“Hey, can I get some blood over here!” As Tim Burton hollers for fresh gore to smear on Johnny Depp, he rocks back and forth in his director’s chair like a giddy teenager hopped up on sugar. A demented grin spreads across his face, and a thought occurs: Is it some kind of career goal for Burton to make Depp look as ugly as humanly possible? In Edward Scissorhands, Burton turned the teen idol into a hideously scarred and pasty-faced outcast with razor-sharp shears for hands. In Ed Wood, he transformed Depp into a dentally challenged hack filmmaker with a weakness for tight angora sweaters and dainty pumps. And now, with Sleepy Hollow—Burton’s adaptation of Washington Irving’s gothic 19th-century fairy tale about Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman—all he can think about is smearing his leading man’s million-dollar mug with so much blood that Depp looks like a guy who just made love to a box of jelly doughnuts.
Even Depp, an actor who welcomes ways to drab down his looks, who attacks his roles with the rabid gusto of a rottweiler, appears to be wondering about Burton’s sanity as the director flings crimson syrup at his face as if it were a Jackson Pollock canvas. “C’mon, let me just give you a fresh basting,” says Burton. He dips a tiny paintbrush into the tub of red goo, then again, and again—until Depp can’t hold back any longer . . . “Tim, what kind of sick movie is this?”
Good question. The moment you step inside Soundstage H at Shepperton Studios—an hour north of London—you’re immediately transported to a haunted Hudson River forest, circa 1799. A thick curtain of fog hangs in the air, along with a heavy, death-like stillness. Blood-dappled autumn leaves cover the moist mossy ground. And the trees . . . well, they’re Tim Burton trees. Twisting branches reach out like agonizingly arthritic arms, and one, the so-called Tree of the Dead, rises 50 horrifically misshapen feet. It’s through this gnarled gateway that Depp’s Ichabod Crane—a skittish New York City constable sent to investigate a series of bizarre murders in the superstitious hamlet of Sleepy Hollow—will find the lair of the Headless Horseman and his grisly stash of evidence.
It’s also here that we find the source of all that fake blood. The black-clad Depp—looking more Colonial undertaker than constable—is hacking away at the Tree of the Dead’s base with a hatchet, each blow bringing a new squirt of red stuff to his face. Twenty-five feet away, Burton gazes into a monitor and smacks his lips with eerie delight. And as Depp peels back a strip of bark, revealing a cache of human heads, Burton literally rubs his hands together with fiendish glee. “Ooooh,” whispers the director. “It’s like a giant piñata of heads.”
That was the Christmas of 1998. It’s now two days before Halloween in 1999, in Manhattan, where midtown shops are decorated with holiday cutouts of ghouls and black cats. Outside delis, stacked pumpkins wait patiently for the sharp knife that will be taken to their throats. It’s the time of year when a guy like Tim Burton should be a pretty happy fella.
And yet, the 41-year-old director’s in a state of white-knuckled panic. Tonight is the first press screening of Sleepy Hollow, and he’s lurking around an editing suite seven floors above Broadway, making harried last-minute trims and fixes. Burton’s pre-curtain jitters are understandable. First, there are the box office concerns: At just under $80 million, Sleepy Hollow isn’t way over budget, but it is Paramount’s best hope for a holiday hit. Then, there are the stars: Johnny Depp may be one of the finest actors of his generation, but his drawing power remains uncertain—and indie darling Christina Ricci (The Opposite of Sex), as Depp’s love interest, isn’t exactly a proven audience magnet either. And finally, there’s Mars Attacks!: Burton’s last film was a big-budget flop—rare for the man behind Batman, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas.
On the other hand, it doesn’t hurt that Sleepy Hollow’s script—credited to Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven)—received a stealthy stem-to-stern overhaul from Shakespeare in Love’s Oscar-winning screenwriter Tom Stoppard. Or, for that matter, that Burton’s not-even-100-percent-finished version of the film is as hauntingly gorgeous as anything he (or anyone else) has ever directed. “I don’t even know anymore,” says an exasperated, deadline-sweating Burton. “You spend so much time on something that when you get to this stage, your nerve endings don’t allow you to let it go. If I had three more months I could keep playing with it, but sometimes it’s good to just pull the plug.” Dressed in his signature all-black Goth uniform and hiding behind an enormous pair of blue-tinted wraparound shades, Burton adds, “If you have too much time to think, you can dig yourself into an emotional hole.”
And Burton knows from emotional holes. Before producer Scott Rudin approached Burton about directing Sleepy Hollow, the director was stuck in a deep one. It wasn’t the fate of Mars Attacks!, which seemed to come and go overnight. “That kind of thing doesn’t stay with you too deeply because you can’t really control it,” says Burton. “I’m equally surprised if a movie does well or badly.”
No, the director was heartbroken over his experience with Warner Bros. on Superman Lives. After he’d worked on the project for a year (with Nicolas Cage set to star), the studio yanked the film away from Burton, citing script problems and a steep budget. “I had locations scouted and I had meeting after meeting. I don’t think those people realize how much of your heart and soul you pour into something.” Burton slumps in his chair. “I was pretty shell-shocked by the whole situation. And I didn’t want to make any old piece of crap just to move on—I didn’t want to be like, ‘Okay, I’ll do Police Academy 8 because I need the work.’ So when Sleepy Hollow was presented to me, it was like ‘This is the script. Do you want to do it?’ Who knows, maybe it was because of my previous year that I related to a character with no head.”
Before Burton came on board, the idea of a film about Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman had been kicking around for years. Well, not so much kicking around as sitting on a shelf in Rudin’s office. After reading Walker’s screenplay for Seven, Rudin bought the scribe’s Sleepy Hollow. He then held on to it for six years, until Paramount chairman Sherry Lansing got it rolling in 1998.
Rudin says the failure of Mars Attacks! never crossed his mind when considering Burton. “Sometimes I think it’s good to get someone whose last film didn’t do well, because they’re a little hungrier for a hit,” he says. “Although Sleepy Hollow is a big film, it doesn’t need to be Batman or Superman . . . no one’s life is going to be made or destroyed based on how well it does, which can be creatively freeing.”
But Burton was also drawn to the Headless Horseman for very personal reasons. As a kid growing up in Burbank, he’d while away the hours in darkened theaters, watching mind-warping triple bills of Scream Blacula Scream, Dr. Jeykyll and Sister Hyde, and Jason and the Argonauts. Sleepy Hollow was a throwback to those flicks, the kind that made him want to be a filmmaker in the first place. “I always remember how grateful I was to see them because they let you work through things,” says Burton. “They were a catharsis.”
Listening to him riff on the therapeutic powers of Scream Blacula Scream, it’s hard not to wonder: When a kid finds catharsis, redemption, even his basic sense of well-being watching schlock horror, what kind of freakish misfit does he grow up to be? “I don’t consider myself strange at all. Ask my girlfriend,” he says, referring to actress Lisa Marie, who plays Ichabod’s dead mother in Sleepy Hollow. “I’m not! . . . In fact, early on in my career that made me quite sad, and that was the inspiration for Edward Scissorhands. I’d always wonder why people are treating the monster badly—from King Kong all the way up. They treat it badly because they see it as different.”
If anyone seems suited to see things from Burton’s misunderstood-monster point of view, it’s Christina Ricci, star of two Addams Family movies and no stranger to oddball labeling by the press and movie industry. Come to think of it, the oddest thing about her is that she hasn’t been in a Burton movie before now. “Something I thought was kind of impressive about Tim is he didn’t see me like other people,” says the 19-year-old, who plays Katrina Van Tassel, the strong-willed, porcelain-doll daughter of Sleepy Hollow’s richest resident (Michael Gambon) and a no-good stepmother (Miranda Richardson). “He cast me in the part of a completely angelic, sweet and naïve young thing. And I thought, Wow, he must not have seen any of my other movies.”
It’s now two days after Burton’s jittery last-minute rush, and Halloween has finally descended upon New York City. High above Park Avenue, in a swank Regency Hotel penthouse suite, the only signs that Johnny Depp has changed his appearance for the holiday are two blinding gold-capped teeth. Depp says he got them to play a Gypsy in his next film, The Man Who Cried. “A lot of the Gypsies I was hanging out with had them, so I went to the dentist,” says Depp of the gilded choppers, which actually make him look more like a Bond villain from Moonraker. “Taking them off I’m going to be in big trouble. Apparently, it’s a pretty violent process.”
A less apparent but no less shocking change for the onetime tabloid bad boy is fatherhood: Depp and French pop-star girlfriend Vanessa Paradis recently had a baby girl, Lily-Rose Melody Depp. “I feel like there was a fog in front of my eyes for 36 years, and the second she was born, that fog just lifted and everything became totally clear and focused. To say it’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me is the understatement of the century.” Then Depp—a guy who in his younger, wilder days savaged fancy hotel rooms like this one—catches himself and laughs. “Look at me, I’ve become a cliché.”
While “Depp the father” may be a cliché, “Depp the actor” has carved a career out of very emphatically not following the ABCs of stardom. He hasn’t saved the world from giant meteorites; he hasn’t partnered with Jackie Chan to play a pair of wacky cops. And as a result, he’s never had the kind of Happy Meal tie-in blockbuster that makes an actor an A-list star. “Maybe I’m a dummy,” says Depp, who seems more interested in hand-rolling his cigarette than in pondering this dilemma. “But I don’t worry that a lot of my films haven’t had big results at the box office, because I’m not a businessman. Believe me, I would love for one of my movies to be accepted by a wide audience, but I’m not going to do a film just because it’s going to do that.”
That’s fine with Burton. “Johnny isn’t going to be the same in every movie. Plus, there’s a freedom with someone who’s not concerned about how they look in a movie . . . Actually, if it were up to him, he’d look a lot worse.”
Depp initially wanted to play Ichabod Crane with a long prosthetic snipe nose, huge ears, and elongated fingers. Not surprisingly, those suggestions were shot down. But after he read Stoppard’s rewrite of the script—which amped up not only Depp’s romance with Ricci but also the bunglingly comic aspects of his character—the actor was inspired to take the character even further. “I always thought of Ichabod as a very delicate, fragile person who was maybe a little too in touch with his feminine side, like a frightened little girl,” says Depp. “It’s true,” says Burton. “We may have the first male action-adventure hero who acts like a 13-year-old girl.”
In truth, Depp’s Crane comes off more nervous dandy than prepubescent girlyman. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t moments of concern over his unique interpretation. “At the very beginning of the shoot, Johnny told me that his inspiration for the part was going to be Angela Lansbury in Death on the Nile,” says Rudin, whose initial horror disappeared as soon as he saw the dailies (at which point he started referring to Depp as “Ichabod Crane: Girl Detective” on set). “For his birthday I got him a signed photo of Angela Lansbury that read ‘From one sleuth to another,’ and he absolutely flipped.”
Wait, let’s get this straight: A blood-soaked Johnny Depp is channeling Angela Lansbury while hacking away at a tree full of human heads? Sort of makes you wonder . . .
What kind of sick movie is this?