Tim Burton and Johnny Depp have worked together so often, studios now assume that any new Burton movie will feature Depp.So it was with Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Burton’s adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s gruesome musical. The thing is, no one knew—or seemed to care—whether Depp could actually sing Sondheim (no easy task), and Depp kept everyone in the dark while making demos in a West Hollywood recording studio.
“It speaks well to Johnny’s reputation that everyone went along with it,” Burton says. “Sondheim, too. Because he had a say in who that character was.” That character, 19th-century Londoner Sweeney Todd, is a throat-slicing barber set on avenging the loss of his family. The first song Depp honed was “My Friends,” Todd’s loving tribute to his beloved comrades, the silver razors that will soon “know splendors” and “drip precious rubies.”
“It’s a beautiful love song,” Depp says, “about a different kind of love.”
Here Depp and Burton sing each other’s praises while talking about their sixth collaboration:
There’s a bar chart that ranks the blood in Sweeney Todd somewhere between Mortal Kombat and the Civil War.
JOHNNY DEPP: That’s quite a spread.
TIM BURTON: I wasn’t around for the Civil War.
DEPP: I was. I was looking for you.
BURTON: People say we’ve been working together for 10 decades. That would put us around the Civil War. But, you know, the blood is part of the story. When I saw the stage show, it was flying across the stage.
DEPP: But back to the bar chart. I thought it was going to chart the bars we frequent.
BURTON: That’s a chart I’d be interested in.
DEPP: We’d have to start with the bar at this hotel. A fine establishment.
Tim, you were upfront with the studio about the gore . . .
BURTON: That was the first thing I said to them: “There will be blood.” I’ve seen other shows where they try to skimp on it, and it really loses something. If you’re gonna skimp on that, why make a movie about a serial killer making people into meat pies?
DEPP: Meat pie sales are going to plummet.
BURTON: Nobody in America eats them anyway.
DEPP: Let’s not discount the chicken pot pie . . .
And the blood was on you, Johnny. I hear everyone wore trash bags when you filmed the gusher scenes.
DEPP: Trash bags and these white lab suits, like CSI: Crime Scene. Everyone except Tim.
BURTON: I did once, but, for the most part, no.
DEPP: Only when you were squirting.
BURTON: I like to get my hand in there. I did it on Sleepy Hollow. There’s a tradition. I have pretty good aim.
DEPP: You have incredible aim. In Sleepy Hollow, there’s a shot where you got the blood in between my glasses and straight into my eye. It was amazing.
BURTON: It’s like painting. It’s fun.
Producer Richard Zanuck was apparently a little nervous about hearing your singing, Johnny.
BURTON: I didn’t know what to expect. And when I finally heard him, I was amazed. It’s a hard musical to do, and he just made it his own.
It sounded like him. A lot of times, things get overproduced and you don’t hear the person in the voice. But you heard him. And it had an emotional quality that I had never really heard in the material.
Because you were in a band, most people assume you’re a singer.
DEPP: I did not sing. I did everything I could to avoid singing. I would step up to a mike to sing the harmony and then quickly retreat into the darkness. Singing was always the guy up front getting all the attention. And I didn’t want that.
You’ve said that the song you sent Tim, “My Friends,” was the first you’ve ever sung start to finish. That’s a little hard to believe.
DEPP: It’s true. I don’t sing along to music.
“Brown Sugar” comes on . . .
DEPP: I might sing a little harmony. I might air guitar. Drumming. I like to drum.
BURTON: What’s amazing is that a studio went along with this. Nobody knew if he could sing.
DEPP: It’s astonishing. I don’t know what they were thinking. What were you thinking?
BURTON: I was thinking it was funny. I can’t tell you how many years I had to fight to get Johnny in my movies. Nowadays, I can’t even open my mouth without the studio asking if Johnny’s going to be in the movie. It was a long time coming. It’s great.
How hard was it to act to your prerecorded vocals?
DEPP: Hard. My fear was once you recorded these pieces in your character, then you were locked into that, and so essentially 50 percent of your performance would be done before stepping on the stage. There’s something very scary about that—but at the same time stimulating, too.
BURTON: You’ve got to get in there and match what you did.
DEPP: And the first thing you discover is that there is no such thing as lip-synching. You’ve got to belt it out to the music. And what I thought was going to feel limiting was actually very liberating because the music gives you everything—the emotion, the movement. There was a kind of liquid quality to the set. It was like a silent film.
BURTON: Like Johnny said, there was no way to lip-synch. You see the vocal cords. So they did have to belt it out on each take.
DEPP: Which is even more embarrassing because just listening to yourself is really mortifying. You have to condition yourself to that.
BURTON: That was probably the hardest thing, in a weird way, wasn’t it?
DEPP: It’s the same crew Tim’s worked with for years. You know these guys. They’re family. And those guys are right there, and you’re [Depp breaks into a melodramatic warble]. You feel like a complete knob.
But now you’ve done it. So when does the Johnny Depp album come out?
BURTON: He’s got a big recording contract in Germany. He’s going head to head with David Hasselhoff.
DEPP: There’s a new sheriff in town, David.
BURTON: Singing is quite exposing in a way.
DEPP: When we first started talking about doing the movie, and I didn’t know if I’d be able to sing a note, I remember there were two fears. One was letting Tim down, but mostly it was being afraid of cackling. Just being giddy—like infants.
BURTON: Because it’s so ridiculous.
DEPP: It’s ludicrous. There are moments over the years—you can pick them out in each film I’ve been lucky enough to do with Tim—where I don’t know what it is, but everything is lined up, and when the moment comes, it’s insane and absurd, and you lose it. You cackle for hours.
BURTON: I had to leave the set once. Johnny had been playing Sweeney Todd for the whole movie, and then one day he had to be a normal guy in a flashback. I just completely lost it.
DEPP: He had to leave the set. Work stopped.
BURTON: They had to shoot a couple of takes without me because I couldn’t stop laughing.
DEPP: People ask, “Say something funny that happened on set.” These are the funny things. They’re not funny to anyone else, just to us.
BURTON: Which kind of works well for this movie. The characters in Sweeney Todd are in their own world. They’re all nuts in a certain way, but in their world, nuts is normal.
DEPP: They might as well be in show business.