Tim Burton on past ‘Alice’ films: ‘There wasn’t anything underneath them’

July 26, 2009 | 3:37 a.m.

Johnny Depp as Mad Hatter

Hero Complex contributor Gina McIntyre sat down with director Tim Burton Friday afternoon in San Diego to talk about the very busy schedule the filmmaker is keeping these days. He’s just produced the dark, PG-13 rated animated fantasy “9,” due out Sept. 9; he’s in post-production on his elaborate adaptation of the works of Lewis Carroll“Alice in Wonderland”; and he’s looking to bring vampire Barnabas Collins to the screen with a “Dark Shadows” movie starring Johnny Depp. Part two of the conversation follows… 

G.M. How challenging has it been for you on ‘Alice in Wonderland’ since you’re marrying several technologies to give the film its unique look? But also, how liberating has it been to utilize these new tools?

T.B.: I don’t feel liberated yet, no, only because it’s a very strange process and I like what I like. That’s why I like stop-motion. On a live-action, you’ve got actors, you’ve got sets and that’s what I like. This is almost the opposite of that. You’ve got a lot of pieces and not until very late in the game do you see a finished shot. I think I’ve yet to see a finished shot. It’s quite a scary, daunting process. It’s exciting but it’s the opposite of what I’m used to. You see a piece of a shot and it’s like a puzzle. You’re trying to hope and make sure it gets to the right place but you’re only seeing one piece at a time.

G.M. Did the process change how you worked with the actors?
T.B.: No. Because it’s such a long  big process, the key with that is to try to keep that as energetic as quick and moving as possible because otherwise you just get bogged down in technology. We just didn’t worry about the technology to begin with and just started to shoot so the actors could keep their energy and their focus. With these kinds of things you’re acting against an animated character or something that’s not there, so there’s a lot of that kind of stuff. 

G.M. The sets and the costumes that Disney has on display here are just beautiful. 
T.B.: We had some reality to hang onto there a little bit. It helps, believe me. This is the first time I’ve dealt with a lot of green screen and it drives you nuts. After a while you start to get kind of jittery and crazy. It’s a weird phenomenon. I’d never really experienced it to this degree. The thing is, you can’t really deal with Method actors in that scenario. They’re in trouble. That was part of the thing, you’re going to be working in a void and you’re going to be dealing with people who aren’t there and you try to suss that out before you work with somebody. You can kind of tell when you meet somebody if they’re going to go for it and I like those people anyway. I worked with some new people that I hadn’t worked with and they were all great.
G.M.: There’s so much ‘Alice’ material. How did you go through and select what to include in the film.
T.B.: Linda [Woolverton] the screenwriter, that was the thing I thought she did well and it was a hard thing to do. As books, [the story], it’s very episodic, this story, that story. She ended up kind of using a lot of the vibe of the Jabberwocky poem, the weird language, that figures into it. You can’t have every character but we tried to keep the few iconic ones, the Hatter, of course, and the Cheshire Cat and the


White Rabbit and the March Hare and Red Queen, White Queen, that fit within the story that Linda wrote. Obviously there are a lot of characters that aren’t in it. It was more important to take that material and try to make it a movie. Every other version I’ve ever seen I’ve never really connected to because it’s always just a series of weird events. She’s passively wandering through, [meeting] this weird character, that weird character. It’s fine in the books, but the movies always felt like there wasn’t anything underneath them. That’s what we tried to do. Instead of the Hatter just being weird, is get some kind of underneath him, some kind of character underneath him. That’s the goal is to give the Alice material a little more weight to it. 

G.M.: That notion of making her less passive is very interesting. Was that something that you talked about with actress Mia Wasikowska?

T.B.: What I liked about her is she’s not a big demonstrative actor. She’s got that old soul quality, somebody you can see has an internal life and intelligence and a gravity to her and kind of a slightly disturbed quality, which fits into the material. You’ve got to believe that she’s got an internal life. That’s what a lot of these stories are, characters kind of working out their issues or problems. You like to find somebody and they don’t have to say anything or do anything, but you look at them and you know there’s something going on, they have some kind of gravity. 

G.M.: Was that a difficult quality to find in a young actress?

T.B.: I met lots of good actresses but [Mia] just had something different about her that I liked. She’s very quiet. It’s not even something that you can put into words. I like those kinds of things were you can’t necessarily identify it in a verbal or specific way. It’s more of a feeling. 

G.M. How long is the post-production process, one year?

T.B.: Well, it comes out in March, so that’s when it will end. It will go all the way up to that. It’s the kind of project, most of these that use this kind of technology take probably a couple of years longer than we have. I don’t mean that as an excuse. In some ways there’s something kind of good about just having to do it, but in reality I wish there were more shots done than where we are at this moment. It’s been daunting. If you saw how much was missing, you’d be nervous, too. [laughs]

G.M.: Would you do something this technically complex again?

T.B.: Right now it’s hard for me to say. Usually you talk about a film, even at the end it’s hard, I don’t like it. But at this stage all I can think about is how much I’ve got to do. It’s hard to say. I don’t really know what the outcome’s going to be. Any film you do, you just kind of finish and you wish you could spend a little bit more time on this or that. I don’t yet know how much at the end of this I will have felt that I’ve compromised or not. It’s a hard call to know. I don’t even think I’m that much of a perfectionist, but it’s hard to let go of anything. It’s tricky. This one could be pretty rough way I don’t know.

G.M.: You’ve talked about doing “Dark Shadows” next. Is that still the plan?

T.B.: I think so, yes. That’s the plan. There was something very weird about that, it had the weirdest vibe to it. I’m sort of intrigued about that vibe. It’s early days on it, but I’m excited about it. 

G.M. We seem to be in the midst of vampire-mania, what with “Twilight” and “True Blood” and other projects. What do you make of that?

T.B.: It happens. You look at the history of film and whether it’s vampires or witches or wizards or whatever, it’s like any great fable or fairytale, it’s got a power to it. I think that’s why people keep going back to it. There’s something symbolic about it that touches people in different ways. It’s symbolic for something, I’m sure with everybody it’s slightly different but it’s still powerful. All great stories, there are about five different variations. I grew up on monster movies and it wasn’t until later that I realized it’s all the same story basically, but the monsters are great and they’re all different and it makes it feel like it’s all different. The monsters have more personality than the actors around them a lot of times.

— Gina McIntyre



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Meet the cast: Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland”

EXCLUSIVE: Tim Burton explains his darker “Alice”

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Photo: Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter; credit: Walt Disney Co.  


5 Responses to Tim Burton on past ‘Alice’ films: ‘There wasn’t anything underneath them’

  1. davidJ says:

    i got to go to comic con but just missed the johnny appearance. burton is wild. did get a chance to meet frank beddor the author of Looking Glass Wars. what a great imagination. his is another pretty intense rendition of this story. he says a film is definitely in the works with a top notch artistic crew. told me to check out his website which i did. have to say, pretty fricking sick! i'm hooked! i'm sure burton's take will be great but i'm thinkin Looking Glass Wars may top it at the box office with these people involved.
    if you're a wonderland fan check out the website. http://www.lookingglasswars.com/

  2. LaylaViolet says:

    Alice in Wonderland is great. Can't wait for film. Totally love Johnny Deep. Can't wait for Dark Shadows either. Yes, I'm a Twihard, so sue me.

  3. redfish says:

    What Burton is saying worked in the novels is what I think works in the Disney film: its like an acid trip. The story in the spirit of Lewis Carroll isn't about brooding gothic angst — its whimsy, absurdity, and nonsense. The Mad Hatter isn't supposed to have anything deeper beneath his exterior, because he's not a real person, he's a figment; like any character in a dream, he has no rhyme or purpose, he's just there, his presence is nonsensical and he acts nonsensically.
    As far as exploring darker themes is concerned, Jan Švankmajer did that brilliantly in his 1988 film. That worked because the movie was conceptual and understated. Burton, like usual, wants to create a baroque, gothic monstrosity, which looks and feels no different than any other of his films. All of the meaning and atmosphere of the original story will be drowned in his baroqueness. But it seems Burton doesn't know how to do anything else anymore, or make a film that works with anybody else other than Johnny Depp and his wife. When was the last time Burton worked on an original story either, for that matter? He seems to just want to stamp every story thats already been done well with his own style instead of creating anything new.

  4. JimF says:

    @redfish. Agreed. Also, the original included political satire, e.g. Tweedle Dee/Dum. Wonder if Burton just didn't get it.

  5. SSTea says:

    Tim Burton focused on the character Alice's development from an odd girl to her family and acquaintances to an independent and strong woman. You really can't fit every little detail of Alice in Wonderland. Plus, if you do have such outrageous characters would you just make them say meaningless things to fill up space? No, Lewis Carrol created the book for Alice Liddell it's true, but he was a logician and spent time with the reasoning behind the characters' words and actions. They aren't just nonsensical, the madness of their minds have a method to them. The point in the film and book: Nothing is what it seems, and that's what I personally love about them. Plus Tim Burton has a style that makes him unique – as do any other director with a sense of personality. Film is an expression, not a basic retelling in a "normal" fashion, there's always a preference for something and Tim's is for gothic. Plus so many others do retellings and I don't think it's a bad thing, in fact I love it. Even "originals" have a reference to some other existing work or common theme.

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