"I was working on something that didn't happen," Tim Burton remembers, "so I was feeling a little headless myself."
That "something," of course, was a new SUPERMAN adventure with Nicolas Cage set to star as Krypton's greatest export. However, budget and script misgivings caused Warners Bros. to drop the project, leaving the director of PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE, BEETLEJUICE, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, BATMAN, BATMAN RETURNS, ED WOOD and MARS ATTACKS! without a project. Then, out of the blue, Burton received the script for SLEEPY HOLLOW, based on Washington Irving's THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW. And thus the director who felt headless met the Headless Horseman.
"It was the right time, for sure," Burton says during a conversation in New York City. "When I got SLEEPY HOLLOW I responded immediately. It was a story I'd known from childhood and from the Disney cartoon. There's something very powerful about that image of the Headless Horseman. That's what I was fascinated by. I was fascinated by the visceral, subconscious power of that image. Then, I love the characters. Ichabod Crane is such a great name. I always liked the idea of this guy who thinks too much and is just living in his head juxtaposed against this headless person with no head. So there was that juxtaposition of emotional symbols and imagery. I've liked horror movies all my life, and this was my first opportunity to make a movie like the ones I watched, like the Hammer films I grew up with."
Once he came on board, Burton mounted a typically sumptuous production. He built elaborate sets on location in London and also at Leavesden and Shepperton Studios. He tapped the talents of ace behind-the-scenes talent, including screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, who penned SEVEN and the upcoming X MEN; Kevin Yagher, who handled the creature FX (and who initiated the project and almost directed it, but is now credited as co-producer and screenstory writer); costume designer Colleen Atwood, a frequent Burton collaborator; and, of course, Danny Elfman, who has composed yet another perfectly quirky score for Burton.
Finally, the director assembled a winning cast. Johnny Depp, of Burton's EDWARD SCISSORHANDS and ED WOOD, signed on as Crane, the constable assigned to solve a string of mysterious murders in the village of Sleepy Hollow. Christina Ricci plays Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter of Sleepy Hollow's wealthiest family, which includes her father, Baltus (Michael Gambon) and her step-mother (Miranda Richardson). Cast as locals with a bevy of secrets are Ian (THE PHANTOM MENACE) McDiarmid, Michael Gough, Richard Griffiths and Jeffrey Jones, while Casper Van Dien plays Katrina's would-be beau, Lisa Marie portrays young Ichabod's doomed mother in flashbacks and horror legend Christopher Lee cameos as the burgomaster who ships Crane off to Sleepy Hollow.
Purists may question the casting of Depp. After all, he's terribly handsome while the Crane depicted in Irving's tale was gangly and ugly. "There are liberties taken," Burton says, laughing. "We've changed his profession from school teacher to New York cop. But I didn't feel bad about the liberties we took. What I always got from the original story and what we tried to keep true to was the atmosphere, the mood. And, with Ichabod, we did try to keep the character traits, the eccentricity of the character, the squeamishness and awkwardness. I thought Johnny did a really good job with that. So, even though he looks the way he looks, we tried to keep those other aspects of Ichabod, that gangly scarecrow walking through town thing. I think Johnny captured that. He just doesn't look quite as ugly as he could have."
As important an element as the live actors was the Headless Horseman himself. In creating so pivotal a figure, Burton hoped to do as little postproduction, CG and blue screen as possible. "Part of the reason for that is, on these types of movies, you want to make it feel as present and there as possible," he explains. "Another part of the reason is you have these great actors and you don't want them acting in front of blue screens. You want to give them as much opportunity as possible to live and breathe in the sets. So, with all the effects, we tried to mix it up so we weren't too reliant on CG. But we did every technique for the Headless Horseman. We had CG. We had crash-test dummy figures that we could shoot live. From shot to shot, everything was a little different."
Burton is clearly in a good mood, and he sounds pleased with SLEEPY HOLLOW on the whole. Yet, he's never more animated than when discussing the thrill of working with two of his screen idols, namely Christopher Lee and Michael Gough. His face lights up, he speaks even faster than usual and one can almost see his eyes light up behind his omnipresent black shades. "When I met Chris it was scary," he says. "You're sitting there talking to Dracula. He's got this intensity. I was so happy that he did it. He really sets the movie off on the right tone. And Michael I love, too. You're looking at these people. I'd look at Michael and laugh. He'd say, `What are you laughing at?' I'd go, `You were in KONGA!' It was just such a pleasure.
"And seeing all of these people [Gough, Gambon, Jones, Depp and Richard Griffiths] in a room at one time was wild. Michael is such a sweet man. Somehow, these horror movie people, these people who've played villains, are the nicest people. And, often times, I find that the people who play heroes are really jerks. It's funny. I've talked to people about it. It's not true of everybody in the history of movies, but there's a strange dynamic to it."
Much like Lee, who is so associated with horror film that he's rarely been given the chance to show other facets of his acting skills, Burton has become so associated with excursions into the dark and the weird that many people-moviegoers, reviewers and the powers-that-be in Hollywood alike-question his ability to do anything else. It's a Catch-22 for Burton. "Well, I don't think I'll ever be making RUNAWAY BRIDE or anything like that," says the director, who currently has no next project lined up. "I remember in school, you'd start to get categorized. I always resisted that. Categorized can be a complimentary thing, but when it's not complimentary, I find it's like a hostile gesture, an attack in a way. It's a dismissal of a human being to do that. I can't imagine anyone liking it if they're said to be one thing. But you can't do anything about it. I realized that early on, even before I got into movies. You just have to go on with your life."