In making Sleepy Hollow, Batman director Tim Burton found himself wrangling horses, deer, sheep, and the ratings board in his retelling of the spooky Washington Irving folk tale about Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman.
Working with animals wasn't the easiest part of the shoot, says Burton. The horses were camera shy, "All they have to do is hear 'Action!' once, and they are unbelievably canny about not wanting to get in the shot," and "the deer were not fun but the sheep were OK."
But what really ticked off the wild-haired illustrator-turned-filmmaker is the R rating slapped on a film that's clearly designed for 12-year-old thrill seekers. "The interesting thing about this story, it's in the consciousness [even if you haven't] read it," says Burton. "It's an early American horror story but [also] a folk tale. There's something very powerful about the image of a headless horseman. We just felt some inspiration from the 1958 Disney cartoon. We tried in a live action way to make the Headless Horseman elegant and strong at the same time.
"But the R rating upsets me. I have no problem showing this to some children. When I was a kid I felt if I didn't have these [horror] movies, I don't know what I would have turned into. These movies helped me. I tried to keep Sleepy Hollow in that zone, and this is the type of movie I would have died to see [as a child]. That's what we wanted to do."
Burton laughed out loud when he was asked if he fought with the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board about the R. "There is no fight at all with the ratings board: 'Cuz we cut off heads and didn't make him an Avon lady." (Dianne Wiest played just such an inoffensive cosmetics hawker in Burton's Edward Scissorhands.)
His older-than-her-19-years leading lady, Christina Ricci, agrees. "It's silly," she says. "I think kids can see this it's too fake and tongue-in-cheek to be really upsetting."
Burton adds, "We couldn't even put a headless horseman on the poster! I ended up making him really small, and then I was driving around town and I see this huge bus stop poster of a headless horseman for some religious TV station. It's so twisted and perverse," he concludes of a system that decrees if someone is beheaded, even without lots of gore, it automatically means it's too violent for teenagers without a guardian. "Kids are like adults," he says. "Some kids can take it and some can't."
Easily spooked film fans can surf to Paramount's just updated shiver-inducing official film site (sleepyhollowmovie.com), which should please all those haunted and hooked by the similarly effective Blair Witch Project site.
Does he think if his name happened to be Steven Spielberg whose Saving Private Ryan was given enormous leeway with the ratings board Sleepy Hollow might have gotten a PG-13? "At this moment in time not necessarily," he answers, referring to the post-Columbine violence-sensitive climate. "But it would have helped."
He adds, "I've had trouble since Frankenweenie," [his first short] that got a PG, and because of that couldn't be [promoted] on the Pinocchio video box. "It's this puritanical thing, the board thinks I'm trying to subvert something. I was shocked then and now I go into my annual shock."
Burton is still not over the shock of seeing his Superman movie killed before it could be filmed. "I worked hard on Superman. I 'made' the movie only I didn't film it. You'd have to ask Warner Bros. why. It was going to be expensive, and they were a little sensitive that they had screwed up the Batman franchise. Corporate decisions are all fear-based decisions. They were afraid."
Wasn't his casting of Nicolas Cage as the Man of Steel controversial as well? "That's what they said about Michael Keaton and Batman. If they would have allowed us to do it, it would have been interesting."
-- Stephen Schaefer