Of the ensemble cast of lunatics who made up the sketch comedy classic SCTV, Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara just might be the two performers who delivered the most eccentric characters. That skill, developed at an early age, served them well through long careers as comedic character actors in films like Three Amigos, Best In Show and Home Alone. It also guaranteed that they would eventually find their way into the surreal gothic comedies of Tim Burton, with O’Hara joining the director’s repertory company in Beetlejuice and Short picking up alien prostitutes in Mars Attacks.
This week, both actors and Burton have reunited for the stop motion kiddie monster movie Frankenweenie. The versatile actors voiced the Frankenstein parents as well as several other supporting roles like O’Hara’s bug eyed cat poop worshipping Weird Girl and Short’s middle school Boris Karloff Nassor. TORO recently got to meet the iconic comics during a visit to Toronto, where their careers began, and chatted about reuniting with Burton, the challenges of creating characters in a recording studio, the legacy of SCTV and what it’s like for Short to deal with large, overbearing interviewers like myself after playing the ubiquitous Jiminy Glick.
Since you two have worked together so often before, were you able to predict how the other might respond when recording your voice tracks?
Martin Short: Well, to be honest, we were in the room together … But, I think what Tim Burton wanted, particularly for the parents, was something very real and nurturing. So given our history, I mean we live 10 minutes from each other, he was able to make sure that we were together to play off each other and allowed that to come naturally.
Well, in that case maybe a better question would be…
MS: Oh no, that was a very good question. [Laughs]
Since you guys have worked together and with Tim before, does that ever cause too much of a comfort level so that you have to push yourself to make sure you’re not too relaxed?
MS: Now, that’s a bad question.
Catherine O’Hara: [Laughs] No, I don’t think you ever go to work with Tim Burton too relaxed. I don’t mean that it’s not wonderful and fun. It’s just because he’s so great that you want to be great for him. It’s really fun to work with him. I don’t know why, but people think he might be moody or broody or something, but he’s very cool and loose.
CO: Very playful. Open to ideas, but knows what he wants. You want to be on your game. Is that the expression? In your game? On your game? Next to your game? In the vicinity of your game’s neighbourhood?
MS: I think that's what she’s trying to say, if I can speak for her.
CO: [Laughs] Maybe you should.
MS: You don’t go in to work as hungover.
I was curious how much of a role the design of the characters plays when you are trying to come up with the voices in a movie like this since they are so specific and expressive?
CO: So much. It’s everything. You always see the illustrations first.
MS: Yes, you see the illustrations first. Tim has an idea of how he imagines the characters, but he doesn’t know the specifics of it. So with a character like Mr. Burgemeister, you might spend a whole session just trying different voices, different accents, different pitches. Then if you stumble onto something he’ll say, “oh that!” And then on the second session going in I was thinking of those people who smoke four packs of cigarettes a day for about 25 years and then quit. [does a painful sounding wheez] That’s the kind of detail that Tim loves. So that became part of the character and you build it up with stuff like that. But he’s the arbitrator of whether it is right or not as he sees it.
At what point when you were experimenting with the characters did you realize you had them nailed?
CO: Well, you hope you get it. When Tim goes, “yeah, yeah, yeah!” That’s when you know.
MS: Now you’re making him sound like a Shih Tzu.
CO: [Barks and giggles] Sorry. Then you’ll go in again and they’ll replay the takes and you try to stick to that, but you are constantly playing with it. Thankfully, Tim was there to guide us to that. There are moments where, you know, like with Weird Girl, that moment of taking the reading of the poo so seriously. Sometimes you can kid yourself as an actor and think you’re so into the scene when you’re not coming across at all. But there are moments like that when you feel, “Yes, I am Weird Girl.” And it feels good.
MS: Actually what Catherine said earlier was really interesting.
MS: Yeah and I wonder who wrote it for you over lunch because I’ve spent some days doing this now and I haven’t heard anything interesting yet. The idea that you can have a two-hour session and you might have something that was interesting in there and then when you return Tim will then cut that into how he sees the character. Then you hear that and play with it. That’s the ping-pong of it all. His agenda in that stage is to create these characters and they even film you recording for the movement. I think that we’re providing the paints for him to later make his painting.
Having both worked with Tim Burton much earlier in his career, did either of you notice much of a change in how he works?
CO: Well, we’ve all gotten younger. No, there’s an energy around him now that has changed, but he honestly is the same guy. He has a great sense of humour and finds real people just as scary as can be. They are the monsters, people who take themselves seriously.
MS: Yeah, Catherine worked with him at the start of his career, when I did Mars Attacks he was already “Tim Burton.” I knew about him through Catherine and knew he was a good guy, but when I met him to talk about Mars Attacks, I was really surprised. He’s such a loose funny guy and that’s exactly what he’s like on set. I mean, we had Jack Nicholson and Rod Steiger and he’d still be as playful. Sometimes you’d do a scene and he’d be like, “OK, here’s a set, what do you want to do?” That was the '90s and he’s still the same now.
CO: He’s as true to himself as you can possibly be and it’s rare to work with a director who can be that true to himself all the time. His original illustrations are the movie.
Martin, I’ve got to ask what’s it like for you to do press junkets like this after all the years as Jiminy Glick?
MS: [In Glick voice] Oh my God, it’s so interesting. Well, Jiminy Glick was not really specific to these things. He could have been a member of parliament. It was really a moron with power as opposed to an entertainment reporter. It’s just I was doing a talk show and he became a vehicle for me to get more celebrities on. To me, what’s always funny is that guy who you have no idea why he’s in that position, but [Glick voice] he’s got an assistant and is terrified that he’s screwing up the tuna fish order.
CO: Did you take Jiminy personally?
No, I love Jiminy!
MS: How dare he thwart my craft!
With the boon in online video content over the last few years, have you noticed a new wave of appreciation for your SCTV days now that so many people around the world have access to it?
MS: I’m not aware of that so much. In Canada, it’s certainly shown much more often. I think in general, the older you get, because there are so many outlets like cable, DVD, Blu-ray, you strangely become more recognizable because you’re constantly in the public consciousness by the nature of what you’ve already done.
CO: And maybe as you get older the kids who watched you are now at an age where they’ll talk to strangers.
MS: Finally! Well, SCTV did always have such a strange connection with people that they like felt just they had discovered it, so maybe that created a greater passion.
CO: It’s true. Only three people knew where to find it.