On Tuesday, I’m told, the Los Angeles Times will publish my story on Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd.” I’ve reported it for months, after noticing in the summer that perhaps the only musical I like would be turned into a film. The story was initially assigned as a thorough narrative about the idea of the music-film that would include deep reporting on how the music-driven stage show became a cinematic production in many respects--good, bad, or ugly. In the course of the reporting, I had some intriguing discussions—basically with everyone involved in the film, including some self-congratulatory remarks but also some really unusual quotes. Most memorable? A lunch with producer Dick Zanuck at Warner’s and a few funny comments from Tim Burton, to say nothing of a conversation about the business of such filmmaking with Dreamworks’s Walter F. Parkes. But over the course of the last few months, the Times also published a separate story about Burton that included information my original story would have covered (nothing personal: this is how newspapers often work when they cover entertainment so thoroughly from so many angles). So my piece, for tomorrow or later this week, has had to be rejiggered. It will now focus more on the musical qualities of the film, but still include chats with Depp, Burton, and others. Still, there are lots of cutting-floor scraps. To precede the piece, then, I thought I’d share some extra quotes with you, and take you behind the scenes of the story.
1. From my Sondheim conversation:
“Of course, you can fill them, but it's not dynamic, and that's what Tim [Burton] and[screenwriter/producer John Logan] were so cognizant of. You can't just expect the audience to watch anything. I'm a movie fan, and if something isn't happening in a movie, get on with it... The director is hard put just to keep the camera interested [when a song occurs in a traditional movie musical].”
It had been nibbled at by two producers in
I started work in 1977, it was first done in ‘79, and that's it. I should say I was going to write the whole thing, including libretto, but by the time i got up to page seven of 35 in the printed version, I was already close to an hour, and I thought: Uh, oh, this is going to be longer than the Ring cycle. So I called Hugh Wheeler. He was british and knew the legend and had also written mysteries - under name of Patrick Quentin. Then, when his collaborator died, he wrote solo mystery novels under Q. Patrick, and they were popular in the 1930s and 40s when Ellery Queen was popular. I thought he would be perfect: he was a suspense writer and we had a good time writing it.
He saw to it that it wasn’t five hours long. He essentially took what Bond had done but re-plotted successions of incidents, introduced the young person's story a little. He changed the periodicity of it. He stuck very closely to what Bond did. And I did too. Bond wrote this as a potboiler for his traveling theater company. He not only introduced classic stuff in it but made the distinction in language between upper and lower class. The upper class spoke in a kind of blank verse, not written out in pentameter. Lower classes were much more vernacular. There was a whole sociological caste from the play. But the point was that he gave us free reign. It was easy to write.
I was big fan of Bernard Hermann. A big fan of Hangover Square. And the score got me. So this is an homage to Hermann and that kind of Victorian melodrama music that you hear if if you listen to Hangover Square. I wanted to write a musical that would keep an audience in suspense without letting them laugh at it, which is not easy to do. What you realize when you step outside the theater, though, is that the horrors are so much more than inside. You have to keep background music going: it keeps the audience’s suspension of belief. Once they step one foot back, it's close to way over the top. Sweeney is over the top but in a way that an audience gets involved as opposed to giggling at it.
On different productions of his many works, and this one work in particular:
An opera approach in an opera house is a different show than when [Sweeney’s performed] on Broadway. I've always felt when people say: what defines opera, what makes it different from theater. It's where the performance is done. When Menotti was done on Broadway, it was a Broadway show. It's audiences’ expectations and what an audience brings into an opera house as well as how performers perform. With opera singers, the concentration is on vocal production. In Broadway or theater, the concentrations is on story-telling and acting. And the best operas like Carmen combine both. That’s what Puccini was, too.
On Sweeney being a genre bender:
On Sweeney being called “musically complicated”:
”Well, Ravel would have thought it was pretty stodgy. That's not a Broadway audience, though. A Broadway audience hears a dissonance and…[he was implying they react strongly to this stuff.] A person at Yale even once came up and said was this the first atonal music ever written! [Insert shock on the part of Sondheim.] My father was shocked by West Side Story be cause he was brought up on Victor Herbert.
On how a broad American audience will react to it:
“What are they going to make of it? I have no idea. They’re going to wait for the power chords!
“John Logan [the screenwriter] tried very scrupulously to keep the shape of the score while recognizing it had to be kept down… Anybody can do MTV-style cutting to any song in world. That's happened in movies like La Boheme. The point of this is a really good story, and you got to keep it going. This isn’t Bergman’s Magic Flute [ prompted by question the journalist had offered] whose pleasure is lingering over the singing and audience. An opera audience. I'm a movie fan. If somewthing isn't happening, get on with it. When you go into a musical in the theater, you have an unwritten contract: people are going to face front, imagine a fourth wall, and what goes on for three and a half minutes holds your attention because you have a little lingering that opera audiences have love for.
On whether or not
Sondheim ever thought the work would have a life in
It never occurred to me. You can't just adapt stage musicals for screen, you have to recreate them. Where songs are respites in the middle of comedy, it’s OK. But when you attempt with musical theater to tell story through song, it becomes a whole other matter.
On letting go of the rights to the show:
Dreamworks took an option on the piece and it was developed. It's like writing
a novel. It started during the recording session of Bernadette Peters’ revival
of Gypsy. I went out with Sam Mendes for coffee, and he asked if I thought
about it as a movie, and I said no. And he said, wel, I have. He had a deal
with Dreamworks. He got together with [screenwriter John] Logan, and then Sam
decided not to direct it, but it was taken to Tim Burton. Tim came to me 20 years
ago and asked to do it, and I said no, and he went on to other projects. When Sam
brought it up again, I was startled. And
when this came back to Tim, he wanted to do it. It was a piece he liked. I
wasn’t worried about how it would be treated because it was Sam who suggested it
in the first place, and then I loved what
On how Oscar Hammerstein would react to the film:
2. From my conversation with Tim Burton:
“This is not my background at all, you
know. I certainly was never a big theatergoer. I just happened to be in
“What works on a stage, doesn’t work on film all the time. With film, you have the luxury of seeing character's faces and being up close and kind of getting the more interior nature--the inner piece, in a way. And, it changes things. My goal was always to be true to it, because I loved the original.
The first script I ran by [Sondheim] had less music in it, so we ended up going back and putting more back into it just because the show was more music-driven and less kind of traditional dialogue and structure.
On the potential difficulties in editing the film:
Well, you know, the writer John, now I don't know this for sure, but he'd done it where there was more music, less music, different music, you know. He'd been through a lot of different versions and when I got in the ballpark, I went back to more music, like I said. But there were certain things that surprised me that we ended up not doing or changing just because of the somewhat organic nature of it--and it being a film. There a lot of different weird elements. Sondheim's music isn’t the easiest thing to do. Except for a couple of effects, we had no real professional singers--you know, they weren't really classically trained. But that created an interesting dynamic and it was actually quite exciting to me that way. We did it fairly quickly, as we went along.
The interesting thing is that it's great having music on the set because it really informs you and the actors.
Any stage influences?
No. Probably the first one that I
The music is quite beautiful. That's what I love about the piece; it's very lyrical. And then you have that juxtaposed against the imagery. That's what I love about it.
Was Sondheim thinking movies when he wrote this?
Absolutely. The first time I met him he said that and it just made complete sense. And in fact what was amazing was when we first recorded the orchestra without hearing the lyrics, we really hear it. So that was fun in this case to do. Some of the pieces, we didn't keep the lyrics but we kept his score. So it's really kind of great to hear the score because you usually hear it mainly with the lyrics. To find that balance was interesting. And also we recorded it with full orchestra and then we isolated some instruments, and when you pare it down, it really is like an amazing film music score.
On this recording of the music—is it thick or thin?
No, it's thick. But there are, like I said, times when we didn't end up using the lyrics so that you could hear the music.
Is it too sophisticated for mainstream movies?
Well, it was a strange thing. It's an R rated musical, and while some musicals have met with a certain amount of success, you never know. It's something that, you know, doesn’t necessarily come to mind. I think the term “musical” still scares studios a bit. Throw in some blood and an R rating, and you know…
Is this an homage to horror movies?
Yeah, that's one of the things Johnny and I have always talked about over the years. You know, horror movie actors that we loved. This was an opportunity to try to do characters like that. And again the music really fit. There used to be a pianist in these music, or somebody on the side, and the actors just move differently. And what was exciting about this is that you see everybody acting in a different way and moving in a different way because of the music. I thought beforehand that it was going to be really restricting, but it turned out to be the opposite.
On delegating the filmmaking:
“Dante Ferreti [the production designer], I've never really, really worked with before but he's done Fellini movies. You just try to find people that you feel in sync with. We kind of had... not quite a luxurious schedule like you sometimes do on a movie. It was a bit tighter. But it was fun in a way to do that because it did feel like we were making an old horror movie. Just get in there and shoot it as quickly as possible. It kind of woke up the whole horror movie thing. I like to work where you don't have to be overly literal, and everybody gets the whole vibe of it. We never see just one thing as an inspiration, it's always a few. So it never feels like it's this precious box. If it gets to a point where you have to say: do it exactly like that. Or you have to show them a picture and say, make it look exactly like that, you know you're working with the wrong people.
“I was actually interested, a long, long time ago, maybe more than 10 years ago. I was sort of involved with it loosely. I was just with Warner Brothers at that time. I was interested in it for different producers, and I just got sidetracked with other things. I didn't even really know Johnny at that point very much, and I always felt everything happens for a reason, and he just felt more accurate with the character. And that was another issue. You know, on stage, everybody was a little bit older, and that was fine. But for the film it just felt right to make them slightly younger. To make a kid feel like a kid, you know? Not that you’re going to harm your son by a real kid. But it was great: it just gives them an extra layer of strangeness and emotion that it isn't sung by a 30-year-old. There’s something about a kid going in that makes it more strangely real.
On Sondheim and the play:
“I didn't really know Sondheim at
all. I had seen enough productions to see that he seemed to be open to
different interpretations. One was a bit more stylized, one was not. You
know, it's been around for a while, and someone told me that it's one of the
most performed school plays: kids love performing it. There's a large
arena of different types of productions. I talked to so many people here at
On the cast being mostly British:
It just seemed right. Obviously, Johnny's not British. But [the piece] lived there, and it just made more sense.
How was Sondheim involved?
“He had cast approval over the two leads
and we ran by everybody else with him. And he was great because he was
extremely knowledgeable about films. He was a fairly cool guy; he came to
the first couple days of the orchestra recording. He spoke to
“Well, it's not real. That's the thing, to me. It's more like it was on the stage where it was a bit over the top. It goes less for reality and more for emotional effect. It sort of undermines the emotional; it flourishes; it serves as exclamation points. Because it is a melodrama and old horror movie it sort of fit right into that.
“He's such a repressed, such a brooding character. Really, the whole movie is about him getting back at people. So, you know, since he's such an internal character, it really felt like it needed those releases. [The blood, again.]
Were drawings made beforehand?
“Eh, not too much. A little bit. I mean one of the things that struck me was as I was going back through old sketchbooks, I found a little sketch of Ms. Lovett in Sweeney Todd and I thought, Jesus, it looks like Johnny and Helena, you see. And I did it before I knew her. And I mean all my sketches kind of look the same. But it did strike me. I did a couple of drawings like that of the characters, and I did a couple of little sketches, little barber shop sketches. Dante [Ferretti] is such an amazing draftsman. I would do a couple of little doodles if I had the thought.
The Desaturated look.
We thought a lot about the color in terms of how much color to put on the set and the costumes. It's nice to kind of do and not to so much rely on so much post-production. It almost feels a bit too easy, so we tried to think about it as much as we could up front. The environment was the environment we wanted it to be.
Did Depp’s portrayal surprise?
You know when I asked him if he would be into it, I didn't know if he could sing or not. But I knew well enough that he wouldn't have said yes if he didn't think he could do it. That was good enough for me And I felt very confident that he would do it. Which made it really nice when I first heard him. I thought he could do it, but he also exceeded what I thought, and I just got really excited. It's always nice when people do that: go beyond what you think they're going to do. And it's quite an exposing thing, you know. I'm not a singer. It was quite difficult to not rehearse people, singing. That was a new feeling for me, seeing that.
“I hope it doesn't disappoint. It's hard to know how purists will respond to it. I know, for me, I love the show. So it was always my goal to keep it true to it but make it a movie at the same time. I think the spirit of it is right. And I don't always feel that way. It's just kind of weird experiment to do. We always felt a bit funny, kind of like almost laughing, making this R rated musical. There was this kind of exciting feeling on the set.
“When you see different kind of productions of this done, there all over the shop in a way, aren't they?”
3. Conversation with Helena Bonham Carter
It's been in my blood for a long time. I have always loved Sondheim. You need both a heart and head for him. This version is much more naturalistic. And Johnny's always got quite an interesting take on things. He sounds quite modern, or a good deal more than modern.
“Sweeney, I've known since I was about
thirteen, when it came out, I guess. I went and got into the score and scoured
it before anyone had seen it actually because a friend from
“I've just always been a wannabe. A bathroom singer. And I've always wanted to be in a musical; it's been my dream. I sort of thought that would pass me by. And so when Tim said he was going to make a musical of it, I thought: “I can't sit back and not give it a try.” So I went and took singing lesson and took three months to learn it. And then I auditioned with everybody else. And it was sort of like: “Well, you can try, but it's going to be like everybody else, No preferential treatment”. In fact, there certainly was no preferential treatment. Well, actually, nobody else got any preferential treatment either.
“I had a really good singing teacher, but unfortunately he died the week after we stopped filming. And he was quite legendary in his time for teaching actors how to sing. It was quite rigorous, the training. But I just had to practice every single day, and he taught me so much.
Were certain recordings influential?
Not really, no. I knew I would play it very differently. We didn't really see a point to making the same choices someone else had made. I also knew that Tim's taste would be very different. He didn't really love musical theatre. He really wanted it naturalistically. No as extravert as I was intending to be. Like he always wanted me to do everything without using my hands, and especially without my eyebrows. It was a lot more internalized than the original.
“The little bit I have seen…before you know it, it catches the singing. It's not pronounced in any big way. It happens without you even noticing, and that's to do with the way Tim’s directed us. The color saturation helps too, because it’s internalizing in kind of a filmic way. It’s like acting against singing which is such an external expression. It was quite a lot to balance at first, to get that ironed out.
All of it was lip-synced. And that was hard too, because you have to illustrate something you've done weeks before in a recording studio. And you've got to be newly limpid, or get around any other acting and obviously must obsess about having perfect timing. So much about this is the greatness of muscle memory--how much you can rely on muscle memory. If you do it enough times, your brain and your mouth and the musicality will just have a memory of its own and will do it. Once it's on the recording, you just listen to it and listen to it, and it became part of you. [Sondheim was pretty fair and left it up to us, really. I think he is a genius, so I just wanted every note he could give me. But if anything, he was not too tutorial. He's used to being quite fluid and things really jumped out.
Will you show it to your kids and the new baby?
The new baby? Oh, Christ. Not for years. Can you believe it? While we were making it, it was quite unmistakable that I was pregnant halfway through. My breasts are just suddenly zoomed up. It was just like, whoa…It was really inconvenient that I was pregnant [during the filming process] because I was completely uncoordinated and clumsy. The pie sequences were impossible because I was off caffeine too, so I couldn't rely on caffeine to give me concentration. And making the pise with all those rolling pins? It was a nightmare. But they were real patient with me.
All the blood, that was fun. I was a bit far away from the blood bank. It's also kind of darkly comedic, a black kind of humor. He wrote this whole song too, we’re on our killing spree with the most romantic music, which is about Joanna, to counterpoint it, so it's so black and beautiful too. And twisted. And it's romantic. As it should be.
4. John Logan: Interviewing the screenwriter/producer
“The biggest challenge I was facing was: How do you take a very powerful but very presentational piece of theater and make it work as cinema? How do you take a tiger and turn into a lion without losing the power? Cinema has very specific demands: psychological realism, naturalism to a certain degree, and more than anything, it demands a clear emotional story. So the process of all the work that i did was focused around that question: How do we make this the compelling human story of Sweeney Todd?
“What might be enhanced in terms of
relationships. In the stage show, Joanna and Anthony are young lovers and
featured more. But we focused this story more on Sweeney and made time cuts.
But none of this was done lightly." Another example of
For five years, this has
been my life.”
5. Speaking to Walter F. Parkes, producer
“No one approached this as inherently commercial…The connection between Tim's sensibility and that of Sweeney itself is so perfect. That said, we all went in with eyes wide open about the limitations of what this could be….So we did have to structure an economic approach in a responsible way… It's a deceptively difficult play to adapt… There was a lot of very difficult invisible work that took place.
People who love Sweeney Todd have an almost
a cultish love of the work…It was actually the first show I had ever seen,
having grown up in LA. It was something that Laurie [MacDonald, producing
partner and wife] and I always connected with. The decision to try to make it
as a motion picture really came in 2001, when I was still running Dreamworks,
had been doing well, and we felt that we could really try to do something that
was challenging but that we loved very deeply. We had made two movies by Sam
Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition). He, too, shared a love of
Sondheim, and we decided to put it into development. I believe that there were
discussions before that… The rights were held by Steve [Sondheim]. So I flew to
It had to be approached from the outset in certain way – certainly an R rated musical doesn't say 'commercial.' Then we embarked on several-year process of development, involving John, Steve, Sam for the first go around. It took quite a while.
There's a classically tragic aspect –
Sweeney's trying to regain what he's lost through revenge, which is the
engineer of his own downfall. It's a very detailed story and almost a three
hour show, so some of most difficult work John had to accomplish was to
condense the essential story and keep [sustain?] its power. You have to connect
more emotionally with Sweeney and use tools that film gives us like flashbacks,
for example. It was a normal—which means long – development process. Sam moved
on to do other things and eventually left the project on its own…For whatever
reason, Sondheim was pretty game about it. Certainly there were certain
guarantees and controls he insisted on – the score would exist largely intact.
I hope that he felt that the auspices under which the film was made were such
that he could have a certain amount of trust. We were there to protect his
work. We had a very direct conversation in Chicago.
“He was always a fan of Sondheim, so he was very comfortable.”
David Geffen was a big supporter, and of course, he comes out of world of theater and is an enormous fan of Sondheim and the show.
How the different studios are involved.
It was created as a project under Dreamworks' auspices. Then, when Tim and Johnny came in, Warners came on as partners, having to do with successful relationships they had had. With a movie like this, from a studio point of view, it's good to have a partner. You have a comfort level in terms of exposure that allows the filmmaker—in this case, Tim--total freedom to do the film he sees.
Until actual production, it was very much
a Dreamworks production. But because it's shot in
Was there one person or team in charge of the production?
Laurie and I took this through a few laps. And when you work with Tim…Laurie and I had great conversations with him, and it was so in keeping with what we would hope. And all you have to do is look at the sum total of his work. He is someone who is uniquely gifted and prepared. The baton was handed over gratefully. We've known Dick [Zanuck] for years – from working on Deep Impact, Road To Perdition – so it was pleasure to know that he would be taking up the slack and act as more of Tim's on-set producer as he has for his last 3 or 4 movies. It was a very good partnership.
Plans to work on other Sondheim pieces?
I don't want to talk about it but we've considered it. In an early meeting with Sondeim, we talked about how the two shows that seem to be performed the most are West Side Story and Sweeney Todd. And he felt those were the two that had the best story. With typical humility, of course. Sweeney, of course, being one of best scores of 25 yrs… That may make it somewhat unique within Steve's body of work in terms of adaptability to screen.
forsee more-complex contemporary operas working films in this guise? Philip
Glass? Britten's Peter Grimes? Perhaps something by John Adams.
I love that stuff. Those are amazing piece but those really operate in the world of opera or concert performance. What's interesting about Sweeney is that it began on the musical stage and migrated to opera. It continues to exist as musical theater and a concert performance piece. It is a great story. It's completely singular score. And there's a quality that Sweeney has that's utterly unique. It's somehow a juxtaposition between two conflicting aspects of who we are. [It combines] the most vile tendencies we have towards self destructiveness with the most tender. It's all about longing and lost love. That stark contrast is one of the reasons why you know it has survived and grown into a a classic. It's also unique in its blending of high art and low art.
I was sung "Not While I'm Around" as a lullaby…
We used to play the soundtrack so much that our kids [grew to know it very well]--particularly our youngest son. The Ballad of Sweeeney Todd was the first song to which he learned all the words…
6. Dick Zanuck, producer.
“The thing about this picture, and I've
screened it now for some marketing people here at
and Dreamworks and people who did the trailer... To men, they don't feel that they saw a musical even though there's more music in this than most musicals. It's almost operatic. And the whole plot and backstory, everything, is Sondheim. Within a minute, it starts off with sweeney singing. Within a minute you get into it. It's not like you and I are having a conversation and then we start breaking into song. None of that, at all. I mean the first time you see it, he's telling your story, he's singing. Everybody suddenly could sing: People who we had no idea said: "Oh, I can sing." And in most cases they could.
Lots of auditions.
There were lots of ladies for Mrs. Lovett.
And Johnny was a total surprise. He came out here with a band, people forget about that. And it was actually Nick Cage, who was also a struggling actor, who said, you know, go on and audition, become an actor, you can make much more money. And Johnny, really reluctantly, he never thought about himself as an actor, but he did go on an audition and got the part right away, whatever that was. But though the years, nobody remembers that he actually was a singer. But we and Tim, you know, we all relied on the fact because he wouldn't come in and audition even for Sondheim. So we all relied on the fact, trying to put the most positive spin on it, that he was a big enough star he wouldn't put himself in this position if he didn't think he could do it. He wouldn't make a fool of himself. So we didn't hear anything from him until about eight weeks before we started going. About eight weeks before, he said he'd made a little home recording and he put it on a CD. And Tim and I listened to it, and we said "Oh my God"--not only were we relieved that he could carry a note, but he was great. And has a tremendous range, you'll see.
“You're not going to take your family. It's R rated. It's not family oriented. It was never meant to be. But for those, in addition to the Sondheim lovers and the Johnny Depp lovers, it's a horror piece. I mean it's not a slasher, but it'll get those people. And I'll tell you what it is: it's cool. In the way Johnny plays it, in the way everybody plays it. The way Tim staged it, and the moodiness: it's really cool. So people who say "Oh, I don't want to see a musical." Those people will regret this, because the word will get out. Because I can't think of anything quite, ever, ever like this. I doubt you'll see it in the theatre again. If you want to see a different piece of film making, this is it.
7. Some last bits: Wolski and Rickman
In keeping with his old-movie
"It's a real world that was made," added Alan Rickman (Judge Terpin), reached on the phone from London. "And what was wonderful was the way
Burton honored ancient filmmaking in set-painting. I even brought technical students from a film school to see the sets – you won't see this kind of artistry done again. Most of it is done on computer today. We were in a real world rather than the fourth wall of a theater."