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Acting in SLEEPY HOLLOW
Christina Ricci, Marc Pickering, and Lisa Marie on Working with Tim Burton.
By Steve Biodrowski
December 11, 1999
As a director of imaginative, whimsical fantasy films edged with darkness, Tim Burton has developed a reputation as one of the premier visual stylists of his generation. His latest effort, SLEEPY HOLLOW, displays the trademark Burton style we've come to recognize: whether studio-developed projects like BATMAN or self-generated ones like EDWARD SCISSORHANDS and MARS ATTACKS, each films bears an unmistakable imprint immediately identifiableyou know you are watching A Tim Burton Film. Of course, this visual look is really achieved in collaboration with a production designer (often Rick Heinrichs) and a cinematographer. But what goes relatively overlooked in Burton's oeuvre is his collaboration with actors.
For a director known mostly for his visual sense, Burton has frequently worked with high-caliber talent in front of the camera. Not only thatthese highly paid Hollywood stars have been eager to come back and work with him again, even in relatively small roles, proving that the experience of working with the director is enough incentive to overcome the usual reservations about screen time and paychecks. In fact, MARS ATTACKS is a virtual star-studded shooting gallery of actors who signed on merely to be obliterated after a few minutes on screen. Stars who have made multiple appearances for Burton include Johnny Depp, Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, and Winona Ryder. In SLEEPY HOLLOW, Christopher Walken (BATMAN RETURNS) shows up for five minutes just long enough to establish the evil of the Hessian Horseman before he loses his head. But even his screen time seems lavish compared to that of Martin Landau, who is dispatched in the prologue: the guy doesn't even get a screen credit or a line of dialogue; surely, this is some indicator of loyalty for the man who directed him to an Academy Award in ED WOOD.
Obviously, something about the director makes actors willing and eager to work with him. But what, exactly? In interviews, Burton has often displayed an engaging enthusiasm for his work, but he has not always been particularly articulate when it comes to intellectualizing about what he does. (When asked on a television talk show to describe the relationship between Batman and Catwoman in BATMAN RETURNS, he fumbled around for a few second, waving his hands, and finally concluded, 'I don't know...') How can a man whose most obvious skill lies in the visual area, communicate with actors in order to direct their performances?
We posed this question to a trio of actors who worked with Burton in SLEEPY HOLLOW: Christina Ricci, Lisa Marie, and Marc Pickering. Although the film is a studio project that was initially developed without his input, the final result is unmistakably Burton, not merely in its visual flourishes but in its acting performances. Taking place in an unreal world of Burton's creation, the story and dialogue invite a larger-than-life acting style that heightens the fantasy, inviting audiences to suspend their disbelief long enough to enjoy the fantastical tale of the Headless Horseman. Some actors might have been afraid of going over-the-top in a project like this, but with Burton at the helm, they seemed more than comfortable filling their archetypal roles.
Lisa Marie previously appeared in ED WOOD and MARS ATTACKS. In SLEEPY HOLLOW, she plays Ichabod Crane's unfortunate mother in a series of flashbacks that illustrate how Ichabod (Johnny Depp) lost his faith in anything but scientific reason. Having had a personal relationship with Burton for the last several years, she admits to having a certain advantage over the rest of the cast 'in the communication sense, but,' she insists, 'in any other way I'm treated like any other actor.' As far as working with Burton, she, says, 'He's extraordinary. He's the most generous, brilliant man; he's an incredible artist, and he brings so much love and passion to the work that it's just an honor to work with him.'
As to how the opportunities to work with Burton arise, she says, 'The thing about us is, on a regular basis when we see each other, we throw out ideas, and it's part of our life together. We love working and doing things, creative things at home or wherever they are. That may have something to do with a film, or it may not; it may have something to do with art. So things evolve into other things and grow. We'll be focused on something, and it keeps coming back, and it resonates in our psyche and we're like, 'Well, there must be a reason for this.' So things sort of evolve through drawings, photographs, art.'
Of actually working with Burton on set, Marie adds, 'He's there with you. He's so present every moment, every step of the way; he's paying attention to everything, and you feel like you really have somebody behind you who supports you. You can just fly with it and be creative and bring to it whatever you want. It's so great that way, because he's really open to letting the actors come with ideas and different ways to explore the character. This character was just so magical to me, because she was filled with unconditional love and wisdom. I really had a great time with her.'
Part of that 'great time' involved having Burton put her in an Iron Maiden torture device (a la Barbara Steele in THE PIT AND PENDULUM) and then emerge with pockmarked holes on her face (a la Barbara Steele in BLACK SUNDAY). 'I loved that,' says Marie. 'One thing that I really enjoy about working with Tim is that I get to have all this character evolution with the makeup and the mask and the wigthe design of the character: holes all over my face and hands, cuts all over my body and dress, and then the blood. Tim actually put that on, because it has to be just right. It really brings a lot from the inside out. You feel like it's liberating. You feel like you can do things that you wouldn't really do if you looked normal. It's great to do that.'
While acknowledging that Burton is most known for visual details like this, Marie insists that he is talented when it comes to working with his cast as well. 'He's the most incredible actor's director,' she says. 'People don't really see that, but he works on such a deep level, and there's so many layers with Tim. When you look at his films, part of the beauty is you get to discover that. It might not be the first time you see it, but certain things stay with youimageryand they come to you later. He's just so passionate, and you just feel, as an actor, you have so much behind you, and you can just be free to do what you want to do, which is great.'
Of course, being involved with Burton may give her a somewhat different perspective on working with him as a director: 'He's the man that I love,' she says. 'To get to work with him is just so incredible. I love working with him, and I love working with other people. With him, it's great, because I know him, and I have this understanding of what he's communicating to me when he's directing, really quickly. With other people, sometimes it's a little bit more challenging in that way, and I have to be prepared to bring what I'm going to bring to it, because I don't have that to rely on.'
For Marc Pickering, how much fun was it working with Tim Burton? 'A lot!' he exclaims enthusiastically. The fourteen-year old actor plays Young Masbath, a lad left orphaned by the rampages of the Headless Horseman; the role is his first in a feature film, but the experience was not as intimidating as he expected. 'It was completely different to what I expected it to be. I just went in with butterflies in my stomach, and then I came out grinning. I was really happy.'
Part of Pickering's happiness derives from the way Burton went out of his way to make him feel comfortable. 'The first time I met Tim Burton was in the Dorchester Hotel in England, London,' he recalls. 'I was very nervous, because this was my second recall. I went into the hotel, and he was there. He came up and shook my hand. I was like, 'Wow, Tim Burton has come to shake my hand. I haven't had to go and shake his.' He was just so nice. He made me relax.'
According to Pickering, Burton is just as easy going on the set. 'First of all, he lets you do your own thing,' he explains. 'Then, if he doesn't like that, he'll tell you how to do it and he'll ask you to do what he thinks you should do. I did my own thing for a lot of the movie, and hopefully he liked what I did because he didn't ask me to do it any different, much.'
The director did have to familiarize his young star with the Washington Irving tale, which is not well known in Britain. 'Tim told me what the story was basically about, and when I heard it, I thought, 'Why aren't kids in England brought up with this story.' It's a wonderful story, and even if I wasn't in the film, I'd go see it ten times. I love horror movies; I'm a big fan of scary movies. I just recently watched the Disney version and thought, 'This is completely different.''
Pickering also had the opportunity to watch Burton at work with the film's star. 'Johnny Depp's such a nice man,' says the young actor. 'He's so funny. He made the film so relaxing for me. He told me not to be nervous and just be who I am. He was always telling me how much a great job I was doing. Sometimes when I was not needed on the set, I would go down just to watch Johnny and Tim work, just to see his expressions. His expressions are amazing. I think he can go into any character at any time, and that's what I like. I like character actors who can go into any character when asked.'
Lisa Marie shares Pickering's enthusiasm for the collaboration between Burton and Depp. Burton has said he intended SLEEPY HOLLOW to work visually like a silent movie, despite the presence of dialogue, and Depp's performance was a key element of that approach. Marie concurs: 'Johnny's amazing,' she enthuses. 'He's so talented, and there's really no one like him. His eyes express so much; he's like a silent film actor in that way.'
Of course, appearing in a Burton film involves its share of challenges, one of which was working with a character who wasn't always on the set, even when he was appearing in the scene. 'I did a scene with Christina Ricci where we had to imagine the Headless Horseman jumping out of the Tree of the Dead,' says Pickering. 'We had to imagine he was there, so we both had to fix our eye point on the back of the scenery to watch the Headless Horseman jump out of the tree. We had to imagine some big explosion; all that was there was a light coming out of the tree. So Tim Burton would go, 'Action!' and we would just had to go like this force had pushed us back when the Horseman jumped out. It was quite hard. If we had had a proper horse jumping out, it would have been better, but I coped with it. I was reacting to something that wasn't there, and that was really weird. I saw that bit when I was dubbing, and it looked okay.'
Pickering was also involved in post-production reshoots to clarify some plot points. 'It was the scene in the notary's office with Michael Gough,' he reveals. 'Basically, this scene told you the story and how it all led up. It was [originally in the movie], but it was too complicated for the audience to understand. That's why we had to reshoot it: we had to make it more understand able for the audience, because it was too hard for them to understand what was going on.'
For Christina Ricci (who proved her expertise at playing blackly comic weirdness in the two ADDAMS FAMILY films) the main attraction of appearing in as Katrina Van Tassle, Ichabod's love interest in SLEEPY HOLLOW, was the chance to work with Burton. 'I would have done this movie if it was a horrible script just because I wanted to work with Tim,' she declares. 'I've always loved his movies. EDWARD SCISSORHANDS is one of my favorite movies of all time. His movies are so different. His movies are so beautiful and really elegant. They're also told with such an innocence and a goodness. People say his movies are dark, but they're really about Good and Evil, and the Good is always so good and so strongthey're actually really sweet stories.'
Burton's stylized approached is allowed full reign in SLEEPY HOLLOW, thanks to the film's fantasy setting. 'It is fun,' says Ricci of working in a costume period piece. 'The sets are incredible, and it really does set a mood in a way. It takes you a little bit to get used to because it's really different, but it definitely makes you feel like you're really making a movie. The dialogue definitely demanded a bit more heightened drama than I'm used to doing, but there's always that risk: you don't want to go too far and have it be completely farcical. It was a little bit of a challenge.'
Ricci admits that, because of this challenge, 'I was really intimidated for the first week or so, when we started shooting, because I thought everyone was so talented and so good, and I didn't want to be the one really horrible actress among them.' Two rehearsal meetings helped overcome her initial trepidation. But, she admits, 'This isn't a movie where there's any real kind of depth of character. They're all fantasy stereotypes, except for Johnny who really did something interesting with his character. He's not written the way Johnny played him at all. He's not written as afraid of things and kind of girlie. Johnny decided that's how he wanted him to be, which really added to the story.'
Working with such basic characterization creates its own challenge: namely, how to bring some specificity of detail that will enliven the character for the audience. 'I'm the damsel in distress,' she admits, 'and that for me was fun. It's fun not to have to worry about your character, like 'Would someone really do that? Would someone really react that way?' It's much more liberating to play a stereotype or someone who is very loosely based in reality. And I got to scream and faint a lot. I enjoyed that. It's tongue-in-cheek horror, definitely.'
Did Ricci receive much direction from Burton in regards to how far to take this tongue-in-cheek horror without going over-the-top? 'No, he's vague about that stuffa little vague,' she says. 'He's very articulate about technical stuff. He's very clear about technically what he wants, where he wants you to stand and when he wants you to turn around and stuff like that. But in terms of acting, he's a bit more vague.'
One of those technical details involved covering the actress's hair with an elaborate wig.
'He knew he wanted me to be blonde,' she explains. 'He likes his girls blonde, I've noticed. I walked in, and he said Johnny was playing Ichabod. I said, 'What shall we do because it's not really good visually if we both have the same color hair?' He said, 'No, no, noyou're going to be a blonde.''
This kind of approach could have left the actress feeling like a mere prop, blending into the scenery, but she wasn't troubled by the thought. 'I think in Tim's mind, all his actorswe are props,' she says. 'That actually doesn't bother me. I'd rather blend in than stick out like a sore thumb. That's fine.'
Nevertheless, Ricci came away from the experience with a high regard for Burton. 'It's wonderful to work with a director like that because he makes it so exciting,' she explains. 'He's so enthusiastic and so into being there and having fun and laughing about everythingthat really changed my attitude. There are people who do this, who still just have a great time doing it. You would think somebody who had been called a genius so many times would be a bit pretentious, but he's not at all. He has fun on set. It's really refreshing and made me more excited about everything.'