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Burton and Depp: Wide awake in 'Sleepy Hollow'

November 16, 1999
Web posted at: 2:09 p.m. EST (1909 GMT)

By Donna Freydkin
Reporting for CNN Interactive

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Tim Burton is two cups of coffee from risking being called manic.

His famously unruly dark hair askew and big black shades covering his eyes, the director sweeps into a room at a posh Park Avenue hotel. He's here to talk about "Sleepy Hollow." It's his first film since the 1996 dud "Mars Attacks!" and his third collaboration with actor Johnny Depp.

Like a teen-ager handed the car keys on prom night, Burton, 41, is animated, enthusiastic, veritably giddy about his fairy-tale horror flick set in 1799 New England -- Washington Irving's tale of the Headless Horseman. The film opens on Friday. And if the feverish crowd at a recent advance screening is any indication, "Sleepy Hollow" should strike more than a few box-office nerves.

"I was fascinated by the power of the story," says the director. "We all think we know the story, but I realized that I never really read the story. And I don't think any other kid or any other person did either. That's where I was fascinated by the power and the image of the horseman.

"It's like a fairy-tale image. You have a guy living in his head vs. a guy with no head."

Theatrical preview for "Sleepy Hollow"
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Art imitating life

In Burton's take on the folk legend, Depp plays Constable Ichabod Crane, a handsome wimp of a cop who's infatuated with modern technology and convinced that Sleepy Hollow's beheadings are being committed by a flesh-and-blood killer.

The deadpan Christina Ricci plays Katrina Van Tassel, Crane's love interest. She happens to be the daughter of Sleepy Hollow's wealthiest citizen (Michael Gambon), who's married to his second wife, the deliciously wicked Lady Van Tassel (Miranda Richardson). The cast is rounded out by veteran villain Christopher Walken as the Headless Horseman.

And although the real town of Sleepy Hollow does exist in New York's Hudson Valley, Burton says that in this case, reality didn't match his vision. So he built his version of Sleepy Hollow on numerous stages in England. The entire process was painstaking -- the village took four months to build and ultimately rested on 20 acres of English property. The Western Woods, the Headless Horseman's domain, required 70 laborers and three months to finish. The final creation is a blend of fiberglass trees and real branches.

"This is a case where we really manufactured everything," says Burton.

"The business part of it is so hard that you do get kind of really happy when you're making it," he adds. "That's the point where all that other stuff sort of disappears. Every day, the imagery on this one was just gratifying, fun and interesting. There's also something really a lot of fun and surreal about completely manufacturing everything."

His inspirations, says Burton, were horror movies of the 1950s and '60s -- including Roman Polanski's "The Fearless Vampire Killers" (1967) and Mario Bava's "Black Sunday" (1960).

"Those are the kinds of movies that fed my soul," he says.


"A sort of connection"

Depp says a chance to work with Burton a third time was a no-brainer. Director and actor say they have an instinctual rapport, thanks to their previous partnerships on 1990's "Edward Scissorhands" -- Depp's biggest commercial success to date -- and 1994's "Ed Wood."

"There a sort of connection that is just here," says Depp, doing his best to camouflage his pinup features by looking typically grungy and unkempt on a mild Sunday morning.

"I feel a very strong connection to Tim and I trust him completely. Because for an actor, it's amazing to be invited into his world and to be given the responsibility of being on the ride to deliver his vision. For an audience member, it's an unbelievable gift to be invited into his world."

Likewise, Burton sings Depp's praises. He calls working with the actor liberating.

"He didn't care how looks," says Burton. "In fact, he wants to look worse than you want him to look. There's a real freedom to that. It just makes the process that much more fun. You're not worried about vanities of any type -- you're just focused on trying to find the right tone."

Burton has been searching for just that "tone" in directing films that run the gamut, from the obscure 1984 "Frankenweenie" to the blockbusters "Batman" (1989), "Batman Returns" (1992) and the high-priced critical and commercial defeat "Mars Attacks!" Burton has made only about a dozen films, but that doesn't stop Ricci and Depp from calling the director a genius.

"At the risk of sounding really corny, I think that Tim is one of the great visionary filmmakers that has ever been," says Depp, who at 36 just earned himself a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame. "Each thing that I've done with Tim -- 'Ed Wood,' 'Edward Scissorhands,' 'Sleepy Hollow' -- when I read the stories each time, I knew it was going to be a one-time thing. This kind of character, this kind of opportunity, would only happen once."

"I really wanted to work with Tim," says Ricci. "I've been a big fan of Tim's for a long time."


Heads are rolling

For Ricci, Sleepy Hollow represented an opportunity to break away from the caustic misfit roles she has perfected in films from "The Addams Family" (1991) to "The Opposite of Sex" (1998). In "Sleepy Hollow," the petite 19-year-old plays a pretty, pampered small-town princess, sporting frilly gowns and golden tresses (yes, it's a wig) -- eerily similar to Winona Ryder's role in "Edward Scissorhands."

"I liked the idea that this character is sort of like a fairy tale, a princess-y character, very one-sided, no emotional depth," says Ricci. She's clad in black and chain-smoking from two packs of cigarettes.

"I hate sitting around and talking about the emotional background of a character. She is a storybook character, she's not real. That means you have so much more freedom, in that you don't have to make anything she does believable or make people believe her choices in the story."

Depp, on the other hand, plays his man as the consummate anti-hero, a dandy who's at once naïvely brave and a determined coward.

"I thought it was good fun and challenging to try to play the lead, this sort of action-hero leading man," Depp says. "I thought it would be interesting to slide in the idea that maybe he was too in touch with his feminine side. Maybe even a 9-year-old girl, or a boy, who doesn't get their feet in the mud -- 'ew, bugs are icky' -- that kind of stuff."

And Burton had some entirely separate stuff to deal with: He had to do one actor an amorous favor. Christopher Walken, Burton says, "told me this was his first screen kiss, so we tried to make it a good one."

Good idea. Because where Walken's concerned in this film, heads do roll.

From 'Magnolia' to 'American Beauty,' fall films primp for Oscar
September 21, 1999
Johnny Depp battles editor over comma
July 22, 1999
The long, strange history of Mars and the movies
July 3, 1997
Star-studded 'Mars Attacks!' invades big screen
December 13, 1996

Paramount Pictures
Official 'Sleepy Hollow' site
Official 'Mars Attacks!' site
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