Whether you end up loving it or hating it (as our reviewer did), one has to admit that there are few films like “Dark Shadows” in theaters this summer. Based on the popular 1960s/1970s ABC soap that included vampires, werewolves and witches, the film is a curious blend of comedy, drama and horror that’s indelibly a Tim Burton creation.
“Dark Shadows” is in theaters today, and as ever, there’s been a wealth of interviews with Burton, lead Johnny Depp, and other cast and crew members. We’ve sifted through it all to pick out a few highlights, and you can find a selection of them below.
The original draft of the script was darker, and an ensemble piece.
Writer Seth Grahame-Smith was brought on board to rewrite a draft by Burton’s regular collaboration John August, after impressing the director with his work on the Burton-produced “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” Grahame-Smith tells the Boston Phoenix that his job was to lighten the tone, and to push Depp more front-and-center than in August’s draft. “As far as John’s script for ‘Dark Shadows,’ he’s a great writer who had written a very straightforward, dark take on it, that was more of an ensemble, and not so Barnabas-centric,” he explained. “But we wanted to shift it back to Barnabas’s point of view, and infuse it with some fun. Those were my marching orders from Tim and Johnny. I did preserve some of John’s draft, but I added the humor.”
Grahame-Smith acknowledges that he grew up on Burton’s films, and was very much writing a Tim Burton Movie.
Like many in their 30s, Seth Grahame-Smith came of age in the era of “Batman” and “Beetlejuice,” and says that he must have drawn on the director’s earlier work when writing a script for him. The pensmith tells Bloody Disgusting: “I look at the film now and I see that subconsciously I’m channeling some of my favorite Burton-isms. You can’t escape the comparison. For me I was thinking about ‘Edward Scissorhands‘ a lot. Edward is this gothic horrific character interacting with kitsch. Like Barnabas tapping the troll or the ‘Operation’ board game, Edward taps the water bed and is afraid when the water spouts out. Those are very similar beats. And also in Edward, he gets chased up a mountain to his castle by a torch-wielding mob. And I look at that now and wonder if I’m being too derivative, but that’s what I love about Tim’s movies. It’s the normal people who are the most frightening. So at least that part was conscious. Wanting to contrast, ‘what is normal?’ Barnabas is freaked out by these decorative touches, but they are ridiculous.”
The unique tone of the show, and the film, was one of the hardest things to get right.
The weird meld of comedy and horror is something very Burtonesque, but the director acknowledges it wasn’t the easiest sell to potential actors, or to an audience. He told Collider: “It’s a tricky tone and we all recognize that. When we talked about ‘Dark Shadows,’ part of its appeal was the weird nature of all the elements that went into it. It was very serious, but it was on in the afternoon, on a daily basis. There were certain reasons why we loved the show, but you couldn’t necessarily adopt to a film. It was the weirdest challenge to get the acting tone and the soap opera nature of the tone. That’s a weird thing to go for in a Hollywood movie. It’s not like you can go to a studio and go, ‘We want to do weird soap opera acting.’ They go, ‘Oh, great! Whatever that means.’ That’s why I was so grateful to all of the cast. Even the ones that didn’t know the show, got into the spirit of it. What made it ‘Dark Shadows’ was trying to capture the spirit of what the show was.”
1972 was the crucial year for the setting, not just because of the period music, but it was it’s an important year in vampire lore.
The original “Dark Shadows” ended its five year run in 1971, whereas the film is set in 1972. Presumably it’s partly a nod to the original, but it also proved a nice coincidence. Burton explains that the music of the era became important: “The setting in 1972 was important and we just went through all the music of that year. Just doing that research it reminded me I must have been quite ill that year because I just remember that music on the AM radio, being sick and having a fever and hearing all that kind of music on AM radio over and over again. 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 [who cameos] being quite a strong influence to me at that time and he looks exactly the same now which is really scary. But it was important to use so there was a lot of interesting music in 1972. We tried to treat it like score. We didn’t try to treat it like oh, let’s just throw in pop songs.” But it was also, Burton explains to Crave, a key year for the undead. “‘Blacula‘ was ’72, wasn’t it? I think that was one of the only movie references that I talked to Bruno [Delbonnel], the DP [about], was ‘Blacula.’ That was a good year. Actually ’72 was a good year for vampires. That was like ‘Dracula A.D. ’72.’ That was Christopher Lee’s last Dracula.”
Barnabas seems to be Depp’s response to the non-threatening vampires of “Twilight”
It probably won’t surprise you that Johnny Depp is a long-time vampire fan, however this is the first time he’s ever played a bloodsucker. For the actor, his approach was something of a reaction against the watering down of the monstrous archetype. “When Jonathan [Frid, the late actor who played the character on the original TV series] was playing Barnabas,” Depp told Collider “there was a rigidity to him, like he had a pole of the back and this elegance that was always there. Tim and I talked early on that a vampire should look like a vampire. It was a rebellion against vampires that look like underwear models. There was a bit of ‘Nosferatu‘ in there, too.” But there’s sex appeal and a sense of family in the same breath as well. “There’s 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 combination. It was a real challenge, probably more for Tim than me, to make that vampire, who is clearly a vampire, fit back into this odd society and this dysfunctional family, and I think he did it rather seamlessly.”
The East Coast port that much of the story revolves around was built from scratch on a backlot in England.
Burton lives in England, and most of his movies have shot there in recent years, and “Dark Shadows” is no exception: curiously, it turned out to be cheaper to built a port from scratch in the Pinewood backlot than to shoot in Maine. Production designer Rick Heinrichs talked Hero Complex through how the set is just as crucial to the plot as the characters: “A few months ago there was just string here to show where the road would be and the canneries and the pier. It’ll be a little sad when we tear it all down. These buildings say a lot about the families. Once there was a competition, but now the Collins Cannery is derelict — as is much of the town — but the AngelBay Cannery is thriving, and you get the feeling it’s sucking the life out of the town.”
Michelle Pfeiffer was an easy sell: she was a long-time fan of the show, and called Burton to ask for a part before there was even a script.
Burton hasn’t worked with Pfeiffer since “Batman Returns” in 1992, but as soon as it was announced that he was making “Dark Shadows,” she was on the phone: it turns out that the actress was, like Depp and the director, a big fan of the original. Burton told Collider, “It was a real joy to get a call from Michelle and find out that she was a closet ‘Dark Shadows’ fan. I knew she was weird, but that confirmed the whole situation. It was great. Michelle and Johnny and I, we were the only ones of the cast that knew ‘Dark Shadows.’ You can’t really show ‘Dark Shadows’ to anybody else that doesn’t know it ‘cause they’d probably run screaming out of the room. It was nice that Michelle, playing the head of the family, was a fan. It just made me realize how much I enjoyed working with her.” The director added, tongue-in-cheek, “But, she did have trouble walking down the stairs in this movie. Some people’s powers diminish, at some point.”
Eva Green’s meeting with Lara Parker, who played her role on the original series, was a little awkward.
Unlike some of her co-stars, Eva Green, who plays devious witch Angelique, wasn’t familiar with the original series, which made her feel a bit awkward about meeting her TV counterpart Lara Parker. It turns out it was doubly awkward for another reason, as Green told GQ. “When I met her I was thinking, ‘Oh no, I haven’t done my homework!’ It was weird: she thought she was playing Angélique, because she had a cameo.”
Unusually, Danny Elfman listened to the music from the TV series to prep for his score.
Working once again with his most frequent collaborator in Burton, composer Danny Elfman found their process differing a bit. He told the AV Club, “…on ‘Planet Of The Apes‘ and ‘Charlie [And The Chocolate Factory]‘ and ‘Batman,’ we made a conscious decision to make no references—ever—to the originals, that they should be their own thing and that we shouldn’t even listen to it.” However, Burton wanted to pay more of a homage with this film. “Tim really did like the tone of the music to the TV show, and he got me listening to it. So half the score is kind of big, melodramatic orchestra, and… We didn’t really know how to approach it at first, but it finally kind of evolved into this clear design where, when we’re in the big part of the love story in the past and how Barnabas became a vampire and his battle with Angelique, we’re using the orchestra in a more or less traditional way. But whenever he’s with the family in the house, we’re going to use an ensemble that’s very much like the ensemble might have been in 1970. A very, very small orchestra, mostly just three solo instruments: a bass clarinet, bass flute, and vibes. And the vibes and the flute very much are taken and inspired from the original TV music,” Elfman said. “Furthermore, there were these riffs that they did that I really liked, so I did pull some music from the TV show into the score, and Bob Cobert, the writer for that, is credited in the cue sheets for those moments where it kind of becomes a co-composition. So it really was unique.”
Tim Burton claims the ending doesn’t necessarily point to a sequel.
While Burton hasn’t ruled out a potential franchise coming from this film, and ends the film with a pretty big hint towards a followup, he claims a followup was not on his mind. “Because of the nature of it being like a soap opera,” Burton says to Collider, “that was the structure. It wasn’t a conscious decision. First of all, it’s a bit presumptuous to think that. If something works out, that’s one thing, but you can’t ever predict that. That had more to do with the soap opera structure of it.”
Tim Burton might not know a good script even it bit him in the face.
His words, not ours. Regarding the potential “Beetlejuice” sequel, via Collider: “Seth [Grahame-Smith] is writing something. I just told him, because it was something where I liked the character, he’d probably have a better response. He has ideas about it, so I just wanted to let him respond to it and see what he comes up with. If it was interesting. Although, I don’t know if I would ever know a good script if it bit me in the face. But, I know what I like, so we’ll see. “