Screenwriter Caroline Thompson's first produced film was Edward Scissorhands. After that she went on to write The Addams Family, The Nightmare Before Christmas and last year's City of Ember. She has also directed versions of Black Beauty and Snow White. She now lives on a ranch with lots of animals in Ojai, Caifornia, and makes films for her website, www.smallandcreepy.com. We had a chat with her.
Vice: So you wrote the Michael Jackson movie that never happened?
Caroline Thompson: Yes. Larry Wilson, who I wrote The Addams Family with, and I wrote a film for him. The director was Anton Furst, who was the production designer on Tim Burton's Batman.
Oh yeah, he killed himself, right?
Yeah. And the last words I said to him were, "Grow up, Anton." So Jon Peters, who produced Batman, went to be the head of Sony and promised Anton a directing gig there. And Anton naively took the gig but didn't realise that it meant he couldn't work with any other studio, so couldn't work with Tim Burton again, which distressed him. At any rate he threw himself into this project for Michael Jackson, which we called MidKnight. I think the reason we decided to do a story about a knight was that a knight usually wears a helmet mask and we wanted to cover up Michael's face because we thought a film audience wouldn't take him seriously as an actor. We ourselves had a hard time taking him seriously as an actor. We had a very long and hilarious day at Neverland with him. It was Anton, our executive Amy Pascal who is now one of the heads at Sony, Larry and myself. There was this bathroom, which was full of paper wrappers and candy wrappers, all kinds of shit. It was really small, surrounded by a concrete wall, and Michael looked at it and said to us, "Isn't it beautiful? It's my favourite place where I go to be by myself." We had nachos for lunch, with cheese melted on top, served to us by these white Midwestern overweight women in brown coffee-shop uniforms with little white aprons and little hats. We met Bubbles, who was in residence at the time, and Anton reached out for Bubbles and Bubbles screamed and ran to the top of the jungle gym, and Michael made Anton crouch on the ground looking at the floor with his head bowed as a way of apologising to Bubbles. And we went to see the zoo. He had these giraffes in this enclosure, and there was this platform Michael walked up to where the giraffes came over to be petted, and the platform was level to their heads, so they'd come over and their eyes were the size of the tables, it was astonishing. But the funniest one was where we went to see his young lion, who was asleep. Michael told us to be very quiet. You know how in zoos there's the cage the lion's in, then two or three feet out there's a little fence that keeps you at distance?
Well he urged us over the fence, so we were all gathered round staring at the lion asleep, and Michael hollered out and clapped his hands and the lion woke up and sprang at Amy, and she squealed and back-pedaled and fell over the fence and landed flat on her ass, and Michael laughed his head off. I mean, gales of laughter. And he said, "He always goes after the smallest person in the group." He laughed and laughed and laughed. It was a strange experience. We went to the movie theatre on his ranch, where on either side of the seats towards the back there were glass rooms that had hospital beds in them. I couldn't tell if that was where Michael liked to sit or if that was for guests. And then, when we finished the script, I got a phone call from Michael. At the time, I thought it was my then-boyfriend Danny Elfman playing a joke on me, so when I heard the voice go: "Hi Caroline, it's Michael Jackson," I answered, "Hi Michael!" in this Michael Jackson voice. Then I thought, Oh fuck, and I quickly worked out that it fucking was him, and he realised that I automatically made fun of him, and I don't have any memory of what he said; I was just blushing and sweating the entire conversation.
Was that the last time you spoke to him?
Did you like him?
Well, I was fascinated by him. He had this little Band-Aid on his cheek, it was really small, and I just kept fantasising that… You know how you blow up a bicycle tyre? I just fantasised that something like that was under there to blow up his face. I was an admirer of him as a child, and as he aged and went on his weirdy journey, I just thought, How can this be a human being? It's hard for any of us to imagine what it must be like to be someone who can't go out of their house without being mobbed. He described to us how he would get in disguises and go out into the world, that was one of his greatest joys. I can't say he made me feel sad, but it was close to that.
Did you talk about films with him?
We didn't really. Mostly he just took us on his tour and he showed us his ranch.
I would imagine that he would have been an Edward Scissorhands fan.
Oh he was a huge Edward Scissorhands fan; that's why I was hired for the job. I'm sure he would have loved to have been Edward Scissorhands.
So what happened to the project?
Well we turned it in, and Anton didn't want to, which is when I said, "Grow up, Anton." I told him it is what it is and we'll see what happens. Anton was scared, it was his first movie. He had no idea what shape it should be in to go to the studio. In those days, studios were in the development business, which they're not really anymore, so things were taken and processed, as it were. But Anton was going to rehab, I guess he was a drunk; you'd go out for dinner with him and he'd look at the menu and he'd go, "I'll have a brandy!" And evidently, none of us knew he was also a very serious Valium addict. Stanley Kubrick had driven him in despair to finding comfort in Valium and he'd never really gotten off it.
What had he worked with Kubrick on?
He did Full Metal Jacket. You know, turning London into Vietnam, which was quite a feat.
So Edward Scissorhands was your first film; did you have the whole story planned out when you wrote it?
I knew the trajectory of it. I knew that I wanted to write about being in the world, and the whole world loves you, and then you don't do what the world wants you to do, and they all turn against you. That's what I knew going in. And it's the only script where I based all of the characters on people I knew. Peg and Bill were very much studies of my own parents. Edward was based on my favourite dog of my life at that time; but for vocal cords, you felt that she could talk. The witch-like figure was inspired by Piper Laurie in Carrie. My favourite right away was the Alan Arkin character. My dad was given to saying ridiculous things as if they had great serious meaning. I was on set and Alan Arkin didn't really understand it, so I told him this story about the time I was driving down the road with my dad and seeing somebody with their car trunk open and I said, "Look Dad, that guy's got his trunk open." And he said, "Well, some people go through life with their trunks open." Anyway, I think Tim was very stressed and exhausted, and somehow having me around on set made him more stressed. We never really had a friendly life together after that, we had a working life up to a point, but not a friendship. Anyway, Edward was the only time in my writing career that it was a story that was all ready to be written. It was sort of just a matter of chasing it down.
I'm sure. What can you tell me about your first novel, First Born?
Well my first dream was to be a novelist, and I was rooting around for something to write about, and I've always been fascinated by suburbia. Edward Scissorhands is the sort of benign version of First Born. I don't know if my mother actually had Tourette's, but whatever came into her mind flew out of her mouth. She was a big, planned parenthood person, she was very much a pro-choice person. On my 21st birthday, she said, "I'm really glad that abortion wasn't legal in 1956 because if it were you wouldn't be here."
Nice! Fair enough, I guess.
Right! Happy birthday! So I always loved those late-19th century horror novels that were in the form of diary, and I wrote this diary from the point of view from a woman who had an abortion then had the abortion return. It turned out to be a live birth and many years later it finds its way home to her. She keeps it a secret and falls madly in love with it and ends up having this secret life with her abortion.
By abortion do you mean he grew up to be a proper child, or was he something monstrous?
No, it must be damaging to be sucked out of somebody, so he ended up a little homunculus, with a tail. It's not an anti-abortion story, it was meant to be a black comedy really.
There's a really cheap horror film I saw once called Sewage Baby.
Oh, I'd love to see that.
Yeah, it's about this abortion creature who goes through the sewers, then makes its way up into town and starts killing people. I think.
Cool. I'll have to find it. I think everyone feels like an abortion, at least in one phase in their life. I wrote the novel in my early-20s, and I was still in angry teenage mode, filled with resentment towards suburbia and all that that entails in America. So it was my sort of commentary on what it felt like to grow up in white middle-class suburbs.
Is it a similar view of how you presented it in Edward Scissorhands?
Yeah, in Edward Scissorhands the idea was that it was this perfect paradise that turns into this absolutely horrible place. I would call that a further analysis of it, but it was born of the same interest. And also both were very much inspired by Frankenstein. The best stuff in First Born was sort of stolen from Jane Eyre; there's a scene where the abortion tries on his brother's clothes. That was my most accomplished part. I was very discouraged by the publishing process though. The publisher got afraid of it I think, it was not publicised at all, they changed the title. I thought that publishing was a gentlemen's business and if they were gonna fuck you it would be to your face, but they fucked me really bad behind my back, so that's when I turned toward Hollywood, figuring at least those people have the courage to fuck you to your face.
And Hollywood picked up the rights to the book, right?
Yeah, but as most things go in LA, it just sort of withered on the vine, but it was pretty cool to get my first thing that far. And such a strange one. Many years later, William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection) wanted to do it, and he's such a scary creep I told the producer that if he ever left me alone in a room with Billy Friedkin I was not gonna go on with the project. And on the third meeting it was at Billy's house at midnight with nobody else around and the guy's really scary, and I said never mind, and walked away. He's just creepy. And he had this little kid, a nine-year-old boy, that was sleeping in one of the rooms, that he told me he had shown all of his movies to, like at age five. This five-year-old must have been traumatised for life having seen The Exorcist.
He just was a person without barriers. Like so many people here.