Interview: Tim Burton on ‘Alice in Wonderland’

We had a chance to sit down with director Tim Burton and talk about his latest film “Alice in Wonderland”.

The film almost suggests that you were Lewis Carroll in a former life?

Tim Burton: I’m like a lot of people, I just responded to what he did. There have been so many movie versions and I hope that somewhere there is a version that might have pleased him.

The film is as though you put a camera into our dreams and recorded them. Was that dream-like quality what you wanted to create?

Tim Burton: Yeah, that’s why we didn’t follow the literal stories. That seemed to be the problem with the other versions. What I liked about this was that it explored the characters and what I feel that Carroll’s work did for me and other people in exploring your dream state, and using fantasy in your dream state to deal with real issues and problems in your life. People like to separate those things but the fact is that they are things that are intertwined. That is what Carroll did so beautifully and he was so cryptic with what he wrote. You can analyze it to death but it still remains a mystical, kind of unidentifiable thing and yet it is so powerful.

And Lewis Carroll was so ahead of his time?

Tim Burton: If the books were written today it would be…Woah, what’s this!…That shows you the power of it.

What has happened to your aversion to CGI?

Tim Burton: In this case it was that we were using so many techniques that it felt like this was the way to go. It is like I am in love with it but at the same time it is just a tool. Whether it is stop motion or cell or CGI, it is still animation; you still deal with animators and do the same thing. You still have fun and the same goal to make the animation work.

Was it always going to be a 3D film?

Tim Burton: Absolutely! That’s the only reason I did it. Three years ago when they talked to me about it I thought it seemed like the perfect material and mix. I don’t think that a few years ago that I would have been interested. But I just felt that the trippiness of Wonderland and 3D seemed like something I was interested in. Now 3D is no longer a fad but I don’t get all crazy about it and say that everything has got to be in 3D. It is a nice tool, like color or sound or whatever. I was quite intrigued and I learned, 3D opened up a lot of questions about how to use it. I think it is great. It’s like if a movie needs to be in black and white then that’s how I will shoot it. I see color as just another character or black and white as a character.

When Alice gets in a jam she says it’s her dream and she can do what she wants. Would that describe your approach to film making?

Tim Burton: It is an aspiration. No matter what you go through with the business side or the Hollywood side at the end of it all, when you are there on the set, it is your thing. So it is your own private world and that’s great. That’s where you have that bubble to create something in.

But when a film gets as big as this is it still possible to control it?

Tim Burton: The time issue meant it was like a backwards process of making a movie. Normally you shot a shot and see it the next day but here you did not see a shot till near the end.

Everyone has their own idea of Alice. Was that extra pressure for you?

Tim Burton: Just for that reason, I did not feel there was a definitive version, one shining version that everybody loves. If there was then maybe you have trouble. But when there are 20 versions – and all the music and illustrations – the imagery comes up in so many different forms that it is in the culture. So I did not feel that pressure.

How tough was it to drop characters like The Walrus And The Carpenter?

Tim Burton: There is a picture of the walrus on a wall though. Linda, the writer, and I discussed that. I felt other versions suffered in trying to be literal to the stories. We did not want to try to pack it all in. So we weaved in according to the structure of what Linda had written. Everyone probably has a favorite character but we fed in the ones that felt appropriate.

You made the Mad Hatter a much more focal point?

Tim Burton: With all of the characters we felt they suffered in other versions because they were just depicted as crazy. Rather than him bouncing around being crazy we tried to layer the characters with some depth. There was a lot of research into them being called Mad Hatters because of the mercury poisoning in hat making. So all the characters in Alice In Wonderland are mad but we tried to make sure that they each have their own particular kind of madness.

Having made so many films with Johnny Depp do you now see him as your avatar as you go into these strange dream worlds?

Tim Burton: To some degree, we have pretty similar tastes that way. That’s the energy, that’s what keeps it going.

The 3D butterfly at the end of the film is very touching. What was the reason for the last shot?

Tim Burton: It was the Caterpillar turning into the butterfly…That was what I liked so much about the script. It’s not so much about being literal to the story, it’s about that feeling that you have been here before and you know these characters through exploring your childhood. People like to be literal about everything and that is what is so beautiful about what Carroll did. It’s not literal. It’s absurdist and yet it has cryptic meaning so that everyone will see the meaning in a different way. That’s the power of those stories.

Is Tim Burton now becoming more of the mainstream?

Tim Burton: One of the things that keeps me semi-sane is not analyzing that stuff. You never want to become a thing, you want to remain a human being. People go…you have worked with Johnny seven times…and I go…really? I’ve not been counting. I try not to go there. I try to remember I like doing this and don’t think about all the trappings.

What about the green screen?

Tim Burton: Johnny was acting to a tennis ball, which he loved. He was the only one who really liked that. Everyone else hated it.

Was finding Alice a difficult process?

Tim Burton: We had a big search but Mia was pretty clear pretty soon. There was something about her and I liked the idea that we hadn’t seen much of her. She was a young person with an old person’s soul. That was something I felt no previous Alice had. They came across like bratty, precocious children. In most other versions she was obnoxious. Our key was not to be obnoxious. The studio was supportive in going for an unknown Alice, and at the end of the day they are happy about it.

Is Helena always going to be in your films?

Tim Burton: No it’s the same way with Johnny. It is not automatic. It is important that it is the right part. If Helena is right for a part then ok. But it’s not because we are together, that would be a real mistake that would only end in tragedy.

Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland is Now Available on Blu-ray & DVD!


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