"Let's get one thing straight," Johnny Depp lip-syncs to a toy before a gaggle of handlers. "I'm not."
Settle down, TMZ. Depp isn't making proclamations about his proclivities. He's just in a playful mood, a tendency when Tim Burton is near.
Depp and Burton — together again for the big-screen version of the TV soap Dark Shadows, which opens Friday — are volleying one-liners with sound-machine toys that Burton sneaked into his jacket. Now they're using them like kids on walkie-talkies.
Except these gadgets — two That's So Gay! sound machines — do the chattering for them. Sassy chattering.
"Save the drama for your mama," Depp fires at Burton.
"It's not homophobia, sugar," Burton auto-retorts. "Everyone hates you."
Even when it's time to talk shop, Burton keeps the toy. "What's it like to work with Johnny Depp?" he begins the interview by asking the gadget.
"You're a hot mess and I love it."
Burton sets the device aside, though he and Depp are still laughing — and game for an experimental interview.
"Let's all get fired!" Burton suggests. "Wouldn't that be great? You'd get great quotes. We could do the whole interview this way."
If any pair would, it's Burton and Depp, who boast Hollywood's healthiest professional marriage. Shadows, a twisted take on ABC's 1966-1971 horror soap opera, marks their eighth film together. Their 22-year relationship, which has included no sequels, marks one of Hollywood's longest-running director-actor pairings.
Their eight movies together "has to be a record," says film historian Leonard Maltin. "You've had some well-known people: John Wayne and John Ford, Scorsese and De Niro, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg had a few together. But I don't know of anything that comes close to Tim and Johnny's number."
Shadows fits neatly into the Burton-Depp canon. Depp reprises the role of Barnabas Collins, a vampire awakened after a two-century nap to discover 1972 is a world away from his days of horses, torches and wooden stakes.
Depp, who has played Willy Wonka, Ichabod Crane and the Mad Hatter for Burton, sees Collins as a continuation of a theme from which the two have yet to stray: celebrating the rebel.
"We relate to characters who are a little off," Depp says. "People who don't feel like they fit in anywhere. I think that's why we work well together."
The jump from TV
Well, he assumes they do. Johnny Depp has never seen a Tim Burton movie featuring Johnny Depp.
Depp's reasoning catches even Burton off-guard.
"I don't want to run around and look at a shot through a monitor, even," Depp says. "That doesn't improve what I'm trying to do. I figure, once I've done my job, it's none of my business."
Burton starts back, laughs, then has another bonding moment.
"To tell you the truth, I haven't either," Burton says. "I certainly see it in editing, so it's not the same. But I don't think I've ever seen one of our movies in a theater or on video."
That means more than two decades of avoiding:
•Edward Scissorhands (1990). Burton gave Depp his big film break as the title character, a leather-clad outcast with scissors for hands and a knack for hairstyling.
•Ed Wood (1994). The real-life filmmaker received a black-and-white homage in this loopy biopic of the legendary B-movie director.
•Sleepy Hollow (1999). Depp played Ichabod Crane in the pair's first attempt at outright horror.
•Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). Depp says he imagined a stoned George W. Bush in order to play Willy Wonka.
•Corpse Bride (2005). In their first animated collaboration, Depp voiced character Victor Van Dort.
•Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007). Depp showed surprising pipes as the titular character in their first musical.
•Alice in Wonderland (2010). Depp was the Mad Hatter in this remake, which remains the pair's biggest commercial hit to date, with earnings of $334 million.
Recalling the films, both men concede surprise that the partnership became long-term. "I don't even like to have dinner with my family eight times," says Burton, 53.
Depp, too, never expected a BFF. He nearly canceled his first meeting with Burton to discuss playing Scissorhands. "I figured there was no way they were going to hire a kid from TV," Depp says. "Back then, TV was a gutter."
And Depp, 48, felt relegated to it. Though he had found stardom as the undercover high school cop in Fox's 21 Jump Street, Depp loathed the pinup popularity and wanted to make the jump to movies. "I wanted to get fired from the show," he says.
A cinephile at heart, Depp grilled acting friends about independent directors. He found Burton's 1982 stop-motion movie, Vincent, a six-minute short about a 7-year-old boy who fantasizes about being Vincent Price. Burton would cast Price in Scissorhands, the actor's last live-action film.
Depp was sold. He kept the appointment, and "15 minutes in, I knew we got each other. He'll make a joke that maybe two people in the world would get. It was usually us."
Burton, too, wanted Depp for the role — "You could tell he was putting everything he had in every role, even in the TV show" — but had to plead with 20th Century Fox executives to approve the green actor.
Now studio chiefs ask Burton if he could, you know, maybe see if Johnny would be free to do this movie, too.
If Tim asks, Johnny will make himself free. "He started the path I'm on now," Depp says to an embarrassed Burton. "I'm nothing without him. If he thinks a story is worth telling, I trust him with everything."
Getting flicks off the ground together has gotten easy, says Burton, who notes that everything changed after Depp starred in 2003's Pirates of the Caribbean and launched a franchise juggernaut for Disney. "At least on the studio end. No one wants to lose money, but neither one of us cares much about how much money (the movie) makes."
That's a line coming from most filmmakers' mouths, but neither Burton nor Depp has a reputation as a commercial peddler. Even Depp's iconic Jack Sparrow is an androgynous swashbuckler that gave Disney second thoughts. (Depp once teased an exec to relax, that all his characters are gay.)
"Johnny is unafraid to take parts that could be the end of their careers," says Richard Zanuck, who has produced half of the duo's movies, including Shadows. "Tim is the same way. They'd prefer to make a movie that doesn't remind you of any other movie."
No need for words
There aren't many like Shadows, a hybrid of comedy, horror and fish-out-of-water themes as Depp's Barnabas tries to get '70s funk music and figure out how "those little songstresses" got wedged into a TV box.
While the work may not repeat itself, friends say, their chemistry does. As neither talks much, they've developed a signal system while shooting.
If Burton thinks Depp is over the top, he'll wince a little and shake his head behind the camera. If he needs more energy from Depp, he might take a deep breath, stretch his back, make himself bigger.
"There's an absolute shorthand," Depp says. "Probably because neither of us can string a coherent sentence together."
That social discomfort made them simpatico co-workers — and spawned Shadows. Depp recalls watching the TV show as a kid growing up in Florida. Burton, too, was a devotee who watched in his apartment in Burbank, Calif.
The two were chatting on the set of Sweeney Todd when Depp mentioned how much he wanted to make a vampire film. That was all the convincing Burton needed. Depp's production company, Infinitum Nihil, bought the rights to the property and built the haunted town of Collinsport, Maine, bay and all, in an abandoned parking lot in Kent, England.
On set, observers say, the chemistry burns brightest.
"It's almost symbiotic," says co-star Bella Heathcote. "They finish each other's sentences."
There's reason for that, Depp says. "I don't think we could finish a coherent thought without help from each other."
Or an effeminate sound machine. Burton can't help but play once more before Depp returns to Hollywood's paparazzi Serengeti.
"What's it like to work with Tim Burton?" he asks the machine.
Depp lift an eyebrow, cocks his head.
"That's what I was gonna say."