NEW YORK -- ll the lights are out and, by the minute, the shadows in the room grow deeper. Sitting in a chair in the corner of his hotel room, Tim Burton is dressed all in black. Black jeans. Black shirt. Black shoes. Black belt. And with his shoe-polish black hair, only his bone-white face is visible. That, and his long beautiful hands -- like a doctor's hands, or a blind man's -- with their thin, eloquently delicate fingers.

In an interview it's these hands, floating at the dark ends of his sleeves, that seem to do most of the talking. Burton -- who directed "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," "Beetlejuice" and "Batman" -- is famously inarticulate. In fact, his new film, "Edward Scissorhands," a surreal fairy tale about a lonely, laboratory-generated boy whose creator dies before finishing him, leaving him with huge, razor-sharp scissors for hands, is about just that -- the inability to communicate, to connect, and beyond that, to be fully human.

In conversation, the 32-year-old Burton struggles to make himself understood, and not always successfully. When he talks, his words come tumbling out in a knot, all tortured and scrambled, with running commentary, footnotes and self-doubting questions -- things like, "Did I just say that?" Or "What does that mean?" Or "I didn't really say anything there, did I?" Nearly every statement too is punctuated with maniacal, nervous laughter, a mad scientist's machine-gun cackle that rolls out in waves, with his white hands churning on top.

And, guess what? His fingers ... he scissors them.

A waiter arrives carrying a full tea service that no one has ordered. Burton accepts it with a puzzled shrug, beckoning the man into the darkness. "Want some tea?" he chirps as the waiter gropes around for the table. Burton is so wired he almost hums. This one, he says (meaning "Edward Scissorhands"), is driving him crazy.

"I'm more nervous about this one for some reason," he says, fidgeting in his chair. "It's just that it means more to me ... this one ... I think. It's more personal. I guess this is the first time where I just feel stronger in some way about it ... more internal about it. It's just a new feeling, you know, a new sensation."

The problem is that it's a private thing for him, making movies. And if he had his way, he'd make them and shove them away in a drawer somewhere and never show them to anyone. "I often question why I do it. I mean, I hate putting out my movies. I hate it. I get very nervous. Then I say to myself, 'What am I doing? What am I doing? What am I doing?' I'd rather spend $15 million and never show it. And what could be more absurd? You can maybe do paintings and drawings and not show them to anybody and you're not hurting anybody. But you can't spend millions of dollars. ... It's ridiculous."

"Edward Scissorhands" is the film Burton has been building up to, both personally and artistically. And when you add to this that the film is, in effect, a fairy-tale rendering of Burton's own story, his own upbringing in the suburbs of Burbank, Calif., his own adolescent feelings of alienation and estrangement, then the director's agitation becomes even clearer. Moviemakers often have pet projects that are a little off the beaten track, that have a special personal significance that may not communicate easily to the mass audience. In most cases the studios won't touch these projects and they don't get made -- that is, unless you're dead hot and get whatever you want. And since "Batman," Tim Burton has been dead hot.

In a sense he's visited the themes in "Scissorhands" before -- twice, in fact, in a slightly different, shorter form. In the early '80s, Burton worked in the animation department at Disney, which recruited him out of Cal Arts While he was there, he worked as an assistant animator on "The Black Cauldron" and "The Fox and the Hound," but for the most part he didn't really fit in.

"I couldn't adopt the Disney style very well," he explains. "I would do the cute foxes running around batting their eyelids, you know. And let me tell you, hearing Sandy Duncan's voice in slow motion for a year is not my idea of fun. It's like Chinese water torture. I just couldn't do it. Then they just put me in a room and told me to draw whatever I liked, do design work, and basically just let me run free. You can't ask for anything more than that."

The up side was that he had no one to answer to and could do whatever he liked; the downside was that because everything he did was so out of step with the upbeat, ultra-cute Disney style, none of it was ever used. "It was a very weird relationship, because on the one hand they let me get away with murder, but it was like, 'Don't tell anybody.' They were kind of nervous about it all the time. It was, like, 'Let's just close the closet door and don't let him out. Nobody says a word. We really don't have an intention on using it.' "

Finally he talked them into letting him make "Vincent," a hilariously inventive five-minute animation about a morbid 7-year-old boy who devours the poems and stories of Edgar Allan Poe, dreams obsessively of bats and spiders and zombie dogs and, more than anything in the world, wants to be Vincent Price. "Vincent," which was a kind of preliminary sketch for "Scissorhands," featured all the odd passions that fed Burton's adolescent imagination. Passions that, if you consider that Vincent Price plays Edward's creator in "Scissorhands," continue to feed him.

"That really came from my love of Vincent Price," he says. "Those movies Price made really did a lot for me growing up. They really ... it was a very good cathartic release for me. Because I was not ... I was very internalized. It helped me get things out of my system that needed ... really needed ... to get out. Seeing him in these movies, with their overly dramatic dark themes of insanity and death ... I don't know ... they're just things that I responded to. It came from a very strong place for me."

Burton's next project for Disney -- another short called "Frankenweenie," in which a small boy brings his beloved dog, Sparky, back to life -- is an affectionate, tongue-in-cheek reworking of the Frankenstein legend that, again, Burton would return to in "Scissorhands." Its high point comes when the boy's neighbors, who have burned down the windmill at the miniature golf course to which Sparky has fled, see their mistake and contribute their car batteries to revive him yet again. Ultimately neither "Vincent" nor "Frankenweenie" was released by Disney, bringing Burton's frustration to a peak.

"They didn't know what they were doing," he says. "This was the era of films like 'Tron' and 'Something Wicked This Way Comes,' and they were in a real transition phase. They were trying to become a modern company and didn't yet know how to do it. It was very schizophrenic."

Oddly enough, there's a lot of Disney in "Edward Scissorhands." With its grounds sprouting stupendously elaborate topiary, the castle where Edward lives is like a fantasy kingdom in a Disneyland conceived by Walt's evil twin.

"Actually, I think Walt was a pretty dark character," he speculates. "We held a se'ance once to try to bring him back, but we never really made a connection."

It's Burton's own boyhood angst, though, warped together with the Poe movies and a little Dr. Seuss (he's a big fan of "One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish" and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas") that provide the main text for "Edward Scissorhands."

"The idea had been in my head for a long time," he says, "but in sort of an abstract way. It's sort of very classical. It's like, I grew up loving movies like "Frankenstein" and "King Kong," and it's basically the same story. I always liked the idea of fairy tales. I never actually liked fairy tales, but I liked the idea of fairy tales. I just always had this desire to make a fairy tale that was done in more contemporary terms with things that I understood more. I see it as a whole fantasy world."

The scissors, he says, come from "that teenage period where you're feeling very dramatic. Those melodramatic years where you feel at odds with yourself and like you'll never be able to touch or feel. I always like that image. It's very symbolic of that dilemma, of being graceful and clumsy, artistic and horrific ... of cutting through and not being able to touch and feel. It's about those contradictions. It's a visual representation of all those, you know ... those psychological things that you can spend years in therapy trying to go over, but done in a way that is cartoony or simple or graphic. You know what I mean? Symbolic."

Still, though the character of Edward is built out of these personal feelings, though he is an artist like Burton and has wild black hair like Burton, the director for some inexplicable reason shies away from seeing him as purely autobiographical. "I worry about that, because lookit, this comes from a feeling that I've had and that I still have a lot, but a lot of people have these feelings. Do you know what I mean? It's like why do people have problems? Why do relationships have problems? So it's just that very sort of real-life kind of feeling that everybody feels every day, and this is just a simplification and an externalization and a symbolic, you know, fairy-tale version of that feeling."

It's understating the obvious to say that Burton wasn't like the other little boys growing up just down the road from Hollywood. His father, who had played a little professional baseball, worked for the parks and recreation commission; his mother stayed at home, raising him and his younger brother. They wanted him to be a court reporter, "I guess because we knew this guy in the neighborhood who was one," he says, laughing.

The suburban world around him, he remembers, couldn't have been more normal. But like the hero of "Vincent," he was haunted -- and still is -- by a romantic morbidity and by a profound sense of the underlying oddness of the world. "It was a kind of hellish place," he says, "but it was also a visually wonderful hellish place. The best of all possible hells. I was always very quiet. I really think I just wanted to be left alone. I really did. I was perfectly happy in my own little world."

He made his first movie to escape having to write a book report for school. "I found that it was an easy way to get through school, because all you had to do was make a little film and turn it in. I remember once making this cheesy little super-8 movie about Houdini. It was only three minutes long, with some pictures out of the book, interspersed with me escaping out of some of my friends' pool. Hey, I thought, didn't read the book, didn't write a word. Gee, this could be something."

Still, making a career in the movies never crossed his mind. Instead, he sketched and dreamed of maybe being the actor who played Godzilla. In the ninth grade, an anti-litter poster he'd drawn for a local refuse collection company won a prize. For a year it traveled around Burbank on the sides of garbage trucks. More by accident than design, he wound up at Disney, and then, when things turned sour there, a friend at Warner Bros. initiated talks with the studio about a project for Pee-wee Herman that turned into "Pee-wee's Big Adventure."

"I never made any sort of declaration that I wanted to make movies," he says. "It was like a mutation. I don't know, you know, it was weird, very strange."

The experience, though, was a happy one. Pee-wee was his kind of guy, as Beetlejuice and Batman would be later, but what he loved most about the finished film, he says, is its clumsiness and cheesiness. He admits that his films, in the purest narrative sense, are somewhat clunky, "but elegantly clunky," he says, cackling. "I have a twisted sense of detail, I think. I may focus on something that's not at all central to the story, that's way off out there. The script people despise me sort of 'cause I'm always following these little tangents that make the movie impossible to put together. I don't know, though. I can't resist it. That's the fun part for me."

Though he says the editing process depresses him, he loves the actual shoot itself, when he's on the set with the actors, planning out their moves and working with the camera. "I'm not a very technical person and I don't think I'm very ... I'm not a proficient filmmaker. And so the thing that energizes me is being there and seeing the sets and the characters come to life, seeing what the costumes look like and the people and how they're coming across in the frame and what it's looking like and what the feeling of it is and stuff. I do enjoy that, even though it's the most tense in a way. I like it the most because it's more human."

He's drawn to extremists -- guys who are dead, as in "Beetlejuice," or guys who dress up in bat suits. What he loved most about "Batman," he says, is that the central character is fundamentally damaged, nuts. "You've got this big, commercial studio film, and at the center of it is a depressive. You know, it's like, wow, free lithium in the theaters for the first 500 guests. He's such a funny character. That's why I wanted Michael {Keaton}. I was never comfortable with the handsome-hunk idea. 'Cause I always, just deep down, whether we went into the psychology of it or not, deep down I could never fathom the idea of some tall, rich, handsome guy dressing up like a bat. And with Michael, it just very simply I could accept it. For whatever reason, he just seemed messed up-enough-looking to do it. I could see him wearing that suit."

Given the sheer magnitude of the project, it's hard to imagine that Burton was able to work as freely and as personally as he had in the past, or as he would later with "Scissorhands." Remarkably, though, he reports that very few constraints were imposed. "I felt like I was making it my own," he says. "Actually I'm not unhappy with the movie. I think the biggest constraint was time. I mean, and there was a lot of chaos that didn't need to be there, but that's normal moviemaking stuff."

Is it a less personal film than his others?

"Not really," he answers, hesitating. "Maybe a little bit. There was a lot of stuff going on, and at times I felt more like, you know, just somebody working in an office signing off on things."

He sounds a little ambivalent about the film.

"Well, the ambivalence comes from not so much the movie as from the fact that it takes me about five years to sort of enjoy something. You know, like I can now enjoy 'Pee-wee's Big Adventure.' But there's just that normal sort of time frame where I can sort of have an out-of-body experience and sort of just experience it on its own. Plus the fact that there was so a big deal made about it ..."

Initially he was able to push the hoopla over the film out of his mind. But as the release date drew closer and hype intensified, he decided to escape into the desert. And what did they find? Guys in the desert wearing Batman T-shirts.

"It's kind of disembodied actually. Because it doesn't have anything to do with you. And there's nothing you can do about it. It has a kind of life of its own."

What does he do when he's not making movies?

"I don't know," he answers, laughing wildly. "I don't know. I just kind of wander around ..." Then, with mock hysteria: "ACCOUNT FOR YOUR TIME! I like to draw, and I've been doing some really cheesy paintings lately. I don't know what I do. Maybe I have blackouts and I don't even know it. I have no idea. The time seems to be taken up with something. I'm not bored usually. Maybe I just answer phone calls and things. That always seems to be a good Hollywood thing."

The hands are working full time now. It's suggested that maybe he just sits and contemplates the darkness. But this is quickly ruled out. Though death and darkness are everywhere in his movies, he says he's not overwhelmed by them. "Not to any extreme, abnormal degree." He's just a normal guy, he insists.

"I think darkness is a wide-open term in a way. I mean, some people might think something like 'The Love Boat' or 'The Cosby Show' is incredibly dark. Everybody's got a different take on it to some degree. Obviously it's not as simple as that but ... I just feel that that's the way everything is. You know, you meet people and I just ... real things are very strange aren't they? It's just all kind of mixed up, isn't it? It's just everything ... you never get one feeling, it's always a mixture of things. It's like, it's funny and it's sad and it's everything all mixed together ..."

He pauses.

"... You know what I mean?"