Camp Collinwood: Burton reunites with Depp for tongue-in-cheek revival of '60s TV vampire series


Dressed from head to toe in his trademark black attire, Tim Burton offers a warm greeting during final editing of his latest movie, Warner Bros.’ Dark Shadows, in London. A cinematic adaption of the cult daytime television series which ran from 1966 to 1971, Dark Shadows is a labor of love for the director, a film he describes as a gothic soap opera with elements of black comedy.

The focal point of the May 11 release is Barnabas Collins, a man cursed by a witch in the 1700s and turned against his will into a vampire, doomed to spend eternity trapped in a tomb. Two hundred years later, he manages to finally escape and return to his family home, Collinwood. Unfortunately for poor Barnabas, a lot has changed over the course of the two centuries since he has been away, and restoring his manor to its former glory is easier said than done, with his descendants who currently live there the main cause of the problems.

"What it boiled down to and what I liked about the television series was it was a story about a family," Burton divulges. "It was about a weird family, and I think all families are pretty weird anyway, it just happens to have a supernatural element to it."

No stranger to a dysfunctional family himself, Burton explains how he left home at an early age, only to find out that other families were just as odd as the one he left behind. "I kind of grew up resisting family," the 53-year-old director confides. "I escaped home when I was young and ran away from it all. I made friends with a lot of Italian kids because their parents cooked and invited me over for dinner. They seem like a nice family, but then you delve under the surface and find out they're just as weird as any other."

That period of Burton’s life wasn't an entirely unhappy one, however, as it was during this time that he discovered “Dark Shadows.” “There was a whole generation of us who ran home from school, didn’t do our homework and watched the show. It really had a cult following back in the day."

When we confess to having never seen the series ourselves, the director is not surprised. "Well, it's a bit of a strange thing. It's very special to that small, weird group of people, but beyond that if you show it to people who haven't seen it before, they just think it was full of horrible acting and was really cheesy. The actors used to forget their lines and all sorts [of mistakes]. It was a strange show," he chuckles, smiling behind a large pair of glasses.

"That's why for me I never felt like we were remaking it—it was more about being inspired by it and trying to capture that weird feeling of why I liked it. It's very hard to put into words; it's a funny phenomenon. You can analyze something like Star Trek or Star Wars and you can see why people like it, but ‘Dark Shadows’ is harder to put your finger on. It's a weirder dynamic. That's why we weren't too precious about remaking it—there were so many different episodes of the show with so many different characters that we couldn't have them all in the movie."

Thanks mainly to Burton’s reputation and resources, the cast of Dark Shadows is a strong one, with Johnny Depp playing the role of Barnabas in their eighth collaboration together. Along with Depp, the film also stars Burton's wife, Helena Bonham Carter, Michelle Pfeiffer, Chloë Moretz, Eva Green and Jonny Lee Miller.

For Burton, Depp was the perfect choice to play the troubled vampire. "On a project like this, he is more of a Boris Karloff or Lon Chaney-style actor than he is a leading man. Those are the kind of movies I grew up watching, so I enjoy working with people who are like that."

So has Depp changed much over the years? "He's certainly more expensive! I knew him from close to the beginning of his career, and no matter what highs and lows he goes through, the good thing about him is he tries to maintain the passion and interests he had when he first started acting. In that way, he is the same kind of actor that he was on Edward Scissorhands."

Burton notes what an advantage it is for both actor and director to work with each other time and again, with the familiarity helping to build confidence in the performance. "Hopefully, they feel a certain amount of freedom to experiment that they wouldn't otherwise have with someone else directing them. For certain actors, if they are hiding behind a mask or makeup, it allows something else to come out of them, and those are the kind of actors I like working with. They understand that putting on a mask is a way of unleashing something from the subconscious."

Asking the Dark Shadows cast to adapt to a mixture of melodrama and black comedy was something the director found hard to pull off. There was an eclectic combination of different styles the actors had to blend together. "I never intended the movie to be a laugh riot, but I think there are humorous elements in it. I like it when a film is a mixture of things you know—melodrama, emotion, humor, light and dark mixed together," Burton explains. "It's a tricky tone to achieve, because you never know how people are going to respond. It's something that intrigues me and I like the fact that it cannot be defined in any one way. It doesn't necessarily help from the studio’s point of view, but I've always tried to resist labels."