SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- With most of his irreverent movies about dying, Tim Burton doesn't just whistle past the graveyard - he plays a game of tag with the Grim Reaper among the tombstones.
Death is a surreal joke and day-to-day life is the real hardship for the characters in movies like "Beetlejuice," "Edward Scissorhands" and "The Nightmare Before Christmas," but now Burton has sobered his gothic sense of humor with "Big Fish."
The deaths of his parents led him toward a more heartfelt exploration of mortality and a warmer picture of life in his latest movie, about a tall-tale teller whose son learns to appreciate his dying father's fantasies.
"They were good people, but I wasn't particularly close," Burton said of his own parents. "But it doesn't matter whether you're close or not. When your parent dies you could be completely distant from them and it would still have a powerful impact on you."
Burton's father, Bill, died in 2000 while the director was working on his remake of "Planet of the Apes" and his mother, Jean, in 2002. He said he never fit into their Burbank household and had a remote relationship with them his whole life.
The filmmaker said the theme of child-parent reconciliation in "Big Fish" fed his interest in the story, especially since it never really happened for him in real life.
"It was not something that was easy for me to talk about with anybody," he said. "But this script was a great way to present that feeling without having to talk about it."
In the movie, Albert Finney plays the aging Edward Bloom, a man who claims to have caught the world's biggest catfish by using his wedding ring as bait on the day his son Will (Billy Crudup) was born. The rest of his life is full of similar fish tales - some true, most exaggerated - which frustrates his son.
The director said the character's storytelling prestidigitation in "Big Fish" is something he has aspired to with his fantasy films.
For Burton, telling tall tales - even true ones, like his biopic "Ed Wood" - "is sort of organic. It's not a lie. It's almost more of an emotional thing. It's how you feel, even at that moment. That's the beauty of it. You can read a lot of realities and truths into a completely surreal story."
In the flashback fantasy sequences, Ewan McGregor plays the younger Bloom as he encounters a cave-dwelling giant, a circus ringleader who turns into a werewolf and an Asian singing duo made up of conjoined twin sisters.
The film has nominations for four Golden Globe Awards, including best comedy, and critics are praising Burton's fusion of his moody, dreamy visuals with the realistic drama of the father-son relationship.
Recently, the 45-year-old Burton became a father himself. He and actress Helena Bonham Carter, who live next door to each other in London, have a 3-month-old boy, Billy. (Bonham Carter also plays two roles in "Big Fish": a witch whose foggy eye shows Bloom as a child how he will die, and a young woman with a mysterious relationship with the character when he gets older.)
Like his real childhood and the father and son characters in "Big Fish," Burton finds that most parents and their children are the opposite of each other. He's not sure what to expect from his own child.
"That's sort of a classic dynamic. If the parents are hippies, then the kids are straight-laced," he said. "People say, 'Well, do you think you son will be like you?' Well, no, it'll probably be the opposite, and that's probably the way it should be. It's natural. There is that resistance and reaction against your parents - even if you like them."
But there are always similarities, and when pressed Burton acknowledged that his dad, while not a great storyteller, had a dark sense of humor that the younger Burton shared.
"He had these false teeth and when the full moon would come out, he could pull it back and his side teeth would seem to stick out and he'd pretend to turn into a werewolf," Burton said, laughing. "It got everybody going."
The director has a reputation for being gloomy - reinforced by his wild black hair, preference for dark clothing and oversized, blue-tinted glasses - but in reality he's more funny than fearsome.
Upon entering an oceanfront hotel suite for an interview, his first move is to throw open all the window shutters to flood the shadowy room with light, and he's more likely to make a joke than to linger on anything too serious.
On living in London: "I do like Europe. Growing up in California you don't get a sense of age. But I guess, you have the old Denny's, and you can start to notice the finely aged wood at the counter."
On superhero movies after his "Batman": "I liked the psychology of it, the darkness of it, but now it just seems like the tortured superhero has become its own genre. 'Yeah, OK, tortured kid ...' You kind of long for the days when they were just happy and doing good just because they loved it."
On why he won't make a sequel to "The Nightmare Before Christmas," which was about the collision of Halloween and Christmas: "What would it be ... 'Thanksgiving World'? Or they go kidnap Uncle Sam on the Fourth of July? That wouldn't go over too good these days."
Burton will be back to poking fun at death with one of his next movies, "The Corpse Bride," which he's producing.
Made in the same animation style as "The Nightmare Before Christmas," the story is based on an Eastern European folk tale about a man who mistakenly weds a dead body. Expect plenty of dark humor - Burton says it's therapeutic to laugh at death instead of fearing it.
"Rather than make it this dark, unspoken thing - which is kind of how I grew up - I always liked the idea that it was more a celebration. It feels more positive, somehow, and more spiritual and RIGHT to me," he said.
He is also preparing to start work directing a live-action remake of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," (this one titled "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," like the original Roald Dahl story) with frequent collaborator Johnny Depp as the peculiar candy impresario.
Burton also plans to get back to being a dad.
"I'm anxious to get back because I really haven't spent too much time," he said. "It's a little spooky, really ... I have to go back and learn how to be a human being.