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BURTON, TIM: Sleepy Hollow

He felt he was losing his own head when the tale of the headless horseman came along, Sleepy Hollow director Tim Burton tells SANDRA BORDIGONI.

Q: Is it true or is it just a rumour that you got the image of the headless horseman after another project you worked on for so long had been, so to speak, decapitated?
A: Well, some of it's true and some is exaggeration. I worked on that project for over a year and when it was cancelled I had a sort of symbolic feeling of loosing my own head because I'd put so much into it and then when it was gone it was like having your head cut off. At that point, when I got the rights to do this story, the symbolism of the headless horseman - which I had known since childhood - seemed very appropriate.

Q: More than a horror film this is a Gothic story... Why?
A: Well, I wanted it to be more like a folk tale. . . a fairy tale, because those stories were very graphic and yet there was still something of the realm of fantasy. It was inspired by the Hammer films that I used to see as a child. They were quite strong in a graphic way but still not so far over so that I couldn't watch them as a child. Plus a Gothic period film is more cathartic than a modern horror film, because it is set in another time and that has a reassuring quality. While a contemporary horror can be just scary.

Q: Have you been inspired by any of Mario Bava's films?
A: Mario Bava's Black Sunday is one of the first films that made me understand the power of cinema in the sense of images as part of the story. I've seen it many times, and the images stayed with me for years, like a dream. Some scenes went straight into my subconscious and I love his way of making movies because it's so unique. I love it when I see a film and I can tell who made it just by the images. I think that's a very powerful thing.

Q: You often mention images that you have with you since your childhood. Was your childhood scary?
A: Not really. But childhood is a period in life in which you can get very impressed by things. When you grow up your intellect is more developed and so the answer to certain images and ideas is much more intellectual and less from your guts. So the impact on your mind and soul is less strong.

Q: This is the third time you've worked with Johnny Depp. Why do you like him so much?
A: Because Johnny is an actor able to transform completely and is never the same twice. I like this in an actor. I don't like it when an artist is always the same and sort of plays himself all the time on screen. Moreover, I can talk with Johnny and discuss things. Sometimes we draw inspiration from the strangest things. For Edward Scissorhands, for instance, we found inspiration in a dog. For Ed Wood in a Ronald Reagan imitator ventriloquist. Amazing things.

Q: Is the humour of Sleepy Hollow something that was in the script from the beginning, or did you develop it along the way?
A: Well we tried to make a serious movie at the beginning, until the actors stepped into their costumes and we started to laugh and realised that was impossible. There's also a part of Ichabod (Depp's character) which is humourous in itself: the fact that he always speaks about things as if he knows all about them while he doesn't, or pretends to be brave while he isn't.

Q: For a movie made now you seem to have used a lot of sets and little special effects? Is that true? And was that hard?
A: We tried actually not to rely to much on the post production effects, that's why we built all the sets, so that the actors could feel the environment. So we tried to keep the special effects simple. Actually the scariest thing in the movie was to work with the horses, because they don't like making movies very much.

Q: And why did you cast Christina Ricci in that role?
A: She looks like a silent film actress. She's got these eyes and you never know whether she likes you or hates you. She's got this very compelling quality that you can't ask somebody to put on. It's this quality of mystery and ambiguity that I thought was perfect for the movie that made me choose her for the role.

Q: Do you have any phobias . . . what scares you most in life?
A: I don't have phobias and I am not scared by many things. Probably the scariest things for me is to meet studios executives...Making movies, although I love it, drives me quite insane because while you're on the set there are so many things that go wrong all the time and when the movie is finished you think it's a miracle that in the end everything fell into place. It's quite scary, for instance, to have a headless horseman who's afraid of horses, and on top of that to have to work with fog etc. It's like trying to control the weather. In the end though, something magic happens and everything works.

Q: There's a sentence in your film that reads more or less like this: "Infamy has many masks and the most dangerous one is that of virtue?" Is there a part of you speaking through Ichabod?
A: Yes, and it's probably got to do with growing up in a white suburb in Southern California, where there is this legend of the people being friendly and kind but if you live there you can sense that things are not at all what they appear. Actually, behind this facade of normality is not normal at all; they can treat you as an outcast if you challenge the system, the authority or the institutions and so there's this feeling of falseness around that I relate more to groups though, than to individuals.

Q: You have made a big feature of Ichabod's spectacles. They are almost a character...
A: Like the scissors in Edward Scissorhands, that were symbolic of his desire but inability to touch, Ichabod's glasses are symbolic of the fact that he is looking for the truth but can't find it. He tries hard but can't see. But also people's eyes have always been very important for me in cinema. In an actor they are the most expressive feature.

Q: What do you think of the huge success of a film like The Blair Witch Project?
A: I think that anything that is different and brakes through is good because it creates space for different types of things. The negative side is the way Hollywood treats that, like 'okay, now we only make low budget video films'. Because they're thinking if that works let's do just that. But I thought it was interesting and after all there's always been horror films and there will always be. And before the films there were horror stories, tales, legends.

Q: What will you do next?
A: I read on internet that I am attached to at least twenty different projects... but I know nothing of any of them...I will rest a bit, think, draw, and then decide.

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