Dark Shadows – Behind The Scenes with Irish Oscar winner Colleen Atwood

The clothes maketh the man and, in the case of Johnny Depp, Colleen Atwood is the woman who maketh those clothes. Paul Byrne talks to the Irish-American Oscar-winner.

There are, of course, many women – and quite a few men – who would pay good money to measure Johnny Depp’s inside leg.

For Colleen Atwood, what would be a fantasy come true for many people is just another day at the office, this Irish-American, Oscar-winning costume designer having been there and done that. Many, many times.

Having worked with John Christopher Depp II first on 1990’s Edward Scissorhands – and having just helped him achieve that tricky 1970s vampire look in Tim Burton’s passion project Dark Shadows (out this month) – Atwood no doubt has a grasp on what it is exactly that goes through the mind of everyone’s favourite eccentric uncle when he’s preparing for a role.
“Well, I don’t know if anyone fully understands what’s going through Johnny’s head, at any point,” smiles Atwood. “I think that’s why people love him so much. Johnny’s got such a wild imagination, and a mischievous sense of humour – he’s very childlike. I think that’s the key really – his childlike wonder about the world. He never stops searching, asking questions, and just being amazed. And silly.”
Whether audiences are going to be amazed by the latest quirky offering from the dynamic Burton and Depp duo remains to be seen, but, chances are, Dark Shadows is going to do rather well at the box-office.

Having rejected teen idol status back in the late 1980s by walking out on the hit TV show 21 Jump Street (and making peace with that walk-out in Jonah Hill’s recent big-screen update), Depp today is the closest thing Hollywood has to a sure bet. Especially when he teams up with his old partner-in-gothic-crime, Tim Burton.
It’s a winning box-office combination that can take something overkooked & undernourished like 2010’s Alice In Wonderland and turn it into a $1,024,299,904 hit. Currently, Alice is no.10 in the all-time biggest-grossing movies in the world. Shame on you all.
Still, that isn’t quite as over-achieving as last year’s Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which is sitting pretty at no.8. Double-shame.
Or, indeed, Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006), which is at no.6.
It’s enough to make Officer Tom Hanson’s head spin.
“I think it certainly makes Johnny’s head spin,” offers Atwood. “He hasn’t exactly chased this kind of success, so, for it to find him, after years and years of just making the movies that he wants to make, that’s pretty incredible. I think that’s what keeps him so sane – just making the movies that he wants to make. For both him and Tim, putting Dark Shadows out there is a real labour of love. They both loved the original TV series, and so, once they realized that the studios were happy to put up the money for pretty much anything they wanted to do together, they jumped at the chance to get this made.”

Having debuted on American TV on June 27th 1966, the gothic soap opera Dark Shadows didn’t really find its feet, or its audience, until the arrival one year later of vampire Barnabas Collins, a move that helped this supernatural show run for another four years. Achieving cult status – Madonna’s also a big fan – Dark Shadows has rarely been off American TV screens ever since.
The actor who many feel was the main reason Dark Shadows reached 20 million viewers in its hey day was leading man Jonathan Frid, who makes a cameo in Burton’s movie, saying hello to Johnny at a party. And goodbye to Barnabas Collins, the character he had made him famous, and who was now being channeled by the biggest movie star in the world.
It’s a moment made all the more moving by the fact that Jonathan Frid passed away in April, at the ripe old age of 87.
“It certainly adds a whole new layer to his cameo,” says Atwood. “And to the movie itself. The love that was there for Jonathan when he shot his scene with Johnny was so apparent, and I’m sure he felt that. To have this big movie star treat you like an idol, that’s got to feel pretty good…”

For Frid, that day on set must have also felt like a sort of homecoming, given that three of his former co-stars from the TV series – Lara Parker, Kathryn Leigh Scott and David Selby – were also there for their turns as party guests.
“They were like this dysfunctional family, all meeting up after years of not talking to one another,” smiles Atwood. “So, that was emotional to begin with. The nomadic life of the actor often sees people being very, very close during a shoot, and then just not seeing each other again after that. I’m just so glad Jonathan – who was very frail on the set – lived to have this special reunion. He was so excited that the movie was coming out…”
And so, you imagine, are quite a few Burton and Depp fans. Having worked with the duo on their own early cult hits Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood (1994), and mid-career high Sleepy Hollow (1999), right up through Burton missteps such as Mars Attacks! (1996) and Planet Of The Apes (2001), and perhaps the only truly great movie Burton has made in the last 13 years, 2007’s Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber Of Fleet Street, Atwood has been ringside for the incredible rise as these two cuckoos in the nest became Hollywood golden gooses. And she’s as surprised about it as they are.
“I don’t think anyone – including Tim and Johnny – can quite get their head around the fact that the movies they make, no matter how weird and wacky they might be, are behaving like blockbusters now,” she says. “Everything around the movies has just gotten bigger and bigger, but I think the key for all of us is to keep approaching them the same way we did with Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood. Staying true to that mischievous, magical spirit, and ignoring the fact that this face, or this costume, is going to be on 1,000-foot billboard all over the world.
“Once we even begin to think about that, Johnny and Tim just make everything that little bit wackier…”

Words – Paul Byrne

Dark Shadows is now showing in Irish cinemas