Tim Burton is the kind of person whose meanings are perfectly clear, even if he seldom finishes a sentence.
On Monday in New York, after having only just finished inserting last-minute special effects into Planet of the Apes, the 41-year-old director of Batman and Sleepy Hollow was in his third day of U.S. interviews and doing just fine -- that is if you don't count the fist clenched around his tall coffee. Quick to laugh, running his hands through his wild hair, you can see both the energy that allows him to make the movies he does, as well as the charm that makes actors praise his gentlemanliness on the set.
But we're there to talk about apes. Let's start with orangutans, one of which is memorably embodied as a perverse, comic relief sidekick by Paul Giamatti. "I grew up watching too many bad variety shows with orangutans," says Burton. "There's a sleazy character to them I thought Paul caught really well."
Gorillas? Chimps? "You do a little bit of research, I guarantee you, gorillas, nothin'." Burton repeats for emphasis, "Gorillas, nothin'. Chimps, crazy mother--s. And scary! Even these little cute ones! They'll look at you... get so focused on you. They smell you. It's kind of uncomfortable. They get possessive of you. If you don't pay attention to them, they'll spit on you, they'll throw shit at you, they'll attack -- and these are the young ones, the ones that are benign. They get a little older, 3 or 4 -- man there was one called Chubs, he was the scariest thing. I mean, they're the scariest." He shakes his shaggy head. "There is so much in ape behavior, you can't put it [all in one] movie."
So what's the allure of the world-turned-upside mythos of the Apes movies? "Part of the fascination of this material is that [apes] are so close to use and weirdly far away," Burton says. "You look at recognizable human traits, then they'll do something really weird and kind of scary. It makes you jump back and question..." he trails off.
The actors' eyes behind the ape makeup, including Tim Roth and Helena Bonham Carter, sometimes make Burton's Planet of the Apes as expressive as a silent movie. "Helena and I had this conversation about doing silent movies. Movies, to me, I've always seen them that way. I see them visually, that's how they connect to me. Eyes have always been important to me. Eyes, obviously the window of the soul, they hold that whole thing, and mask acting, these great actors understand that, something else comes out. Tim [Roth], I look at Tim, he's got a certain kind of eyes, but then when he's got that makeup up, we did no lenses or anything, but he got a glint in his eye. I was just like, wow, so cool."
I ask Burton, notorious for not seeking explanations of his films while making them, how this might fit with his other work. "I didn't realize until yesterday I seem to like movies where people act like animals. I didn't think about that at the time. There is something about the primal emotion-versus-intellectual that's important to me. Maybe because of myself, I rely more on how I feel than what I think. I find my mind plays tricks on me. I'm always interested in that struggle between how you feel and how you think. I think about these things after the fact. I [need] the emotional response while I work."
The big emotional response in Apes is an implied potential romantic triangle, with Bonham Carter's chimpanzee human-rights-activist and feral human Estella Warren both having eyes for hunky astronaut Mark Wahlberg. "Yeah. That idea," Burton muses. "Have ape-animal sex scenes? I read those stories, too. I'm going, 'Oh my god, what kind of people are home on the Internet? It's worse than I thought!' The beautiful thing to me was that [Helena's] character doesn't feel part of her own culture, she's very sensitive. Animal people. I know lots of them. They gravitate to animals because they sense something in them. They feel connected to them. That's how I felt about her -- she's connecting to an animal. All of it should have been unrequited. It's more realistic, and animal sex scenes would have made it, well, I don't know if that's even possible in a Hollywood American movie, y'know. We wouldn't be able to show that movie anywhere. On the black market, maybe." He giggles.
Still, Burton got to go in his own direction, and he's pleased he didn't have to do a remake. "I was not interested. Remake Planet of the Apes? No thank you, I'll just jump off this building instead. I'd have a better chance of surviving! We tried to be respectful, but the real key thing to me that couldn't be changed was humans as apes. That had to be there. I didn't feel you could screw around with that."
After Batman Forever, he said he wouldn't do sequels. "I kind of had a hard time on that one." He laughs, leaving the door just barely open to a second Planet of the Apes. "Right now, I say no to having lunch!"