When Johnny Met Tim: Burton, Depp, and the Limits of the Muse
Every artist has their muse, but sometimes that relationship grows toxic and strains - with Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, that moment appears long passed.
March 31, 2019

What does it mean to be someone’s muse? Often it’s tied into romance and obsession, and a person who’s dug themselves so deep into our brain that every word we write and every drop of paint we spill is for them and about them. Sometimes it’s just a perfect synergy, a person who brings out the best in us creatively, that audience of one we want to please by any means necessary. Sometimes it ends up something more complicated, a creative ouroboros in which the longer we cling to a muse, the more our work begins to suffer. In order to get that juice back, we have to cut them loose, even if it breaks our hearts a little to do so.

For a time, one of the most fruitful artist-muse pairings in modern pop culture was Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. Uncomplicated by any romantic attachment, they just seemed to “get” each other, in a way that no one else who’s worked with either of them has. Burton has had other muses, particularly ex-girlfriend Lisa Marie, but that felt mostly obligatory and the parts he wrote for her required her to do little besides stand around and look ethereal and spooky.

With Depp, there was a sense of collaboration, of working together to develop his characters, even early in Depp’s career when he wouldn’t normally have had so much say in what they would look or sound like. Depp wasn’t the puppet hanging on Burton’s strings, they were equals, partners, drawn together by their somewhat misguided notion that, despite their success, they were both still considered Hollywood “outsiders.”

And then Johnny Depp became a superstar, appearing in a movie that made just slightly less money than Burton’s last three films before that combined. Perhaps resenting the fact that the second phase of his career pivoted on starring in a movie based on a theme park ride, Depp began emulating one of his acting heroes, Marlon Brando, by openly expressing disdain for his profession, and suggesting that the only way he could cope with wealth and success beyond his wildest dreams was by drinking copious amounts of red wine and eventually playing in a band called Hollywood Vampires. He continued to work with Burton in what would ultimately be their most profitable collaborations, but the dynamic had changed.

Pre-Pirates of the Caribbean, Burton and Depp’s movies were small and personal, almost intimate. Even the relatively high budget Sleepy Hollow, the first time the pair worked together on a project that wasn’t based on an original idea, at least reflected that they were committed to maintaining the spirit and mood of the source material, even with some additional bells and whistles. After Pirates, the movies they worked on together were nothing but bells and whistles, squeezed dry of every drop of soul and personality.

Exacerbating matters was the fact that they no longer felt like collaborations – Depp just walking onto set on the first day of shooting and announcing the insane things he planned to do with his characters, without hashing it out with Burton first. Whether Burton let him run with it because he believed in Depp’s vision or because the studio told him to because Depp was now worth more money than God is unknown. Whatever the case, Burton was now interested in making a product, and Depp was more interested in…well, whatever it was he was trying to do.

In 2004’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, despite Burton’s claims that it was going to be a more faithful adaptation of the novel than 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, focusing less on Wonka and more on the titular Charlie, the third act was devoted entirely to Wonka reconnecting with his estranged father, a subplot created entirely out of whole cloth, seemingly existing mostly to give Depp more screen time. Meanwhile, Depp went out of his way to design a look for himself that was so aggressively off-putting it was almost as if he didn’t realize he was starring in a children’s movie.

Whatever the case, Burton was now interested in making a product, and Depp was more interested in…well, whatever it was he was trying to do.

2007’s Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street was a bit more restrained, possibly because Depp, like Russell Crowe in Les Miserables a few years later, was outclassed by his co-stars and didn’t try to take the whole thing over as his own. It was the closest they would ever get to the heart and humanity of their earlier collaborations, which they summarily did away with three years later in Alice in Wonderland. Even more baffling decisions were made here than in shooting Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, starting with, again, putting Depp front and center, even though he’s playing a supporting character.

In an ugly, drab movie in which the Knave of Hearts comes off like a serial killer and Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee are portrayed as a pair of amorphous egg-men, no one is providing as much fuel for nightmares as Depp playing the Mad Hatter. A combination of Gene Wilder and Marilyn Manson, he stares at Mia Wasikowska as though he’s considering eating her, and his lovelorn insistence that she’ll forget about him once she returns to the “real world” is more menacing than heartwarming. In spite of all that, the movie was a smash, and Depp reprised the role for 2016’s Alice Through the Looking Glass, even though the Mad Hatter doesn’t appear in that book at all.

Burton had the good sense to only produce that, but he and Depp would work together one more time before then, in 2012’s Dark Shadows, a movie so lazy in its execution that it could have been filmed in the course of a weekend. Since then, they’ve remained curiously outside each other’s orbits. Depp has spent much of his time continuing to star in mediocre blockbusters that allow him to wear funny wigs and speak in bizarre accents, while Burton’s focused most of his attention on a 2016 adaptation of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and Dumbo, opening this week.

The interesting thing is that Miss Peregrine and Dumbo both have roles in which Depp could have easily slid right in and done the thing Burton more than anyone else knew he did best, which was to be weird in a way that was both effective and wholly unnecessary. The fact that he wasn’t cast feels significant and deliberate, as does the fact that there’s no indication that the two close friends are going to work together again any time soon – in fact, Burton is reportedly returning to what made him a beloved filmmaker in the first place, with a long-planned sequel to Beetlejuice.

Mind you, this is purely speculation on my part. There’s no actual proof that Burton and Depp parted ways permanently as collaborators, and certainly not as friends, though after a typical boilerplate “this is not the person I know, etc.” statement Burton has remained curiously silent on Depp’s various scandals over the past few years.

Perhaps Burton is just hanging back until Depp gets this decade long mid-life crisis out of his system. Or maybe their relationship was beginning to go the way of most artist-muse relationships, becoming, at best, counterproductive, and, at worst, toxic and destructive. Or perhaps, like with everyone we love who reminds us of both the best and worst aspects of ourselves, they just needed a break from each other.