It's close to midnight on an unusually frosty spring night. A bright moon peeks out from behind a cluster of clouds and illuminates a small village just outside London. Here, a gruelling gunfight is taking place in an old wooden church. A headless horseman is involved in the jostle and the shots have frightened the resident crows out of the graveyard and into the muddy main street. Just a few yards away and seemingly quite oblivious to the murderous activity, other villagers are tucking into bowls of jam roly-poly pudding topped with dollops of custard. Among them sits the local law enforcer, Ichabod Crane—also answerable to the name of Johnny Depp—a can of Carlsberg in one hand, fag in the other.
Welcome to Sleepy Hollow, the village created for Tim Burton's movie of the same name starring Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Christopher Walken and an awesome support cast that includes the creepiest selection of extras you've ever laid eyes on. It took the production designer months to find the right location for Sleepy Hollow, based on Washington Irving's classic American tale. It's all the more surreal that, of the many sleepy hollows in the world, the perfect one should be slap bang in the middle of the Home Countries.
"The grass was too lush and green so we had to paint it a duller colour," laughs the unit publicist Lauren Strogoff, a skinny slip of a girl swathed in goose down and Gore-Tex. "But then the sheep tried to eat it and we had to stop them in case they got sick. Johnny's horse kept eating the set, too."
It's the kind of movie that reminds you what film-making is all about. Every set is more exquisite than the next and every dress, wig, boot and twig draws you into a thrilling, Hammer horror-esque fantasy world. It's the same territory as the 1933 black and white adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, Michael Powell's A Matter of Life and Death and epic Technicolor studio movies like The Wizard of Oz. In Tim Burton's hands, the end result is even weirder, thanks to his obsession with a strange, post-modern creepiness—who could forget Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice or his adaptation of James and the Giant Peach?
"Things have always seemed eerie to me," says Burton. "You know, wondering if your parents are really your parents, or if your relatives are actually human." Burton cast Lisa Marie, his girlfriend and muse, as Ichabod's ethereal mother who comes to haunt him in his dreams. "I play Lady Crane, an eighteenth-century flower child who's a very psychadelic, spiritual character," explains Lisa Marie. "She gets tortured becuse she's full of unconditional love and teaches through nature. She's totally on a spiritual plane." But it's playing Johnny Depp's mother that makes Lisa Marie feel most peculiar. "Yeah, so I'm Johnny's mom," she laughs.
For Tim Burton, it's the non-creative stuff that makes him shudder. "I've seen things that I could never explain," he says. "Like the time I saw the ghost of a deer floating in an apple orchard in upstate New York. Or the time I dreamt there were people in my room and then I woke up and there were people in my room. But nothing could be more terrifying than having a test screening of your film for market research. Now that's scary."
Surprisingly, Burton was never interested in fairy tales as a child. You would think he'd spent his formative years with his nose buried in the Brothers Grimm. "But fairy tales weren't really taught in America," he says. Burton's imagination was stimulated instead by the Hammer horror films. "Monster movies were my version of fairy tales," he says, seriously.
You could say that Burton is a hallucinogenic version of Charlie Chaplin. Instead of a silly moustache and walking stick, his trademark is a beret, pulled tightly over his dark curls. Like Chaplin, he wears black from head to toe. When walking his stars through their next scene, he giggles wildly like a mad scientist. And the actors seem to adore him. "Burton is a great visionary," says Depp, who appears perfectly at ease in his eighteenth-century coat, breeches and knee-high leather boots. On the final night's shoot in the village of Sleepy Hollow, Johnny wades through the mud and shivers to himself as a scene is set up inside the church. "Isn't this a magical place?" he says quietly. "I want to live here forever."
Cut to Somerset House in London, a few weeks later. Burton has transformed the smart Georgian facade and cobbled courtyard into a New York scene complete with powdery soft snow and coach and horses. Over 200 extras are lining up to have their wigs tweaked by the army of wardrobe assistants. "I need my lips painted NOW!" shrieks a frazzled actress. A classroom of kids materialises in full Little Lord Fauntleroy regalia, singing Spice Girls songs to keep busy until they are summoned.
The sudden arrival of a blacked-out Mercedes brings everyone to a standstill. Even the horses freeze. The side door opens, Johnny Depp steps out with a Bill Clinton mask covering his head and brandishes a giant water pistol at the crew. Everyone scatters, laughing. A second later, Depp shimmies up a wobbly ladder to the director's hideaway on the roof of Somerset House and leaves the crew to get on with setting up.
All this hard work and it's only for a few seconds of screen time. As the "weathermen" cover the area with a perfect dusting of fake snow, Christina Ricci arrives. She looks so much like Alice in Wonderland, you half expect the Mad Hatter to appear from behind her skirt. Except Alice wouldn't be sipping on a can of Diet Coke and taking heavy drags on a Marlboro. In fact, on closer inspection she looks more like a rock'n'roll Cinderella. "She's so petite," whispers one gawping extra. A devoted PA produces a giant umbrella to shield this delicate urban fairy from drops of London rain. "I'm so tired," says Christina, stubbing out her cigarette with a minute velvet slipper. Her exquisite, candy-striped costume, designed (as is the entire wardrobe) by the Oscar-winning costumier Colleen Atwood, has a scary-looking corset at the back that makes her tiny waist even tinier. "Is my dress getting muddy?" she asks, frowning at the damp floor. But there's no time to worry, as Johnny grabs Christina by the hand and they step into a horse-drawn coach for their take.
Cut again to Leavesden studios. A dream sequence is about to be shot in a technicolour forest. Giant toadstools are awaiting a daubing of glitter from the set decorators. A nest of birds, confused by the fake autumnal hues, have flown into the warm woods, escaping from the studio next door where a wintry scene has just wrapped. A few blasts of fake mist and the set is ready. After a quick discussion with Burton, the cameras roll and Lisa Marie slowly floats up from the ground like a ghostly fairy.
As you watch the cast on this film, it's clear to see how captivating it must be to work on a Burton production. Each scene is so imbued with mystery and make-believe that reality is suspended the moment you arrive on set. "Seasons go by and you suddenly realise you're still in a dark warehouse somewhere," says Burton. This is an approach to film-making that's so heavily based on craft, it doesn't seem to have room for Hollywood egos and starry tantrums. And what could be more magical than that?