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22 Things We Learned From Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow Commentary

By  · Published on January 19th, 2015

Paramount Pictures

Johnny Depp’s latest film, Mortdecai, looks like an absolute train wreck, and since Lionsgate has decided not to screen it for press we’ll all find out together this weekend if that initial assessment is valid. Well, some of you will find out – I’ll be skipping it because it looks like an absolute train wreck. Tim Burton also has a new film in theaters, and while it’s not quite wowing audiences it appears to be a step in the right direction after the disappointments of Dark Shadows and Alice in Wonderland.

Depp’s career is a mixed bag of fantastic, awful and average films, and examples of each can be found in his eight collaborations with Burton. Most people tend to point to Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood as their best pairings, but I’m oddly partial to their 1999 gothic comedy, Sleepy Hollow. It’s one of Burton’s rare R-rated films and fully embraces the gory sensibilities of a story about a headless horseman. The movie is also quite funny thanks in large part to a lively and game performance from Depp.

Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for Tim Burton’s Sleep Hollow.

Sleepy Hollow (1999)

Commentator: Tim Burton (director)

1. Burton says he prefers to start the film’s music as soon as possible over the opening studio/distributor logos. He doesn’t say why exactly, but we can assume it’s akin to a dog peeing on the bushes around its house.

2. He says the opening scene is the only one actually filmed near the location of Sleepy Hollow. It’s odd as the first scenes are inserts of hands, letters and such that are inside and far from place specific.

3. Cinematographer Conrad Hall shot the opening scenes including the ones above and the first murder featuring Martin Landau. Hall is uncredited and apparently shot the sequence as a favor for his friend and the film’s actual director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki. It was a reunion of sorts as Hall had shot an episode of The Outer Limits called “The Man Who Was Never Born” which starred Landau.

4. Roughly 75% of the film was shot on sound stages.

5. Bob Dawson is responsible for the film’s title credits, and like composer Danny Elfman has worked with Burton several times. He says they help give “a flavor and a tone to the feeling of the film.”

6. Burton loved the feeling that he was making a Hammer horror film. Shooting with the great Christopher Lee in England allowed him to “soak up that vibe even more.” He says Depp delivered a great ambiguity similar to the work of Peter Cushing and Vincent Price.

7. They used a series of tubes to create and shoot fog across wide distances. Burton credits it and Lubezki with making the sets appear to have far more depth than they actually did.

8. The exterior scene where Ichabod Crane (Depp) is given a horse was filmed on the Royal hunting grounds. The queen’s hunting party actually came riding through the locale while they were shooting a scene off to the side.

9. Andrew Kevin Walker’s script – which was the first thing that attracted Burton to the project – changed some elements from Washington Irving’s story, but the director was happy to see it keep Crane’s sense of squeamishness.

10. There is apparently only one cardinal bird in all of England (where the film was shot), and they weren’t allowed to use it. “They tried to pass of a dyed pigeon that they dyed red and sort of scruffed up its hair, which was ridiculous,” he says. “The hardest thing on the whole film was to get a cardinal. Hence the wonderfully fake cardinal which I love actually.”

11. Tom Stoppard did some uncredited touch-up work on the script to give it more humor.


Paramount Pictures

12. The fake forests built on the sound stages became “real forests” by the time they wrapped. “They became infested with bugs and birds,” he says. The sounds of birds in the film are often that of real, uninvited creatures that had made their homes in the trees.

13. Ray Park, best known for his turn as Darth Maul in the Star Wars prequels, is the fight/stunt double for the Headless Horseman. Burton credits Park with giving the character “a great sense of movement. The character doesn’t have a head so you don’t have much else to go on.”

14. The scene with the family being attacked by the Horseman generated some talk among the producers and studio representatives. In particular it was the sequence where the small child is stalked, captured and killed (offscreen) that led some to wonder if perhaps that section should be trimmed. “I always remember as a child I hated movies with children because they were always treated differently, given the break, and we decided to treat them like everybody else.”

15. Casper Van Dien is excellent on horseback. Depp, not so much.

16. Burton says Depp is “one of the best fainters in the business. He also wakes up good for me.”

17. The scene where Crane sees a spider crawling along the floor of his room was devised on the spot. “We always seemed to have spiders and bugs on the set although I don’t quite remember why, but every day there was a guy there with bugs so one day we just decided to use some.”

18. They built the small town for exterior shoots – only the church is still standing – and lit it in part with two giant lights held above the streets with large cranes. The local newspapers received reports of UFOs in the area on nights when the lights were used.

19. Miranda Richardson’s “Watch your head!” was ad-libbed during filming.

20. The final chase originally involved a sequence with the Horseman catching on fire, but it was “abandoned early on because we were having some production problems.”

21. Christmas Eve of 1998 was spent dragging Depp through leaves all day. Burton seems pretty okay with that.

22. Christopher Walken told Burton that this film featured his very first screen kiss. I think his second was probably in The Country Bears.

Best in Commentary

Final Thoughts

Sleepy Hollow remains a fantastically entertaining film that benefits from a sharp script, a great and varied cast and a willing embrace of the scary and gory details. Burton’s commentary occasionally lapses into silence, but for the most part he offers a fairly steady stream of comments, anecdotes and humorous asides.

Check out more commentary commentary in the Commentary Commentary archives

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.