LOS ANGELES — With “Dark Shadows,” the tandem of director Tim Burton and producer Richard D. Zanuck has delivered its sixth movie, this one starring Johnny Depp as a confused and heartsick vampire who spends two centuries trapped underground before emerging with two urgent instincts: Drink blood. Find family.
Both those impulses stay with the fanged Barnabas Collins for the remainder of the Warner Bros. film, which arrives in theaters Friday, as he dedicates himself to restoring the fortunes of his cursed bloodline. It’s not the first time that the legacies of fractured families and a yearning for reconnection pulsed at the heart of a Burton-Zanuck film.
In “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” for instance, the film’s emotional payoff arrives with the doorstep reunion of candy-maker Willy Wonka (again, Depp, deep in the pale) and his estranged father (Christopher Lee). It’s a scene and subplot you won’t find anywhere in Roald Dahl’s book or the original 1971 film adaptation, but Burton viewed it as an essential addition.
“You want a little bit of the flavor of why Wonka is the way he is,” Burton explained in an interview just before the film’s 2005 release. “Otherwise, what is he? He’s just a weird guy.”
Recognizing the complicated circuitry that runs between fathers and sons is also a way to frame the Burton-Zanuck partnership, which seems unlike any other major director-producer team today. At the very least, they are clearly unique among the Hollywood’s “billion-dollar club” (their 2010 film “Alice in Wonderland,” is one of just 11 releases to go into 10-digit territory with its worldwide box-office tally).
Zanuck is 77 and seems immune to the passing decades — forever tanned, trim and tireless, a lifelong athlete who still enjoying ski slopes with his pal Clint Eastwood. Burton, at 53, is one of the most distinctive filmmakers of this or any other generation, with 15 feature films that usually glow in Halloween colors.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, the two met in a private dining room for a joint interview that quickly relaxed into warm conversation about their partnership.
“We’re in our own weird family situation — that’s what we like,” Burton said, referring to Zanuck, key crew members and a core group of recurring cast members with whom he regularly works. “Mars Attacks!” in 1996 was the last time Burton made a movie that didn’t feature either Depp and/or Burton’s romantic partner, Helena Bonham Carter.
Burton and Bonham Carter met during the filming of “Planet of the Apes” and have two children together, Billy and Nell. The godparents for both are Zanuck and his wife, Lili Fini Zanuck, also a producer. Last year, on the “Dark Shadows” set in London, Bonham Carter said the Zanucks are “part of our life in a special way.”
She added that the heritage of the name Zanuck made the producer an instantly compelling figure for her and Burton, both students of Hollywood history. “The stories are magnificent,” she said, “I never tire of hearing another.” The producer is the only son of Darryl F. Zanuck, the Hollywood titan who founded 20th Century Films in 1935 and then two years later bought out Fox and added its name to the company.
The younger Zanuck carved out his own history, becoming Fox’s head of production at age 28 and saved the studio by putting all his chips on “The Sound of Music,” which still stands as the third-biggest film in history (behind “Gone With the Wind” and “Star Wars”) in terms of number of tickets sold.
The producer would love to add another hit to his career list with “Dark Shadows,” a movie that (unlike Barnabas) is hard to put in a box. Part comedy, part romance and part light-horror, the film is based on the namesake gothic soap opera (1966-71) that was beloved by Burton and Depp and as well by costar Michelle Pfeiffer. The old series was never a comedy (at least not intentionally), but the new movie, which has garnered early mixed reviews, sinks its teeth into the fish-out-of-water possibilities of an 18th century vampire encountering hippies, lava lamps and Alice Cooper in 1972.
Zanuck and Burton first sat across from each other in the spring of 1999 when “Planet of the Apes” brought them together. Zanuck says the conversation was stilted (Burton is shy, which is why he cloaks himself in black sunglasses) because “neither of us liked the script we had, but neither of us wanted to say it.”
That would change as the two keyed their partnership on candor.
“Richard always gives it to me straight, even if it’s something I don’t want to hear,” Burton said. “He has always based everything on the story and the best thing for the film ... that’s not how everybody approaches it.”
The early turning point for the two men came while scouting locations for “Apes.” Burton was ready to leave the hotel when word came that he needed to take an urgent call. As long minutes ticked by, Zanuck had a sense of dread and returned to the lobby, where he learned that Bill Burton, the filmmaker’s father, had died.
“He was shattered, as anyone would be,” Zanuck said quietly as Burton nodded in silence.
Burton grew up in Burbank, Calif., and he’s said numerous times that he felt oddly removed from his parents and that he knew relatively little about them considering they all lived under the same roof. His father had been a minor league ballplayer and worked for the city’s parks department; his mother ran a cat-themed gift shop, and the boy felt like a stranger in his own life.
Despite that — or maybe because of it — the death of his father sent the director reeling. Zanuck was there to share his story. He and his father feuded and clashed for years. (“His father fired him when he was at Fox,” Burton said with a grin, retrieving a famous bit of Zanuck lore.) The mogul died at his home just before Christmas 1979.
“I didn’t come out for three days. They had to sneak food in,” Zanuck said. “I was just a mess. The pangs of that are difficult. When it is a bumpy father-son relationship, it even makes it more of a tragedy when it hits. My father had dementia, but I had resolved things pretty well before that. The end was hard. I would go to Palm Springs and see him just sitting there all day watching cartoons. I thought, ‘My God ...’ Can you imagine? Him, watching cartoons all day?”
The “Apes” production that followed was wrenching. Bonham Carter was there at his side, however, and Zanuck protected him throughout. The director had lost a father and found a family.
“It’s true — we’ve become very close,” Zanuck said. “I think part of it is the connection we have because of our fathers and what we went through when they died.”
The next Burton film was “Big Fish,” a marked departure from Burton’s storytelling trademarks, a “wild card” in the deck, as Zanuck once described it. The story is about William Bloom (Billy Crudup), who returns home after years of estrangement and discovers his slippery father (Albert Finney) is dying of cancer. He rushes to try to learn some sort of truth about this stranger.
“It’s a movie that was very much about that time in my life,” Burton said.
It was by far the lowest-grossing of the Burton-Zanuck films and (along with “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”) among their proudest moments. Zanuck shook his head thinking about it.
“If I watched it again right now,” he said, “I know I’d cry at the end.”