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The secret history of Edward Scissorhands

The crew who worked behind-the-scenes on Tim Burton’s gothic fairytale explain with Genius annotations why, 25 years later, the film is still emblematic of the angsty outsider

We partnered with Genius to create an annotated oral history of Edward Scissorhands. Click the yellow highlights for insights from the film’s behind-the-scenes crew: screenwriter Caroline Thompson, art director Tom Duffield, casting director Victoria Thomas and costume designer Colleen Atwood

Towards the end of Tim Burton’s 1990 film Edward Scissorhands, the leather-clad protagonist returns home after a suburb-wide, Gone Girl-style search fails to track him down. He walks through the door and Kim, played by Winona Ryder, gently places a hand on Edward’s shoulder. He slowly turns around. They share a hopeless silence, at a loss for words until Kim utters what we all wish to hear on the regular: “Hold me.” The music swells, and Edward attempts to wrap his garden-shear limbs around her shoulders, before finally conceding defeat, saying, “I can’t.”

It’s a crushing moment, emblematic of why Edward Scissorhands has endured long after its release 25 years ago this month. Of all the reasons that Burton’s gothic autobiography continues to connect with audiences worldwide – the pastel colour palette, the dark humour, the flat-out weirdness of a man with blades for hands – perhaps the most potent is that we can all relate to Edward.

“I think everybody feels like Edward sometimes  – that they don’t belong,” says Caroline Thompson, who wrote the script for the film.

The film’s casting director, Victoria Thomas, agrees: “Everyone could be a version of Edward Scissorhands. You know, you’re the only ‘this’ in a sea of ‘that’. The idea that you can’t touch people without hurting them? I think that was a big (motif). Tim was talking about that a lot. I don’t know, can’t you relate to him?”

The question is rhetorical. Of course we can all relate. The pangs of being misunderstood or wrongly judged have been writ large in teen culture for decades. We’re all begging to be accepted for who we are. On a surface level, Edward’s ‘outsider’ appearance makes it impossible for him to modestly blend in. At one point, he wears a baseball cap and button-down shirt to disguise his looks in order to assist in a neighbourhood heist. It only serves to make his otherness stick out even more. Edward is, simply put, strange. Kim’s jock ex-boyfriend Jim even pleads, “He isn’t even human!” when she refuses to terminate their friendship. Everyone can relate mentally to that alienation.

“People are afraid of me because I am different.” A quote that is often attributed to Edward, although he never says it in the film: somehow, one gif of our forlorn-looking hero sat in the local diner subtitled with those pithy words has run laps around Tumblr. Is it simply an example of fans marrying their own interpretations of the film with its reverberating imagery? Maybe, but it could just as well have been a diary entry from a young Tim Burton himself.

Edward Scissorhands resonates with angsty teens because it was dreamt up by one. “Edward Scissorhands (…) began as a cry from the heart, a drawing from (Burton’s) teenage years that expressed the inner torment he felt at being unable to communicate with those around him, especially his family,” wrote Mark Salisbury in the book Burton on Burton.

“I think that Edward Scissorhands was sort of a veiled autobiography of Tim’s – that was always my take on it,” says the film’s art director, Tom Duffield. “Tim was the strange guy in America and I always had that vibe that it was autobiography.”

The story’s catalyst was, in fact, a drawing of Edward that Burton drew as a teenager. That’s all he gave to writer Caroline Thompson to work with, and she extracted this idea of an estranged boy with knives for hands who polarises a suburban community without the chemical aid of a single snort or toke.

“Tim told me about a character he had who had scissors instead of hands and I said, ‘Stop right there. I know exactly what to do with that,’ and went home. I knew that (Edward Scissorhands) was my next weird suburban Frankenstein story” – Caroline Thompson, writer

“There’s a bar in Santa Monica called Bombay Bicycle Club,” recalls Thompson of her first meeting with Burton. “Tim told me about a character he had who had scissors instead of hands and I said, ‘Stop right there. I know exactly what to do with that,’ and went home. At that time, I was more of a prose writer than a screenwriter. I had published a novel that was this weird little suburban Frankenstein story and knew that (Edward Scissorhands) was my next weird suburban Frankenstein story. Some things come straight into your head and this one came straight into mine. Within three weeks, I had written a 70-plus page prose version for Tim to read.”

Edward Scissorhands was dangerously close to being a precursor to Glee. Initially, Burton suggested the film be a musical, as he felt something this unorthodox could only be readily accepted by an audience if it were set to music. “In my prose treatment I wrote some really bad lyrics,” admits Thompson. That idea was quickly scrapped when Burton realised how it could easily devolve into kitsch.

All of the characters were based on people (or pets) Thompson knew. Peg, the Avon representative who brings Edward home to care for him, was inspired by her own mum. Alan Arkin’s offbeat father character, Bill, was Thompson’s dad. Winona’s waspy protagonist Kim was Thompson’s friend, Lori. Her sporty jerk boyfriend Jim originated with one of Lori’s deadbeat boyfriends. “(My friend Lori is) an amazing person but she had the most horrible boyfriend. He was a bully – he was just that guy.”

One change that Thompson proposed was for Edward’s name to be different. “My novel (First Born) that had come out a few years earlier had the husband’s name as Edward. I just thought there were too many Edwards in my life. I tried to get him to change it to Nathaniel.” As for who could play Edward, Burton didn’t always have Johnny Depp in mind. Jim Carrey, Tom Hanks and Michael Jackson all expressed interest in the part. Both Tom Cruise and Robert Downey Jr were seriously considered for the role. Cruise was interested, but his need-to-know curiosity ended up costing him the part. “(Cruise) wanted to know how Edward went to the bathroom,” says Thompson, “he was asking the kind of questions about the character that can’t be asked for this character! Part of the delicacy of the story was not answering questions like, ‘How does he go to the bathroom? How did he live without eating all those years?’ Tom Cruise was certainly unwilling to be in the movie without those questions being answered.” In the end it was Depp, looking to shake off the teen heartthrob image he had acquired through his starring role on cop show 21 Jump Street, who scored the lead.

Once Depp and Ryder, a real-life couple at the time, were slotted in the lead roles, the rest of the cast fell into place. Far-out seductress and ferociously nosy neighbour Joyce was next on casting director Victoria Thomas’ to-do list. Joyce puts Edward (“Eddie”) at ease, suggesting he give her a haircut and effectively normalising him and marketing his skills. Her scissor-baiting lures Edward to an empty parlour in the local strip mall, where she describes her plans to help him set up a salon called ‘Shear Heaven’. Joyce gets handsy, and attempts to lead him into the back storeroom for some hanky panky: “Back in here is what I really want to show you,” she coos.

“Tom Cruise was asking the kind of questions about the character that can’t be asked for this character! Part of the delicacy of the story was not answering questions like, ‘How does he go to the bathroom? How did he live without eating all those years?’” – Caroline Thompson, writer

Now, it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Kathy Baker filling out Joyce’s shoes (or that seafoam green cutout dress). “There were some funny auditions for that role,” remembers Thomas. “I had to read for the actresses and Tim would be over in the corner laughing, getting seduced by these older women. There’s one actress who I probably shouldn’t name who kind of went overboard. Tim was having a good chuckle.”

That scribble handed to Caroline Thompson when Edward Scissorhands was still a twinkle in her eye, and the one Victoria Thomas used as a guide map for the cast list, was passed on to costume designer Colleen Atwood. That same drawing became the blueprint for Edward’s now-legendary costume.

The straps and buckles are Edward’s mobile prison, a visual manifestation that he is literally an assemblage of spare parts and throwaways put together by his creator, like Frankenstein’s monster. Gathered leather scraps and fastenings became the components from which the head-to-toe creation was born. “I’d seen the image and I knew what I wanted, but how I wanted it made was very (particular). I finally found this old guy that understood what I wanted.” At the time of its making, there weren’t as many tech fabrics that allowed for fluid movement, so Thompson “mounted the leather on a stress so it stayed really tight and skinny to Edward’s body.”

“Once I got over that hump, the rest of costume was great. I had a great time finding all the elements for it in food markets. Back then there was a leather district in New York where I got a lot of scraps of leather, and then all the details and stitching I did samples of and showed the guy how I wanted it. It was a journey, it was really homemade in a lot of ways, which is good for the story.”

Baking in the hot south Florida sun, Depp had to sit for hours on end while a team applied his make-up and wig. To complete the look, he slipped into that famous leather ensemble. “God bless Johnny, it was so hot and he had that on,” says Atwood. “I felt so sorry for him. But he was a trooper.”

Looming large over the pastel-coloured tract homes is Edward’s gothic mansion – a singed peak out of a 30s B-movie horror. Little wonder it was once occupied by Edward’s creator, played by that eternal fixture of early horror films, Vincent Price. It creates a severe friction with the spectacular prism of the suburban houses, and a symbolic reminder of just how much Edward stands out. He makes a Pleasantville transition from the monochrome loneliness of his past into the world of shocking colour when Peg adopts him into the family.

The pastel palette was actually inspired by American sweets – Necco wafers, to be exact. “That is where we got the basis for the colours for the houses,” says Tom Duffield. “We wanted to make it a totally controlled neighbourhood. Everything was totally controlled: the colours, the look. That’s one of the great things about working for Tim, because he lets you have total control.” To achieve the effect of a timeless suburban housing development, Duffield and production designer Bo Welch imagined what it would look like “if Leningrad had an American type housing complex”.

Their uncanny concept required a blank canvas, so they settled on Florida and found a virgin suburb in Carpenters Run, about five miles north of Tampa on Route 41. All but two of the 52 houses were occupied. The residents were paid in kind for permission to redecorate their houses for the duration of the shoot, but some proved a bit harder to persuade. “We had a couple of people that were holding out, saying, ‘I want more money!’ so right up to the last day there were a couple of houses that didn’t go along with the plan. One or two days before, the two houses figured they weren’t getting any money, so they (caved) and we had to rush out and paint the houses and put in the bushes.”

“We had a couple of people that were holding out, saying, ‘I want more money!’ One or two days before, the two houses figured they weren’t getting any money, so they (caved) and we had to rush out and paint the houses” – Tom Duffield, art director

Twenty five years later, the film holds up as a visual achievement from a time when CG stood only for centre of gravity. And it still possesses many secrets: Edward’s newfound skill as the neighbourhood topiarist meant a trip to the toy store for fun shapes; the castle was a scale model filmed on the heaping edge of a landfill to make it appear gargantuan in hill-deprived Florida; when Dianne Wiest’s character, Peg, sees Edward’s hillside hideout in her car’s side mirror, she’s really looking at a miniature prop balanced on top of a rubbish bin. For eagle-eyed viewers, try and spot the single house in the neighbourhood covered in an orange-and-green striped termite bag. That was perhaps the only plan that backfired.

Somehow, free creative reign for Burton’s team reaped one hell of a testament to teen angst, backdropped in pastels and laced with the melancholy sounds of composer Danny Elfman. Sadly, this kind of free-for-all of freaks labouring on a project that reflects their sensibilities without being strong-armed by a Hollywood studio is becoming increasingly rare. It would be next to impossible for a film like Edward Scissorhands to be made today. “It would be made differently today, I guarantee,” muses Duffield. “We probably wouldn’t have taken a whole neighbourhood and done it, we probably would have just done a few houses and everything else would have been CG-ed. We used to do it all, you know? We figured out ways to do it all.”

The visuals, the story, the cast – all came together to write a love letter to the outsider. On loan from isolation, Edward Scissorhands manages to leave his mark in a town full of busybodies that can’t decide whether or not it wants to give him a shot, let alone room to figure himself out. Walking around under the plain guise of being a reject, Scissorhands manages to find both love and companionship against the odds. Through it all, he is the embodiment of that crippling feeling of being a loner, and that is why he’s such a magnetic figure – and one who has received the ultimate stamp of cultural clout: a Halloween costume.

More importantly, Edward Scissorhands is an uncompromising bastion of individuality. Bound in leather and electric tape and wearing his scars like a badge, he celebrates the uniqueness of being misunderstood while owning his individuality. There may not be a social message coded into the pastel surface of this suburban legend, but all these years later, Edward Scissorhands remains a cinematic plea, reaching out to those who have yet to find their way, quietly whispering to outsiders everywhere, “Hold me.”