Caroline Thompson had always been intrigued by suburbia. In the 1960s, she grew up in the Edgemoor neighborhood of Bethesda, Maryland, surrounded by beautiful, old houses. Her neighborhood was filled with elderly people, and Thompson quickly became jealous when her best friend moved into a new, younger family-friendly housing tract a couple miles away.
Unlike the stone structures on Thompson’s block, her friend’s neighborhood boasted houses that all looked “some version of the same,” she remembers. “There were a ton of kids and a ton of families, and every day after school they all congregated on the street, the moms with their cocktails, and the kids played touch football. I just had such envy of a life that seemed so sweet and vibrant and community-oriented.” As she grew older, though, the aspiring Hollywood screenwriter looked back on that particular subdivision—the kind that sprouted up all around the country—with pity. “It looks so appealing on the surface,” she says, but “it had so little character to it, and so little life.”
Those grim observations informed her 1983 novel First Born, but they didn’t find a mainstream platform until she met Tim Burton a few years later. The burgeoning director had spent his introspective, isolated youth navigating the suburban dystopia of Burbank, California, which he recalled to Rolling Stone as having “a very strong sense of categorization and conformity.” Thompson had just moved to Burbank herself, and during an agent-organized lunch in L.A., the pair instantly bonded over their oddball sensibilities—and their obsession with generic-looking commuter towns. Soon, they began hatching a movie.
“He told me about this drawing he had made in high school of this character who had scissors instead of hands,” Thompson says. “I had an instant flash [and knew] exactly what to do with that.”
Inspired by her conversations with Burton, Thompson blazed through a 70-page story, turning the director’s rough sketch into a personal, gothic fairy tale about a castle-bound, artificial man adopted by a well-meaning suburban family. During the next two years, she refined and expanded her prose into a feature-length screenplay, one embedded with Burton’s familiar quirks and outsider themes. “It was our joint love and revulsion towards suburbia that inspired so much of how that story unfolded,” Thompson says. “The beauty of the metaphor is that everybody feels like an outsider—nobody feels like they belong.”
Released on December 14, 1990, Edward Scissorhands brought the pair’s infatuation to colorful life. As the backdrop to Johnny Depp’s bladed, clothed-in-black protagonist, the movie’s anonymous, candy-colored suburbia, with its crisp green lawns and towering topiaries, proved to be a visual feast. More than just a uniformed pastel landscape, the indelible, tactile aesthetic gave Burton’s fourth feature film a sharp social critique, remaining just as distinct and overwhelming 30 years later. “I really liked the generic quality of the movie,” art director Tom Duffield says. “It really is timeless because of that.”
Though it primarily takes place in one location, the movie’s artistic achievement required intensive preparation. Using very little CGI, Burton leaned on the design departments to turn a real neighborhood into his own private studio, a monthslong process that demanded constant coordination and cooperation. Upon its completion, the transformation became a glowing tribute to the methodical and handcrafted work that could have only existed in a pre-digital world.
By 1990, Tim Burton had quickly become an established name. Following his directorial debut with 1985’s Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, he made a splash with 1988’s afterlife comedy Beetlejuice, which earned $74 million against its $15 million budget. A year later, he infused his signature style into Batman, 1989’s top-grossing movie. Warner Bros., which had financed his first three films, was ready to produce the caped crusader’s sequel right away, but Burton was determined to tackle Thompson’s screenplay for his next project.
Unwilling to interrupt the momentum of Batman, Warner Bros. eventually punted on Scissorhands, and 20th Century Fox eagerly purchased the rights. Scott Rudin, then Fox’s president of production, “would have let Tim make the phone book if he wanted to,” jokes Thompson, who asked Rudin to give them total creative control. “I would get paid a WGA minimum and I would have complete freedom—no meetings, no development,” she says, which she accomplished by leveraging Burton’s bankability as director. The following weekend, Rudin agreed to the terms, allowing Burton and Thompson to continue refining their hyperspecific perspective. “[The story] was so outside of the box, and we both knew that it was so delicate in terms of tone and so forth that the development process would have killed it.”
Growing up in Burbank, Burton had spent most of his time alone in his room, sketching monsters that appeared in the classic horror movies he watched religiously. He identified with them—they were misunderstood, often prodded, poked, and subjected to attacks by those closest to them. Within his bright suburban bubble, and around its vanilla residents, Burton became more interiorized, receding further into his stories and fantasies. “The purpose of folk tales for me is a kind of extreme, symbolic version of life, of what you’re going through,” Burton told Rolling Stone. “In America, in suburbia, there is no sense of culture, no sense of passion. ... I didn’t read fairy tales, I watched them.”
Indeed, throughout Thompson’s romantic fable, Edward Scissorhands—adorned with wild black hair, a leather suit, and metal fingers—cast Burton’s own look and lived experiences into further relief. After being coaxed from his castle, Edward descends into a generic world where he doesn’t belong, and he is soon the main attraction for its gossiping, stay-at-home wives. When his razor-sharp affliction gets him into trouble, the community members turn on him, fearing he’s too dangerous to live in their homogenized world. Much like Burton’s early surroundings, the neighborhood’s banal presentation and shallow attitudes fostered Edward’s villainization, exposing how, underneath the pretty veneer, “there’s so much dissatisfaction and unhappiness and darkness,” Thompson says.
To give this missive its three-dimensional bite, Burton enlisted production designer Bo Welch and art director Tom Duffield, previous collaborators who had captured the director’s gothic and anatomically ambiguous style in Beetlejuice. The two appreciated Burton’s artistic background and passion for their departments, and were eager to take on another challenging project. “We really respected Tim’s vision,” Duffield says. “Once you understand what he’s looking for, you kind of get the shorthand.”
Burton eventually cast Johnny Depp to play Edward, and the rest of the cast quickly assembled, but he still needed a neighborhood for his drama. While location coordinator Bob Maharis scanned the country, initially visiting small towns in Texas, Burton felt Florida provided an ideal backdrop to replicate the flat, sunny disposition of midcentury suburbia. “He really loved the clouds he saw in Florida,” Duffield remembers. After originally looking at Army bases for their regimented housing plans, Maharis eventually settled on Tinsmith Circle, part of a new development in the Carpenters Run section of Lutz, roughly 20 miles north of Tampa.
The director had envisioned replicating Levittown, New York, the archetype of postwar suburbanization in which real estate developers bypassed zoning codes and streamlined construction to build cheap, similar-looking housing. Carpenters Run, cheaply bankrolled by a Pittsburgh real estate developer, matched that 1950s design. With its serpentine roads and one-story bungalows, the neighborhood’s minimal vegetation and spare 10-foot trees allowed the blue sky and cumulus clouds to envelop the frame.
The only problem? The development’s 50 homes all needed painting, new landscaping, and minor adjusting—and all of them were occupied by new owners. Before Hollywood could invade and set up shop, it would need to negotiate.
Michael Burmeister felt like he’d been ambushed.
The experienced location manager, brought in to assist Maharis with writing up contracts, thought it would be easy to cut deals with a chipper group of Florida suburbanites. Besides, as he approached an event space to negotiate, the residents all sounded friendly and giddy that Burton had chosen to film around their recently purchased digs.
To simplify the proceedings, Burmeister decided to split up contracts into two categories. The few residents that needed to vacate the neighborhood to allow production inside their homes would be offered higher-priced, individual packages to vacation or stay in nearby hotels, while the rest of the surrounding neighbors would receive one flat rate. If the film crew ended up needing to remove more bushes or wanted to use a home’s garage, further compensation would be awarded. After sharing this rough idea, a vocal majority of homeowners became enraged. “They proceeded to tear us apart. They turned on us like jackals,” Burmeister remembers. “I looked at Bob, he looked at me, and I said, ‘Where’s the backup [location]?’”
The pair left the residents to discuss the deal among themselves, and walked outside with their heads spinning. “We thought this was over,” Burmeister says. “They were just super negative.” Soon, he and Maharis began discussing the other residential options nearby, assuming the community would collectively pass on the opportunity. But when residents called the location managers back inside, the previously vitriolic group politely countered with a higher price. After a quick discussion with Maharis, Burmeister agreed to the deal, struggling to understand the abrupt change of heart. “It was the weirdest experience of my life,” he recalls. “They were happy, angry, happy.”
Once the deals—including a few eleventh-hour holdouts—had been struck, the art department could get to work. Welch and Duffield became familiar with the neighborhood, taking pictures of exteriors and bringing development blueprints back to Los Angeles, where they constructed small model replicas of the subdivision. To determine the color scheme of the homes, Duffield remembers using Necco wafers as a reference point, adapting the candy’s pastel yellows, pinks, and blues to act as his base. “We wanted to make a statement in color, but not so strong that it took you out of the movie,” Duffield says, “[like] if Leningrad tried to copy an American suburban housing development.”
In late winter of 1989, Tinsmith Circle began its makeover. Local painters brushed over the homes’ neutral tones as construction workers put foam-core diamond coverings over the aluminum garage doors and slimmed down large, front-facing windows, erasing “any details that made it look more than just a generic-looking house,” Duffield says. The cars followed a similar pattern. Inspired by books such as Bill Owens’s Suburbia, Welch brought in small, oddball 1970s vehicles such as the Pacer, Gremlin, and Duster, and Duffield’s team painted them in corresponding complementary colors, which the movie comically captured in a brief overhead shot.
Inside the art department’s boiling, makeshift office—a home covered by an orange and green Terminix tent, meant to resemble a fumigation in the movie—Duffield diagrammed the neighborhood’s foliage and colors with Burton. At their behest, landscapers uprooted various trees and bushes, removing textures that would have otherwise distracted from the bland palettes. The stripped lawns and barren, washed-out siding gave Colleen Atwood’s costumes—darker, stronger variations of the Necco theme—a chance to pop and accentuate the quirky women who wore them. “It really was a nice blank canvas,” Duffield says. “Her [costumes] really defined the characters when they came in the room. It just kind of worked out.”
In a similar way, Edward’s piercing medieval castle at the end of the block stood in stark contrast to the bright, blue-skied backdrop. Finding a hilly spot to build the tower, however, proved challenging because, as Burmiester notes, “Florida is as flat as a pancake.” Determined to find a workaround, he and Welch drove around Lutz looking for open areas, eventually landing on an orange grove whose trees had recently been chopped down. The property’s farmer, Burmeister remembers, inquired about the project and suggested they look at his nearby sinkhole. “Bo and myself look at each other—sinkhole? Take us to it!” Burmeister says. When they eventually walked up to its edge, they smiled at its potential. “You put the camera in the sinkhole and you pan up, you think you’re going up a hill. It was perfect.”
The sinkhole was really more of a landfill—metal scraps and old farming equipment had been buried in the dirt—and soon, construction teams began excavation. “They brought in the biggest dozer, and I was amazed at the speed with which they were able to convert the dump site into a hill,” cinematographer Stefan Czapsky says. “They put in a bunch of electric transformer lines, then built a facade.” Using sculptors from Los Angeles, Welch’s team built the castle walls out of Styrofoam, coating them with a thin layer of concrete. It was surrounded by vines and a dilapidated fence, and it stood in direct opposition to its serene entrance, which Thompson’s script had filled with a dazzling garden of perfectly trimmed flowers and animal-themed greenery.
The crew needed a veteran gardener and muscular craftsman, and they leaned on Dan Ondrejko, someone Burmeister affectionately came to dub “the Rembrandt of plants.”
During the writing process, Thompson wanted to highlight the unique skills that her unfinished protagonist had developed in isolation. “I made this list of all the things you could do if you had scissors instead of hands,” she says. “Making topiaries was pretty high on that list.” Inspired by a recent viewing of The Shining, Thompson had grown fascinated with the showoff shrubbery, which seemed like a perfect fit for a story featuring competitive suburban neighbors. What if, she thought, Edward turned his home and community into a living sculpture garden, trimming unruly plants into pristine animals and characters?
As eventually depicted by Burton, Edward ingratiates himself to the neighborhood by doing just that. Starting in his adoptive family’s backyard, he flexes his sharp fingers and swiftly crops an overgrown bush into a life-size T. Rex before turning another batch of shrubs across the lawn into a family portrait. It doesn’t take long for him to transform the entire street into his own art gallery, trimming up swans, dinosaurs, dolphins, and numerous other animals and figures.
However, while Edward makes it look easy, building those complex structures took more than just precise scissor work. A few miles away from Carpenters Run, Dan Ondrejko oversaw the movie’s topiary production inside a large warehouse. The master greensman, later responsible for the majestic landscapes in Jurassic Park, had scanned Duffield’s manageable dimensions and planned his manpower accordingly. Upon arriving in Florida, however, the production quickly realized the structures needed to double or triple in size to better highlight their surrealist quality. “Everything changed. It was a 10-foot brontosaurus [turning into] a 25- to 30-foot brontosaurus,” Ondrejko says. “All of a sudden it became twice as much.” Because of the change, the veteran landscaper drove up to Orlando to collaborate with Disney gardeners who had experience building massive topiaries for their theme parks. Based on Duffield’s animals and characters, the team shaped frames with rebar, before Ondrejko’s crew covered them with chicken wire and green paint. “Then we would attach a layer of different types of silk and plastic greenery to the outside shape,” says assistant greensman Dan Gillooly. “I had no idea what I was in store for.”
The process was draining. In total, Ondrejko’s local union crew worked 14-hour days for eight consecutive weeks, eventually transporting their creations over to Carpenters Run. “It was like Dan Ondrejko’s Rose Bowl parade, because I had all these animals on the back of a flatbed,” he jokes. “[We] had to crane them off. They were so freaking heavy.”
When he wasn’t overseeing topiary construction, Ondrejko was frequenting local flower shops. The master greensman needed a variety of plants to accent 50 different lawns, which Gillooly watered daily under the Florida sun. “I went to these mom and pop nurseries and wiped them out,” Ondrejko says. “I’d go in there and spend thousands and thousands of dollars.” To fill in the castle’s green-glowing entrance, Ondrejko used his botanical intuition, combining yellow marigolds and purple lisianthus around installations, and covering the rest of the grounds with foxtails, impatiens, and coleus. “I had to keep everything low enough so you could read the individual topiaries,” Ondrejko says. “It was quite a challenge finding the material and trying to follow through with whatever the production designer wanted.”
“It was like Paul Bunyan dressing the landscape with little petunias,” Czapsky laughs. “I was amazed.”
Upon arriving in Lutz, Thompson was amazed too. “My face hurt so much from smiling. You can’t even begin to imagine,” she says. “It was a ‘pinch me, I’m dreaming’ experience.” Throughout the two-month shoot, which began in late March, Burton was committed to capturing his crew’s expansive work, finding odd angles that highlighted the subdivision’s imposing ordinariness. “He almost always shot a master,” says Czapsky, who armed himself with a variety of wide lenses. “He wanted to use very few close-ups. … It went unspoken what the scene should look like and what should be amplified.”
Without the internet, and disinclined to make dozens of expensive cell phone calls each day, Burmeister spent the length of the shoot producing a one-sheet newspaper—The Tinsmith Times—that informed residents where to park their cars and when production would film each day. “I was basically the mayor of Tinsmith Circle,” he says. He and Maharis spent mornings cycling around the neighborhood, dropping off daily schedules and notifying Duffield about neighbor concerns, like paint marks on windows. “People came and went, rode bicycles, walked their dog, watched us film. It was as if they were renting our houses in a back lot,” he says. “It was almost like a Twilight Zone episode.”
Still, asking 50 households to spend their entire spring in an Easter-colored bubble was a big ask. When shooting officially wrapped around June, production moved back to Los Angeles to complete the interior castle scenes, but Burmeister stayed around Carpenters Run to close down the location. He went door-to-door, resolving any issues before a cleanup unit sprayed back the residents’ white exteriors and replanted bigger trees. “Because spraying it isn’t as thick as rolling it on,” Duffield laughs, “I heard that the pastel colors were burning back through.
Three decades after making its cinematic debut, Carpenters Run looks almost unrecognizable today. The barren sidewalks and high skies that once defined the fledgling development are now filled with 30-year-old trees casting long shadows. The once lightly populated suburbia is now surrounded by similar housing tracts that have grown in population. Still, as the remaining amount of original residents have witnessed, Edward Scissorhands continues to attract local tourists, cinephiles, and most importantly, prospective house buyers.
In September, the one-story Tinsmith Circle home, where Edward lived, sold for just over $230,000. Stacie Savoy, the property’s realtor, noted the home’s celebrity status in listings, but was still surprised by the three-bedroom corner lot’s popularity on the market. “It ended up being so much more of a selling point than I would have ever dreamed,” she says. “I had people calling from all across the U.S. wanting to put bids in on this house because of what it was.” The couple that ended up purchasing the home had a loose personal connection to the movie, and have recently returned its Necco-flavored facade. “They painted the house as close to the original blue as the HOA would permit them,” Savoy adds.
The movie history is a distinction not many homeowners and neighborhoods in the country can claim. It’s also an intact reminder of Hollywood’s commitments to out-of-the-box storytelling and mid-tier spending. Against its $20 million budget, the movie made $56 million at the domestic box office during its holiday-season release, earning critical praise for its delicate themes, Depp’s sensitive performance, and Danny Elfman’s mournful score. Most notably, though, its striking visuals offered testament to Burton’s old-school embrace of practical, back-lot filmmaking, creating a pasteled time capsule in a pre-CGI world. “Tim, back then, wanted to do everything as much as possible in-camera,” Duffield says.
In its widespread devotion to that tangible ethos, Edward Scissorhands only hammered home the spell of real suburbia—its allure, its sociology, and its discrimination. Though it was a parable wrapped with fantastical elements, the movie’s depictions of working husbands trying to “get away from it all” by spending “all weekend fine-tuning that yard,” Gillooly notes, along with white housewives eager to gossip from the edge of their lawn, suggested something much darker and closer to reality. In the brief time Burmeister got to know the Tinsmith Circle residents, one thing was clear: “These people viewed their house as an island.”
Meanwhile, after living on a 100-acre horse ranch for the past 20 years, Thompson recently returned to the suburbs of Southern California. “Now, I’m one of the old people not really expecting the neighborhood to feed my fantasies about fitting in and that stuff,” she laughs. And while she hasn’t been able to get to know her neighbors because of the pandemic, she’s sure the darker side of suburbia hasn’t touched her street. “In this neighborhood, people do more looking after each other than they do judging of each other,” she says, before pausing. “But I could be dead wrong.”
Jake Kring-Schreifels is a sports and entertainment writer based in New York. His work has also appeared in Esquire.com, GQ.com, and The New York Times.