Interview: Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short talk ‘Frankenweenie’

This interview was originally posted on Criticize This!

For over four decades Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short have made careers out of portraying zany characters on television, such as the classic Canadian sketch comedy show SCTV, and in numerous film and theatre productions. Their latest achievement is in Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie where the duo lend their voices to a variety of characters, including the parents of the young protagonist, Victor, who brings his dog back to life and causes chaos in the small town they live.

Criticize This! got to chat with Short and O’Hara during a recent press stop in Toronto to promote the film. Read our Q&A below.

Did the two of you get to play off each other when voicing Victor’s parents or did you record your parts solo?

MS: With the parents what I think Tim wanted to do was see how they turned out, because you never know. The father could have sounded like this [puts on a deeper voice] “Oh, hey come here, Victor.” Tim didn’t want that. He wanted something real and nurturing. He wanted very believable parents, and especially given our history and that we live only ten minutes away from each other, it was easier to get us at the same time, which can be hard since I’m out of town and she’s out of town a lot. But it was always important to Tim to do the parents together. The other characters you can record in a bubble.

Since you have worked together and have that familiarity, and have both worked with Tim in the past, do you think that made you more relaxed with your work on Frankenweenie?

CO: No, I don’t think you ever go and work with Tim Burton too relaxed. And I don’t mean that because it isn’t wonderful and fun, but because he’s so great that you want to be great for him. It’s really fun, actually. I think people think he’s going to be moody or brooding or something-or-other, and he’s really quick and loose and…

MS: Playful.

CO: Yeah, playful. He’s open to ideas, but he knows what he wants and I think you want to be on your game [for him].

Does the design of the characters influence how you voice them at all?

COH: Everything really comes into play. We see the illustrations first.

MS: You see the illustrations, and then you start into it. Again, Tim has an idea of what he imagines these characters to be like, but he doesn’t know the specifics of it. So with a character like Mr. Burgermeister [the mayor of Victor’s town who just happens to be Victor’s neighbour] you might spend a whole session just trying voices with different accents, different pitches. With that character we didn’t get it on the first day. I went into the second recording session with an idea to do a voice that sounded like someone who used to smoke four packs of cigarettes a day and then decided to quit about 25 years in. That’s the kind of detail that Tim loves, so that became part of that character, and, you know, just stuff like that. But ultimately he’s the arbiter of what a character is like. It’s all as he sees it.

Having worked with Tim earlier in his career, have either of found he’s changed now that he’s a big name director?

CO: When I was working on Beetlejuice and I said I was working with Tim Burton people would say, “Who? Sorry?” Then I would just tell them to see Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and they would know who I was talking about. Now, everyone is like, “YOU’RE IN FRANKENWEEINE!?” There’s an energy around it, and the energy around him has changed, but honestly, he’s the same guy. He’s got a great sense of humour. He loves to laugh and he finds the real people around him to just be scary as can be. They are the monsters. He still loves those human beings that really need love the most. He’s just a great guy, and he’s the same as he ever was.

MS: Yeah, Catherine worked with him at the beginning of his career, and when I worked with him in 1996 he was already “Tim Burton.” I knew about him through Bo Welch, Catherine’s husband who was also the production designer for many of his films, and I knew he was a good guy, but when I finally met with him to talk about doing Mars Attacks!, I was really not so much shocked, but surprised that he was such a loose and funny guy. That’s how he was, and when we were doing that film we had people like Jack Nicholson and Rod Steiger and it might have been harder, but it wasn’t. And I see him now and it’s the same as it was then.

CO: He’s as true to himself as someone can be, and it’s so rare to work with a director who gets to be true to himself. His original illustrations are the movie. It’s literally his vision.

Frankenweenie is a film that’s chock full of references to some of Tim’s favourite monster movies. Did either of you have any personal favourites growing up?

CO: We both love Frankenstein.

MS: Particularly Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. And I loved The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad growing up. I love Them! [Turns to Catherine] Have you seen that?

CO: No, I haven’t.

MS: Giant insects. They were ants, I think.

CO: Sort of a “Monster that attacked Tokyo” sort of thing?

MS: Kinda, but you know it was all because of that there bomb… Anyway, those are mine.

CO: And mine, too.

MS: [laughs] You don’t even know Them!

CO: No, I don’t, but I do have a really cool story related to this. On my birthday when we were doing Beetlejuice, my then boyfriend and now husband threw a party for me and Tim gave me an original drawing, coloured with pencil and crayon, and he was mad because I didn’t know what it was. I thought it was something else and he said “No, it’s a monster eating Tokyo.”

MS: Did you keep it?

CO: Yeah!

MS: Have you ever thought about eBaying it?

CO: We have so many pieces from his archive, and when that touring exhibit and the MoMa exhibit were being put together they still didn’t get my drawing, which makes it even more special.

Martin, what’s it like doing these press tours after portraying Jiminy Glick?

MS: Well, you know, Jiminy Glick could have really been any moron with power, and not necessarily any sort of entertainment reporter. I was just doing a talk show and he became a vehicle for me to get more celebrities on. But really, to me what’s always funny is how you look at this guy and you have no idea why he’s in that position, but he’s got (in Jiminy’s voice) an assistant! And it would be this guy who gets terrified that he’ll screw up the tuna fish order because his boss is an idiot.

With your older work on SCTV available to more people around the world now thanks to the Internet, have you noticed an increase in your fanbase from people just coming around to the show?

MS: I’m not really aware of that so much. In Canada it’s still seen a lot more than it is in the United States, but I think in general the older you get, because of television and cable and online resources, you stay in the public consciousness longer because of what you’ve done, but for me not really so much with SCTV, I don’t think.

CO: The other day at the airport in L.A. someone did stop me and say “I grew up with you on SCTV!” It was the guy who was putting my stuff through the X-ray machine. It was so cute! He was so excited! The kids who grew up and watched it have finally gotten to the age where they feel comfortable talking to strangers!

MS: SCTV did always have – and I can’t really talk about it as much because I was kind of an interloper on SCTV – a strange connection to people who were always just discovering it. It was created with such a great passion.

CO: And that’s true because when it first started maybe only three people were watching it or knew when to find it.

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