Tim Burton's slasher movie

Times Staff Writer

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 pre-production 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 circus-like array of freaks, outcasts and curiosities.

"I know it's a business," Burton said the other week, 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's delved into expensive remakes like "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 reimagining 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

"Have you ever had a shave before like that?" Burton said last month in New York of the cringe-worthy aspect of seeing a straight razor hover over an Adam's apple and delicately glide along skin.

"There are places that do it, there are places in London, there are places here. . . . There's quite a vulnerable situation. You know, you're letting some guy that you don't know stick a razor at your throat."

"Sweeney Todd" costars 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. Zanuck was standing outside an art gallery on La Cienega the night he heard that Paramount was suspending "Ripley's." Inside the gallery, as it happened, was Depp, with a similar hole in his schedule.

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.

Last month, while Burton was in New York working on the sound, Zanuck was in L.A., 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.

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.

"I would have liked a couple more days of shooting things, but, you know, it is what it is," he said. "There's a certain energy to it that's fine. . . . You know what? I prefer it this way. You can have a $200-million budget and feel like you're being choked to death."

In New York, Burton's spartan office had an Elvis throw rug. A Japanese toy version of Willy Wonka, an ode to his "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," sat on the windowsill, still in its box. He seemed harried but engaged; he tends to chase his thoughts as he talks. At one point, the lapel of his jacket quivered as his leg jiggled under the desk. There was another month to go of post-production, while back home Bonham Carter was nearing completion on their second child (she is due in December).

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 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. A conversation about eating alone while traveling reminded Burton of a job he once had at a restaurant called Sir George's Smorgasbord on Riverside Drive.

"A meal fit for a king," he deadpanned. "It was closed down by the health department, finally."

Mechanics of a killing machine

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 said he told executives.

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 costars Burton's dreamlike style with Depp's latest acting choice. Their last project together, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," had a mansion that melts in the heat and Depp seeming to channel Michael Jackson and/or Carol Channing as Wonka.

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.

Burton didn't want patches of dialogue interrupted by song, as is traditional. He cut the show's famous opening number, "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd." Why have a chorus singing about "attending the tale of Sweeney Todd" when you could just go ahead and attend it?

Sondheim had final approval of the cast, although Burton says the finicky composer mostly stayed out of the way.

"I had a lot more traffic with him than Tim realizes," said Zanuck, later hastening to add that Sondheim loved the finished work.

Previous attempts to turn Sondheim's musicals into feature films -- "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and "A Little Night Music" -- have been less than successful, and no one, perhaps, is more qualified to discuss the risk of big-studio musicals than Zanuck. 20th Century Fox, while he headed it, made such films as "The French Connection" and "MASH," and later, with David Brown, he produced "Jaws." But Zanuck also presided over the box office musical flops "Hello, Dolly!" "Star!" and "Dr. Dolittle."

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 him on the map, "Big Fish," which came out in 2003, was unusual in that it was the first time that 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.

Though his animated "Corpse Bride" was nominated for an Oscar, Burton's live-action work hasn't, and none of his films is on the American Film Institute's top 100 list. He claims that even his first feature, "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," made a lot of worst 10 lists and wasn't appreciated until years later. "The same thing with 'Beetlejuice,' " he said. Reminded that the late New Yorker critic Pauline Kael had loved "Pee-wee," Burton said: "That was kind of an amazing thing, because that was one of the rare ones."

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 was saying. "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."

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paul.brownfield@latimes.com

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