Johnny Depp and Tim Burton on Staking a Claim to ‘Dark Shadows'

It’s time to shed a little light on “Dark Shadows”: Why, exactly, was a barely remembered daytime drama that ran from 1966 to 1971, a property that Johnny Depp wanted to revive as a feature film so fervently that he produced the film himself and recruited his frequent collaborator Tim Burton to direct?

Did we neglect to mention that about six months into its run “Dark Shadows” went Gothic, introducing all sorts of supernatural elements, not the least of which was the vampire Barnabas Collins, played by Jonathan Frid, and an offbeat sensibility that veered somewhere between melodrama and straight-up camp? Yeah, that’s why. Burton and Depp explain the roots of their obsession, aided and abetted by co-stars Michelle Pfeiffer, Jackie Earle Haley, Eva Green, Bella Heathcote, screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith and…Alice Cooper?

Tim Burton: We talked about it for many years, but I think this is the first project that I ever remember for Johnny where he said that he wanted to play this ever since he was a little boy…It’s one of those kind of things where the show had a lot of impact for some of us: Johnny, Michelle and I were there at the time when it came out, so we just recall it being a very strong, interesting property.

Johnny Depp: It was during 'Sweeney Todd' where I think I just blurted out in mid-conversation 'God, Maybe we should do a vampire movie together where you actually have a vampire that looks like a vampire!' ‘Dark Shadows’ was kind of looming on the periphery, and then Tim and I started talking about it, and then when Tim and I got together and started figuring out how it should be shaped, and then Seth came on board and the three of us just riffed, really. One thing led to another and it basically dictated to us what it wanted to be, in a sense – certainly with Tim at the forefront of leading the troops.

Seth Grahame-Smith: We had our first meeting and Tim and Johnny and I just sat around a table and just started talking about things that they loved about the show and talking about moments that would be fun to explore, and characters. Johnny was already getting up from the table and sort of pantomiming the rigidity of Barnabas, and Tim was already talking about, 'Oh, what if your fingers were a joint longer?' And then Johnny started to then mime touching things. So a lot actually was born in those early meetings early on, and when I needed to know about the tone I relied on them because they were there, watching the show as kids and loving the show.

Depp: Even in the early days of trying to explore the possibilities of the character, no matter where you went in your head, if you tried to veer away from the original Jonathan Frid character, it was apparent to both Tim and myself that it had to be rooted in Jonathan Frid’s character of Barnabas – It just HAD to be. It was so classic, this sort of classic monster – like Fangoria magazine or that kind of thing. So in terms of that, when Jonathan was playing Barnabas, there was a kind of rigidity to him, that pole up the back, this elegance that was always there. And yeah, I did believe, as Tim and I talked early on, a vampire should look like a vampire, and it was a kind of rebellion against vampires that look like underwear models, [so] there was a bit of ‘Nosferatu’ in there.

Michelle Pfeiffer: I shamelessly called Tim…I didn't even know if there was a part for me. And it had been so long since I had seen the series. I just said, 'If there's anything for me, I want to throw my hat in the ring.' And the I hung up and I thought, 'I'll never hear from him again.' And I did.

Burton: It was a real joy to get a call from Michelle and find out she was a closet ‘Dark Shadows’ fan. I knew that she was weird, but now that’s a whole new situation, which was great, because between Michelle and Johnny, we were the only ones, I think, of the cast that knew ‘Dark Shadows.’ I don’t know if I showed it to anybody else, because you can’t really show ‘Dark Shadows’ to anybody else who doesn’t know it, because they’d probably run screaming out of the room.

Depp: Our way of saluting Jonathan Frid was terrific. He had already written me a letter a couple years before and signed a photograph to me sort of passing the baton to Barnabas, which I thought was very sweet. He had his cane with him – his original Barnabas cane – and I wasn’t sure when he actually saw me if he was going to attack me with it, but he didn’t so.

Burton: For us, that’s part of the reason we were there: because those people inspired us. So it was nice to see them back in their early ‘70s clothing.

Depp: [I liked] the idea of this very elegant, upper echelon, well-schooled gentleman who’s cursed in the 18th century and is brought back to probably the most surreal era of our time, the 1970s – how he’d react to things, how radically different things were, not just through the technology and automobiles and such, but actual items of enjoyment for people, like pet rocks and fake flowers and plastic fruit and troll dolls and lava lamps.

Burton: Setting it in 1972 was important, and we just went through all the music of that year…It was strange. It felt strange at the time and it still feels strange. The quality of music, going from everything from really kind of cheesy pop to cool, hardcore stuff – it was a weird year for music. I remember Alice Cooper being quite a strong influence to me at that time. And he looks exactly the same now, which is really scary.

Alice Cooper:  I had met Tim before and I always said, 'If you ever come up with a period of time when you need me in something, I'm available.' I've always wanted to be in a Tim Burton film, because I feel like I belong in that. We're kind of kindred spirits, you know…The funniest thing was when they said, 'We have to make you look like 1972'. And I went, ''72? I was a wreck. I don't know if you really want me to look like '72. I look older then than I do now.’ I'm 30 years sober, so back then I was partying all the time. I said, 'Why don't we go '72 but let's pretend like I'm 28 years old or 22 or 23 years old,' so they did some kind of computerization thing that took two days to shoot.

Depp: As a child, you have this fascination. I certainly had this fascination with monsters and vampires as did Tim and whatever this darkness, this mystery, this intrigue. And then, as you get older, you recognize the erotic nature of the vampire and the idea of the undead. What was most interesting in terms of Barnabas was the idea of the combination. It was a real challenge, probably more for Tim than me, to make that guy, clearly a vampire, fit back into this odd society and this dysfunctional family. I think he did it rather seamlessly.

Jackie Earle Haley: Just getting to work on a Tim Burton, any of them, would have been phenomenal, but to get to do one that they're working together was just a double whammy. And, yeah, it was just a crazy, unique experience…Because Tim is such a unique filmmaker, I always say that he's one of the few filmmakers that is his own genre. While there's a great diversity in his films, there is something that links it to his vision and his uniqueness, and so what a great experience to get to go and see how they did that.

Bella Heathcote: I've never witnessed anything like that. They've worked together for so long on so many different projects. It's almost as if they have their own language. And I felt really privileged to bear witness to that.

Eva Green: There's absolutely no pressure on set, and they really love what they're doing. They're like children. And it's fun to play.

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