Shooting at London's Pinewood Studios was one step that allowed the making of the movie version of the Stephen Sondheim musical easier for Tim Burton (“Here, I’m more able to focus on the movie,” Burton says. “There [in Hollywood], you just feel this vibe of the business around you”). But even after over twenty years of filmmaking, Burton acknowledged how ambitious this film would be. “I’d never really done something like this,” he says. “I’d always had music in movies, but never full-blown. It’s very operatic, and almost everybody in the cast is not a professional singer. Even seasoned Broadway people are saying how difficult it is.”
Stephen Sondheim, age 77, is perhaps best known for his musical Sweeney Todd, which premiered in 1979 and is based on the urban legend of a murderous barber that lived during the nineteenth century in London. But (perhaps luckily) he is less remembered for earlier attempts at bringing his other staged musicals to movie theaters. Still, Sondheim admires film greatly, but interestingly is not typically a fan of movie musicals. “The one form of movies that I never particularly enjoyed was the movie-musical,” Sondheim cautions. “I liked the sort of fluffy musicals before the second world war, the Astaire/Rogers things, but movie-musicals that told stories have always struck me as ponderous.” It’s all down to the gulf between “stage time” and “film time”, he explains, the movie medium being unable to accommodate someone simply standing and singing for several minutes. “Take 'Tonight' from West Side Story. It’s a close-up of him, then a close-up of her, then a two-shot, then a shot of the fire escape. There’s nothing to do. You have to waste the time." (Sondheim wrote the lyrics for West Side Story).
Tim Burton also was never much of a fan of movie musicals, or even staged ones, for that matter. The director remembered when he first saw the show in 1980. At the time, he was a student at CalArts. “I wasn’t into theatre,” he recalls. “I’d never heard of Sondheim. I just sort of stumbled on it and it really affected me. The first time on stage I saw them singing Johanna, and with the throat, you know, the blood, I thought, ‘This is a unique juxtaposition of music and image.’” It seemed, he adds, “like a great movie score. It would lend itself to one of those old horror movies." Burton's description was not far off; Sondheim's score was at least partially a tribute to the film music of Bernard Herrmann, a film composer who is perhaps best known for his collaboration with director Alfred Hitchcock (and, coincidentally, Herrmann is the biggest influence and hero of contemporary film composer Danny Elfman, who scored nearly every single Tim Burton feature film, with the exceptions of Ed Wood and Sweeney Todd).
Twelve years later, in 1992, Burton was regarded as one of Hollywood's A-list directors (after the successes of such unique blockbusters as Batman and Edward Scissorhands). The young filmmaker approached Sondheim about adapting the musical to the screen. “Then I never heard from him again,” Sondheim mutters. The Sweeney Todd film idea was passed around to other directors for more than a decade, but never grew beyond that concept. Years later, Burton was a year into pre-production for a biography on Robert Ripley, called Ripley's Believe It or Not!, which was to star Jim Carrey in the title role. The project fell through, however. Luckily, Sweeney Todd fell back into Burton's lap. “In some ways, I think the timing was more right,” he muses. “Because, having someone like Johnny, it’s like 10 years or more of life experience, which kind of informs this version.”
Sondheim's consent came with the conditions that he retained complete creative control on what stayed, what was taken out, and what changes and decisions would be made to the project's casting and score (the promise was upheld). But he was cautious of casting Johnny Depp as the lead. After hearing a homemade demo of Depp singing "My Friends" from the musical, Sondheim was convinced. “The fact that he came from a musical background, a rock band, even though he was not a lead singer, I knew he was musical,” Sondheim insists. “I also knew that he was intelligent enough not to allow himself to play this part unless he could handle it vocally.”
Making the transformation from stage to screen needs to look as seamless as possible. As a result, lots of changes need to be made. For one, time must be considered; a staged musical is often longer than the average movie. “I do not believe that anything is written in marble. I want the story to move ahead,” he says. “The thing with Tim is that he understands that. Where the songs did not either suggest or need a camera, ‘Let’s cut’, Tim would say to me, or [the writer] John Logan, and I’d look at it and see if I could elide it or rewrite so it had film motion to it.”
Will hardcore fans of Broadway and Stephen Sondheim still be critical of the film re imagining of Sweeney Todd? Yes. But Burton is not disturbed by this. “I always say: this is a movie. If you want to see the Broadway show, go look at the Broadway show. It’s a different thing.”