Tim Burton has a thing about cemeteries. You often see them in his films. There was one down the street from where he lived as a child, in which he was often found playing. “It was where I felt peaceful, comfortable,” he remembers. “I was obsessed with death, like a lot of children.” And there’s one here, too, on the set of his latest excursion into macabre movie-making, Sleepy Hollow, the edges of which Burton is pacing.
It’s a grey morning, and a cold wind is racing across the English countryside carrying the threat of rain. Sleepy Hollow’s seasoned British crew is bundled up against the elements: all ski hats, puffer coats and fleeces. Burton, meanwhile, decked out in his all-black film-making uniform of beret, thigh-length coat, Levis, work boots and jumper, appears to be impervious to the chill. As his actors (Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci and Miranda Richardson among them) huddle together, slipping on thick coats between takes, sipping coffee and smoking—Richardson hugging a hot water bottle to her chest in an effort to keep warm—Burton removes his jacket and hangs it on top of one of the polystyrene tombstones, which rocks ever so slightly in its place.
In the near distance, at the foot of the hill on which Sleepy Hollow’s cast and crew are clustered around an open grave waiting to film a funeral, is the small, eponymous hamlet itself. It’s a Tim Burton kind of town, full of twisted, gravity-defying buildings, all odd angles and angry wooden facades, the ground cloaked in a thick, black, squelching mud that’s no special effect, the air heavy with smoke.
Welcome to Tim Burtonland, the Batman director’s take on an upstate New York Dutch settlement circa 1799. It’s been constructed in a dank field near Marlow in Buckinghamshire at the cost of close to £1million for just four weeks of filming. (They came to Britain when they couldn’t find a real town in which to film in the U.S., but ended up building one anyway.)
Today, as is often the case, Burton is an exhibit in constant motion, prowling between the tombstones like a hyperactive child who’s consumed too many E-numbers, scarcely able to contain his excitement. Even the sudden appearance of the sun, unacceptable for the portentous, gloomy nature of this morning’s scene, cannot cloud his temperament. Burton loves it here. For starters, it reminds him of upstate New York, where he spends much of his time when he’s not filming. Secondly, surrounded by most of Sleepy Hollow’s leading cast—which includes Michael Gambon, Jeffrey Jones, Michael Gough and Richard Griffiths—Burton is doing what he loves best. “It’s the hardest time, but my favorite time is being on the set,” he says later, “which is where you’re making this stuff. There’s such a good atmosphere.”
First published in 1819, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving’s tale of Ichabod Crane, a hapless schoolteacher with an eye for the ladies who falls foul of the Headless Horseman, is an American classic. While there has been a TV movie version and a 1949 Disney animated short, of which Burton waxes enthusiastic—”it had a very good mix of humour and scariness”—this is the first full-length movie version since a 1912 silent adaptation. Burton came on board midway through last year when his Superman project (with Nicolas Cage as the Man of Steel) went belly up. Producer Scott Rudin offered him the Sleepy Hollow script (written by Seven’s Andrew Kevin Walker, polished by Shakespeare in Love Oscar-winner Tom Stoppard) to direct. It was perfectly attuned to Burton’s gothic horror sensibilities and haunting visual style, and he immediately connected with a character who “lives in his head versus a character with no head.”
While Paramount wanted a big name to play Crane—who has been transformed from a schoolteacher into an unorthodox New York police detective sent to Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of brutal slayings—Burton always wanted his Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood star, Johnny Depp. “I enjoy working with him because he’s very chameleon-like and open to ideas,” Burton says.
Depp concurs. “I was excited to go back to work with Tim, just to get back in the groove, work together, collaborate. It’s just like home, it’s really comfortable. That was the real seductive thing.” As with Burton, Irving’s story connected. “I loved it as a kid. I was probably not too dissimilar to Tim in the sense I was drawing Frankenstein and Dracula at a very early age, too early. It was very early that I went to the dark . . . . I always loved that image of the Headless Horseman.”
Depp does his best, most intriguing work for Burton, and in Sleepy Hollow, he gives another stunning performance, all wide-eyed nervousness and scaredy-cat twitchiness. You can see why actor and director work so well together, beyond their obvious friendship. Burton allows Depp the opportunity to go out there. Way out. Although Depp says Crane was originally written as your standard leading man, “a little bit clumsy like the book, but not nearly enough,” he decided to, well, “Tim and I thought our aim was to make him much closer to the book, and even go a little further. I’ve tried to make him prissy, you know, kind of prissy, almost like a nervous pre-teen girl. He’s very squeamish when it comes to seeing a corpse, or when he sees a bug he’s kind of . . . euuhhh, it freaks him out.”
Depp’s Crane is part Roddy McDowall, part Angela Lansbury, part Basil Rathbone. “I always thought Roddy had such an interesting gift, just great presence, great delivery, he was an interesting actor, one of those guys who was very individual. Angela Lansbury was a great inspiration; I loved how she was in Death on The Nile, I found her fascinating. These two were the most inspirational characters. Maybe a little bit of Basil Rathbone, but a lot more girlie.”
“He’s sort of the odd leading man,” agrees Christina Ricci, who plays Katrina, the mysterious daughter of Sleepy Hollow’s richest family, the Van Tassels, and Crane’s paramour. “Ichabod’s a very strange person, and this is an odd film to be romantic in.” So odd that, for the first two weeks, Ricci says, she wasn’t sure what kind of movie she was acting in. “I didn’t really know what was going on,” she confesses. “Usually you get a sense of what kind of movie it’s going to be. Of course, you read the script, but scripts are like shells and somebody adds a tone to it. It’s hard to figure out, and our lines are really dramatic and over the top anyway. The way I look at it, this being a fairy tale and a horror film, I’m sort of the stereotypical damsel in distress. I get rescued quite a lot.” Depp smiles when told of Ricci’s puzzlement. “I think she runs a little too much for her liking,” he grins.
To see Burton and Depp on the set together is like watching a pair of naughty schoolboys, two members of their own little secret society plotting some heinous crime, giggling constantly. “We still kind of laugh about the same things we used to laugh about on Scissorhands and Ed Wood,” Depp says. Recently, they’ve been obsessed with various celebrities from the past, in particular, Georgie Jessel. “We’re talking about real individuals from years gone by,” says Depp. “We were noticing that there’s nobody like these people [today]. We don’t have that kind of individual person in the sense that maybe they have an act, maybe they’re goofy or funny or whatever, but there’s no one like a Georgie Jessel, no one like W.C. Fields, nobody that’s individual anymore. Ed Sullivan was accepted as a completely normal, huge star, but [was] the weirdest guy alive.”
Ever since his first feature, 1985’s PeeWee’s Big Adventure, Burton has been tarred with the “weird” brush himself. But his is the kind of weird that makes money. Lots of money. So Hollywood is happy, even if they don’t always get it. Or him.
Beetlejuice compounded the view, doing even bigger business, and convincing Warner Bros. he was the man to helm Batman. But while that film’s billion-dollar success earned him a place on the Hollywood A-list, Burton refused to go down the obvious sequel route, choosing instead to tell the very personal tale of a manchild with scissors for hands, unable to connect to those around him, a film which marked his first collaboration with Depp. A marvelously imaginative, emotive modern fairy tale, Edward Scissorhands confirmed both Burton’s status as a visionary and his box office clout. Ed Wood, his 1994 biopic of the delusional Z grade-director (which remains his most mature work to date) and 1996’s Mars Attacks! failed at the U.S. box office, but Sleepy Hollow’s taking of $70 million has confirmed his clout financially, even if his artistic merits have never been in doubt. [Editor’s Note: Sleepy Hollow eventually earned $100 million in the U.S., confirming true blockbuster status.]
Although he had the Disney cartoon version much in mind while making Sleepy Hollow, the film also owes an obvious visual and thematic debt to the Hammer Horror films of the 50s, 60s and 70s which starred Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, as well as to Mario Bava’s witchcraft movie Black Sunday. Burton says he wasn’t trying to duplicate any specific Hammer film—rather that he was recapturing the feeling and atmosphere he got from watching them as a child.
Part of that atmosphere was a result of the large amount of stagework Hammer used, a method Burton utilized to its fullest on Sleepy Hollow, where virtually 95 per cent of the movie—interiors and exteriors—was filmed on elaborate sets built at Leavesden and Shepperton studios. The result is one of the most ravishingly beautiful films of the 90s, with Emmanuel Lubezki“s cinematography alone worthy of the ticket.
Yet the Hammer illusions are more than just visual. No stranger to casting his childhood horror heroes in his work, Burton—whose first film, the five-minute stop-motion short Vincent, was an ode to Vincent Price—cast Count Dracula himself, Christopher Lee, as the New York burgomaster who dispatches Depp’s detective to Sleepy Hollow. On the day Lee filmed his cameo, everyone—Burton, Depp, even composer Danny Elfman, who turned up clutching a copy of Lee’s autobiography—was more than a little in awe of the septuagenarian actor. And Depp, who forged a lasting friendship with Price after they worked together on Edward Scissorhands, equates the connection he felt with Lee to that.
“Christopher Lee is just legendary,” insists Depp. “He was just so on the money every take. It was inspiring. He’s probably had to deal with every petty bullshit thing in life and in this business and he’s survived with integrity. He’s a very graceful man, as Vincent was, gracious, humble, wise, a survivor. He’s done hundreds and hundreds of films, he’s just an amazing presence, an amazing man.” Depp laughs, “When you are in a scene with the guy and he’s leaning down into you, his voice booming, and you look into those eyes, I mean, it’s Dracula.”
Burton agrees. “It’s like you’re looking at Dracula, even now. You’re looking at him and you’re hypnotized. Everybody’s got their people, but if I was an actor, that’s the kind of actor I’d want to be.”