From Esquire Magazine Interviewed by Cal Fussman Photographs by Marc Hom
Burton and Depp are known as two of the strangest, quietest geniuses ever to work in movies. Turns out they’re not that strange. Or quiet.
Actor, 44, Los Angeles
Interviewed on October 25, 2007
One time a guy told me that he brought his wife to see Pirates of the Caribbean. She had lost her motor skills. I forget what you call it. It’s not autism. Jesus, they made a movie about it. You know, where you recede and your functions start to go. Anyway, they’re watching the film, and when Captain Jack Sparrow came on the screen, she started to laugh. This guy said he hadn’t heard that laugh in years. And so he took her back to see the film repeatedly. For some reason, Captain Jack made her laugh every time. That’s right up there.
My mother taught me a lot of things. The first thing that comes to mind is: Don’t take any shit off anyone, ever. When I was a little kid, we moved constantly. Bully picks on you in the new place? Don’t ever take any shit off anyone, ever. Eloquent and right.
My life is my life because of Tim. Definitely.
This is Tim Burton in a nutshell: We were doing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and I was on the set. We were shooting, working, working, working. All great. Everything’s cool. One of my pals comes up and says, “Helena [Bonham Carter, Burton’s partner] just called. When you get a moment, she’d like you to give her a call back.” “Okay,” I say. “As soon as I’m done on set, I’ll go back to my trailer and give her a call.” So I go back to the trailer, call Helena, and say, “Hey, what’s going on?” I thought maybe Helena had a question about little boys because Billy was a little baby then and I’ve got two kids. So I say, “Is everything all right?” And she says, “Billy’s fine. Everything’s fine. But, well, you know how Tim is. He wants to know if you’d be … he’d like for you to be Billy’s godfather.” I say, “But I was just with Tim. I was with him three minutes ago. I had to leave him to walk back to the trailer to call you.” So she called me to ask because Tim just couldn’t. That was his way of asking. I went back to the set and said thank you, told him that I was honored. It doesn’t get heavier than saying I’d like you to be the godfather of my son. But he’s not ever going to put himself into a corny kind of situation with a pal. He’s like, “Good, yeah, yeah.” Boom. “Let’s get back into the work.”
Look, see this little carrot near the dip? Watch. I’ll put it in my mouth as if it were a cigarette holder. Now I’m Raoul Duke. I spent so much time with Hunter Thompson, it just became second nature. As soon as I put anything resembling a cigarette holder in my mouth, he starts to come out. It’s so natural and it’s so strange. It sounds kind of ridiculous to even say it.
The characters are always there and, depending on the situation, not far from the surface. So they show up every now and again. It can’t be good for you. It just can’t. Then again, who knows?
I don’t think anybody’s necessarily ready for death. You can only hope that when it approaches, you feel like you’ve said what you wanted to say. Nobody wants to go out in mid-sentence.
I’m in a very privileged position. And I’m certainly not going to bite the hand that feeds me. I like doing the work. But I’m not a great fan of all the stuff that goes along with it. I don’t want to be a product. Of course you want the movies to do well. But I don’t want to have to think about that stuff. I don’t want to know who’s hot now and who’s not and who’s making this much dough and who’s boffing this woman or that one. I want to remain ignorant of all this. I want to be totally outside and far away from all of it.
I remember one time I had done some television interview, and they asked about my family life and kids. I talked about how I’m a proud father and how much I love my kids and how they’re fun and what we do and how it’s great. I was thinking that if in twenty-five, thirty years my kids watch old footage, I’d be proud for them to see their dad saying how much he loves them. Well, the show aired, and I get a phone call. “What the fuck are you doing?” I said, “Marlon, what are you talking about?” He said, “That’s none of their business!” I tried to say, “Marlon, listen, man, I only wanted my kids to …” And it was like he gave me this sort of once-over. “You don’t do it, man. That’s your world and it’s nobody else’s business. It’s not anybody’s entertainment.” And he was right.
People are supernice in the street. If they want me to sign something, that’s great, I don’t mind that at all.
There’s no limit to the possibilities of what I could do to the paparazzi if I catch them photographing my children.
You don’t go through the front door of hotels anymore, you go through the garage. Or you go through the kitchen of a restaurant. Some people want to think that’s cool, that’s exciting. But it’ll definitely make you a little weird if you’re constantly being stared at. Part of the process that I’ve always enjoyed is being the observer. You know, just watching people and learning. At a certain point, the reversal took place. I was no longer the observer—I was being observed. That’s obviously very dangerous because part of an actor’s job is to observe.
My definition of freedom is simplicity, really. Anonymity. I’m sure it will be a possibility someday again. Maybe when I get old. They get tired of you.
“Didn’t you use to be Johnny Depp?” That will be the clincher.
Director, 49, London
Interviewed on October 25, 2007
Before I started directing, I barely spoke. That was what Edward Scissorhands was about: having a lot of feelings but not being able to project them.
Most monster movies are not horror movies. They’re about outsiders. I never saw Frankenstein or King Kong or the Creature from the Black Lagoon as bad guys. They were the good guys. It was always the humans that were the motherfuckers. It was the bad B-movie actor dressed in a rubber suit who made me almost cry when he got killed.
Once, when I was a child, I faked an alien spaceship crash landing in the nearby park. I took a lot of weird-looking debris and crud and just threw it around a wooded area. I made alien footprints, and I convinced these younger kids that a spacecraft had crashed. Another time, I laid out a bunch of clothes in a pool and convinced some kids that I got into a fight with a guy and he fell in the pool, but the people who owned the pool had put too much acid in it and the guy had disintegrated when he landed. It was always the kids in the lower grades that could be convinced. Now I get to exorcise whatever demons I have by making movies. Moviemaking is like an expensive form of therapy. Only you don’t have to pay for it. Other people pay for it.
I’ve always been a bit more comfortable with my subconscious and not so comfortable when I think about things too much. It’s like when I doodle. That’s when I know it means something to me on some weird level, as opposed to sitting down with the idea of drawing a skeleton. Say I’m on the phone, just sitting around, doodling. I’ll look at what I’ve done and think, Oh, that’s a strange character. Then I’ll notice myself doing it over and over. Those are the ones that have the most power for me, because they’re coming from within.
People have said to me, “You either have a lot of confidence or you’re completely insane.” In the case of Sweeney Todd, we made an R-rated musical. I mean, the very term musical strikes fear in the hearts of studio executives. No matter how many recent successes there have been, it still gives ‘em the creeps. Then to make it R-rated? With blood? But I’ve got to say, I enjoyed making this one more than many others.
There are people who pretend like they know movies. But if somebody really knew movies, every film he made would be a success.
When I did Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, it was on several of the ten-worst-movies-of-the-year lists. Then, a few years later, the same critics who put it on those lists looked back and called it a classic. And I go, “What are you talking about? You said it was one of the ten worst movies of the year. Now it’s a classic?” So you learn that things have a way of balancing themselves out.
You can argue with somebody who says, I know this and I know that. But you can’t argue with passion.
In one of the London newspapers, there was an article that Helena and I were trying to get permission to build a fantasyland in our garden, some kind of amazing gypsy caravan. First of all, our garden is about the size of this sitting area. And second, the newspaper showed a picture of an area that looked like what a homeless person would stay in. It’s hilarious, really. They think that I’m weird, and she’s got this reputation for dressing terribly. Every other week there’s a breaking story in a newspaper under the headline: Helena Bonham Carter Dressed Like Shit. So it’s like we’ve got this reputation for being the neighborhood weirdos. But that’s happened ever since I was a child. No matter what I do, no matter what I say, I’m branded as the Prince of Darkness.
Sex scenes are usually pretty bad in movies. I’m trying to think of some that I liked, but none spring to mind. I don’t find porno movies that erotic, either. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because people look better with their clothes on. I know I certainly do.
I sometimes meet people who say, I’m going to be this and I’m going to be that. You feel kind of bad for them because they’re limiting themselves. It’s different from having an enthusiasm for something and seeing where life takes you. I feel lucky to never have planned to go into what I did. I always just said, “All I want to do is make things, whether it’s drawing or writing.” If I’d said, “I’m going to be a director,” it probably wouldn’t have happened.
I remember a Matisse exhibition that allowed you to see his entire artistic arc. It showed you how an artist is always searching to get back to simplicity—you know, to look at life for the first time. There’s really something to that. Whether you like it or not, a child really connects you to that time when everything’s new. It’s so important, not just for artistic endeavors, but for humanity.
I feel extremely at home in London. I keep thinking I’m going to miss it back in Los Angeles. But I don’t. The only thing I miss is driving out in the desert in the southwest. There’s something really exciting and invigorating about that open-air freedom and not knowing exactly where you’re going and staying at some cheap motel and finding weird things along the side of the road. It’s surreal and beautiful and exciting and peaceful. So I do miss that. But that’s it.
Everybody loves chimpanzees because they’re so cute and all, but when you do the research, you find that chimpanzees are terrifying. They actually murder each other, and they can be cannibals. They like to throw shit at you from their cages. But I guess if I were trapped in a zoo, I’d probably throw shit at people as well.
Interviewed on October 25, 2007
Tim Burton: There are partnerships where one person is good at one thing and the other is good at another. That’s true in our case. But we’re very connected in terms of taste.
Johnny Depp: Even when we first met, we connected on all these superabsurd levels.
TB: A fascination for weird seventies objets d’art.
JD: I remember, growing up, we had this concrete cobra spray-painted gold.
TB: We’re from different parts of the country. But there is a kind of suburban white-trashy connective strand there. Isn’t there?
TB: The stories that scared us as children.
JD: Mr. Green Jeans.
TB: Seeing Humphrey Bogart playing a monster. He only did one horror movie and—
JD: We both knew it.
TB: The Return of Dr. X. When something like that comes up, you realize, Yeah, perfect. Things that don’t normally come up in most people’s conversations are things that come up a lot in ours.
JD: We speak in a sort of shorthand.
TB: It’s not literal. We’ll cross-reference things that wouldn’t really make sense to the normal person.
JD: One time, Tim and I were talking before we were getting ready to shoot. Afterward, one of the grips comes over to me with this really perplexed look on his face. He says, “I was just watching you and Tim talk about the scene for the last fifteen minutes.” “Yeah?” And he says, “I didn’t understand a fucking word either one of you said.”
TB: That about sums it up.
JD: I don’t think we’ve ever had an argument.
TB: I don’t think so. There have been differences of opinion and a different take on certain things.
JD: But even in that kind of situation, Tim just says, “Okay, do it like you want and then do it the other way.”
TB: Usually, we agree. Early on Sweeney Todd, Johnny said, “There is one thing I cannot do. I can’t take Anthony to the hotel.”
JD: I had written a big question mark on that page of the script.
TB: When I opened my script to the same page, I saw that I’d already crossed it out.
JD: Tim’s had to fight to get me in his movies so many times.
TB: We always have to fight. We have to fight to get them done, we have to fight—weirdly, Sweeney Todd wasn’t so hard, which it should’ve been. They should have run screaming for the hills with this one. An R-rated bloody musical starring someone they don’t even know if he can sing. I mean, Jesus. There’s a certain amount of trust that goes into backing that. It’s exciting when people do that, you know? Just trusting you with something. I find that to be quite energizing and confidence building. Makes you feel good.
JD: Makes you want to do a good job for them, too.
TB: Absolutely. I’ve always used a sporting analogy to describe the flip side of that. You’re a runner and you’re just about to run the big race, and they come in and beat the fucking shit out of you and then say, “Okay, go win the race.” You get the shit beat out of you right before you’re supposed to go perform your best. And it happens most of the time. We have our bets on you, never mind we just broke your fucking legs. But it wouldn’t be making a movie if it were easy. It should be a struggle. Otherwise, you’re coasting.
JD: There’s always that moment on every movie where you just go, “Okay, this is that moment. I’m about to potentially fall flat on my face, and I might as well just dive in and see what happens.” That’s how it was when I started singing the songs for the first time. I just felt like an idiot. It was one of the most exposing, bizarre things I’ve ever done. I mean, at forty-three years old, it’s the first time I’d sung a song all the way through.
TB: I did some auditioning with other people, and afterward I was completely devastated and exhausted. I felt like I was casting a porno movie. I mean, having people come in to audition and sing was like having them come in and take their clothes off. It felt that exposing. It shocked me.
JD: It’s true. I’ve married Tim’s woman twice now. In Corpse Bride, Helena was the corpse. And then in Sweeney Todd.
TB: What are you, some kind of, what do they call it? Do you live in Utah? Are you one of those guys?
JD: My real last name is Osmond.
Depp and Burton have collaborated on five films. Their sixth, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, opens this month.