To write the film, Warner Bros. and Burton recruited Seth Grahame-Smith, the mashup novelist behind Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which has its own adaptation on the way this summer produced by Burton. Creating the screenplay presented a unique challenge, as the original television series not juggled a large ensemble of characters, but also ran for well over 1,000 episodes.
"We started watching an episode one night," Grahame-Smith explained. "Tim and Johnny and I sat down. You can't sit down and watch twenty-five hundred episodes of a show, so when I came into it I was lucky enough that there had been materials that had been given to me. DVDs of compilations that actual Dark Shadows experts had put together, like these are the central moments. I was getting books of characters and lines, and just studied them."
He continued, "I remember we had our first meeting, and Tim and Johnny and I just sat around a table,and they started talking about the things that they loved about the show and talking about moments that would be fun to explore, and characters. I remember that first meeting, Johnny was already getting up from the table and sort of pantomiming the rigidity of Barnabas, and Tim was already talking about, 'Well what if your fingers were a joint longer?' And then Johnny started to mime touching things. A lot of that was born in the first meetings early on. What I needed to know about the tone, I relied on them, because they were there watching the show as kids and loving the show, and they still have that knowledge of it, and that love for it."
For the first time in his collaborations with Burton, Depp also served as a producer. "It's impossible to consider myself a producer," the star said. "I can barely produce an English muffin in the morning. That's the producer. Just as a fan of the show, as Tim said, our kind of initial conversation about he thing – I think it was during Sweeney Todd where I just blurted out in mid conversation, 'God, we should do a vampire movie together, where you actually have a vampire that looks like a vampire.' Dark Shadows was kind of looming on the periphery. Then Tim and I started talking about it. Tim and I got together and started figuring out how it should be shaped, and Seth came on board and the three of us just riffed really. One thing lead to another, and it basically dictated to us what it wanted to be, certainly in a sense Tim kind of at the forefront of leading the troops."
Though Barnabas is at the center of the film's story, he is still just one of many actors in the ensemble taking up roles familiar to fans of the series. Michelle Pfeiffer plays matriarch Elizabeth Collins-Stoddard, and Dark Shadows represents a reunion between the actress and Burton, for whom she provided a rather iconic take on Catwoman in Batman Returns.
Explaining how the reunion came about, Pfeiffer recalled, "I was working with a mutual friend of ours, and she knew how much I wanted to be in this movie, so she kept egging me on to call him. I don’t' think I would've had the courage to do it, but at that point I don't even know if there was a script really at that point, so I didn't even know if there was a part for me, and it had been so long since I'd seen the series that I didn't even remember. I was just like,' If there's anything, I want to throw my head in the ring.' And then I hung up I go, 'Oh I'll never hear from him again.'"
Elizabeth's brother, Roger Collins, is played by Jonny Lee Miller. While there's a strong streak of the phantasmagoric and unusual running through the movie, the caddish and vain Roger is almost entirely oblivious to such things, and that's precisely what appealed to Miller about his character, as he said, "The main thing I loved about Roger is he's kind of unaware that he's in the world of horror. Even when he's bit right on the neck it kind of goes over his head, the whole thing. I really liked that. He's an idiot."
Elizabeth's daughter, meanwhile, is the teenaged Carolyn Stoddard. Chloe Grace Moretz, the young actress most known for spilling gallons of blood as Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass, felt a certain kinship with the sarcastic, rebellious Carolyn. Asked if she brought any teenage angst to the role, Moretz replied, "Is my mom around? Yeah I guess Carolyn is pretty [identifiable], because she was like me in a lot of ways, but then very different from me in a lot of ways too. I guess I defiantly perfect the eye roll. My mom wasn't happy though, because whenever we fight or something, she's always like, 'Stop bringing your characters home with you!' and I'm like, 'Sorry.'"
"What was great was that Tim gave me a lot of freedom and ideas," explained Eva Green, who plays the villainous Angelique Bouchard, the witch who cursed Barnabas and continues to torment him in the 20th Century. "I got really inspired by his book that he gave me of all these drawings, so I got inspired by those kind of crazy characters, broken dolls, and I don't know, music, Janis Joplin. She's kind of a raw animal, and the American accent. That was a big challenge, and I did get fired."
Bella Heathcote, who pulls double-duty as Barnabas' 18th Century love and the more modern nanny at Collinwood, said that at first, the cast was intimidating, "It was fun. Everyone was really great, and really lovely. I got to fan out. Playing two characters was a blessing. Colleen Atwood did a great job with the costumes. Just everything was there."
A particular special effect caused her some distress, and she explained, "The wave machine. There was one day that I had to be [battered by the] wave machine, and I expressed some reservations. I said, 'I'll be fine. I just need to get pumped up,' and I walk on set and Tim is blasting 'Eye of the Tiger.'"
The last servant at Collinwood, a drunk by the name of Willie Loomis, is brought to life by Jackie Earle Haley, and the actor was characteristically humble in talking about the film. "Well, for one I was just completely thrilled an honored when he wanted me to be a part of it," he explained. "The thing with Tim that truly is separate and different and unique from other directors is that Tim kind of represents his own genre. He's a very unique filmmaker, his aesthetics, his stylistic storytelling; the choices that he makes seem to be incredibly unique. He goes beyond just making a film, and he kind of builds this entire world. To get to go and help populate that world was a neat experience. It's also neat that the part was a bit different than me, its fun to play a diverse character and stuff."
For Depp, a huge part of the film's appeal was not simply working with such a talented group, but also channeling the much-loved original performance. "Approaching Barnabas even in the early days of trying to explore the possibility of the character," he explained, "no matter where you went in your head, if you tried to veer away from the original Jonathan Frid character, it was apparent to both Tim in myself that it had to be rooted in Jonathan Frid's character of the original Barnabas. It just had to be classic and this sort of classic monster, like Fangoria Magazine or that kind of thing. In terms of that Jonathan did have a rigidity to him, this elegance. It was always there. Tim and I talked early on; I did believe that a vampire should look like a vampire. It was a kind of rebellion against vampires that look like real world models."
With so many different characters and talented actors making them live up to their potential, Burton was naturally forced to make many a sacrifice in editing the film. The director said, "For deleted scenes, there's some stuff that we cut out – all of Michelle's scenes. Each actor will have all of their scenes cut out. I think there'll be some stuff on it, because being in the nature of the soap opera we cut out some stuff. All the actors were great, so I think I'm going to look at kind of having scenes that aren’t in the film, just because the actors did such a great job, and because of the soap opera nature of it. I think we'll have some stuff on there."
One of few people who has worked with Burton more often than Depp, composer Danny Elfman has been behind the musical scores of no less than fourteen movies with the director. In this instance, the 1970s setting made the project special and informed his approach. "We just went through all the music of that year," Elfman said. "Just doing that research it reminded me that I must have been quite ill that year 72, because I just remember that music on the AM radio, being sick and having a fever, and hearing all that kind of music on the AM radio over and over again. That's why it was so strange. It felt strange at the time, and it still feels strange. That was the weird thing about that. The quality of music, the kind of going from everything, like really kind of cheesy pop to really kind of hardcore stuff, it was a weird year for music. I remember Alice Cooper being a kind of strong influence for me at that time, and he looks the exact same, which is really scary. Arizona must do wonders. I don't know. It was important to use, so a lot of interesting music in 1972. We tried to treat it like score. We didn't try to treat it like, 'Oh, let's just throw in pop songs.'"
The final product is one that simultaneously plays as a campy comedy and a gothic soap opera, with the romantic-at-heart Barnabas torn between loves across centuries. The balance between two approaches is not a common one, Burton admitted. "It’s a tricky tone. We all recognize it. Part of its appeal was the weird nature of all the elements that went into it. The very serious, but it was on in the afternoon on a daily basis. There were certain elements of why we loved this show that you couldn't necessarily adapt so a film. The weirdest challenge was to get the kind of acting tone, the sort of soap opera nature of the tone, which is a weird thing to go for in a Hollywood movie. It's not like you go to a studio and say, 'We want to do a weird soap opera acting.' That's why I was so grateful for the cast, because even those who didn't know the show kind of got into the spirit of it, which is what made it Dark Shadows. We were trying to capture the spirit of what the show was.
Dark Shadows hits theaters nationwide this Friday, May 11th.