NEW YORK—What would Tim Burton and Johnny Depp talk about if they were left alone in a room for several minutes—with a reporter’s tape recorder innocently capturing the private moment?
Would they compare the relative beatnik cool of their goatees?
Debate possible names for Burton’s next major production, a stork delivery of unknown gender due any day?
Or maybe congratulate each other on how the critics are besotted with their sixth, and unlikeliest, collaboration: an R-rated film version of the Broadway musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, just nominated for four Golden Globes.
A check of the tape reveals that the director and his alter ego got caught in the act of discussing a couple of horror heroines of yore: Elsa Lanchester, the shrieking bride of Frankenstein, and the more obscure Caroll Borland, who once vamped with Bela Lugosi.
Why? Why not, given the Goth overtones and general weirdness that infuses their movies together.
It’s all the more fitting a topic, given that the actor now plays a vengeful Victorian-era serial killer who is filled with hateful rage after being wrongfully jailed and losing his wife and baby daughter.
Moviegoers eager to see Depp cut throats and growl Sondheim songs will get their chance Dec. 21, when Burton’s younger, gorier, sexier and swifter take on the haunting Tony-winning material reaches theaters.
They’ll find a barber whose customers get a closer shave than they bargained for. Think Jack the Ripper. Only with hot towels and a splash of bay rum.
In fact, Burton’s approach was inspired by old horror movies and spooky actors like Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre.
“We took cues from silent movies,” he says. “When Johnny walks into the barbershop, you just see the pain in his eyes. I find he doesn’t have to say anything. It’s an acting style you don’t really see anymore.”
Like a mad scientist and his monstrously talented creation, Burton, 49, and Depp, 44, have a kind of psychic bond that results in sometimes-bizarre notions that still manage to connect with the mainstream public. Even the actor’s horsey teeth and fey vocal manner couldn’t keep audiences from buying more than $200 million worth of tickets to see 2005’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
“We’ve been lucky to usually be on the same wavelength and like similar kinds of things,” explains Burton, who, like his favorite leading man, doesn’t like to get overly introspective when it comes to his work or his life.
Helena Bonham Carter, Burton’s very pregnant paramour of six years and mother of Billy, 4, has no such qualms. Depp’s on-screen partner in crime plays a lusty Mrs. Lovett, the meat-pie baker who puts Sweeney’s victims to practical use as filling, and she gladly dishes on the director-star relationship as she speaks from her London home.
“They have a great synergy,” she says. “They are very like each other. Chosen brothers elected by each other. They have the same sense of humor and share a deep respect. They have grown up together. Edward Scissorhands joined them. They are both introverts, but very flamboyant when it comes to their work. That is their release. They are rebels, anti-authoritarian. They are very age 7 in their sense of humor.”
But even in dark times, such as when Depp’s daughter, Lily-Rose, then 7, was hospitalized with a serious illness three weeks into filming, the two stick by each other. The actor suggested recasting. Instead, Burton shot Sweeney-free scenes until he returned.
“Thank God, she was all right,” Bonham Carter says. “It was really tough. But once it was definitely over, he was determined to finish the film and was very ready to come back.”
But mostly they are like adult playmates, grown men whose careers pay them to be childlike, at least in their imaginations. Unlike most male chums, they see nothing wrong with going shopping together.
The paparazzi recently snapped them drooling over Dr. Who and Star Wars toys at the British geek emporium Forbidden Planet.
“In fact, we have to end this interview right now,” Burton jokes. “We have to run to Bergdorf Goodman.”
“There’s a sale on,” Depp adds.
Shopping is one thing. Broadway musicals? Not major fans, which makes their involvement in Sweeney Todd all the more strange.
Jests Burton: “Oh, when are we going to see The Drowsy Chaperone? Let’s go 10 times!”
Exclaims Depp: “Mamma Mia!”
Confesses Burton: “Often, I’m dressed as one of the members of Cats.”
Actually, it wasn’t Stephen Sondheim or even the musical genre that interested Burton. It was Sweeney Todd, period. It made him want to do a film adaptation even before he was a director.
“I was about 20,” says Burton, who saw the show on the London stage. “I was a college student still then. I didn’t really know what I was going to do for the rest of my life. But I went three times in a row, I liked it so much. I just liked the mix of emotion and the melodrama and the humor. And the beauty of the music against that imagery, I thought was really unique. I hadn’t seen anything like it.”
So why don’t either of them enjoy other musicals?
“I just don’t go out of my way to see them,” Burton says. “Most are too campy for my taste. They are campy by nature, just someone breaking into song. This is more like melodrama, which I guess is kind of campy, too. Just not in the same way. It’s something I can relate to.”
Depp, who dropped out of high school to be a guitarist in a punk-pop band, concedes that he likes a few musicals. But only if they rock. “The Wall is as far as I would go. Tommy. Quadrophenia. Then I ended up in Cry-Baby in 1989, which is interesting. I didn’t have to sing then. We didn’t have time for any of that. They got some guy to sing for me, but I had to dance. Which was the most frightening part.”
At least he and Bonham Carter only briefly waltz in Sweeney Todd. Still, “I did ask for a stunt double,” he half-kids.
But Depp was eager to attempt his own singing this time. Unlike Bonham Carter, who took the traditional route and found a veteran vocal coach, he went off with one of his former bandmates, and together they found a way to handle the near-operatic numbers.
“When I first heard his demo, it blew me away,” Burton says. “He took this real hard music and he made it his own. It’s slightly modernized and makes it accessible.”
Depp isn’t so sure. “I would go back and try it again if I could right now.”
Bonham Carter also took baking lessons (“It was Martha Stewart gone mad”), the better to knead in time to the music while belting out “The Worst Pies in London.”
But no shaving classes for her Sweeney. “I didn’t have to take throat-slitting lessons, either,” explains Depp, who wielded custom-made blades. “And I slit more throats than I shave people.”
Not that he really disposed of anyone’s whiskers. “Only myself in the morning.” Though he came close with Alan Rickman’s lascivious Judge Turpin. “I lathered him, which made me very nervous.”
Sondheim approved of the casting and conferred on which songs to cut and other changes, slicing about an hour from the stage version. “He trusted me, knowing that I am not an idiot,” Burton says. “I think he sensed my passion.”
As the composer and lyricist told a preview audience full of highly opinionated Broadway types, “Those of you who know the show—forget it. Just go along with it, and I think you will have a spectacular time. It is its own animal.”
Speaking of animals, one of the more comical highlights of the movie is when Sweeney has a shave-off with his preening rival, Signor Adolfo Pirelli, played by Sacha Baron Cohen of Borat fame with the ripest Italian accent since Chico Marx.
He nearly upstages the entire movie. Not with his voice. But with the considerable bulge in his pants. Asked if Cohen perhaps shoved a large rodent into his tight periwinkle-blue trousers, director and actor laugh and deny any knowledge—although costume designer Colleen Atwood has since admitted that “a little quilted thing” was nestled near his groin.
“He was just very enthusiastic,” Depp suggests.
“He was very excited to do a musical,” Burton adds. “We tried to cover it up. But he’s just happy to be there.”
As for whether Christmas crowds will be happy to spend the holiday counting the bodies as they pile up in Mrs. Lovett’s basement, Burton has his answer all wrapped up with a bow and ready to go.
“You leave the theater thinking your life isn’t so awful, so it’s a time of hope. You know. ‘My family isn’t so rotten after all. That turkey wasn’t so bad.’”
Besides, we know someone who could carve that bird to perfection.