Tim Burton's Secret Identity
Director's Mystery Men pseudonym unmasked
Published November 18, 1999 in Dirt

If movie audiences and critics sensed something oddly familiar in the urban/goth landscapes of Mystery Men -- they were right. The Burton-esque visual style -- a comic book come-to-life -- did in fact originate from the man behind Batman, Batman Returns, and Mars Attacks!. But when the film was released this summer, Tim Burton hid behind the directing pseudonym Kinka Usher.

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... by Lou Cabron
... in the Dirt section
... from November 18, 1999

Now the cat's finally out of the bag. The film's second unit director, Bernard Kelley, agreed to spill the beans in a phone interview last week. "Tim's surprised it lasted this long," Kelley admitted -- noting that Burton filled the summer sleeper with a series of allusions to his earlier films. "Everyone suspected it, but Tim wasn't talking!"

The clues included:

  • An image of Jack Skellington, the smiling jack-o-lantern protagonist from Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas. "He's put [Jack] in every film since," Kelley points out. "In this one, it's on the top of a flagpole in the first castle exterior shot."
  • Paul Reubens. "That was supposed to be the tell-tale clue," Kelley notes, "since this makes his fourth [Burton] movie." Reubens also appeared in Pee-wee's Big Adventure, Batman Returns, and The Nightmare Before Christmas.
  • The castle itself. "When you look at the castle of Casanova Frankenstein, it's obvious that it's the tower from Batman." Kelley points out that Burton has included the trademark "creepy castle" in six of his films -- including Edward Scissorhands, the Batman movies, even James and the Giant Peach -- as a stylistic homage to director Roger Corman.

Corman used atmospheric castle sets for films like The Terror, Pit and the Pendulum, and -- of course -- House of Usher. "Burton borrowed that for his name," says Kelley. The resulting directing pseudonym (Kinka Usher) was a natural for a film whose character names were obvious hybrids -- like Casanova Frankenstein. "Burton couldn't resist the Corman reference," Kelley adds, especially since he's releasing a re-make of Corman's X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes next year.

It was Mystery Men's surprise critical success that prompted Burton to reveal the prank. He'd originally insisted on the pseudonym, Kelley remembers, fearing that "a commercial flop would hurt his bank-ability." Mystery Men's edgy material had Burton worried -- especially after bad showings for his previous films, Ed Wood and Mars Attacks!. Instead, the prank "allowed Tim to have it both ways," Kelley observes. Now he's revealing the switcheroo in hopes it will create a buzz for this week's release of Sleepy Hollow.

The director's doppelganger was known to the film's tight-knit production crew, and industry insiders played along. To buttress the masquerade, Burton even created professional credits for Kinka Usher. Advertisers gladly accepted his directing services for a commercial with Taco Bell's chihuahua, as well as the Nissan Pathfinder ad where the dog hypnotizes its owner.

It all seems so obvious now. Why else would a studio grant a multi-million dollar project with major stars to a director with just one major credential: a Taco Bell commercial? Also, how else do we explain the mysterious three-year gap in Burton's career? Kelley laughs when asked if perhaps the hoax was too successful. "Tim's pleasantly amused that it took hold," Kelley says, and since Burton has generated billions in ticket sales over the years, Hollywood was willing to indulge his prank. "That's what made it so fun."

In fact, the ruse is a classic Burton touch, since "Tim is obsessed with the theme of dual identities." His first film depicted a small boy who believes he's Vincent Price, and the exploration continued throughout his career. Burton re-focussed Batman's story on the split identity of both Bruce Wayne and The Joker, and Batman Returns probed even deeper, stressing The Penguin's obscure "Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot" alter ego and delving into Catwoman's life as Selina Kyle. As producer of the third installment, Batman Forever, Burton lobbied (successfully) for the inclusion of the lesser-known Two-Face villain, and in Mars Attacks!, Jack Nicholson plays both the President and Las Vegas casino owner "Art Land."

"When Mystery Men came along, Tim couldn't resist doing it himself," Kelley laughs. After nearly two decades of films, Burton culminated his legacy of psychological exploration with Mystery Men -- a film where every character has a split personality. Janeane Garofalo was "The Bowler," Ben Stiller was "Mr. Furious," William H. Macy was "The Shoveler," Kel Mitchell was "Invisible Boy"...

And Tim Burton was "Kinka Usher."

IS THIS TRUE?

Lou Cabron is a staff writer at GettingIt.