TIM BURTON had already traipsed through China, scouting locations for his next big cinematic event, "Ripley's Believe It or Not!," starring Jim Carrey, when Paramount halted pre-production on the film.
Burton describes himself as "pretty devastated" by the development. Robert Ripley was a California-born cartoonist, newspaper columnist and worldwide seeker of curiosities; he once aspired to a career as a pro baseball player. Burton too is California born, the son of a former minor league ballplayer. An inveterate sketcher, he became a filmmaker, populating his movies with a circus-like array of freaks, outcasts and curiosities.
"I know it's a business," Burton said the other week, the frustration evident in his voice. "But for those of us working on the film, you get excited, and it's an art form. They should feel lucky that you treat it like an art form."
Burton didn't have to brood all that long, though, for another long-gestating project suddenly found life -- a big-screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," starring Burton's frequent doppelganger of a movie star, Johnny Depp.
Still, "Sweeney" was no slam dunk. Although recent screen adaptations of the musicals "Chicago" and "Dreamgirls" have been smash hits, "Sweeney Todd" is a different kind of beast. How do you solve a problem like a bloody, R-rated musical about a serial killer, starring movie actors who aren't professional singers?
One way is by giving it to Burton, who has long maintained a head-turning aplomb as he presents each new theatrical entertainment. "Sweeney Todd" nevertheless comes at an interesting time for the 49-year-old director. Burton is a genre unto himself, but maybe lately too unto himself. His brand has lost some of its panache as he's delved into expensive remakes like "Planet of the Apes" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," neither of which was highly regarded.
"Sweeney Todd," which opens Dec. 21, is another ambitious reimagining of a venerable text. The result is a beautifully scored, high-art slasher film, told almost entirely in song and topped off with Depp paying homage to Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff.
Tim Burton, just in time for the holidays.
The making of meat pies
"Have you ever had a shave before like that?" Burton said last month in New York of the cringe-worthy aspect of seeing a straight razor hover over an Adam's apple and delicately glide along skin.
"There are places that do it, there are places in London, there are places here. . . . There's quite a vulnerable situation. You know, you're letting some guy that you don't know stick a razor at your throat."
"Sweeney Todd" costars Burton's companion, Helena Bonham Carter, as the meat-pie-making Mrs. Lovett, Alan Rickman as the evil Judge Turpin and Timothy Spall as Beadle Bamford. The story, with its origins as pulp magazine fodder in Victorian England, went through various literary interpretations before Sondheim's operatic 1979 Broadway musical, which starred Len Cariou as Todd and Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett.
Burton first saw the show as a twentysomething CalArts student on holiday in London; he went back over consecutive nights, dazzled both by the music and its sense of the macabre. There is about Todd the mythology of a monster -- a barber turned homicidal maniac after being wrongfully exiled, who then teams with the also-nutty Mrs. Lovett to turn the London gentry into the filling for her meat pies.
Burton started to adapt the musical years ago before getting sidetracked; a movie version was at one time also attached to "American Beauty" director Sam Mendes. According to Burton and producer Richard D. Zanuck, the project fell together again quickly. Zanuck was standing outside an art gallery on La Cienega the night he heard that Paramount was suspending "Ripley's." Inside the gallery, as it happened, was Depp, with a similar hole in his schedule.
The pairing of Depp, with dead eyes and big, scary hair, and Bonham Carter lends a different vibe to the twisted relationship between Todd and Mrs. Lovett. They're almost heroin-chic-looking, the guy thirsting for blood and the girl counseling patience. They don't exactly have heart-to-hearts; as played, the comedy is so dark it's subterranean. Burton likens his "Sweeney" to a relationship movie.
Last month, while Burton was in New York working on the sound, Zanuck was in L.A., hustling a nearly complete version to various studio screenings. Burton, who trained in the business as an animator, will tell you he has never had an easy alliance with big studios, even as he continues to be in business with them. He lives in London and comes to L.A. as seldom as he can, he said, leaving much of the studio interaction to his producer.