How The Creative And Unusual World Of Tim Burton’s ‘Beetlejuice’ Became A Beautiful Reality

Whenever Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice is mentioned in a circle of cinephiles, words like “unique,” “original” and even “insane” are tossed around in a game of dodge the adjective. Burton’s Pee Wee’s Big Adventure was a hit in 1985, and thus he began getting offers and scripts at an alarming rate, none of which piqued his interest — until he received Beetlejuice. The outrageously fresh script called for a ghoulish pimp who is summoned by dead dependents like a sort of evil afterlife genie. Beetlejuice‘s titular role would go to Michael Keaton — who should probably be holding a best actor Oscar right now, but isn’t — and he added the exclamation point on an already entertaining character.

While much of the film’s success — it more than quadrupled its budget at the box office — should be owed to Keaton’s performance and Burton’s direction, a lot of the film’s charm comes from the production design, art direction and misc-en-scene headed by Bo Welch, Tom Duffield and Tom Ackerman, respectively.

We caught up with art director Tom Duffield, cinematographer Tom Ackerman and production designer Bo Welch to reminisce about the making of a dark comedy classic and learn some interesting behind-the-scenes facts about Beetlejuice.

Getting To Know Tim Burton

Beetlejuice Tim Burton
Getty Image

Tom Ackerman, Cinematographer: I had met Tim and worked with him on a previous project at Disney. The live-action original version of Frankenweenie. It was that in itself a wonderful opportunity and it was photographically a great chance to explore that sort of black-and-white rank horror film idiom, and at the same time tell this sweet-yet-bizarre story of the reassembled dog, a la Frankenstein. That was a great outing, and Tim and I stayed in touch. When Pee Wee’s Big Adventure was announced and went into production, Tim had wanted me to shoot the picture. But frankly, at that time, I didn’t have quite enough major studio credits.

Bo Welch, Production Designer: I was just finishing my first job as a production designer on a feature film, which was Lost Boys. That was at Warner Bros. and we shot in Santa Cruz and built some sets on stage at Warner Bros. Tim Burton had an office at Warner Bros. because he had just done Pee Wee Herman’s Big Adventure. My agent at the time was trying to get me my all-important second job. He called Tim and said he should meet me and I think Tim wandered through a couple of our sets and liked what he saw, I guess [laughs]. So, I was able to meet with him at Warner Bros. It’s not a very exciting story… then he hired me.

Ackerman: I had done a couple of indie movies including a thing called Roadhouse 66 and Girls Just Want to Have Fun at New World, which did some business and became a cult classic. But as far as Warner Bros. was concerned I wasn’t quite there yet in terms of shooting a big studio movie like Pee Wee. However, by the time Frankenweenie got the green light I had done Back to School, which was one of the year’s 10 hit movies. It did extremely well at the box office. It was well-regarded, as well-regarded as comedies can be critically. Alan Metter directed a Harold Ramis script and Rodney was fantastic. And we had a great cast. Since Back to School had put me in the studio green light list, when Tim wanted me to come in on Frankenweenie, I got the job.

Welch: Any time you start a collaboration with a new director there’s a certain amount of, “I’m there to help them make their movie,” or at least that’s the way I was raised as a designer. Very often nowadays there’s a committee involved. A director has been downgraded, but that’s nowadays on big movies. Then, they still gave the director the freedom to make a movie. Especially a movie like Beetlejuice, which was relatively small budget in the scheme of things. And with Tim’s background as an animator he has a very specific visual sense.

Ackerman: When you do any film with Tim Burton, he has a very clear vision, a really vivid sense of how he wants it to look. That was certainly the case with (Burton’s first film) Frankenweenie. The storyboards — which were meticulously drawn, many by him, if not all by him — conveyed a great, almost palpable sense of what he was going for. Did they dictate continuity? We could go to this angle, this angle and that angle. No, they didn’t. But they were stylistically vivid and extremely helpful. When we were preparing Beetlejuice, we had a lot of talks about how the film was going to look. Because obviously the task was to create an afterlife. The task, on the flip side, was to create this Norman Rockwell-esque New England world, yet twist it in its own way when the Deetz family moves in and their furniture and the interior decoration totally covers the house. It’s anything but New England charm.

Tom Duffield, Art Director: Tim is a very graphic director. He doesn’t like a lot of texture and a lot of junkiness and a lot of clutter. He likes interesting compositions, a big thing and a little thing on the wall, and flat.

Ackerman: In the course of preparing Beetlejuice, Tim and I had a lot of quality time together. The production design team was extremely well advanced by the time I came on board. There was a lot to work on. Some movies don’t really have a clear path. And in the case of Beetlejuice, when I came on board — and I had 20 weeks of prep because it took a long time to cast the role of Beetlejuice with Michael Keaton — it made it possible for us to be very confident that this bizarre vision that we had talked about was actually going to work.

Welch: The thing that was interesting to me was up until that point, production design for movies in the context of the world I was working in, people were pretty hung up on literalism and realism, and “that door doesn’t match that interior.” Stupid stuff. When I met Tim, it was like a breath of fresh air in terms of liberating me from dreary realism. He would push me towards German Expressionism and reference other movies. He was always a fan of old horror movies. But he would view them with a sense of humor. In that period when you try to wrap your head around his aesthetic you learn. But it was a fantastic experience that changed the way I approach movies from that movie on, as much as you just thought outside the constraints of realistic, replicating reality for movie design.

Ackerman: There wasn’t a lot of referencing of other films, frankly. We didn’t screen other films together. When I did Frankenweenie, the look of that, Tim was very interested in sort of picking up on the classic hammer or the rank horror films that were done in England in the ’40s and ’50s. This almost impressionistic black and white, very sharply etched look. When it came to Beetlejuice we didn’t screen many other films, but we did talk a lot about what his vision was. We identified certain key color tones and the first prospective sets were used in some cases, and the way that Tim wanted to use in-camera effects whenever possible. Mind you this was in a time when visual effects were just starting to happen in a much more sophisticated way than it had or may have traditionally been done. But Tim was fascinated with the idea of doing mirror shots, which there are a number of in the picture. In general, the production design concept integrated as much physical aspects as possible.

Putting The Look Together

Ackerman: Most challenging was the overall ability to sell this bizarre world. By the way, if one were to read Beetlejuice, when I got the script I was taken aback because it was very strange and it was hard to imagine and visualize how this would eventually play out. It was an exciting prospect, at the same time daunting. I was up for a very safe backlot studio comedy at that same moment, but fortunately Beetlejuice came into my sights before I had to make a decision. And there was no doubt about that fact that even the supposedly assured success of that comedy would prevail, there was absolutely no question that Beetlejuice offered the greater opportunity, visually and in terms of making a memorable film. At the very outset the most daunting thing to me was how to create a world that wants to be real and bizarre but almost surreal at the same time.

Welch: Early on we barely knew each other and Tim, myself, and Richard Hashimoto, the line producer, went location scouting in Vermont to look for the exteriors. This is in the pre-digital era so you don’t Google “cute little towns in Vermont” and be bombarded with a thousand images. So, we just drove aimlessly from one end of Vermont to the other. Eventually we went into a couple of bookstores or gas stations and kept seeing this postcard over and over for this little town called East Corinth, Vt. We saw it enough times where we thought, “Well, that one looks great.” These pictures are exactly what we’re looking for. So, by looking at postcards in gas stations and stores we actually found our location after driving all over Vermont.

Duffield: My job was to work with Bo Welch, figure out what we were doing, and I was in charge of all the construction, I finished all the sets in Los Angeles, and then I flew to Vermont, and oversaw the construction of the house, and the redo of the town, and construction of the covered bridge. Tim picked it. We couldn’t find a town that had a covered bridge, with that look, New England style. The way we found it as I recall, Tim found it on a laminated placemat in a restaurant or store we were in and he said, “This is the town right here.” We went there and it didn’t have a bridge, so we built the bridge. The town still has a lot of the stuff we left there.

Welch: We went there and it was, of course, adorable. Then it was replicated in a model and once you have that you can fill in the pieces. But the schoolhouse, for instance, and the store where they bought the Manchurian tongue oil, were locations in Vermont. And the bridge we built that collapsed was built in that little town, so that was very memorable. But also just designing sets that would complement Tim’s aesthetic and complement his characters, all of which he had designed and drawn by the time I started. You could look at beautiful little drawings of Beetlejuice and Lydia, and everybody in the movie had basically been drawn, and you say, as a designer, what would be the best environment to surround them in at any specific point in the story? You look at all of his creature designs, too, like the fan worm. All that stuff was there and a very valuable tool for inspiration. They’re mind-blowing inspirations for completing the movie.

Duffield: Physically, the hardest [project] was the bridge. We kept having thunderstorms. We had to build a big dam, and a thunderstorm would come by and blow it all away. Artistically, the hardest thing was the house on the hill. There were no roads, so we had to cut a road into there. We built it originally in the post-modern condition and then we took it down and made it the original condition and we shot that for the end.

Ackerman: Tim and I talked a lot about being consistent. In other words, once we committed to the physicality of some of the effects and extreme production design, and in many cases extreme colors that I was using in the lighting, hopefully always giving the cinematography a vivid, unmistakable point of view. Once we decided on doing those things, we were consistent throughout. It’s a big mistake to talk about making a specific type of movie when you are prepping and then sort of chickening out and start to play it safe once you begin to shoot. But this was definitely not the case.

Duffield: We tried to do as much in camera as possible because it wasn’t a big budget, so there was very little post [production] stuff. The sandworms and the little yellow planet on Jupiter were post. Everything was pretty much done in camera. One of the coolest stunts we did, which I thought was so cheap and so brilliant, was the scene where they come back after they’ve been killed, they look in the mirror and they can’t see their reflections. Well, what we did is we took their fireplace, pulled the glass up, turned it around, faced it into the room, had them on the opposite side, and so you’re looking into the set but the fireplace had been turned around and the mirror had been taken out. Really simple. And the scene with Alec Baldwin, where Geena’s standing with his head in her hand, he was just kneeling behind a black show card that was cut around his chin. Look closely, it’s all done on camera. It was real quick cut, but that’s all it was.

“Is This What Happens When You Die?”

Welch: There are a number of things but the one that I recall, and mind you this is a long time ago, was the afterlife and how to physically represent that. Conceptually, I think we arrived at that it would be kind of like going into the department of motor vehicles or some other dreary government office or the unemployment office. That’s what inspired the afterlife where he goes in and gets the number and it’s just chaos and decay. So, it’s the department of motor vehicles filtered through a German expressionistic lens.

Duffield: To me the house was the landmark setting of the movie. The afterlife, also, was one of the coolest sets. Bo Welch came up with the concept of the Johnson Wax building in Oklahoma designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, with these posts that were spread out at the top; that was our anchor for that [set]. Then we just kind of made it curve around to fake an unlimited perspective on this soundstage that was only 50-75 feet wide. Ron Strength of Warner painted a big backing of the perspective of the columns getting smaller. We built all the foreground stuff, and all the papers and stuff to make it look like a chaotic Johnson’s Wax building:

Johnson's wax building
Getty Image

Duffield: [In the afterlife scenes] we called him the thin man, but that was a dummy going through the thin walls. Another cool one was the waiting room, which was this weird doctor’s waiting room; that was kind of fun doing that. If you remember the woman whose legs were coming through the wall — she was cut in half by a magician — the legs belonged to Tim Burton’s girlfriend at the time.

Ackerman: I give great credit to Tim for leading all of this, myself included, Bo Welch and all of his people, leading us in the direction he wanted. And by the way, people often ask me, it must be great working with Tim, he is such a visualist. You have a lot of support on that side, and that is absolutely true. But at the same time it’s not like Tim is creating a chapter and verse version of how he wants things lit, how he wants them framed, how he wants the cinematography to pair up with the other elements of the film. He is a great artist and a tremendous visualist and a huge fan of photography. He is so good at setting the tone of what prevails on the set everyday. But often his key players, all of us, were led to doing the things that he wanted, rather than, “Okay Tom, I think you should use this color green, or that color green.” I certainly did a lot of testing and showed him all these things and he approved them before we went into production. So, like I said, I think the best people hire good people and set a tone and create an environment where they can do their best work.

Welch: Day in and day out you design and then you build it and then you dress it and people show up and photograph it. It was just thrilling at that point in my career. Second movie and this was it. I had never seen anything like it and there we were creating it. It was a real creative thrill. We were kind of left alone, too. The Culver City studios, very small lot, and there was not much else going on in that lot. We didn’t have the crushing pressure of a big studio breathing down our necks. It was like, oh, let these people go off and make these crazy movies and see what happens. It didn’t have the pressure of a third episode of a franchise movie. So, all of that was great. My memories of Beetlejuice are very fond, of course. Not to mention, I met my wife [Catherine O’Hara], who was in it.

Ackerman: All of us, as audiences, look at films now with the expectation that no matter how many tens of millions are spent on visual effects, hundreds of millions, it’s sort of “Been-there done-that ho-hum, it better be good because we don’t want to think about it.” We expect that it will be excellent. We expect that it will be seen, so therefore what’s left is, what’s it accomplishing? Is it worthy of our attention? Do we really give a damn about the story? No matter how many amazing visuals are being created, that’s really the important test. Do people really give a damn at the end of the day? In Beetlejuice there was this very earnest effort to create movie magic in as simple a way as possible. That was part of Tim’s aesthetic at that time. In Beetlejuice, one of the first phrases that I would then identify with Tim’s approach to that movie was “Tom, keep it simple.” He wasn’t into overt complications for their own sake. He was such a visualist and remains to this day. What was interesting to him was what we were getting and not how we got it, and the simpler the better.

Fond Memories

Welch: There are a lot of things about the movie that I found particularly satisfying. The afterlife I loved. But I also love the house we built on the hill, the exterior of the house, in Vermont and the transition of before it was invaded by the Deetz family. And then there’s that one shot of the interior where it had been post-modernized by their architect designer, Otho, the late, great Glenn Shadix. He’s standing out on this ridiculous walkway that gives me a thrill when I see it because it’s so absurd. I also like when Jeffrey Jones is relaxing in the kitchen making his morning cup of tea and the sculpture that Delia makes comes crashing through the kitchen window when he’s trying to relax. I mean, there are a million moments in it that I absolutely adore, but those stick out. Then anytime Beetlejuice came on screen was thrilling. I think they discovered that in the editing, there was a little bit of additional photography to put more Beetlejuice in it.

Ackerman: The first time seeing it all put together was at the premiere. That was simply breathtaking. All of us who had taken part felt really proud of what had been accomplished. That being said — and this holds true with every movie I’ve ever shot, premiere party, whatever, or not — once we’re off the red carpet I like to go to an ordinary theater with real people who’ve paid money for their ticket. That’s the biggest payoff that I’ve ever had. Feeling that vibe. Sitting with the people in the dark, most of whom are being transported to another time and place. It’s a wonderful experience and, frankly, I think it’s one of the great rewards we’ve all had.

Duffield: I just remember it was a lot of fun. It was back when movies weren’t as money-pinched as it was today. It was a great little town; everyone was really friendly. When I first read the script, I didn’t know what the heck the movie was about. I said, “What is this movie? This is the weirdest script I’ve ever read.” I did four movies with Tim, but now he lives in London and we never see him anymore. Other than that, it was fun doing something different. He was a lot of fun back then before he became a multi-national corporation. He was just a regular guy from Burbank, but now it’s not the same anymore.

Welch: It was a really fun set. Again because it wasn’t under the lens and scrutiny the way they are now. There was a looseness to it and because so much of it was in camera, there was something fun and exciting to look at everyday. Towards the end of the movie Tim told me, we were shooting in Vermont, “You should ask Catherine out.” And I said, “What?” And he said, “Yeah, you should ask her out.” It didn’t even occur to me that I was even supposed to talk to actors. But since Tim told me to I did and then we dated and we’re married and here we are today. Basically, he told me to ask her out [laughs]. And I said, “Really? All right.”

Ackerman: I have to say that Beetlejuice was one of those movies in which it gave all of us a chance to do our best work. As such, it’s hard for me to isolate a given scene or shot. Tim led us to do a movie that really worked. I suppose you could say that’s the thing I’m most proud of.

Welch: [Seeing it for the first time] was fantastic because you get to see it work. Up to then, it was all fun and the process was great, we’re having fun and everyone’s having a good time. We’re on individual levels, the sets work, the costume’s good, the whole thing is out there, but fun. Really entertaining, in person, tactile. Then to see all the pieces together and have it work as a story, as a movie, as a fresh piece of entertainment full of surprise and joy, there’s nothing like it. I’m not sure I’ve experienced it since [laughs].