Disney's D23 website has a very indepth interview with Tim Burton, talking about Alice in Wonderland. The director discusses working on the technology-heavy film, working with various actors, the appeal of the strange characters and world created by Lewis Carroll, and much more. Here's the entire interview:
What appeals to you about this story?
In any fairy tale land there is good and bad. What I liked about Underland is that everything is slightly off, even the good people. That, to me, is something different. It's so much a part of the culture. So whether you've read the story or not, you'll know certain images or have certain ideas about it. It's such a popular story. The reason we did something with it is that it's captured the imagination of people for a very long time.
Why do you think Alice in Wonderland is still popular, more than 140 years after its publication?
It somehow taps a subconscious thing. That's why all those great stories stay around because they tap into the things that people probably aren't even aware of on a conscious level. There's definitely something about those images. That's why there have been so many versions of it. As a movie, it's always been about a passive little girl wandering around a series of adventures with weird characters. There's never any kind of gravity to it. The attempt with this was to take the idea of those stories and shape them into something that's not literal from the book but keeps the spirit of it.
How old were you when you first read the books?
I was in school, maybe like 8 or 10 years old. I have a weird connection with the books. The house where I live in London was owned by Arthur Rackham [famous English book illustrator who created the iconic color plates for the 1907 edition of Alice's Adventures In Wonderland]. I live and work out of the studio where he did some amazing versions of Alice in Wonderland. So I felt there was a connection to the material and me. And that always helps, somehow.
When you were first approached to direct, what was your reaction?
They gave me a script and they said 3D. And even before I read it, I thought, that's intriguing, and what I liked about Linda's script was she made it a story, gave it a shape for a movie that's not necessarily the book. So all those elements seemed exciting to me. What I liked about this take on the story is Alice is at an age where you're between a kid and an adult, when you're crossing over as a person. A lot of young people with old souls aren't so popular in their own culture and their own time. Alice is somebody who doesn't quite fit into that Victorian structure and society. She's more internal.
Why did you decide to make this particular version of the story?
Well, there are so many stories. It's not like it's a new story. If you read the books, there are all of these weird little adventures. So I think the goal of Linda Woolverton, the writer, was just to have the story and use the characters. Look, there are so many things — there is always going to be a character that is somebody's favorite. Someone will miss the Lobster, or whatever. You have the Red Queen and the White Queen, the March Hare and the White Rabbit — there were iconic ones that we knew we had to have in there. But then, we thought, let's just let the story play and see.
Which characters in Alice appealed to you more?
I like them all. And that's the thing with these. I think this material suffered in the past because all of the characters are just weird. Okay, Hatter's weird. Cat's weird. Rabbit's weird. We tried to give each one their own particular quirks, so that they each have their own character.
Growing up, did you have a favorite children's book?
I was a Dr. Seuss fan. It was easy to read. I liked his drawings. But, the reason I wanted to do Alice is that it was a really interesting challenge. I didn't feel personally, like I might on another project, like, oh, there is one great version out there, so to try and do another one, might be a problem. But with Alice, there are some interesting ones, but I don't know if any are completely successful.
What was your approach to the film?
I was much more fascinated by the iconic images — I think people are always surprised when they go back and read the stories, because they don't have that Lord of the Rings sweeping narrative. They're absurdist, surreal. But those characters are in our dreams, our tales. Those things that stay in your brain. Why do all these musicians write songs about it? Illustrators are recalling it all the time. You see it in other imagery. It was key to try to make that world. The things that I felt were unique to Alice, they're unique because they're so different. Like the bizarre size changes? And where you have some animals that talk, some don't. It seems quite random in what Carroll did. But, at the same time, it's not. There's something very deep. Things that seem random maybe aren't? The goal is just to try and capture that.
What do you like about this version of the story?
What I like about this is that it's more of a personal journey. These are the things that are actually the most important in life. That moment where you make that important choice. Maybe it happens to everybody. Maybe it doesn't. Maybe it does a couple of different times in your life, where you learn something, you grow. You know, it's like you've got two sides of yourself in conflict. Emotionally conflicted. And then, when you make that personal growth, it's quite an amazing thing. Quite a strong thing. It's reconciling within yourself who you are, becoming the person you're going to be, a human being. It sounds light, but it's important.
Why couldn't you do a re-telling of the books?
The thing that fascinated me about Alice is that its iconic images have been absorbed by our culture. I probably knew more about Alice from listening to bands and songs — so much of the story's imagery comes into play. So, that's the thing that was always strong about Alice. It was never the plot points of the story, because they were absurdist tales — they didn't really have a certain narrative dynamic. I think that's why those other versions, to me, were always lacking, because there was this little girl observing things and saying, oh, that's weird. There was one weird character after another, without much of a context to it. So, we tried to ground each of the Alice in Wonderland characters. We tried to give them it a bit more depth, and to give her a story. There's such a mystique about Alice in Wonderland. I just felt that it would be more appropriate if we tried to be true to the spirit of what those characters were, and then, just give it all a bit more of a foundation.
Why did you make Alice 19?
That age just seems to me to be a crossroads. There, I think you're entering a culture where you're pressured into society, or getting married, or some other thing. And she just seems to me to be at that point where you're at an emotional crossroads. I just felt like Alice is an interesting character, because she's at that age, and she's got both a young person's and an old person's soul. There's a dynamic — at odds feeling both the young and the old, and then reconciling those two things. It just seemed like the classic structure of fantasy — go back to The Wizard of Oz. Or any of a number of fairy or folk tales — these adventures are always to work out the character's emotional problems. That's why I've always been intrigued by the poetry and the purpose of such stories — myths and things. They mean something. And, so, her adventures are her coming to terms with who she is and gaining her personal strength. Those are the journeys that are made in these stories, but they're quite private, too. It seemed like the right age to explore that dynamic of somebody, at a moment of change.
What is Johnny Depp's approach to playing such a vivid character as The Mad Hatter?
It is an iconic character and it's been portrayed in animation, in live-action. I think Johnny tried to find grounding with the character, something you can feel, as opposed to him just being 'mad.' With a lot of versions, it's just a one-note character, and his goal was to bring out a human side to the strangeness of the character. I've worked with him for many years, and he always tries to do something like that, and this time was no exception.
Do you consider Johnny Depp as a muse?
Nah, he's just a piece of meat [LAUGHS]. All these actors were great, because they weren't dealing with a lot of stuff — sets, props, other actors. So, a lot of it had to be inside of each person's mind. You can't really work with method actors too much on a movie like this. You need people to go out on a limb and just go for it, without a lot of material. So, yeah, Johnny's good at that. And I was lucky with these other actors, that they kind of went for it, too. And, you know, for me, too, I think it was really hard, because I'd never really done a movie like this. And it's quite eye-opening. It's a whole different process. I would think for an actor, it's really challenging.
How close do you work with Johnny in creating his characters?
Well, I'll do a little sketch, he'll do a little sketch. We'll talk. It always is different. With him, we use references, but they're never specific references. Because he never wants to feel like he's doing just one thing. So, we use a lot of abstract references. But I'm always excited to see what's gonna come out it.
Do you let him go as far as he can and then reel him back in?
Yeah, but he's pretty good. You never wanna go so far that you're missing some emotional beats. So, we've tried to make the Hatter mad, of course, but also give him a certain emotional quality under the surface. Johnny's pretty good about trying to find the reality of something unreal.
Can you talk about why you chose Mia Wasikowska for Alice?
She has both a young quality and an old quality. Very grounded — some people are just all over the place. But some people, they have that old soul quality. And that's what we felt was important for this Alice. But, at the same time, to be young — there are people with old souls who are also naïve at the same time. There's a certain slight passiveness to Alice that's always in the material. So we wanted to give her more of a quiet strength, which Mia has herself — just as a person. I just liked her quality. I always like it when I sense people have that old-soul quality to them. Because you're witnessing this whole thing through her eyes, it needed somebody who can subtly portray that.
How did Mia, as a relatively new actress, handle the role?
Well, she's great. This'll probably be the most abstract movie that she will ever do, let's hope. Like I said, it was new for me. In dealing with all the green screen and obstacles she had to deal with, she took it all in stride. She always was trying to remember the character and just go back to that place within herself. That was helpful, because it could be a nightmarish process. It goes against all of your instincts, I would imagine, as an actor — you have nothing to work with. The guy standing there with a green stick is not really that inspiring, you know.
You go way back with Crispin Glover [who plays the Knave of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland], right?
I first met him in the early '80s. He's a very unique individual. He's a real Renaissance man. There are not many people who do movies and then do their own films and do their own art and live their own lives in the way that he does. But he's great. He's got such a pleasant visual presence.
Your cast is full of British character actors, performers who can disappear into the character.
I love working with people like Matt Lucas, who do characters, because I think they're great actors. They're fun to watch. Matt did one character then slipped into another; that to me is the sign of a good actor, and it was really great to work with him. Also, it was important to me to have a real, heavy British flavor. There are lots of people I've always admired. I wanted to try and make the animated voices not overly animated, so they all felt like they were in the same world. I didn't want them to feel like live-action characters in a completely animated world, so I tried to make the live-action a bit more extreme, and then with the animation, I tried to bring it back. I was lucky enough to get really great actors who — if they had done it as humans would have been great — brought the animated characters up to the level of the live-action.
How did you get your actors into character?
Well, it's difficult when you don't have a lot of sets and you are dealing with a lot of technology. I tried to keep it as lively as possible and as fast as possible, so that they could interact with each other as much as possible. So speed and energy were important. You just try to keep moving and grooving.
How did the actors in Alice in Wonderland approach the dialogue?
The kind of actors I like to work with bring something to it — like if there was a line or something from the book that they want to be in the script. If an actor connects to something or feels passionate about something, that's always nice, and you might get something better from them — it's something meaningful that they can grasp.
Is it Underland or Wonderland? What does it look like in this film?
It is Underland and has always been Underland, but according to the film version, when Alice visited as a child, she misheard the name and called it Wonderland. Everybody's got an image of Underland. I think in people's minds, it's always a very bright, cartoony place. We thought if Alice had had this adventure as a little girl and now she's going back, perhaps it's been a little bit depressed since she's left. It's got a slightly haunted quality to it.
Are you taking a unique approach to technology with this film?
Well, [senior visual effects supervisor] Ken Ralston's done this. I haven't done this before. It's a puzzle, and the movie doesn't materialize until the end. What's been the most difficult thing is, after production ends, you usually have a movie — you see the shots and then you spend six months to a year cutting it. This doesn't work that way. It's a very Alice in Wonderland-like process. It's a little backwards.
How did you incorporate available technology into this film?
Our approach to this was a bit more organic, in the sense that Ken Ralston and I discussed what we liked and didn't like about animation, live-action and other technologies. We had that conversation. We decided on a mix — we'll have real people, but also animate characters, and then manipulate them. So, we just tried to pick and choose what we used with each situation. That's the thing about technology. There are so many ways to use it.
How did you come up with the concept for the design of this world?
We looked at a lot of great artists on this one. In some ways, it ended up being more like an animated movie, in terms of the structure and how it got done. We had lots of designers. Everybody chipped in. It's been a really organic building process.
What inspired you most in terms of the visuals?
We didn't choose just one thing — there are so many different things. We looked at pictures of trees. We'd get some good concept work that we liked and then latch onto that. The goal at the end of it all was to be true to the essence of the story and make it feel new. Make it feel like it's a different thing. But yet, there's a reason why I like the Cheshire Cat or the Caterpillar or the Mad Hatter — those characters are in people's consciousness because they're strong images. It was key to do that justice.
Why did you choose to make the film in 3D?
Well, 3D is not a fad. It's here to stay. It doesn't mean that every movie's going to be made in 3D. But at the same time, Alice in 3D, just because of the material, it seemed to fit. So, instead of it just being a given, we tried to treat it as though it was a part of Wonderland. Matching the medium with the material.
Did you shoot in 3D or was it part of the process after filming had finished?
We didn't do it with the 3D cable. With the techniques we were using — the pure animation, live-action and manipulating that — shooting it traditionally gave us more freedom to get into the depth, the layers, that we wanted in the time that we were dealing with. And also, I can't really see the difference. I'm sure that there are people who say 'it's more pure this way or that way…' But this seemed like the right approach. After seeing the conversion job that was done on The Nightmare Before Christmas, I found no reason to do it any other way. We were trying to do it faster and at the end of the day, I didn't see any difference in quality.
Does using 3D affect the story?
In the old days you'd put the glasses on and walk out of the theatre with a splitting headache. And that's no longer the case, it's a much more pleasant experience. And I'm personally not out to make a gimmick, so I believe that it enhances the film. It puts you into that world. And with the Alice material — the growing and shrinking of characters for instance — and the special spaces and places that you're in, it just helps with the experience. Obviously, these films not only have to work in 3D, but they have to look good as a movie that you'd want to see. I think the gimmick element of 3D is falling by the wayside, and it's more about an experience that puts you into the film. When Nightmare was converted to 3D, I felt it was the way it should have been. You felt the texture of the puppets more, you actually felt like you were on the set. And I think that enhances the experience. This seemed like the right kind of story to do in 3D. I always try to say, 'Is it the right medium for this?' and not just do it because it's a gimmick or it's fashionable now, and it did feel like it was the right kind of material. So seeing it come to life in 3D supports the material. It gives you that kind of 'out-there' feeling that was a very crucial element to the film.
Where do you see the future of movies going, now that you have this mixture of 3D and live-action?
I was in animation several years ago. It was pronounced dead, and then they stopped doing hand drawn. So, the good news is that there are more forms for everything, which is great. There should be 3D, drawn animation, computer animation, stop-motion. It's all valid. It's all great. And it's better now than it's ever been. I was struggling for 10 years to get a stop-motion movie made. Now, you can do it — no problem.
Are you fascinated with special effects?
I'm not a special-effects-just-for-special-effects kind of filmmaker. I try not to treat it like that. Even with all the stuff in this movie, we always tried to go back to the simplicity of it being one person's journey. It's Alice's journey. And that's it. It's a very simple thing — and that's what we always tried to keep it.