EMPIRE | November 2011
The Weird Bunch
Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green, Michelle Pfeiffer, Chloe Moretz, Jonny Lee Miller and Jackie Earle Haley (can you spot’em all here?) play unhappy families for Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows…Words: Olly Richards
JOHNNY DEPP IS HANGING ON A WALL, POINTY NOSFERATU HANDS CROSSED OVER HIS CHEST. A LOOK OF FALSE PANIC SET ON HIS ARTIFICIALLY haggard face. “Legs more…” shouts Tim Burton, not troubling to finish the sentence. He doesn’t have to. Depp interprets whatever was contained in that ellipsis and arranges his legs into a tiny flail that pleases his director enough for cameras to roll while something-to-be-inserted-later grapples his star.
We couldn’t tell you what just happened, but Burton looks happy. Dark Shadows is Depp and Burton’s eighth film together. By now they speak almost entirely in ellipses.
Unless you are an American and ‘of a certain age’, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Dark Shadows. It is, simply, the most batshit-crazy-sounding daytime TV show in history, and pretty solid evidence that everyone in the ‘60s was on something very strong and at least mildly hallucinatory, or at least drunk off their gourd.
Created by Dan Curtis, following a dream, Dark Shadows was a daytime soap set in Collinsport, Maine, which ran weekdays from 1966 to 1971. Like most soap operas, it dealt with melodramatic takes on love, betrayal, death and deceit. Unlike pretty much any other soap opera, it counted witches, ghosts, werewolves and a vampire among its cast. It was the sort of enthusiastically penniless show where you politely ignored the fact that the walls of the vast, stone manor were wobbling perilously and averted your eye from the string bouncing that vampire bat across the screen. Search ‘Dark Shadows Barnabas Bat’ for a glorious clip that just about sums up all its charms.
“I wasn’t actually alive when it aired,” says screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith, better known as the author of Pride And Prejudice And Zombies, who was brought on by Burton after the two worked on Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. “It reminds me of Twin Peaks, in that it was so ahead of its time, and when you look back it’s so anachronistic and daring. It’s taking stories right out of Edgar Allan Poe and putting them in a soap opera… I remember my mother watching re-runs, and being very intrigued by the main character, Barnabas. As she put it, he was the first self-loathing vampire. He’s apologetic to his victims. He doesn’t want to kill. I thought that was interesting.”
In the movie, Depp is Barnabas Collins, who goes from Liverpool to Maine in the mid-1700s, where his father start a fish cannery business that makes the family very rich indeed. Collinsport is sufficiently tiny that a man who crams fish into small packages can become the local playboy, which leads Barnabas to romancing and breaking the heart of Angelique (Eva Green), one of the Collin’s servants. Unfortunately for Barnabas, Angelique turns out to be a witch, who curses him with vampirism and buries him alive. In 1972, he’s dug up to find his descendants are both very weird and down on their luck, and his cannery almost in ruins thanks to the still youthful—and now defiantly non-servile—Angelique opening a rival cannery several metres away (complete with gift shop, because she is terribly corporate). She also still loves-slash-wants to kill Barnabas for breaking her heart. Cue magic, literally explosive lovers’ tiffs, a supernatural sex scene, a lot of family secrets and some really, really big hair.
“It was actually Johnny who wanted to make this movie,” says producer Richard Zanuck, a long-time collaborator of Burton’s. “When they were younger, he and Tim would both rush home, t opposite ends of the country, to watch this show every day. Johnny, quite independent from Tim, acquired the rights, because he had such a passion for the show.
He then brought it to Tim out five years ago. It took a while because they both had other projects they were working on.”
THIS BEING A BURTON MOVIE. YOU WILL FIND MANY FAMILIAR FACES IN THE CAST. Aside from Depp, there’s Michelle Pfeiffer, in a costume distinctly less restrictive than the one Burton sewed her into last time for Batman Returns, playing the Collins family’s modern-day matriarch, Elizabeth. Obviously there’s a role for Helena Bonham Carter, playing a sizzled psychiatrist who lives with h family. Even serial Burton bit-parter Christopher Lee has a small but key role as, in Grahame-Smith’s words, “a sort of king of the fishermen” who spends a lot of time in the local pub, The Blue Whale. Among the Burton newbies are Jonny Lee Miller as Elizabeth’s no-good brother and Chloe Moretz as her daughter.
“All the characters are a little off,” says Moretz, who with this and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo has now spent the best part of two years in the UK. “My character, Carolyn, is kind of a hippie.
But she’s also into Alice Cooper (Copper will appear in the film as himself). She’s kind of hardcore and sort of moody.”
Like all Burton movies since Big Fish, Dark Shadows has shot entirely in the UK, because this is where the director lives. This has necessitated the building of an entire Maine seaside town on the Pinewood Studies backlot, a town that has to be raised several feet on scaffolding so that a real dock filled with water and boats could be put in alongside it. It’s so vast and so detailed that you can stand in the middle of it, look around and see nothing but ‘70s smalltown America—the sort of set that only seems to get built for Burton films these days. Another set, the Collins mansion, Collinwood, is festooned with marine details, like merpeople sculptures that will come to life, and an enormous chandelier entirely constructed of crystal-like squid tentacles. Few other directors would bother, nor could probably insist on, making such immense backdrops. You can command this sort of thing when your movies make more than a billion dollars.
“It makes a real difference,” says Zanuck of the sets, designed by Oscar-winner Rick Heinrichs. “You could make most of this with CG, but it’s not the same. A lot of the mood is in the sets, in the detail. You can tell the difference. Tim likes to work on live sets, and it’s better for actors too. He had those incredible sets built for Charlie And The Chocolate Factory when most people would have used CG. And it’s always worth it. It shows in the final film.”
DARK SHADOWS HAS A PLEASANT AIR OF THE OLD-FASHIONED IN THAT WAY: a movie both set in the ‘70s and with the feel of moviemaking in the ‘70s, with the odd digital tweak.
“The particular era we’ve gone back to is quite important,” says Grahame-Smith. “Tim and Johnny took a long time explaining exactly why it had to be 1972. 1969 was too early and 1973 was too late. 1972 is right at the time—when the hippie movement and all its peace and love is dying out and being replaced by this me-me-me generation in the ‘70s who are all about showing their wealth and having everything. Barnabas, who was very much me-me-me in the 1700s is now realizing that family and love are what matters most and going in the opposite direction to he rest of the world.”
One surprising, but not unwelcome, retro touch is that after Burton’s 3D take on Alice In Wonderland became the ninth highest-grossing film in history, his next is back to 2D. “We discussed this quite a bit,” says Zanuck. “We didn’t want to be categorized as another 3D extravaganza, because this isn’t. we have action sequences, but mostly it’s interaction between characters, and that’s where the humour and the story come from. It would have been misleading to make this 3D because it makes it sound like there’s more action than there really is.”
Asked to categorise what the film is, Zanuck and Grahame-Smith have some trouble. It has campy elements, but it’s not quite the outré camp of Sleepy Hollow. It will have moments of terror—vampires have to feed, after all—but it’s by no means a horror movie. It has explosions, but it’s not a summer actioner. It’s a family drama, but that family includes ghosts and other miscellaneous weirdos. It’s soap opera, but by its very nature of being a feature film, not. It don’t really fit in any boxes. “You know what it is?” offers Grahame-Smith after several second of deliberation. “It’s a supernatural Gothic soap-opera action-comedy. It’s that old bag of hammers. Just your average supernatural Gothic soap-opera action-comedy.”
Dark Shadows is out on May 11, 2012.
The TV soap that was out of its box
Creator Dan Curtis launched Dark Shadows in 1966 as an afternoon soap opera, intending a fluttering-curtain Gothic romance as slightly psychic governess Victoria Winters (Alexandra Isles) delves into the secrets of the old Collins mansion in Maine, a roost ruled by matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Joan Bennett). Harvey Keitel had a bit-part. After months of poor ratings, a coffin in the cellar opened and vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) emerged to add horror to the romance, and a true cult—with books, novelty records and tie-in merchandise—blossomed. Curtis threw in werewolves, witches, voodoo and mad science to keep the pot boiling, and Dark Shadows ran for 1,245 weekday afternoon episodes until 1971. Spin-off movies (House Of Dark Shadows, Night Of Dark Shadows) came out after the craze had blown over. A revival, with Ben Cross as Barnabas, ran for a season in 1991, but a 2005 pilot with Alec Newman didn’t go to series. KIM NEWMAN