Actor-Director Partnerships: Tim Burton and Johnny Depp
Few partnerships in film have become as iconic as that between the incredibly talented directed Tim Burton and the equally gifted actor Johnny Depp. It is difficult to even hear the name of one without automatically thinking of the other, and the news that one is working without the other always comes with a bit of a jolt. Both of these individuals are known for their eccentric and fearless styles, so it comes as no surprise that each compliments the other perfectly. Although every collaboration may not bring with it an equal amount of success, each film bears the distinct tone and feeling that the two create, and when they do get a piece right, the result in unforgettable.
Tim Burton began his career in film as an animator’s apprentice at none other than Walt Disney Productions, but his dark and eccentric style did not mesh with that of the studio. His first feature film was the low budge hit Pee-wee’s Big Adventure in 1985, quickly followed by Beetlejuice (1988) and his first big budget film, Batman (1989). After the massive success of the latter film, Burton was catapulted into the big leagues, receiving the opportunity to work with big stars and even bigger budgets. Burton’s works often address the theme of life after death, on which he appears fixated, yet in a fun and tongue-in-cheek manner. Beetlejuice depicts a ghost couple that dislike the new inhabitants of their beloved home, Corpse Bride (2005) tells the story of a man who falls in love with a dead lady, and Dark Shadows (2012) is a tale focused on undead vampires. Death creeps in to almost all of Burton’s works, yet the films always aim to entertain, rather than unsettle. Burton also bravely takes on adaptations of iconic yet quirky children’s novels, such as Roald Dahl’s classics James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, as well as Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Other frequent collaborators include the musician Danny Elfman and his long-time partner Helena Bonham Carter.
Burton is not the only one attracted to odd projects, as Johnny Depp seems drawn to quirky films as well. Depp began his acting career in a very small role in A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984, and his first major film role was in Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (1990). Although Depp had already achieved recognition in the television show 21 Jump Street, and cannot therefore credit Burton with his discovery, Burton was nonetheless instrumental in providing Depp with the challenging film role that first marked him as an individual to watch. Since then, Depp has been nominated three times for Best Actor in a Leading Role by the Academy, for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), Finding Neverland (2004) and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007). Unfortunately, Depp’s style does not lend itself easily to Academy favour, and he has never taken home an Oscar, although he has been named Sexiest Man Alive by People magazine twice. Depp is known for crafting wacky characters that intrigue and entrance. Not only has he proven himself to be a master at over the top and transformative depictions, demonstrated by characters such as Captain Jack Sparrow, Willy Wonka, and The Mad Hatter, but his turns in more serious works such as the early What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) and Finding Neverland allowed him to demonstrate an extremely subtle and nuanced acting side as well.
Burton and Depp have worked together on eight films in total over the span of their respective careers. As aforementioned, the pair first collaborated in 1990 with my personal favourite, the masterful modern fairy tale Edward Scissorhands. The film was met with success both in the critic’s circles and at the box office, and quickly set the two up as partners to watch. Burton and Depp did not work together again until 1994, when they gave us the black-and-white hit Ed Wood. Sleepy Hollow (1999), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Corpse Bride (2005), Sweeney Todd (2007), Alice in Wonderland (2010), and Dark Shadows (2012) followed. Although each film is very different in theme and, to an extent, style, they all bear the characteristic mark that appears when the two work together. Sleepy Hollow and Sweeney Todd are horror films that, under the care of Depp and Burton, retain a lighter – albeit macabre – tone of adventure than would have been put forth by many other directors and actors, while children’s tales Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland are marked by an intriguing complexity that even a mature audience can enjoy. Although one film on this list stands out by being markedly weaker than its companions, the vast majority of Burton and Depp films have been successful, providing a fun time in combination with quality filmmaking.
There are some actor and director partnerships that will prompt me to visit the cinema each and every time they appear; although Johnny Depp and Tim Burton do not guarantee a film that I will love, they offer a markedly strong possibility. I enjoy these two the most when they ground their films in a slightly more serious and darker tone, since even these gothic works are full of whimsy and can easily be enjoyed. When both actor and director share the same twisted sense of humour, their films represent an amalgamation of creative ideas. It does not hurt that the two artists have become great friends as well, and there can be no doubt that the world has benefited greatly from this camaraderie.