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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street - Tim Burton interview

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Interview by Rob Carnevale

DIRECTOR Tim Burton talks about reuniting with Johnny Depp for a sixth time on Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and why it was easier than he thought to get the movie made…

Q. It’s been 28 years since you saw this musical on stage, did you think then that you would make a movie version of it?
Tim Burton: I was still a student, so I didn’t know if I would be making movies or working in a restaurant, I had no idea what I would be doing. I didn’t go to the theatre much, and I didn’t even know who Stephen Sondheim was. I didn’t know anything about the show, I just wandered into the theatre and it just blew me away because I’d never really seen anything that had the mixture of all those elements. I actually went three nights in a row because I loved it so much.

Q. There haven’t been too many ‘18’ or ‘R’ rated musicals – was there any possibility it might have been able to get a younger rating? And how involved was Sondheim in re-shaping it?
Tim Burton: It was an amazing thing, you go to the studio and say you’re going to do an R rated musical with lots of blood and no professional singers, and it’s about a serial killer and cannibalism and they go “great!” That was unheard of, I’ve never had that happen in my life before! That gave me hope that there are still people in Hollywood that are willing to try different things. So that was a very positive thing. The first meeting I went into I said: “Blood is a part of the story…” Because I’d seen productions where they’d tried to skimp on it, be more politically correct and they really lost something.

So, that was the first thing I said to them and they accepted it. In terms of the show, it was three hours long, but we weren’t out to film the Broadway show, we were out to make a movie so we tried to keep the pace like those old melodramas. And because it’s such a simple story, you kind of get what the story is, so it felt like the pace needed to be more what it is. Sondheim himself is not a real big fan of movie musicals, so he was really open to trimming it down and honing it down to a more pacy shape.

Q. This is your sixth collaboration with Johnny Depp. Do you still surprise each other, creatively?
Tim Burton: Of course, on this occasion it was seeing Johnny sing. I’ve never seen that in the many years that we’ve worked together. So yeah, there’s always something new. A journalist in America told us that we’d been working together for 10 decades, so we’re a lot older than we look! We actually knew each other before the invention of cinema, so we have quite a good, long relationship.

Q. Do you see this as a tale of redemption?
Tim Burton: We always saw him as a sad character, not a tragic villain or anything. He’s basically a dead person when you meet him, the only thing that’s keeping him going is one single minded thing which is tragic. You don’t see anything else around him.

Q. What role do you think the music plays in Sweeney Todd, which could be seen to be strong enough to stand as a story on its own?
Tim Burton: One of the things I loved about the musical was that you listened to the soundtrack and it told you the story. We didn’t want it to be what I’d say was a traditional musical, with a lot of dialogue and then singing. It felt like a silent movie with singing. That’s why we cut out a lot of choruses and things, and extras singing and dancing down the street. Each of the characters, because a lot of them are repressed and have their emotions inside, the music was a way to let them express their feelings. That was the structure we used for it. When I first saw the show the imagery, which is quite dark and harsh, set with the music, which is quite lush and beautiful, was something I’d never seen before and was the reason I wanted to do it.

Q. How did you enjoy working with such a talented cast?
Tim Burton: All I can say is that this is one of the best casts I’ve ever worked with. These people are not professional singers, so to do a musical like this – which, I think, is one of the most difficult musicals – they all went for it. Every day on the set was a very, very special thing for me. Hearing all these guys sing, I don’t know if I can ever have an experience like that again so I take this opportunity to thank them all.

Q. Are you planning to write any more books?
Tim Burton: I still do little things. I have a little backlog of stories and when I get enough of them I’d like to do another book like that. It’s quite fun to do. I tend to work on them between projects.

b>Read our review of Sweeney Todd