Article Archive

Sweeney Todd - An Interview with Tim Burton and Cast

Author: 3D
Tuesday, 22 January 2008
Sweeney Todd, the musical story of a serial killer barber, reunites Johnny Depp and Tim Burton, alongside a stellar cast including Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman and Sacha Baron Cohen. 3D spoke exclusively to Depp, Burton and Bonham Carter. Seriously, it's going to take a bit to top this.

Contemporary cinema's most inventive double act - director Tim Burton and actor Johnny Depp - are back with a compelling and original vision based on the award-winning musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street by legendary lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim.

Depp stars as Benjamin Barker, a man unjustly imprisoned for 15 years, who manages to escape back to London with a vow of revenge. Adopting the guise of Sweeney Todd, Barker returns to his old barbershop above Mrs. Lovett's pie-making premises. There he sets his sights on Judge Turpin (Rickman), who sent him away in order to steal his wife, Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly), and his baby daughter from him.

When a rival barber, the flamboyant Italian Pirelli (Baron Cohen), threatens to expose Sweeney's real identity, Todd kills him. Mrs. Lovett sees this crisis as a potential solution to her ailing business - and suggests using his victims as filling for her pies. Mrs. Lovett dreams of respectability and a life at the seaside with Sweeney as her husband. But Sweeney has only revenge on his mind - to the detriment of anyone or anything else.

Depp relished the opportunity to work again with Burton, with whom he has previously collaborated on five films - Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Corpse Bride.

“Anything he would ask me to do, I would jump at it,” the actor says. “The set was a laugh riot. It was a great time, great experience, great fun.”

“They have this incredible shorthand with each other,” Bonham Carter says of the Burton/Depp rapport. “The best way I can describe their relationship is like brothers. There's such a lot of respect and they clearly adore each other.”

For Depp, the key to Sweeney Todd was to think of him not as a killer at all.  “Sweeney's obviously a dark figure,” he reflects, “but I think quite a sensitive figure, hyper-sensitive and has experienced something very dark and traumatic in his life, a grave injustice. But I always saw him as a victim. I mean, anyone who is victimised to that degree and then turns around and becomes a murderer, can't be all there. I always saw him as a little bit slow. Not dumb, just a half-step behind. The rug was pulled out from under his perfect life, his perfect world. He was in a 15-year hellhole. The only reason he came back was to eliminate the people who had done him wrong.”

Bonham Carter and Depp embody characters that Burton wanted to portray as younger than they were depicted in the stage play.

“It just felt that part of the energy on this was to make them a bit younger, in their 40s, and have the kids be kids, so the ages were a bit more appropriate to what the story really was, and it's not a teenager being played by a 30-year-old,” the director states. “That, to me, was an energy that was very filmic as opposed to a stage thing when you could get away with it.”

Bonham Carter's Mrs. Lovett is as romantic as she is devious. “[Burton's] big thing about this version was that he wanted to play Sweeney and Mrs Lovett younger than they originally were and that there was the hope for their romance,” she says. “So, I wanted to really play the love for him, the yearning, along with the amorality, of course. She thinks she's Mother Earth but at the same time she is completely amoral and delusional. She is a fantastic character and I chucked most things into it - and Tim kept weeding them out [laughs]. We'd be coming to the market scene and I'd say 'I think she is a pickpocket too.' and he would be 'Yeah, whatever' and then I would say 'I think she is a prostitute too.' and he would be 'Yeah OK'.”

The actress observes that her co-star, who is considered to be one of his generation's finest actors, has disappeared in acclaimed performances in numerous films, as well as the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and now, as Sweeney Todd.

“I've always admired Johnny because of his choices as an actor, and because he has always done things according to his own lights,” she says. “He's never done anything according to any sort of pattern or formula or to create a career, or because he was relying on his looks. I think, in a funny way, we're a bit similar, in that we don't have much respect for what we look like; we rather like camouflaging and getting away from ourselves.”

For Pirelli, the flamboyant barber who rumbles Barker's new identity but also hides a secret of his own, Burton cast the talented British comic actor Sacha Baron Cohen in his first film since his breakout success with Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation Of Kazakhstan.

“Sacha is someone I'd admired greatly for a number of years, all the way back to Ali G,” Depp says, referring to Cohen's TV show persona. “The guy came in and won us all over in no time. He was a pleasure to watch and a pleasure to work with. It's like meeting the new Peter Sellers. He's clearly an incredibly gifted actor.”

The legacy of Sweeney Todd began with a short story called The String Of Pearls: A Romance, written by Thomas Peckett Prest and published in The People's Periodical in November 1846. A year later, Prest's story was adapted as a play that bore the subtitle 'The Demon Barber of Fleet Street'. British playwright Christopher Bond's 1973 stage play Sweeney Todd first introduced the Barker/Turpin revenge plot, and in 1979, Stephen Sondheim, the legendary American lyricist and composer - one of a very select group to have won an Academy Award, a Tony, an Emmy, a Grammy and a Pulitzer Prize - brought the story of Sweeney Todd to a wider audience, with his and Hugh Wheeler's acclaimed stage musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. 
Although Burton didn't see the original Broadway production, he did attend an early performance in London while he was a student there.

“I'm not a big musical fan, but I loved it,” he admits. “I didn't know anything about Stephen Sondheim. The poster just looked kind of cool, kind of interesting. I went to see it twice because I liked it so much.”

The musical aspect of the film represented a unique challenge for the ever-versatile Depp - singing on screen for the very first time. Depp is a talented musician, who played guitar and sang in a rock band during his teenage years, but he has never sung in a film.

“I knew I wasn't tone deaf because I play music and play guitar and all, but I didn't know if I was going to be able to actually sing,” Depp admits. “I wasn't sure. When we first talked, I said, 'Let me try, let me investigate it and I'll send you something and see how you feel. And then we can talk about it.' I sent him My Friends. I was frightened about the singing, to be honest, probably more than anyone, but Tim really trusted me with it.”

WHEN: In cinemas 24 January