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Transforming Todd

Screenwriter John Logan talks about the challenges of taking Sweeney Todd from stage to screen. logo
John Logan and
producer Richard F. Zanuck
(© Leah Gallo)
One of the most anticipated films of the month is Tim Burton's adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's beloved stage musical Sweeney Todd, starring Johnny Depp as the Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Helena Bonham Carter (Burton's significant other) as Mrs. Lovett, which will be released on December 21. TheaterMania recently spoke with the film's co-producer and screenwriter John Logan, a two-time Oscar nominee for his work on Gladiator and The Aviator and the author of such acclaimed plays as Never the Sinner, about this remarkable stage-to-screen transformation.

THEATERMANIA: Do you think your experience as a playwright made it easier to adapt this film?
JOHN LOGAN: Unquestionably. I've never done a movie adaptation of a stage show before so I didn't know what to expect going into it. But, I think you had to understand the language of theater and the language of movies to begin that difficult, treacherous transformation. I can't imagine anyone who wasn't respectful of theatrical traditions approaching Sweeney Todd. It certainly was hugely relevant to my work.

TM: Was there a moment when you were offered this job that you thought, "'No, I can't do it."
JL: No, I went after this job harder than any job I've done in my life. I saw the original Broadway production and it changed my life. I think one of the reasons I'm a writer today is because of that night in the Uris Theatre. So, I was working with producer Walter Parkes -- we've done Gladiator and a bunch of other movies together -- and he mentioned that they were going to do this movie. And I said to him, "You don't understand, I have to do it." I felt it would be an exciting job from a writing standpoint, but I also honestly felt it was important that someone who had respect for Stephen Sondheim's work and Hugh Wheeler's work and Hal Prince's work and Paul Gemignani's work to approach it with the proper spirit.

TM: So, did you immediately have a vision of what you wanted to do cinematically?
JL: No, if I had, it would not have taken me five years! The first thing I did was I went back to the score. Even before I met with Steve, I really studied the score in detail. And I studied Hugh Wheeler's book as well as Chris Bond's adaptation. I approached it the same way as Gladiator, as if I was researching the Ancient Roman Empire. I just really did my homework in terms of what Sweeney Todd actually is. And certain things emerged for me in that process. First and foremost, it's a very presentational show. There are a lot of chorus scenes and there's a fair amount of recitative. Both of those things I thought would be difficult to translate to the screen, because movies to me are really about close-ups. They're about characters whispering to you, not about characters singing at you or toward you. So, I knew that the major focus for me was going to be about making it a psychologically driven film. And making it about one single story, and that meant making Sweeney's story very straightforward.

Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter in Sweeney Todd
(© Leah Gallo)
TM: Yet, you also enlarged the focus in a way on Mrs. Lovett.
JL: In the second act, she tends to sort of fall away dramatically in terms of significance. She's wildly significant in the first act: she motivates things, she creates things. But as the melodrama and plot begins to accelerate, she becomes less important. In a movie, you want to keep the central emotional relationships vital all the way through, because that's all the audience is watching. So, I began to restructure the second act, focusing on her and bringing her surrogate family relationship with Toby, the boy, to the forefront. There's a line that I love near the end. As she knows she's doomed, she says to Sweeney, "Can we still be married?" That to me is the most heartbreaking line. She knows the game is up, everything has been exposed, and she is moments away from a horrible death, yet she still has this insane, yearning hope.

TM What was ultimately the single greatest challenge you faced in adapting the work?
JL: To always maintain sympathy for the protagonist. Here, you see the brutality of what Sweeney does; on stage, there's always the willing suspension of disbelief. We knew going in that these throat slittings were going to be violent and realistic. Yes, they are stylized in the way the whole movie is sort of stylized -- it exists in a stylized landscape -- but they're also very upsetting. But I think at the end your heart breaks for him. My other big challenge was that when we took away Judge Turpin's "Johanna" and when we took away the quartet of "Kiss Me" and "Ladies In Their Sensitivities," we needed a way to firmly plant him as the antagonist in the piece. So I wrote that sequence when Antony goes in to his house, and later the scene with Johanna packing to leave, and I think the movie benefits from them.

TM: Was it ultimately your decision to eliminate "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd?" from the movie?
JL: It was a combined decision on my part and Tim's. I tried so many different approaches to keep that song in. Because not only is it one of the keynote numbers; it's one of Steve's greatest achievements. But it is not sung by the major characters, and it is not emotionally motivated by their journeys through the story. So I tried ghosts singing it, I tried the people of London singing it, but it never really worked. And it was only finally right as we started filming that we made the decision to cut it, because we realized it always was going to be an artificial construct. I'm sorry we lost it, but I don't really regret it for a second.

TM: Are you happy with Johnny Depp's work?
JL: He absolutely works! Normally Sweeney is sung by bass-baritone and he's presented as a lumpen proletariat, someone with a very large physical presence. Johnny's not that. He slender, he's elegant, he's sexy, and yes, he's a tenor. What I think he brings to the role is sort of this Byronic quality; there's something so tormented and anguished and poetic about his Sweeney Todd that is wildly appropriate. But I admit I never would have thought that until I saw him on the set and saw how incredibly romantic his Sweeney was.

TM: Was it also important for you to have the younger characters, like Toby, played by truly age-appropriate actors as they are here.
Yes. So would any theater director in the world if they could, but with eight shows a week, it's very hard to get a real kid to play Toby. There was actually an honest artistic thinking behind that decision. For "Not While I'm Around" to have the most emotional wallop for the audience, we needed to have an actual boy singing that before his voice has changed -- and to see Mrs. Lovett's face as she realizes she might have to kill this child she's come to care for! He's also my homage to all those Dickensian youths that I love -- he's Pip, he's David Copperfield, he's the Artful Dodger. I think he even looks like a demented Jack Wild (who played the Dodger in the film version of Oliver), but in a really delightful way.

TM: There's already a lot of Oscar buzz for this movie. You've been nominated twice before. Do you want to win?
JL: Believe me, that does not enter my thinking. What matters is that I spent five years of my life working on something that is very important to me, and that Hollywood has finally given Steve Sondheim a movie version of one of his stage shows that is worthy of him, and that Tim Burton is getting to tell a story he has wanted to tell for 20 years -- and to see Johnny Depp get a chance to sing in that beautiful voice. That's finally what matters to me.

TM: Last question: Has this inspired you to adapt another musical?
JL: Yes, but I can't say what it is!

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