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Short Back and Homicides

By Martyn Palmer
Empire Magazine
January 2008

Revenge! Passion! Slaughter! Showtunes? Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd, or how musical-hating Tim Burton and virgin singer Johnny Depp took on Broadway’s most acclaimed songfest and won. “On paper, it’s like the worst idea of all time . . .”

September 2007—Venice. It’s the morning after the night before, and Tim and Johnny are taking it easy. Some 15 hours ago, Venice rolled out the red carpet and asked Johnny (as in Depp) to present a Lifetime Achievement Award to Tim (as in Burton) at the city’s film festival. And really, who else would do? As double acts go, this one is up there with Laurel and Hardy.

“It was kind of cool,” says Burton, clearly delighted by the honor. “And what’s nice is that they’ve given it to me while I’m still young enough to enjoy it. Johnny didn’t have to push me out in a wheelchair . . .”

Depp chips in: “Yeah, with drool dribbling down your chin!”

Both are giggling joyously by now and Burton mimics a very old person’s doddery voice: “I’d like to thank you for this award . . .” Then it’s back over to Depp, who adopts a similarly creaky voice: “Yeah, and by the way, where am I?”

Where we are right now is in the otherwise deserted bar of a hotel so plush it’s plonked in the middle of its own island and you have to hire a boat to get to it. Earlier, your Empire scribe was one of a lucky few to be given a sneak seven-minute preview of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the sixth Burton-Depp collaboration which stars Depp in the title role and Burton’s partner, Helena Bonham Carter, as pie-maker Mrs. Lovett. Without wishing to go too overboard on what is essentially a glorified extended trailer, it’s looking good. Very good. And very dark, too.

Given the skew-wiff Gothica of their previous collaborations—Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Corpse Bride—there is no surprise they are couching this as a classic horror story with songs rather than a happy-clappy, let’s-do-the-show-in-the-barn-right-here singalong, with Depp more in the ballpark of Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre than Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly.

For Burton, the notion of turning Stephen Sondheim’s much-adored 1979 musical into cinema first surfaced some ten years ago and played squarely against his tastes.

“I’m not a huge musical fan, but I did like this one because I liked the horror movie/musical aspect, the story and drama and emotion of it. I just loved it,” says Burton. “But then it just went away. I always think there’s a weird subconscious reason for everything.”

So did Burton originally have Depp in the frame for the bloodthirsty barber?

“Well, I looked at some of the drawings I did for it back then and I suddenly realized Sweeney looked just like Johnny and I thought, ‘Wow!’”

Fast-forward a few years and Sweeney was back on the table again, so Burton sent Depp a CD of the Broadway musical, just to see what he made of it. The crunch was, of course, could Johnny sing? It was exactly the question Depp asked himself . . .

BURTON: I sent him the CD, and you know what’s weird about this is that they [the studios] are afraid of musicals anyway, but an R-rated musical with blood that’s not based on pop songs, it’s like “Fuck!”

DEPP: It’s like a joke on the studios . . .

BURTON: It’s kind of like Springtime for Hitler, but for real . . .

DEPP: It’s like Ed Wood saying, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea!”

BURTON: Yeah, it’s romantic! [Laughs] And then Johnny was like, “Great, great, great!” And everybody was, “Yeah, great!” And then it was like, “Um, can he sing?” Nobody knew. I didn’t know. So that’s the joke of the whole thing. In a way that’s the surreal nature of Hollywood, so you have to love it for that because on paper, it’s like the worst idea of all time!

DEPP: It sounds fantastic! But can he sing? I was trying to figure that out myself. I mean, I knew I wasn’t tone-deaf because I play music, guitar and all, but I didn’t know if I was actually going to be able to sing. I wasn’t sure. So I said to Tim, “Let me investigate and I’ll send you something and see how you feel. And then we can talk about it.” So I went into a friend’s studio and recorded “My Friends”—a song from the show—and I sent him that and he liked it.

BURTON: It was great. It sounds like Johnny . . . but singing!

Some directors might have been intimidated by the prospect of working with a leading man who’d never sung professionally before. Not Burton. He positively embraced it. And when it came to casting his adaptation, he chose actors over singers every time—Alan Rickman as Judge Turpin, Timothy Spall as Beadle Bamford, Sacha Baron Cohen as Signor Adolfo Pirelli and Bonham Carter (who had to audition for the part like everyone else) as Mrs. Lovett.

BURTON: I haven’t got a huge knowledge of musicals, but I do know that this is a very hard musical. And you know, that’s what I love about it—that and the fact that Johnny and everybody in it isn’t a singer . . .

DEPP: [Laughing] It’s going to be great!

BURTON: I think it brings an interesting tone to it. I’ve seen musicals where people aren’t singers and they are terrible. But everybody in this was great, I was very impressed . . .

DEPP: Helena was unbelievable; Sacha [Baron Cohen] was great. He can sing.

BURTON: And the great thing is, you hear a certain pop band, the Spice Girls or whatever, and they can be anybody, but these are all actors and their characters and voices come through. I don’t know, but it’s really exciting to hear a duet between Johnny and Alan Rickman, it’s just totally surreal. I mean, who would ever think about that? So you know it sounds like Johnny and it sounds like Alan and that’s great. That’s what I wanted.

DEPP: And it’s also really cool, because the whole surreal nature of it is Alan Rickman and I did a duet before we even met!

BURTON: Hahahaha.

DEPP: [Laughing] We had done a song together before we actually even shook hands. Honestly, how weird is that?

Depp, Bonham Carter and the rest laid down the soundtrack before filming started at Pinewood Studios and during each take when music was required, the relevant song would be played on set.

BURTON: Yeah, and that was an aspect of it that was really fun. It was like making a silent movie and having music on the set. It was fascinating for me to watch the actors and it felt like an old-fashioned movie—the music affects movement. It actually helps the crew, galvanizes everything. I found it quite liberating. Some people might think, “Oh, you are restricted by everything,” but it was incredibly liberating and fun to watch, because you just move differently when you’re hearing music. I would consider doing it even if I wasn’t making a musical now, because it’s quite fascinating to watch.

DEPP: Unfortunately yes, I did sing along with myself during takes. I don’t know how other people do it because I’ve never tried anything like this in my life. But I felt like if I was just mouthing it, the camera would see it and you’d be faking it on some level and you wouldn’t be committed to what you were doing. Basically, it was horrifically mortifying at times. You know, the poor guy who does the sticks and the focus-pullers who are, like five inches away from your head, and you’re belting it out. You just feel like a complete ass, but it’s necessary . . .

BURTON: But it’s really important. That was the brilliance of it. Everybody got that. The other actors did the same thing because you can see it in their throat, see it in their chest, that’s why it’s so important. It’s all about what’s inside coming out. I mean, that’s what this musical is. We cut out a lot of the Broadway-ish aspects of it, where the crowd is singing and that sort of thing, because it’s really about the characters and what’s inside. They are all kind of repressed and it’s important that you see it—you see his throat and you feel it coming out of the guy.

We should, they say, be thinking of a classic horror story with songs, rather than your typical Hollywood musical. For those not familiar with the story, Benjamin Barker is fitted up and sent to Australia for a crime he didn’t commit. When he gets back to old London Town, he’s understandably more than a little pissed off about things and sets out to take revenge on those who’ve done him wrong. And then some.

As Sweeney Todd, he’s a serial killer who dispatches his victims with a cut-throat razor as they sit, unsuspecting, in his barber’s chair. Once dispatched, they drop through a hatch and down into the basement where they provide the ingredients for some tasty meat pies served up by his partner in crime, Mrs. Lovett. The story itself dates back to the mid-1800s and there are even some who claim, wrongly, that it was inspired by real events. Sondheim himself has given his blessing to Burton’s project but he’s had no direct input.

BURTON: We haven’t added stuff but we’ve changed things. [from the musical] The whole thing for me was to try to be as true to the spirit of it because I love it. I think it’s really, really, good. But as a movie you have to do certain things. I mean, even the way certain songs end in the Broadway show, they are designed to get that “Ta-da!” You know, “Okay, applause!” You don’t want that in a movie. There’s a really long song after the intermission—you know, a standard Broadway kind of thing—and we don’t do that, so there’s trimming. Also, you’re looking at actors close up which you don’t get the benefit of on stage. And I think that was the biggest challenge, to try to keep true to the spirit of it but make it a movie.

DEPP: It’s odd, but there were things that you pulled out of the film that I was never aware of until they clearly identified themselves as theatrical devices. Like literally, “This is a device of the play for this reason,” and you would suddenly see it in the context of cinema and go, “Jesus Christ, that’s so unnecessary . . .”

BURTON: So there are things that we took out and we haven’t shown it to the composer yet so we’ll see what happens. But look, he’s a really smart, talented person, and so far, he’s just been respectful of the process. Like me, he loved the idea of Johnny but he had never heard him sing. He respects people to get it, so we’ll see what happens. [Laughs] But he’s only been positive and respectful. I think he’s a movie fan, so I think he understands that there’s a difference between what you might do on stage versus a movie, so we’ll see.

DEPP: I read all that background stuff on the legend of Sweeney Todd and there was part of me that wants him to be a real guy. You know, you go, “Yes, please let him be real!” I’d really love that. But it’s not the case. And basically, you read all of that stuff so you can throw it all away, so you can be aware of it and toss it. Basically, the character came from conversations with Tim . . .

BURTON: It’s the old horror movie actors.

DEPP: As Tim said, it’s a classic kind of story but these horror movie actors kept coming to mind, these iconic kinds of figures, and that’s where he lives.

BURTON: I think it’s one of my favorite characters Johnny’s done just because it’s so internal. We kept cutting out lines of dialogue every day because, again, it’s like a silent movie, and that’s the great thing about Johnny—he can convey something without saying anything, and if you can convey something without saying it, that’s magic. You don’t know what the guy is thinking but you just see turmoil and sadness and darkness and anger all under the surface and it’s great. He’s my favorite character.

DEPP: You know, it was really interesting and challenging in parts, and there was something really fun about it. Like Tim said, we would go in there and go, “You know, he shouldn’t say this,” because the less he says, the better it is. Because in life people have a tendency to talk just for the sake of talking because everyone is so fucking scared of silence. Just the idea of silence freaks them out. And certainly, in this case, you’ve got a guy who has been virtually silent for years and it’s like, “Shit! There’s something really weird going on . . .”

BURTON: See, for me that’s so real life. Like, it’s a fantasy, but it’s so rooted in a certain reality. It’s like a fucked-up relationship. It’s like people don’t look at each other. If you’re in a fucked-up relationship, you’re just quiet and people just don’t look at each other! [laughs]

DEPP: You don’t look at each other? [laughs]

BURTON: It’s like I ask you a question and you just go, “What?” It’s perfect! It’s the perfect relationship movie. Sweeney has come from our love of these old horror movies and trying to create an iconic character. You see Peter Lorre in Mad Love (1935) or you see Boris Karloff or Lon Chaney, all those old classic monsters. It’s an image and we just felt like that was what this character is about—you could see him in a wax museum and that’s perfect, you know what I mean? It’s a certain look, a certain feel, and it’s always exciting with Johnny doing it, that’s what’s great. He’s always into that kind of stuff.

DEPP: It was a real challenge on this one to find my guy because like Tim said, he needed to be iconic and you’re thinking of all these strong images like Peter Lorre in Mad Love, Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster . . .

BURTON: Simple. Just an old-fashioned, simple, strong image. And dark . . .

DEPP: He’s misunderstood! [laughs]

BURTON: It’s a tragic love story . . .

DEPP: He’s actually horribly misunderstood because, really, he’s a very sweet guy . . .

BURTON: He’s a damaged individual . . .

DEPP: He’s basically been dead since his life was taken away from him all those years before . . .

BURTON: He’s Dead Man Walking . . .

DEPP: It’s the only reason he has continued breathing, to wreak vengeance.

BURTON: There’s something very real about it, too. Obviously it’s fantasy, and he looks strange and all of that but . . . I don’t know . . . What I love about it is there’s something very primal and just real about the character, which I love . . .

-- donated by In-too-Depp