Film: `I sometimes feel headless myself'

In `Sleepy Hollow', Tim Burton casts Christina Ricci completely against type. The director and his star explain why to David Eimer

Tim Burton is perhaps the most idiosyncratic director in Hollywood: a genuine auteur, but one who takes his inspiration from B-movies rather than the French New Wave. "I never saw an Academy Award-winning film till I was in my twenties," he grins when we meet, in a New York hotel room. He is now 41; his hair shoots in all directions and he wears only black. "The kind of films that I grew up watching were trash. I liked monster movies and 50 cent triple-features during my prime movie-going experience."

It's now 14 years since Burton introduced cinema audiences to his fantastic, gothic-with-a-twist vision of the world. His previous work (the first two Batman films, Mars Attacks! and Ed Wood - his affectionate and unjustly neglected 1994 tribute to the man regarded as the worst film-maker ever to shout "Action!") indicates his tastes, but there's also a more serious side to his love for lurid horror and tacky sci-fi. "I didn't read books, so these films were like fairytales to me. They helped me to understand abstract things in life. I thank God for them because if I didn't have them I don't know what I'd be like. They were cathartic for me, they exorcised weird feelings."

Burton's latest movie is Sleepy Hollow, a loose adaptation of the 1820 ghost story by Washington Irving. It's the first of his films to tap directly into the world of Hammer Horror and Roger Corman, and stars Christina Ricci, Burton regular Johnny Depp, and a supporting cast of British actors which includes Michael Gambon and Miranda Richardson.

Shot at Leavesden and Shepperton studios in Britain, as well as on the Hambleden estate, the $70m production is part fairytale, part horror- comedy, with echoes of Roman Polanski's 1967 film The Fearless Vampire Killers. It takes its visual cues from Hammer movies, while playing the action as much for laughs as shocks: "Part of my problem is that I always see two sides of everything and so humour and darkness go hand in hand."

The script, written by Seven's Andrew Kevin Walker and polished by an uncredited Tom Stoppard, retains Irving's image of the headless horseman who terrorises a tiny hamlet in upstate New York in 1799; but just about everything else has been tweaked. Even Ichabod Crane, the story's lanky protagonist, is now a policeman rather than the schoolteacher of the original.

Burton has never previously attempted a literary adaptation, but makes no apologies. "I'm new to this sort of material but the things that are important to me are not so much the literal things, it's the mood. I liked the names, the setting, the image of this eccentric character and this headless horseman. So even though we took liberties, we tried to keep the essence. You just have your own barometer of trying to be true to it, but also at the same time you make something else."

Which is perhaps why he cast Christina Ricci as Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter of the richest man in Sleepy Hollow and the film's nominal heroine. The 19-year-old first attracted attention as the ghoulish Wednesday in The Addams Family films and has since strung together unsettling portraits of troubled teenagers in The Ice Storm and The Opposite of Sex. But in Sleepy Hollow, Burton puts her in a long blond wig and has her playing against her edgy on-screen image. "You like to have actors change, that's one of the things I like about the actors I've worked with," he says. "She gets a rap for being in dark movies and I've got that rap, so it's always fun to try something else."

Ricci didn't need persuading to take the role. "I've always wanted to work with Tim. Even if the script was horrendous, I probably still would have done it." The small, self-assured and faintly supercilious Ricci was puzzled that he wanted her for this particular role. "I said when he cast me, `He must have never seen anything else I've done'. But I think another reason was because [my character] is supposed to have a mysterious quality and I think if you see me in the part you think, `Oh, there's bound to be something else'."

In fact, there isn't; Katrina Van Tassel lacks the substance of some of her previous roles. That doesn't seem to bother Ricci. "This movie isn't about the characters' emotional backgrounds. It's a special-effects movie, a tongue-in-cheek horror film and the thing I liked about her is, yes, she's terribly one-sided but she's also straight out of a fairytale. She is a stereotype and I thought that's what she should remain."

Ricci's unconventional looks are the main reason why she ended up in independent films. Her choice of roles has led people to assume that she's as much of a delinquent as the characters she plays. "It's silly that people can't differentiate between character and person," she points out. "I wouldn't say I was a rebel. I have the same tastes as most audiences because I was raised in this society. I'm actually very boring."

Burton's favourite character in Sleepy Hollow is the headless horseman. "That's how I feel sometimes, that I don't have a head. It's funny, I always respond to material emotionally and then I think about it because I find it's more honest." But he only took the film because a scheme to do Superman with Nicolas Cage fell through. "I worked for over a year on a project and then it didn't happen, so I was quite devastated and I felt like I didn't have a head and wanted to cut other people's heads off. But I related to the Ichabod character as well, this guy who just lives in his head - the perfect foil."

Burton is too bright not to take advantage of his weird reputation. "When I was a child, I was deemed weird and it made me sad and then I realised that it was actually quite liberating. People think I'm weird, so I can act or dress like I want. There was actually a freedom to it." Growing up in Burbank, just outside of LA, he didn't see himself as an outsider. Nevertheless, nearly all his films revolve around characters who are solitary, or have attributes, as in Edward Scissorhands, that set them apart. His upbringing in the sunny suburbs inspired his taste for all things black, as well as fuelling his obsession with horror movies. "It was a reaction against my environment, where it was all bright and light and white and square and non-emotional. There wasn't a lot of weather and those films had weather, texture, monsters. It's like when you're missing a sense, your other senses get heightened," he explains. He subsequently attended Cal Arts Institute on a Disney scholarship and joined Disney as an animator, working on The Fox And The Hound and The Black Cauldron before he persuaded them to let him make a live-action short, Frankenweenie, in 1984, which enabled him to set up as a director. Five years later, the success of Batman gave him the clout to attract top actors and command high-end budgets.

Sleepy Hollow is certainly Ricci's highest-profile project since The Addams Family films, and she says she wants more of the same. As for Burton, he doesn't expect to shed his "weird" tag but has more important things to worry about. "I still haven't gotten over being a teenager yet."

`Sleepy Hollow' (15) opens on 7 January

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