Tim Burton had already traipsed through China, scouting locations for his next big cinematic event, "Ripley's Believe It or Not!" starring Jim Carrey, when Paramount halted preproduction on the film.
Burton describes himself as "pretty devastated" by the development. Robert Ripley was a California-born cartoonist, newspaper columnist and worldwide seeker of curiosities; he once aspired to a career as a pro baseball player. Burton, too, is California born, the son of a former minor-league ballplayer. An inveterate sketcher, he became a filmmaker, populating his movies with a circuslike array of freaks, outcasts and curiosities.
"I know it's a business," Burton said recently, the frustration evident in his voice. "But for those of us working on the film, you get excited, and it's an art form. They should feel lucky that you treat it like an art form."
Burton didn't have to brood all that long, though, for another long-gestating project suddenly found life -- a big-screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," starring Burton's frequent doppelganger of a movie star, Johnny Depp.
Still, "Sweeney" was no slam dunk. Although recent screen adaptations of the musicals "Chicago" and "Dreamgirls" have been smash hits, "Sweeney Todd" is a different kind of beast. How do you solve a problem like a bloody, R-rated musical about a serial killer, starring movie actors who aren't professional singers?
One way is by giving it to Burton, who has long maintained a head-turning aplomb as he presents each new theatrical entertainment. "Sweeney Todd" nevertheless comes at an interesting time for the 49-year-old director. Burton is a genre unto himself, but maybe lately too unto himself. His brand has lost some of its panache as he has delved into expensive remakes such as "Planet of the Apes" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," neither of which was highly regarded.
"Sweeney Todd," which opens Dec. 21, is another ambitious re-imagining of a venerable text. The result is a beautifully scored, high-art slasher film, told almost entirely in song and topped off with Depp paying homage to Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff.
Tim Burton, just in time for the holidays.
The making of meat pies
"Sweeney Todd" co-stars Burton's companion, Helena Bonham Carter, as the meat-pie-making Mrs. Lovett; Alan Rickman as the evil Judge Turpin; and Timothy Spall as Beadle Bamford. The story, with its origins as pulp magazine fodder in Victorian England, went through various literary interpretations before Sondheim's operatic 1979 Broadway musical, which starred Len Cariou as Todd and Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett.
Burton first saw the show as a twentysomething CalArts student on holiday in London; he went back over consecutive nights, dazzled both by the music and its sense of the macabre. There is about Todd the mythology of a monster -- a barber turned homicidal maniac after being wrongfully exiled, who then teams with the also-nutty Mrs. Lovett to turn the London gentry into the filling for her meat pies.
Burton started to adapt the musical years ago before getting sidetracked; a movie version was at one time also attached to "American Beauty" director Sam Mendes. According to Burton and producer Richard D. Zanuck, the project fell together again quickly.
The pairing of Depp, with dead eyes and big, scary hair, and Bonham Carter lends a different vibe to the twisted relationship between Todd and Mrs. Lovett. They're almost heroin-chic-looking, the guy thirsting for blood and the girl counseling patience. They don't exactly have heart-to-hearts; as played, the comedy is so dark it's subterranean. Burton likens his "Sweeney" to a relationship movie.
Earlier this fall, while Burton was in New York working on the sound, Zanuck was in Los Angeles, hustling a nearly complete version to various studio screenings. Burton, who trained in the business as an animator, will tell you he has never had an easy alliance with big studios, even as he continues to be in business with them. He lives in London and comes to L.A. as seldom as he can, he said, leaving much of the studio interaction to his producer.
Depp fans, Burton loyalists
With "Sweeney," the hope is that Depp fans (i.e. young girls) and core Burton loyalists will support the box office. Still, it took three studios (Warner Bros., DreamWorks and Paramount) to back a budget of about $50 million; Burton shot the film in less than three months at Pinewood Studios outside London.
Burton fell in love with London when he was making the first installment in the "Batman" series. "I had this, like, weird past life experience," he said. "I don't get that kind of New-Agey kind of feeling very often, but [I] just felt, 'Wow, I feel very much at home here.'" His own back story, given his current station, is kind of remarkable: born and raised in Burbank, Calif., to a father who worked for the parks and recreation department and a mother who once had a gift store for cats. He escaped into movies and TV more than books and theater.
In the film, Todd's first kill is the blackmailing rival barber Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen of "Borat" fame in an electric blue jumpsuit). Blood shoots freely from Pirelli's neck.
Burton has long thought the violence in the show was more illustrative than literal -- an orgiastic release. There were Internet rumors that he was being made to cut back on the gore, which he says isn't true; he says he warned executives early on. "The first thing that came out of my mouth was, 'There's going to be blood in the movie, so don't even ask.'" Burton told executives, he said.
Some of his artistic team are new collaborators: cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, who did the "Pirates of the Caribbean" blockbusters, and production designer Dante Ferretti, an Oscar winner on Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator." "Sweeney Todd" is lushly beautiful in its sepia-toned gothicness, a Burton trademark. London is shrouded in fog, the sun just a rumor.
But really the film co-stars Burton's dreamlike style with Depp's latest acting choice.
Influence of Amicus movies
This time around, Depp has gone off into the ornate insularity of Chaney and Karloff, actors who Burton feels moved in a style all their own. John Logan, who wrote the screenplay, said he and Burton share "stunted childhoods watching Amicus movies," referring to the British company that in the 1960s and '70s produced films such as "Dr. Terror's House of Horrors " and "The House That Dripped Blood." Here, that aesthetic gets married to Sondheim's music, re-recorded by a 78-piece orchestra. Even by Burton's standards for opening titles, the one for "Sweeney Todd" -- the Bernard Herrmann-esque overture booming as the camera takes a fetishistic tour of Todd and Lovett's killing machine -- is exhilarating.
Sondheim had final approval of the cast, although the finicky composer mostly stayed out of the way, Burton said.
"I had a lot more traffic with him than Tim realizes," said Zanuck, later hastening to add that Sondheim loved the finished work.
A skeptical Sondheim
Zanuck recalled that Sondheim, before seeing a screening of Burton's film, asked: "'Richard, am I going to like this movie?'"
"'If you can leave Stephen Sondheim in the hotel, if you go as a movie fan, just lean back and enjoy it,'" Zanuck said he told him. "'I'll supply the popcorn, you just be the fan.'" "And he looked at me and said, 'You haven't answered my question.'"
If "Ed Wood" and "Edward Scissorhands" put Burton on the map, "Big Fish," which came out in 2003, was unusual in that it was the first time Burton seemed to ask himself why he was drawn to the fantastical in the first place. It will be interesting to see if "Sweeney Todd" is received as a mainstream masterwork or further evidence of Burton's growing reputation as a filmmaker who visualizes stories more than he tells them.
Next for the director is a 3-D version of "Alice in Wonderland" and the remake of his 1984 short "Frankenweenie" for Disney.
Through it all, Burton has remained true to the thing that he does. Told that he seems to have waded into "Sweeney Todd" without feeling the need to steep himself in the entire history of musical theater, he laughed and said: "You're pointing out something; that's why I loved doing 'Ed Wood' so much. I loved that character because he either didn't know he was delusional, or whatever, but it didn't matter."
"Ed Wood," which came out in 1994, was Burton's high-spirited, black-and-white paean to the so-called worst director of all time. In Burton's hands, Wood became an enduring symbol of the filmmaking art as hope beyond all reason.
"That's why I responded to that movie and that character so much, because it's exactly true," Burton said. "And I feel kind of blessed with it in a way, because ... I do worry about certain things, but I also don't, in a way. Which is why I'm able to do things. Otherwise I wouldn't be able to do it."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times