Tim Burton Unrealized Projects, From Catwoman to Beetlejuice 2


There’s something melancholy about Wednesday, and not of the creepy, cooky, delightfully spooky variety that the Addams Family practice on a regular basis. From the beginning of his career, Tim Burton has been pigeonholed. Critics, fans, and detractors have all noted the pale faces, dark-rimmed eyes, pinstripes, spirals, and the mournful children’s choirs in Danny Elfman’s scores, and summed up his work up as goth chic. Never mind that his first movie was Pee-wee’s Big Adventurethe color and gonzo humor in beetlejuice or Mars Attacks!the tenderness and sincerity in Edward Scissorhands or Big Fish, or the variety of mediums and subjects on display at his MoMA exhibition. The public perception of Burton is that of the dark but not-too-serious author with a penchant for outsiders, a la the Addamses. For such an inventive filmmaker to go with a project that everyone seems to feel he should do is a little disheartening.

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Burton’s penchant for misfits and fondness for horror movie aesthetics is something he wears on his sleeve. But part of his identification with outcasts comes from feeling that way himself, in his youth and as an artist. He resists labels like “Burtonesque” and has spoken of trying to experiment in new territory. Which he has! Anyone who’s never made a musical before has to be willing to risk a lot if they jump into the genre with a black operetta like Sweeney Todd. If more recent projects have been well inside his wheelhouse, it isn’t from lack of trying to do other things. Burton has an extensive list of projects that would have stretched his creative muscles that, for one reason or another, have never been made. Here are some of the more notable examples.

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Conversations with Vincent

From the beginning of his career, Tim Burton has honored Vincent Price. His first work was the homage short “Vincent,” he cast Price in a pivotal role in Edward Scissorhandsand he modeled the schoolteacher in the 2012 Frankenweenie afterprice. He would have made Price Santa Claus in The Nightmare Before Christmas had director Henry Selick not decided against it. And in the early 90s, not long before Price’s death, Burton decided to make his first documentary about his idol.

Conversations with Vincent was shot in Prince’s Los Angeles art gallery in 1991, with Burton interviewing the actor, director Roger Cormanand producer Samuel Z. Arkoff in black and white. Even after Price’s death in 1994, Burton kept at work on the film. But the self-financed project ran into trouble when studios controlling the rights to certain entries in Price’s CV demanded exorbitant fees for brief clips. The project became tied up in legal issues managed by people with other priorities, and as of 2022, it appears dead.


The Beetlejuice Sequel

If you were disappointed that the buzz about a second beetlejuice from the early 2010s didn’t amount to anything, don’t feel too blue. One, you’ll make several of the dead in the original film feel self-conscious. Two, it’s not as if this was unprecedented; Warner Bros. and David Geffen have been trying and failing to come up with a sequel since beetlejuice was released, sometimes with Burton’s involvement. In the early 90s, he favored a script titled Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiianpenned by future Mars Attacks scribe Jonathan Gems. Don’t crude, surreal ghosts and beach movie send-ups make a natural fit? Of course not – that would have been the joke.

if beetlejuice had to have a sequel (and it doesn’t), that kind of mish-mash sounds like a fun angle to have on it. But Warners pushed Burton and Michael Keaton to make Batman Returnsputting Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian on the back burner. While Warners periodically hired writers to rework the script, no real movement happened on the project until Seth Grahame-Smith was announced as writer of a new approach in 2013. Burton, Keaton, and Winona Ryder all seemed keen for production to begin, but it was never announced, and Smith told Collider in 2021 that he “didn’t thread the needle.”


Mai the Psychic Girl

Kazuya Kuds cult manga Mai the Psychic Girl, among the first to be translated into English, didn’t come to Burton as a potential film through his own interest. The New Wave band Sparks brought it to him. They wanted to make a musical of the manga, Burton’s first musical had it been made. Carolco Pictures snapped up the rights and hoped for cameras to roll in the early 90s, but Burton prioritized other projects. It drifted into the hands of Francis Ford Coppola and then Kirk Wongo. Rumor held that Burton had gotten the rights back and was moving forward with Mai in 2010, but nothing came of it. Sparks would pour their frustration at Maize fate into a personal project, the album The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman.

Cabin Boy

Unlike the first three entries on this list, Cabin Boy was actually made. It was even made with Burton’s involvement; his production company was behind it and he and his then partner Denise Di Novic produced it. But he was originally meant to direct it. He was a fan of Chris Elliot and Adam Resnick’s Get a Life on Fox and hired the pair to write him an adventure yarn. With its quirky humor and liberal homages to Ray Harryhausen‘s Sinbad trilogy, the script was quick to catch Burton’s fancy, and only left when the opportunity to make Ed Wood came along.


That’s how Elliot and Resnick remember it, at least. Burton told his biographer Mark Salisbury that he cooled on directing when he considered how big a budget Cabin Boy would need. He encouraged Resnick to helm the movie instead. The experience soured Resnick on directing, Burton on acting as a producer for other filmmakers, and audiences on Cabin Boy – on its initial release. It’s since become a bit of a cult classic.

Mary Reilly

Another one that was ultimately produced, though not in the way Burton intended. Valerie Martin’s revisionist take on dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was originally picked up by Batman producers John Peters and Peter Guber for Roman Polanski, but by 1993, it was in TriStar’s hands, and Burton signed on to direct. He wanted Winona Ryder in the titular role, while the studio wanted Julia Roberts. In the meantime, Burton had started developing Ed Wood at Columbia, whose parent company Sony was releasing Mary Reilly.

Burton found the development of the film highly unpleasant; he goes off about it at some length in Salisbury’s Burton on Burton. TriStar made no secret about wanting to rush the film, or about having multiple directors interested in taking over should Burton not play ball. When Sony put Ed Wood in turnaround, it was the last straw. Burton jump ship, Stephen Frears got the job, and Mary Reilly (starring Roberts) bombed in 1996.

catwoman

In a greatly stretched technical sense, the 2004 catwoman is the Batman Returns spin-off that was originally announced in 1993. Denise Di Novi was still attached as producer and screenwriter Daniel Waters was offered script arbitration duties (he declined). But Waters, Burton, and Michelle Pfeiffer had nothing to do with the production, which bore no resemblance to what they once wanted to make.

Pfeiffer and Waters were more enthusiastic about at catwoman movie than Burton, who was burnt out on the superhero genre after Batman Returns. But he did give it an earnest try. Hey held up the original Cat People and Kitten with a Whip as models for he wanted. Waters was more interested in an epic satire on the superhero genre. The two never reconciled their visions for the film. “The problem with the Burton/Waters collaboration,” Waters later said, “is that we are Rain Man with two Dustin Hoffmans.” With the director and writer at an impasse and the studio unenthusiastic for either approach, the project languished, transmogrified, and became one of those movies most viewers try to forget.

Superman Lives

Contrary to many an Internet rumor, Burton was never attached to a third Batman film as director and never had concrete plans for one. But his success in reinventing the Dark Knight did recommend him to do the same for the Man of Tomorrow. Superman Lives is probably Burton’s best-known unmade project, having become the subject of a Jon Schnepp documentary. It also came tantalizingly close to being made. Locations were secured, costumes were being made, effects were being developed, and Nicolas Cage was cast as Superman.


The project cycled through three writers (Kevin Smith, Wesley Strickand Dan Gilroy, whose draft is the strongest if you can find it online) as Warners sought a smaller budget. While they fretted over costs and Burton worked with his creative team, producer Jon Peters made himself a boss from hell. After a year of development, Warners became too nervous to go forward. Creatively spent after the experience, Burton (per Burton on Burton) found an outlet in the character of Stain Boy and in lopping off heads in Sleepy Hollow.

Ripley’s Believe It or Not!

Ripley’s Believe It or Not! also came close to reaching movie screens. Paramount gave it to producer James Jacks and hired Ed Wood scribes Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewskic to pen the script. Jacks wanted a silly adventure series starring Johnny Depp, but when Burton came aboard, he did not cast his longtime friend and collaborator as the wily showman Robert Ripley. Instead, he went with Jim Carrey.

Burton and Carrey had enough reservations about the script to bring in Steve Oedekerk for rewrites, with the goal of featuring more of Ripley’s collection of strange facts and oddities. but like Superman Lives, Ripley’s ran afoul of the moneymen. Initially set to film in 2006, it was delayed so much that Burton had time to make Sweeney Todd before Ripley’s intended new start date of 2008. By that time, he was ready to move on.

Monsterpocalypse

Hey, if trading cards can be made into a movie, why not collectible figurines? In 2010, it was announced that Burton and his frequent writer John August would be making a movie out of the Monsterpocalypse miniatures game for DreamWorks. The plot was to be standard robots vs. monsters fare, though one imagines in Burton’s hands it could have had the playful, subversive qualities Mars Attacks! showed. This time, it wasn’t other projects, studio foot-dragging, or money that did the movie in, but competition. In the time Burton spent developing Monsterpocalypse, Guillermo del Toro puts out Pacific Rima variation on the same theme that DreamWorks decided was too close for comfort.

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