“The work of a fan: John Logan, Sweeney scriptwriter” by Terri Roberts
News & Notes
Sunday in New York
Sondheim 101: Sunday in the Park with George
Speaking of Sondheim: Daniel Evans and Maria Friedman
Other Features and Interviews
The work of a fan: John Logan, Sweeney screenwriter
LuPone and Patinkin in Philadelphia
A meaty challenge: Sweeney gets a school edition
The life in his art: Arden Theatre’s Terry Nolen
Paying attention: David Mealor stages Assassins in Australia
Quiet reception: Forum gets an unusual staging
Children will listen: Billy Porter on Being Alive
Biography of a Song: “Please Hello”
Reviews and Reactions
Sweeney Todd and Judy Kaye
Sweeney tour review excerpts
Passion in Chicago
A Little Night Music at South Coast Rep
Into the Woods at Seattle’s 5th Street
Assassins at Cal Rep
Assassins at Arden in Philadelphia
West Side Story tours Europe
Into the Woods in Adelaide
Book Review: That Voodoo that You Do So Well
Recording Reviews: New takes on West Side Story
“Composition,” with a theme of order and light, inspired by Sunday in the Park with George
Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S., Canada
“The work of a fan: John Logan, Sweeney scriptwriter”
by Terri Roberts
Perhaps you recently heard this holiday tune: “You better watch out/You better not cry/You better scream loud/I’m telling you why: Sweeney Todd is coming to town!” Every self-respecting Sondheim fan knows exactly what that means. Gifts and parties and decorations be damned — the most anticipated day in December 2007 wasn’t Christmas or New Year’s Eve or the start of Kwanza or Hanukkah. It was December 21, the Winter Solstice. And especially also the long-awaited release of the film adaptation of Sweeney Todd.
By the time you read this, the long journey to bring the tale of the cutthroat barber and his vengeful quest for justice to the masses of movie lovers will have reached its bloody end. At November press time there was still editing to be done and other post-production points to wrap up. More publicity and marketing work lay ahead — particularly if the film is to achieve the masterwork status of its cherished Broadway original. But the lion’s share of the work is done.
The Sondheim Review has been fortunate to have had fairly regular insider accountings over the past few years of the making of the film through ongoing interviews with screenwriter John Logan. In October, not long after the Sweeney trailer hit the Internet and the marketing and publicity machines were revving up, he had another conversation.
“I have never been more proud of a movie I have been involved with,” Logan said of Sweeney during a phone interview. And considering his credits — The Aviator, Gladiator (his screenplays for both received Oscar nominations) and The Last Samurai — he had much to be proud of before Sweeney came along.
“It’s thrilling!” Logan continued. “And it’s also frightening, because we’re at that part of the process where we have to start thinking about introducing this movie to an audience. It’s a difficult story, and very challenging from a marketing perspective in terms of how exactly you tell people what Sweeney Todd is. The vast majority of people have never heard of Stephen Sondheim or Sweeney Todd. Part of the challenge for us now is how we let people know what this unique creature is.”
At press time there had been some rough-cut screenings for marketing purposes, to help determine target audiences and their probable responses to the film.
“That’s the sort of thinking that marketers have to do, and it makes sense,” Logan conceded. “They have to do demographic studies and that sort of an analysis. But to me, artistically, it’s not really all that relevant. Sweeney Todd has always been a great work of melodrama. It has always been a popular work — from the original penny-dreadful, Grand Guignol, melodrama versions, all the way through Chris Bond’s version, all the way through the Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler musical. It has always been intended to have a wide audience because the issues that it deals with — issues of revenge and love and passion — are very popular pulp issues. So what I would hope, simply as a fan of the show, is that it has the widest possible audience it can.”
One of the marketing issues, of course, is how to sell a musical about cannibalism, murder and revenge during the season of peace and love and goodwill toward men. Add to that the fact that most of the primary roles were filled with performers like Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham-Carter, Alan Rickman and Sacha Baron Cohen who have topnotch acting skills but are not trained, polished singers. Early trailers did not emphasize the musical element, which became a source of concern for many fans. (If you’ve not seen the trailer, go to www.sweeneytoddmovie.com and click on “view the trailer.”) But according to Logan, ads set to run closer to the film’s opening “really play up what’s really important to me, which is (a) that it’s a musical, and (b) it’s wildly romantic. I think the danger is that you market it like a slasher movie, which it is not.”
Which brings us, of course, to the blood. There’s been a lot of talk about the immense amount of red stuff in the film and the up-close-and-personal detail in which we see it. There were also rumors that director Tim Burton had been forced to cut away some of the film’s most graphic images to obtain an “R” rating. Burton has denied this, and Logan was just as quick to set the record straight.
“There’s no doubt (about the level of blood and gore),” he acknowledged. “But in the very first meeting we had with the studio, Tim and I both said, very strongly, ‘Just make no mistake; this is going to be an R movie.’ They have absolutely supported that, and we are absolutely not shying away from the blood. No one has suggested any trims or cuts to affect the rating. People have responded artistically to things they liked or didn’t like, but nothing to do with the rating.
“I remember seeing the original Broadway production many times,” Logan added, “and in 1979 I had never seen that amount of blood on the stage before. Tim and I talked about images of the blood arcing across the stage at the first throat slitting being so provocative and shocking. So I’d like to think that, in the movie, we are continuing that fine trend and paying homage to the people who came before — the creators. It is a hard R [rating]. This is a story about a man who, as part of his life experience, kills people, so we don’t shy away from what that means. Anything else would be dishonest.”
Talking about seeing the stage production of Sweeney for the first time, Burton said,
“I’m not a big musical fan, but I loved it. I didn’t know anything about Stephen Sondheim. The poster just looked kind of cool, kind of interesting. It’s like an old horror movie, but the music is such an interesting juxtaposition, being very beautiful while the imagery is kind of old horror movie. And it was interesting to see something bloody onstage, too. I went to see it twice because I liked it so much.”
Indeed, the vision both Logan and Burton shared for the cinematic Sweeney was to shape it in the style of the classic horror films they both grew up on — albeit with a magnificent score attached. And some of the familiar horror elements were already there: a dark and shadowy milieu; sharp instruments pressed against vulnerable skin; buckets of blood; a young girl in distress; evil men with evil plans; a deep, haunting secret; a wronged man whose torment leads him to become a monster, and — rather importantly — audience identification with him.
Logan explained, “If you look at Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster, he is a terrifying figure. But he is also a heartbreaking figure because he is so badly treated. And you completely understand where his pain and heartbreak are coming from. And I think that’s completely true of Sweeney Todd onstage and in the movie.
“It’s not an easy undertaking. In the hands of another actor or another filmmaker, you might have a superficial version of this story. But Tim approached it from Day One with utmost seriousness and respect for the emotions of the characters. I think all of us wanted very much to try to create the characters with respect, with empathy, and see them as real human beings in a real human world. I mean, clearly the world that Dante Ferretti [production design] and Colleen Atwood [costumes] and Dariusz Wolski [cinematography] have created is a very unique, stylized world, but within that, the human emotions are completely real.”
Logan went on to say, “I think even more so in the movie [than the stage production], the audience will feel a sense of complicity with what Sweeney is doing because it is in close-up. It is so emotional and so honest, and it is two inches away from you. You see the heartbreak and the pain so clearly, and the heartbreak and pain are so palpable on Johnny’s face that you’re moved by it.”
Recently Logan and Stephen Sondheim viewed a complete rough cut of the film. Logan said they were elated with the result. “It was one of the great mornings of my life, when we watched it together in London. We saw a very early print; as soon as Tim had a rough print, Steve and I went over and sat down with him and watched it. It was thrilling to behold. Steve’s delighted. He’s a man of the cinema as much as a man of the theatre, and his notes were very intelligent, very responsive to movie making.”
Describing Burton in a filmed interview, Sondheim said, “He’s a perfect fit. In many ways it’s his simplest film, his most direct film, but you can see that he’s telling a story he really likes. It’s a story that has enough incident in it so he doesn’t have to invent extracurricular stuff. He has enthusiasm for the piece and he just goes — forgive me — straight for the jugular.”
Burton commented about Sondheim, “He’s a formidable character. He’s very intelligent, very passionate. He’s a genius at what he does, but the thing that I have really respected and felt very grateful for is him letting it go. It’s not a stage thing. It’s a movie. Go for it. I felt very supported by that.”
Despite assurances in TSR’s pages and other media stories, some fans might remain apprehensive about changes made to the score and story of a beloved show to accommodate a different medium for storytelling. Logan completely understands the concern and sympathizes, but he hopes fans will view the film as its own creation.
“You just have to judge it on its own merits,” he said. “And you can love it or hate it. But love it or hate it as what it is, not as you imagine Sweeney Todd the stage play is.”
He was quick to add, “The reality of the situation is that we had to make cuts for time. There was no way, realistically, to film the entire stage play, nor did we want to just do a movie recording of the stage show. We wanted it to be a work of cinema, and that’s a different art form with different demands . But certainly nothing was done lightly. Everything that was cut was debated, was discussed, was analyzed. No one went in with a meat cleaver. It was all done with a scalpel. But there’s a lot that’s not there. We took it seriously, and Steve was involved at every step of the process. Nothing was done without his support, understanding and blessing.”
Sondheim added, “Stage time and movie time are different. You accept on the stage somebody sitting and singing for three minutes about one subject, but in film you get the idea very quickly, and you suddenly have two-and-a-half minutes too much. The problem is, how do you keep the integrity of the score and yet cut things? But John maintained much of the score and still kept the cinematic value of the songs going.”
The big test, of course, is happening in movie theatres across North America. The film version of Sweeney Todd is out there for the world to see. What will audiences think? Will the fans be happy?
“I certainly hope so!” laughed Logan. “I think they’ll recognize that we took it seriously and that we all deeply respect the underlying material and the stage show. I think that’s patently obvious. I think our affection and passion for the material is in every frame of the movie. I can only hope that they will like it as much as this Sondheim fan likes it.”
TERRI ROBERTS is TSR’s West Coast correspondent. This is her third extended interview with John Logan published in the magazine.