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Q&A With 'Alice In Wonderland's' Tim Burton

Stephanie Nolasco Stephanie Nolasco
May 24th, 2010 12:10pm EDT

No one is more “curioser and curioser” than goth cinematic artist Tim Burton. The 51-year director resembles many of his strangely wonderful, yet tragic characters. Born in sunny Burbank, California, Burton, who idolized monsters and grim poet Edgar Allan Poe, often hides behind a camera or oversized indigo-hued glasses. Whether surrounded by hungry paparrazzi in Los Angeles or strolling with his wife Helena Bonham Carter near their home in the UK, he’s often hunched over with wide eyes staring back. Burton, always decked in coal black garments with a crow’s nest resting on his head, never fails in getting people’s attention. However, it’s his films that have audiences doing a double take. Burton began his filmmaking career at The Walt Disney Company and since then, he has brought his legion of macabre mascots, such as Beetlejuice, Jack Skellington, the headless horseman, and the corpse bride to life. Most recently, he released his 3D hit flick Alice in Wonderland based on author Lewis Carroll’s most beloved children’s tale. Just in time for the movie’s DVD release on June 1st, Burton speaks about falling down the rabbit hole, working alongside his famous comrade, and whether 3D holds the future for Hollywood’s mad hatter. 

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What appeals to you about this story? 

Tim Burton: 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. 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 ideas about it. 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? 

Tim Burton: 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. 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. 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? 

Tim Burton: 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. I live and work out of the studio where he did some amazing versions of Alice in Wonderland. I felt there was a connection to the material and me. And that always helps, somehow.  

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When you were first approached to direct, what was your reaction? 

Tim Burton: They gave me a script and they said 3D.  And even before I read it, I thought, that’s intriguing. 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?  

Tim Burton: If you read the books, there are all of these weird little adventures. 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? 

Tim Burton: 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. We tried to give each one their own particular quirks, so that they each have their own character.

What was your approach to the film? 

Tim Burton: 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 seems quite random in what Carroll did.  But, at the same time, it’s not.  There’s something very deep.  The goal is just to try and capture that.  

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What do you like about this version of the story?

Tim Burton: 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 an important choice. It’s like you’ve got two sides of yourself in conflict. And then, when you make that personal growth, it’s quite an amazing thing. It’s reconciling within yourself who you are, becoming the person you’re going to be, a human being. 

Why couldn’t you do a re-telling of the books? 

Tim Burton: I probably knew more about Alice from listening to bands and songs-so much of the story’s imagery comes into play. It was never the plot points of the story, because they were absurdist tales-they didn't’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. 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? 

Tim Burton: 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. 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. And, so, her adventures are her coming to terms with who she is and gaining her personal strength. 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? 

Tim Burton: 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. I’ve worked with him for many years, and he always tries to do something like that, and this time was no exception.  

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Do you consider Johnny Depp as a muse?

Tim Burton: 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, or other actors.  A lot of it had to be inside of each person’s mind. You need people to go out on a limb and just go for it, without a lot of material. Johnny’s good at that. I was also lucky with these other actors, that they kind of went for it, too. It’s a whole different process.  I would think for an actor, it’s really challenging.  

Can you talk about why you chose Mia Wasikowska for Alice? 

Tim Burton: She has both a young and old quality.  Some people are just all over the place, but others have that old soul quality.  And that’s what we felt was important for this Alice.  But, at the same time, there are people with old souls who are also naïve. We wanted to give her more of a quiet strength, which Mia has herself. 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? 

Tim Burton: 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 was always 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. 

Why did you choose to make the film in 3D? 

Tim Burton: Well, 3D is not a fad.  It’s here to stay.  It doesn't’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.   

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Does using 3D affect the story?

Tim Burton: 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.  When The Nightmare Before Christmas 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. I always try to say, ‘Is it the right medium for this?’ and not just do it because it’s fashionable now.  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? 

Tim Burton: I was in animation several years ago.  It was pronounced dead, and then they stopped doing hand drawn.  The good news is that there are more forms for everything, which is great.  There should be 3D, drawn animation, computer animation, and 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.

Walt Disney Pictures

Photo Credits: Albert L. Ortega / PR Photos, Solarpix / PR Photos, David Gabber / Photorazzi, Disney Enterprises, Inc