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."
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."
More 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."
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.
"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!"
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…’ "
Burton 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:
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