There’s a night and day difference between the soundstages of Tim Burton’s “Dark Shadows” and his previous movie, “Alice in Wonderland,” and, no surprise, this is a filmmaker far more comfortable in the darkness.
The digital ambitions of “Alice” required numbing weeks of work in a green-screen chamber, and by the end of it Burton was desperate to get back to his roots — building a cinematic house and then haunting it with his unique brand of cemetery cabaret.
For “Dark Shadows,” an eccentric vampire romance starring Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer and Eva Green, he’s staged a minor one-man rebellion against CG imagery; the story has some digital effects, but where the script called for a Maine fishing town’s waterfront, circa 1972, Burton persuaded Warner Bros. and the film’s producers to build it on the back lot of England’s storied Pinewood Studios instead of on a computer screen.
“It’s so nice to come to work here — not everything is green,” Burton said last summer as he roamed the gothic, crushed-velvet trappings of the mansion that is home to Depp’s aristocratic bloodsucker, Barnabas Collins. “It’s a soap opera — or started as one — and that really means working with the actors. And the sets help everyone. And it’s just more fun.”
“Dark Shadows,” which arrives May 11, is a curious creature and an ongoing mystery. A trailer recently premiered to mixed reactions; its winking tone possibly suggested that the film is an elaborate goof on the overwrought “Twilight” movies, but actually, like so many Burton projects, this one is a fractured valentine to the pop-culture obsessions of his youth.
In the film, Depp plays Collins, the 18th-century playboy of Maine’s high society whose Lothario ways earn the wrath of Angelique Bouchard, a witch portrayed by Green. She transforms him into a vampire and dispatches him to an underground crypt where he is imprisoned until 1972. That’s when an unlucky construction crew sets him free, and in a world of lava lamps, glam rock and Richard M. Nixon, he finds purpose in the new era. The ensemble cast features a number of Burton’s regular players — in addition to Depp and Pfeiffer, there’s the director’s romantic partner, Helena Bonham Carter, Chloe Moretz and English horror legend Christopher Lee.
The setup and characters are taken from the truly weird TV series also called “Dark Shadows,” an ABC soap opera that logged 1,225 episodes before it went off the air in 1971. Created by Dan Curtis, who later did the landmark “The Winds of War” miniseries, the show starred Jonathan Frid as tortured Barnabas and brought ghosts and ghouls to the afternoon hours that usually belonged to handsome surgeons and conniving heiresses.
Unlike”The Addams Family”and “The Munsters,” this monster-mash of a show was a fringe taste, which is why it attracted the young outsiders who would be called goths today. Three of them were Burton, Depp and Pfeiffer, and they have nearly identical memories about racing home from school to catch the same strange transmission.
“It was a real thing for me, I had to watch it, and it was tough because you’d miss the beginning — it started at like 3 p.m., but that’s when we got out of school,” Depp said. “And then it moved later because all the kids wrote in letters. When you met someone who knew the show and loved it, there was an instant connection.” That connection doesn’t exist with young moviegoers today, however, and the producers of the new movie aren’t going to encourage anyone to check out the originals because, well, it wasn’t, technically speaking, a great show. “I think,” Burton said evenly, “you could say it was actually awful.”
So what exactly was its appeal? The London-based filmmaker searched for the right words.
“It’s a different animal,” Burton said. “If I go back and watch something like’Star Trek,’it’s not that hard to analyze what the appeal was, and even if the show is dated you identify what it was that made it work. The ‘Dark Shadows’ appeal was a little more abstract. What I loved about it was the fact that it was a melodramatic soap opera, and, well, that flies in the face of any modern studio’s interests as far as moviemaking. But what we’ve gone for is a mixture, and that’s always what I’ve been interested in; I think most of my movies are mixtures of light and dark and serious things and things that have humor in them.”
On the set, during one scene last summer, Depp emerged from the shadows — in costume and full makeup — with a sort of gliding majesty. Depp has one of the most famous faces in Hollywood, but in many of his roles he hides it. “I don’t think about it that way, I just go to the role that feels right,” said the 48-year-old star.
Between takes, he offered his hands to a visitor for inspection — each of his fingers was extended into talons with rubbery prosthetics, and one held the weight of an especially opulent ring.
“There’s an elegance to this guy that’s kind of fun; Barnabas is a good one,” Depp said as, over his shoulder, Burton chatted with Bonham Carter next to a laboratory vat of vampire blood. “And just look around — there’s nothing like working with Tim.”
Costar Jackie Earle Haley, who plays caretaker Willie Loomis, said whatever tricks Depp uses, they are good ones.
“He was using those long fingers in one scene where he has to hypnotize me,” the”Watchmen”star said. “So I’m watching them and his eyes and listening to his voice and it kind of started to work a little bit. I was like, ‘Wow, this guy could be the real thing.'”
“Dark Shadows” is built around the comedic timing of Depp and the immersive world of Burton, the Edward Gorey of Hollywood. Just as he’s assembled many of his usual team in front of the camera, he’s relying on previous collaborators behind the scenes, including costume designer Colleen Atwood and composer Danny Elfman. Production designer Rick Heinrichs, who won an Oscar for his work with Burton on “Sleepy Hollow,” may be in the running again with his “Dark Shadows” sets. Yes, those were real boats in the water of the fake Maine harbor that was built on an elevated platform and covered a wide plain of the Pinewood lot — it was cheaper and logistically more practical to construct a fake port than use one in Maine, and the counterpart fishing harbors in England are constructed differently.
“A few months ago there was just string here to show where the road would be and the canneries and the pier,” Heinrichs said as he strolled past. “It’ll be a little sad when we tear it all down.”
Heinrichs smiles when asked if he was part of the “Dark Shadows” cult during the original run.
“I was in school when ‘Dark Shadows’ was on, but I didn’t particularly run home to watch it every day, but I know a lot of girls did. It was the ‘Twilight’ of its time, really. … What Tim and Johnny like is that there’s a slightly overwrought soap-opera feel to the families and the town and this gothic horror story beneath it all. There’s the innate humor in it too, the layering and juxtaposition of putting the courtly, 200-year-old Barnabas in that decadent post-hippie, pre-disco era.”
There’s a lot at stake
Burton’s previous movie, “Alice,” made more than a billion dollars worldwide, but the quirks of “Dark Shadows” have Hollywood wondering if this will be an overly eccentric misfire like his 1996 sci-fi spoof “Mars Attacks!” (which, interestingly, was the last Burton film without Depp, Bonham Carter or both in the cast). Of course, many also doubted 2005’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” which made about $475 million.
All of Burton’s films since 2001 have been produced by Richard Zanuck, now 77. He has been making movies since the 1950s, but that understates his experience. As the son of Hollywood mogul Darryl Zanuck and silent-film beauty Virginia Fox, he grew up in the business and may be the only working producer today who can say he’s visited a movie set in nine decades.
“I’ve never seen a movie like this one; it’s like no other,” Zanuck said of the film, penned by Seth Grahame-Smith, a writer perhaps most famous for his literary mashup novel “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” There have been dark shadows under Burton’s eyes every day of 2012 and with good reason. In addition to the exhuming of Barnabas Collins, he has two other films that reach theaters this year (he’s the director of October’s “Frankenweenie” and producer of June’s”Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”), and long-range projects always nibble at the corners of his mind and the edges of his schedule.
In late February, his exhaustion was clear even across international phone lines. “I forget how hard it is at the end, just to get the movie done, but that’s probably a good thing,” the 53-year-old said.