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Johnny Depp and Tim Burton Make a Dark Duo

Photo credit : Dark Shadows
Johnny Depp and Tim Burton Make a Dark Duo

LOS ANGELES - When director Tim Burton needs a uniquely odd actor for a film, he usually turns to Johnny Depp.

For their eighth collaboration, it was Depp who came to Burton with a proposal to reinvent the supernatural soap opera, Dark Shadows, which aired from 1966 to 1971. The movie makeover, starring Depp as vampire Barnabas Collins, is the result.

"We talked about doing it for many years, and I think Johnny wanted to play this (character) since he was a little boy," said Burton at a Beverly Hills hotel, with Depp and the rest of the cast, promoting the comedy-thriller opening May 11.

It was while they were shooting Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in 2006, that Dark Shadows went from an idea to a movie in pre-production.

"And it always had a tricky tone," said the director, of mixing humour with horror.

So far, the Depp-Burton union has worked out: Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, Corpse Bride, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sweeney Todd, and Alice in Wonderland have pulled in more than $2 billion US worldwide at the box office.

In Dark Shadows, Depp's vampire escapes from a 200-year entombment and finds himself in the year 1972, where his dysfunctional relatives are living in the dilapidated Collins manor.

Struggling to survive is the matriarch, Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), her rebellious daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), Elizabeth's clueless brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), his son David (Gulliver McGrath), the mysterious nanny (Bella Heathcote) and caretaker (Jackie Earle Haley), and the family's boozy live-in psychiatrist, Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter).

They all accept the return of the peculiar Barnabas in the hope he can return the family's fishing business to its former glory in the Maine town named after the Collins clan. Standing in Barnabas's way is the wicked witch Angelique (Eva Green), who had previously put a vampire curse on him.

It's a light take on a dark story with lots of melodramatic acting, but lampooning was not the aim. Paying tribute to their favourite show was the intention.

With that in mind, Burton and Depp made sure that Hamilton, Ont.-born actor Jonathan Frid, who played Barnabas on the soap, had a cameo. (Sadly, he died on April 14 at age 87).

"You know, I wasn't sure whether he was going to do it," says Depp. "But he did, and he had his original Barnabas cane with him. When he actually saw me for the first time, I thought he might attack me with it. He didn't."

Burton adds: "I mean, it was like having the Pope come visit. Part of the reason we were there is because (Jonathan) inspired us."

Referencing the 1970s, however, was Burton's idea. Besides dressing sets with 1970s pop-culture images, Dark Shadows uses rock music from the era to punctuate the action. Alice Cooper even performs The Ballad of Dwight Fry at a Barnabas party.

"We went from really cheesy pop to really kind of cool, hardcore stuff," Burton says. "I mean, it was a weird year for music. And 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."

Also spooky is Depp's look as a classic, pasty-faced vampire.

"We decided a vampire should look like a vampire," says Depp. "It was our rebellion against vampires who look like underwear models. So yeah, there was a bit of Nosferatu (in Barnabas)."

Burton doesn't hold back on the bloodsucking scenes either, especially when the starving Barnabas feasts on construction workers who inadvertently free him from his buried casket. "I felt like I was biting one of the Village People," says Depp.

For Pfeiffer, it was a pleasant reunion with Burton, who was her Batman Returns director when she played Catwoman.

She had been tracking the progress of the proposed Dark Shadows movie. When she found out the film received the go-ahead, she did something she's never done before.

"I shamelessly called (Burton) and said, 'Give me a job after 20 years,'" says Pfeiffer. "It was really horrible."

But her aggressiveness paid off, and she was hired to play the matriarch. "It reminded me how much I loved working with her before," says Burton of their on-set experience.

She was reminded that the director is a creative collaborator. In fact, he made only one demand that proved to be more difficult than the actress thought it would be.

"When I did my first day of shooting, I had to walk down steps in eight-inch platform shoes, and I couldn't look down," Pfeiffer says. "Tim told me I had to do it because 'they did that in Dynasty and Dallas.'"

bthompson@postmedia.com