FilmShaft's Martyn Conterio has an exclusive interview with legendary producer Richard D. Zanuck. Zanuck, who has produced all of Tim Burton's live-action features since 2001, talked about Alice in Wonderland, the upcoming adaptation of Dark Shadows, and more. Here's the entire interview:
MC: How did you get involved with this project?
RZ: I’ve produced the last five Tim Burton movies and so I’m part of that team. When Disney approached Tim about doing this, that was about three years ago, I came on board. I’m a very hands-on producer…I’m there every day and I’ve been on this from the very beginning.
Did you know Alice in Wonderland well before you took on the film?
I can’t pinpoint when I first read the books or may have even been read to me as a young person or maybe as a student. I can’t remember exactly when, but when we decided to make the movie I went back and read them and I was amazed that most of the characters were very familiar to me. It was like they’d been implanted in my subconscious because I felt I knew all these characters and know the setting and all of that…it all came back to life. And that’s an example of why this book has endured throughout one hundred and thirty-five years because we’re all familiar with it. It’s permeated culture.
The production wasn’t a typical Hollywood endeavour – it was all green-screen. Had you experienced anything like that before?
No, nor had Tim. We started the picture with live action down in Plymouth. We shot ten days there for the beginning and end of the picture…you know, before she goes down the rabbit hole and after she comes out. We went back to Los Angeles, at Culver Studios, to do all of the green-screen. It was only forty days of shooting, actually, but almost two years of computer generated animation work, there’s some mo-cap work. It was very tricky technically. I think it’s the first time that all three elements: computer generated, mo-cap and live actors all worked into the same scenes. Also Alice’s size goes from six inches to seven feet tall and her regular size and so the actors playing with her had to be adjusted. Matt Lucas had to work on stilts! It was very tricky, especially when they weren’t together. The eye lines had to match up. We had all kinds of charts where everybody’s size was measured very carefully.
Did you ever think while making it, “Is this going to work?”
I always felt it would work because Tim’s a genius and nobody has that imagination. He hadn’t done anything this complicated before we had Ken Ralston who has won four Academy Awards and nominated a dozen times. He actually started and helped invent a lot of the process. I think his best work is with Alice. He was supervising even the green-screen stuff. Between he and Tim, he would imagine it, but it was Ken and about four hundred people behind him on computers putting what Tim imagined – frame by frame – onto the film. It was very labour intensive and tricky to co-ordinate all that. Tim had a good team behind him…he’s an artist…a real artist.
Tell me how you cast Mia Wasikowska as Alice?
Alice was a part that everybody wanted to play, regardless of their age. We had stars who were totally wrong…everybody thought they should play Alice. So we had a whole slue of volunteers. Tim and myself, from the very beginning, wanted to go with a fresh face. We didn’t want a Hollywood starlet or somebody that would we’d seen before. We went on a massive campaign with the casting people in Australia, casting was done in this country and in the United States. Throughout the world really…and kept narrowing and narrowing it down and finally brought twenty people to the UK. We tested them and got that down to eight. Mia was one of them. She came over three times in total. We did a full scale, studio screen test with our crew and the wardrobe people…make-up…a complete test and Mia came out on top.
Have you any more plans to work with Burton since you’re on a roll?
Yes, I’m going to be doing Dark Shadows with Johnny (Depp) and Tim later towards the end of the year. He’s got to do another Pirates movie. But we’re shooting over here (London) even though the movie is set in Portland, Maine. We’ve got the stages at Pinewood lined up.
Obviously you’re a legendary film producer…
That sounds like age…(laughs)
You’ve made classic after classic, do you find films easier to make now than back then?
It depends on what kind of film you’re talking about. My wife and I made Driving Miss Daisy and that was a very difficult movie to get financed. An old Jewish lady and a black chauffeur…nobody was interested in that subject. We spent more time on bended knee…over a year of begging people. If you have a picture like Alice in Wonderland which is a famous title, add Tim Burton, Johnny Depp, 3D, Disney – which is a big selling point…it’s a slam dunk! You don’t have to beg people to do that kind of film. It all depends on what story you’re doing to tell. The bigger, wide canvas ones are easier than the small ones. But they’re much, much more expensive to make…but that’s how it is.
Out of all your films, do you have a personal favourite?
I probably do…but you’d have to kill me to get it out of me (laughs). I hate to use the phrase, “they’re all my children” because it’s so over-used, but it’s true. Each one is an experience and a very unique experience and different. The box office can be different too…so maybe my favourite one is considered a failure. I made Steven Spielberg’s first two pictures – Sugarland Express and Jaws. I must say Sugerland Express and that whole experience of working with Steven on his first film is one I’d have to rank very highly in terms of gratification.
Richard Zanuck, thank you.