Arts: Spooks do furnish a room

All Tim Burton's films reveal his deep fascination with classic screen horror. So why has Sleepy Hollow, his first straight chiller, taken so long? He spoke to Vicki Reed in New York

Tim Burton looks like the films he makes. Slightly otherworldly, a bit off kilter, but always intriguing. Look at any photograph of this director and you see someone who gives the impression of not laughing very often, in his studiedly black uniform, and with his ponderous, long features. He looks morose, maybe a bit scary. Does this person, you think, take himself very, very seriously?

No, is the answer to that. The man who bounds into the suite of a smart Park Avenue hotel is admittedly dressed in black, wearing enormous wraparound blue-tinted shades, but he has a huge smile on his face and grasps my hand enthusiastically. "Hello, hello, I'm Tim Burton... lovely to meet you." He settles into a chair, spider-long limbs tangling around themselves, and continues to beam at me.

So he's not scary. And he does laugh, all the time. It's not really a laugh, more of a manic giggle that tends to last far longer than the joke merits. And he never, ever finishes sentences. What he doesn't say, he does - with extravagant, sweeping gestures, or vigorous nods of his big black hair. And in among all the arm-waving, leg-swivelling and chat, chat, chat, you'll occasionally see glimpses of some of the characters he has brought to the screen; genial Ed Wood, staccato Edward Scissorhands. Even Johnny Depp, who played Edward Scissorhands, has been quoted citing the likeness: "It's in the hands. The way he waves them around in the air almost uncontrollably, nervously tapping on the table. The stilted speech. Tim is Edward." He's 41 years old, and there is still something of the fairytale about him.

And in all his films. His fascination with the supernatural, the fantastical, seeps through every story - from the endearing comedies of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice (his first mainstream hit), through the darker, grandiose Batman films, taking in the stop-motion animation fantasy The Nightmare Before Christmas. And the fairytale theme continues with his latest movie, the beautiful, extravagant Sleepy Hollow.

The film is a retelling of Washington Irving's famous Gothic horror story, in which the ghost of a headless horseman decapitates his hapless victims. Burton has been reunited with Johnny Depp for the third time. Depp plays Ichabod Crane, a stuffy detective sent to the town to solve the crimes.

The script, written by Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven) and touched up by Tom Stoppard, has deliberately strayed from the book's original character, a schoolteacher who ends up with a pumpkin for a head. Burton is happy with the interpretation. "I wanted to keep the feeling of the story, to keep respectful to the tone, the atmosphere and the eccentricities of the character."

He has his own views on Ichabod Crane. "On one level, Ichabod is ahead of his time," he enthuses, "and on another he's in his head too much. He's thinking about things and it creates a weird repression - logic versus illogic, magic versus reality... and then you throw that guy living in his head versus a guy with no head and it becomes an interesting dynamic, a wonderful symbol." He sighs happily. "I like characters who are screwed up, which he is." (Cue manic giggle.)

Burton's films tend to be thematically quite similar. They lean towards the fantastic, set in finely detailed, highly creative worlds, each unique to its own story. His characters have an innocence and purity about them (a bit like the man himself), and for all the dark imagery that skims the surface of his work, the struggle for good over evil is what binds his films together. His characters "are all related in the sense that they are kind of deeply damaged," says Depp, "which I think is a good thing. The damaged individual dealing with the world. That is probably, at its very root, why Tim does what he does."

Burton taps into something actors respond to, and certainly Depp has probably done some of his best work with Burton (Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood and now Ichabod Crane). The two are close friends. "I trust him completely," continues Depp. "If he said `walk on the precipice of this building, we're going to film it and it's going to be great,' I would do it. I would try anything for him. We have a connection. It happened almost immediately the first time we met, for Edward Scissorhands. I think we have a similar outlook on things, a similar sense of the absurd."

Burton loves Depp because "he's willing to try anything. I appreciate actors who like to transform and are not afraid to get messy, dirty and dragged through the mud."

Christina Ricci, cast as the beautiful heiress Katrina Van Tassel in Sleepy Hollow (and she really is the archetypal fantasy heroine, long blonde tresses, sweet and gentle), homes in on another aspect of his personality. "He is the most enthusiastic director I have ever worked with. He will literally sit behind the monitor and mouth along with your dialogue, and make the same facial expression you're making, get really excited. It's great to work with someone like that because it makes you more excited about what you're doing."

Burton cast her because he believes she's got "this silent movie quality which I love, and she's also got this ambiguousness which I love too. You look at her, and you get feelings from her, but you don't quite know what they are, which I think is great. That's a rare thing."

Burton's strength as a director lies in visuals: structure and dialogue are almost secondary. He admits himself that his work - and this is probably why he is so brilliant at creating these ghostly nuances - is a visual form of the subconscious. It makes sense of his inability to structure sentences coherently. Drawing is his way of talking. "It's my thinking process. I can do it quietly and alone and it helps me to think. It always has. It's much better for me than talking about it, and when I draw I'm not constantly up here," - he gestures to his head - "it kind of filters down so it becomes more subconscious and therefore more real to me."

That's why his symbols are so powerful. And as we all know, fairytales are about tapping into the subconscious. "That's what is great about fairytale imagery. Sometimes you don't on a conscious level know why you're responding to something, but you do. I tried to treat this film as a fairytale, and in fairytales there is horrible imagery that I've always felt works as a catharsis."

Ironically, for all the extreme imagery of his earlier work, Sleepy Hollow is his first foray into conventional horror movies. And he has borrowed directly from the early Hammer movies. There is even a cameo appearance from Christopher Lee. "I loved those movies, they acted as my psychologists early on in life... they really helped me. For me they acted like a fairytale in the sense that they were lurid, beautiful, with strong imagery. Since I didn't really read, they were like my books, so to speak."

Growing up in Burbank, California, Burton would while away his time watching bizarre triple-bills of Scream Blacula Scream, Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde and Jason and the Argonauts. How did they help? I ask. "Well, when you're a child you don't really understand all these abstract things in life, and so horror movies, monster movies, you relate to them and you don't know why. As a child you understand things subconsciously. You see Vincent Price being in torment and you can relate to it, and it's not for any literal reason, it's just how you feel."

When these movies and the likes of Peter Cushing are your mentors, it makes sense to have an off-kilter vision of humanity. A recent American publication pointed this out to Burton, and he jumped straight to his defence. "Oh, but I don't consider myself strange at all," he argued. "In fact, early on in my career that made me quite sad, and that was the inspiration for Edward Scissorhands. I'd always wonder why people are treating the monster badly - from King Kong up. They treat it badly because they see it as different."

Perhaps surprisingly, Burton the outsider has actually managed to fit in very easily. He has always worked contentedly within the studio system, starting his career as an animator for Disney, and has churned out money spinning hits regularly. Sleepy Hollow took $30m on its opening weekend. Mars Attacks! was his one critical and financial flop. But no one seemed unduly worried.

Having said that, Sleepy Hollow rescued him from a potentially damaging experience with Superman Lives. He had worked on the project for a year, with Nicolas Cage set to star, when the project was wrenched away from him. Warner Bros blamed script problems and an escalating budget. "That was extremely painful," he remembers. "I don't think those people realise how much of your heart and soul you pour into something. I was shell-shocked by the whole situation."

The man-child is not giving anything away about future projects. He seems happy in the here and now, and philosophical about the time lost to Superman Lives. It's all come good in the end. "Who knows," he smiles, "maybe it was because of my previous year that I related to a character with no head."

`Sleepy Hollow' opens on 7 January

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