“Hey, can I get some blood over here!”
As Tim Burton hollers for fresh gore to smear on Johnny Depp, he rocks back and forth in his director’s chair like a giddy teenager hopped up on sugar. A demented grin spreads across his face, and a thought occurs: Is it some kind of career goal for Burton to make Depp look as ugly as humanly possible?
In Edward Scissorhands, Burton turned the teen idol into a hideously scarred and pasty-faced outcast with razor-sharp shears for hands. In Ed Wood, he transformed Depp into a dentally challenged hack filmmaker with a weakness for tight angora sweaters and dainty pumps. And now, with Sleepy Hollow — Burton’s adaptation of Washington Irving’s Gothic 19th-century fairy tale about Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman — all he can think about is smearing his leading man’s million-dollar mug with so much blood that Depp looks like a guy who just made love to a box of jelly doughnuts.
Even Depp, an actor who welcomes ways to drab down his looks, who attacks his roles with the rabid gusto of a rottweiler, appears to be wondering about Burton’s sanity as the director flings crimson syrup at his face as if it were a Jackson Pollock canvas. ”C’mon, let me just give you a fresh basting,” says Burton. He dips a tiny paintbrush into the tub of red goo, then again, and again—until Depp can’t hold back any longer…
”Tim, what kind of sick movie is this?”
Good question. The moment you step inside Soundstage H at Shepperton Studios — an hour north of London — you’re immediately transported to a haunted Hudson River forest, circa 1799. A thick curtain of fog hangs in the air, along with a heavy, death-like stillness. Blood-dappled autumn leaves cover the moist mossy ground. And the trees…well, they’re Tim Burton trees. Twisting branches reach out like agonizingly arthritic arms, and one, the so-called Tree of the Dead, rises 50 horrifically misshapen feet. It’s through this gnarled gateway that Depp’s Ichabod Crane — a skittish New York City constable sent to investigate a series of bizarre murders in the superstitious hamlet of Sleepy Hollow — will find the lair of the Headless Horseman and his grisly stash of evidence.
It’s also here that we find the source of all that fake blood. The black-clad Depp — looking more Colonial undertaker than constable — is hacking away at the Tree of the Dead’s base with a hatchet, each blow bringing a new squirt of red stuff to his face. Twenty-five feet away, Burton gazes into a monitor and smacks his lips with eerie delight. And as Depp peels back a strip of bark, revealing a cache of human heads, Burton literally rubs his hands together with fiendish glee. ”Ooooh,” whispers the director. ”It’s like a giant pinata of heads.”
That was Christmas of 1998. it’s now two days before Halloween 1999, in Manhattan, where midtown shops are decorated with holiday cutouts of ghosts and black cats. Outside delis, stacked pumpkins wait patiently for the sharp knife that will be taken to their throats. It’s the time of year when a guy like Tim Burton should be a pretty happy fella.