Canadian comedy icons Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara have been working together since early on in their careers, and it only seems fitting that they would together voice the father and mother of a young Victor Frankenstein in Tim Burton’s stop motion animated Frankenweenie. The two SCTV alums also aren’t strangers with Burton.
Short previously worked with Burton on the cult favourite Mars Attacks!, while O’Hara (who herself is married to long time Burton production designer Bo Welch) has appeared on-screen in Beetlejuice and provided the voice of Sally in Burton’s previously beloved stop motion collaboration with Henry Selick, The Nightmare Before Christmas. Both actors also have a combined fifty years of experience doing voices for various cartoons and animated films, and each takes on a few of the voices for some of the secondary characters, as well.
Dork Shelf was honoured to sit down with these talented funny people to talk about working with Tim Burton, the challenges of voicework, a bit about some of their previous experiences, and much more in this pretty darn funny interview.
When you guys are doing voice work, quite often you aren’t in the same room together at the same time, but you two have been familiar with each other’s work for quite some time. Was it easy for you guys to play a couple even when you don’t see each other at the same time?
Martin Short: Actually, to be quite honest, we were in the same room.
Catherine O’Hara: Yeah, we were when voicing the Frankensteins.
MS: Those were the things we did together. With the parents what I think Tim wanted to do was see how they turned out, because you never know. The father (adopting a deep bass filled voice) could have sounded like this. “Oh, hey come here, Victor.” Tim didn’t want that. He wanted something real and nurturing. He wanted very believable parents, and especially given our history and that we live only ten minutes away from each other, it was easier to get us at the same time, which can be hard since I’m out of town and she’s out of town a lot. But it was always important to Tim to do the parents together. The other characters you really record in a bubble.
I guess in that case, maybe a better question to ask…
MS: Oh, it was a great question, don’t sell yourself short. (laughs)
COH: (laughing, similing) It was actually the first time today someone asked that question.
Oh, thank you! But since you guys have worked together and have that familiarity with the other person’s work – and since you have both worked with Tim in the past – do you think that familiarity makes you more relaxed and give you more freedom or that you both feel the need to push yourselves a bit harder so it doesn’t seem too slack?
COH: No, I don’t think you ever go and work with Tim Burton too relaxed. (laughs) And I don’t mean that’s because it isn’t wonderful and fun, but because he’s so great that you want to be great for him. It’s really fun, actually. I don’t know… I think people think he’s going to be moody or brooding or something-or-other, and he’s really quick and loose and…
COH: Yeah, playful. He’s open to ideas, but he knows what he wants. I think you want to be on your game. (pauses) Is that the expression? (laughs) On your game? In your game? Over or possibly next to your game? In the vicinity? In your game’s neighbourhood?
MS: What I think she’s TRYING to say, if I may speak for her, is that you don’t go in AS hungover.
(long pause from O’Hara before laughing and fake sobbing uncontrollably)
MS: Wow, that echoed.
COH: But yeah, in voice work you kind of have to imagine what everyone else is saying, and sometimes people will read lines for you or you ask if you want them to read them to you and you just say (faking being hungover) “No thank you.” (pauses) But I’m not really that person.
How much does the design of the characters play into what you guys put into the voices?
COH: Everything really comes into play. We see the illustrations first.
MS: You see the illustrations, and then you start into it. Again, Tim has an IDEA of what he imagines these characters to be like, but he doesn’t know the specifics of it. So with a character like Mr. Burgermeister (Victor’s portly, uptight next door neighbour) you might spend a whole session just trying voices with different accents, different pitches, and then with that character we never got it on the first day. Then I went into the second recording session with an idea to do a voice that sounded like someone who used to smoke four packs of cigarettes a day and then decided to quit about 25 years in. (Starts faking laboured breathing) That’s the kind of detail that Tim loves, so that became part of that character, and, you know, just stuff like that. But ultimately he’s the arbiter of what a character is like. It’s all as he sees it.
At what point when you were playing these characters did everything seem to come together?
COH: You mean, like, “getting it?” Yeah, you hope you get it.
COH: You know you got it when Tim goes (hunches over table) “YEAH YEAH YEAH.” Basically it’s that.
MS: Well, now you make him sound like a Shih Tzu.
COH: (laughs) That was my aim, yes. But then after you do something for him he’ll ask if you want to hear something else you did. At the end or beginning of a session, he’ll play for you the takes that he liked, and then you can get right back in there. Some lines are funnier than other lines, and some are more heartfelt or tense.
You know, the scenes between the parents and Victor were very intimate and very real, but even stating out with a line like “Oh, honey, don’t worry” can end up being way too big for this when spoken like how I just said it in a normal voice. We ended up with (almost whispering) “Oh, honey, don’t worry.” You aural depth perception – or whatever that might be called – with your headphones on can be hard. You don’t know when you’re loud or quiet or what because everything is loud to you. Thankfully, Tim was there to guide us. Especially when some of the characters have stranger moments, like the weird girl that I’m playing is taking her reading of some poo so seriously. (laughs) Sometimes as an actor you can feel like you’re just playing the character, but sometimes when you really get it you can think you really are that weird girl. It feels good.
MS: What Catherine said earlier was really interesting…
MS: Yes, so I wondered who wrote it for you over lunch. (everyone laughs) But the idea that you could have a two hour session and within that two hour session you can stumble on something you don’t even know you got right. Tim will then cut that together and say “Listen to this. This is what I thought was great from the last session.” Then you just kind of say “Ohhhhhhh.” That’s kind of the ping-pong of it all.
Having worked with Tim earlier in his career, have either of you noticed a difference in him at all? Has he changed? Or have you guys changed a bit more since last working with him?
COH: Well, we’ve all gotten A LOT younger. (laughs) I mean, when I was working on Beetlejuice and I said I was working with Tim Burton people would say “Who? Sorry?” Then I would just tell them to see Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and then they would know who I was talking about. Now, everyone is like, “YOU’RE IN FRANKENWEEINE?!?” There’s an energy around it, and the energy around him has changed, but honestly, he’s the same guy. He’s got a great sense of humour, he loves to laugh and he finds the real people around him to just be scary as can be. (laughs) They are the monsters. He still loves those human beings that really need love the most. He’s just a great guy, and he’s the same as he ever was.
MS: Yeah, Catherine worked with him at the beginning of his career, and when I worked with him in 1996 he was already “Tim Burton.” I knew about him through Bo Welch, Catherine’s husband who was also the production designer for many of his films, and I knew he was a good guy, but when I finally met with him to talk about doing Mars Attacks!, I was really not so much shocked, but surprised that he was such a loose and funny guy. That’s how he was, and when we were doing that film we had people like Jack Nicholson and Rod Steiger and all these people and it might have been harder, but it wasn’t. And I see him now and it’s the same as it was then.
COH: He’s as true to himself as someone can be, and it’s so rare to work with a director who gets to be true to himself. His original illustrations are the movie. It’s literally his vision.
The design of the town in the film also sort of defines these characters. Did the look of the film around them change what you thought of these characters as you were doing them?
MS: Not for me, no. And I mean, that’s probably because I’m kind of a limited performer. (laughs)
COH: “No, no, no guys. I need the finished product. You guys can fix it in animation and then I’ll come in if I feel like it.”
MS: Well, I mean, once I know the money’s there… (pauses) It wasn’t like we really even knew what it was going to look like. It wasn’t a finished product even with our characters, all we really saw at our stage were sketches. I mean, Frankenweenie was once a short and we had both seen that, but what it was and what it is are very different. So within this process Tim isn’t saying “This IS my vision.” His agenda when you’re working with him in that stage is just to create these characters, and how you do these characters – since they film you recording it – might even end up including an arm movement that you did that could work its way into it. As I said earlier today, I think we’re providing him to layer with.
Um… (long pause forgetting what I was going to say)
COH: Oh man, I know the feeling.
MS: (looking serious, faking like I asked a question): That was really (long pause, frowns) SAD.
Just talk me through it until I can figure out what I was going to ask…
COH: Was it about Frankenweenie? Something about Frankenweenie, isn’t it?
My God. You’re right!
COH: Or maybe not. I could be wrong.
Nope, you’re right it was. Kind of. Mostly. (pause) Frankenweenie is a film that’s chock full of references to some of Tim’s favourite creature feature and monster movies. Did either of you ever have any personal favourites growing up?
COH: We both love Frankenstein.
MS: Particularly Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
I just watched that again recently!
COH: (laughs) You really did?
Yeah, it just came out on Blu-ray.
MS: (excited) On Blu-ray? Oh, fantastic. I’ll probably get that right away. (pauses) I loved The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad growing up. I love Them! Have you seen that?
COH: No, I haven’t.
MS: Giant insects. (makes high pitched chomping sounds) They were ants, I think.
COH: Sort of a “Monster that attacked Tokyo” sort of thing?
MS: Kinda, but you know it was all because of that there bomb… Anyway, those are mine.
COH: And mine, too.
MS: (laughs) You don’t even KNOW them.
COH: No, I don’t, but I do have a really cool story related to this. On my birthday when we were doing Beetlejuice, my then boyfriend and now husband threw a party for me and Tim gave me an original drawing coloured with pencil and crayon and he was mad because I didn’t know what it was. (laughs) I thought it was something else and he said “No, it’s a monster eating Tokyo.”
MS: Did you keep it?
MS: Have you ever thought about eBaying it?
COH: (laughs) We have so many pieces from his archive, and when that touring exhibit and the MoMa exhibit were being put together they still didn’t choose my drawing, which makes it even more special. So ha. They didn’t get my drawing.
There’s a really interesting aspect of the film where it seems like the people in the town have this almost allergic aversion to science in any way, and it touches on something that certain people today seem to still have trouble with…
MS: Yes, and it’s called “The Republican Party.” (laughs)
Did you guys ever have any thoughts about this kind of push and pull while doing the film?
COH: I didn’t know it existed really before doing this movie. I never really even thought about it.
MS: What? Science?
COH: Or creation! No, I mean, until I saw the movie I never realized that this lovely little message was in there until I saw it. I personally don’t know why that battle exists. I don’t see one negating the other.
MS: Well, pre-1992 in the United States if we’re joking about the Republican Party, back then they were the party of the smart intellectuals who knew how to invest your money until a certain point where it became important to have this current discussion and they became the people you would only invite to a barbecue. Then down the line it just begat and begat and begat and begat, and I think the final answer to your question is Sarah Palin.
COH: And you can’t be sure if it ends there.
MS: Oh, I think so. That’s really the low, low end of that totem pole.
COH: I hope so.
Martin, what’s it like doing these press tours after so many go arounds as Jiminy Glick?
MS: (laughs) Well, you know, Jiminy Glick could have really been any moron with power, and not necessarily any sort of entertainment reporter. I was just doing a talk show and he became a vehicle for me to get more celebrities on. But really, to me what’s always funny is how you look at this guy and you have no idea why he’s in that position, but he’s got (in Jiminy’s voice) AN ASSISSTANT, and it would be this guy who gets terrified that he’ll screw up the tuna fish order because his boss is an idiot.
Have you ever gotten targeted for those kind of fake interviews?
MS: No. Not yet. Not till now. (laughs)
COH: Did you take Jiminy personally?
No, not at all!
MS: “WHAT? How dare he? We don’t sound like that at all!” (laughs)
With SCTV now more readily available on DVD and online, have you noticed an increase in your fanbase from people just coming around to the show now?
MS: I’m not really aware of that so much. In Canada it’s still seen a lot more than it is in the United States, but I think in general the older you get because of television and cable and online resources you stay in the public consciousness longer because of what you’ve done, but for me not really so much with SCTV, I don’t think.
COH: The other day at the airport in LA someone did stop me and say “I grew up with you on SCTV!” It was the guy who was putting my stuff through the X-ray. It was so cute! He was so excited! But the kids who grew up and watched it have finally gotten to the age where they feel comfortable talking to strangers! (laughs)
MS: SCTV did always have – and I can’t really talk about it as much because I was kind of an interloper on SCTV – a strange connection to people who are always just now discovering it. It was created with such a great passion.
COH: And that’s true because when it first started maybe only three people were watching it or knew when to find it.
Finally, with Argo coming out, Martin, who makes a better Ken Taylor. You or Victor Garber? (Go to 1:48 in the video)
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MS: (laughs) Well, I haven’t seen Argo yet, but I’m really going to guess that Vic does. (laughs)