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The Burbank-born movie director (who now lives in London) on Walt Disney’s frozen body, Christmas in L.A., and his new show at LACMA
You’re often compensating for things that are lacking in your life. If you’re in the cold all the time, you want sun. You need that for chemical balance. So if it’s always sunny and bright and warm, you want the opposite. Ever since I was three years old, I can remember I loved monster movies and dark, expressionistic kinds of things. Being a fairly quiet sort of nonverbal child, you look inward to explore your feelings and communicate through drawings.
When I was growing up in Burbank, the environment was very middle-class suburban, and I felt like an alien. I made models and fooled around with them and burned them and filmed them. I liked to make animated Super 8 films. That seemed like a relatively natural pastime.
I like weather, and I like to walk. In L.A. neither can happen. That’s kind of why I don’t live there. When I did, the only way you got seasons in L.A. was to go into Thrifty or Sav-On during the holidays and walk down the display aisles and say, “Oh, it’s Halloween” or “It’s Christmas.” And that’s your seasons.
Several years ago when I went back for a time, I tried to walk and I got stopped by the police three times: “What are you doing?” Then you walk in certain places and you realize that pretty much everyone who’s walking is crazy. If you’re an isolated person, it’s a place that accentuated that feeling. Not that I like interacting that much. I’m not a really social person. But there is something in L.A. that taps into a feeling you have inside that makes you feel even more isolated.
I was in CalArts’ Disney animation program. Like at any arts school, we did very little schoolwork and spent most of our time searching for the cryogenically frozen body of Walt Disney that was supposedly lurking in the bowels of the buildings. The school was meant to blend the arts and bring the worlds of music and film and theater and dance and animation together. Which is a nice idea, but I think the character animators were looked upon as the geeks and freaks of the school—as if Disney animation was not really an art form. There were a lot of very talented people there: John Lasseter, Brad Bird, John Musker. Some of them ended up going to work at Disney initially, where they languished in solitary confinement for a couple of years and then dispersed and turned into what they would really become.
When you get into making Hollywood movies and you get semilucky with something, people treat you as more of a thing than a human being. So I’ve always resisted analyzing what I do. I think about it when I’m doing a project, of course. But I don’t think, Do I have a style that’s like this or that? I find that kind of dangerous territory. So I look at this stuff in the LACMA show with an interested but slightly sickly feeling. The curators were great—I felt I was in good hands. But I didn’t grow up in a museum culture, unless you consider the Hollywood Wax Museum a museum, which I guess it is. I guess.