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SLEEPY HOLLOW: Directing The Headless Horseman
Tim Burton creates an R-rated fantasy-horror movie for kids.
By Steve Biodrowski
November 19, 1999
It's starting to look as if contemporary Hollywood horror movie remakes owe ever-increasing royalty payments to Roger Corman and Barbara Steele. For some reason, when filmmakers refashion old movies, they borrow less from the official source than from the '60s horror era when Corman and Steele flourished. First, Corman's patented directorial trademark was borrowed by Jan DeBont for his remake of THE HAUNTING: those gliding tracking shots through elaborate architecture have little to do with Robert Wise's original version of the story but everything to do with Corman's Poe adaptations. Then HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, ostensibly based on a William Castle film, shifted gears at the climax, with Geoffrey Rush and Famke Janssen apparently channeling the spirit of Vincent Price and Barbara Steele's confrontation near the conclusion of THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM.
But the similarities reach new heights in SLEEPY HOLLOW, the Gothic fairy tale horror-chiller from Tim Burton. For an extended flashback, Burton lifts a whole sequence from Corman's PIT AND THE PENDULUM, showing a young boy horrified by seeing his father torture his mother to death. The shot of the hapless mother (played by Lisa Marie) imprisoned in an Iron Maiden directly quotes the final image of the Corman film, which featured Barbara Steele in an identical predicament. Burton takes this one step farther, however, opening the torture device to reveal Lisa Marie's countenance pockmarked with holes from the spikesan image that will bring back fond memories to anyone who remembers Steele's malevolent vampire-witch in Mario Bava's 1960 black-and-white classic, BLACK SUNDAY.
Was this flashback sequence a deliberate homage to Barbara Steele, the '60s Queen of Horror (probably best known to younger viewers for appearing in the early '90s revival of DARK SHADOWS)? 'I know Barbara,' Burton enthuses. 'She's great! I've been one of the luckiest people, to meet people that inspired me. I remember, we went with Barbara Steele to the Crystal Cathedral one year to see the Christmas pageant there, so I was really freaking out, sitting next to Barbara Steele, watching this Christmas pageant. It was like, 'Okay,I'm there!''
So, before filming began, did Burton screen Steele's horror films, including PIT AND THE PENDULUM and BLACK SUNDAY, to show Lisa Marie what was in store for her? 'Well, she's seen them,' he says. 'We try to take those inspirations and then just sort of leave them. But she's certainly seen them enough; we run them every now and thenthe Holliday favorites!'
Besides the specific references to the oeuvre of Corman and Steele, SLEEPY HOLLOW is a more general tribute to the films Burton enjoyed as a child. In fact, it was this potential that drew him to the script by Andrew Kevin Walker (SEVEN). 'I liked the take on [the story], actually,' the director explains. 'I know the story from childhood, in a certain way. But I like the differences that he put in there. When I read it, I thought, 'I grew up watching Hammer horror movies, and this is the first time I can make a movie like I loved.' And I like the themes of logic versus illogic and all of that, and I just thought there was a lot of good stuff in it.'
Of course, SEVEN also fell into the horror genre, but in a completely different way, without the fairy tale trappings. Was the fantasy world setting part of Walker's original intent, or was his script a bit more hard-edged and blatantly horrific? 'Maybe, it might have been, but a lot of that has to do with how you do it, too,' says Burton. 'When we were first looking to do the film, we went up state and were looking at the reality of shooting there perhaps, but we didn't really want it to be a hardcore period pieceespecially with these people looking like George Washington! It's not my favorite periodI didn't want to lovingly recreate every realistic detail, you know. Like those Hammer horror films, there was a certain layer of fantasy to them, where unless it said 'London, 1739,' you really wouldn't know where you were, because it had a layer of folk tale or fairy tale. We just chose that we wanted it to be much more like a strong folktale fantasy.'
Burton succeeded in his design by basically having his production team create the town of Sleepy Hollow on a game preserve outside London. He is justifiably proud of the result, which creates an unreal world wherein the existence of the Headless Horseman is completely believable. 'I basically like the whole world,' he says of what the film achieved. 'I think that was the thing I was most happy about: the opportunity to make a place in that complete fantasy. Also, it was a real challenge to me to make that Dutch colonial look interesting! Everybody worked really hard on that.'
The result is a film instantly recognizable as having come from Tim Burton, with memorable visual images that do not stand out as showy and gratuitous but which instead fit seamlessly into the whole. 'This was kind of like a silent movie,' he explains of his visual approach. 'We thought of it that way, although there's a bunch of dialogue in there. With the setting of the film and the music, you just want to make it like [the Headless Horseman] is a character and treat it like an actor in a way.'
Burton was aided in this endeavor by the presence of Christopher Walken in an all but silent cameo as the Hessian Horseman (a blood-thirsty mercenary) who becomes the Headless Horseman after being beheaded in battle. 'He's great,' says Burton. 'I love him. Again, thinking of this movie kind of like a silent movie, he's someone who can stand there and stare at you and convey things without having to say something. It's something you can't tell somebody to do. They either have it or they don't. He's got a great presence. I believe him, toobelieve me!'
Creating the Headless Horseman was a tremendous technical challenge, but beyond the quality of the effects, there was the greater question of selling the character to the audience so that viewers would take it seriously. 'Yeah, that was a real challengethat was the major challenge,' Burton admits. 'Even when we were mixing the film, the sound effects men were trying to put responses to it, because it's weird to see a guy without a head. But I felt really good about that because everybody, from the stunt guys to the wardrobe to everybody, tried to make him a characterbecause when you don't have a head, you don't have much else! So it's really down to your movements and all. That was probably the first interesting challenge that came to mind in approaching this project. But I felt pretty good about it. I had a real excitement about this powerful image.'
Burton worked for the third time with Johnny Depp, who previously starred for him in EDWARD SCISSORHANDS and ED WOOD. Depp consciously took the character of Ichabod Crane and added a series of mannerism apparently based on a 19th Century Romantic aestheticwhen male protagonists were often sensitive souls prone to fits of nervous exhaustion and loss of consciousness. (For a point of reference, try to count the number of times Victor Frankenstein faints in Mary Shelly's novel.) Considering the time frame of SLEEPY HOLLOW's story, Depp's take would seem to be directly inspired by the literature of the period; however, Tim Burton says the real idea was for Depp to play the character like a 13-year-old girl. One is left wondering the obvious question: Why?
'Well, there's lots of great male action stars, but none of them act like 13-year-old girls,' explains Burton, 'so we thought, 'Well, why not?' Part of what we loved about the Ichabod character were the eccentricities, the squeamishness of the character and all that Johnny was really good at portraying. It gave him a real human quality that I love. I love the fact that he pretends he knows what he's talking about, but he doesn'tpretending that he's brave, but he isn't. I just find that really human. There's two sides of everybody: the side you think you are and the side you really are. When you see that juxtaposed in one person, I just find that charming.'
Burton was happy to work in London, which gave him a break from Hollywood and allowed him to focus purely on making the movie. 'I'd worked there ten years ago on the first BATMAN,' he recalls, 'so it was great, because I got the opportunity to work with a lot of the same artists that I'd worked with before. It was quite haunting in a waywhen you have a ten-year gap, there's something weird. You haven't seen people in ten years and then you see them again, and it's amazing. I like it there, and I liked working there. Somehow, you're away from the business side of it, and you're just there making a movie. Somehow, being away, you're focused on the movie more. You're not walking out and having people hand you scripts. You like meeting people who do different things; it feels better somehow.'
How has filmmaking changed in the intervening years? 'Filmmaking itself is still fun and interesting,' he replies. 'It's more the business around it [that's changed]. It's become much more merger-corporate. You don't know who you're dealing with so much anymore. You're dealing with entities as opposed to people. So that's changed. But the act of it, luckily, is still wonderful. You're right there, struggling to make something work with a bunch of people you likethe actors, the people making the movie. That, luckily, remains strong and wonderful.'
Working in London also allowed Burton another homage to the beloved Hammer horror films of his youth: he got to cast Christopher Lee, star of Hammer's HORROR OF DRACULA. (Coincidentally, Lee's DRACULA co-star, Michael Gough is also in SLEEPY HOLLOW, although they have no scenes together.) Considering how brief the role is, one wonders whether the real point of the casting decision was just so that Burton could meet Lee. 'Sure!' exclaims Burton. 'I mean, again, it's great, because you're sitting there talking to Dracula! He is Draculahe's got that intensity. So I was very happy that he did it, because it's a short part but an important one. It was him sending [Ichabod] on his journey. So there's nobody better reallywith that voice and that command. I hear him, and it still gives me the chillshe's just so great!'
Strangely, the fairy tale sheen of SLEEPY HOLLOW, which consciously evokes the atmosphere of Hammer horror and Corman's Poe pictures, does much to mitigate the gory impact of the storybut not enough to earn the film a PG-13. Believe it or not, this is a movie about decapitation that was intended for kids, and it succeeds in its intentor at least, it would have, if not for the R-rating. Paramount, fortunately, did not insist on recuts to tone down the rating. 'I have to say they were incredibly supportive,' says Burton. 'We all felt, and we still all feel, that it's a PG-13. I have no problem showing this movie to some kids. Part of its inspiration is in that. This is the kind of movie that I thanked God for while growing up. But I have to say they [Paramount] realized the absurdity of it as well, and they knew there was nothing we could do. I got to hand it to them. We were all disappointed, and up until the end we knew there was nothing we could do unless we change him from a Headless Horseman to an Avon lady, so we got problems! They were cool about it. You know what? It's a big deal. It's upsetting to me. I'm also upset becauseI didn't even realize thisthey can't even use it in an ad if some reviewer says, 'This is a film you can take your kids to.' You can't even say that, so it's even more censorship. They feel so bad about the illogic of what they do that they want to stop anybody from questioning their bad judgment.'
Not that Burton advocates graphic violence in films. 'Listen, I have certain problems with movies where people are shooting guns and joking, where there's a certain lightness to it, a certain bizarre real but unreal [quality],' he says. 'I've got a lot of problems with violence, but I never had a problem in a fantasy Hammer horror movie or Roger Corman movie. As I said, if I didn't have those, I don't know what I'd be like. I felt very grateful to them. They were very cathartic.'
Burton believe that 'there's a vast population out there that' is looking for a similar catharsis. If that's true, then he must expect audience anticipation for SLEEPY HOLLOW to be immense? 'I don't know that, specifically,' he says. 'I hope so. I feel good about it. I hope the spirit and the energy that went into it, gets a response. That's what you always hope for.'