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No matter where Edward Scissorhands falls in your all-time ranking of the best Johnny Depp-Tim Burton collaborations (and we're betting it's near the top of your list), the bittersweetly heartbreaking, romantic dramedy was undeniably the start of something beautiful.
The quirky holiday gem (it was in theaters at the same time as Home Alone, lest we forget) marked the first meeting of those two singular minds, Depp being up until then just the dreamy star of 21 Jump Street and the delightfully tacky John Waters-directed teen romp Cry-Baby. And, of course, the dead-via-bed Nightmare on Elm Street cutie.
Burton, meanwhile, was already the cult-favorite director of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, and he had just earned his major-blockbuster cred with Batman in 1989. So you'd think it would have been no problem when he tried to move forward with his admittedly not-for-everybody idea about a vulnerable Franken-teen with scissors for hands.
But that apparently was not the case.
"I was like, 'OK, I'm just going to make a low-budget movie,'" Burton recalled to MTV News in 2009. "I found it very difficult, because people thought I just made big movies and that's all I do. I had to really walk away from a lot of things because I'd been penalized for making some sort of big movie. It is a weird trap."
He couldn't even get the movie made at Batman studio Warner Bros., instead having to take the project, which sprang from a drawing he made as a young man (his myriad macabre drawings were on display in a very telling Burton-retrospective exhibit at the L.A. County Museum of Art a few years ago), to 20th Century Fox.
The fractured fairy tale, which surely did more for topiary landscaping than any other movie of the 1990s, went on to gross $56.3 million worldwide and remains a modern-day classic, in perennial repeats on cable and newly released in a 25th anniversary Blu-ray edition.
Burton would later tell Conan O'Brien that he knew he had truly made it when a porn version of the movie—"Edward Penis Hands"—was made.
"I thought there was going to be five penises [on each hand], but there was only one," the filmmaker shrugged.
Aside from inspiring some niche adult entertainment, Edward Scissorhands also cemented Depp's reputation early on for being a risk taker, as well as a serious actor who was almost anxious to mask or otherwise alter his good looks on screen, as he would do in almost every Burton movie thereafter (not that Sweeney Todd wasn't still strangely sexy) and in so many of his meatiest roles over the past two decades.
"That's one of the reasons I responded to him when I first met him on Edward Scissorhands," Burton told Games Radar in 2006. "He was looked upon then as a handsome leading man, yet I don't think he felt that way. That's why he wanted to do Edward Scissorhands: he understood that thing of being perceived as one thing and being something else."
Talking about what drew him to the role during an appearance, alongside Burton, on The Arsenio Hall Show in 1990 before the film came out, the chisel-cheeked Depp said, "I think it's a pretty universal thing. It's the feeling of not being able to fit in, the feeling of wanting to touch something but not being able to because you'll hurt it, everything will crumble if you touch it. Early-teens kind of a feeling."
"I was looking for somebody who got the idea of that sadness of being misperceived," Burton recalled in 1999 during a special airing of Edward Scissorhands that tied in with the promotion of Sleepy Hollow, his third movie starring Depp.
"I can remember reading the script and—it's embarrassing—weeping," Depp said during the special. "I cried, it was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever read in my life."
"He's got those kind of eyes that can say things without speaking," Burton said of his leading man. "People saw him [at the time] as this sort of teen idol, and he's really not that way."
Meanwhile, Depp was "absolutely convinced that Tim would never give me the gig."
But he did, and the rest is cinematic history that has resulted in not just one of both artists' most memorable movies of all time, but in a friendship and creative visionary-muse relationship that has endured for a remarkable 25 years and counting.
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They've now made eight films together, and Depp is reprising his role as The Mad Hatter in Alice Through the Looking Glass, being produced by Burton though James Bobin is doing the directing honors on the Alice in Wonderland sequel. (Minus Batman Returns, Burton has never been one for sequels.)
Certainly their work ethics mesh, but it also seems that these two just have a blast working together. Plus, a certain trust builds over time, particularly when the going gets weird—or musical.
"I'd never sung before in my life, so of course I had doubts," Depp told E! News at the premiere of Sweeney Todd in 2007. "The main thing is initially I just wanted to make sure I wasn't going to embarrass Tim, I wasn't going to embarrass Stephen Sondheim, I wasn't going to embarrass my family."
Asked if he had any trepidation about casting Depp in a singing role, Burton said on Today while promoting the film, "When I asked him and he said he thought he could do it— I know him well enough now, if he said he couldn't do it, if he said no, then... But if he said yes, I had a good feeling he could do it."
Depp went ahead and won a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Comedy or Musical, for it too—but it's anyone's guess as to whether he's ever seen the finished product.
"I'd like to see Tim's work, but unfortunately I'm in it," he said on Today, noting that he's seen "a couple" of Burton's films in the past but as a rule he famously doesn't like to watch himself.
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And Depp continued to be game for whatever Burton had in mind, telling MTV in 2010 that, when he got the call about being in Alice in Wonderland, he jumped right down the rabbit hole sight unseen.
"To be honest, when he called I didn't know what character he wanted me to be," the actor recalled. "For all I knew, I could have been Alice—which would have been fine also." He added, "I was just prepared to do whatever he wanted, whatever character it was. Each time out of the gate with Tim, you just try something a little different. You try something and try to keep him interested. You want to try to stimulate the atmosphere."
Another reason they get along so well—Burton has understood Depp's desire to separate his craft from that face of his since day one.
"There was a young man everyone thought was quite handsome / so he tied up his face and held it for ransom," Burton wrote in a 1991 poem titled "Johnny Depp" that was published in Roddy McDowell's 1992 book Double Exposure, Take Three: A Gallery of the Celebrated With Commentary From the Equally Celebrated.
"He doesn't like looking at himself, which makes it easy for me," Burton smilingly told us at the Sweeney Todd premiere. "No, he's just always fun, always a different character, and this time he really outdid himself I think."
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They don't just make movies with each other, obviously, their most recent director-actor collaboration having been 2012's Dark Shadows—a big-screen adaptation of a TV show that both had an affinity for—which got some of the lesser reviews in the Depp-Burton canon.
Since then, Burton saw his long-gestating Frankenweenie hit theaters and he directed Big Eyes, which scored Amy Adams a Golden Globe for acting in a musical or comedy. Depp, meanwhile, shot his fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie and was part of the early Oscar-buzz conversation for his portrayal of real-life mobster Whitey Bulger in Black Mass.
But surely these two are just biding their time until inspiration strikes yet again and the right character comes along for Depp.
"I never really analyze that too much," Burton told Entertainment Weekly this fall when asked about why he and Depp work so well together, on set and as friends. "I think there's a connection with people, and it's not an intellectual decision. We have shared similar tastes in things, in movies and certain weird, lower suburbia upbringings. I don't know, exactly, but I think that there's kind of a connection in many different ways."
He does know, however, that their next film together won't be an Edward Scissorhands sequel.
"Trilogies, and sequels, and octogoni. I get it," he said. "But for me, they're usually just singular things."
They certainly are.