IN THE FIRST PART OF EON’S EXCLUSIVE VISIT TO THE ENGLAND SET OF SLEEPY HOLLOW, DIRECTOR TIM BURTON AND PRODUCTION DESIGNER RICK HEINRICHS DISCUSS BRINGING WASHINGTON IRVING’S CLASSIC FABLE TO THE BIG SCREEN
By ANTHONY C. FERRANTE
The sleepy little England burb of Lime Tree Valley has undergone a bit of a transformation on this foggy mid-February afternoon. With a little town of Sleepy Hollow built from the ground up on this gaming preserve, it looks as if you’ve leapt right from the pages of Washington Irving’s classic fable and into a nightmare only Tim Burton could conceive.
In fact, it is Tim Burton’s nightmare we’re living -- an expressionistic view of this upstate New York village circa 1799 and it’s even made complete by a headless horseman terrorizing the Sleepy Hollow townfolk.
The sheer power of the Horseman is not as threatening though during his ride in on his horse as night falls since stunt performer Ray Parks (Darth Maul of THE PHANTOM MENACE) is wearing a blue hood (for purposes of matting it out later via CGI). Hence, this makes him resemble Mexican wrestler Santo from the old Mexican movies of the ‘50s instead of the unstoppable supernatural force he will be when the movie hits theaters this November.
"We’re trying to make the most expensive Mexican horror movie ever made and we’re probably achieving something like that," jokes Burton bundled up in black and nursing a cold in between takes on set. In fact images of Santo constantly are conjured up by Burton since he and his Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki discuss the uncanny resemblances to those old Santo movies on many occasions. "We’re always talking about Mexican horror movies. It’s starting to feel like one of those SAMSON IN THE WAX MUSEUM kind of things.”
While Tim Burton has taken the cheesy pulp science-fiction of the past and turned it into an expressive and expensive art form with everything from BEETLEJUICE to MARS ATTACKS!, SLEEPY HOLLOW may be his most accomplished feat yet – bringing back the classic feel of those old Hammer horror films and throwing a ‘90s super-budget at it.
The result is a film that is loosely based on the Irving novel, but immensely inspired by Hammer’s rich pedigree of creepy chillers from BLACK SABBATH to THE RAVEN. Andrew Kevin Walker (late of SEVEN) scripted the effort, which started life with special effects artist Kevin Yagher who was initially attached as director (and who now serves as executive producer, co-story adapter and special effects artist) before Burton came to the project. In fact when you think about it, SLEEPY HOLLOW was a film Burton was born to ride.
“The thing that attracted me to the story was the idea of the Ichabod character -- a character who lives in his head and is not in tune with certain things on a certain level and in tune with things on another level,” says Burton. “I guess he’s very much in his head vs. someone with no head. He’s got this sort of quality which is great because it’s very human to me.”
Playing Ichabod Crane is Burton regular Johnny Depp (EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, ED WOOD) who brings a slightly more quirky air to Ichabod then the spindly, skinny scaredy-cat schoolteacher of the original story. In fact in the new movie he plays a police constable who has a very unconventional approach to solving crimes and is hell-bent on finding the head-chopping murderer of many of the residents of nearby Sleepy Hollow in a rationale, logical way – without losing his head of course. Christina Ricci plays his love interest Katrina Van Tassel (part of the town’s most affluent family) and the busiest actor in show business Casper Van Dien plays Brom Van Brunt who is vying for Katrina’s heart alongside Ichabod. Throw in Christopher Lee in a cameo, Burton regulars Jeffrey Jones and Michael Gough, THE PHANTOM MENACE’s Ian McDiarmid, Miranda Richardson, Lisa Marie and even Christopher Walken and you have one of the year’s most eclectic casts this side of that little STAR WARS movie.
“It’s a fun group of people and we’ve got a few different vibes going on that I’m enjoying very much,” says Burton.
Production design for SLEEPY HOLLOW is a knockout courtesy of Rick Heinrichs who knew Burton nearly 20 years ago when they both attended CalArts and struck up a long-term friendship while slaving away at Disney in the late’70s and early ‘80s. The last time they teamed up was on Burton's stop-motion extravaganza THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS. Heinrichs' being attached to this film made perfect sense since Burton (coming off of the annoyingly CGI heavy MARS ATTACKS!) wanted to go back to his stop-motion roots and do most of the film’s impressive visuals and effects in camera (though some CGI will be employed to remove the Headless Horseman’s Santo-esque head and to enhance a few background plates).
“As much as we can we’ve tried to get the film in the camera,” says Heinrichs. “It always looks better that way. There is incredible stuff CGI can do and that’s really what it should do. On our film you may not notice too much, but there will be some CGI stuff tying it all together.”
One key to the film’s look is creating most of the movie on stages that have a mixture of foreground and background miniatures (ala stop motion) techniques to give it an offbeat look. Aside from the town itself that was created in Lime Tree Valley, three-fourths of the movie will have been lensed at England’s Pinewood and Leavesden Studios.
”We’re doing more things than I would do on a stop motion film where everything is far more contained,” says Heinrichs. “In fact we’re treating this like a big stop motion animated film which is probably why it’s taking so long to shoot it. It’s a little nerve racking because you’re dealing with so much bigger stuff. You’re physically putting trees and clumps of grass in and trying to get the blades to diminish in perspective and stuff like that. At a certain point you realize the camera is not really going to see that, so we put it together and it actually looks pretty good in the camera. I love working with more organic stuff – for me, this is right up my alley.”
Creating the town of Sleepy Hollow took the most time according to Heinrichs because they weren’t quite sure if they would end up shooting in Terrytown, in Norfolk New York or trekking all the way out to England to build the actual exterior of the town from the ground up.
“Tackling the look of the village was one of the first things we did,” says Heinrichs. “We experimented with a lot of ideas. We thought of taking over some of the more historical areas of New York and adding some buildings to it and hiding what we didn’t want to see. However, the architecture of the time, as great as it looks there, has a purity and simplicity to it that wasn’t lending itself to the kind of story we were trying to tell. The fun stuff is making it very expressionistic anyway and what we’re trying to express is a little Dutch community in upstate New York. We wanted a kind of unease when you walk into town. We didn’t try to anthrompomorize the houses but there is a definite expressive character to them which was important to us. We ended up falling in love with the idea of the buildings in this setting.”
For Burton, SLEEPY HOLLOW is one of his most expansive and daunting endeavors ever.. Filming began November 1998 and continued until April 1999. Luckily they weren’t required to make an original summer release date since the film was wisely pushed back to the more appropriate November slate which befits the film’s mood and tone. In fact if the visuals and story hold up as well as the initial footage is shaping up to be, then Burton might even have his first Academy Award nomination on his hands.
“The LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW is a true American thing,” says Burton. “It was said to be ripped off from a German folk tale and it seems very German as well, but there’s something about a headless horseman. I love upstate New York too and I spent a lot of time there. It’s such a haunted place. The placement of the story is so important, that’s why it’s so funny and strange to be here in England at this location we found. The terrain was very much like upstate New York and trying to capture that feeling is magical. We’re almost going for that beautiful atmosphere of the old Hammer Films. Trying to make the exteriors look like a stage and the stage look like an exterior – it’s been fun.”
EON’s exclusive visit to the set of SLEEPY HOLLOW in England will continue in a forthcoming issue.
ISSUE 20.3 - SEPTEMBER 24, 1999