Burton and Depp Re-Team for Dark ‘Sweeney’
by Paul Fischer
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The combination of iconoclastic director Tim Burton and the always diverse Johnny Depp makes memorable cinema, and the pair clearly brings out the best in each other. Sweeney Todd, Burton’s stylish adaptation of the Sondheim musical, is no exception, and maybe the high point of both careers. Paul Fischer caught up with both in London recently.
Paul Fischer: You’re one of the few “movie stars” who still takes risks as an actor and won’t play the game. Where does that come from and what was it about this piece that appealed to you?
Johnny Depp: To answer the first part of the question, it’s probably a combination or something in between being hard-headed and ignorant (laughs) in terms of taking the road that I’ve taken. There’s an easier one out there for sure. And this, Sweeney Todd, Tim comes in the picture before all of that. Anything he would ask me to do I would jump at the opportunity.
Tim Burton: Except maybe a ballet
JD: I actually would (laughs). I would try.
PF: Why this character?
JD: I was familiar to some degree with the earlier versions and I’d seen the video of Angela Lansbury and listened to it quite extensively and I’d seen the more recent production of it and just thought it might be certainly a great opportunity to find a new Sweeney, a different Sweeney in a good way, slightly in a more contemporary way, like a punk rock Sweeney.
PF: You created a sense of suspense because nobody knew if you could really sing—was that fun for you to let them wait and see?
JD: I think I was probably more frightened than anyone, except maybe Tim. He (Burton) was amazingly, he really trusted me with it and I was very lucky that he allowed me to. I didn’t have a process, really, in terms of singing. I’d never sung before in my life, so I had to find my way to it and thought it was important that I keep it very low-key, and so initially I did these demos in my friend’s garage studio because I didn’t know if I’d be able to hit a note, to be honest, I really didn’t. I wanted to make sure I could do it for Tim. So the first demo I cut was my friend’s and I sent it to Tim and crossed my fingers and waited for the outcome (laughs).
PF: Is your character a victim or is he just out for revenge and violence?
JD: I think it probably is all of that. Layer by layer and one thing leads to another—yeah, initially victim who dreams of revenge and becomes obsessed with that dream of revenge and then becomes a compulsive obsession, madness, and that’s the only thing you have, the only thing that drives you or keeps you alive.
PF: Tim, I talked to Helena earlier and she was joking and saying how you auditioned her for the role and then you two didn’t talk about it for five weeks and during that period you were auditioning other women for the role? Can you talk about that process?
TB: It sounds very sleazy the way you put it. I thought it was important that—I had never done anything like this before myself and it is quite a difficult musical to do and you know, like in the stage thing and it is a hard role, all of the roles are hard, and I didn’t want to seem like I was just giving the job to my girlfriend or anything. I really was harder on her probably for that reason and I just wanted to make sure that she was really, really right for it, which she was and is. So, yeah I probably was harder on her than others for the reason of just wanting to make sure she was right.
PF: There are some scenes reminiscent or the look of Edward Scissorhands…
TB: I think for me it is only the fact that we did that movie and we did this movie and we are not lost on the sharp instrument angle, but the thing about this character that I love that is different from that is that we did that a long time ago and I was certainly more optimistic, where that character is represented, where now the Sweeney character is more interiorized, darker character, which I love. To see Johnny do both of those things was really amazing for me to see because I think this character for me is one of my favorite characters he’s done just because I love the interior brooding quality of the character and you put that with him singing and together and it just to me created an amazing new thing.
JD: Compared to Scissorhands? No. I think similarities in the sense that with Scissorhands or even Sleepy Hollow and Ichabod Crane in the way the characters were very much, like he was talking about, living inside their own heads kind of thing. Edward was a bit more innocent. I think there was only one moment when you saw Edward get angry.
TB: This guy is just angry the whole time. It’s like if Edward Scissorhands went into a major depression for several years.
PF: Apparently you and Sacha Baron Cohen had shaving lessons—how was that?
JD: Yeah, he still has scars all over his back.
PF: Did you come to learn the value of a good close shave?
JD: No. I’ve never really experienced that full on thing. This is a full beard for me—this is a lumber jack look for me (laughs). I’m hiding behind this—so no, I didn’t feel any of that but I can definitely appreciate it because when you get into the chair with a stranger and they lather your face up with incredibly sharp instruments around your throat—it’s frightening.
TB: I tried it once and it is really frightening to have a complete stranger have a razor at your throat and you don’t even know who he is. Just the sound of it, it is frightening in a way.
PF: Can you talk about Sacha Baron Cohen and how he was cast? He is obviously very popular in the UK.
TB: It was after Borat came out. He came in to audition and he brought in the score of Fiddler on the Roof and basically did all of Fiddler on the Roof. He was great, I admired him because he could have gone off and done lots of different stuff, but he chose to do this and it was great that he did it.
JD: God, I would have loved to have seen that.
TB: I wish we had a camera, because he literally went through the whole score of Fiddler on the Roof.
PF: Given the level of violence and it is a musical, do you see this as a challenge at the box office? Is that something that crosses your mind?
TB: It is always a risk, of course. I remember when I first saw the show in London back when I was still a student basically. I didn’t know anything about the musical and I remember seeing the show and right when Johana—these two very proper British ladies were sitting in front of me chatting throughout the show and then when Johana came up and blood starts squirting across the stage they both stopped and paused for a minute and one lady leaned over to the other and said, “Is that really necessary?” [laughs] But in fact it was necessary and I’ve seen other productions of it where they tried to be a bit more politically correct and skimp on it and it really lost something because the show is based in those old Grand Guignol horror theater melodramas where they had buckets pouring out onstage so it just felt like it was true to the spirit of what the show was and is and it is over the top too so it never felt like—it is more of an emotional release then it is a reality thing in this movie and the studio was cool about it and they accepted it because they knew what the show was any movie is a risk, but it is nice to be able to do something like that that doesn’t fit into the musical or slasher movie categories. It is in its own category.
PF: Your character is always angry—were there any catalysts?
JD: I don’t know. I haven’t seen the film. But what’s funny is that the set was a laugh riot. It was a great time, a great experience, great fun. We laughed like fiends.
TB: I would say the humor from my point of view comes from just how serious he is and how single minded he is and the relationship he has with Mrs. Lovett and anybody else. He’s pretty much on his own track and there is something weirdly humorous about that and I guess it depends on what you think is funny.
PF: What does Tim get out of you that maybe no other director has been able to pull from you and what does Johnny do for you as a director that you don’t get from other actors?
TB: I’ll say he tries anything. The fact is he’s not a singer, he’s musical but he would try one of the hardest musicals ever to do, you know is like that just says it all. He’s just willing to go out there. Believe me singing is very exposing, especially when you are not a singer. It is a very exposing process, anybody who can do that can basically do anything so for me it is an artistic pleasure to see someone try different things and actually achieve it beyond expectations.
JD: Tim, since the first second that we met all those years ago in that little café, coffee shop in Los Angeles, for me there was an instant connection on a lot of different levels, on the most obtuse levels with this weird fascination or understanding of the absurdity of things that were totally perfectly acceptable in the 1970s, for example, like macramé owls and resin grapes and fake fruit. Like plastic fruit on your kitchen table, nobody thought twice about that. So it was the instant connection on the spot. Ever since then I have only wanted to as an actor, as a friend, but as an actor give him as close to what he wants or what I think he wants, any actor’s job is to give a director options just give him a bunch of options. The funny thing is I for example when I go into a movie and I’m [preparing] a character I start getting these ideas that come to me and I try to incorporate them into the character and feel good about it myself in hopes that others will feel the same, but when I am working with Tim as I’m coming up with the character before I think about what I feel about the character I’m thinking about him. I’m just hoping I won’t let him down, so he comes first.
TB: The other thing is, he is great because he doesn’t like looking at himself, which is great for me. You don’t have to spend—“after the take I’m going to go look and see,” he’s just completely open to whatever and “I don’t want to look at myself or don’t care to look at myself,” he just does a great job. That’s a huge issue for me to not have that kind of vanity of looking at yourself it keeps the process going and keeps it vital and that means a lot to me and the crew and everybody else and they get into the spirit of just doing it and not sitting around and analyzing everything.
PF: Can you talk about the use of the scenes in color vs. black and white? Does this show some of your point of view through the movie?
TB: Our inspiration for this was the old horror movies so we wanted to make the characters look like that—Johnny and I always talked about old horror movie actors so it was the opportunity to do that so you set the world in that. For the flashbacks you just try to treat it like the story. That was the happier time in his life so you know it is a bit more lurid, sort of the opposite of flashbacks which are usually more desaturated, we inverted that because it seemed more appropriate of the telling of the story. Her fantasy we put a lot of color into because it is her fantasy of a wonderful life so you just try to use color as an emotional character. That is why we made those choices.
PF: Tim, you didn’t get to do this one with Danny Elfman. How was the experience?
TB: Well, the score was already done, that’s one of the reasons I did this, but I think Danny would appreciate the score because Sondheim—when I first talked to him he said that he wrote the score as like a Bernard Herrmann score. It was interesting, when we recorded the orchestra and you don’t hear the vocals it is really like a great old fashioned movie score so it had the same kind of strength I get working with Danny but there was such a wealth of music and themes that Sondheim wrote that it was all there from the very beginning.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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