Music in their blood
Roger Moore Tim Burton and Sweeney Todd were made for each other, writes
YOU ’ D think you could get a rise out of Tim Burton by pigeonholing the guy, telling him that the bloodspattered Stephen Sondheim musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is the movie he was born to direct. But you can ’ t. Maybe it ’s too obvious: the lyrical, gothic throat- slashing melodrama meets a director known for his love of the gothic, the sentimental, the macabre.
You can ’ t call it being pigeonholed when you ‘‘ do an R- rated musical, with blood, ’’ he says from Los Angeles with a chuckle.
Burton, 49, gave us Sleepy Hollow , Corpse Bride
and Edward Scissorhands. H e ’s famed for his wild hair, his artist ’ s eye and his dark world view. It turns out he knew Sweeney Todd was right up his alley when he first saw the London stage production ’ s posters in 1980.
This lovely, lovely music juxtaposed against ‘‘ that grim, Dickensian imagery was very potent to me,’’ he says.
I couldn ’ t relate it to anything else I ’d seen ‘‘ or experienced. It ’ s not just the darkness. It had
Sweeney also has this sad, a kind of humour. tragic romance quality, which I like. ’’
Sweeney Todd is an oft- told and apparently fictional 19th- century tale of a Fleet Street barber who killed his clients and whose landlady, Mrs Lovett, disposed of the bodies and saved her butcher ’ s bills by baking them into pies.
It’ s a very simple, old- fashioned melo‘‘ drama, ’’ Burton says. Emotions are heightened,
‘‘ but at its most basic, it ’s just about what can happen in life, people working at cross purposes, people eaten up by the desire for revenge. These kinds of stories go back to the ancient Greek tragedies. People don ’ t like to admit it, but revenge is a very human trait. It ’s also a musical. People are singing. That ’s extreme. ’’
Burton has made his home in London for years, the last several of them with his leading lady, Helena Bonham Carter.
London ’s a city with a lot of texture to it, ’’ ‘‘ he says. We wanted you to be able to feel it.
‘‘ There are parts of north London where we live, Camden, Hampstead, you go up on the heath you can still feel Dickens ’s London.
But what we did for Sweeney is more horror‘‘ movie London. It probably has more to do with the old Universal Studios horror movies made on the studio back lot in the 1930s, than it does any real London. ’’
Burton has a reputation for using his memories of a childhood shaped by classic horror to create wholly realised fantasy worlds, the
Batman , the fanciful candy Gotham City of works of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory .
There is not really a hint of the straight world ‘‘ in his films, ’’ critic David Thomson wrote of him a few years back. Everything in a Burton film
‘‘ expresses the distorted feelings of a resolute, inescapable loneliness. ’’
Well, whatever works. Burton has just picked up the best director award from the US National
Sweeney Board of Review of Motion Pictures for Todd . Reviews have been enthusiastic, especially considering that as we went along, I
‘‘ realised we were basically casting all nonsingers ’’ , Burton jokes.
That paid off, he insists, and not just because he thinks Johnny Depp can do no wrong ( they ’ve made five movies together).
It’ s different from what you ’ d get from on ‘‘ stage, ’’ Burton says. Johnny still sounds like
‘‘ Johnny, Alan Rickman sounds like himself. They had to tap into a more emotional thing, which makes the movie a different emotional experience.
The songs here ‘‘
actors playing the character, and they sound to me like the character pouring his heart out. It gave an extra emotional weight to it that I liked. We were always trying to find the right balance of the emotional and the comical. Unlike on stage, with film, you can get up close, look right in the actors’ faces . . . Get up close enough to look into their eyes, and they have you. ’’
You ’d think getting that close would be troubling in a movie filled with slit throats and body parts. But Burton laughs that off.
I never felt the violence, the blood, was ‘‘ gratuitous, ’’ he says. I ’ve seen productions
‘‘ where they tried to skimp on it, but if you ’ re going to try and be politically correct, you shouldn ’ t be doing this story anyhow. It ’ s about a serial killer and cannibalism. The original production is quite graphic.
By going even more over the top with it and ‘‘ making the blood more colourful, bright red, I think I’ m serving the story, which is over the top. I remember the feeling of the original show, and there was that horrible quality of what we were seeing set against that beautiful music, which is what made it special and unique. ’’
Edward And yes, he sees the connection to
. G o ahead and make your joke Scissorhands about Depp and Burton going snip- snip- snip one more time. He ’ll own that, too.
The first song we did is the one that sets the ‘‘ tone for the film. My Friends . Sweeney Todd singing to his straight razors. That really sets up his character and her character and the razor ’ s
Edward character that is quite special to me. Scissorhands ? A little. But there you go. ’’ MCT Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street opens on January 24.
Old- fashioned melodrama:
Johnny Depp as Sweeney the homicidal barber, and Helena Bonham Carter as his accomplice in Sweeney Todd