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Director Henry Selick Interview – 'The Nightmare Before Christmas'

By Fred Topel

'The Nightmare Before Christmas' 2-Disc Collector's Edition

'The Nightmare Before Christmas' 2-Disc Collector's Edition

© WDSHE. All Rights Reserved.

Aug 25, 2008 - Director Henry Selick participated in a virtual roundtable in support of the 15th Anniversary release of the 2-Disc Collector's Edition of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas (it's also debuting on Blu-Ray) on August 26, 2008. Even now more than a dozen years since it first hit theaters, the spooky film with catchy tunes has incredibly passionate fans who can't seem to get enough of the stop-motion film.

Has it surprised you how much Nightmare has been absorbed into the pop culture stratosphere?

Henry Selick: "At this point, 15 years later after the original release, I've grown used to seeing Jack and Sally turn up all over the place. But this did not happen right away. It has taken years for our initial cult audience to grow into a pop culture phenomenon. Just this past Halloween we had some girls show up at the house in Nightmare Before Christmas costumes and my wife and I pointed out one of the original Jack Skellingtons and the Skellington reindeer, which was in our office. It blew their minds and they screamed with joy, taking their handfuls of candy and went away just full of life."

How did you originally come on board this project?

Henry Selick: "I was working with Tim [Burton] at Disney in the early 1980s when he first conceived the poem and idea of Jack Skellington taking over Christmas. Sculptor Rick Heinrichs took the original characters designed by Tim - Jack, Zero and Santa Claus - and created beautiful maquettes that showed what they'd be like as stop-motion characters. It was originally pitched to Disney as a TV special but was rejected. I had moved to Northern California where I worked as a storyboard artist and a stop-motion filmmaker with short films, TV commercials and MTV, while Tim went on to achieve great success in live action. I got a call from Rick and he said there was something important we must talk about in person. He flew to San Francisco and said, "Tim is making Nightmare Before Christmas and wants you to direct it." I met with Tim and Danny Elfman. And my small crew that I had been working with immediately became supervisors on a feature film."

Do you find it ironic that Nightmare has become a Disney property when it was originally released as a Touchstone Picture? When did you start seeing the shift with Disney embracing the film?

Henry Selick: "Yes. Nightmare was just too different from what Disney was having success with. Although I don't think Walt Disney himself would have had a problem with it being labeled a Disney film. Just check out some of the sequences from Fantasia, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Ward Kimball's goons and monsters in Sleeping Beauty etc. and you'll see Nightmare and its characters were carrying on in the same tradition. While it took some time, about 7 years ago when the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland was transformed into a Nightmare extravaganza, we then felt we were truly loved by the Disney label."

How was your working relationship with Tim Burton?

Henry Selick: "Working with Tim was great. He came up with a brilliant idea, designed the main characters, fleshed out the story, got Danny Elfman to write a bunch of great songs. He got the project on its feet and then stood back and watched us fly with it. Tim, who made two live-action features in L.A. while we were in San Francisco making Nightmare, was kept in the loop throughout the process, reviewing storyboards and animation. When we completed the film, Tim came in with his editor Chris [Lebenzon] to pace up the film."

Who is your personal favorite character in Nightmare Before Christmas?

Henry Selick: "The one I'm closest to is Jack Skellington because, as a director, you often have to act out various characters for your animators. Since I resemble Jack Skellington more than the other characters, I think more of my gestures got into Jack."

Was there resistance at first to do Nightmare as stop-motion instead of cel animation?

Henry Selick: "There was resistance to doing it at all at first. When Tim first pitched it to Disney in the early 1980s, there was resistance to the project in any medium. But 10 years later when the film was made, there was never an issue about it being stop-motion. It was simply a case of that is how Tim conceived it."

How early in the process was Oogie Boogie developed?

Henry Selick: "Oogie started out as the size of a pillowcase and not that scary or evil or important, but as the story developed I felt the need to grow him in both his scale and his role. Ultimately, Danny Elfman's Oogie Boogie song is what truly defined his character as the villain and Jack's role was fully defined as a misguided hero."

How difficult was it to do the Oogie Boogie sequence? With all the neon, it seems like it was one of the more complicated set pieces in the film. If not, what was the most difficult sequence to achieve?

Henry Selick: "It was not the neon that was difficult. It was Oogie Boogie himself. He was a huge puppet, very difficult to muscle around. It was almost as if he was trying to push back while you were animating him."

Was there a character created for Nightmare that you loved that never made it past the conceptual stage?

Henry Selick: "No, we were desperate to flesh out the town. After you go through the mummy and vampires etc it gets slim. We used everything we came up with."

What was the most intricate scene to complete?

Henry Selick: "While virtually every bit of the stop-motion animation was challenging, there were several particularly difficult scenes to pull off. One began where Jack is shot out of the sky with his Skellington reindeer flying over head and being shot down and lands in the arms of the angel statue in a graveyard and goes on to sing a song there while the camera continuously circles him. The opening song of the film This is Halloween was monstrously challenging as it introduced all the Halloween Town monsters to the audience."

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