From a sharp-fingered misfit to a crafty chocolatier to one seriously mad hatter, Johnny Depp and Tim Burton have created some of cinema's oddest and most indelible characters. Her's how they awakened a polite vampire in ''Dark Shadows'' -- and taught him about free love
If Edward Scissorhands could meet Barnabas Collins, the Nosferatu-clawed vampire from the new Dark Shadows movie, they’d have a lot more in common than just the world’s most dangerous handshake. Both are troubled, cadaver-white creatures who have extreme difficulty blending in with normal society. They’re also the cinematic bookends of a friendship between Tim Burton and Johnny Depp that spans two decades and eight movies. Dark Shadows (rated PG-13 and out May 11) is the duo’s latest look at the lifestyles of the weird and infamous, a horror comedy inspired by an eccentric 1966-71 supernatural soap opera they both adored as boys. The theme of this one is like a gothic Norman Rockwell painting, heartwarming and bloodcurdling at the same time. Its message: No one is truly alone if he has family. Or — in vampire terms — blood of the familial kind is thicker than blood of the drinkable kind.
While the poor character from 1990’s Edward Scissorhands was utterly alone and dependent on the kindness of strangers, Barnabas is blessed with being a full-blown paterfamilias. The vampire, upon awakening from a 200-year slumber, inherits a rogues’ gallery of relatives who acquired the wealth he helped create before being buried ”alive” (or whatever you call what he is). When Barnabas is unearthed by construction workers in the swinging year of 1972, contemporary Collins matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), her untamed daughter Carolyn (Hugo‘s Chloë Grace Moretz), her ne’er-do-well brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), and his dead-people-seeing young son David (Gulliver McGrath) not only welcome their undead ancestor back into the fold but also help reestablish him as a pillar of their coastal Maine town — even though he occasionally eats some of the townsfolk.
If Scissorhands was a reflection of Burton and Depp’s youthful insecurities, Dark Shadows (which is being distributed by Warner Bros. — like Entertainment Weekly, a division of Time Warner) could be a metaphor for the comfort and closeness they’ve fostered. ”I feel as though he’s my brother,” Depp says. ”It’s a weird understanding, this kind of shorthand we have. I truly understand him, I think, just as well as anybody can. He certainly knows me as well as anybody can.”
Over the years they’ve widened their circle to include several regular collaborators, such as producer Richard Zanuck, costume designer Colleen Atwood, composer Danny Elfman, and frequent costar Helena Bonham Carter, who has two children with Burton and plays a boozy, Ronald McDonald-haired family psychologist in Dark Shadows. ”A film family is a family, and it’s a beautifully dysfunctional family,” says Burton, who explored that concept with Depp in 1994’s schlock-moviemaker biopic Ed Wood. ”It’s kind of positive on one hand, but everyone has their issues, too.”
Success for their new $125 million fantasy will depend on an even broader extended family — the filmgoers around the world who’ve always turned out to support the peculiar pair’s peculiar movies. Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, Corpse Bride, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and Alice in Wonderland have together earned more than $2 billion at the global box office. This time around, Burton and Depp will especially need the love. Dark Shadows is unusual source material, to say the least. ”When this first came up, I’d never heard of Dark Shadows,” says producer Graham King, who worked with Depp on The Tourist, Rango, and The Rum Diary. King studied up by watching DVDs of the original soap opera, which is notorious for its cheapo production values and campy melodrama. ”You could get where Johnny was going with the character when we spoke about it, but when I first saw it,” King says with a mordant chuckle, ”I was like, ‘Okaaaay.”’
The Dark Shadows movie started out as Depp’s idea, and he recruited Burton back when they were making Sweeney Todd, though for most of their working relationship it’s been Burton who’s lobbied for Depp to star in his films. Without that, Depp says, he’d be God knows where right now. ”Every time he wanted to put me in a movie, he had to fight for me to get in there. The studios didn’t want me. I wasn’t on their list,” Depp recalls. After the original Pirates of the Caribbean made him a bona fide box office draw, Burton no longer had to fight. It was around that time that the director wanted to recommend Depp for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, ”but he didn’t even get to it,” Depp says. ”The studio suggested it first.”
While Depp speaks affectionately about their past, Burton has a more aw-shucks attitude. ”We don’t wear our ‘This Is Our Eighth Movie Together!’ T-shirts every day,” the director says. The bond they share is merely a fascination with what’s considered abnormal. They’re both obsessed with outcasts, even though at this point the two of them are anything but. ”Once you’ve felt that way in your life, you always feel that way,” Burton says. ”No matter what happens to you. You can have a family, you can have success, but you always feel that way.”
Moviegoers clearly relate. ”Everyone seems grateful to him, particularly young people,” Bonham Carter says of Burton. ”He understands everyone’s separateness and isolation, that feeling that you don’t fit in or that you’re different.” But even around her, she adds, he is ”creatively a monk” who tends toward introspection. Depp just happens to be one of the few people on earth who can turn Burton into an extrovert.
”When they’re not making a picture, there’s not a lot of telephone calls and emails,” says Richard Zanuck, who has produced six of Burton’s movies, four of them starring Depp. ”They don’t talk a couple times a week.” On set, however, Zanuck describes them as ”two high school kids tittering over in the corner, telling fart jokes.” Adds Bonham Carter, ”None of us get their jokes, but they get their jokes, and they’re laughing, so whatever.”
Perhaps because they know what it’s like to feel left out, Depp and Burton are good at making others feel included when they join the team. On Dark Shadows, one of the newbies was screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith, the best-selling author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and the just-published Unholy Night. ”They never make you feel like you’re the new guy, and I was scared stiff,” says Grahame-Smith. ”I have very clear memories of my mom dropping me off on a cold winter’s night in Connecticut to go see Edward Scissorhands, but you just try to push that sense of awe to the back of your brain.”
When Grahame-Smith was brought in, Depp and Burton already had an early draft of the script by John August (who wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Big Fish, and Corpse Bride). But Depp wanted the story to be even stranger. At the time Burton was producing a film adaptation of Grahame-Smith’s history-horror mash-up book Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (out June 22), and he suggested the young novelist for a Dark Shadows rewrite. ”We got together, the three of us, and sparks just flew at our first meeting,” Depp says. ”One idea gave birth to another, and it began to grow and expand. We were all very much on the same page. It was a real gas.”
That first meeting took place in 2010 at a shadowy candlelit dinner in Depp’s rented London house after the actor finished a late night on Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. There were some plot points from the original TV show that simply had to be in the movie, among them a lost-love angle that has Barnabas falling in love with the family governess (Bella Heathcote), who appears to be the reincarnation of his fiancée from the 1700s. And Barnabas also had to reignite his love/hate war with the scorned witch Angelique (Eva Green), who cursed him centuries ago to be a bloodsucker. But otherwise, that midnight story session focused on adding eccentricities. For instance, Burton suggested giving Barnabas an extra knuckle on each finger, to make his hands more like claws, and Depp proposed that the vampire speak with a kind of Old World grandiloquence that would constantly be deflated by the blunt nonchalance of 1972 America.
That 70’s setting was an unusual flourish in a movie full of them. Why the Nixon era? Depp liked the idea of unspooling the story in 1972 for cultural reasons, Grahame-Smith says: ”Barnabas extols the virtues of family, and rejects people who are insincere and selfish. We wanted to pit this selfless family-first hero against the Me Decade.” Burton’s interest in the period, however, related to something more intimate from his childhood — 1972 is when he felt the most ill at ease as a gawky adolescent growing up in Burbank. ”I remember that time being very awkward, right around the age where you’re 14, and you’re really changing and are really f—ed,” Burton says with a laugh. ”I was doing research and started feeling ill because I remember that so well.” If an 18th-century vampire was going to emerge from his grave at a time and place that would baffle and terrify him, Burton felt 1972 was the perfect choice: ”The ’70s were weird then, and they’re weird now.”
Coincidentally, Moretz turned 14 two months before shooting the movie, and Burton urged her to capture some of that angst in her character Carolyn, a sullen teenager adjusting to life with her odd new pseudo-uncle. ”Tim puts himself into all the characters, but Carolyn is a lot like him, in a way,” Moretz says. ”They’re both from smaller towns and have all these ideas and dreams of what they want to be, but feel stuck in a small world.”
Like Grahame-Smith, Moretz found herself quickly welcomed into the filmmaking family by Depp and Burton, odd pseudo-uncles in their own right who kept pushing her to make her character more feral and menacing. ”Even though I’m a kid, I was allowed to be a part of their group, which is rare,” Moretz says. ”They didn’t put me in a corner and go, ‘Oh, child, run along and play with your toys.’ I loved to be able to work with a director who allows you to be weird and crazy — and doesn’t just allow it, he embraces it and actually encourages it.”
As with any family, there is also loss — and the Dark Shadows clan suffered some of that as well. Several cast members from the original series showed up to do cameos when the movie filmed in England last summer, including Jonathan Frid, the Canadian actor who originated the role of Barnabas. Sadly, Frid passed away April 14 at age 87, just a month before his most famous character’s pop culture resurrection.
”When I finally met him on the set, he was incredibly sweet about my taking on this character that he essentially created,” Depp says. ”He was quite fragile toward the end but had his faculties about him. He was blown away by the sets. And putting his eyeballs on me for the first time, all decked out as a slightly different version of him…it had to be pretty weird for him.”
Frid’s nonspeaking role as a party guest in the film was his first screen performance in 38 years. Now it will also be his last.
”There’s something very weird and tragic about the fact that he died just before the film was released,” Depp says. ”If he had stuck it out — if that fate had been dealt to him — he would have really enjoyed the film and enjoyed the attention.”
At the very least, Frid died knowing that Barnabas Collins was in the best — and most joyously creepy — of hands.
What’s Next for Johnny Depp?
The Lone Ranger
Depp plays Tonto to Armie Hammer’s masked cowboy in an action movie directed by Gore Verbinski (the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies, Rango). ”Tonto’s a Comanche who left his nation when he was very, very young, on this personal quest,” Depp says. ”He’s basically a wild card.” The film opens May 31, 2013.
The Thin Man
Like the 1934 classic, it will be based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel, but this one will feature Depp as a Prohibition-era detective solving a Manhattan murder mystery with his (as yet uncast) socialite wife. ”There’s something about that era I find very beautiful. There was an elegance to just about everyone,” Depp says. Rob Marshall (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides) will direct.
A Dr. Seuss biopic
It’s still in the development phase, but Depp says this movie would dive into the imagination of Theodor Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) and show him interacting with characters like the Cat in the Hat, the Lorax, and the Grinch. ”A lot of writers I know have a tendency to talk to themselves,” he says.
The Original, Resurrected
On May 8, fans of Dark Shadows (and anyone curious about the 1960s TV show) can own the whole series on DVD — yep, all 1,225 episodes. The 131-disc set comes in a mini coffin and features a newly poignant image of the first Barnabas Collins, played by Jonathan Frid, who passed away April 14. Considering a marathon? You’ll need to set aside 20 days on your calendar — and don’t plan on sleeping. —Grady Smith