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Thompson to bring her quirky side to AFF

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com

If you can't find Outstanding Screenwriter awardee Caroline Thompson at an Austin Film Festival screening or party Saturday night, you might want to check the Texas Book Festival's Moonlight Tour of the Texas State Cemetery.

"My favorite place in the world to go to is a cemetery and take pictures," Thompson said last week by phone. "I used to go to the cemetery every week with my grandparents because I had an aunt who had died young. And I just love cemeteries. I find them very soothing places."

The preference of the macabre setting as a comforting environment might not come as a surprise from the writer of "Edward Scissorhands" and "The Corpse Bride." But a tender heart has always lurked beneath the shadowy surface of her work.

Though loaded with dark imagery, many of Thompson's films echo the shared sensitivity of the human spirit as told through the story of an outsider. Just as the writer finds cemeteries "soothing places," her work gives succor to the loner in us all, confirming the sense that we are not alone in our fears or desires.

Thompson, who experimented with LSD while growing up in suburban Washington, D.C., believes that her wellspring of creativity flows from a place of which she can not claim ownership.

"Whatever it is, it isn't me," she said of her writing inspiration, "and I just feel like the luckiest person on Earth. So it's kind of ironic to be honored as an individual when it doesn't feel like it's me."

The woman who grew up adoring Virginia Woolf and who studied English and ancient Greek at Amherst College initially harbored ambitions of being a novelist, but her romantic notion of the book world died after the publication of her 1983 gothic novel "First Born."

From the ashes of that disintegrated dream rose a desire to work in the movie industry. Thompson moved to Los Angeles to get as far away from the East Coast as possible while still staying on the continent.

And Thompson says that moving from the vastness and endless possibilities of the novel to the more structured world of screenplays opened new doors for her creativity.

"The musicality of language was the thing that really drew me to writing," Thompson said. "And it's also what I'm obsessed about as a writer \u2026 To me writing a screenplay is like writing a poem. You have specific structural needs, and in those needs, I find that very liberating to have that structural requirement. For some reason that seems to set my mind loose."

Thompson, whose adaptation of her novel was her first foray into screenwriting, signed with the same agency as director Tim Burton, who was fresh off the success of cult hit "Pee-wee's Big Adventure."

"They didn't know what to do with either of us, so they introduced us to each other, and we took an immediate liking to one another and became friends and hung out a lot and really wanted to work together," Thompson said.

In their talks, Burton shared with Thompson his vision of a character who had blades in place of fingers. Burton's catalyzing image immediately resonated with Thompson, whose novel was a gothic send-up of suburbia, and inspired in the screenwriter the story that became "Edward Scissorhands."

"At that time I was still more of a prose writer than a screenwriter, so I wrote a 75-page story and he said, 'That's it,' " Thompson said. "It was one of those things that I was ready to do. Or whoever writes through me."

"Scissorhands" began a creative relationship between the writer and filmmaker that would produce such spooky and heartfelt tales as "The Corpse Bride" and "The Nightmare Before Christmas." It also marked Thompson as a bold artist with a unique vision.

During the next 20 years, Thompson would see more than a half-dozen of her screenplays produced on the big screen and jump behind the camera as director on movies "Buddy" and "Black Beauty." Though her list of credits is impressive, Thompson says she felt frustrated about the prevailing attitude of Hollywood, so the woman known for the dark and moody subject material left the Los Angeles area in 1997 and headed with her horses and future husband, movie producer Steve Nicolaides, to Ojai, Calif., a place she loves for its perennial greenness.

In discussing her life and career, Thompson bounces between bursts of riotous laughter and vulnerable moments of contemplation. Always present is a deep sense of gratitude and a guiding wisdom that has led her to a patch (100 acres, actually) of tranquility.

"I have this stack of great screenplays I've written in the last 10 years I wish I could show people in the form of a movie," said Thompson, who recently finalized a deal on her screenplay adaptation of the Russian novel "The Master and Margarita."

"You know, if I do what I do as best as I can, I feel really satisfied. I don't know how else to describe it. I don't feel bitter - I basically am a horseback rider who makes a living writing screenplays. It's the best work on Earth."

modam@statesman.com; 912-5986

A Conversation with 2011 Distinguished Screenwriter Awardee Caroline Thompson