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‘Edward Scissorhands’: From Box Office Misfire to Cinema Classic

Though today it’s considered one of the most beloved movies of the ‘90s, Tim Burton’s gothic fantasy “Edward Scissorhands” struggled to connect with audiences when it opened on December 14, 1990.

The first collaboration between Burton and Johnny Depp “was not a hit when it first came out,” said Caroline Thompson, the film’s screenwriter. “It took a long time to gain traction.”

Following a limited release, the film, which co-starred Winona Ryder, debuted in third place at the box office, behind “Look Who’s Talking Too” and “Home Alone,” already in its fifth week. By year’s end, it had earned far less than movies like “Another 48 Hours” and “Bird on a Wire.”

Yet over time, its endearing characters, fable-like story, and magical imagery worked their way into audiences’ collective imaginations. With help from Stan Winston and Ve Neill’s Oscar nominated makeup, Depp’s sensitive performance as a shy mechanical boy left half-finished by an aged inventor remains one of his most iconic roles.

“So many people have told me it’s their favorite movie,” Thompson said. “It’s such a lovely thing to hear!”

Prior to working together, Thompson and Burton were both repped by the same agency, and were encouraged to meet for lunch. “They correctly assessed that we had strange ideas about the world,” Thompson said.

“One night over drinks, Tim told me about this drawing he’d made in high school of a character who had scissors for hands, and I instantly knew what to do with that image,” Thompson said. “So I wrote a 70 page treatment in about three weeks and gave it to him. And that’s basically the movie we ended up with.”

One thing that changed between the treatment and the screenplay, however, was idea that the film should be a musical. Early on, Burton believed that audiences would accept the bizarre story if it included songs, since musicals often contained fantastic elements.

“So in my original treatment, there were actual musical interludes, including lyrics,” Thompson said. “One of the songs was called ‘I Can’t Handle It.’”

Burton eventually changed his mind after reading the musical version. “It became a straight-up movie instead, and I think it’s better served for that,” Thompson said.

To help craft the film’s unforgettable imagery, Burton enlisted production designer Bo Welch, whom he’d worked with on “Beetlejuice” two years earlier. “That was my first collaboration with Tim, and I was instantly smitten with him, as most people are,” Welch said. “There’s just something charismatic about him.”

Unlike Burton’s previous film “Batman,” which drew on 50 years worth of comic book iconography, “Edward Scissorhands” represented a bold step into the unknown for the Oscar nominated production designer.

“One of the biggest challenges I had was marrying the film’s two distinct visual aesthetics,” Welch said. “It took some time to wrap my head around that.”

Combining Edward’s dark, gothic world with the sunny, idealized representation of suburbia was no easy task. Every house had to be painted, the vegetation completely stripped, and all the cars were given a uniform palette that revealed nothing about where or when the story took place.

“We designed the neighborhood to appear as though you’re seeing it through Edward’s eyes,” Welch explained. “The great thrill is the friction between those two aesthetics within a single frame.”

The image of candy-colored cars backing out of their driveways at exactly the same moment is one of Welch’s personal favorites. “That’s pure, beautiful art direction, and it’s justified because that’s how it would look to an outsider like Edward,” he said.

Despite the rigors of a complex production, Welch describes making “Edward Scissorhands” as a joyful experience. “Under duress, some of the funniest moments come out,” he said. “That’s just part of the process when you’re blending art and commerce toward some beautiful end.”

For fans of classic Hollywood, “Edward Scissorhands” remains especially poignant since it features the final theatrical appearance of legendary star Vincent Price. The role was written specifically for Price, who had previously worked with Burton on the spooky stop-motion animated short “Vincent.”

“Tim had always been a fan of classic horror movies,” Welch said. “He watched them religiously as a child, and knows everything about them. That’s his point of reference. That’s his world.”

Having collaborated on three macabre films with Burton, including “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Corpse Bride,” Thompson, too, shares a love of classic horror with the director.

“Growing up, I was always moved by the sad ones, like ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame,’” Thompson said, “I remain moved by those stories. I think of every script I’ve written as a sort of sad horror movie.”

For many, the story of a lonely outsider desperate to fit in touches a deeply personal nerve within them. “I’ve seen fans with entire scenes and characters tattooed on their necks,” Welch said. “It’s because the movie is very specific and personal. I mean, clearly it’s a very personal film for Tim as well.”

“Everyone feels like an outsider,” Thompson added. “That’s the story we were telling, and that’s the story people still respond to.”

In September 2015, the screenwriters of “Despicable Me” hosted a two-day film festival in Agoura Hills, Calif., called “The Greatest Movies Ever Written,” and invited Thompson to present “Edward Scissorhands” as the closing night’s selection.

“To see it again on the big screen was so cool,” Thompson said. “It really holds up.”

Fox Home Entertainment released a 25th Anniversary Special Edition Blu-ray available in 2015 feauturing a remastered 4K transfer.

Asked what they should be on the lookout for when revisiting the film, Thompson had a rather surprising answer. “Edward’s character was based on my dog,” she confessed. “People love their dogs, so just think of him as the best dog you ever had!”

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