Warner Brothers’ new release Dark Shadows hits theaters at the end of the week. Johnny Depp, Jackie Earle Haley, Bella Heathcote, Cloe Moretz, Eva Green, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Thomas McDonell, Gulliver McGrath and Jonny Lee Miller all star. The film is of course directed by Tim Burton.
Earlier in the week I had the chance to sit down with the film’s screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith to talk about working with Tim Burton and Johnny Depp to distill this soap opera from the 1970’s into something more attuned to today’s big screen experience. We also touched on future projects Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Beetlejuice 2. As for Unholy Night and Pride, Prejudice and Zombies, we only had so much time so I had to drop those from the conversation.
In theaters May 11, “The story focuses on Barnabas Collins (Depp), who was transformed into a vampire by a jilted lover (Eva Green’s witch Angelique) way back in the 1700s and buried. He’s just been dug up, and attempts to reintegrate with his descendants, led by Michelle Pfeiffer’s Elizabeth and Jonny Lee Miller’s Roger – despite the fact that Angelique is still around and still not in a forgiving mood.”
Head inside for the interview.
You had some experience with Tim Burton already when he produced Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Was there more pressure writing a directorial feature for him?
There was pressure that I put on myself because this was a chance to work for both Tim as a director and Johnny [Depp] as a producer and star. And Tim is so funny, he was talking about meeting one of his idols, Alice Cooper. And he said something really beautiful which is, “when your idols turn out to be good people it gives their work an added value to your life.” Tim’s movies from Pee Wee to Beetlejuice to Batman to Edward Scissorhands were the seminal movies of my childhood. They were among the most powerful reasons I got into movies. I went into this process quietly idolizing those guys, and it turns out they’re good people. And it made me even more appreciative of the experience.
In terms of distilling [the show] “Dark Shadows” for the screen, I had a lot of help in that department. I was given some compilation discs, books, compendiums, novelizations. Character breakdowns. Facts from everybody. All these resources were put at my disposal. And Tim and Johnny were great resources because they know and love the series. So the challenge was balancing tone and paying homage to the original series but also letting people into the experience. And also what Tim and Johnny’s memory of the series was, rather than just doing a straight beat-for-beat adaptation of the series.
Talking about tone, you’ve got a hero who kills over 20 innocent people. What was it like as a writer trying to carve sympathy around that?
That was some of the most fun actually, other than the ridiculous Barnabas dialogue. One of the things that unites Tim and Johnny is their macabre senses of humor. So to me, the idea that he kills something like 11 construction workers and quite a few hippies is balanced by him being remorseful and apologetic. That was a challenge. To get the audience to stay on his side. The scene where he has his head on the organ and he’s lamenting to Elizabeth… the key to Barnabas is that he wants to change. He wants to better himself, to purify his blood, to be with his family and restore his family.
The theme of the movie to me is, “blood is thicker than water.” It’s right there in the first and last lines of the movie and we hit that over and over again. And as long as his so-called heart is in the right place, the audience seems to cut him some slack.
I was thinking about Burton’s body of work after seeing the movie. He likes submerging his characters into situations that may not necessarily factor into the narrative at large. Fish out of water scenes. What’s it like trying to balance that? You have to tell the movie’s story, but you can also see his desire to see Barnabas confronted with this other stuff.
Some of these specifics came out of the meetings with Tim and Johnny. Like the macrame and the way that Barnabas interacts with the world through his extended fingers. I remember very early on Johnny had this idea about wax grapes and all these things they remember about being kids in the early 70’s.
For me, I look at the film now and I see that subconsciously I’m channelling some of my favorite Burton-isms. You can’t escape the comparison. For me I was thinking about Edward Scissorhands a lot. Edward [like Barnabas] is this gothic horrific character interacting with kitsch. Like Barnabas tapping the troll or the “Operation” board game, Edward taps the water bed and is afraid when the water spouts out. Those are very similar beats. And also in Edward [as in Dark Shadows] he gets chased up a mountain to his castle by a torch-wielding mob.
And I look at that now and wonder if I’m being too derivative, but that’s what I love about Tim’s movies. It’s the normal people who are the most frightening. So at least that part was conscious. Wanting to contrast, “what is normal?” Barnabas is freaked out by these decorative touches, but they are ridiculous.
You’ve got Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter coming out, which you’ve adapted from your own book. What was that process like for you?
That was a harder process. I had to do much more ego-checking in that process. i had to go into it saying, “don’t be precious. Director is king.” But it’s hard. You do have to reinvent your book.
And maybe lose some of your favorite stuff.
Yeah. Or more internal stuff. That’s the stuff that has to go first. It’s a completely different movie too. With Dark Shadows, you assume it’s going to be macabre and dark, and it’s not. And with Abraham Lincoln there are probably a lot of people who look at it as a farce. But it’s dead f*cking serious. We do not wink, blink or flinch. As Ben Walker (who plays Abraham Lincoln) says, “the joke ends at the title.” It’s a B movie with an A level of execution. But I learned a lot about adaptation and the differences between the two mediums.
I have to ask, what’s that status of Beetlejuice 2?
The status is everyone’s waiting for me to get off my ass. I’ve met with Michael Keaton about it, I’ve met with Tim about it. Warner Brothers is obviously eager. But right now the ball’s in my court to sort of crack the story that will make it worth of doing this again. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it to you. I don’t want to have to look fans in the face and apologize for making a bad Beetlejuice movie, because it’s one of my favorite movies. And I don’t want to make anything just because I can. I don’t think Tim would participate [with those motives in mind] and I certainly know Michael wouldn’t. If we get something worthy…
Any chance of Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis or Winona Ryder’s characters returning?
It’s all possible. In terms of the story, however many years that are between the two films will be the amount of years that are between the two story lines. It’s not a reboot or a remake, it’s a straight sequel with Michael Keaton returning as Beetlejuice.