Monday, September 30, 2013


Apparently on vacation in California a few days too long, I began dreaming about my kitty at home. But here we are now, back to our routine of morning hugs.

Together (September 29, 2013)
(Illustration Friday: September 20, 2013)

Monday, September 23, 2013

Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp Film #36--Sweeney Todd (2007)

[What is Johnny Kitties? See Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp for all the details.]

I've worked with Johnny so many times, and I think this is definitely one of my favorite characters because we've always talked about old horror movies, and the idea of being able to create something like that and see Johnny play a monster in a way is fantastic! 
Tim Burton on Sweeney Todd

Sweeney Todd is angry.
After 15 years of imprisonment on a false charge, Barber Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) returns to London a changed man. Now called Sweeney Todd, he finds his old barber shop and prepares revenge against Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) for disrupting his unassuming life, throwing him in jail, and stealing his wife and child for himself. With razors in hand, Sweeney Todd aims to murder the judge and anyone who gets in his way. When Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) realizes that she's got a serial killer living in the barber shop above her meat pie bistro, she deduces a plan that solves both of their problems, disposing the bodies and perking up her failing business. Together, they refurbish and reopen both shops to plenty of eager customers. Don't ask what's in the pies.

Who is Sweeney Todd?
The origin of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street dates back to the 1600s. A combination of stories about crazy barbers over the years added to his legend. The character is first most prominently featured in a London serial magazine in 1846. Films followed in the 1930s, and Stephen Sondheim's musical is based on a play version from the 1960s. When it hit Broadway in 1979, it won eight Tonys, including one for Best Musical, and two Grammys.

Angela Lansbury (Mrs. Lovett) and Len Cariou (Sweeney Todd)
I had no idea who Sweeney Todd was, but I had heard of Stephen Sondheim's musical starring Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett. (She won a Tony too.) When Johnny signed on for Tim Burton's film version, I assumed it would be a drama with no singing because Johnny doesn't do that. Because I love Angela Lansbury, I rented a DVD of that Sweeney Todd to get an idea of what Johnny signed up for. My reaction was unexpected: He's going to play that guy, that huge, scary, Frankenstein-looking guy with the booming voice and horrible haircut? Wait, what is Mrs. Lovett putting in the pies? This thing involved a lot of throat-slitting and cannibalism, and the audience was laughing about it. I didn't get it.

Get ready for a shock!
Leading up to the movie's release, I saw a photo of Johnny on the set. He had a glaring white streak in his hair. I didn't get that either. (Johnny later explained the obvious: Sweeney's been through a shock.) Still, I was excited to see this thing. I was thrilled to hear that Helena Bonham Carter and Alan Rickman were his costars, and I was intrigued that Sascha Baron Cohen also snagged a key role. With Tim Burton in charge, I had no idea what to expect from all these intriguing choices!

I tried to avoid seeing anything else about the movie because I like to be surprised by the finished product. But, inevitably, I eventually caught a preview on TV. You must have heard when it happened because it was as if a Beatle showed up in my apartment: Johnny was singing!!!

"He's got the best job," Tim Burton says about Johnny in this role. "He just stares and broods and doesn't have much dialogue. I wish I could have that job! But he did have to sing, so that sort of balanced the whole thing out." I think only Tim Burton could get Johnny to do that.

Apparently, Johnny kept everyone in suspense about his hidden talent. "We're here at the studio, sets were being constructed, wardrobe was being made, other actors and commitments were being made," Producer Richard Zanuck remembers. "Literally, we were spending millions of dollars on the picture, and not one person on earth had heard Johnny sing--and he's the star of the picture!" Producer Walter Parks concurs, "I think, at the end of the day, Stephen Sondheim didn't hear him sing before he decided that he would accept the fact that Johnny was going to do it. You just look at Johnny's body of work and you realize that this is a man that holds himself to the highest possible standard, and we all knew that if he said he could do it, he could do it."

Bruce Witkin, on the left,  has the best pompadour.
I don't think Johnny ever said he could do it, but he said he would try. "I wasn't sure if I'd be able to sing any of it! I certainly wasn't convinced I'd be able to sustain," he says. "That, in many cases, was the booger: holding a note for 12 beats, not easy! There were several instances when I thought, 'I'm just gonna hit the deck. I ran out of air 5 minutes ago.' It's beautiful stuff to sing. I can only imagine that it must be really nice if you're a singer!"

For help, Johnny called on his childhood friend Bruce Witkin. Johnny first moved to Los Angeles in the early 1980s with dreams of snagging a record contract with his band The Kids, and Bruce Witkin was the lead singer. Still working in music now, Bruce Witkin helped Johnny learn and record all the songs for Sweeney Todd. "We started knocking them down, one by one," Johnny recalls. "We started with 'My Friends.' That was the first song I ever sang in my life. I don't even sing in the shower. It was pretty weird. Yeah, scary!" (It's awesome!!!!!!!!!)    

Bring on the music! 
Tim Burton, Johnny, and Bruce Witkin, working on Sweeney
Todd: It's a tough call who has the best hair in this room.
Producer Richard Zanuck remembers the moment when everyone's fears were put to rest. "One day, I was in my office on the phone. Tim burst in and lays down a little cassette player and his headphones--I didn't know what he was doing--and he walked out. So, I got off the phone, put them on, and listened to Johnny sing for the first time. And, I just put it down and went into Tim's office, and we just stared at each other with great relief. And, we had the biggest smiles at each other because we knew we had a great voice with Johnny!"

Unlike his other roles, Johnny found Sweeney Todd in the music. "The character actually came out of the singing, out of the words, Sondheim's words, his melodies, the emotion that the arrangements kind of evoke. I heard him before I saw him." Johnny didn't take any singing lessons to prepare for this role either. He didn't imagine Sweeney Todd was the kind of guy who would bother to take lessons. In Sweeney's case, singing was purely an emotional release.

It seems that Tim Burton was the only one who wasn't really concerned about his star's abilities. "I remember when I first heard Johnny. I thought, 'That's amazing! He sounds like some kind of rock star!' Just by the nature of him doing it brings something different to it. I'd say that about all the actors because they're not singers. They all bring a certain modern quality to it, which is in the piece, but it just pushes it that much further."

It's true! Aside from the actress who plays the beggar woman in the movie (Laura Michelle Kelly), singing was new to all of the actors, and they were terrified. "One of the more challenging moments in one's life is when you've got the music in your hand, and you're in a huge rehearsal room, and Stephen Sondheim walks across the room and says, 'Okay, let's hear it.'" Alan Rickman says.

Unlike Johnny, Helena Bonham Carter, who has always wanted to be in a musical (and to be Mrs. Lovett specifically), tackled her role with weeks of singing lessons. "If you're going to sing, and you're going to do your first musical, it's really stupid to be Mrs. Lovett," she says. If you watch, Mrs. Lovett has to go that extra mile: Some of her songs are fast and require multitasking, whether it's baking or interacting with other people in the scenes. Before filming began, she had to imagine what her musical scenes would be like, including what she thought the other actors involved might do. Then, she recorded the songs to fit the anticipated actions accordingly. As usual, she's amazing!

Excited about seeing this wonderful cast, all I was worried about was the blood. Surprisingly, the studios weren't so concerned: "It was an amazing thing," Tim Burton describes proposing this project to the powers that be. "You go, 'We're going to make an R-rated musical with lots of blood, with no professional singers, about a serial killer and cannibalism,' and they go, 'Great!' I've never had that happen in my life before. That gave me hope that there are still people in Hollywood that are willing to try different things."

It's splattered!
Sweeney Todd was released on Christmas Day. I knew that when I went home to Ohio for the holidays and Dad referred to it as "that slasher movie," no one in my family was interested in being dragged out in the middle of winter to see Sweeney Todd with me. So, I planned to see it as soon as I got back to D.C.

This delay turned out to be a blessing because, as a consolation prize, I allowed myself to watch all the Sweeney Todd specials on MTV, HBO, Starz and wherever else. I learned all the behind-the-scenes secrets about making the perfect mixture of "blood," the variety of razor blades, throat-slitting techniques, and stunts. I started to compare the gore to Monty Python's skit spoofing the violence in Sam Peckinpah movies. Somehow, that was comforting and made me feel more prepared for sitting in a dark theater to watch it on the big screen.

Eventually, my sister decided to see Sweeney Todd and asked me how bloody it was before she went. "It's not too bloody," I said. Post viewing, she called back, yelling, "Not too bloody?!" She claims that my vision was burred by my heart-shaped rose-colored Johnny Glasses. (Do those exist?!)

The truth is that my blood and gore tolerance preparation went out the window when I got to the theater, so I averted my eyes from all the blood the first time I saw Sweeney Todd. Instead of witnessing any of the murders straight on, I only saw red out of the corner of my eye as I focused on other things in the scene. What's going on outside that window behind him? What's that picture on the wall? I'm into details, after all.

There is a lot of blood.

But I'm in love!
Despite the gore, I love (love, love, love) this movie! At first glance, it's not my kind of movie at all but, in it's own weird way, it is my favorite kind: a modern musical that looks like a Gothic old movie. Apparently, that's what Tim Burton was going for: Drawing on his love of classic horror films, which he and Johnny both watched as kids, he looked to Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, and Lon Chaney, for inspiration. These great silent horror film stars were so expressive with internal emotion in their movies. He created that same look and feel for Sweeney Todd with the makeup's pale skin and dark, sunken eyes paired with the grayness of the beautiful Gothic sets.

The look of this movie is somehow just as I imagined it. Sweeney Todd is  dramatic, tragic, funny, and scary all at the same time. Despite the dark subject matter, by all accounts, the set was a happy one. All of the actors reflect that in their fantastic performances. And, the film's magnificent score ties everything together. "This is Tim Burton's giant salute to classic horror films," Johnny says. "It's a beautiful marriage from two completely different worlds." It's a masterpiece!!!

Rest assured, Sweeney Todd is not all blood and guts or any kind of slasher film. This is a good story! "The violence is secondary to the motive," Stephen Sondheim explains. "It's a story about revenge, and it's about how revenge eats itself up. In that sense, it's a tragedy. It's the classic tradition of somebody who goes out for revenge and ends up destroying himself." Doesn't that sound great?

For those of you who don't like musicals, you might be okay with this one because it's not a faithful adaptation. The movie is filmed at a faster pace than the stage version, and many songs were cut to keep the story's intensity. "This is not a movie of the stage show; this is a movie based on the stage show," Stephen Sondheim clarifies. "That's the most exciting thing about this." (I don't know about that. Did I mention that Johnny sings in this?) This story is reinvented from Tim Burton's head. "Tim has taken it and adapted it to his vision, his version of Sweeney Todd," Johnny says. "It's a whole other animal."

Is the third time a charm? 
Johnny with Vanessa Paradis at the 2008 Academy Awards
Sweeney Todd was nominated for three Oscars, for costume design, art direction, and Johnny's spectacular performance! Alas, Daniel Day Lewis was nominated that year too, and whenever Daniel Day Lewis is nominated for anything, he wins it. I love Daniel Day Lewis just as much as the next person, but he already had an Oscar by then. Give somebody else a chance! Johnny played a psychotic depressed serial killer singing Sondheim with a cockney accent. I can't imagine anything being much harder than that! I blame the blood for deterring voters.

With his eighth nomination, Johnny did win his first Golden Globe for this performance! But, to my extreme disappointment, that was the year the writer's strike happened and the live televised Golden Globes event was cancelled.  In addition to winning an Oscar for art direction and a Golden Globe for Best Picture, Sweeney Todd was nominated for and won a bunch of other well-deserved awards around the world. The film earned honors for Tim Burton, the actors (notably Johnny, Helena Bonham Carter, and newcomer Ed Sanders, who is excellent as Toby), and the crew (for art direction, production design, and costume design). I didn't call it a masterpiece for nothing!

Gordon can sing too!
Drawing something for Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd was intimidating--not because of the blood but because I love nearly everything about it! Whatever lofty plans I had to capture the whole look and feel of this movie, Gordon was ready since he helped celebrate Sweeney Todd the first time around. After I first saw the movie, Gordon dressed up as Sweeney and tested out his lungs--putting all The Kitties in stitches!

Stitch (January 11, 2008)
Stitches (Illustration Friday: January 11, 2008) 

Watching the movie again recently, I noticed how reflections and mirrors are used as Johnny sings "My Friends." In that spirit, I made the panels look like broken mirrors. The first row highlights a few key moments in the film since I couldn't decide on a favorite. They are:
  • Sweeney singing "My Friends" about his treasured razors (with Mrs. Lovett/Mini checking out her competition).
  • An iconic moment in which Sweeney finally feels at home. 
  • And, Sweeney's determined look out his barber shop window at London and it's unsuspecting citizens--a climactic moment at the end of the scene. 
Following those is an excerpt from Sweeney's "Epiphany," which kind of says it all.

Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp Film #36--Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) [June 9, 2013]

This story does not have a happy ending. (But it's awesome!!!!!!!!!!!!)

Where else did Johnny show up that year?
Johnny participated in three documentaries in 2007, all of which I recommend! They are listed below.

What's next?
Johnny trades in his razors for guns and goes gangsta in Public Enemies.

Image credits: Sweeney Todd film and film-related images © Dreamworks and Warner Brothers Pictures, Sweeney Todd on Broadway © unknown (1979); The Kids band image © Suzanne Allison; 2008 Academy Awards red carpet image © Getty images; illustrations © Melissa Connolly

Tuesday, September 03, 2013


Lily greets me at the door nearly every single day whenever I get home from anything. She's done this since her arrival in November 2009. When I opened the door a few weeks ago, though, my apartment building's recent renovations gave her quite a shock! While Lily is definitely a creature of habit, the building managers can rest assured that she has adapted to the hallway's fresh new look. To mark her approval, she gave the new carpet a good kneading. Phew!

Fresh (August 19, 2013)
(Illustration Friday: August 9, 2013)

In other news, I need a vacation and am off to California to start one tomorrow! I'll be back September 16, and Johnny Kitties will resume as soon as I get over my jet lag. Until then, keep lonely Lily in your thoughts and have a happy first half of September!