Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street



One can certainly say that director Tim Burton’s choices for films have been anything but run-of-the-mill. Even standard stories receive a creative treatment unlike that of any other director. Films like Big Fish, Corpse Bride, Ed Wood and Beetlejuice are just a few examples that have become classics in the vocabulary of students of the filmmaking arts. It’s fitting that Burton should have been tapped to bring his Gothic imagination to the beloved and acclaimed Stephen Sondheim musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.


This newest film adaptation is based on the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, but the story has its roots in London of the 18th and 19th Centuries. Although many believe there may have been a real Todd in the late 1700s who was responsible for 160 murders, most trace the legend back to a serialized real-crime magazine story in 1846 by Thomas Peckett Prest, entitled The String of Pearls. Whether truth of fiction, Sondheim’s version of the tale has been the most recent to bring this combination of horror and love story to an audience. It opened on Broadway in 1979, starring Len Cariou as  Sweeney Todd and Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett. The concept of Sondheim’s Todd is bloody and terrifying, with a score more cinematic than typical musicals. It was inspired by the work of legendary soundtrack composer and Hitchcock favorite, Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, The Birds).


Now an even wider audience gets a chance to experience the film, as Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd) and Helena Bonham Carter (Mrs. Lovett) take a turn at making these roles their own. This is, in fact, the sixth screen collaboration between Burton and Depp, the most recent since Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Depp, of course, is known for bringing his own unique talents and characterizations to every role he plays, such as the swash-buckling Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. Depp isn’t alone in Sweeney Todd, as the film combines a rather unique mix of actors known for their chameleon-like personifications, including Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan) as Pirelli, a rival barber, Helena Bonham Carter (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Fight Club) as Mrs. Lovett and Alan Rickman (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Perfume, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) as Judge Turpin, the focal point of Todd’s lust for revenge.


Repeat Performances


The collaboration of Burton and Depp are obvious to the general audience, but others exist on this project, as well, including between Burton and the film’s editor, Chris Lebenzon, A.C.E. This is their tenth film together, including such notables at Batman Returns and Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. As eclectic as Burton’s mix of films are, Lebenzon has also cut his share of action blockbusters working with producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Pearl Harbor, Crimson Tide, Top Gun) as well as directors Michael Bay (Pearl Harbor, Armageddon) and Tony Scott (Déjà Vu). Sweeney Todd is different than any of these genres because it’s a musical and that poses different challenges for any editor.


Chris Lebenzon contrasted this film’s structure with his past projects. “Sweeney Todd is really a simple story about a man seeking revenge, which is balanced by the love story of Mrs. Lovett’s affection for Todd. It’s not a musical in the style of a film like Chicago or Dreamgirls. There are no big song-and-dance numbers. In fact, throughout most of the film, only one or two characters are ever singing together in the same song. The story is told through the singing, so the lyrics become part of the film’s dialogue. As an editor, I had to concentrate on the beauty of the storytelling. It’s not the type of film that needs a lot of scene rearrangement to create the best story arc. That roadmap has already been created by the stage play. We come to learn the points of the story in a basic three act structure. Although it is a simple story, it’s told in a complicated way through the lyrics. You have to be careful as an editor to make sure these are easily understood and not get too flashy in your cutting style, so that you don’t take away from the audience’s ability to understand what’s going on.”


Working With The Music


The production style was a lot like filming and posting a music video. The actors recorded their songs ahead of time and then sang to playback tracks on set. Since the total length of the songs largely determined the length of the film, Sweeney Todd didn’t require the sort of editorial tightening that becomes a challenge for most dramatic films. Lebenzon elaborated, “I was on the project during the production at Pinewood Studios is England, working in tandem with the filming. At times, Tim would need to shorten or lengthen a song to enhance the drama of a scene, which might include adding or removing a few bars of music. Michael Higham [music producer/supervising music editor] and I would make these musical edits for the playback on set. Occasionally I’d speed up or slow down the music slightly to match the drama. We didn’t want to change the drama to match the track, but rather let the acting take precedence. Later the final version would be scored to reflect these changes. Sync was a challenge in performance, since there were lots of takes. I’d often have to slide shots to adjust for better lipsync to the track. Since I was cutting in tandem with the filming schedule, Tim would review my cuts on a Saturday and make adjustments the following week based on this stage in the film. I didn’t have to adjust a lot for overall cinematic pacing, because each song really has a pace of its own.”


If you count Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride and Nightmare Before Christmas this is Lebenzon’s fourth film with musical performances. Lebenzon pointed out some of his challenges. “My biggest concern was how to get into and out of each song. They had to transition from the natural dialogue and not just stick out as a song that had been dropped into the middle of a scene. To do this I used the best coverage to create a natural flow to the scene. Usually I’d edit the song first and then work backwards to get from the preceding dialogue of the scene into that song. I also had to build up the appropriate mood. This isn’t a big sound effects movie like a Bruckheimer film, so I worked up some temp backgrounds for Tim, as well as used score elements under dialogue lines to create the proper mood leading into and out of the songs.”


Handling The Post


Sweeney Todd was filmed in 35mm and although three studios were involved (Warner Bros., Paramount and DreamWorks), no film dailies were ever screened and the film didn’t go through any official preview audience screenings. (The director of photography, Dariusz Wolski, had done extensive tests in pre-production to establish a look.) The negative was transferred to HD-D5 and ingested into Avid systems at a standard definition resolution for cutting.


Chris and I spoke a bit on his experience in using modern nonlinear edit systems. Chris said, “I cut the film on Avid systems in London. I love Avids for what I do and have only cut on them, but I’m most comfortable with the older Meridien systems, because they feel more responsive to me than the newer [Avid Media Composer] Adrenalines. We did also had Adrenalines in our mix of cutting rooms, which were used to do an HD conform of my cut for internal screenings. Media Composer systems have the advantage of being able to track several different timecode signals. Since all the performance takes were based on a common playback track of the song, the assistants were able to load the dailies, including the timecode of the corresponding playback track for the song. This enabled me to quickly match different takes against each other at the same point in a song, using that timecode for reference.”


Some initial color grading was performed using the Avid systems to get a 12 minute clip of Sweeney Todd ready for the Venice Film Festival. Lebenzon continued, “As an editor, you never had to deal with color correction, but now people expect it. For the final theatrical release, though, the film has gone through the digital intermediate process with Stefan Sonnenfeld of Company 3 handling the final color grading of the film. Tim went for a look that’s dark and desaturated, except that certain colors are accentuated. Specifically the red of the blood and in the frill on Mrs. Lovitt’s dress.  And we kept Sacha Baron Cohen’s introduction scene brighter, in keeping with the comedic tone of the scene. Another advantage of modern systems is how they handle visual effects. On Déjà Vu we sent a lot of simpler effects, like blue screens and set extensions, to [Adobe] After Effects. One of the assistants was really a whiz at it – saving us $60,000.”


Working with Tim Burton has proved to be a good experience for Lebenzon. “I’ve probably worked more closely with Tim on this film than any others. He makes quick decisions, which was good on this film. You have to consider this a low budget production by major studios standards, given the nature of the subject matter – an R-rated musical horror film. There were no reshoots needed and since I had been cutting on the same schedule as the filming, I was only about three set-ups behind when the film wrapped. I was able to do this by starting the cut of a scene using the video assist tapes and then replace those shots when I received the transferred footage. Since Tim was very involved in the cutting room during the production, nothing was a surprise to him as we finished the cut. Tim took the usual ten weeks to get a director’s cut and then a couple of more weeks to address notes from the studios and Stephen Sondheim. In fact, Tim’s biggest concern was that Sondheim would be happy with the effort. He was thrilled.”


Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has opened to wide theatrical release just in time for the holiday film season. Audiences are bound to be enthralled by this newest telling of a tragic story of love, revenge and meat pieces in a style that only Tim Burton can bring to the screen.


Written by Oliver Peters for Videography magazine (NewBay Media, LLC)