For many children, fortunately, the first encounter with death is that of a pet. Sometimes it’s quiet (a goldfish floating belly up), while other instances are more traumatic (a gerbil caught by an intrepid cat). In many ways pets, while meant to bring joy to youngsters’ lives, also bear the great responsibility of teaching children about loss. Naturally, Tim Burton would make a film about this seemingly depressing topic. A remake of a short film he made in 1984—with heavy allusions to Mary Shelley’s classic monster tale—the film follows Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan), who reanimates his dog Sparky. As no Dr. Frankenstein is complete without an Igor, Burton cast the young Atticus Shaffer in the role of Edgar 'E' Gore. We talked to Shaffer about his love of history, channeling Peter Lorre, and whether he's a dog or cat person.
SPACE: Is it true you have a tonne of pets?
Atticus Shaffer: I do, but unfortunately the past two years have been the years of death at my house, so a lot have passed away.
Wow, sorry! Did that help at all though, given Frankenweenie deals with death?
What’s crazy is that since it took three years to film the movie, just before some of the last recording sessions, my dog, who I’d had for six years, passed away. So I was really able to relate to the film and in turn it made me want to be the absolute best since it had become so close to home.
Well, sorry again about your dog. This is getting so depressing. What was it like to perform in a film that deals with death?
I like it! I live in a family where we don’t try to sugar coat anything, I’ve never been babied, or prevented from knowing about death. I think that this film is good because the morals of the story mean a lot. Even the fact that it’s in black and white. I hope it will inspire a younger generation to have an appreciation for black and white and watch old movies.
Did you watch the James Whale's 1931 Frankenstein to prepare, as your character is based off of Igor?
I’ve always been a fan of older films, Turner Classic movies, black and white film. This was actually a year-long audition process, but for the call back they asked if I could do a Peter Lorre impression. And I love doing impressions and accents, so I was like, “Challenge accepted!” And my mom, being the awesome home-schooling mom that she is, rented me The Maltese Falcon and Arsenic and Old Lace to prepare.
What was it like working with Tim Burton?
Absolutely amazing. He's such an outside-the-box thinker. How he sees things is so different. It’s morbid and dark, but you see how good “different” can be. He’s a genius testing the boundaries of how things work. This movie takes classic horror movies and black and white, but is doing something different.
You make your own stop-motion films, too, right?
It's nothing to brag about, nothing that’s near the level of Tim Burton’s movies, but because I’m such a fan of history, and especially military history, I’ll set up little battlefields and animate the two sides coming together.
Stop-motion is really having a comeback this year. What do you think it is about the form that makes audiences love it?
With animation you're able to actually create characters. They don’t need to listen to the boundaries of this world. With stop-motion you can make characters look drastic and make a world you sometimes wish you could be in.
The film also captures being a misfit, or a nerdy kid into science, really well. What effect do you think having someone who isn’t your typical hero on screen will have on audiences?
I think it’s great. The world is not full of action hero types of people! I would rather be nerdy and myself then change into some other person. Being able to see a film with a band of misfits who just do things how they want to do things is great.
Are you a cat or a dog person? Because this comes up frequently in the film.
With my dog passing away that really got me in tune with dogs, but I think I’ve been a cat person longer.