Tim Burton talks about Johnny Depp, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘The Dark Knight’

Oct. 15, 2008 | 9:12 p.m.



I got Tim Burton on the phone the other day while he was on the set of "Alice in Wonderland" and I had to admit right off the bat that I was surprised that, with the filming just underway, he was taking the time to chat. "Yeah, well, me too," he said in his droll deadpan, and I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or apologize and hang up. Then he let me off the hook. "Actually," he said in a sunnier voice, "we’re just about to get going so we’ll see how things go. Good, I hope."

John_tenniel_alice_in_wonderland I’m guessing things will go quite well for the 50-year-old filmmaker, who seems like the ideal auteur to bring Lewis Carroll’s surreal 1865 classic "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" to the screen for a 21st century audience.

Young Aussie Mia Wasikowska will be Burton’s Alice, while Johnny Depp is the inspired choice to play the Mad Hatter.

I told Burton that it seems as if Depp (who has other upcoming roles as an Old West hero, a pirate and a vampire) approaches his acting choices the same way a gleeful kid rummages through a trunk of dress-up clothes. The filmmaker let out a loud laugh. "It’s true. Yeah we have a big dress-up clothes trunk here. We take it with us wherever we go."

Batman_with_michael_keatonMore on a Depp and "Alice" in a moment, but first:  This Saturday night Burton will be at the Scream 2008 Awards at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, an event that in just its third year has become a signature event in sci-fi, comics, fantasy and, yes, horror, which was is its original mandate but is now just part of its genre cocktail. Burton is getting something called the Immortal Award and the Scream people boldly say that Burton has "contributed more to the genres of fantasy, sci-fi and horror than any other filmmaker of his generation," and there’s certainly an argument to made that they are completely right. "Batman," "Beetlejuice," "Edward Scissorhands," "Ed Wood," "The Nightmare Before Christmas"…the list just goes on and on. Burton’s film visuals — a sort of cemetery cabaret ethos — have put him on an short list (Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Woody Allen spring to mind) of filmmakers who have such distinctive on-screen traits that they become evocative brand names to even casual filmgoers.

Burton will be making quite the dramatic entrance on Saturday (which you can see yourself when the show airs on Spike TV on Oct. 21) but he has a reputation as a fairly shy fellow. I asked him if he was looking forward to the trophy night or dreading it.

"I haven’t been to the event but I’ve seen a bit on TV and it looks quite fun, you know, which in itself is different from most of these kind of shows. It looks like a nice big Halloween party, which is always good. It seems like all the type of people that nobody liked in school all getting together for a nice big party. A prom for the kids that didn’t go to prom."

Tim_burton_2006 I told Burton that, for the night, the venue should change its sign to read ‘The Geek Theatre’ and he laughed again. "That’s very good! I like that. I can’t use, that, I can’t take credit for that." He said he had a better way to sum up the geek and Goth crowd that will attend: "We’re all the people on the yearbook pages devoted to "the most likely to disappear before the semester ends and no one will notice…"

Burton was making "Batman" films when the cape genre was still viewed as a campy ghetto by serious Hollywood creators, so it must be interesting for him to watch the fringe entertainment move so squarely to the center of mainstream film and to finally do so with respectable reviews. "It is a different time now, yes. It’s strange to me. At the time back in school when everybody tortured you, it didn’t seem quite the same. It wasn’t fashionable then. It didn’t seem viable and vibrant and accepted at the time. But sometimes those things take a while."

With "Alice in Wonderland," the defining pop-culture version of the story for modern American audiences is the 1951 Disney animated adaptation with its little blond Alice in her blue dress with white pinafore. That film was met with acidic reviews by the literary world (especially in England) for its bland and blunted vision of the Carroll classic. Burton is not a fan of the film, either, and, as with "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," it appears his mission is to reclaim a children’s classic, resharpen its edges and remind everyone that sapping the weirdness out of a tale often renders it flat and forgettable.

Tim_burton_at_wax_museum"It’s a funny project. The story is obviously a classic with iconic images and ideas and thoughts. But with all the movie versions, well, I’ve just never seen one that really had any impact to me. It’s always just a series of weird events. Every character is strange and she’s just kind of wandering through all of the encounters as just a sort of observer. The goal is to try to make it an engaging movie where you get some of the psychology and kind of bring a freshness but also keep the classic nature of ‘Alice.’ And, you know, getting to do it in 3-D fits the material quite well. So I’m excited about making it a new version  but also have the elements that people expect when they think of the material."

I told Burton he’s right, the Disney movie is a meandering tour of a funhouse without any gripping story arc. "Yeah, I know, it’s just, ‘Oh, this character’s weird’ and ‘Oh, that character’s weird.’ I can’t really recall a version where I felt really engaged by it. So that’s the goal, just to try to give it a gravity that most film versions haven’t had."

How easy was it to persuade Depp to conjure up yet another enigmatic oddball? "He loves doing that. That’s never a problem. He doesn’t like to be the same way twice. That’s good, it always keeps it fresh and all. And he likes the material we have here and he gets it. It’s nice to have people involved that are fans of the material and all."

Is there a plan yet on "Dark Shadows," based on the vampire soap opera, also set to star Depp? "Oh I don’t know. Take one at time, you know? It’s something I’m interested in of course. Definitely. But I’m going to start shooting this one first!"

Johnny_depp_and_tim_burton_on_todd_I asked Burton if it’s more than a coincidence that over the past decade his live-action films have often revisited and reimagined existing works, be they literature ("Charlie," "Alice," "Sleepy Hollow," "Big Fish"), musicals ("Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"), movies ("Planet of the Apes") or television shows ("Dark Shadows").

"Hmm. That’s interesting. I don’t know. I think we’re all a product of our upbringing, you know, in a sense. I wasn’t a very literary person. I loved movies. What you grow up with is what influences you. Whether you were a reader and there’s a lot of books that you sort of want to translate to film or if it’s other things that took in. I was definitely of a generation where the things I grew up watching still have impact on me. There’s something about exercising that aspect of your personality or working with something that’s meant a lot to you. It’s just another way of processing ideas and all. So it’s not really a conscious decision. I don’t open up old ‘TV Guides’ and sit there and think, ‘Hmmmm, ‘Sanford & Son’, that’s the the movie I want to do. I watched that when I was a child…’ "

Nightmare_before_christmasBurton said he is ramping up his bravery for the Saturday night event with its hot spotlight and crowd. "I don’t do it very often so it’s not something I’m very used to. I’m not comfortable in big public situations, but at the same time it’s a very nice thing. It’s a very nice thing to do. But while it is nice, it’s not the thing you think about a lot. For me, it’s the people that come up to you on the streets, the people that say something to you in person, something nice and thoughtful, that’s so much more interesting than connecting with a sort of staged event. you know? The types of people you grew up with, the people that enjoy certain kinds of movies, there’s a connection with people like that. I certainly feel that. I mean, when someone comes up to me on the street and they have one of my drawings as a tattoo on their body, a real tattoo… I mean, that’s pretty amazing. That’s happened to me a few times."

Then there was a question I had to ask: What did Burton think of "The Dark Knight"? After a bit of fumbling around for words, Burton said: "I haven’t seen it yet. I’m just, you know, busy. I do want to see it. I’ve heard it’s very good. And I’m sure it is very good. Mostly everybody that I know that has seen it has said that it’s very good and I take their word for it."

I thought it would be good to change the subject. There was a recent anniversary DVD of "Beetlejuice," so I asked Burton how he frames that film in his mind when he looks back on it as both a career and creative moment.

"With that movie, I just remember that back then it was the second film I did and I felt very strange making it because everyone was thinking, ‘This movie really has no story and it doesn’t move along like a Hollywood movie.’ It just felt very funny and strange having the opportunity to make that. i just remember that feeling every day: ‘Wow, they’re letting me make this, which is really weird.’ And it continues to this day, that dynamic. It’s still weird."

Seemed like a good place to stop. I thanked Burton for his time and mentioned that I’m hoping to visit the "Alice" set soon. "That’s great, I’ll see you out here! I’ll be on the green screen. Just look for a load of green. Take care."

— Geoff Boucher

Other Hero Complex conversations with filmmakers:

Jon Favreau

Zack Snyder

Richard Donner

Frank Miller

Christopher Nolan


Johnny Depp and Tim Burton in a November 2007 photograph by Liz O. Baylen/Los Angeles Times.

Illustration by John Tenniel from "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland."

Michael Keaton as Batman from the 1989 Tim Burton film, image courtesy of Warner Bros.

Tim Burton in 2006 at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, photographed by Ricardo DeAratanha\Los Angeles Times.

Tim Burton in 2006 at the Hollwyood Wax museum, with a waxen Johnny Depp in the background, photographed by Ricardo DeAratanha\Los Angeles Times

Photo of Johnny Depp and Tim Burton on the set of "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" by Peter Mountain/Dreamworks-Warner Bros.

image from "The Nightmare Before Christmas" courtesy of Disney




52 Responses to Tim Burton talks about Johnny Depp, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘The Dark Knight’

  1. kitkat says:

    always love tim burton movie. burton and depp have so much chemistry
    Tim burton's hair really suit his personality by the way.

  2. I really like most of Burton's work but the one thing I guess I'll never understand is- that he hasn't seen the Dark Knight. If I directed the first two Batman films I know I would want to see it! That's just me!

  3. Pat Viera says:

    Nice to see Mr. Burton's humility – it seemed genuine. I enjoyed the photos mostly. One more thing, please, will someone at the LA Times proof-read material before it is posted? The proof reading on this entire site is abysmal!

  4. Holly Consol says:

    I adore Burton's movies. Makes me feel right at home, playing dress up, especially dark characters. I'm the "black sheep" in the family who hears voices, gets tingling feelings, etc. The Drama Queen. Too bad I haven't transferred that to the screen. Maybe Burton will read this and let me play dressup in his next film!

  5. paulserr says:

    Oh please – "big fish?" "Planet of the apes?" The only pictures of his which I enjoyed were "beetlejuice" for the lead performance only, "Sleepy Hollow" where burton delivered wonderfully and "edward scissorhands." everything else is all set design, and if it weren't for Johnny Depp for some reason saving his career several times tim burton would have already been a has-been. "charlie and the choclate factory?" oh, please – the 60's version was Cheerful and Happy like the book – I needed like 10 beers after seeing burton's version – and don't even get me started on "batman" worst casting in hollywood history with keaton, despite the fact ALec Baldwin, also in 'beetlejuice' would have been perfect as bruce wayne – just too 'normal' for burton – little wonder he dreads seeing TDK, the real batman movie!

  6. alex says:

    I don't know about you guys but one/two sentences out of that whole article mention TDK, it wasn't really worth having in the title which makes it kind of misleading…

  7. Matt says:

    Tim Burton is so darn hit or miss. I want to laud him because he has made some of my favorite movies. But he has managed to also make some flat out stinkers. The Disney version of "Alice" is a classic. Lets hope he doesnt "Chocolate Factory" all over it…

  8. Jonathan M says:

    Burton iis not hit or miss, he admits to some of his movies not being a success because hollywood gets involved and screws them up. He is very talented and very original. I doubt Matt has ever picked up the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Roald Dahl was a very creative person just like Burton. I wouldn't say the are similar but if anyone should be creating a Roald Dahl movie it should have been Burton. I Also believe this ALice will be the greatest one made. BURTON IS A GENIUS.

  9. Chris says:

    To be honest, I prefer Keaton's performance as Batman. I don't expect anyone else to agree with me, but I still like the two Burton Batman movies anyway!

  10. Mojo says:

    I hate to say it, but his apparent disinterest in seeing The Dark Knight, the franchise which he helped start, kinda makes me disinterested in seeing his movies, at least in theaters anyways… The interviewers follow-up should have been to have asked if he had seen Batman Begins yet!? My guess is that answer would've been no as well!

  11. Woddi says:

    Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was overall closer to the book in its events, not in its tone – due to his dark and conflicted Willy Wonka, the linchpin of the project, horribly unlike Dahl's.


  13. cinderella says:

    Os iba a contar un chiste. Pero os deseo que tengais mucha suerte con vuestra película, Alicia
    en el pais de las maravillas,seguro que si,por que Tim.B sabe muy bién dirigir a Johnny Depp y
    los dos juntos han hecho películas muy interesantes. Un besito a los dos.

  14. cinderella says:

    Os iba a contar un chiste. Pero os deseo que tengais mucha suerte con vuestra película, Alicia
    en el pais de las maravillas,seguro que si,por que Tim.B sabe muy bién dirigir a Johnny Depp y
    los dos juntos han hecho películas muy interesantes. Un besito a los dos.

  15. cinderella says:

    Un chiste un poco soso.
    ¿Que le dice un arbol a otro? ¿que pasa tronco?
    Un pasajero a un taxista:
    -Dejeme en el semáforo.
    ¡ah no¡ ¡yo le dejo en la esquina¡
    y usted se las arregla para trepar.

  16. cinderella says:

    Dime una cosita.

  17. cinderella says:

    Pienso que T.Burton y J.Depp forman un gran duo cinematográfico,los dos trabajan muy bién juntos y realizan películas muy bonitas y muy interesantes.

  18. Voyageur says:

    Tim Burton is the wrong person to direct Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Read the books again (Alice and Through the Looking Glass) and tell me if you really believe that his sensibilities suit the story.
    Reasons why Burton is wrong for the job:
    1) His increasing reliance on CGI (much like the CGI master himself, George Lucas). CGI is beyond annoying at this point and should be minimized. But I don't see Burton doing this. And from what I gather, its going to be a motion capture extravaganza. Boring.
    2) Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter. This is such an obvious choice that it too is boring. Crispin Glover would have been a more inspired choice.
    3) 3D? Why? Why does this fit the "environment" of the story? Lewis Carrol's words aren't in three-dimensions. Certainly Carroll never envisioned his story as a three dimensional projection. 3D is a gimmick and a rather annoying gimmick at that.
    4) The Tim Burton style is going to overpower this Lewis Carroll classic. It will become more about Burton's orgiastic style than the hypnotic literary reverie created by the author. He won't be able to control himself.
    A wiser choice would have been Guillermo del Toro, but alas, he's tied down on the Hobbit presently.

  19. Denise Beckman says:

    I think Tim Burton should remake March of the Wooden Soldiers with Jonny Depp as Barney Jones……. That would be so awesome.

  20. jamie says:

    check out these amazing Alice in Wonderland images <a href="http://www.microscopicwonderland.com” target=”_blank”>www.microscopicwonderland.com

  21. PRINCESS says:

    alice in wonderland is my favorite movie and tim burton is a nut case all his movies are weird and charlie and the chocolate factory was just plain ridiculous you cant remake a classic and mess it up come on sheesh and thats just what he did. i agree with tha person before me he is going to"charlie factory" alice in wonderland. of course it will make money because everyone has to go see the remake of every movie just to see how it will turn out but as far as the remakes tim burton makes i think they are garbage and i think he is doing some MAJOR drugs!!

  22. Sakura Amatsuka says:

    The actual Alice in Wonderland books had no real plot themselves. They were also just a bunch of episodes like the Disney movie. Tim Burton always seems to have a hatred for most old classic movies based on books, and if that is so, I hate him too. There are people who like those old movies, and he should think about that before doing something like this. That's just being a bit selfish of him, I think.

  23. Chantal says:

    I liked Keaton as Batman and to the person who commented after that he didn't really start that franchise,the t.v. show with Adam West did! lol,and Christian Bale is a terrible Batman I'm glad Tim Burton didn't see the new ones.I only saw the Dark Knight b/c my BF guilt-tripped me into it because it was Heath's last movie.And while I do LOVE Tim Burton,I think he did a pretty good job as the Joker…but I still like Jack N. as the joker too!

  24. I LOVE anything Tim Burton makes. Johnny Depp is a classic sexy beast and One day I will be in a movie with him.

  25. Michaelah Kline says:

    Johny Depp is in like every single Tim Burton movie ever, and I finaly fond one without Helena bonham Carter!

  26. Janine says:

    I think his remake of Alice and Wonderland will be amazing because he is a great producer and director.
    To 'mojo's' comment does it really matter if he hasn't watched batman, I don’t blame him the two he created where the only great ones and after that they went downhill.
    I think all his films are great with an exception of Charlie and the chocolate factory which was okay.
    I hope that Alice and Wonderland goes very well for him so that everyone realises what a great director/producer he is. I think that the cast choice is exactly right, can’t wait till it’s finished.

  27. Cyanide FIlled Candy says:

    Well, I don't care what anyone says, I absolutely LOVE Tim Burton! He's innovative and genius! It's true, you can never truly recapture a classic. Alice in Wonderland is my most FAVORITE story of all time! The Disney version, I will admit, I love! But, I have a feeling that Burton's version version will be even better! He has the vision to truly capture the weirdness and the surrealness of Wonderland.
    His version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I must admit was not my favorite. But, EVERYbody has a least ONE bad flop, just like every artists has at least ONE bad album.
    As far the Dark Knight goes, I understand why he would probably not want to see it. I mean, Burton's versions of Batman are my absolute favorites! After that, Hollywood took over and Bruce became just another rich superhero type guy. He lost his complexity. And I think Michael Keaton made an EXCELLENT Batman! In fact, he was my favorite one! (Don't get me wrong I absolutely LOVED The Dark Knight! It was the best one after Burton left the franchise!! I actually think he would like it if he saw it!)
    I simply cannot WAIT for this to come out!! I absolutely positively LOVE anything Alice In Wonderland and I LOVE Tim Burton's work! It's sure to be great! (Also, the cast is looking pretty good. :D)

  28. Native Noire says:

    I love Tim Burton's mind. He has a unique ability to envision stories in a new and original way and take it as far as it needs to go. I'm extremely excited about his work on the new Alice In Wonderland because it takes a visionary to adequately create Lewis Carrolls universe of oddity. I would also love to see Burton make a film version of John Connolly's "The Book of Lost Things." There is a dark, brother's Grimm fairytalish feel to it that I think would suit Burton very well.

  29. VinnyC says:

    Tim Burton is a hack. Guillermo Del Toro is the best man to direct Alice In Wonderland, Nuff said!

  30. Skylar says:

    ALICE IN WONDERLAND is my FAV. movie! my bed room is in alice. tim burton is my fav. director! hes amazing!!!!!! and i can deff. see johnny depp playin the Mad Hatter<3 he can deff. be a nut case i mean look at sweeny todd! lol.. hes an amazing actor and pull any thing off! charlie and the chocolate factory!?!? lol.. willy wonka was a nut in that move lol. i think that if he throws in helena then we have a blockbuster movie!<333 although nothing can top the dark night it will deff. run a close 2nd.

  31. cooper says:

    "We're all the people on the yearbook pages devoted to "the most likely to disappear before the semester ends and no one will notice…"
    summed up me and my friends right there.
    I love the way he thinks.

  32. paul says:

    I LOVE ALICE IN WONDERLAND! and TIM BURTON and JOHNNY DEPP. Thjis sounds like it is going to be an awesome movie and in 3D too wow! it cant get much better for the real vision of alice!
    For more alice in wonderland check her out here!

  33. jonathan says:

    They already have a leaked "screener" of the film over here, it's the full film but doesn't include some of the final effects.. Anyway it's over at http://408passion.com/watch28015.html
    They make you do a little questionnaire thing first for some reason but after that it's good to go :)

  34. Christine J says:

    I've always liked Burton's work. I expect I will love Alice too!

  35. dakoda lameman says:

    omg i love jonny depp he is my favorite actor in the whole world

  36. David in Los Angeles says:

    Well, another film marketed to children that I won't be taking my kids too …

  37. ALEXANDRA says:

    It is sooo very funny how people likes to put a genius down like Tim Burton, to those people I'd like to say a couple of things… first, please… who are YOU to actually make this kind of comments, because I don't seem to recognize any genius there… second, do you actually think your tastes are everyone's else's tastes? You must be pretty self centered or bored with your lives… if not both… Make us at least one feature as recognise as one of his, then come and talk… So to all of those who like to criticize I shall warmly shake you by the hand…

  38. Andecnh says:

    Lame. It's not like Tim Burton is doing anything innovative by making the story dark and surrealistic: he's been beaten by 21 years by the Czech film Alice (1988), far better and more creative than the movie he's made.

  39. Charlaine, inDEPPend says:

    This was amazing.
    I love Tim, i love the way he talks with such passion!
    He is such an amazing man, his work is the best i've ever seen…
    There should be more people like Tim, but then again, he wouldn't be this special, so no, let him be the only one…

  40. james johnston says:

    Tim Burton is so wrong!!! Disney's cartoon of 'Alice' is better than any of his films(and I enjoy Tim Burton),and there have been numerous versions that were quite good. Has Burton even seen Johnathan Miller's version? or animator Jan Svankmeyer's version? If Burton thinks his movie will be the only good version he has already made a stupid mistake.

  41. tris says:

    People dont understand the GENIUS that is tim burton. charlie and the chocolate factory was closer to the ACTUAL story book than willy wonka and the chocolate factory was. willy wonka was the happy,kid friendly version which was made just for the purpose of making money in my opinion,it was tooo commercial.tim burton took on the project and created it how it WAS SUPPOSED to be.in its dark engaging form.willy wonka was supposed to be kooky and wierd and johnny depp portrayed him well(though purhaps jim carrey could have done better?? maybe) and i actually loved it more than the first.
    —-although i havent seen all his movies, those i have seen a pure genius.from edward sissorhands to beetlejuice, batman, sweeney todd, corpse bride, sleepy hollow, big fish and even planet of the apes which i resisted watching for years(cause i hated scifi at the time) i LOVED.maybe i'm just weird.maybe i'm one of the few who understand or partly understand the way he thinks, but that man is just brilliant

  42. tris says:

    oh yea.. Helena Bonham Carter is a great actress too. i love how he's loyal to a few actors and actresses.in his movies u can find people he worked with are people he worked with 10 ,20,30 years ago. lol..i just found out he directed peewee's big adventure. lol. GENIUS I SAY!

  43. Laura says:

    I can understand Tim not wanting to see Dark Knight. I couldn't watch it all the way through either, it is very scary and demeaning to clowns.
    I am looking forward to his new Alice movie. Happy Birthday Tim. Cool pic of Tim & Johnny. Tim's not married? Best Wishes to Mr. Burton:)

  44. Jenna says:

    Im 16 but my dad use to rent dark shadows and I grew up on that and the Addams family. So what you grow up with really does influence you he's right about that. So Im stoked about Darl Shadows and Johnny Depp is my fav actor he can do anything

  45. Christina Redd says:

    I feel like Tim Burton snatched up some of the ideas from The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor and put them in the Alice in Wonderland film. I mean have you seen some of the posters lately? The mushrooms, the new story of Alice that we haven't heard before, and how the film is a twisted version of a childhood story that we all know too well.

  46. Rebel says:

    Why is there not a single interviewer who would ask Burton if he and Michael Keaton would ever reunite for a 3rd Batman film?

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