October 21st, 2011. It’s Day Two of the Austin Film Festival and Caroline Thompson is in town to receive the Distinguished Screenwriter Award for a career of achievement including “Edward Scissorhands,” “Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey,” “The Secret Garden,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Black Beauty,” “Corpse Bride,” and “City of Ember.”
As we sit down for a chat in the comfy lounge of the historic Stephen F. Austin Hotel, I’m struck by Ms. Thompson’s confident yet unassuming demeanor. Sporting geek-chic glasses and a jaunty muave scarf, she is not only friendly and approachable but eager to share. This is “the screenwriter’s festival”, after all, and it is (sadly) rare that writers in the film industry receive the level of attention and respect they are given at AFF.
After a brief chat about our fair city, the beauty of the Paramount Theater, and some fun around town, we jump right in to a conversation about the work, the wisdom she’s earned along the way, and the whimsy she’s given us all.
DW: First off, congratulations on your award.
CT: Thank you. It’s kind of a treat out of nowhere.
DW: In addition to the awards banquet, there’s a screening of Edward Scissorhands tonight so I thought we’d start with him. It’s 20 years later…
CT: 21 years. Edward came of age this year. (laughs)
DW: What does it feel like to have your first screenplay become a beloved classic? Would you ever have guessed that it would happen that way?
CT: It feels amazing. It’s funny, I was at a film festival a few years ago and someone asked me how does it feel to have written the most beloved cult film of all time. I thought they meant Edward Scissorhands but actually they meant The Nightmare Before Christmas, which it turns out is so much bigger around the world than Edward. But I knew Edward was a magic moment. Everybody involved was at the top of their game. For whatever reason, it was like the perfect team. We just all made the same movie, and that’s the rarest of moments. It will always be the most special one for me, not just because it was the first, but because it worked.
DW: It was like magic.
CT: It was like magic. Funnily enough, it didn’t do that well when it first came out.
DW: I was there on opening day. I was one of those.
CT: Oh, were you? Thank you! (laughs) It didn’t actually do that well but it stuck around, I think because it has that kind of basic thing we all feel… so how could it not in a way?
DW: I’ve always thought the scissor hands thing is sort of a metaphor for the way so many of us feel that we don’t know how to love, or can’t love in the right way, or feeling untouchable…
CT: Or don’t even know what to do with their hands. That awkwardness. It’s a really stupid metaphor but it’s also really, really powerful and true.
DW: So help me imagine what it was like in the beginning. Was the concept originally Tim Burton’s?
CT: Not exactly the concept. He had done a drawing in high school of this character, so it was inspired by that. We were friends and we knew we wanted to work together, and one day we were spit-balling ideas and he told me about this drawing because I think he’d always dreamed it would be a movie one day. And it just clicked for me. I said, “Stop right there,” and the story just told itself to me. He and I were both, particularly at that time, obsessed by American suburbia and we both loved Frankenstein stories so it just happened.
DW: And suburbia is creepy.
CT: It is, but it can also be really comforting. Edward is fascinated by it and drawn to it at first, but then it turns on him. In a way, I think that’s what happens to us all.
DW: Did you already share that sensibility of the creepy and sweet combined?
CT: Yes, that’s something he and I shared. That’s why it worked so well.
DW: I have to confess that I watch Nightmare Before Christmas every Halloween or else it isn’t Halloween –
CT: Thank you.
DW: — but I also watch Edward Scissorhands every Christmas. Instead of A Christmas Story, I watch Edward.
CT: Oh, that’s fabulous! (laughs) Well, we watch A Christmas Story.
DW: That’s good, too. So what’s it like to have written two cult films that people have taken to heart?
CT: It’s an honor and a blessing. My God, you could work your whole life and have nothing that makes a dent and I’ve had two things that did. Thanks to Tim, but I did my part as well. I feel … (sigh)… I’ve done what I hoped I would do.
DW: One of the challenges that seems hard for writers now is that they aren’t encouraged to have their own voice. It seems everyone is encouraged to do what’s come before.
CT: I don’t think screenwriters have ever been encouraged to have their own voice. If you look historically, it’s been very rare. There was a brief moment when we got to show our voice, particularly in the 70s and some in the 80s. With Edward, I feel like I was really lucky to have a voice and use my voice. I feel that you HAVE to have a voice. If you’re not writing about something you’re interested in and that you truly care about, how can you expect anyone else to care?
DW: What’s your advice to emerging screenwriters about how individualistic to dare to go versus giving them what they want?
CT: They don’t know what they want. What they think they want is something that’s already happened so it’s safe. But my feeling, especially for writers starting out, is that it’s best to just write from your gut. They need to write what means the most to them. In a way, that’s often why people’s first movies are their most powerful. Then they snatch you up, probably myself included, and try to pluck you into their slots because that’s all they know.
DW: So is the goal to wow them with individuality?
CT: Well, in a way, but the work is what’s important. Sure, you want it to be seen, but the work is what you’re here for. If you can’t do work that you’re proud of, then why bother? And I think that’s true for your first movie and your twentieth movie. You want to stay as close to it as you possibly can, and put as much of yourself into it as you can.
DW: Otherwise it’s an empty experience.
CT: I caution people from being cynical and saying, “They want this at this moment…” A, whatever they want this moment is going to change. B, they don’t really know what they want. And C, it’s just soul-paling. It’s not worth it.
DW: Speaking of emerging artists, another reason you’re here is for your website “Small and Creepy Films.” AFF is showing a collection of shorts from the site.
CT: Yes, it’s a website that my husband (Steve Nicolaides) and I started in 2005 as a venue for young filmmakers who share my sensibilities – where we all feel like the Elephant Man or something – outsider art, I call it. It’s a place to give them a boutique of expression. Unlike a lot of sites, it’s curated by us so it only has material on it that we think is really high quality and fits what we’re after. It’s a place you can go reliably to find really quirky, beautiful short films. It’s www.smallandcreepy.com.
DW: It’s a good way for artists to be seen…
CT: Hopefully you’ll help us get the word out.
DW: I will. So, what’s your next project?
CT: I’m in the process of an adaptation of a well-loved Russian novel called The Master and Margarita. It was written in the 30s and it’s sort of the original magical-realism novel, the precursor to Marquez and those people. It’s about the devil coming to visit Moscow and throwing Satan’s ball. It’s just a crazy, crazy ride.
DW: I’ll look forward to that.
CT: Fingers crossed it sees the screen.
DW: Are you writing or directing? Which do you prefer?
CT: I’m writing. I prefer writing. I found directing a little too stressful for me. All you wanna do as a director is go back and work on what you did the day before because you know you can make it better… because of the dreams you had that night. But you can’t. As a writer you can. I just found it so frustrating. That being said, it was really an honor to have the opportunity and I did it until I was sure that I felt I was good at it. I was stubborn enough to keep at it until I could say, “Yeah, okay, that was good.” But I have horses… I’m really a writer that horseback rides, or a horseback rider that writes. So I love to stay at home with my dogs and my horses and my husband.
DW: So writing is perfect for you.
CT: Writing is perfect.
DW: One last question. How does it feel to be here with Johnny Depp and the both of you getting accolades for your careers?
CT: Yeah, it’s like a lifetime thing! We’re old now.
DW: No, you’re not old. You just got very busy.
CT: Okay, that’s a good way of looking at it. (laughs) It feels great. I haven’t seen Johnny in years so it’s going to be a lot of fun.
DW: Congratulations again. Have a wonderful time at the festival.
CT: Thank you so much.
Ms. Thompson received the Austin Film Festival’s Distinguished Screenwriter Award on Saturday Oct. 22nd, 2011.
To view imaginative, intriguing and eccentric short films, visit www.SmallandCreepy.com.