films, but yours were the first where I saw something that resembled me and my quirky view of the world. All our travelling gave me zero sense of home, that elusive place you return to after an adventure over the rainbow. My whole life felt somewhere over that rainbow, and your art was right there with me.

The summer that Batman Returns came out we also happened to be on home leave in the States. My mother must have been feeling guilty about something because she agreed to go and see the sequel to the film she so hated. I told her to take my sisters to another film and I’d see yours alone. She’d have none of that. My mom was nothing if not a martyr. (And thank Gaga she’s gotten over all that crap in the many years since.)

The film was brilliant! You managed to make Batman a subsidiary character, focusing instead on the stories of the villainous freaks. All Hail Burton, King of the Monsters! What a subversive move, Mr. Burton, yet so subtle that most people didn’t even notice it.

When Edward Scissorhands came out, it became my ultimate version of romantic love: it had all the dramatic shades of Romeo and Juliet, but with a Romeo that I actually understood and found ever more beautiful than the fellow who caught Julie’s heart. I would stay up late on weekends, long after my family had gone to sleep, and I would enter Edward’s world, weeping into the morning no matter how many times I watched it. Edward Scissorhands has been in my life for 10+ years and to this day I still cry when I see it. I watch it a few times a year and yes, still cry, but I also always find something new I never noticed before. A detail, a throwaway line far from being throwaway, a nuance in Johnny Depp’s magnificent performance. You were all robbed of Oscars that year. Edward Scissorhands is without a doubt the most beautiful and the most perfect film ever made in the history of cinema.

Mr. Burton, your work has been among the most moving and most meaningful, and the most consistent source of inspiration in my life. You reinvented classics like The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Alice in Wonderland, Willy Wonka and Sweeney Todd, into wholly new and incredible works of art — these were all stories from my childhood and personal favourites.

You transformed Ichabod Crane from a bumbling moron into the first ever CSI. Willy Wonka ceased being an old perv and turned into a broken adult, one whose childhood was marked by cruelty and pain. I dig your Wonka far more than I ever did Gene Wilder’s.

After I saw your Sweeney Todd I could not stand the sight of flesh and became a vegetarian. I have since discovered that I am gluten intolerant and my love of pork meat and bacon could have caused me more harm than it was ever allowed to do, if not kill me outright as it felt when having an allergic response years later.

I always wanted to know what happened to Alice when she got older. In fact, it was a story I myself planned to tackle one day, and you answered the question for me in the most stunning and complete way I ever could have hoped.

Your aesthetic is impeccable, and even when you work with clay you bring such humanity to the stories. From September to December 26 I am watching and listening to The Nightmare Before Christmas (and yes, I am blessed to have a very patient and forgiving husband). After the dissolution of my parent’s 30-year marriage one Christmas holiday — I found out he’d been having an affair for the entire length of his marriage — your Jack Skellington was the only one who could convince me to even bother celebrating Xmas in the years since. Jack still teaches me about making one’s own traditions and never being afraid to try something new.

Your Corpse Bride walked me through several broken hearts and whenever I see butterflies I think of her.

The comfort you have given me, the joy you have brought ever since I first “met” you has been beyond comprehension. Without your art, my childhood would have been an even lonelier place than it was. Your worlds made me braver. The sense of belonging you gave me brought with it the courage to create my own worlds; I imagine they are parallel to yours with points of intersection in fairy circles and haunted mansions.

You are my hero.

One week ago today I got my newest tattoo: a hybrid of your original drawing of Edward Scissorhands and his resultant film costuming. His wide eyes remind me of all there is still to see and absorb in this world. In spite of my hatred of snow, I am looking forward to the first snow fall because of his work with ice sculptures. As shy as he might have been in real life, on my back he wants to preen, he wants to see, he wants to live, and I am not afraid he will hurt me when he takes me by the hand.

I’m so glad I decided to write you today! Reliving the first moments that you came into my life, looking back on all the magic you have brought me; even if you never read this letter putting it together was so worth it.

You know, I had a dream about you seven years ago. Actually, it wasn’t so much a dream as one of those almost-visions that feels so real when I woke up I was confused as to where I “really” was. In the dream, you and I were walking down Las Ramblas in Barcelona. You were dressed in your characteristic scruffy all black, crazy hair sticking up and blowing in the wind. I didn’t realise how short you are in person, you looked up at me and I really wished I was shorter. I wanted to look up at you like you really were on the pedestal where I keep you in my heart.

From your pocket you took out an envelope, bulging, you showed me the contents: hundreds of euro bills. I was taken aback, but I accepted it. I’d never seen so much money in one place ever in my life. “Sezin,” you said, waving your hands and then running them through your wild hair, “This should be plenty to get you started. This project is great, it’s there, it’s yes…”, a pause while you stopped and grabbed my shoulder. “If you need more, you let me know, I’ve got more, you can have more, just tell me what you need from me to get this done and I can’t wait to work with you on this, see what you come up with…” You released my arm and resumed walking, quickly, like you had another meeting after me, you were to be Fairy Godfather to another person’s dream. I nodded along, my mind boggling at what on Earth I could be working on with The Tim Burton, that he gives me all this money and this creative control. Like we were partners! I’m partnered up with Tim Fucking Burton! This is the best day ever!

I woke up in Geneva, Switzerland, confused as to where I was, but energised by my encounter with you — confirming what I always knew in my heart, that one day we would meet and do something wonderful together.

Regardless of if we ever meet, you have changed my life, you have helped me feel at home in my own skin, you have marked me forever, and I haven’t enough thanks to give you.

I do hope that one day I will meet you and at least have the chance to shake your hand. Don’t be surprised if I cry.

Yours forever,

Zuzu

Zuzu Burton preens with Edward Scissorhands.
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