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Grave Discussions with “Frankenweenie”‘s Martin Landau and John August

In the immortal words of that sultry woman from the Bill Nye the Science Guy intro theme, “Science rules!” Nowhere does this sentiment ring truer than in Disney’s latest animated offering Frankenweenie. Many of you may have seen Tim Burton’s 1984 live-action short of the same name (which he made while he was an animator at Disney), but this takeoff of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is clearly the tale he always intended to tell. A briskly-moving sweet story of a boy who uses the power of science (and love) to bring his dead dog back to life is anchored by an all-star voice cast (Martin Landau, Martin Short, Winona Ryder, etc.) and is written by longtime Burton collaborator John August (Big Fish, Corpse Bride). I was fortunate enough to sit down with August and the legendary Martin Landau to talk about everything from the importance of science education to learning to calm down and just relax your sphincter. No, seriously, Mr. Landau said it himself.

Nerdist: You began your career as a cartoonist, which I found rather fascinating. Does this give you a particular affinity to animated projects?

Martin Landau: It gives me an affinity to Tim [Burton] because I do see things as a cartoonist very often. I’ll put a box around it and put a caption; if something is really disturbing, it helps me find the funny in it and get past the anger. I still draw a lot. [Pulls open his jacket to reveal a notebook and many pens] I carry this everywhere. It does give me a particular perspective in terms of character, because I’ve never met two people who are the same. Where a person comes from, his environment, his physiology, his accent, if it’s regional – all of that makes up a human being. And I’ll picture him. If I were to draw him, I’d do a caricature and that gives me a sense of him. Drawing him, I can feel him in a certain way. All of that is part of my modus operandi. As I’ve said, I’ve never met two people who are the same, so I’ve never repeated a character. Some may have come out similarly, but not because I intended that.

N: You mentioned that it gives you an affinity with Tim. You’ve worked with him multiple times now. What is it about his aesthetic that attracts you?

ML: Well, first of all, a good director creates a playground for actors. A good director doesn’t direct a whole lot. All the good directors I’ve ever worked with will tell you that 90 percent of directing is casting properly and allowing them to play because they’ll come up with stuff – behaviorally – that you can’t decide beforehand. What’s happening between two people right then and there is what a good scene’s about. That’s what an actor should be doing. Audiences should be watching a scene and feel as though it’s happening for the first time ever. You need actors who, after ten takes, can still create that newness. The ten takes may be for all the wrong reasons – or all the right reasons – but if I tell you a joke, it’s funny once. If I tell you 15 times, you’ve got a job to do. There’s nothing as dismal as false laughter.

N: For the recording process for the film, was there opportunity for improvisation to keep it fresh for yourself?

ML: Tim knew me well enough that if the writing did everything, it was fine. Sometimes, what was happening right then and there, I would interject something that came out of the moment and he would say, “That’s a keeper.” If it’s coming from the right place, if it’s something a character would say and it feels and sounds right, then it’s right. So, yes, we worked on this for a period over a year-and-a-half. From time to time, he’d come to this country and call me up and say, “We’re going to go into the studio and play. Your part’s getting a little bigger because of what you’re doing.” The character is a catalyst to kick that kid into action, to make the movie happen. It grew out of itself in a certain way. Some of what I did inspired more writing, some of the writing inspired me to say something that was added. It was a progression.

N: Your character, Mr. Ryzkruski, definitely stole the scenes he was in. He’s this interesting mix of terrifying and inspirational, and, as you mentioned, he’s the catalyst for the entire story.

ML: Well, the good teachers always interest you, sometimes frighten you, sometimes raise a bar. Otherwise, kids lose interest. A good theatrical teacher is one who presents it in a way that makes you listen because kids get bored easily.

N: Is your teaching style similar to Mr. Ryzkruski’s?

ML: Well, it’s different, obviously. [laughs] I’m gentler. I wouldn’t say “you’re stupid” to somebody; this guy does. When I read it, I said, “This guy probably holds a teaching job for two months before he’s fired and he’s a great teacher.” He’s completely undiplomatic. Whatever he feels, he says. You’re talking to your kid’s parents and you say, “you’re stupid?” It’s suicide! It’s completely crazy. But, it’s not. If he were American, I’d vote for him as president, because Washington needs an honest guy.

N: Exactly. Someone who’s to the point.

ML: Not only to the point, but can’t lie. It would be nice to have a couple of people in Washington who didn’t lie a lot. Anyway, I had great teachers as an actor – Lee Strasberg, Elia Kazan, Howard Clurman: all eccentric, all creative, all taskmasters who would raise the bar and say, “That was good, but you’ve got to go here now.” And you went there. They inspired me to be the best actor I could be. Seriously. I still strive to be better because of them.

N: You have taught acting for so many years…

ML: I run the Actor’s Studio still.

N: Right. Is there a piece of advice you would give to someone just starting out on an acting career or is there something that you know now that you wish you’d known when you were first starting out?

ML: Well, you can’t know some of the things I wish I knew then. You’re a kid and you make mistakes and you learn from those mistakes, as well as learn from your teachers. I would say if they’re talented and they want to do film, craft is important. As I say, in the theater, you only ever do it once a night, usually in progression. In film, over and over and over, you have to do one scene 10 to 15 to 20 times. And then you’ll probably have to do it again due to glitches or different camera angles. Train because talent is necessary, but the use of that talent is very important. The very thing that makes you talented can be your own worst enemy. Peripheral vision, things that create tension… sensitive actors have a lot of that when they begin because they haven’t learned to filter it. The very things that allow them to do these wonderful things can also hinder them. Untalented actors don’t have these problems; they’re not affected by the environment nearly as much as the talented ones.

A degree of craft is necessary to teach them how to relax. Because if you’re tense and your sphincter starts shutting down, you’re going to shut down too. You can almost hear it. Freedom, relaxation…you need to YELL and SCREAM! To be free! That’s what’s exciting and you need a degree of training for that. To be able to sustain a career and to make that same scene new and different and interesting each time takes a certain kind of discipline. I would recommend they study with a good teacher, and I would recommend that teacher because there are a lot of bad teachers, charlatans in Los Angeles in New York. So, that’s what I tell them.

Nerdist: First of all, I really enjoyed the film, especially the pacing.

John August: Thank you!

N: Many animated films, especially those marketed towards kids, can get bogged down with side-plots and throwaway jokes, but Frankenweenie kept the action moving at a nice, steady clip. Was that a product of the fact that you had to expand on the original short and wanted to keep it lean?

JA: From its earliest scripted forms, it was always very simple. I never wanted to cram all this extra stuff in there, including sub-plots. In animated films, there’s a tendency to feel like you have to do a giant character arc for your hero. It’s a boy and his dog, they don’t need giant character arcs. They have a pure relationship and it’s about bringing his dog back to life. It’s as simple as that; we don’t need to go too crazy into all the other stuff. It was a chance to set up the rest of our world and give us a little more time to get to know Sparky before he’s hit by the car and enjoy the repercussions once he comes back.

N: How closely did you work with Tim on the script?

JA: After our first conversation in which he floated the project past me, I suggested a science fair as the motivating factor for why these kids are so involved with science and I wanted there to be a very weird teacher. I wanted it to be a pro-science movie. Monster movies are always about the evils of science, so I thought why not show it being used for good for once. I had to get back to him about New Holland, the film’s setting, because it had a windmill, but also the drudgery of suburbia. It’s a sort of fake Dutch town and that’s great, which gave me Dutch Day. It was a joy to write. I knew what those moments were, I knew who the kids were and things flowed nicely.

N: I very much enjoyed the fact that it was pro-science education. You see all the other students using science for ill gain, whereas Victor uses it for benign reasons and is rewarded justly. Were there any homages to classic horror you wanted to include, but couldn’t due to the limitations of stop-motion animation?

JA: There are very few limitations with stop-motion. We know what its strengths are, so we definitely played toward its strengths. There wasn’t really anything that we planned that got dropped off the boards. We didn’t want more monsters than we actually had boys, so we had to narrow things down a bit or combine creatures to create the desired effect. A lot of the smaller homages and little inside jokes come as the story department breaks things down scene by scene and builds the sets; they have a lot of time on their hands.

N: So they can just layer things in.

JA: Exactly. The thing I definitely learned from Corpse Bride was to relax a little bit and let other people come in with good ideas too.

N: Between live-action and animation, do you find that one is easier to write than the other? Or do you think about it more in terms of story?

JA: I think about it more in terms of story. In my head, I wrote it as a live-action film, so I’d have to go back and remind myself it was animated to see if I could still see it playing out the same way or if it would work with what we’d already established. You have to treat all those relationships as being real, treat Sparky’s death as being real, you know? My biggest problem with animated movies is that they don’t treat their characters like real human beings.

N: They’re just too over-the-top and ungrounded for two hours. It can be draining.

JA: Yeah, it’s like sensory overload. So, it’s not that one is harder than the other; they both present unique challenges. With live-action you do multiple takes and there’s post-production live-action, so you can tweak it after the fact. Stop-motion might be the most fixed form ever because every frame has to be so precise.

N: Going back to the theme of education, you run a very helpful web resource for screenwriters and have a terrific podcast, Scriptnotes. For the uninitiated, tell us about these projects and what motivated them.

JA: The motivation behind both the website, which has been around for many years, and the podcast, which has been a year, was that I was always so grateful that experts in a field would take the time to document it. If I need to know about cowboy hats in the 1870s, someone has a website about it, and God bless them. As a screenwriter, that’s incredibly important to me. So if people are going to go online to find out about screenwriting, I felt a similar responsibility to document my knowledge and if it’s helpful, god bless. Craig [Mazin] has been a great partner on the Scriptnotes podcast with me.

N: Is there a piece of advice you would give to someone just starting out on an acting career or is there something that you know now that you wish you’d known when you were first starting out?

JA: My biggest frustration is that people feel like “I could write never a novel, but I could write a screenplay.” It’s that sense that I know how movies work. Like it’s not real writing. And it is real writing. Almost any human being could probably write one screenplay, but it’s not a movie. People tend to fixate so much on “I got this thing done and it’s a movie,” when it’s more of a plan for a movie. There’s a lot of things that happen after you write that script.

N: Looking to the future, the Big Fish musical, what can you tell us about that?

JA: I can talk about what’s been publicly announced, which is that we’re going to be in Chicago starting in April. It’s been a labor of love for many years now. Andrew Lippa wrote the music and lyrics, Susan Stroman is directing, Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks are producing  - they’ve been remarkably amazing collaborators throughout the whole process. I’ve learned so much and part of the reason I wanted to write the musical is that I wanted to learn more. It’s such a different world, but that being said, there’s no post-production, so I had to make sure it was right the first time. And not only that, but that it has to be right for the first cast and the cast after that, so on and so forth.

N: What sort of challenges did you face in adapting a feature-length film into a musical?

JA: The stage works differently – in good ways and bad ways. One of the ways is that the audience will actually use their imagination in the theater; you’re not as bound to literality. A desk can be a whole office, and that’s remarkable. A character can take two steps to their left and be in a new scene, and you have the introspection, which you don’t have in movies really. A character sings what they can’t say, and that power is remarkable. That becomes your close-up. It’s been remarkable to learn. There are other smaller changes, too. Broadway musicals typically have two acts, so it’s a question of how you want to split them up. I wouldn’t have done it if it didn’t feel like it was the kind of story that wanted to be told on stage. It’s about storytelling, and the songs are part and parcel of that.

N: Apart from that and Frankenweenie, what projects can we expect from you in the coming months?

JA: The next thing I have to write is called Chosen. It’s a pilot for ABC I’m doing with Josh Friedman. If that goes, then that’s what I’ll be doing.

N: I know it’s still under wraps, but could you maybe give us a log line for Chosen?

JA: An inaccurate log line went out there, so I can say that it’s a family drama with a supernatural element. But that’s all for now.

Disney’s Frankenweenie opens in theaters nationwide tomorrow. Are you excited to see the film? Quemment below and let us know!

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3 comments

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  • I went to see this movie with my hubby and I really enjoyed the simple storyline of how the main character loves his dog very much, that after his dog passes away, wanted to resurrect his dog back to life with his science teacher’s inspiring classroom experiments. Using science for good, yields positive results where there is love, and the opposite reveals how science can be manipulated for evil in the wrong hands, and with disastrous results. I love how unique all the individual characters in this movie are and how memorable they are with distinct personalities and their own motives for achieving their own desired results for making a science experiment that would win 1st place at the science fair. Wonderful storyline! I would definitely buy this movie on blu ray when it comes out. :)