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Feature: Sweeney Todd

Johnny Depp

Visionary director Tim Burton takes us behind the scenes of his gloriously macabre musical

If there’s one thing you don’t see often in Hollywood musicals, it’s arterial spray. Beautiful people spontaneously bursting into song, yes, members of the public suddenly launching into a meticulously choreographed dance number, yes, but unsuspecting victims having their throats slashed in a shower of gooey gore? No. In Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, however, macabre maverick Tim Burton is out to bring some haemoglobin-soaked horror to the notoriously prissy genre with his adaptation of the smash hit Tony award-winning musical.

“It was an amazing thing; you go to the studio and say you’re going to do an R-rated musical with lots of blood and no professional singers, and it’s about a serial killer and cannibalism and they go, ‘Great!’” laughs the director. “That was unheard of, I’ve never had that happen in my life before. That gave me hope that there are still people in Hollywood that are willing to try different things.” From Batman (1989) to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Burton has made a career of successfully melding his dark and decidedly non-commercial sensibilities with mainstream Hollywood fare, although this, along with 1999’s Sleepy Hollow, is one of the few times that he’s gone for all-out horror. “The first meeting I went into I said, ‘Blood is a part of the story,’ because I’d seen productions where they’d tried to skimp on it, be more politically correct and the productions really lost something,” he recalls. “That was the first thing I said to them and they accepted it.”

Having first seen the stage show 28 years ago, Burton has taken some time to transpose it to the screen. “I was still a student, I didn’t know if I would be making movies or working in a restaurant, I had no idea what I would be doing,” he reminisces. “I just wandered into the theatre and it just blew me away because I’d never really seen anything that had the mixture of all those elements. I actually went three nights in a row because I loved it so much.” Written by musical theatre legend Stephen Sondheim, the stage version had many elements that were ripe for cinematic adaptation, but also required a neat trim in one or two places. “In terms of the show, it was three hours long, but we weren’t out to film the Broadway show, we were out to make a movie, so we tried to keep the pace like those old melodramas,” reveals Burton. “Sondheim himself is not a real big fan of movie musicals, so he was really open to honing it down to a more pacey shape.”

Burton didn’t have to look far to find his Sweeney Todd, quickly signing up regular collaborator Johnny Depp, despite the fact that the actor had never sung in front of the camera before. While the two have worked together six times now, their first collaboration being on Edward Scissorhands back in 1990, working with Depp is still a revelatory experience for the director. “Yeah, there’s always something new,” says Burton of his leading man of choice. “Like seeing Johnny sing – I’ve never seen that in the many years that we’ve worked together. A journalist in America told us that we’d been working together for 10 decades, so we’re a lot older than we look. We actually knew each other before the invention of cinema, so we have quite a good, long relationship.”

by Chris Prince

Read the full interview in
Ultimate DVD #89

Photo © DreamWorks SKG
Feature © Visual Imagination 2008. Not for reproduction

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Ultimate DVD #89
May 2008
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