The Secret Garden of Caroline Thompson
Caroline Thompson’s career in movies took off as the screenwriter of the offbeat hit, Edward Scissorhands. She followed that up with the first Addams Family movie and went on to script Homeward Bound, The Secret Garden, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride. At a time when female screen writers were especially rare, Thompson forged friendships with directors like Tim Burton and Penelope Spheeris who helped her break into the business. In this interview from the May 1992 issue of Movieline magazine, Thompson discusses her career with another close friend, author Eve Babitz.
Screenwriter Caroline Thompson, who’s pretty much taken Hollywood by storm with the success of The Addams Family and Edward Scissorhands, is adamant that she didn’t move to Southern California because she hoped to become part of the movie business. “I just wanted to live as far away from where I grew up as I possibly could, and still stay on the same continent,” the native of Washington, D.C. says. “I felt completely at home in L.A. from the first moment I got here, which was in 1964 when I was eight years old. My parents brought us out here to visit Disneyland, and I immediately announced to them that I’d be moving here when I grew up.”
Fifteen years later, after attending Harvard and graduating summa cum laude from Amherst College with a degree in English and classic literature, that’s just what Thompson did. She began her writing career, at age 26, with her novel First Born, a dark tale that got the attention of Hollywood filmmaker Penelope Spheeris, who wanted to make a movie out of it. Thompson agreed to let Spheeris develop the project if she’d teach her the rudimentary skills of writing screenplays as part of the bargain.
As Thompson explains in the following interview, this fleeting encounter with Tinseltown led, in turn, to her meeting fledgling director Tim Burton, with whom she developed a close friendship that came to involve professional collaboration.
Tell Thompson that none of her academic East Coast beginnings are evident when you visit her charming, roughhewn ranch in the San Fernando Valley, and it’s readily apparent that nothing could please her more. She’d like visitors to think that she’s always been a part of the L.A. landscape, living, as she does, among dogs, horses and chickens on a spread that captures the timeless feel of the area’s “old adobe days.”
Thompson’s good pal Eve Babitz recently visited to talk to her about her busy schedule of movie projects, which include adaptations of The Incredible Journey, The Secret Garden, Sweeney Todd, One Hand Clapping, and Rouge, as well as such original projects as Midknight, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and The Geek–to name only a few. Babitz reports that Tim Burton probably summed up Thompson’s enviable, relaxed lifestyle best when he said, “I have the money, but Caroline has the life.”
EVE BABITZ: It’s just been announced that Agnieszka Holland is going to direct your screenplay of The Secret Garden. That’s not based on the Broadway musical, is that right? It’s a new film version of the book, isn’t it? I just love that book.
CAROLINE THOMPSON: I do, too. No, it’s not the musical. I read the book when I was little. And in 1982, when I read about it being developed at Warners, I went green with envy, hoping and wishing to do it. And so when they offered it to me, eight years later, I was in heaven.
Q: I love the movie of it, too.
A: There’s already been a movie made out of it?
Q: Yes, at MGM in the old days. Dean Stockwell was in it, and Margaret O’Brien.
A: I didn’t know that. I’ve never seen it.
Q: So, what are you up to these days?
A: Well, I’m about to go off to Paris for two weeks to work with Agnieszka Holland. She directed Europa Europa. It’s like having Bertolucci doing the movie…
Q: Only not having Bertolucci doing the movie.
A: Which is both fortunate and unfortunate, because if he were doing it, I could go to Rome.
Q: But if he were doing it, it would be a long, boring movie.
A: Well, it won’t be boring with her. She sort of does the impossible. I mean, Europa Europa was about a Jewish kid during Nazi Germany who survived by pretending he was a Hitler youth and you’d think you’d never want to see this movie, but it’s so beautifully done, so funny, charming and light.
Q: So where are you going to stay in Paris?
A: Hopefully in the nicest hotel they have. Everyone asked me if I wanted an apartment. I said, “No, no, no, I want to be taken care of…”
Q: That’s true, you’d have to clean your own apartment.
A: And feed myself.
Q: Well, I finally saw The Addams Family the other night in Pasadena, but the lights went off 10 minutes before it ended. Can you believe it? They kicked us out during the ballroom scene, which was so beautiful.
A: Wasn’t Wednesday wonderful?
Q: She was so great, and she reminded me of you.
A: She did? How?
Q: She was so somber, she was how you would be if you could ever get mad. Speaking of anger, I know that other writers worked on The Addams Family after you and your partner Larry Wilson wrote your script. In the final film, did you see enough that you recognized as yours?
A: Oh, here and there you could feel us.
Q: Well, I thought there was a sort of cuteness and fuzziness that was sort of you.
A: It’s hard to say, because when you’re writing something, you imagine it–and unlike my experience on Edward Scissorhands, it turned out really different from how I had imagined it. So it was really hard for me to watch it and see what was there, you know?
Q: But it had some great, poetic stunts…
A: The physical parts were us. But in addition to that, we had gone in for some dry humor that got sort of made wet…
Q: I can see why people love it, though, because it’s not about the beautiful people.
A: Well that’s the charming part about it. It’s sort of about how everyone really feels.
Q: Yeah, about those horrible P.T.A. things.
A: And Anjelica really got the sternness down great.
Q: She was great. By the way, was the imposter Uncle Fester really Uncle Fester?
A: Was Christopher Lloyd’s character really part of the family? I don’t know.
Q: Well, they kicked us out before it was over, so I wanted to find out.
A: Well, let’s put it this way: Charles Addams always sort of doubted that anyone was related to anyone anyhow. So, it doesn’t really matter. Anyone can be an Addams if they are an Addams.
Q: Here’s one of the questions the magazine editors asked me to ask you: “What is it like working with Tim Burton?”
A: Working with Tim Burton is like a psychic experience–Tim waves his hands and says, “I don’t know” and you go home and do it. He’s the most articulate nonverbal person in the world. He doesn’t say a word and you know exactly what it means.
Q: So you’ve known him for how long?
A: What year did I move here? I met him in ’86 because we were both at William Morris, and he had just directed Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and they had no idea what to do with him. I had written the screenplay based on my book, First Born, and they didn’t know what to do with me, either. I guess the word “weird” was the word that came up about both of us at a staff meeting, and they decided to introduce us. We loved each other right away.
Q: Now where is he from?
A: He’s from Burbank. He encouraged me to move here, though he would never live in Burbank. As with him, I started out my career getting called “weird.” After Edward Scissorhands came out, I was being called “imaginative” instead. Tim’s now at the stage of getting called “genius.” Whereas he went from being “weird” to being “imaginative” to being called a “genius,” I’ve gone from “weird” to being “imaginative” and now I’ve gotten to being called “difficult.”
A: Yeah, because if I don’t understand something people want me to do, I can’t do it. In some quarters it’s called “difficult.”
Q: Difficult, I can’t believe it. Tim didn’t think so.
A: When I met Tim, it was like meeting you–it was like meeting one of the real people. He had this image in his mind from high school of this guy with scissors for hands and he didn’t know what to do with it, but the second he told me I knew exactly what to do with it, so we did.
Q: Edward had that big house, and The Addams Family has that big house, and The Secret Garden has that big house…
A: And they all have party scenes, too. Most of my stuff has party scenes. I always think of my grandparents’ lawn parties.
Q: Do you ever read Anne Tyler books? She can describe what a family has inside a drawer for 20 years.
A: I can’t stand Anne Tyler books, but I gobble them up. It’s like Updike–I can’t stand him either, but I read everything he writes.
Q: I remember when you called from Florida when they were shooting Edward and you said…
A: …I said that I loved it! I mean, I loved being there and I loved being welcome there. Tim left me alone to write the script I wanted to write, and I left him alone to direct the movie he wanted to direct. That’s the way it is with Tim and me and I completely respect him and he made a beautiful movie and I loved it.
Q: What I was going to say was that when you called from Florida, you said you were waking up every day feeling like you were on mescaline.
A: Yeah. It was the best drug experience of my life. I walked around with a big foolish grin on my face the whole month I was there.
Q: I never heard a writer say that about a movie, ever. Not ever. Writers always hate it.
A: It was a dream. Can you imagine? It was the first time anything like that had ever happened to me–and there I was seeing the topiary, seeing the people based on people I knew…
Q: We won’t say which people you know.
A: Well, Edward was me and Tim and mostly my dog, Ariel. Ariel because she could almost speak, almost participate, almost understand… she could almost be there but she couldn’t because she was a dog–and Edward couldn’t because he wasn’t human.
Q: How’s your writing partner Larry doing? What’s he up to?
A: Larry’s doing well. I guess I should do a rundown of all the things we’ve got going on. We’ve still got the Michael Jackson project at Columbia, it’s called Midknight and the basic set-up is–well, imagine that when The Elephant Man is trapped in the bathroom and people are talking at him, about him, imagine that the guy actually got to kick ass then and there. It’s kind of a Hunchback of Notre Dame sort of story. Actually, it’s a really great script and I would guess that it will get made. I mean, Anton Furst was the executive producer and he also did a lot of the designs–so obviously his recent death puts a kind of yawning gap in the momentum of the thing–but we’re getting back to it now. Also, Larry and I are doing The Geek together. It’s at Disney now, we’re looking for a director, and they’ve already started some special effects research and it’s moving along. I hope it’s in production pretty close to when this article comes out.
Q: The Geek‘s the story about the guy who imagines he’s a chicken? I’ve been wondering, did that idea come from raising chickens around here, or did you get the chickens later?
A: Actually, it’s all based on a chicken I met in Mexico. When I got back, I got three chickens, and started working on the script at the same time.
Q: You named those chickens Fried, Baked and Broiled.
A: Right. Broiled is still with me, but Fried and Baked died. They were scared of the blowers used by the gardeners, and died of heart attacks. So now there’s Broiled, and a newer chicken, whose name is Christine Chickenhands.
Q: What else are you working on?
A: Larry and I are doing a musical project, which he initiated, called Mai the Psychic Girl. It’s based on a Japanese cartoon and, umm, Tim’s supposed to direct that. Those are the ones we’re doing together.
Q: What are you doing on your own?
A: Besides The Secret Garden, I’ve got Rouge, which is a ghost love story.
Q: Now, that’s from some Chinese movie?
A: It’s based on a Chinese movie called Rouge, but loosely. I wanted to set something here in Hollywood, in the ’20s, when I wanted to be here. I’ve always wanted to tell a story set between 1918 and 1923, when women shed eight pounds of underwear. So it’s about taking off your underwear and being able to start dancing. It’s really about lingerie. I just turned in the first draft, and I’m praying and hoping that it moves forward for me to direct.
Q: Why do you want to direct?
A: Everyone wants to direct, don’t they? Don’t you?
Q: [laughing] Is that what you told them at the studio?
A: No, I told the studio, “My qualification for directing is that people seem to want to help me.” I hope it works. Another project I’m doing is an adaptation of an Anthony Burgess novel called One Hand Clapping, with Jennifer Jason Leigh and Johnny Depp, and we’re talking to directors about that.
Q: What’s that about?
A: It’s hard to explain. Burgess set it in London in the ’60s, but I’ve set it in Burbank. Jennifer will play this really naive girl, and Johnny will be her dark genius of a husband. She’s got this simple, sweet view of the world, and he tries to see the world through her eyes, but he can’t. He goes on a game show and because he’s got a photographic memory, he makes millions, and he takes her around the world to try and show her that every place is the same. She just wants to go home and have sardines on toast. He’s trying to prove the futility of staying alive and proposes that they commit double suicide. She’s so mortified by the suggestion that she hits him over the head with a frying pan and kills him. So, as always, the simple view of the world wins. And then, let’s see, I’m going to adapt Black Beauty at Warners to write and direct. That’ll be great, 14 months of horses–that sounds like paradise to me.
Q: I hope you still like them when you’re done.
A: I know. Me too. Oh yes, there’s also The Incredible Journey, which is coming out this summer, and I’ve written the animal voice-over for that. I’m learning a lot about animals from that.
Q: Didn’t that change in some way?
A: Well, yes… I wrote the script three years ago and they brought in Linda Woolverton, the woman who did Beauty and the Beast, to do a rewrite. Then they shot it, and then they came back to me to do a final voice-over. It’s really been fun; it’s like writing a musical score. I’m writing dialogue to the finished picture on screen.
Q: Someone told me that it was in the trade papers the other day that you’re doing another picture with Tim.
A: More than one. There’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, an idea of his and he’s producing it–something he started at Disney 10 years ago with another guy, Henry Selleck, directing it. It’s not animation, it’s pixilation–sort of like claymation. It’s a musical. Danny [her boyfriend, composer Danny Elfman] did the score and I did the script.
Q: What’s that one about?
A: It’s a musical about what happens when the King of Halloween takes over Christmas, and makes a real mess of it. Then, Tim and I are going to do the movie version of the Stephen Sondheim musical Sweeney Todd at Columbia.
Q: The story of the barber who kills his clients, and then they’re made into meat pies by the barber’s lady friend? Will you be rewriting that storyline?
A: No, I won’t be rewriting it–I’ll be embellishing it. There are parts where Tim might like to pursue something more.
Q: So obviously you and Tim get along really well… it sounds like you’ll be working together for the next 50 years.
A: Tim and I know each other so well, we can communicate with no language, so working together really works for us. I mean, people read things how they read them, and they don’t always get it. My best experiences have been with people who get it, like Tim, and also with Penelope Spheeris.
Q: Wasn’t she going to direct a movie version of your book, First Born, way back when?
A: Yeah, she loved my novel and wanted to turn it into a movie, and we decided that we’d do it together, so I could learn what screenplays were about. The deal was, I’d work at her place, I’d drive in from Santa Monica and she’d cook me lunch. We worked on that project a long time, about a year. I was getting a divorce and so was she, so it was a really traumatic year for both of us. I was so grateful to have her house to go to. It was the best school I could have possibly gone to–Penelope’s a great, fascinating woman, really, really smart and strong and funny. The movie never got made, but I still turn to her in times of trouble. The last time I broke up with a boyfriend, we went out to dinner–she’s got a great solid core to her.
Q: So what about your current boyfriend, Danny? You met when you worked together on Edward Scissorhands?
A: No, I met him because an Orion executive thought we would work well together and introduced us at lunch, and then Danny kept calling me. Then I met him again during the scoring process of Edward Scissorhands. I’d wanted to go to Mexico for the Day of the Dead and so did my writing partner Larry, and we started to arrange a trip and invite everyone we knew to go along. But then everybody else started to drop out–including Larry–so Danny and I went down there together. The second afternoon we were there, we went and sat in this church, and just sat there for an hour while the light left the altar, and I don’t know, right then I knew I could be a pal with him. Anyone who could sit there and watch the light change was my kind of guy. We just yapped and became friends and the next thing you know, I’d fallen in love with him and he with me.
Q: So it was meant to be.
A: Well, there was one other thing…[laughing] I got really drunk that weekend, and he was so sweet to me. I vomited and everything, and he was really polite, but then evidently I was extremely polite too–“Excuse me, barff…”
Q: That’s true love.
A: Want to go outside and to visit with my pregnant burro, Ellie?
Q: When’s the burro due?
A: Soon. She’s going to have a burrito.
Q: One last question. The other day, you posed for a portrait as Lady Godiva, atop your mule, Sabrina. I’m a blonde and now, in that photo anyway, you’re a blonde too. So Caroline, what do you think…do blondes have more fun?
A: No. Definitely no. That wig was too long, it was uncomfortable, it scratched.
Eve Babitz interviewed her pal Donovan Leitch for our March issue.