Perched together on a couch in a London hotel room, both suffering from the flu, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp make for a brilliant comic double act, sharing jokes, finishing one another’s thoughts, laughing like naughty schoolboys, goading each other into mischief. Theirs is a special relationship that extends far beyond professional respect and into the deeply personal. “He’s blood,” says Depp, who is godfather to Burton’s 4-year-old son, Billy. “He’s family.”
Ever since their first collaboration—on Burton’s 1990 magical fairy tale Edward Scissorhands—both director and actor have pushed each other to some of the best work of their respective careers, with Depp not just Burton’s on-screen alter ego but a master in his own right at interpreting the latter’s range of outsiders, oddballs and misfits—be it razor-fingered Edward Scissorhands, cross-dressing film director Ed Wood or creepy confectionary king Willy Wonka.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street marks the pair’s sixth collaboration, a melodramatic and gruesome adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s bloody Broadway musical revolving around the exploits of a 19th century London barber out for vengeance against the nefarious judge who arranged for his deportation on a trumped-up charge so he could steal the man’s wife and daughter.
Burton had originally seen Sondheim’s Tony Award-winning musical as a CalArts student on a trip to London in the early ‘80s, and had twice flirted with directing a film version, once after Batman, and again, almost a decade ago, before becoming sidetracked by other projects. The delay, he now reflects, helped serve both him and the film, which he terms “a silent movie with music”—not least in the casting.
“When I was involved with it a long time ago, I don’t even know if I knew who Johnny Depp was,” Burton says. “Now it seemed more of the right time. Ten years of life experience made me able to look at this character in a way that I probably wouldn’t have looked at it 10 years ago, a certain brooding darkness that creeps in as you get older.”
That brooding darkness imbues every frame of the film, a Grand Guignol-influenced slasher movie anchored by Depp’s performance and Helena Bonham Carter as Sweeney’s ever-resourceful accomplice Mrs. Lovett, who uses the massive grinder in her bake house to turn Sweeney’s victims into the filling for her meat pies.
In transferring Sondheim’s theatrical show to the screen, Burton shaved an hour’s running time, cutting some songs entirely, abridging others, telling the story almost entirely in song and yet determined to strip away anything remotely “Broadway,” with only one cast member, Laura Michelle Kelly who plays the beggar woman, a professional singer.
Depp’s musical pedigree was limited at best, having played bass and sung background vocals for Florida-based band the Kids back in the ‘80s, and his only previous on-screen musical was John Waters’ Cry-Baby, a film in which his singing voice had been dubbed. Was Burton the only director Depp would sing for?
“I don’t think I would have attempted this with anyone else,” Depp begins. “There was fear—”
“What if Barry Manilow asked you?” Burton suddenly interrupts.
“That’s a different thing,” Depp retorts, completely deadpan, “cause that might mean duet, and if that’s the case, I’m in.”
A car horn sounds in the street outside. “And there he is,” says Depp, not missing a beat.
The pair start giggling afresh and it’s a while before Depp continues.
“There was definite trepidation,” he says, finally. “I didn’t know if it was possible. I knew I wouldn’t be tone deaf but I wasn’t sure I could carry a song, let alone several, and something as complex as Stephen Sondheim’s. It was real scary for both of us. And talk about the opportunity to really flop. It was one of those, ‘Let’s turn the heat up a little.’”
While Depp toiled away on the third Pirates movie in the Bahamas, he began learning Sweeney’s numbers, later heading into a small L.A. recording studio owned by his friend Bruce Witkin to lay down some demos, none of which even Burton heard until the movie had been greenlighted and sets were being constructed at Pinewood Studios in England.
Although Sondheim, contractually, had casting approval over the roles of Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett, he said yes to Depp without even hearing him sing. “I was shocked,” says Burton. “I don’t know the guy very well but he doesn’t shy away from his opinion. I think he did have that instinct and belief that Johnny’s a good actor and could pull it off. He was a bit harder on everybody else.”
Later, when Sondheim’s musical director wanted to hear Depp sing, Burton played the role of protector. “There was a bit of a push for ‘I’ve got to see Johnny, I’ve got to see what his range is . . .’” Burton recalls. “That wasn’t going to happen.”
“I was so in fear when I had my meeting with Sondheim,” says Depp, as he fetches Burton a Kleenex to rescue him from a messy, flu-related incident, “thinking he was going to hook me, ‘All right, come over here kid, come over to the piano and belt one out for me.’”
Even compared to all the other weird and wonderful characters Depp has played for Burton over the years, Sweeney stands out as an intense, brooding, inward-looking fellow, a haunted soul fueled by an unwavering desire for revenge.
“He’s a tragic character,” Burton says. “I don’t think we ever saw him as a villain or even really insane. He’s just single-minded and tunnel-visioned.”
And, let’s not forgot, a serial killer. Yet Depp manages to find compassion and humanity within his emotionally traumatized shell to make you not just empathize but actually care for him, even as he’s slicing the throat of yet another victim.
In creating their Sweeney, Burton and Depp paid deliberate homage, both visually and stylistically, to those horror movie stars they’d idolized growing up, actors such as Peter Lorre—whose 1935 film Mad Love is a particular favorite of both men—Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney, performers whose minimal but expressive acting style they’d always connected with.
“It’s almost a lost art,” says Depp. “[John] Barrymore was a master, but the king for me was Lon Chaney. You go back and watch films like The Penalty and see this rage and sadness, this huge range of emotions, without the luxury of dialogue.”
Every day on set, says Burton, they would cut Sweeney’s lines down to the bare minimum. “Johnny can, just by looking and not saying anything, project pain and sadness and anger and longing,” he says. “That’s what all those actors could do without a word and that was the exciting thing about this. The story’s told through the eyes and the singing.”
And, once again, Depp found himself playing a character, as he did previously with Scissorhands and Wood, that Burton connected with emotionally and psychologically. “There were moments,” Depp recalls, “when Tim said, ‘You know, I think this is my favorite character.’”
“I just relate to the guy,” Burton explains. “Not speaking, staring out the window, brooding, no small talk, but your mind’s swirling around . . . and it’s a visual representation of that. I said to Johnny, if I was an actor, I swear to God, this would be the role I would love to play because you don’t have to talk, you just stand there, staring out the window. Perfect. The singing’s another issue. . . .”