Spinning Platter Interview: Henry Selick, Director of Nightmare Before Christmas

by Dakin Hardwick on November 16, 2015


Henry Selick is a true innovator. He’s one of the very few people to bring the joys of stop motion animation to the masses, and managing to have great success with the form. Spinning Platters had a rare chance to have a chat with him ahead of the SF Symphony presenting the film with live score later this month.

You can pick up tickets here! Don’t miss this very special event, and, after the jump, here’s our interview!

When you got the offer to to Nightmare, did you expect this kind of legacy?

Couldn’t have imagined it. There really hadn’t been a studio-made stop motion feature in the U.S. Mainly, I and the crew were just so happy to work on a feature film using the type of animation I loved best. When we finished, I thought we had something pretty good; I had no idea it would last beyond its initial release.

How did all of these pieces come together? And did you sync up with Danny Elfman and Tim Burton to make this happen?

I became friends with Tim back at Disney in the late 70’s / early 80’s. It was not a great time at Disney. Not a lot was happening, and you found your friends where you could. You looked for the people wanting to do the more interesting projects. Tim pitched me the idea of Nightmare while we were at Disney, and conceived of it as a TV special. He’d rewritten the famous poem “The Night Before Christmas” and come up with the story of the king of halloween hijacking Christmas. Tim’s creative partner, Rick Heinrichs, made really cool sculptures of Jack Skellington, his dog Zero, and Sandy Claws. But when they presented everything to the Disney execs, they acted like it was an insane idea and shut it down. Many of us, including Tim, eventually left Disney. After Tim had had huge success in live-action, he made inquiries about getting “Nightmare” out of Disney (since he’d come up with it there, they owned it.) Disney wouldn’t let it go but they told Tim they’d let him make it there as a low-budget feature. It was a carrot; they were hoping he’d come back and direct huge blockbusters like “Batman” for Disney. Instead, he did something more interesting, “Ed Wood, Jr.”

Anyway, I’d abandoned LA for San Francisco to work on this crazy cut-out animated film called “Twice Upon A Time” that George Lucas was executive producing. (Just came out on DVD for the very first time.) And I stayed, working on commercials, storyboarding feature films, directing a few rock videos. Then in 1990, almost 10 years after Tim first conceived of “Nightmare Before Christmas,” I got a mysterious message from Rick Henirichs: Tim likes the animation work you’ve been doing and wants to see you. I was doing a ton of stop motion animation promos for MTV at the time as well as a bunch of Pillsbury Doughboy spots for Colossal Pictures, a San-Fran production house. So I flew to LA, went to his office where his assistant tried to kick me out, thinking I was the computer repair man. We worked that out and Tim told me Disney was going to make an animated feature of “Nightmare” and he offered me the directing gig. The thing is, Tim doesn’t really have the patience to direct stop motion. It’s so slow, it drives him crazy. Besides, he was going to be working on “Batman Returns” and “Ed Wood” while “Nightmare Before Christmas” got made. I already had a small team of people in SF so they became the core members of the feature crew. We did some initial animation tests with a cemetery set and a Jack Skellington puppet over at Phil Tippet’s in the East Bay, showed the results to Tim and Disney and they basically said, “As long as you can keep the budget really low, you can do this.”
It was pretty crazy when we first started shooting. While there’d been a script written by Michael McDowell, the screenwriter of “Beetlejuice,” it wasn’t quite working (Michael had become really ill.)  Danny had written only written two songs. But we had a release date! So, I, my producer Kathleen Gavin, along with a brilliant crew of animators like Eric Leighton, Trey Thomas, Angie Glocka, Tim Hittle, Anthony Scott; our Director of Photography, Pete Kozachik and his group; our model makers; puppet makers; set builders; a story team led by Joe Ranft – we all jumped off the cliff into production, animating those first couple of songs while another screenwriter, Caroline Thompson, came on board to play catchup while Danny wrote more songs for us to storyboard and animate. We eventually got the story working and, almost three and a half years after I first started, the movie was finished.
Overall, it was the best working experience I and the crew ever had. There was zero politics, all of our efforts went into the movie. (It wasn’t until I directed “Coraline” years later that I found the same level of creative support.) And when the movie came out, the critics loved it, it was a solid hit (though nothing compared to today’s CG animated features) and then it was all over. Or so we thought. “Nightmare” sweatshirts started appearing, T-shirts, jewelry, more and more each year. They started rereleasing the film every Halloween in LA; then they turned the Haunted Mansion into “Nightmare” at Disneyland. It was crazy, Disney wouldn’t even put their name on the film at first! It was a Touchstone film; they were worried it might damage the Disney brand. Eventually, they embraced it as an official Disney film. From what I’ve been told, they’ve made a billion dollars in merch since it first came out. And no, I don’t get any of that. Though I do have some cool original puppets and props from the movie.

To move away from Nightmare, I’ve heard rumor that you are doing a film with (Keegan Michael) Key and (Jordan) Peele. Is this correct?
Yeah, I talked to those guys a few years ago, because I’m a big fan of their show and their humor. They are pretty much the best comics working now, as far as I’m concerned. They are both really sweet, creative geniuses. Jordan in particular was a big fan of my work. He grew up on Nightmare, he’s got the kind of mother that took him to see scary movies and got him all the toys. He is a fan of Coraline and James & The Giant Peach. I meet Jordan and Keegan and I pitched them this idea of demon brothers and Jordan started writing with me. He’s a really fun writer and we are going to try to do a book series in addition to the first film.

I agree with you. They are about the best thing out there. 

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