Less than a month after he finished The Ninth Gate, Johnny boarded a plane for London. Tim Burton, his old ally from Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood would be waiting for him when he got there, and having worked with Johnny twice before, he knew exactly what he would be getting – one of America’s most respected actors.
Once again, it was no surprise that Johnny agreed to link with Burton, this time for Andrew Kevin Walker’s adaptation of Washington Irving’s classic story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
With its original unwieldy title changed to the snappier Sleepy Hollow, the movie would, according to Entertainment Weekly, be a huge departure from the original tale. In many ways, it picks up where the classic left off, and there would be far more focus on blood and guts. A sort of direct homage to the Hammer horror films of the late fifties and early sixties.
Although Hammer was a small British film production company that had turned out routine B-movies for almost twenty years since the 1930s, it was not until the late fifties, in 1958, when The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula had ushered in a whole new era of the horror movie with a style and panache that made Hammer Films world famous. With more than seventy horror, science fiction, prehistoric adventure and thriller films over the next two decades, Hammer firmly established themselves as the master of all the above genres.
With that in mind, and huge fans of anything Hammer, it is probably true to say that the most exciting cast member for both Burton and Johnny was Christopher Lee, the British actor who to this day is one of cinema’s favourite villains, especially from his early Hammer horror days and his most famous role as Count Dracula. With his more recent outing as Saruman in Lord of The Rings, he has both terrified and delighted cinema audiences in a career spanning fifty-six years and three hundred screen credits. But it was Sleepy Hollow that brought him back to the fore, out of retirement, and according to the Guardian, was now the coolest actor on the planet.
In his 2003 autobiography, Lee recalls that Burton wanted him to appear for five minutes at the beginning of the film. And that was enough, it seemed, ‘to prefigure a roll of luck’ that has lasted him to the present day. In the opening scene in the town hall, Lee’s message as Burgomaster to Constable Crane, was to proceed to a faraway town, called Sleepy Hollow in the mountains where several people have had their heads lopped off, ‘clean as dandelions’, and bend his scientific intellect to resolving the mystery.
‘The story is comic gothic’ says Lee. ‘And Johnny, who became a lasting friend, made an excellent job of dealing with the weird phenomenon of the headless horseman who erupted from a tree and hunted terrified members of the Dutch community. The legend was spun around the idea of the restless corpse of a Hessian soldier left over from the Revolutionary War. Hessians apparently filed their teeth to points, as shown in the head when discovered, and this in my view, was as alarming as the absence of a head. ’
Even if the film was Burton’s personal tribute to Hammer, the setting, according to one observer, still embodied the Burton trademark. That unexpected strangeness that is strangely expected from a Burton movie. ‘Imagine the old scary forest you used to hang out in as a kid. Imagine digging this whole forest up – trees, hills and all – and planting it in the middle of a studio. Well, that’s sort of what it was like. But better. You see whilst I was convinced that it was real, there was something unreal about it.
‘You know the opening of Beetlejuice – the way there is something unsettling about the landscape? Well, that’s just what they got here. The trees were devoid of leaves, and were painted to look quite ghostly. The backdrops were all quite impressionistic, and mainly monochrome. The more you looked at this forest, the more unsettling it became.’
Certainly that was the opinion of the clutch of actors recruited for the other parts. Johnny had already agreed to appear as Ichabod Crane long before the rest of the cast was assembled. Christopher Walken played the grisly galloping apparition with his own head tucked out of sight. Michael Gambon and Miranda Richardson played Baltus Van Tassel and the Old Crone respectively.
Although not credited for his performance as a frightened coach passenger being chased by the headless horseman was Martin Landau, the distinguished American actor who had, of course, played Bela Lugosi, regarded by many a film buff as the only true King of the Count Dracula’s, in Burton’s Ed Wood – and quickly becoming a veteran of Burton movies (and Johnny’s).
Michael Gough, another Hammer regular, just a few years older than Christopher Lee also came out of retirement for another cameo. The decision to cast Christina Ricci, Johnny’s co-star from Fear and Loathing, as the leading lady, Katrina Van Tassel, was equally instinctive. She remembers her first meeting with Johnny on the set of Mermaids very well, mainly because he was with Winona at the time.
‘I was nine years old and didn’t know what “gay” was, and when I asked Winona, she said, “I can’t tell you, ask Johnny”. Johnny explained how there were different theories about why people were gay, what it was to be gay, and – this is what I couldn’t figure out – how gay people have sex. He was amazing like that. Eight years later, I’m going into rehearsal on Fear and Loathing and he remembered me, our discussions, and my mother, Sarah. He said to her, “Hi, Sarah, how are you?” and asked about my brothers. He was really sweet, kind and gentle.’
Even as he worked on the Tim Burton movie, and awaited the release of his 1998 cameo as himself in the French art house movie LA Without A Map, Johnny was being tentatively linked opposite his old flame Winona Ryder in Michaelangelo Antonioni’s latest film Just To Be Together. Johnny’s publicist, however, had not even heard of it. Nor had Winona’s…