There will be blood

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 April, 2012, 12:00am


It's quiet in London's Air Studios - almost too quiet. I'm sitting in an empty mission control room, by a complex-looking mixing board filled with dozens of buttons. Tim Burton enters the room, his dark, baggy shirt matching his raven-coloured scarecrow hair. It's late February and he's nervous - his latest film Dark Shadows, set to open in cinemas in 2 1/2 months, is still not finished.

'We're really backed up,' he sighs. 'We haven't scored yet. We're still working on effects. You can't tell by me today, but I should be working.'

When we meet, Burton - who is not keen on Hollywood's penchant for releasing teaser footage early - has yet to even produce a trailer. In fact, the blown-up film still sitting on a wooden easel behind me is about all there is to go on. That and the knowledge that Burton and regular star Johnny Depp are once again plumbing the pop-culture archives, this time revamping the 1960s US gothic soap opera that ran for five years and 1,225 episodes.

'That's the interesting thing about the tone of the original Dark Shadows,' he says. 'It's not meant to be funny, it's serious. But that's what made it funny to me. It's a weird dynamic. And so, just me as a person anyway, I like mixing melodrama, humour and dark and light elements all together. This project seemed to have those possibilities.' Certainly, it's a blueprint he managed for the 1988 supernatural comedy Beetlejuice, and some of his other, better films - from fairy tale Edward Scissorhands to alien invasion tale Mars Attacks! and biopic Ed Wood.

Admittedly, the past decade has seen a regression in his work - lavish adaptations of children's classics, from Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) to Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland (2010), not to mention his animated CG feature Corpse Bride (2005) - presumably reflective of the fact that Burton became a father of two (Billy, eight; Nell, four) with his actress partner, Helena Bonham Carter. Even his gory take on Stephen Sondheim's musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) felt sanitised. With Depp's Dark Shadows character Barnabas Collins a 200-year-old vampire, this time Burton could be accused of pandering to the tween crowd, aping the trend that has spawned popular film franchises such as Twilight and TV show True Blood. He shakes his head.

'I really never considered this a vampire movie,' he says. 'It's just more of a supernatural soap opera. It's just Barnabas happens to be a vampire. That was the thing about the original Dark Shadows - it was the precursor to all that stuff. All those things owe a bit of inspiration to Dark Shadows.'

What's more, it allowed Burton the chance to revisit his days growing up in Burbank, California, where his mother Jean ran a gift shop and father Bill worked for the local parks and recreations department. Every afternoon, he would race home to watch the show. 'I didn't get much homework done,' he recalls with a grin. 'Instead I was watching Dark Shadows. It kind of became like a rhythmic thing that you would experience. And, it was very different - this dark, weird, gothic, serious melodrama, playing on your television. Just strange.'

It's easy to see how Dark Shadows, with its stories of zombies, werewolves and vampires, would have influenced an impressionable Burton, who was eight when it started its run. An introverted, insular child who preferred drawing, painting, and making silent Super 8 movies to playing with other kids, he began to relate to Dark Shadows' curious Collins family - in particular rebellious teenager Carolyn (played in his film by Hugo star Chlo? Moretz) as he got older. 'It captured that sort of internal loneliness, anger and weirdness that you feel in certain family dynamics,' he says.

Setting his Dark Shadows in 1972 (rather than making it modern-day), Burton has turned the clock back to a traumatic period in his life. 'I was going through a real transition from being a child to a teenager, which was unpleasant and awkward. I remember the clothes, the music. In fact, doing research on it, I started to get physically ill. It brought me back to a time where it just was very strange and uncomfortable. But that also helped me relate to Barnabas as somebody who has been locked away for 200 years and comes into this era, feeling very strange and awkward.'

Also a Dark Shadows fan from his youth, Depp bought the rights to the show and then took the idea to Burton. 'The thing about him, he still tries to keep that spark of how he was when he first started,' says Burton, thinking back to Edward Scissorhands, the first of eight collaborations between the pair. 'I think Johnny as an actor is more comfortable being like a Boris Karloff type of actor than a leading man.' Add 'reluctant vampire' Barnabas to Depp's other characters he's played for Burton - the Mad Hatter, Willy Wonka and Ichabod Crane, to name but three - and it's hard to disagree.

Still, Burton and Depp weren't the only Dark Shadows fans on set. Playing matriarch Elizabeth Collins is Michelle Pfeiffer, who last worked with Burton 20 years ago on Batman Returns, purring as Catwoman in the sequel to his 1989 blockbuster Batman. Pfeiffer was such a fan, she called up Burton - having not spoken to him in almost two decades. 'She said, 'I never really do this but if you do Dark Shadows, I'm interested.'' On set, she and Burton would talk over Dark Shadows mythology. 'Michelle was really good at that. She'd dip into episode 1,004, or whatever, even though it's not in the movie.'

The film was scripted by Seth Grahame-Smith, who also adapted his novel Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter for Timur Bekmambetov's forthcoming fantasy film, a project Burton is producing. The director notes that he and Grahame-Smith didn't draw from the show's original storylines. 'The problem is, there were thousands of episodes and characters, so obviously you can't put everything in. I boiled it down to what I felt I liked about it. It's a family story. So that made it a bit more manageable and easy.'

This time, Burton's 'family' includes another on-screen reunion with Bonham Carter (as Elizabeth's alcoholic psychiatrist), Jonny Lee Miller (as Elizabeth's bad-seed brother) and Eva Green (as Angelique, the vengeful witch who plots against the Collins clan). There's even a cameo from rocker Alice Cooper - as himself. 'The scary thing about him is that he looks exactly the same,' laughs Burton. 'We have this original Rolling Stone cover in 1972, and he looks better now. And he hasn't done any work ... It's like [Oscar Wilde character] Dorian Gray. There's a portrait in the attic ageing away.'

At 53, it's as if Burton is indulging in a middle-aged nostalgia for his youth - not least because he's also concurrently working on Frankenweenie, a black-and-white 3-D CG-animated remake of his own 1984 short film. Inspired by James Whale's classic Frankenstein, it's about a boy who re-animates his dog back to life. Made during Burton's tenure at Disney - he joined in 1979, after winning a scholarship to study animation at the California Institute of the Arts - it appears that Burton is looking to complete some unfinished business.

At the time, he felt it could have been made as a feature, if he'd had a few more days to shoot. When it received a PG rating - deemed too scary for children - Disney shelved it. 'I was a little shocked,' he admits, 'because I don't see what's PG about the film: there's no bad language, there's only one bit of violence, and it happens off camera.'

Having made Disney US$1 billion with Alice in Wonderland (at present the ninth highest-grossing film of all time), now it's different: he has all the control he wants. But then it helps that times have changed. He may still be the leftfield director who dresses in black, but from Beetlejuice to Dark Shadows, Burton's films have ensured that the B movies he loved as a kid have become mainstream entertainment.

'To me, they were always A movies!' he smiles. And now they really are.

Dark Shadows opens on May 10