Tim Burton: interview

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With his sympathy for the outsider long established in his classic modern fairytale ’Edward Scissorhands‘ and affectionate biopic of Grade-Z moviemaker ’Ed Wood‘, not to mention a taste for the gothic enshrined in the Hammer-influenced ’Sleepy Hollow‘, Tim Burton has proved a surprisingly savvy choice to bring Stephen Sondheim‘s ’Sweeney Todd‘, long considered a masterpiece of twentieth-century music theatre, to the big screen. With regular collaborator Johnny Depp offering both scary intensity and a fine singing voice in the central role, the discipline of putting his own stamp on another great artist‘s vision has prompted the occasionally wayward Burton to turn out one of his very best films. The director is now resident in London, where he shares adjoining houses with partner Helena Bonham Carter (who gave birth to the couple‘s second child in mid-December)

Tim Burton: interview
Burton on set (left) with producer Richard Zanuck

Time Out: It’s a seriously grim, blood-soaked story: presumably the challenge was for it not to turn silly when the characters start singing?

Tim Burton: ‘Most musicals are camp by their very nature but the difference here was the melodrama of it, that sense of really extreme obsessive behaviour which made it feel to me much more like a silent movie with music. The material has a strong horror-movie vein to it. Johnny Depp and I were always talking in terms of old horror-movie actors like Lon Chaney and Peter Lorre. But then you get on set and you have to fit that in with a show which is about the belting-to-the-gallery type of Broadway singing. I think in the end it actually helped that we had non-professional singers. Johnny really made it his own; he keeps that extreme emotional element and still sounds like him.’

Was the idea of ‘a silent movie with music’ about trying to find a context which could contain Sweeney’s monomaniacal desires without losing the audience?

‘When I came on board to work with John Logan, the screenwriter, we actually put a lot of the music back in. The fact that the orchestra is omnipresent is really important, because Sondheim basically wrote this as a Bernard Herrmann-type score. This really edgy music gives the story its pulse, and takes you out of that old chestnut of “talk-SING, talk-SING”, which is the issue you often get when more traditional musicals try to deal with a dramatic story.’

Although there are cuts, Sondheim’s well served here, since you can hear all the words for a change…

‘And you can see the actors’ eyes, which was the most important thing for me. When you look at Peter Lorre, for instance, it’s all in the eyes, and Johnny’s the same here. He looks at the camera and you see pain and anguish and anger all at once.’

Did you make him resist his tendency to over-decorate?

‘I told him this was a perfect role for an actor; you don’t have to do anything, just stare out the window and… brood. Seriously, though, it’s definitely one of his most focused performances.’

Despite all the modern technology at your disposal, doesn’t this look rather like a studio picture from the ’30s?

‘That’s just what it is. Johnny’s streaked hairstyle is a bit of a reference to Humphrey Bogart in “The Return of Dr X”, for instance. I felt that if you took actors who hadn’t really sung before and set them in front of a green screen, to put digital backgrounds in later, they just weren’t going to connect. You had to give them a place to be in, let them feel their environment. So it’s just like an old backlot picture, except it’s Pinewood rather than Universal.’

Which makes it another instance of the nineteenth-century London of the imagination, which we see in so many Hollywood horror pictures and thrillers from the ’30s and ’40s…

‘It does, which is why we really didn’t shoot much location stuff. To me that studio element keeps it more in the fable or fairytale area of the cinematic world rather than anything historically accurate.’

Given that you’re now a Londoner yourself, do you feel there are still elements of that sinister old city surviving today?

‘It’s changed a lot, obviously, but the vibes are there. I live in Hampstead and there are these weird old passageways. I like to wander around when I get the time, and you can get a taste of old London almost anywhere once you get off the main drag and use your imagination. In Camden, I still feel that, though you probably have to be a bit careful around there…’

There’s a lot of carnage on screen. Was the studio worried that there might be a bit too much gushing?

‘Probably, but from the first meeting I had with them I told them there’d be a lot of blood, it would be an “R” rating, so let's not even discuss it. I’ve seen stage productions where they’ve tried to skimp on the gore and there was always something lost. How can you get politically correct about a guy who slits people’s throats and put them in meat pies?'Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ opens on January 25.

Visit our Sweeney Todd site for heaps of fear-filling content including an audio tour of the Demon Barber's London

Author: Trevor Johnston



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