NEW YORK (AP)—Dressed in drag and standing in front of a meat locker, Johnny Depp smiles into the camera and cheerfully declares, “Tim’s a swell guy.”
In its genuine warmth and weirdness, this moment, played out between scenes during the filming of 1994’s Ed Wood, encapsulates the ongoing collaboration between Depp and director Tim Burton.
Even amid the dark, surreal worlds the two have brought to life, they’re all smiles.
Marking their sixth film together is Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the new adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s gory musical about a barber who seeks revenge while cutting the throats of his customers.
“Singing. Who’d have ever thought?” wondered Burton at a recent interview, where he and Depp both still found it hardly comprehensible that two guys who don’t like musicals (including an actor who doesn’t sing) had just made one.
“Certainly not me. Least of all me,” chimed Depp, whose hippy-dippy necklaces, colorful bracelets and round-rimmed glasses stood in stark contrast to Burton’s dark duds, spiky black hair and squarish, purple shades.
While reminiscing about their new film and 17 years of working together, Depp and Burton often pick up each other’s conversational trails, most of which end in either reveling in what they’ve managed to get away with in Hollywood, or in some kind of self-deprecating joke.
Burton continued: “Now you’re going to get all these scripts and be like, ‘Shall I do Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat or Jesus Christ Superstar?”
Laughing, Depp retorted: “Hair. Then I’m going straight to Annie.”
The two can chuckle at more mainstream fare because they have both specialized in offbeat eccentrics. Their paths first crossed in 1990’s Edward Scissorhands when Burton cast Depp in his first leading role following his teen idol success on the TV series 21 Jump Street.
The two recall their first meeting with clarity.
“I remember walking into that coffee shop like it was yesterday,” said Depp. “I just knew instantly that he was the real thing. That was clear to me. There was an instant connection.”
While many of the classic director-actor pairings (John Ford and John Wayne, Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune) have often focused on a particular genre, the Burton-Depp collaborations span a variety of films, albeit ones with a penchant for fantasy.
Besides Scissorhands and Ed Wood, their previous projects include Sleepy Hollow (1999), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) and the animated Corpse Bride (2005).
“We’ve been lucky enough to do things that the studios never want to do,” said Burton, with Depp adding: “On more than one occasion.”
“It’s surreal,” says Burton, a veritable expert on that topic. “That feeling never quite leaves you that we’re able to do something. It’s almost like getting away with something.”
Though Burton has maintained a mostly consistent record of box office or critical success, Depp has ascended to the top of the A-list—a development that has made their risky endeavors a lot easier to bankroll.
“He protected me well,” said Depp. “He fought for me to be in his movies for a number of years.”
The advantage of frequently working together, Burton and Depp said, is that they have a well-developed shorthand and are able to discuss characters in abstract terms but still arrive at the same understanding.
“When we were doing Sleepy Hollow, Tim and I were talking about a scene and obviously you veer off on weird little tears and start talking about Charles Nelson Reilly or Paul Lynde or something odd,” said Depp. “A crew member came over to me after we were talking and he said, ‘I just listened to you and Tim talk about the scene for the last 20 minutes and I didn’t understand a word you guys were saying.’”
“That about sums it up,” added Burton.
The two are close friends and Depp is the godfather to Burton’s young son. But Burton said the partnership has evolved without any conscious planning or consideration.
“It surprised me. I wasn’t looking for it,” said Burton. “You never plan anything, it’s just project to project—if it’s the right role and something he responds to. I always think of him because he can do anything.”
Others have noticed their unique relationship, including Chris Lebenzon, who has edited Burton’s last nine films, five of which have starred Depp. He compares Burton’s movie sets to a strange kind of family.
“Tim is a guy who needs the best people around him because he won’t always articulate what he wants, but he knows it,” said Lebenzon speaking by phone from Los Angeles. “It can frustrate him if people aren’t getting it, and Johnny always gets it.”
Depp originally came to Hollywood to pursue a music career, but as a guitarist—he only occasionally sang back up. He had no proper experience ever singing before Sweeney Todd, yet received the blessing of the studio and Sondheim (who could veto any casting decision) without so much as a demo tape.
“It’s like, ‘OK, you want to do an R-rated musical without any clue whether the lead actor can sing or not?’” marveled Burton. “He’s finally arrived at the absurd level of show business.”
“I’ll never do it again,” said Depp of singing. “It was one time only. If it worked at all, it only worked because of the circumstances.”
Depp opted not to take singing lessons and instead hunkered down in a studio with a musician friend to work on his voice.
“It seemed counterproductive to stand in front of a piano noodling on scales,” said Depp. “It seemed like you wouldn’t be able to find the character.”
Several of the other leads are similarly distant from being Broadway musical veterans, including Alan Rickman (who plays the object of Sweeney’s vengeance) and Helena Bonham Carter (Mrs. Lovett). Another frequent actor for Burton, Bonham Carter is also his longtime girlfriend and mother to his child; a second is expected any day now. (Said Burton: “Hopefully, it will turn out to be a human being.”)
For Burton, casting Depp was a matter of trust in his actor that made him at ease having a non-singer star in the musical.
“When Johnny said he thought he could do it, that was good enough for me,” said Burton. “He wouldn’t have said that otherwise. He would have just said, ‘No . . . way in hell I could do this.’”
Burton is now in the process of planning two features: Alice in Wonderland and Frankenweenie, the latter of which is based on his 1984 short of the same name. Depp, who lives in France with long-term girlfriend Vanessa Paradis and their two children, has had one project (Shantaram) shelved due to the writers’ strike. Instead, he recently signed on to star in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies.
Though they have no immediate plans to work again together, they both hope—and rather assume—it will happen.
Says Depp: “If the phone rings, he doesn’t even have to finish the sentence. I’d be there in a second.”