LOS ANGELES -- In the middle of filming the musical "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," Johnny Depp suggested to director Tim Burton that they make a vampire movie.
Once the pair decided to move forward with the idea, which vampire Depp would play was an easy choice. All the actor had to do was think how, as a child, he was frightened by the vampire Barnabas Collins from the daytime drama "Dark Shadows." As luck would have it, Burton was also a fan of the '60s supernatural soap opera.
That's how the big-screen adaptation of "Dark Shadows" became the eighth collaboration between Depp and Burton, dating back to "Edward Scissorhands" in 1990.
"Its a strange thing because as a child, I certainly had this fascination with monsters and vampires. This darkness, this mystery, this intrigue. As you get older, you sort of recognize the erotic nature of the vampire. The idea of the undead," Depp says.
The biggest challenge was determining how to take a '60s daytime soap opera and turn it into a 21st Century feature film.
"It's a tricky tone," Burton says. "Part of the appeal of 'Dark Shadows' was all of the weird elements that went into it. There were certain elements of why we love this show that we couldn't necessarily adopt to a film. The weirdest challenge was to get the acting tone, the soap opera nature of the time. It's a weird thing to go for in a big Hollywood film."
While Burton worried about tone and how melodramatic the actors should be, Depp worked on how to play Barnabas.
He decided to make Barnabas an eloquent, well-schooled and aristocratic character who just happened to be a vampire. The fun would come from how this vampire tried to fit into an odd new world and dysfunctional family.
The actor wanted his Barnabas to be a stranger in a strange land, reacting to everything from technology to Troll dolls. Depp called on his own memories of the '70s, including lime green leisure suits, macrame owls and Earth Shoes. He says it was a time full of "just weird things that didn't make sense then and still don't."
And then there was the look. Depp's passion for playing outlandish characters meant he wasn't going to follow the current trend of film vampires who look very human.
"I wanted to have a vampire that looks like a vampire. It was kind of a rebellion against vampires that sort of look like underwear models," Depp says.
His Barnabas is pasty-face, has elongated digits and walks like he has a stick up his back. A lot of his inspiration -- including using a cane -- came from the way Barnabas was played by Jonathan Frid in the TV series.
Depp tried to come up with variations on the character. The more he struggled to get away from the way Frid played the role, the more he knew that the only proper way was Frid's way.
Gleaning so much from Frid initially worried Depp. But Frid sent him a letter and an autographed photo to pass the torch.
The pair got to meet on the set. Frid and several other "Dark Shadows" actors make cameo appearances. (Frid never got to see the scene because he died just weeks before the movie's opening.)
There was one part of playing a vampire that was quite difficult for Depp.
"When I had the fangs in," Depp says, "I had to be a little careful not to pierce the jugular."
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org
or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.