Inspired by old horror movies, the weird and the macabre, the sad and the sweet, Tim Burton brings leagues of fans deep into his own, imaginative world with each of his films. His latest project is a film adaptation of the campy, 1970s television show about an 18th century vampire displaced in time.
Burton reunites with some former collaborators: Johnny Depp (Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sweeney Todd) and Michelle Pfeiffer (Batman Returns), as well as new faces that fit right into his playful, Gothic style: Chloe Moretz, Jackie Earle Haley, Jonny Lee Miller, and Bella Heathcote. Buzzine’s Emmanuel Itier spoke with the director and cast of Dark Shadows about their characters’ bizarre family, Burton’s signature style, and more.
Emmanuel Itier: Several of your past few films have been adaptations – namely Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sweeney Todd, and Alice in Wonderland. What drew you to Dark Shadows, and what were you trying to accomplish?
Tim Burton: It took a while because I mean, Johnny and I talked about it many years ago. We’re both fans of this show. This show had quite an impact on us because it was such a weird cultural phenomenon, this weird soap opera, supernatural, on in the day time. So, it had a weird thing in our memory. I realized later with Johnny that it went further. I think even before he became an actor when he was a kid he wanted to play Barnabus Collins. So, I think it’s kind of a childhood dream for him to play that character, which made it stronger as well. But the show just had a strange tone and vibe. So, the idea of trying to capture that was an interesting challenge for me because it’s this weird kind of soap opera acting and you could kind of get that… so it was an interesting challenge – the tone of the movie.
EI: Is Johnny Depp any different from when you first worked together?
TB: Yeah, I think you have to be. I think that’s part of any artistic relationship with somebody you’ve worked with is that each time needs to kind of feel like it’s the first time. You’re experiencing a new character, a new person, and so therefore yeah, you’re always… that’s the way it should be. I think anytime you lose that element of surprise and dynamic within yourself or with the people who… it’s not a good thing. So, it’s important.
EI: You’ve assembled a huge cast for Dark Shadows. It seems like you were the ringmaster of a huge circus. How do you manage all those characters?
TB: Well, I mean because they were all great. I mean, luckily… first of all, you pick actors that are right for the role. That’s number one. Second, you try to work with people that are like, that you like too, you know what I mean. You can never predict how that’s going to go. But, I was very lucky on this to really enjoy each of the cast members. So, it makes it easier for me. A lot of it is in the casting. You cast the right people and it makes it much more gratifying and fun and surprising.
EI: The house that the Collins live in is enormous. In fact, all the sets feel like they're on an even grander scale than your usual production design. Where do you draw your design inspiration from?
TB: Well, it’s bigger than the show, which we’ve a bit more money than they did. But, yeah I mean, there was a sense of… building sets was important because I’ve done with green screen before, but this, with the characters more actor driven, it just felt more important that people were in sets. The house is a character. The setting is a character. So, it was important that everybody – the cast and the crew – could feel it. So, the texture of it… all of that. I treat that stuff like another character in the movie.
EI: Every film you’ve made in recent years is met with wild box office success. Do you feel like you have the freedom to work on any project you choose?
TB: I think there’s always limitations. I mean, that’s just the nature of film, which is fine. I think that there should be limitations. But it’s a struggle whether you’re doing a lower budget or big budget, it always seems kind of a struggle. I think that’s part of the process.
EI: You’ve become so iconic as a director that your work has a remarkable signature style. What do you think defines a Tim Burton film? Do you think you have a special vision?
TB: I never try to categorize, you know, because I’ve always resisted that. It’s hard for me to watch the films after I’ve done them. So, I don’t really analyze them that way. For me, I just try to personalize everything. So, that’s the best way I can describe it. I don't know if there’s a style or not or anything. It’s just, you try to make anything that you do as personal as you can make it.
Tim Burton & Johnny Depp
EI: After twenty-three years and now eight films, have things changed between you two as friends and colleagues?
JD: No. Not really, I mean it’s still feels like it did back when we first…I mean when Tim first cast me in Edward Scissorhands. It still feels that fresh. We’ve never sort of relied on any kind of formula.
EI: It’s rumored that you two have your own secret code at this point.
TB: Code of silence.
EI: You just nod at each other?
JD: Pretty much.
TB: Knowing looks.
JD: At this point yeah, Tim can just sort of tilt his head a certain way and I know. I can kind of access what he wants from that.
TB: If one of us throws up that means something is wrong. These little hints that we find.
EI: How did you two meet?
JD: It happened at a diner in a hotel – I think it was the Bellagio Hotel. I was scared to death to meet TB because at the time it was like 1989 I think it was or something. I was considered at that time, you know, there was sort of the stamp of a TV actor of whatever. I was trying to cancel the meeting because I was scared it was going to be pointless. Then, we met and I ended up going to the meeting and we met in that diner and sat and talked for a couple of hours – a really long time. I just remember we just kept drinking coffee. I left the place chewing on my spoon – like gnawing on it. It wasn’t like one of those meetings that you… very rare where you just connect on various levels.
TB: You don’t really analyze it. I think it’s the same thing with the work. You don’t sit around and go why? You don’t pick it apart lbecause a lot of these things are just sort of more surprising and organic. I think as a sort of artistic relationship, that’s the most crucial thing. I don’t think he would every do something if he didn’t want to do it. You’ve got to have the passion for it.
EI: Like the Inventor in Edward Scissorhands or the little boy in Frankenweenie, the two of you have worked side by side to bring dark, magical characters to life. Which was the most difficult to create?
JD: I think probably initially… I mean really it was Edward Scissorhands because it was something that was so… I felt was so…you know something very personal to Tim and certainly a character that I connected to and knew very well in my heart and in my mind. I wanted to make him perfect for Tim. So, that was probably it. It was also the most important for me of all the films we’ve done together. It was really the path. You know, it was putting me on the path that I wanted to be on.
TB: He does it all the time. I was impressed on Sweeney Todd that he sang. I mean, he sang like one of the most difficult things. That’s quite and exposing thing – that kind of thing. So, there’s always something. There’s always a new element that he does that to me is going to new territory, different boundaries. So, it’s always there.
EI: Are you particularly proud of one character?
JD: I don't know. I mean, I’m proud of all of them.
TB: I would say…it’s like they’re a part of you. Whether they are even successful or failures, they’re a part of you.
JD: I am proud of all the work I’ve been lucky enough to do with Tim.
TB: It’s like your children. I’m both proud and ashamed of all of them.
EI: Tell me how does one turn into a vampire? Did you seek inspiration from the TV show or old Dracula movies?
JD: I’ve always been a fan – as Tim has – we’ve both been huge fans of horror films and vampire movies since childhood. With this particular character – Barnabus – I actually tried to stray from the original character just to see if something would arrive – you know, some other image, some other guy, some other… but nothing was coming. I guess it was just because I was so deeply rooted in what Jonathon Fred created. So, basically Tim and I both knew this is the basis for the character.
Emmanuel Itier: You last worked with Tim Burton in Batman Returns. What’s it like working with him again? What’s changed?
Michelle Pfeiffer: You know, nothing. Not that my memory is all that clear. It’s been a long time, but when I sort of think back about the experience, it was effortless really. I loved working with him as a director. I loved being directed by him. Creatively, it was fantastic experience, and this way the same. You know, I just felt like we were kind of picking up where we left off.
EI: How does he work with the actors? Is there a chance for you to contribute?
MP: Both. I mean, it’s a real collaboration. By the time I came on, and also it was the same in the case of Batman, he had already did a lot of work conceptually about the characters and he does do a lot of drawings. He had already worked extensively with Colleen Atwood and had really strong ideas about every single character, which I loved. Fortunately, I loved what they had come up with. So, I was just sort of filling in the blanks.
EI: How did you prepare to play Elizabeth? Did you focus on the original television series or create the character on your own?
MP: I watched the TV show every morning getting ready for work. We would watch the old episodes and we usually watched about four every morning because they are about 30 minutes each. I was a huge fan of the original series. I was actually obsessed. I was very young. I was eleven-years-old.
EI: Johnn Depp is another actor that works time and again with Tim Burton. What was it like working with him?
MP: He always brings that element of surprise. You feel like you’ve got to be on your toes with him. He’s though incredibly generous as an actor and really fun, I mean really a nice person and loves to have a good time, loves to joke around, but then when it comes down to doing the work he’s right there and he’s focused. But then, he’s so funny that it’s sometimes hard to not laugh during his takes.
EI: Burton has a very specific, identifiable style. How do you interpret his work?
MP: He has this – I think in all of his films he has this kind of sweet, dark. It’s this weird kind of sweet and dark combination. It’s sort of just a genre all its own. It’s always surprising. You never know what he’s doing to do. It’s always visually just kind of breathtaking.
Chloe Moretz & Bella Heathcote
Emmanuel Itier: Were you a huge fan of Tim Burton before this film? Was he what you expected?
Chloe Moretz: He’s… I mean, you’d imagine going into a Tim Burton film that it would be incredibly eccentric on the set and that it would be kind of weird and it’s like a crazy vibe, but it was just fun.
Bella Heathcote: Yeah, he’s good crazy.
CM: Yeah, he’s the fun crazy that you want.
CM: His mannerisms are so funny because he’ll just be like yeah…yeah so ...uh... you good? You good? Yeah, you’re good. Okay, let’s go.
BH: Or, he’ll start a sentence and then he’ll trial off but his hand keeps going.
EI: Tim Burton isn’t the only icon involved in Dark Shadows. What was your experience like working with Johnny Depp?
BH: It was fun. It was just a really…
CM: It was a good group.
BH: Yeah, he was a lot of fun and he had a really good sense of humor. He seemed really unaffected by the fact that he’s basically a rock star. Yeah, pretty cool.
CM: He’s a really amazing guy. He just… it’s so humbling to see someone who just so humble. He’s just a cool guy.
EI: What do you think defines a Tim Burton movie?
CM: The visuals.
BH: Yeah, definitely the look. He has a very specific look to his films. He’s got such an attention to detail. This film, it’s kind of just another band of misfits and outcasts, which is what he does best.
EI: Was there a particular challenge for you for your roles?
CM: I wore a lot of hair. Yeah, there were a lot of challenges but I think it wasn’t really hard. It wasn’t something I couldn’t overcome, but it was things that challenged me as an actor and kind of tested my abilities which is what I love. Tim made you feel so comfortable with the crazy things you do because he just encourages it.
BH: For me, I think the greatest challenge is playing Vickie because she’s not similar to me as a person. She’s far more guarded and closed off than I am. So, that was the greatest challenge for me.
EI: What is Dark Shadows about for you?
CM: It’s just… it’s the perfect Tim Burton movie. It’s back to Edward Scissorhands and Beatlejuice where you have these big Tim Burton fantastical movies. You have the Edward Scissorhands part of it where you have this broken individual, and you have this undertone that is so easy to grasp by so many different people. Also, with this type of movie, if you don’t like a lot of the vampire stuff, then you can go to the romantic side or you can go to the side where it’s super action or, you know, there’s so many different things to grab from.
BH: I suppose for me what it says is that you know all of us have a secret or all of us have our own demons or things that we’re trying to hide. I think that anyone can relate to that element of it.
EI: You two are both relative newcomers to the industry. Did you learn anything from the rest of the seasoned cast?
CM: I definitely took from Helena and Johnny and everyone, I took from them that you know no matter how big you are and no matter how successful you get in your career or your craft, you never have to stray from your morals or who you are personally. It’s like Tim, I assume is practically the same guy as he was back when he was watching Dark Shadows. They just do what they love and they’re not jaded at all.
BH: Yeah, and they’re not affected by it, which I think is very special.
CM: They’re just having fun.
EI: What is your favorite Tim Burton film?
BH: Beetlejuice or Edward Scissorhands.
CM: Or Sleepy Hollow. They’re all so amazing. I love Sleep Hollow so much because I think Johnny Depp is genius. You have these moments where he’s dissecting these decapitated bodies, but you’re laughing because he’s grimacing at the smell and he has his little glasses. I don't know, I think it’s genius.
EI: What do you think defines a Tim Burton movie?
JLM: I think the projects that he choose really, really as a starting point for what defines you know a Tim Burton film. There’s always a “dark shadows” as Jackie has been saying, is a perfect kind of choice for him - the sort of strange family drama with some you know supernatural elements to it. But his artistic sensibilities and his design concepts and all of that stuff, and his artwork really permeates every part of the filmmaking process.
JEH: I think he kind of nailed it. I think when Tim was a kid and he just had these visions in his head, it’s evidenced in his artwork. You can just see the development over the decades of how that influence is very specific even though there’s a great diversity to his work, there is just something absolutely Burtonesk about everything that he does. To me, he’s kind of his own genre. His films are very specific. I mean, if you didn’t see the credits, you’d know it’s a Tim Burton movie. If you came in five minutes late and you didn’t’ know, you would know by watching it.
EI: How does he communicate with the actors?
JLM: It’s refreshing when you get to the set and you see all this incredible set and this incredibly large production going on. What’s refreshing is he’s one of the most of the wonderful directors that you get the chance to work with, he’s very personal. He’s just really down to Earth. Even though he’s got this incredible energy, he’s taking the time and he’s talking to you just like you normally would, and really caring about all the smaller characters in the scenes. It’s refreshing because sometimes direction can get lost in big movies, but Tim really takes the time with you.
JEH: It was fun working with him the first day and kind of like searching for the tone of this character. Then, also discovering that it was kind of neat that, Tim in the first week or so, he himself is kind of searching for the tone of the whole film as well as each character. Like Jonny Lee says, this guy’s got such an eye for detail about every aspect of filmmaking going on from production design to wardrobe to hair to editing to music. He really cares about the smaller characters as well. He really wants everything in the film to be complete and whole and to live within that world that he’s created.
EI: Has your perception of Tim Burton changed now that you’ve worked with him and gotten to know him?
JLM: He’s less eccentric than I imagined. He sort of has this eccentric kind of image. He’s a really, really funny, sweet man. I guess it’s really nice. Not that I wasn’t expecting that, but you know, you get to know someone, you get to know them.
JEH: [I have] probably even more respect for him. I respected him as a legendary director and getting to work with him and to see his process helped me to appreciate that process even more.
EI: How is it to work with Johnny Depp?
JLM: From the stuff I got to do with Johnny, he’s like a very professional guy. He had a huge workload on him. He’s got a lot of makeup on. He’s there all day every day and still really down to earth, always in good humor. He’s really a terrific actor to work with. It’s nice when you see a big movie star and you like really enjoy working with them. He’s tremendous. I think his performance is tremendous as well.
JEH: Yeah, I mean he’s a real… like Jonny Lee said, he’s a super friendly guy, super talented. It’s great when you can work with an actor that has such incredible chops. When you play across from him, you can see the conviction. So, you don’t have to act. You just need to react and be in the moment. That’s great when you’re with somebody so incredibly talented.
JLM: It makes you sick.
EI: What do you think Dark Shadows is truly about?
JLM: For me, the key to it all is the family drama. I think that’s my favorite aspect of the story and the movie – the family element to it. Even with all the supernatural goings on around it, there’s still… it’s still about family.
JEH: The film is about so many things, but to me it’s about a vampire that’s dealing with a curse that’s been hanging over him for 200 years and his descendant family. I think it’s really interesting when he comes back to this dysfunctional family and helps to restore their station in life while dealing with this curse.