Allison Abbate is one of the producers of Tim Burton's new film Frankenweenie, and her resume is deep.
Abbate has worked on some of the best animated and stop-motion animated films ever done: Corpse Bride, Nightmare Before Christmas, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Iron Giant and others.
Abbate talked with Gary Wolcott, a Tri-City Herald and Atomictown film critic, about Burton's wonderful new movie and her career.
Gary Wolcott: In all the years I've done interviews with movie people I've never talked to a producer. Producer is one of those nebulous terms. They do lots of different things from the idea behind a movie to just writing checks. What is your role?
Allison Abbate: My job is to work with Tim and surround him with a crew. I get to work with all creative departments from beginning to end and make sure Tim's vision gets up on the screen.
A process like stop-motion is painstaking and detailed. A lot of people have to work toward the same goal. I create the creative environment so Tim can realize what his vision is.
GW: Can you break that down a little?
AA: I find the creative team, the department heads. I work on casting the roles and work with the team of editors. As Tim begins the scripting, I work with him to get the script onto storyboards. There are thousands of story panels. I work with the story artists and the editors to get the first cut to Tim's specifications. I work with the studios on a lot of marketing stuff and the preparation.
GW: How long did it take to make Frankenweenie?
AA: From the time we started to draw the storyboards to the end it was almost three years to the day.
GW: Why the title, Frankenweenie?
AA: He [the film's brought-back-to-life dog, Sparky] is a little teeny Frankenstein.
GW: I was wondering because the dog isn't a dachshund, what we know as a "wiener dog." It's a terrier of sorts. What's it like to work with Tim Burton?
AA: I did Corpse Bride with him and my second job in this business was on A Nightmare Before Christmas, so I got a glimpse then on how he works and how he likes to tell a story. He's lovely to work with, such a kind and gentle man. And he's so creative. Everything he does is so incredibly interesting and visually stimulating.
For someone who's so powerful in that regard, he's so gentle and kind and collaborative. He's interested in other people's points of view. It's just wonderful to work with him.
GW: I liked Nightmare and Corpse Bride but I loved this one. I always ask this question of writers, directors and people that create movies. There's the movie you have in your head to begin the project. There's the movie you shoot. The one you edit and the final product. How close is Frankenweenie to what Tim Burton had in his head?
AA: It's right there. I think that's why Tim is so satisfied with this film. He had the vision 30 years ago and did a short version. It was always in his mind to open it up. He was actively involved in every step of the process. The script was really close to what we shot. The characters are literally from sketches he made earlier.
Every step of the way we tapped directly into Tim. It shows on screen. It feels so unified and so of his mind.
GW: He definitely has a unique way of looking at things and excels with this kind of movie. How much of himself did he put into his movie? Is he one of the characters?
AA: In some ways it is quite autobiographical. It is based on a story he had as a child. He had it even before he made the short. And it came about when he lost his dog. He always loved horror movies, he was a budding filmmaker, and a loner and wondered, "Wouldn't it be great if I could reincarnate my dog?"
When he saw [the movie] Frankenstein originally, he didn't see the monster as a villain. He saw him as a victim and saw that at the heart of it all it is the rejection of the monster that creates the monster. He's not entirely evil.
He put two and two together and came up with that story and based it in town that looks a lot like Burbank, which is where Tim grew up. He had an inspiring teacher that sparked a lot of thoughts on art when he was a young man. The role of the teacher as an inspiration, a catalyst comes right from that experience. The kids in the movie from school are based on kids he knew and are mixed from the politics of his grade school experience.
There is so much of him in the story, of his background, his upbringing, his personal experiences. That was the fun part of making the movie. It was fun getting into his head and trying to get a sense of what it was like in 1972 when the movie takes place.
GW: I grew up like that, too, though I'm not a creative genius. On the rare times our TV worked, or we got the channels that showed them, I used to stay up really late at night to catch all the old Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolf Man and Invisible Man movies. Those films were a wonderful place for a 10 or 12-year old kid to let their imagination go.
What I love most about Frankenweenie is that he made this movie like I remember things being when I was a kid. It's an animated feature, and as a rule we think these are for kids, but in reality, this movie is for me and the kid I used to be.
AA: Absolutely. It is Tim going back into his past and kicking around ideas that have been in his head for decades. I'm glad that you had that impression because that was our intention.
GW: When you made "Frankenweenie weren't you concerned about scaring or upsetting younger viewers and children with the death of the dog and with it being in danger and all?
AA: It's sad when the dog dies, but you know that going in. Parents underestimate the ability of kids to process this. It's not a movie for really young children or highly sensitive children. But it is an important movie with a lot of important themes.
GW: I agree with you, but I had to ask the question.
AA: That was a concern for all of us while we were making the movie. There is a balance between the horror and the scares and the thrills. It works. It doesn't feel unbalanced. It's not too soft. You give people thrills. That's why we go to horror movies. I feel that we struck the right balance.
GW: All of us can relate to the love of that dog. We've all lost pets and that really rang a bell with me. And I have to go back to this. It resonated with me because it reminded me of my own childhood and growing up in Umatilla, Ore., Pilot Rock, Ore., and in Kennewick, Wash.
When somebody can do that, it is a real talent. It's a skill that so few people have. Please tell him that. I love the movie because it made me a kid again.
AA: I feel the same way. I'm in my 40s and I feel like he captured my youth, too. We can all relate to it because we were all kids, and we all had pets that we lost. It is for everyone.
GW: I also loved that it is done in black and white. In fact, I really didn't notice until toward the end of the movie. It's a marvelous piece of work, and I think his best movie. He really loved this movie. When Tim Burton is 90, this is the movie he'll remember.
AA: I agree. It was a labor of love for him and for all of us because we love him. I cried more during the credits of the movie than I did during the movie because I am just so proud of the effort on this film. People gave 110 percent, their heart and soul to this film and it shows.
GW: Switching gears. Whomelse have you worked with? Did you like one of my favorite ever stop-motion movies, Coraline?
AA: I loved Coraline. I love [director] Henry Selick. He's a dear friend. I enjoyed working with Wes Anderson (Fantastic Mr. Fox), I worked with Brad Bird (The Iron Giant) and with Joe Dante (Gremlins).
One of the things that draws me to a project is that visionary at the helm. I am the luckiest girl in the world. With each movie I get to work with a creative genius. You always want to be stimulated by the people around you.
GW: How did you get into doing this?
AA: It's been an interesting journey and very satisfying. I was lucky. I moved out to Los Angeles right out of college and started working as a temp to try and get my foot in the door. I ended up temping at Disney right when The Little Mermaid was finishing.
That was the first movie that was painted by a computer. A small team of people worked on it and became the people who knew how to make these movies. I was very lucky. From there I went on to Nightmare and I worked on that movie, again with a very small crew. So I kind of got swept up in the wave of animation, but I can't draw a picture to save my life.
GW: You mentioned Henry Selick. I interviewed him at the premiere of Coraline in Portland, Ore. I found it interesting that he looks a lot like his characters. He was a fascinating and nice man, and was as interesting to watch as he was to talk to. At the time, it was just one of those weird observations that hits you.
What have you seen lately that you've like?
AA: Nothing. I don't get to go to movies very often. I saw The Avengers. I'm married to a man who likes action movies so I get to some of them. But when you're working on movies from 7:30 in the morning until seven at night, you don't have much time for them.
Now that this project is done, I hope to get out to see a few of them. One of my resolutions is to actually see some movies.
GW: It's funny. I talk to a lot of people who are in the movies -- actors, writers, directors, and now a producer -- and very few of them get out to see movies. On the other side of the coin, people tell me how lucky I am to get to see all the movies but that's not true. Seeing everything can be a real drag.
Once in awhile, I'll see a great film like Frankenweenie but that's not the rule. So, Allison, I can saw with authority that you're not missing much.
AA: The reason I got into this field in general is I love movies. There's this feeling you feel when you're sitting in a theater and you're transported. I remember sitting in a theater at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark and wanting to make people feel like I felt then. That was the catalyst that got me into making movies.
Sometimes, it's hard to watch movies. You're always critiquing them. Pulling them apart. I just want to go to the movies and be transported, and that's not always possible when you work in the business.
GW: I can relate. I've been doing this for 23 years, and I don't think I'll ever be able to just sit down and enjoy a movie. A few years ago, I changed how I watched them. I quit taking notes and quit analyzing the film while watching it and tried to find a way to just enjoy the experience.
It's hard, if not impossible.
It's interesting that you mention Raiders of the Lost Ark. That's one of the best movies ever done and is the perfect action movie; a blast from scene one to the end.