You’d think you could get a rise out of Tim Burton by pigeon-holing the guy, telling him that the blood-spattered 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. Or maybe he’s ready to own that rep we’ve always slapped on him.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Sacha Baron Cohen, Christopher Lee, Jamie Campbell Bowen, Jayne Wisener
(Paramount Pictures; US theatrical: 21 Dec 2007 (General release); UK theatrical: 25 Jan 2008 (General release); 2007)
“You can’t call it being pigeon-holed when you do an R-rated musical, with blood,” he says with a chuckle.
Burton, 49, is the guy who gave us “Sleepy Hollow,” “Corpse Bride” and “Edward Scissorhands.” He’s famed for his wild hair, his artist’s eye and his dark worldview. It turns out he knew “Sweeney Todd” was right up his alley before we did, when he first saw the posters for the London stage production in 1980.
“This lovely, lovely music juxtaposed against that grim, Dickensian imagery, was very potent to me,” he says from Los Angeles. “I couldn’t relate it to anything else I’d seen or experienced. I knew it was something I hadn’t seen before.
“It’s not just the darkness. It had a kind of humor. `Sweeney’ also has this sad, 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 eliminated her butcher’s bills by baking them into pies.
“It’s a very simple, old-fashioned melodrama,” 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. But for the film’s design he wasn’t looking for the “real” London or even the historic London.
“London’s a city with a lot of texture to it,” he says. “We wanted you to be able to feel it. There parts of north London where we live, Camden, Hampstead, you go up on the heath you can still feel Old London. Dickens’ 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.”
That fits with Burton’s reputation for using his memories of a childhood shaped by classic horror to create wholly realized fantasy worlds, the Gotham City of “Batman,” the fanciful candy 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 just picked up the best director award from the National Board of Review for “Sweeney Todd.” Reviews have been enthusiastic, especially considering “as we went along, I realized we were basically casting all non-singers,” 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 are sung by the 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.”
But can’t getting that close be troubling in a movie filled with slit throats and body parts?
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 colorful, 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.”
And yes, he sees the connection to “Edward Scissorhands.” Go ahead and make your joke 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 character that is quite special to me. `Edward Scissorhands’? A little. But there you go.”