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Interview: Ken Page recalls playing ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’ villain Oogie Boogie

Jack Skellington and Oogie Boogie in 'The Nightmare Before Christmas' (Walt Disney Studios

Tim Burton’s classic stop motion animated film “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” of course, evokes fond memories for countless viewers and people involved in it around Halloween time, and the love is definitely not lost on Ken Page.

Page — an acclaimed stage performer who brought the film’s chief villain Oogie Boogie to life with his distinct voice and singing style — says he vibrantly remembers the first time he saw “The Nightmare Before Christmas” in its completed form, and his excitement didn’t solely stem from the fact that he voiced an integral character. You have to remember, unlike a live-action film, voice actors on an animated film, specifically a stop motion animated one, most of time aren’t around during the actual shooting of the film.

“After seeing the sets and bits and production, I couldn’t imagine at all what the end product would be until it was all done,” Page recalled for me in a phone call from St. Louis this week. “What really made it amazing was that it was stop motion, which I hadn’t seen in a long time. I was in awe of the process, all the way from seeing some of storyboards and the armatures, to the completed film.”

Produced by and based on an original tale by Burton, and directed by Henry Selick, “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” turned 21 on Oct. 29. To help celebrate the film’s legacy, Walt Disney Pictures is re-releasing the film in more than 200 theaters across the country this Halloween weekend.

Page, who at age 39 was an established stage vocalist at the time of “Nightmare’s” release, says composer Danny Elfman played a large part in helping him get cast in the film. Elfman, of course, sang the vocals of the film’s hero, Jack Skellington, while Chris Sarandon voiced the speaking part. Fortunately for Page, he and Elfman both had the same lawyer, and somehow, that mutual friendship opened the door for the man who would fatefully come to embody Oogie Boogie.

“At first, the filmmakers were looking for someone to just sing ‘Oogie Boogie’s Song,’ and they wanted something like a Cab Calloway-esque, Fats Waller-esque kind of vocalist. Somebody who could characterize the vocal,” Page recalled. “So my lawyer said to Danny Elfman, ‘I know the person for you – there’s nobody else that fits that description other than Ken Page. He’s done these things and embodied many critters.'”

Ken Page,  Oogie Boogie in "TIm Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas" (photo: Rainbow High Entertainment/Walt Disney Pictures).
Ken Page, the voice of Oogie Boogie in “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (photo: Rainbow High Entertainment/Walt Disney Pictures).

Page said that he didn’t expect that he’d be asked to do the dialogue for Oogie Boogie, too, but that all changed when Elfman and Selick asked him what his take was on the character. The response, which drew references to the man who played the Cowardly Lion in “The Wizard of Oz” and the woman who voiced one of the scariest characters in movie history, took the composer and filmmaker aback.

“I said, ‘My take on him would be somewhere between Bert Lahr and the voice of the demon in ‘The Exorcist,’ Mercedes McCambridge,'” Page said, laughing. “Danny and Henry kind of looked at me and went, ‘Wow — that’s wild.’ So, that was the take I gave them, and said, ‘If I go too far in either direction, you can stop me.’ So, along with the Cab Calloway and Fats Waller stuff for the singing, that’s how we came up with Oogie Boogie.”

Page says he still gets — and gives — the chills when singing “Oogie Boogie’s Song” at various Disney events, and is thrilled to see the reaction on fans’ faces – especially the younger ones.

“Disney has been wonderful to me over the years. I’ve done a lot of events at the park in California and at the El Capitan Theater around Halloween time before,” Page said. “When I see little kids, because they don’t often connect the person and the voice of a character they see on film, I’ll bend down and go, ‘Well, well, well. What have we here?’ When you see their faces light up, it’s worth a million bucks.”

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More than two decades after the film, Page says he still holds a special place in his heart for Burton, after getting an opportunity to be a part of the “Nightmare.” To be a part of a Burton’s world is a privilege to be savored, Page said.

“It isn’t often that anybody gets to construct a world of their own creations, and when you put all of those worlds together, it gives you quite a universe that has sprung from his mind,” Page said. “From ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’ to ‘Ed Wood’ to ‘Sleepy Hollow’ and on and on, they all have a distinctive feel and visual impact. His mind and his take on the world is unique, fascinating and amazingly creative.”

Needless to say, Page said if the opportunity to do another Burton film presents itself, he’ll sprint toward the opportunity. He said perhaps what he appreciated most was the familial aspect that came with being a part of “Nightmare,” a tale very familiar to other actors who have worked with the beloved filmmaker throughout the years.

Interview: Danny Elfman talks Tim Burton film music concerts, ‘Nightmare’ re-release

“I love working with people that you can connect with, and are not only there for your talent, but your humanity,” Page said, humbly. “That’s the best working environment you could ever imagine being in.”

In the meantime, Page is loving his time performing live, and there are no signs of the 60-year-old performer stopping anytime soon. Next up are a pair of shows in Texas at the Austin Cabaret Theatre Nov. 13 and 14.

In the end, Page chalks up everything he’s done — from “Nightmare” and “Dreamgirls” on film, to an upcoming cabaret performance, “The Heart of a Man, set for May 11 at the Birdland jazz club in New York City — to passion.

“Passion is what makes you do what you do,” Page concluded. “We can all be motivated by money and fame, and that’s great when it’s happening. But when you’re in the trenches and doing it, it’s the passion that drives you. You should never get into it for money, because the chances are you’re not going to make a lot of money. It’s about doing something that you love, which most people don’t get a chance to do, especially for a lifetime.”

-Tim Lammers

Follow Tim on Twitter or Direct Conversations on Facebook.

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Interview: Elfman talks Burton film music concerts, ‘Nightmare’ re-release

Photo: Costa Communications

Twenty-nine years after he first worked with director Tim Burton, composer Danny Elfman is keenly aware that it’s unique for a duo like theirs to have such a long and successful collaborative partnership. And as another set of concerts this Halloween weekend in Los Angeles celebrating his music in Burton’s films quickly approaches, the shows remind Elfman once more just how lucky he and Burton were that the right eyes and ears were watching and listening at the right time.

After all, Elfman told me in a recent call from LA, he didn’t even think the score for their first film together, 1985’s “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” (which was Burton’s and Elfman’s directing and scoring debuting, respectively) would even live to see the light of day.

Interview: Tim Burton talks ‘Big Eyes’

Interview: Daniel Radcliffe talks ‘Horns’

“I could not imagine that I was going to have a career in film composing at that time, nor did I imagine anyone would even see ‘Pee-wee’s Big Adventure’ or my score wouldn’t get thrown out,” Elfman said with a laugh. “There were many ‘could not imagine’ instances that went on with that film. When I wrote it I thought, ‘This is a crazy score and once Warner Bros. hears it, they’re going to toss it in a quick second,’ but they didn’t to my astonishment.”

AUDIO: Danny Elfman talks about the art of composing and synching his musical thoughts with Tim Burton’s vision.

Minus the score of “Big Eyes” — which is Elfman and Burton’s 16th film collaboration set for a Christmas Day release — music from the duo’s first 15 films will be performed at “Danny Elfman’s Music From the Films of Tim Burton” LA concerts, set for Halloween night and Saturday at Nokia Theatre, and Sunday at Honda Center. The music will be conducted by John Mauceri with special performances by Elfman, and will feature visuals from several of Burton’s films, including “Batman,” “Beetlejuice,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Alice in Wonderland” and many others.

The visuals, however, don’t only consist of clips. Audience members will also on the screens at the shows get a look at some other exciting visual elements put together by Burton and the likes of such collaborators as his longtime producer Derek Frey and photographer Leah Gallo, Elfman noted.

“They put together a thorough visual presentation featuring costumes, images, sketches, production and design stuff, so you get a good sense of Tim’s development of the films,” Elfman said. “They put a lot of work into it.”

Elfman said while the timing of the LA concerts happen to fall on Halloween weekend, the concert will not have a special emphasis on the holiday or Burton’s films that deal with horror or the supernatural (two concerts are also set for the Royal Albert Hall in London Dec. 12). The set list is the same as previous shows because there’s a lot of ground to cover when you’re talking representing every one of their films together over a two-hour-and-20-minute time period, Elfman said.

“The big challenge with this show was fitting in 15 suites given the time limit that we had,” Elfman explained. “I wanted each suite to be representative of the score, not just a hit parade of titles to each of the movies. In fact, I even tried to challenge myself to write original bits in each of the suites, so I could have something recognizable, and something deeper into the score that is less-recognizable, but important if you want to understand the score and hear something you didn’t think existed before the concert.”

Danny Elfman performs at a previous "Music of the Films of Tim Burton" concert (photo: Costa Communications).
Composer Danny Elfman performs at a previous “Music From the Films of Tim Burton” concert. (photo: Costa Communications).

Nightmare’ re-release

While legions of Burton and Elfman

217;s fans outside of Los Angeles won’t get a opportunity to see the concerts, Walt Disney Pictures is giving them a chance to celebrate one of their collaborations in a big way this weekend with the re-release of “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” set to play in more than 200 theaters across the country.

The stop motion animated film and its music have inspired millions of fans in the past 21 years, including Derek Frey, who went on to help produce Burton’s two other stop motion features, “Corpse Bride” and “Frankenweenie.”

“‘Nightmare’ came at a time in my life where I was a big Burton fan and before I worked for Tim. Also, as a huge fan of Halloween, that film took me to somewhere where other films haven’t,” Frey told me in separate interview.

“Even though I worked on ‘Corpse Bride’ and ‘Frankenweenie,’ the whole concept of the worlds of Halloween and Christmas and the character arc of Jack Skellington, ‘Nightmare’ is the stop motion film that resonates with me the most,” he said. “I watch ‘Corpse Bride’ and ‘Frankenweenie’ quite differently, but with ‘Nightmare,’ it’s fun learning new things about the film because I was not a part of the filmmaking process.”

The element that pushed “Nightmare” over the top for Frey, in particular, was Elfman’s music.

“I was a Danny Elfman fan and even bought the soundtrack before the movie came out,” Frey said. “I was really ready for that movie, and I think the musical side of that film is what for me made it very special.”

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Amazingly, like “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” Elfman’s confidence going into the final phases of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” was shaky before the film was released in 1993, even though he and Burton had clearly demonstrated a winning track-record by that time.

Of course, the big difference with “Nightmare” and their previous films, though, was that Elfman was providing the singing voice of Jack (vocals that fans will get to hear once again at the LA concerts this weekend), and that it didn’t enjoy the success — initially, at least — that “Pee-wee,” “Beetlejuice” and the “Batman” films did.

“For me, at least, ‘Nightmare’ was the great disappointment of my career at that point,” Elfman said. “So much work had gone into it and nobody seemed to understand it when it was released. Disney didn’t know how to market it. I remember the one test screening they did was catastrophic because there were a lot of kids there who didn’t get what the hell was going on.”

Time, of course, has righted the ship, and the film is as popular as ever.

“When it became clear the film had a second life, it was just thrilling,” Elfman said. “It was exhilarating, because I just figured at first, ‘Well, that’s life.’ I never worked harder on anything in my life up until ‘Nightmare’ and I really believed in it, and felt, ‘Well, it just never found an audience.'”

Oddly enough, it took Elfman more than a dozen years after the release of “Nightmare” to fully realize the impact the film had, not only on audiences in the U.S., but worldwide.

“I was on a press tour with Tim in Tokyo on ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ when I really realized that it had caught on. Tokyo was filled with ‘Nightmare’ images of Jack and Sally, and there was even a club inspired by the film,” Elfman said. “Every store we went into was filed with ‘Nightmare’ stuff and Tim would say, ‘God, I’ve never seen half of this stuff before.’ So for the film to have this second life is astounding.”

Beyond the numbers, though, Elfman said he’s most moved by the experiences fans share with him about the movie.

“It’s the greatest thing when people tell me, ‘My kid knows all the words from this song and that song from “Nightmare” and he’s only 4.’ That’s just amazing to me,” Elfman said, humbly. “Very, very few films that get a second life, like a ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ or ‘Donnie Darko.’ There are films that get re-discovered, but it’s rare. So the fact that ‘Nightmare’ was one of those few was a wonderful surprise.”

-Tim Lammers

Follow Tim on Twitter or Direct Conversations on Facebook.

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Interview: Director Iñárritu talks Keaton, Burton, evolution of ‘Birdman’

It takes no more than a matter of seconds of watching “Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” to draw the conclusion that Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu wrote his dizzying opus solely for veteran “Batman” actor Michael Keaton.

But wishing someone like Keaton would star in his film, Iñárritu said, and having him actually committing to it, are two different things — especially for a man whose career path mirrors the film’s narrative so closely in real life.

“I think Michael was always in my mind, that Michael was always the best for the part, and I don’t think it would be nearly what it is without him,” Iñárritu told me in a recent interview. “I never try to write a script for anybody specifically because it could be very traumatic for me if for some reason the person would not do it. But once I finished the script, I knew that he would be the best choice.”

Michael Keaton in "Birdman" (photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures).
Michael Keaton in “Birdman” (photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures).

Expanding into more theaters Friday, “Birdman” stars Keaton as Riggan Thompson, struggling former film star whose life is in the dumps after starring in three blockbuster “Birdman” movies more than two decades before. His apparent salvation lies in a Broadway play, an all-or-nothing comeback piece in which he stars, directs and produces.

Before he launches into the critical preview period, however, Riggan has to confront a nasty nest full of problems, including the personal issues of a grown-up daughter (Emma Stone) he never really knew; a cast of helplessly neurotic actors including an arrogant Broadway star (Ed Norton) who does his best to sabotage the play at every turn; and a vicious theater critic whose all-powerful reviews can either give life to or quickly kill every production that dares to tread the boards on the Great White Way.

Hovering above the potential disaster-in-the-making, though, is Riggan’s Birdman alter-ego, which has become such a part of his life that he appears to take on the character’s mystical powers at times, and is often haunted by the superhero’s gravelly voice. Fending off interviewers who really only care if there will be a fourth “Birdman” film, Riggan knows he will only truly be set free if he can stage a performance to kill off his blue feathered character once and for all.

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Iñárritu, whose previous films include the Oscar-nominated “Babel” and the heartbreaking drama “21 Grams,” says the idea, while mirroring the travails of a former superhero star, actually comes from the voices he hears while struggling with his ego.

“There’s a voice that we all have that judges us and punishes us,” Iñárritu said. “The voice that I hear especially during the creative process, that is full of doubts and is never satisfied. Perfection can always drive you crazy. I can be very cruel with myself sometimes. The ego works in a very tyrannical, data ship mode.”

Iñárritu said once he became aware of that “inner voice” concept, he thought it would be a great theme for somebody in a movie. But translating those complex thoughts isn’t exactly the easiest thing to do, as he found out.

“It took me a long time to come up with that abstract of having a presence like that which is so intense,” Iñárritu said. “It’s in all of us, but at the same time it’s very silent. Still it manipulates all of us. It’s important that it awakens you and you see it clearly, because if not, you are f—-d.”

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During the long creative process of “Birdman,” Iñárritu said he had lunch in Mexico one day with Tim Burton, who prior to 1989’s “Batman” and 1992’s “Batman Returns” worked with Keaton on the classic supernatural comedy “Beetlejuice” in 1988. Iñárritu said Burton’s insights into Keaton were invaluable.

“He told me that Michael, beside his funny side, has a very, very dark side to him, and it’s true,” Iñárritu said. “He said that Michael is a very complex person, a beautiful human being and a very self-assured guy who can really navigate through drama and comedy. That’s why I wanted him, beyond the fact that he was Batman and the reality he could bring to the film. There are few actors that can bring the complex nature that this character needed. The fact that he can navigate through both genres is unique.”

While Keaton is naturally the focus of “Birdman,” the fragile states of Riggan’s fellow actors – Norton, Naomi Watts and Andrew Riseborough — are also examin

ed in the film. And having worked with many different performers over the years, Iñárritu says actors can be very vulnerable due to the nature of the profession, if not a bit bat-s–t crazy at times, as demonstrated in “Birdman.”

“The nature of acting is very complex, because in order to be good, they can’t be themselves. It’s a very strange job to pretend to be others,” the filmmaker said. “It’s very difficult and puts them in a very vulnerable position, and they so much on others, the material and the applause. It’s a lone wolf way of living, yet at the same time fantastic. It’s a journey through their own kind of consciousness and knowledge. They have to be very perceptive, very sensitive and they have to look very deeply into life and reabsorb it. It’s complex and a little cuckoo, I guess.”

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Available Now: ‘Direct Conversations: The Animated Films of Tim Burton’

Tim Lammers’ new ebook, “Direct Conversations: The Animated Films of Tim Burton,” featuring a foreword by Tim Burton, is here!

You can download the book in several formats — PDF, EPUB (iPad, Nook and most e-book readers) and MOBI (Kindle) — HERE.

The ebook is also available directly on Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, Google Books, Kobo Books and iTunes.

Read more about the ebook below.

'Direct Conversations: The Animated Films of Tim Burton'Cover photo © Leah Gallo

Throughout Tim Lammers’ career, he’s had many wonderful opportunities to talk with director Tim Burton and the key players who helped bring his stop-motion films “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Corpse Bride,” and “Frankenweenie” to life.

Now for the first time, Tim has assembled the stories from Burton and his band of creatives all in one place. In “Direct Conversations: The Animated Films of Tim Burton,” you will not only hear from Tim Burton, but Danny Elfman, Chris Sarandon, Allison Abbate, Martin Landau, Elijah Wood, Atticus Shaffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, the late Ray Harryhausen, and more. Burton also reflects on “Vincent,” the classic stop-motion animated film short that features the director’s first collaboration with legendary actor Vincent Price.

The release of “Direct Conversations: The Animated Films of Tim Burton” comes as the 1993 classic “The Nightmare Before Christmas” celebrates its 20th anniversary.

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