There’s been a trend on the interwebs of sites passing off information that’s been hidden for years – usually stowed away in antique technology like ‘books’ or ‘magazines’ – as news. Who am I to buck the trend? Instead of pretending that this stuff is news I’ll present it to you as interesting bits of info that you may have never learned otherwise. It’s not news, but it’s probably news to you.
In this world, Tim Burton’s first feature film is Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. In another world his first movie out the gate is something quite different: After Hours.
You (hopefully) know After Hours as one of the most underrated Martin Scorsese movies. A surreal, satirical trip through downtown New York City at night, After Hours is one part paranoid fantasy, one part gritty homage to New York and one part weird-ass mindfuck. That it comes from Scorsese only heightens the film’s oddness.
But Scorsese almost didn’t make the film. In fact, if his attempts to get funding for The Last Temptation of Christ had been any more successful at the time, we’d be looking back at After Hours as Tim Burton’s first movie. Burton had come out of the concept art department at Disney Animation with some good friends who helped him get short films, like Vincent and Frankenweenie, made. These films got Burton noticed by Hollywood types, including Griffin Dunne, who was developing a script by a 26 year old Columbia Film School student named Joseph Minion (which was originally called Lies and was heavily lifted from NPR monologues by a guy named Joe Frank. So lifted, in fact, that Frank was apparently paid off).
Before Burton could get far Scorsese came into the project. I’m not sure if he had been involved before Burton and returned or if he came across the script after Burton was already attached (I’ve heard the story both ways), but apparently Burton realized that his best career move was to step away and let Scorsese have the film.
And that turned out pretty well for him, as he went on to do Pee Wee’s Big Adventure more or less immediately. But it’s intriguing to imagine what a Tim Burton-directed After Hours would have looked like. The director wasn’t so ossified in his style at the time, but it’s easy to picture Burton-esque flourishes in that strange story of a mild-mannered office worker getting sucked into the bizarre New York nightlife. Scorsese brings a certain amount of naturalism to the film, even in the more far out scenes, and it’s not hard to see a very different version coming from a young Burton.
In many ways After Hours is a mirror image of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure - characters out of their element on a quest, and it’s like Griffin Dunne and Paul Reubens each walked into the other’s world.
The big question has to be whether a Tim Burton who began with After Hours would be the same Tim Burton who made this weekend’s Alice in Wonderland. Maybe we could have ended up with a better Burton.