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Partners In Crime

Deadly duo Tim Burton and Johnny Depp are really out there (singing!) for 'Sweeney Todd.'

January 02, 2008|Mark Salisbury | Special to The Times

PERCHED together on a couch in a London hotel room, both suffering from the flu, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp make for a brilliant comic double act, sharing jokes, finishing one another's thoughts, laughing like naughty schoolboys, goading each other into mischief. Theirs is a special relationship that extends far beyond professional respect and into the deeply personal. "He's blood," says Depp, who is godfather to Burton's 4-year-old son, Billy. "He's family."

Ever since their first collaboration -- on Burton's 1990 magical fairy tale "Edward Scissorhands" -- both director and actor have pushed each other to some of the best work of their respective careers, with Depp not just Burton's on-screen alter ego but a master in his own right at interpreting the latter's range of outsiders, oddballs and misfits -- be it razor-fingered Edward Scissorhands, cross-dressing film director Ed Wood or creepy confectionary king Willy Wonka.

"Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" marks the pair's sixth collaboration, a melodramatic and gruesome adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's bloody Broadway musical revolving around the exploits of a 19th century London barber out for vengeance against the nefarious judge who arranged for his deportation on a trumped-up charge so he could steal the man's wife and daughter.

Burton had originally seen Sondheim's Tony Award-winning musical as a CalArts student on a trip to London in the early '80s, and had twice flirted with directing a film version, once after "Batman," and again, almost a decade ago, before becoming sidetracked by other projects. The delay, he now reflects, helped serve both him and the film, which he terms "a silent movie with music" -- not least in the casting.

"When I was involved with it a long time ago, I don't even know if I knew who Johnny Depp was," Burton says. "Now it seemed more of the right time. Ten years of life experience made me able to look at this character in a way that I probably wouldn't have looked at it 10 years ago, a certain brooding darkness that creeps in as you get older."

That brooding darkness imbues every frame of the film, a Grand Guignol-influenced slasher movie anchored by Depp's performance and Helena Bonham Carter as Sweeney's ever-resourceful accomplice Mrs. Lovett, who uses the massive grinder in her bake house to turn Sweeney's victims into the filling for her meat pies.

In transferring Sondheim's theatrical show to the screen, Burton shaved an hour's running time, cutting some songs entirely, abridging others, telling the story almost entirely in song and yet determined to strip away anything remotely "Broadway," with only one cast member, Laura Michelle Kelly who plays the beggar woman, a professional singer.

Depp's musical pedigree was limited at best, having played bass and sung background vocals for Florida-based band the Kids back in the '80s, and his only previous on-screen musical was John Waters' "Cry-Baby," a film in which his singing voice had been dubbed. Was Burton the only director Depp would sing for?

"I don't think I would have attempted this with anyone else," Depp begins. "There was fear -- "

"What if Barry Manilow asked you?" Burton suddenly interrupts.

"That's a different thing," Depp retorts, completely deadpan, "cause that might mean duet, and if that's the case, I'm in."

A car horn sounds in the street outside. "And there he is," says Depp, not missing a beat.

The pair start giggling afresh and it's a while before Depp continues.

"There was definite trepidation," he says, finally. "I didn't know if it was possible. I knew I wouldn't be tone deaf but I wasn't sure I could carry a song, let alone several, and something as complex as Stephen Sondheim's. It was real scary for both of us. And talk about the opportunity to really flop. It was one of those, 'Let's turn the heat up a little.' "

While Depp toiled away on the third "Pirates" movie in the Bahamas, he began learning "Sweeney's" numbers, later heading into a small L.A. recording studio owned by his friend Bruce Witkin to lay down some demos, none of which even Burton heard until the movie had been greenlighted and sets were being constructed at Pinewood Studios in England.

Although Sondheim, contractually, had casting approval over the roles of Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett, he said yes to Depp without even hearing him sing. "I was shocked," says Burton. "I don't know the guy very well but he doesn't shy away from his opinion. I think he did have that instinct and belief that Johnny's a good actor and could pull it off. He was a bit harder on everybody else."

Later, when Sondheim's musical director wanted to hear Depp sing, Burton played the role of protector. "There was a bit of a push for 'I've got to see Johnny, I've got to see what his range is . . . ' " Burton recalls. "That wasn't going to happen."

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