One day he’s splicing together a mutilated corpse, the next day he’s picking up a Golden Lion. Such is life for Tim Burton, who briefly interrupts his post-production chores on “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” in London to wing to Venice to receive his latest award, on Sept. 5.
This Golden Lion honors a body of work, which in Burton’s case includes such contempo classics as “Batman,” “Edward Scissorhands,” “Ed Wood” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”
But at the moment, Burton has his hands full putting together not one but the many bodies strewn throughout the upcoming “Sweeney Todd,” which just happens to be his first stab at helming a musical.
Like almost any director in his position, he calls it “his favorite musical.” The difference with Burton is that he probably means it, since he doesn’t much care for tuners either onstage or onscreen.
“I do remember liking ‘Guys and Dolls,'” he recalls after much prodding. “In that one, they don’t burst into song. There’s a design in the language that fits together with the music and they work together. I don’t think that’s the case with a lot of musicals.”
And so “Sweeney Todd” really, really is Burton’s favorite musical, and he’s no stranger to it. “I saw it in London when it first played here. In fact, I saw it several nights in a row.”
For various reasons, he didn’t pursue it immediately as a film project: “Things happen and you drift into other things. But it is strange; I was looking at some sketches I did many years ago, and the sketches looked like Johnny and Helena in the film. Not that this would have happened several years ago. They weren’t old enough.”
Even today, Depp and Bonham Carter are a decade or two younger than most Sweeneys and Mrs. Lovetts who’ve trod the stage. Burton likes it that way, saying his two serial killers convey a “weird, faded hopefulness. It somehow clicked strongly for me.”
In legit chatrooms, aficionados of the original Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler tuner have voiced concern about the vocals of nonprofessional singers in the film version. These crix might get even testier when they learn that Burton very much likes that nonprofesh approach to Sondheim’s hallowed score. “When they talk and then sing, it is not two different things,” he says in praise of his actors’ perfs. “Hopefully, it feels of a piece.”
The late Beverly Sills once went so far as to call “Sweeney Todd” an opera. Intriguingly, Burton says that “it doesn’t seem like a musical,” much less an opera. “In fact, it’s like a silent movie with music. Like an old horror movie. The emotions come through. Johnny enjoyed that silent-actor style of acting. It was liberating.”
But it’s also “scary risky,” as he puts it. Here are two musical novices, Burton and Depp, bringing Sondheim’s masterpiece to the screen.
The helmer recalls telling the maestro not to worry: “I told Stephen: ‘I know Johnny. I know he wouldn’t say yes if he couldn’t do it.’ ”
Sondheim bought that argument, and Burton’s bet is that movie auds will, too, when “Sweeney Todd” is released later this year. “Everybody went on that faith,” he adds.