Walt Disney Pictures
Walt Disney Pictures

21 Things You Didn't Know About The Nightmare Before Christmas

Walt Disney Pictures
Walt Disney Pictures

Christmas is a time for donning festive garb, singing holiday songs, festooning your home in decorations, and giving thoughtful gifts. Of course, all those tasks turn out a bit more twisted when assigned to the denizens of Halloween Town. The Nightmare Before Christmas mixes light and dark with jolly and macabre with great success. Even if this holiday mash-up movie is part of your regular Yuletide tradition, we'd roll Oogie Boogie's dice that you don't know all of these secrets from behind the scenes.

1. TIM BURTON DID NOT DIRECT THE MOVIE.

It is a common misconception spurred by the film's alternate title: Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas. Burton was busy with Batman Returns and handed this hefty responsibility to his old Disney Animation colleague Henry Selick, who made his feature directorial debut here. Burton's name goes above the title for serving as producer, creating the story, and coming up with the look and the characters for The Nightmare Before Christmas. It probably doesn't hurt that his name was much bigger than Selick's at the time, thanks to the success of Pee-wee's Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, and Batman.

2. JACK SKELLINGTON RESURFACED IN HENRY SELICK'S LATER FILMS.

1996 saw the release of Selick's follow-up, a stop-motion/live-action adaptation of Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach. It also saw the resurrection of The Nightmare Before Christmas's bare bones protagonist, who appears in one spooky scene as a skeletal pirate captain. He's much harder to spot in Selick's 2009 translation of Neil Gaiman's Coraline, but if you look closely as the Other Mother makes breakfast, you'll see Jack's smiling skull hidden in the yolk of a cracked egg.

3. THE PLOT WAS INSPIRED BY THE RECURRING COLLISION OF HOLIDAY STORE DECORATIONS.

In the film's DVD commentary, Burton explains that his childhood in ever-sunny Burbank, California was not marked by seasonal changes, so holiday decorations were an especially important factor in the year's progression. When it came to fall and winter, there was a melding of Halloween and Christmas in stores eager to make the most of both shopping seasons. This, he claimed, planted the seed for his tale of the king of Halloween intruding on Christmas.

4. A BURTON POEM PREDATED THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS.

While Burton was working as an animator at Disney on productions like The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron, he began toying with cartoon projects of his own. This eventually led to animated shorts like "Vincent," as well as the penning of a poem called "The Nightmare Before Christmas." A sort of parody of Clement Clarke Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (also known as "The Night Before Christmas"), this poem focused on Jack Skellington's inescapable ennui and featured his ghost dog Zero as well as Santa.

5. RANKIN/BASS WAS THE INSPIRATION FOR THE STOP-MOTION APPROACH.


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In the same DVD commentary, Burton admits the animated Christmas specials from Rankin/Bass Productions were hugely influential.

6. BURTON ORIGINALLY IMAGINED THE FILM AS A TELEVISION SPECIAL.

Like Rankin/Bass's Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer or Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town, Burton envisioned his take on Christmas could play well on television annually. This turned out to be true, but in a way he had not expected. He initially pitched the animated effort to TV studios. When that failed, he tried book publishers. No one bit until he pitched it as a full-length feature film. On the commentary track, Burton estimates that roughly 20 years passed between the project's earliest inception and its theatrical debut on October 29th, 1993.

7. RONALD SEARLE AND EDWARD GOREY WERE ALSO INFLUENTIAL.

In a behind-the-scenes video about The Nightmare Before Christmas's backbreaking creation, a narrator notes that the production design team took a page from the pen and ink drawings of these two memorable artists, aiming to create in the physical set designs the kinds of cross-hatching and textures found within their works. Selick explains that they'd smear sets in plaster or clay, then scratch lines into this material "to give it that sort of etched texture or feel to make it look like a living illustration."

8. SHOOTING BEGAN BEFORE THE SCRIPT WAS COMPLETED.

Stop-motion demands a great deal of time, so when Danny Elfman had mastered most of the film's songs, Selick plus a team of 13 specially trained animators and an army of prop makers, set builders, and camera operators got to work without a final screenplay. Animators began by crafting Jack's big moment of discovery with "What's This?" Shooting 24 frames per second meant the animators had to create unique motions for 110,000 frames total. One minute of the movie took about a week to shoot, and The Nightmare Before Christmas took 3 years to complete.

9. SELICK IS RESPONSIBLE FOR JACK'S SIGNATURE SUIT.

In Burton's original sketches, Jack was dressed all in black. It is revealed in the film's commentary track that it was director Selick who gave Jack a marvelous makeover that added white stripes to his slim-fit suit. More than a smart sartorial choice, the addition of the pinstripes was needed to help Jack pop. In early camera tests, it became a major concern when Jack's flat black suit blended in to the dark backdrops of Halloween Town.

10. DISNEY FOUGHT FOR JACK TO HAVE EYES.

Because of the dark and deeply weird nature of Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas, Walt Disney Studios decided it was too off-brand to be released under their banner. So the film was made through their branch Touchstone Pictures. But this didn't keep Disney from dropping some serious studio notes, including the insistence that Jack Skellington's empty sockets be filled with a pair of friendly eyes. A common guideline in animation and puppet-creation is that eyes are crucial to having an audience connect to a character, but Selick and Burton wouldn't budge, and ultimately proved their anti-hero didn't need oculars to connect.

11. THE MOST DIFFICULT SHOT WAS OPENING A DOOR.


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Because of the filmmakers' dedication to be as true to shooting like live-action as possible, one Nightmare Before Christmas shot proved especially challenging. When Jack discovers the part of the forest with pathways to other holiday worlds, he looks longingly at the Christmas tree door. A close-up of its shiny golden knob reflects this mournful skeleton as well as the trees behind him as he advances to open it. Getting the reflection just right took a great deal of time, care, and attention.

12. VINCENT PRICE WAS NEARLY NIGHTMARE'S SANTA.

Burton had previously worked with the renowned horror icon on Edward Scissorhands and "Vincent." From there, Price had agreed to give voice to the plump and flustered Santa who is kidnapped by treacherous trick 'r treaters Lock, Shock, and Barrel. However, this plan was derailed when Price's wife Coral Browne passed in 1991. Selick explained in the commentary track that the actor was so grief-stricken that the director felt he sounded too sad for Santa. Edward Ivory was then brought in to replace him.

13. PATRICK STEWART WAS CUT FROM THE FILM.

Early on, The Nightmare Before Christmas planned to rely heavily on its poetic inspiration. As such, the Star Trek: The Next Generation star with the manly yet jaunty voice was called in to read poetry that was intended for the film's opening and closing narration. The lengthy monologues were eventually pared down to a few lines, and those were reassigned to the film's Santa, Edward Ivory. However, Stewart's version can be found in full on the film's soundtrack.

14. TIM BURTON WAS SUPPOSED TO HAVE A CAMEO.

Unearthed in cut footage is an alternate version of the vampires playing hockey. In the theatrical and all subsequent releases, the ice-skating vampires swat a jack-o-lantern. However, the original version of this scene had them batting about a recognizable decapitated head. With its ghostly pallor, black spiky hair, angular shape, and deep bags under its eyes, the creepy creation is clearly Burton. But this seems to have been deemed too grisly for a kids' movie.

15. THERE ARE SOME HIDDEN MICKEYS.


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Since the film became a success, Disney has become less shy about their association with Nightmare Before Christmas. But the commentary track reveals that, despite their reluctance, Disney allowed Selick and Burton to include a hidden Mickey in the form of a menacing toy. In the scene where Jack's Christmas gifts attack, there's a flying stuffed animal with a sharp-toothed grin that's meant to be the Burton version of Mickey Mouse. Also, the girl it attacks is wearing a Mickey print nightgown, while her brother's pajamas are covered in Donald Duck faces.

16. THERE'S A HIDDEN ED WOOD REFERENCE.

While The Nightmare Before Christmas was in production, Burton not only completed Batman Returns but also dug into pre-production on Ed Wood, a biopic about the notoriously untalented filmmaker. A nod to Wood's works is found tucked into the fearsome folk of Halloween Town—the burly, bald Behemoth is a sweet-natured brute who bears a striking resemblance—down to the scars on his face—to Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson as seen in Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space.

17. THERE'S A HIDDEN DANNY ELFMAN CAMEO.

The former Oingo Boingo front man began collaborating with Burton back in the early 1980s when he composed the score for Burton's feature directorial debut, Pee-wee's Big Adventure. The pair reteamed for Beetlejuice, Batman and Edward Scissorhands before Elfman was called to write the music and lyrics for The Nightmare Before Christmas. He also lent his singing voice to Jack Skellington, and for all this he gets the dubious distinction of a cameo as the redheaded corpse tucked away in the upright bass of the ghastly Halloween Town band.

18. BURTON CALLED ON OTHER PAST COLLABORATORS TO BE HEARD.

Aside from Jack's singing voice, Elfman also lent his pipes to mischievous Barrel as well as the menacing clown with the tear-away face. Filling out the trio of trick 'r treaters was Pee-Wee's Big Adventure star Paul Reubens as Lock, and Beetlejuice's Catherine O'Hara as Shock. O'Hara also voiced the stitched up and besotted Sally, while her former co-star Glenn Shadix played the two-faced mayor of Halloween Town.

19. DELETED SCENES INCLUDED BEHEMOTH'S SOLO AND AN ALERNATE OOGIE BOOGIE REVEAL.

On the DVD, storyboard presentations reveal deleted scenes that never made it to production. One of these has Behemoth belting beautifully about "pretty" presents during "Making Christmas." Another shows an abandoned concept of Oogie Boogie boogeying with the bugs that fill his stitched up form, and a third clip displays a very different finale. Instead of Boogie being torn up and reduced to bugs, he's unmasked to be evil scientist Dr. Finkelstein in disguise! In this version, his whole scheme was revenge-fueled because Sally loved Jack, even though Finkelstein made her to be his mate.

20. THE SET WAS BUILT WITH SECRET PASSAGES FOR ANIMATORS.

Reminiscent of the cut-out pathways used by Muppeteers, the animators behind and beneath The Nightmare Before Christmas had special trapdoors cut into the 19 sound stages worth of 230 model sets so they could more easily reach in and manipulate their peculiar puppets. From these vantage points, they can move the armatures hidden within the creatures or swap their faces out for one of hundreds made to allow for a wide range of emotion. Jack Skellington alone had more than 400 heads.

21. BURTON REJECTED A CGI SEQUEL.

Though Disney has found success pumping out straight-to-DVD sequels of their animated hits, Burton has no interest in making The Nightmare Before Christmas 2. He told MTV, “I was always very protective of [Nightmare Before Christmas], not to do sequels or things of that kind. You know, ‘Jack visits Thanksgiving world’ or other kinds of things, just because I felt the movie had a purity to it and the people that like it. Because it’s not a mass-market kind of thing, it was important to kind of keep that purity of it. I try to respect people and keep the purity of the project as much as possible.”

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Karl Walter, Getty Images
When the FBI Investigated the 'Murder' of Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor
Karl Walter, Getty Images
Karl Walter, Getty Images

The two people standing over the body, Michigan State Police detective Paul Wood told the Hard Copy cameras, “had a distinctive-type uniform on. As I recall: black pants, some type of leather jacket with a design on it, and one was wearing combat boots. The other was wearing what looked like patent leather shoes. So if it was a homicide, I was thinking it was possibly a gang-type homicide.”

Wood was describing a puzzling case local police, state police, and eventually the FBI had worked hard to solve for over a year. The mystery began in 1989, when farmer Robert Reed spotted a circular group of objects floating over his farm just outside of rural Burr Oak, Michigan; it turned out to be a cluster of weather balloons attached to a Super 8 camera.

When the camera landed on his property, the surprised farmer didn't develop the footage—he turned it over to the police. Some local farmers had recently gotten into trouble for letting wild marijuana grow on the edges of their properties, and Reed thought the balloons and camera were a possible surveillance technique. But no state or local jurisdictions used such rudimentary methods, so the state police in East Lansing decided to develop the film. What they saw shocked them.

A city street at night; a lifeless male body with a mysterious substance strewn across his face; two black-clad men standing over the body as the camera swirled away up into the sky, with a third individual seen at the edge of the frame running away, seemingly as fast as possible. Michigan police immediately began analyzing the footage for clues, and noticed the lights of Chicago’s elevated train system, which was over 100 miles away.

It was the first clue in what would become a year-long investigation into what they believed was either a cult killing or gang murder. When they solved the “crime” of what they believed was a real-life snuff film, they were more shocked than when the investigation began: The footage was from the music video for “Down In It,” the debut single from industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, and the supposed dead body was the group's very-much-alive lead singer, Trent Reznor.

 
 

In 1989, Nine Inch Nails was about to release their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, which would go on to be certified triple platinum in the United States. The record would define the emerging industrial rock sound that Reznor and his rotating cast of bandmates would experiment with throughout the 1990s and even today on albums like The Downward Spiral and The Slip.

The band chose the song “Down In It”—a track with piercing vocals, pulsing electronic drums, sampled sound effects, and twisted nursery rhyme-inspired lyrics—as Pretty Hate Machine's first single. They began working with H-Gun, a Chicago-based multimedia team led by filmmakers Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes (who had created videos for such bands as Ministry and Revolting Cocks), and sketched out a rough idea for the music video.

Filmed on location among warehouses and parking garages in Chicago, the video was supposed to culminate in a shot with a leather-jacketed Reznor running to the top of a building, while two then-members of the band followed him wearing studded jumpsuits; the video would fade out with an epic floating zoom shot to imply that Reznor's cornstarch-for-blood-covered character had fallen off the building and died in the street. Because the cash-strapped upstarts didn’t have enough money for a fancy crane to achieve the shot for their video, they opted to tie weather balloons to the camera and let it float up from Reznor, who was lying in the street surrounded by his bandmates. They eventually hoped to play the footage backward to get the shot in the final video.

Instead, the Windy City lived up to its name and quickly whisked the balloons and camera away. With Reznor playing dead and his bandmates looking down at him, only one of the filmmakers noticed. He tried to chase down the runaway camera—which captured his pursuit—but it was lost, forcing them to finish shooting the rest of the video and release it without the planned shot from the missing footage in September of 1989.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the band, a drama involving their lost camera was unfolding in southwest Michigan. Police there eventually involved the Chicago police, whose detectives determined that the footage had been filmed in an alley in the city's Fulton River District. After Chicago authorities found no homicide reports matching the footage for the neighborhood and that particular time frame, they handed the video over to the FBI, whose pathologists reportedly said that, based on the substance on the individual, the body in the video was rotting.

 
 

The "substance" in question was actually the result of the low-quality film and the color of the cornstarch on the singer’s face, which had also been incorporated into the press photos for Pretty Hate Machine. It was a nod to the band's early live shows, in which Reznor would spew cornstarch and chocolate syrup on his band members and the audience. “It looks really great under the lights, grungey, a sort of anti-Bon Jovi and the whole glamour thing,” Reznor said in a 1991 interview.

With no other easy options, and in order to generate any leads that might help them identify the victim seen in the video, the authorities distributed flyers to Chicago schools asking if anyone knew any details behind the strange “killing.”

The tactic worked. A local art student was watching MTV in 1991 and saw the distinctive video for “Down In It,” which reminded him of one of the flyers he had seen at school. He contacted the Chicago police to tip them off to who their supposed "murder victim" really was. Nine Inch Nails’s manager was notified, and he told Reznor and the filmmakers what had really happened to their lost footage.

“It’s interesting that our top federal agency, the Federal Bureau of [Investigation], couldn’t crack the Super 8 code,” co-director Zimmerman said in an interview. As for Wood and any embarrassment law enforcement had after the investigation: “I thought it was our duty, one way or the other, to determine what was on that film,” he said.

“My initial reaction was that it was really funny that something could be that blown out of proportion with this many people worked up about it,” Reznor said, and later told an interviewer, “There was talk that I would have to appear and talk to prove that I was alive.” Even though—in the eyes of state, local, and federal authorities—he was reportedly dead for over a year, Reznor didn’t seem to be bothered by it: “Somebody at the FBI had been watching too much Hitchcock or David Lynch or something,” he reasoned.

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Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM
West Side Story Is Returning to Theaters This Weekend
Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM
Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM

As Chris Pratt and a gang of prehistoric creatures get ready to face off against some animated superheroes for this weekend’s box office dominance, an old rivalry is brewing once again on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. West Side Story—Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’s classic big-screen rendering of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical—is returning to cinemas for the first time in nearly 30 years.

As part of TCM’s Big Screen Classics Series, West Side Story will have special screening engagements at more than 600 theaters across the country on Sunday, June 24 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. If you can’t make it this weekend, encores will screen at the same time on Wednesday, June 27. The film—which is being re-released courtesy of TCM, Fathom Events, Park Circus, and Metro Goldwyn Mayer—will be presented in its original widescreen format, and include its original mid-film intermission. (Though its 2.5-hour runtime is practically standard nowadays, that wasn’t the case a half-century ago.) The screening will include an introduction and some post-credit commentary by TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz.

West Side Story, which was named Best Picture of 1961, is a musical retelling of Romeo and Juliet that sees star-crossed lovers Maria (Natalie Wood) and Tony (Richard Beymer) navigate the challenges of immigration, racial tension, and inner-city life in mid-century Manhattan—but with lots of singing and dancing. In addition to being named Best Picture, the beloved film took home another nine Oscars, including Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Actress (for George Chakiris and Rita Moreno, respectively), and Best Music—obviously.

To find out if West Side Story is screening near you, and to purchase tickets, visit Fathom Events’s website.

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