By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Johnny Depp and Tim Burton first collaborated 22 years on the offbeat romantic monster movie “Edward Scissorhands.”
Depp played the softhearted metallic monster with razor-sharp scissors for hands; Burton was an up-and-coming filmmaker who co-wrote the screenplay with Caroline Thompson. The offbeat comedy sparked an enduring friendship and ongoing creative connection between Depp and Burton.
The two have collaborated seven more times, often creating movie magic together, with otherworldly or fantasy-driven films including “Sleepy Hollow,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and, most recently, “Alice in Wonderland” in 2010.
Their latest effort is a big screen adaptation of the cult TV classic “Dark Shadows.”
The 48-year-old Depp first proposed the idea of making a movie based on the vintage black-and-white gothic soap opera while the two were making the big screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” six years ago.
“I think I just blurted out in mid-conversation, ‘You know, we should do a vampire movie together,’’ Depp recalls telling the filmmaker.
The three-time Oscar nominee wasn’t interested in copying the current wave of teen-angst vampire movies, though. Instead, he wanted to play a classic, scary vampire that, as he puts it, “looks like a vampire, not an underwear model.”
Depp was aware his frequent creative cohort shared a fondness for “Dark Shadows,” which aired weekdays on ABC, between 1966 and 1971, and was later shown in reruns on cable.
The melodrama, with its vampires, ghosts, witches and werewolves became a favorite of Vietnam-era teens, who rushed home from school to watch it in those pre-VCR days. Created by producer-director Dan Curtis, the show featured supernatural characters with relatable problems like unrequited love, jealousy, loss and lust.
Veteran stage performer Jonathan Frid played vampire Barnabas Collins, joining the cast a year after the show premiered, and became the series’ central character.
Barnabas is exactly who Depp wanted to play. So together with writers Seth Grahame-Smith and John August, he and Burton fashioned a serio-comic movie that captures the gothic nature of the series while injecting it with humor for contemporary audience sensibilities.
“Tim, Johnny and I just sat around a table and started talking about the things they loved about the show and the moments that would be fun to explore and the characters,” recalls Grahame-Smith, who authored the bestseller “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”
Grahame-Smith says it would have been impossible to watch all 1,225 episodes of “Dark Shadows” and whittle it down to a two-hour movie. Instead, he relied on watching highlights of the show (compiled by “DS” experts) and listened to the reminiscences of the actor and filmmaker for ideas on what to cull from the show for the screenplay. He says he was keen to capture the tone they wanted to convey.
“I remember the first meeting, where Johnny already was getting up from the table and sort of pantomiming the rigidity of Barnabas,” he recalls. “Tim already was talking about (Barnabas’) pointy fingers, like what if the fingers were an extra joint longer (than human fingers). Then Johnny started to mime touching things with his long fingers.”
Burton decided to set the film in 1972, because he recalls it being “a very weird year” in terms of fashion and popular culture. The movie is infused with a wide-range of pop and rock songs from that era from Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock” to the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin.”
“I must have been quite ill that year because I just remember hearing all that kind of music on AM radio over and over again,” recalls the filmmaker, who was a teenager growing up in LA at the time. “It felt strange then, and it still feels strange.”
Depp agrees the tacky Nixon-era setting was apt.
“I just remember those lime-green leisure suits and macrame owls and Earth shoes,” he recalls with a chuckle. “Just weird things that didn’t make sense.”
As Barnabas, Depp’s character “awakens” after his padlocked coffin is discovered by road construction workers and opened. Hungry after being locked away for more than two centuries, he kills his shocked rescuers by sucking out their blood, then heads to his family homestead Collinwood, perched high atop a Maine cliff. There he meets up with distant Collins relatives who have fallen on hard times.
Michelle Pfeiffer, who starred two decades ago as Catwoman in Burton’s “Batman Returns,” plays matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, who is raising her teenage daughter, Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moritz), alone after her husband’s death. She lives in the rundown mansion with her ne’er-do-well widower brother, Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), and his ghost-seeing school-age son, David (Gully McGrath), as well as the boy’s live-in alcoholic psychiatrist, Dr. Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) and the new nanny, Victoria (Bella Heathcote), who bears a striking resemblance to Barnabas’ long lost love, Josette (also played by Heathcote).
Barnabas immediately sets about restoring the family fortune by reopening a fish cannery that was forced out of business by local ruthless entrepreneur Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), who actually is a witch that turned Barnabas into a vampire and spoiled his love affair with the beautiful Josette back in the 1750s because she wanted him for herself.
For Pfeiffer, a three-time Oscar nominee, the opportunity to appear in a big screen adaptation of “Dark Shadows” was appealing. She says she was a die-hard fan of the show as a schoolgirl growing up in Orange County, California. She went so far as to call Burton when she heard he was directing the movie and left a message for him that she wanted in.
“I didn’t even know if there was a part for me,” recalls the blond beauty with a chuckle. “It had been so long since I had seen the series, but I just said, ‘If there’s anything (available), I want to throw my hat in the ring.’ Then I hung up and thought, I’ll never hear from him again. But I did.”
Depp says he took his cue on creating Barnabas from watching old episodes of the series.
“When he was playing Barnabas, there was a kind of rigidity to him,” recalls the Kentucky-born actor. “He kind of had that pole up the back, elegance that was always there.”
Depp says he was pleased when he got “the blessing” from Frid to take on his iconic character.
“He’d written me a letter a couple of years before and signed a photograph that’s sort of passing the baton of Barnabas, which I thought was sweet,” Depp recalls.
He was even more pleased that Frid agreed to do a cameo in the movie, along with other original “Dark Shadows” co-stars Lara Parker, Kathryn Leigh Scott and David Selby, who appear in a party scene.
“He had his cane with him, his original Barnabas cane,” says Depp. “I wasn’t sure if when he saw me he was going to attack me with it. He didn’t.”
Adds Burton, “It was like having the Pope come visit,” he recalls of having Frid on set. “For us, that’s part of the reason we were there. It’s because those people inspired us. So it was nice to see them in their early ‘70s clothing again. It was good.”