Family Misfortunes

Tim Burton talks to Mark Pilkington about his latest project, the gothic vampire soap opera otherwise known as Dark Shadows...

Families, it has to be said, can be a strange bunch at the best of times. But if you thought your family was weird, then spare a thought for ill-fated Barnabas Collins - a wealthy 18th century bachelor who has the bad luck of spurning the unwelcome advances of a witch. The heartbroken hag took her reven- ge by turning him into a vampire and burying him alive in a tomb for eternity. Two hundred years later he finally escapes, only to make his way back to the family manor to find that his descendants have tur- ned his once glorious family home into a madhouse, leaving poor Barnabas to consider maybe escaping from his crypt wasn’t such a great idea after all ... This is the premise for Dark Shadows, Tim Burton’s new movie that is based upon a relatively unknown cult television series first screened back in the 1960s and 70s. Johnny Depp plays the reluctant vampire, Barnabas, alongside a strong star-studded cast con- sisting of Helena Bonham Carter, Michelle Pfeiffer and Chloë Moretz to name but a few.

We had arranged to meet Burton himself at London’s Air Studios during final editing and were eager to ask him why he decided to bring the cult classic to the big screen. “Johnny Depp and Michelle Pfeiffer were fans of the series, so we picked out things we liked,” the director explains as he settles back into his chair and makes himself comfortable. “We liked the idea that Barnabas was a reluctant vampire - he’s a tortured soul who just so happens to be a vampire. So we tried to rely more on the human aspects of it, and not rely on special effects too much.”

For Burton, the central theme of a weird, wacky fa- mily particularly appealed to him and was one that he could associate with his own experiences in the past. “As you grow up you realise that your family is a major part of your life. Whether you are rich or poor or from a different culture, you realise there is a strange dynamic within every family that I find qui- te interesting a fascinating. No matter what’s going on in the world, there’s this weird bubble that only exists in your family.”

Judging from what we’ve seen of the trailer, the fa- mily premise lends itself easily to many comedic moments, as Barnabas finds himself surrounded by his lunatic relatives as he tries to restore order to the chaos all around him. Burton disagrees the film is a straight-out comedy though. “It’s hard for me to tell. I’ve always tried to resist labels and wouldn’t want to brand the film as just another comedy,” he reveals.

“Ever since being a child most of us don’t like being labelled as something, and it is the same for myself as a filmmaker, but we’re in a world where that seems to get more and more necessary. I like it when a film is a mixture of things you know; melodrama, emo- tion, humour, light and dark mixed together. It’s a trickytonetoachieve,becauseyouneverknowhow people are going to respond to that. It’s something that intrigues me and I like the fact that it cannot be defined in any one way.”

He may not like being labelled by the marketing men, but there is no denying that many of his films have a wicked, twisted sense of humour. He explains that this is because he can find things to laugh at in even the darkest subject matters. “Look, just never - whatever you do - take me to a serious play, because I will just burst out laughing,” he smirks, smiling behind the trademark huge tinted glasses he wears. “I mean at weddings or funerals I’m terrible, I laugh at all the wrong things. I always find something that takes itself so seriously extremely funny. For me, I can’t hide that. There is a funny and a sad side to almost everything. I always get told my material is dark, from Beetlejuice to Batman, but nowadays my version of Batman looks like a light-hearted romp in comparison to the new version.”

The vampire Barnabas is the perfect representation of this twisted ideology, a tragic, tormented soul who be- comes a figure of exasperated amusement in Burton’s hands. “I liked that he was a reluctant vampire; he’s a romantic family man who just happens to be a vam- pire,” Burton explains. “He feels more like the kind of character Vincent Price used to play, the tortured soul. He doesn’t feel a part of society and doesn’t feel like he belongs anywhere necessarily. He feels at odds with the world and is a bit unbalanced by everything, and that is what makes his situation even more fun.” Dark Shadows represent the eight collaboration bet- ween Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, a working rela- tionship that first began with Edward Scissorhands. Likewise, the film also features Helena Bonham Carter, another mainstream of his films who also happens to be the director’s wife. Does Burton ever feel there is a constricting element to working with the two actors so many times? The 53 year-old director is quick to answer this. “No, because I always mix it up. I can say the same thing about certain crew members too. There are a lot of people who I haven’t worked with on this film which made a big difference. You introduce new people to the dynamic and there is always a new chemistry to witness, so it’s fun to see that in action.” A quick glance at the cast list will confirm this, as Burton has utilised his impressive book of contacts to assemble a cast that features Chloë Moretz, Michelle Pfeiffer (who also appeared as Catwoman in 1992’s Batman Returns), Johnny Lee Miller and even rock star Alice Cooper. He admits that he is particularly proud of the group of actors he managed to bring together. “I felt so lucky with the cast - they all belonged in the Dark Shadows club.”

From humble beginnings making student anima- tions to now directing multi-million dollar feature films, Burton’s Hollywood adventure has been an incredible success story. As we drew the interview to a close, we finish by asking how he has changed over the years as a director. “Well I now storyboard a lot less - I started out doing that a lot on my earlier films because that was my background,” he summa- rises as he looks back over his career. “Then, as I got to start working with actors I started to enjoy the immediacy of things. I liked the chaos of it all and not overly planning it. It’s nice to keep some of the impulsiveness into it.” He may like his work to be impetuous and have spur-of-the-moment decisions but one thing’s for sure, the success of the director’s films cannot be argued and comes as no surprise to his army of loyal fans around the world ... Long may that spontaneity - and the madness - continue.

Directed by:
Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Jackie Earle Haley, Jonny Lee Miller, Eva Green, Chloë Moretz, Alice Cooper
Distributor Warner Bros., Release 11. Mai