LONDON—Tim Burton, a filmmaker who loves to surprise us, is musing over the risk factor involved in making a movie like Sweeney Todd with his pal, Johnny Depp.
Finally he comes up with a conclusion.
“Well, I think that doing an R-rated musical with blood in it is definitely risky,” Burton says.
That’s something of an understatement.
Depp, who plays the fabled Demon Barber of Fleet Street and is sitting beside Burton, convulsed in silent mirth. Depp is possibly reflecting on DreamWorks’ audacity in releasing something like Sweeney Todd at Christmas, perhaps imagining the reaction of fans to those bizarrely operatic moments when they’ll see Johnny singing a Stephen Sondheim aria while adroitly slitting the throats of various victims, among them Sacha Baron Cohen and veteran screen villain Alan Rickman.
From the time Depp and Burton first worked together, 17 years ago on Edward Scissorhands, they have been pushing the envelope. But Sweeney Todd—a dark entertainment awash in blood, violence and despair—is something else again.
It’s the screen version of Sondheim’s award-winning Broadway musical based on a 19th-century legend about a vengeful London barber who would cut his customer’s throats and then dispatched them down a chute into the cellar below where they were chopped up and made into meat pies by his partner in crime, an obliging widow named Mrs. Lovett.
Musical or not, Depp figures Sweeney Todd belongs to a venerable horror tradition. “We’re big horror movie fans,” he says, invoking the names of famous screen bogey men like Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney. It was great, he adds, to return to a tradition “where the acting style was so different.”
But Depp also had to sing in this movie. Maybe not as frequently as Helena Bonham Carter, who portrays the raucous Mrs. Lovett and is given to singing odes to her meat pies, but still, for Depp, these were uncharted and potentially treacherous waters. And yes, he was frightened.
“I think I was probably more frightened than anyone, except maybe Tim,” he says. “Amazingly, he trusted me . . . I’d never sung before in my life, and I had to find my way to it and thought it was important I keep it very low key.
“So, initially, I did these demos in my friend’s garage studio, because, to be honest, I didn’t know if I could hit a note. I really didn’t. I wanted to make sure I could do it for Tim . . . I crossed my fingers and waited for the outcome.”
As it turned out, Depp found he could handle Sondheim’s intricate lyrics and tricky melodic lines. But the challenge was huge. “Sonically and musically, it’s quite big. It’s a huge beast.”
The shy, soft-spoken Depp has arrived today sporting a broad-brimmed brown fedora and a mustache. On this mild autumn day, he is wearing several layers—long overcoat with a scarf wrapped around his neck, a denim jacket under the overcoat and a heavy sweater under the jacket.
The reason he is so bundled up is that he isn’t feeling well. “I go through bouts of shivering and then just sweating,” he says apologetically. But at least he’s here.
Burton, as always, is dressed entirely in black, looking like a funeral director down on his luck. He really hasn’t changed in 20 years, except for the fact that his trademark rat’s-nest hair now reveals a few grey streaks.
Burton is in a gregarious mood as he confesses that he’s really not into musicals that much.
“I liked Cat Ballou,” Burton says. “I liked Guys and Dolls. But I’m not on Broadway every night or sitting at home watching Sound of Music.”
However, from the time he first saw Sweeney Todd in London, Burton was intrigued by its bold combination of music, violence, and social commentary. A further inducement for doing it was his discovery that Sondheim’s score was inspired by the music of legendary Hitchcock specialist Bernard Hermann, a composer Burton worships.
Burton has seen later productions which sought to be more “politically correct” and reduce the blood quota, but Burton thinks this was a mistake.
“It really lost something because the show is based on those old grand guignol horror theatre melodramas where they had buckets pouring out onstage, so this just felt it was truer to what the show was and is—and it is over the top—and the studio was really cool about it.”
For Depp, there was still a need to bring pathos to the role of a ruthless killer, which is why Sweeney Todd’s back story is all important—the fact that his life was destroyed 15 years earlier by an evil judge (Rickman) who dispatched him to the opposite side of the world in order to steal his wife and infant daughter from him.
As the movie begins, he is back and declaring war on the entire social system.
“Everything you need character-wise is there in the score and the music and the lyrics,” Depp says. “You just take that and add a dash of this and spice it up with that.”
Some see the character as a madman, but Depp doesn’t buy into that. “I was going back and forth on this. Is he insane? Well, who isn’t insane? But also, look at what he’s been through. His life has been taken away from him.
“The only way he’s continued to breathe has been to be able to remove the disease that has ruined his life. So, I don’t know if he’s insane. He’s just very single-minded. He’s this tragic figure—like a dead person, almost like a zombie. He can’t see anything else but revenge. I just find him very tragic that way.”
Although Depp has thought long and hard about his character, don’t ask him what he thinks of the movie. He hasn’t seen it and probably won’t.
“Have you ever seen any movie we’ve made together?” an amused Burton asks him.
“Yeah, I think so,” Depp replies hesitantly. It’s just that he can’t think of one, so Burton gets him off the hook.
“I think that’s healthy,” Burton says cheerfully. “I dig that more than people who love watching themselves.”
What both dig is working with the other. By now, their relationship is essentially symbiotic.
“There are so many levels, so many layers, to what Tim does,” Depp says. “I admire him as a filmmaker. I admire him as an artist for his vision. I think he’s a true auteur and there aren’t many of those. I think he’s a real visionary and genius.”
What Burton likes about Depp is the “mystery” he brings to every project. “The thing about Johnny is that . . . he’s got a process that he goes through, and it’s great. He just goes and does something and it always surprises me.
“He said he could maybe sing—and then he sings and it exceeds my expectations. So it’s always been a great surprise from the moment we met on Edward Scissorhands.”
Depp continues to be surprised by Burton as well. “I’ve been blessed to do these films with him, and each time I was engaged, because each time there was a different energy.”
But Depp stresses that Sweeney Todd pushed them into totally new territory—and that Burton came through.
“He hadn’t done anything remotely close to this. I hadn’t done anything like it,” Depp said.
“We were in an arena where we weren’t sure what it was going to be like, but when Tim got in, he was vibrating, he was levitating, he was so full of inspiration.”