If Hollywood was a high school playground, TIM BURTON would be weird Goth kid standing alone by the swings. The director teams up again with Johnny Depp for Sleepy Hollow, and
tries not to lose his head in the process.
MARTIN SCORSESE AND ROBERT DE NIRO. WERNER HERZOG and Klaus Kinski. Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. Creative partnerships that go beyond boundaries of actor and director to a place where one is the alter-ego and screen embodiment of the other.
Depp‘s bruised angel looks and nervy. pensive manner make him the ideal Burton outsider — a sex symbol who eschews blockbusters in favour of weird scripts and enigmatic characters. They've worked previously on [ft/ward St'lssarhamls and lid Wood. and have come together again for Sleepy Hollow. based upon Washington Irving‘s classic tale 'The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow“. Adapted from a (ierman folk tale and published in 1820. it‘s (iothic Americana that could have issued forth from Burton's own imagination; awkward. cerebral Ichabod Crane and the terrifying Headless Horseman are worthy new inhabitants of his haunted nursery. But surely Depp is too pretty to play lanky oddball lchabod'.’
‘()bviously there have been liberties taken.’ Burton concedes. '\\'e also changed lchabod’s profession from schoolteacher to New York cop. But we did try to keep the charactch eccentricities: the squeamishness. the awkwardness. I thought Johnny did a really good job with that. liven though he looks the way he looks. we still tried to keep those other aspects — the sort of thin. gangly scarecrow walking through town.‘
It is Depp's chameleon quality that impresses Burton above all. 'The thing that I find unique about him is that he is a transformer. This is the third time I‘ve worked with him. and every time he‘s done something completely different. He becomes a new character.‘ Depp’s lack of superstar vanity also appeals. ‘He wanted to look as bad as possible. He did want to put on a big nose and ears. but we said no. Johnny did lots of little subtle reaction things that I thought were so good and would have gotten covered up.‘
Hollywood has been indulging its morbid streak of late. with a string of blockbusters that dally at the darker verges of the imagination. A mainstream audience primed by Fight Club. The Sixth Sense. Iiml ()flhtys and The Blair Witeh Project might just be ready to forgive Tim Burton. Edward Sl'l.\‘.\‘()l‘ll(lll(l.\‘ was a box office hit that also turned the sternest critic into a Kleenex-clutching sentimentalist. and lfcl Waml excused its poor returns with rapturous reviews. However. The .\'ightmare [hf/ore Christmas and Mars Attaeks.’ were widely dismissed as ill-conceived and self-indulgent. Burton came to occupy the awkward position of an arthouse auteur saddled with the responsibility of big mainstream budgets. as well as mainstream audiences intolerant of his idiosyncrasies.
L'ndeterred by the Mars Attacks! debacle. Burton began work on a new Superman movie. due to star Nicolas Cage. It‘s a safe bet that. between them. actor and director would have exposed a shadowier side of the all-American superhero: perhaps afraid that this would alienate audiences. Warner Bros pulled the plug on the film. Burton made no secret of his disappointment. but when Superman floundered. he launched straight into Sleepy Hollow — and sensed an instant connection.
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'l was feeling a bit headless myself.’ he says. Sleepy Hollow was a story I'd known from childhood. There‘s something very powerful about that image of the Headless Horseman. so that was what I was fascinated by — the visceral. subconscious power of that image. I always liked the idea of a guy who's always thinking too much and living in his head. juxtaposed to this person with no head.’
Sleepy Hallmi' was shot in Britain. and distinguished British actors including Miranda Richardson and Michael Gambon back the American stars (Christopher Walken plays the decapitated bogeyman. while Depp’s kindred spirit Christina Ricci plays his sweetheart). ‘We were going to shoot in upstate New York. but we realised early on that this was going to be a heavily designed film. and therefore we were going to build all the sets. For that level of production. it‘s only in LA or London that you‘ve got the resources.‘
Though the story is American. the primary inspiration for the film‘s mood and aesthetic came from the Hammer horror films Burton loved as a child. The participation of Hammer veterans Christopher Lee and Michael Gough helped Burton recapture the atmosphere of their early films. ‘When I met Christopher Lee. it was scary.‘ Burton recalls. ‘lt‘s like. you‘re sitting there. talking to Dracula! l was so happy he did it. because he really sets the movie of on the right tone.‘
Rather than relying upon gore and special effects to spook his audience. Burton‘s wilfully naive style accesses the nocturnal fears and fantasies of childhood. Still. the removal of a character's head must have required some technical ingenuity? ‘lt's a mixture of techniques.‘ Burton reveals. ‘We built the sets with the Headless Horseman in mind; we tried to do as little computer- generated post-production work as possible. You have these great actors. and you don‘t want them acting in front of a blue screen. You want to give them as much opportunity as you can to live and breathe in the sets.’
Burton has had ongoing wrangles with the censors. who come down harder on his twisted fairytales than they might on more straightforward horror fare. He is upset that Sleepy Hollow has received a l5 rating. ‘I would have absolutely no problem showing this movie to some children.’ he states. ‘1 don‘t think children are given enough credit. They need guidance. but they are also intelligent creatures.‘
Burton’s reputation as a dark-humoured eccentric precedes him. The censors' paranoia — worse in America. where the film received an even more restrictive R rating — is evidence of the uncertainty he stirs in the establishment. Like his leading man. he's out of place in an industry that nonetheless remains intrigued by him; but the suspicion he engenders only adds to the fascination of each new fairytale he spins. With Sleepy Hollow. he's set to trouble Hollywood's complacent slumber once again.
Sleepy Hollow opens on Fri 7 Jan.