Johnny Depp and Tim Burton continue their remarkable cinematic partnership and bring the cult classic series “Dark Shadows” to the big screen with imaginative style. Both men admit they were aficionados of the hugely popular soap opera series in the late 1960s that exuded gothic mystery, romance and melodrama and broke the mold of daytime television with its vampires, ghosts, witches and weird, supernatural vibe. Depp, who also produces, plays the classic role of Barnabas Collins, originated by Jonathan Frid. Burton, who grew up to break a few molds himself as a filmmaker, directs.
As the master of Collinwood Manor, Barnabas is a rich, powerful and inveterate playboy…until he makes the grave mistake of breaking the heart of Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) who dooms him to a fate worse than death by turning him into a vampire and then burying him alive. Two centuries later, Barnabas is inadvertently freed from his tomb and emerges into the very changed world of 1972, a stranger in an even stranger time. Returning to Collinwood Manor, the reluctant vampire with an irresistible allure finds that his once-grand estate has fallen into ruin, and the dysfunctional remnants of the Collins family have fared little better, each harboring their own dark secrets.
At the film’s press day, Johnny Depp and Tim Burton talked about their latest collaboration and what inspired them to do this project as a feature film. They discussed how Barnabas fits into Johnny’s repertoire of weird, off beat characters, what the key elements were that they hoped to bring from the original series, and how much fun it was when the original cast from the series visited the set. Johnny also revealed Jonathan Frid’s influence on his approach to the classic character and why his portrayal of Barnabas was a rebellion against today’s vampires that look more like underwear models.
Q: Tim, conventional wisdom would indicate that you would have been the originator of this project as a feature film, but I understand that it was Johnny, your longtime collaborator, who brought it to your attention?
Tim Burton: Yes. We talked about it for many years, but I think this is the first project that I ever remember for Johnny where he said that. I think you said you wanted to play this ever since you were a little boy.
Johnny Depp: Just a wee tike.
Tim Burton: That’s true, right?
Johnny Depp: Yeah, it is true.
Tim Burton: You knew Barnabas Collins before you knew your own father, didn’t you?
Johnny Depp: Pretty much.
Tim Burton: It’s one of those kinds of things where the show had a lot of impact for some of us. Johnny, Michelle (Pfeiffer) and I were there at the time when it came out so we just recall it being a very strong, interesting property. I think it’s something with Johnny that he’s had for a long time.
Q: Johnny, can you talk about your role as producer and what that entailed?
Johnny Depp: It’s almost impossible to consider myself a producer. I can barely produce an English muffin in the morning. Just as a fan of the show, as Tim said, our initial conversation about the thing, I think it was during “Sweeney Todd” where I just blurted out in mid-conversation “God, maybe we should do a vampire movie together where you actually have a vampire that looks like a vampire.” “Dark Shadows” was kind of looming on the periphery, and then Tim and I started talking about it, and then Tim and I got together and started figuring out how it should be shaped, and then Seth (Grahame-Smith) came on board and the three of us just riffed really. One thing led to another and it basically dictated to us what it wanted to be in a sense, certainly with Tim at the forefront of leading the troops.
Q: Tim, you’ve had extraordinary collaborations with both Johnny and Helena Bonham Carter. I wonder if you could talk about how those have gone through the years?
Johnny Depp: His kids are great.
Q: Johnny, how does Barnabas fit in your gallery of very weird, offbeat characters that you’ve played and what did you find is the key to playing him?
Tim Burton: Yes, yes and no.
Johnny Depp: I prefer Tim’s collaboration with Helena and his kids. What I wanted to come across and what I wanted Barnabas to come across as, you know, again there is some kind of thread throughout all these character. The idea of this very elegant, upper echelon, well schooled gentleman who’s cursed in the 18th century and is brought back to probably the most surreal era of our time, the 1970s, 1972, how he’d react to things, how radically different things were, not just through the technology and automobiles and such, but actual items of enjoyment for people like pet rocks and fake flowers and plastic fruit and troll dolls and lava lamps.
Tim Burton: The important things in life. And the macramé was a big thing.
Johnny Depp: Oh yeah, the macramé owls. My favorite.
Tim Burton: Michelle’s been selling them in the gift shop.
Q: You were just directed by Paul McCartney in a music video. How was that?
Johnny Depp: The McCartney thing, I’ve known him on and off over the years and ran into him and then he gave me a call and asked if I would be interested in being in his video. “Certainly.” “Well let’s do it.” It was a gas. I had to learn sign language. I think sign language is apparently very interpretive. It’s not rote and it’s all kind of different, and apparently instead of “love,” I think I might have said “murder.” But I was only copying what the guy showed me, so track him down.
Q: Johnny, what do you think people find so tempting about vampires? If you had the option of staying as one of your characters for the rest of your life, who would that be?
Johnny Depp: Wow. Probably the Earl of Rochester. It’s a strange thing, because as a child, you have this fascination. I certainly had this fascination with monsters and vampires as did Tim and whatever this darkness, this mystery, this intrigue. And then, as you get older, you recognize the erotic nature of the vampire and the idea of the undead. What was most interesting in terms of Barnabas was the idea of the combination. It was a real challenge, probably more for Tim than me, to make that guy, that vampire, clearly a vampire, fit back into this odd society and this dysfunctional family. I think he did it rather seamlessly.
Q: How was it to re-team with Michelle Pfeiffer 20 years after “Batman Returns”?
Tim Burton: It was weird because it reminded me of how much I love working with Michelle. It was a long time ago, but then, it just flooded back because I didn’t really watch the movie again but it just flooded back how impressed I remember being with Michelle. She learned how to use a whip and jump around on roofs in high heeled shoes. But like birds fly out of her mouth, the cats eat her, I mean, very impressive stuff. It was a real joy to get a call from Michelle and find out she was a closet “Dark Shadows” fan. I knew that she was weird but now that’s a whole new situation, which was great, because between Michelle and Johnny, we were the only ones I think of the cast that knew “Dark Shadows.” I don’t know if I showed it to anybody else, because you can’t really show “Dark Shadows” to anybody else who doesn’t know it because they’d probably run screaming out of the room. So it was nice that Michelle played the head of the family and it just made me realize how much I enjoyed working with her, although she did have trouble walking down the stairs.
Q: Johnny, can you talk about where you were in 1972?
Johnny Depp: ’72, the memory is lime green leisure suits and macramé owls, earth shoes, just weird things that didn’t make sense then and still don’t.
Q: What was your first bite like as a vampire and what was the make-up process?
Tim Burton: How was your bite on that big construction worker? Was it good?
Johnny Depp: Yeah. I felt as though I was biting one of the Village People.
Tim Burton: Then he went onto the biker, then he stunned the cowboy, and he keeps moving onto ….
Johnny Depp: …the cop.
Tim Burton: Yup, got ‘em all.
Johnny Depp: When you had the fangs in, you wanted to be a little bit careful that you didn’t actually pierce the jugular, kind of like my experience shaving Alan Rickman, which by the way neither of us want to do again, especially Alan.
Q: The music you chose was pretty interesting for a mainstream movie, can you talk about why you chose these bands and Alice Cooper to be part of the movie?
Tim Burton: The setting in 1972 was important and we just went through all the music of that year. Just doing that research, it reminded me I must have been quite ill that year because I just remember that music on the AM radio, being sick and having a fever and hearing all that kind of music on AM radio over and over again. That’s why it was so strange. It was strange. It felt strange at the time and it still feels strange. That’s the weird thing about that. The quality of music, going from everything from really cheesy pop to cool, hardcore stuff, it was a weird year for music. I remember Alice Cooper being quite a strong influence on me at that time and he looks exactly the same now which is really scary. I mean, Arizona must do wonders. I don’t know. But it was important to use. There was a lot of interesting music in 1972. We tried to treat it like score. We didn’t try to treat it like oh, let’s just throw in pop songs.
Q: Johnny, you sing a cheesy song compared to the hard rock songs, was the Space Cowboys supposed to be like The Joker?
Johnny Depp: The Joker. The Steve Miller song.
Q: Were you trying to be cool?
Tim Burton: Yeah, man, he’s always trying to be cool. He doesn’t need to try, he is cool. Leave him alone.
Q: When you were coming up with the physicality of Barnabas, how much of it came from Jonathan Frid and was there some Nosferatu in the way you worked the hands?
Johnny Depp: Approaching Barnabas, even in the early days of trying to explore the possibilities of the character, no matter where you went in your head, if you tried to veer away from the original Jonathan Frid character, it was apparent to both Tim and myself that it had to be rooted in Jonathan Frid’s character of Barnabas. It just had to be. It was so classic and this sort of classic monster, like Fangoria magazine or that kind of thing. So, in terms of that, Jonathan did have, when he was playing Barnabas, there was a kind of rigidity to him, that pole up the back, this elegance that was always there. And yeah, I did believe, Tim and I talked early on, a vampire should look like a vampire and it was a kind of rebellion against vampires that look like underwear models.
Tim Burton: It’s okay. Thank you. Very good.
Johnny Depp: There was a bit of Nosferatu in there.
Q: What deleted scenes and extras might we see on the DVD and blu-ray?
Tim Burton: Well, deleted scenes, there’s some stuff I cut out. All Michelle’s scenes. Each actor will have all of their best scenes that I’ve cut out of the film will be in there. No, I think there will be some stuff on it because being in the nature of a soap opera, we cut out stuff, but all the actors were great so I think I’m going to look to having scenes that aren’t in the film just because the actors did such a great job and I think the soap opera nature of it. So I think we’ll probably have some stuff on there.
Q: What was the key element you wanted to bring from the original series and make it fresh for a 2012 film?
Tim Burton: Well, it’s a tricky tone. We all recognized, when we talked about “Dark Shadows,” part of its appeal was the weird nature of all the elements that went into it, very serious but it was on in the afternoon on a daily basis. So there are certain elements why we love the show but you couldn’t necessarily adapt to a film. The weirdest challenge was to get the acting tone, the soap opera nature of the tone, which like I said is a weird thing to go for on a Hollywood movie. It’s not like you go to a studio and go, “We want to do weird soap opera acting.” Like they go, “Oh, great, whatever that means.” So it was an odd challenge to get but that’s why I was so grateful to all the cast because even the ones that didn’t know the show got into the spirit of it which was what made it “Dark Shadows,” was trying to capture the spirit of what the show was.
Q: What’s more annoying, makeup or long sleeves? And what’s the backstory of the cane and the costume?
Johnny Depp: Yes. Generally, let’s see. You do a movie, depending on the character, there’s some degree of makeup involved, especially when you’re playing a vampire and you’re all white and kind of dead. Sleeves, regarding costumes, there are generally sleeves, which I appreciate. I think we all do. I’m wearing sleeves today. Colleen Atwood (costume designer) and her amazing eye and her incredible taste, she has a real magic whereas as soon as you don that kind of armor that Colleen has created, the character starts to come alive so it’s almost like working from the outside in, in a sense. You’ve put on this suit or whatever that makes you stand or walk a certain way. The cane was one of the leftover things from the series. Then there’s the sleeves, we can keep talking about that. How many with sleeves today? Anybody? See, we’re doing all right.
Q: Is it the same cane design as the original?
Johnny Depp: It’s pretty much the same design, slightly altered but pretty much the same design. It’s not a silver tipped cane because my hand would’ve burst into flames, which would have lit my sleeves on fire. So we couldn’t go there.
Q: For Mr. Depp.
Johnny Depp: Mr. Depp is my father.
Q: Johnny, was it working with Dan Curtis on “Dark Shadows” that made you want to do “The Night Stalker” next?
Johnny Depp: Again, it’s another – –
Tim Burton: The Winds of War.
Johnny Depp: That’s next. Although I was thinking of throwing my name into the ring for “Catwoman,” but God, that Anne Hathaway, dammit. I’m sorry, I’m too upset to answer the question. No, Dan Curtis… The Winds of War [Laughs] Yeah, “The Night Stalker” was another one that from “Dark Shadows” came sort of the Night Stalker period and it was a show that I really loved. It was again this weird tone to it. This reporter becomes a kind of detective in these really odd situations. So yeah, I think Dan Curtis was a great, great influence.
Q: You love the material but the current audience isn’t that familiar. What would you say to cynics who suggest this is another unasked for pop culture exhumation from the baby boomer era?
Johnny Depp: Did you? Did you? Did you write that line or just come up with it? Say it again.
Q: Another unwanted exhumation from the baby boomer era?
Tim Burton: That’s a Radiohead song. That could be me.
Q: Cynics would suggest, not I.
Tim Burton: I mean, you can’t ever make – – yeah, going into this movie, you don’t go in there going, “Oh, “Dark Shadows,” what a great easy peasy idea.” It’s not like you go into it thinking that. It’s actually a much more strange challenge.
Johnny Depp: I think Warner Brothers went into it hoping that it was unwanted. I mean, I think everybody should probably approach a film that it’s another unwanted thing. That’s going to be seared onto my brain for the rest of my life. Thank you for that.
Tim Burton: I’m going to put that on my gravestone. “He created such a category of unwanted pop culture – – Famous for directing unwanted cultural references”
Q: The day the original cast came on set, what was their reaction to seeing their characters redone?
Johnny Depp: Well, it was great and I thought great of Tim to bring them into the fold. [It was] our way of saluting them and Jonathan was terrific. He had already written me a letter a couple years before and signed a photograph to me sort of passing the baton to Barnabas which I thought was very sweet. He had his cane with him, his original Barnabas cane and I wasn’t sure when he actually saw me if he was going to attack me with it, but he didn’t.
Tim Burton: It was great. It was like having the Pope come visit. For us, that’s part of the reason we were there because those people inspired us. So it was nice to see them back in their early ‘70s clothing. It’s great.
Q: How do you make Johnny Depp look so young? Or does Johnny have a deal with the devil? Is that why you keep using him over and over again?
Johnny Depp: You’re missing the point. I am the devil. I am Satan.
Tim Burton: He’s like right behind Alice Cooper.
Johnny Depp: And I’ve been sleeping under your couch for months.
Tim Burton: Slowly sucking your life forces out.
Q: Johnny, Chris Sarandon said the long vampire nails were difficult, especially going to the bathroom. He felt sorry for you.
Johnny Depp: Someone felt sorry for me because of the nails. There are many more reasons to feel sorry for me. We can go through them now, or we can just cuddle after. Big group cuddle. Just all get greasy and weird. Yeah, the nails were – – you know, in every film that I’ve been lucky enough to do with Tim, there’s always some form of torture, and the nails were Tim’s idea. They were the length of the fingers and stuff, but it was okay because I had a troop of people who would help me go to the bathroom. They had to have treatment afterwards but they’re okay now. That is true.
Q: Johnny, I’m down for the greasy cuddle. I’ll be right outside.
Johnny Depp: Excellent. I have a little turtle pool.
Q: Why the musical choices of Superfly and Barry White?
Tim Burton: “Blacula” was ’72, wasn’t it?
Johnny Depp: I think so.
Tim Burton: I think that was one of the only movie references that I talked to Bruno (Bruno Delbonnel, Director of Photography), the DP, was “Blacula.” That was a good year. Actually ’72 was a good year for vampires. That was like “Dracula A.D. ’72.” That was Christopher Lee’s I think last Dracula and “Blacula.” Good year.
Q: What about Barry White?
Tim Burton: He wasn’t a vampire. He might’ve been. We tried to pick music that, just like I said, fit the era and fit the score. Because a lot of the sounds and the pop sounds were deemed as kind of cheesy, we tried to find ones that fit the vibe of the story or musical almost.
Q: Johnny, do vampires have soul?
Johnny Depp: Of course they do.
Q: Is there already a vision for a sequel?
Tim Burton: I think it’s because of the nature of it being kind of like a soap opera, I think that was the structure. It wasn’t so much of a conscious decision to say, “Oh!” First of all, it’s a bit presumptuous to think that anything – – if something works out, that’s one thing, but you can’t ever predict that so that had more to do with the fact of the sort of soap opera kind of structure of it.
Q: Do you feel pressure to reach beyond the niche audience of the show?
Tim Burton: Like I said, there’s “Dark Shadows” fans and then there’s everybody else and you can’t really make it projecting what you think it’s going to be. You just try to make a movie. First of all, we make a movie that we want to see and then you just hope for the best.
Q: Johnny, people have said that you’re in this Marlon Brando phase of your career making these very eccentric characters. Do you see this as a valid comparison for what you’re doing now?
Johnny Depp: I couldn’t imagine my name and Marlon’s in the same sentence in terms of the work. He was a great friend of mine and certainly an inspiration and a great mentor.
Q: Do you think about what a kick he would get out of something like this?
Johnny Depp: I think he’d definitely get a few gags out of it.
“Dark Shadows” opens in theaters on May 11th.