Tim Burton’s Soap Opera | May 2012

Tim Burton’s Soap Opera | May 2012


“every family is strange, IF YOU SCRATCH THE SURFACE…”

Tim Burton introduces us to his most dysfunctional dynasty yet: the Collins clan of Dark Shadows

ODD FAMILIES ARE AT THE HEART OF ALMOST ALL TIM BURTON’S MOVIES. FROM THE BOGGSES WHO TAKE IN A SHARP-fingered freak in Edward Scissorhands, to the fantasist Edward Bloom and his confused brood in Big Fish, to the bloodthirsty nutbags of Sweeney Todd, Burton has always dealt with the unique oddness within every household. But there is none stranger than the Collins clan of his latest, Dark Shadows.

When Empire meets him at a sound studio in London, Burton (above, with star Johnny Depp) is still moulding the Collins family’s life. “Honestly, right now I’m not 100 per cent sure how it’s going to turn out,” he says of the film. “But that’s not unusual. We’re shaping it now. It’s slightly terrifying to be talking about it while I’m still trying to make it.” Fear might be the right mindset for constructing Dark Shadows. Based on a wacko late-‘60s soap opera of the same name, it’s sort of benign horror set up, full of monsters but no scares, chronicling a very peculiar family =, the head of whom is a vampire and whose members harbor other supernatural secrets.

“Every family is strange, if you scratch the surface,” says Burton, running a hand through his omni-directional hair. “Even the ones that seem really normal, often especially the ones that seem really normal,” the cult soap was a favourite of Burton’s in his youth and a show he claims is to blame/thank for the modern glut of ‘vampires-meet-whatever’ projects. “It’s the first thing I remember that mixed all these different genres,” he says. “I think all those modern vampire stories owe a lot to Dark Shadows. Although… I still can’t identify exactly why I’m a fan. I can look at Star Trek or Star Wars and see why people are fans, but this is harder to work out. I’ve tried not to over-analyse it.”

All the same, Empire made Burton analyse the film’s chief characters, and the actors he chose to play them.



“BARNABAS COLLINS IS JUST A ROMANTIC family man who happens to be a vampire,” says Burtons of his lead character. “That was really the key element I liked about the original series, that it wasn’t about a vampire; being a vampire was just this weird part of his personality, this strange thing that happened to him.”

In the film, Barnabas begins living a very happy life in the 1700s, romancing everyone he chooses and generally enjoying the playboy lifestyle that comes with being the heir to a successful fishing cannery business (can you tell this is fantasy?). that is, until he romances the wrong person, a witch with some serious jealousy issues and some not inconsiderable magical powers. She turns Barnabas into a vampire and then buries him alive, where he remains until he’s eventually unearthed in 1972, when his family are now down on their luck and his vengeful ex is still much not over it.

“Johnny brought this project to me. I don’t remember if we even had ever discussed that we both liked the show, although we may have because we share this enthusiasm for weird, obscure things,” remembers Burton. “The setting of 1972 is quite specific. It’s this transitional time in history, and it was a quite a transitional time for me as a child, becoming a teenager, which was extremely unpleasant ad awkward. Doing research on this I actually started to get physically ill… But for Barnabas, he’s this person who’s been locked away for 200 years and comes into this time feeling very strange and awkward.

“The ‘70s felt strange at the time and still feels strange today. You know, seeing him see all those weird things like mood rings and pet rocks and troll dolls. It’s all just, ‘Jesus, what is going on?!’ That’s the world Barnabas is coming into.”



FOR THE HEAD OF THE COLLINS FAMILY in 1972, a woman who is managing both the decline of the family business and the chaos that is the family itself, Burton chose an actress with whom he had memorably worked before—although not for 20 years.

“Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman is one of my favourite performances in any of my films,” says Burton. “I hadn’t spoken to her in many, many years and then she actually called me up about this film before I was even officially doing it. She said, ‘I never call people but I heard you might be making Dark Shadows and I’d really like to be part of it. ‘Elizabeth is about as close as it gets to normal in the Collins household. She’s the calm centre of a storm of bloodsuckers, alcoholics, secretive teenagers and other assorted weirdos. Barnabas’ former inamoratas, Angelique (Eva Green), has established a rival cannery that has left the Collin’s business on its knees and the family fortune dwindling. Burton says Pfeiffer’ calm matriarch role was echoed on the set.

“Michelle is a big fans of the show and would watch episodes every morning. It was great to have someone there who knew everything about the show and everyone could see her example. I think we actually, had a better working relationship on this film. Batman Returns was sort of tense, because you’re filming on rooftops and she’s having to do action in high heels. This time was very pleasant. Although she did have to walk down some steps in high heels and had trouble with that. So in one area she’s gone downhill…”



JOHNNH LEE MILLER’S CHARACTER, ROGER, IS the one about whom Burton will reveal the least. “Above all else, this is very much of the story of family and Johnny is absolutely the bad seed of that family.” Where Elizabeth is rock steady in the face of the misfortune that befalls her family and does everything she can to keep them on the right track, Roger is much more focused on himself. This may explain why his own son, David, has a psychiatrist live with him, albeit an alcoholic one.

In the original show, Roger was a playboy who squanders his share o his father’s inheritance and then lives off his sister’s ever-reducing reserves. The movie’s version is very much in the same ‘live now, pay later’ vein. “I’d say he’s probably the one character that really loves the fact that he lives in the early ‘70s,” laughs Burton,
“a ne’er-do-well”. He also has utterly dreadful hair and really horrible taste in polo necks. Unforgivable.



EVA GREEN’S CHARACTER IS ONE THAT could easily have stepped off the set of Dynasty, if that ‘80s soap had included witches as well as bitches. “She really is just like something from that world, says Burton. “Eva’s like an old silent movie star. There’s mystery to her, which is kind of amazing in this day and age when you know absolutely everything about everyone. She’s like a witch. She probably is a witch and just doesn’t want anyone to know it. I think she really is.” Angelique is certainly a witch, the witch who turns Barnabas into the bloodsucking undead after he breaks her heart. Not being one to get over a rejection quickly, she is still intent on revenge when Barnabas emerges again in the 1970s. By this time, the massive-haired Angelique has set up her own cannery business, a corporate behemoth complete with gift shop that has nearly run the Collin’s cannery into the ground. “She’s a very melodramatic character,” says Burton. “Whenever she and Barnabas clash, it’s usually in a huge way.” Burton cast his female lead based more on a hunch than any real knowledge of the actress. “I’d only seen Eva in Casino Royale,” he explains. “But there was this thing I used to say that would drive the casting director nuts. He would suggest people and I’d say, ‘They’re not very Dark Shadows.’ He’d ask what that meant and I still don’t really know what it means, but I do know that Eva is very Dark Shadows.



AS WITH MOST TEENAGERS, CAROLYN, ELIZABETH’S daughter, keeps a lot of secrets locked up and tries to keep her own issues away from the many—any—that the rest if her family publicly flaunt. “Every family is a bit odd in its own way and being a teenager in any family will feel strange,” says Burton. “Carolyn is capturing that feeling of being a teenager and that internal loneliness and weirdness that you feel at that time. I remember as a teenager trying to latch on to families outside of mine, because they seemed less strange. I’d make friends with a lot of Italian families, mainly because they tended to cook a lot. But you spend enough time with even the happiest of families and you’ll find something strange underneath.”

Burton was well aware of his 15 year-old star’s work in films like Kick-Ass and Let Me In when he was casting the role of the brooding Carolyn. “I was just happy she was available!” he exclaims. “Chloe’s done great things, but my only concern with her was whether she could play a real teenager, you know? But she was great. She’s very thoughtful. There’s just a reality to her; whether she’s playing a superhero girl or a vampire, there’s always a reality to it. She’s got a very old soul. Like someone who’s been around a very long time.” Fitting, considering the family he’s been fictionally born into.



“HELENA AND I HAD ACTUALLY made a decision that we weren’t going to work together on t his film,” says Burton of his long-term partner and mother of his two children. “We just thought we should take a bit of a time out after doing so many things together. But strangely, there’s something about the character in the original show that Helena has a certain similarity to, so she just seemed very right for the role. Saying that, I don’t know how good she felt about being offered the part of an ageing, alcoholic psychiatrist. But she took the role.”

Dr. Hoffman lives in the Collins house, but she is not strictly part of the family. She is a “live-in psychiatrist”, primarily working with the troubled youngest member of the Collins family. Elizabeth’s ten year-old nephew, David (Gulliver McGrath)—though the Collins family provides no shortage of odd minds on which to work. She is also a committed booze-hound and occasional attempted seductress of Barnabas (unsuccessful, naturally).

“She’s a little bit of a sad character in a way,” says Burton. “Helena had never seen the show, because it was never really over here in England, and she was one of the few people I showed some episodes. I don’t really know if that was a good thing to do. It may not have been helpful, because she looked at it and said, ‘So this is how you want me to act? Like, bad?’ So I didn’t really show it to anyone else.”


Dark Shadows is out on May 11 and will be reviewed in a future issue.


  • Mary Kidd
    April 6, 2012

    Loved Dark Shadows, love Johnny and Tim, can’t wait for DS.

  • Marc
    April 6, 2012

    I love this picture from Michelle in Dark Shadows and the great Tim Burton words about her. It will be fantastic if they work together again in a future…

  • Alan
    May 11, 2012

    The critics’ reviews before the US release of Dark Shadows have been been largely negative as evidenced in Rotten Tomatoes. Manola Dargis of the New York Times has just released a review that is very positive making the movie a NYT Critics’ Choice. Michelle received praise. Hooo-hah!!!!

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