Officially or unofficially, Tim Burton is Hollywood's most prominent purveyor of fantasy fun, be it filtered through his own ideas, as in Big Fish or Edward Scissorhands, or functioning as an adaptation of a beloved text, such as with Sleepy Hollow or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. His latest effort is a big-screen 3-D update of Alice in Wonderland, which stars two of his longtime collaborators, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, and turns Lewis Carroll's magical source material into a rousing, surreal adventure.
Cinematical recently participated in a Los Angeles press day for the film, where cast and crew members offered their thoughts about Carroll's iconic text, discussed the challenges of getting into larger-than-life characters, and reflected on the fantasy worlds created by Burton, whether he dreams them up or just brings them to life. [Editor's Note: Although "Cinematical" is used to distinguish questions from answers in the text below, our journalist was just one of many reporters asking questions of the filmmakers.]
Cinematical: When did the story of Alice in Wonderland first enter your life and how did it influence you?
Mia Wasikowski: I read the books when I was about eight or nine and then I read them again before we started filming and saw it as an older person, saw a whole other side that I didn't really catch as a kid. I think it's amazing because it kind of constantly reveals itself to you in different ways... I'm sure as a kid I saw something else that I didn't get as an adult, and there were parts that I would have liked as a kid that I didn't miss as an older person.
Tim Burton: Well, I'm from Burbank so we never heard about Alice in Wonderland except for the Disney cartoon, the Tom Petty video, and Jefferson Airplane's ["White Rabbit"]. It was interesting because that's what made me realize the power of it is that I got my introduction to it much more from other illustrators and music and culture and writers. The imagery would come up in work. Then when you start to delve into it and realize just how powerful that is, it's why it sort of remains that way.
Johnny Depp: Even though you can't quite place when the book or the story came into your life, I do vaguely remember roughly five years old reading versions of Alice in Wonderland. But the thing is the characters - everyone knows the characters, and they're very well-defined characters, which I always thought was fascinating. [Because] most people who haven't read the book definitely know the characters and reference them. Ironically, it was only maybe a year prior to Tim calling, I had re-read Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and what I took away from it was these very strange, little cryptic nuggets that he'd thrown in there, and I was really intrigued by them, became fascinated by them because they were asking questions that couldn't be answered almost, or were making statements that you couldn't quite understand. Those things just became so important to the character. You realize that the more you read it, if I read the book again today, I'd find 100 other things that I missed last time. It's a constantly changing book.
Anne Hathaway: When I was in fifth grade I had a teacher and he made the entire class memorize Jabberwocky and perform it. So I made Tim, during the battle sequence, I made him let me recite the poem. He literally looked at me and he was like, "it's not going to be in the film," and I was like, just for my own sense of completion in my life, please let me do this. So, I didn't read Alice until I was in college. I was reading a lot of Nabokov and he actually, one of his biggest inspirations was Lewis Carroll. So I thought before I get too deep into him I'll read Lewis Carroll and then I never went back to Nabokov (laughs). That's when I read it and I was really moved by it; I mean, she's a very emotional character and, you know, I think a lot of people feel kind of confused at nineteen - who they are versus who they think they want to be. You struggle with a sense of identity then-and [other] times in your life-and I really kind of read the book from that perspective of a girl who's trying to find her identity. Which is great because that's what the movie really focuses on - 'which Alice are you?' And so that's my experience.
Crispin Glover: Strangely, I'd never read it, even before starting the film. And I'd felt like I had. But something I've noticed [is that] I've done a few films that are based on pre-existing written elements, and I came to realize that for me, personally, earlier on I did read books right before if it was based on something, right before I started acting in it, and I kind of realized that it was a mistake for me to do it. Not for everybody, but for me, I would get very stuck into a certain concept. And I've realized that just in general as an actor, it's better for me not to get stuck on things. Earlier in my career I'd get very [stuck] on a particular idea and every take, I'd want to get into that particular idea. Now, I've kind of reversed and become expansive and want to give different versions for the editor to play with. And so I purposefully don't read things, although I am reading it right now and I'm really enjoying it. It's tremendous.
Cinematical: Tim, what made you want to go into the world of Alice in Wonderland in 3-D?
Burton: Well, it was that. It was Alice in Wonderland in 3-D. It just seemed like the world that Lewis Carroll created, just the kind of trippiness, and the size/spatial element. Then I started thinking about the world of Lewis Carroll, thinking not so much about the films and things, but I knew more about it from listening to music and bands and other illustrators and artists that would incorporate that imagery in their work. It just made me realize just how powerful the material was. Like if it were written today, it would be mind blowing today. So the combination of the medium and the material just seemed really right.
Cinematical: How about the idea of putting your own stamp on it?
Burton: Well, there's been so many versions, and for me I'd never seen a version that I really liked, so I didn't feel like there was a definitive version to me that we were fighting against. And also, I liked what Linda [Woolverton] did with the script. She almost treated this story like how the Alice material has affected us, at least for me. It's a story about somebody using this kind of imagery and this kind of world to figure out problems in their own life and what's fantasy and reality - how they are not separate things, that they're one thing. It's how we use those things to deal with our issues in life.
Depp: To be honest, he could have said he wanted me to play Alice and I would have. I would have done whatever character Tim wanted. But, certainly, the fact that it was the Mad Hatter was a bonus because of the great challenge to try to find this guy and not just be a rubber ball you heave into an empty room and watch it bounce all over the place, but just to find that part of the character but also a little bit more of history or gravity to the guy.
Cinematical: Don't you think the Mad Hatter also had a bit more tragic in this version?
Depp: There's the whole Hatter's dilemma, really which was where the term 'mad as a hatter' came from - the amount of mercury that they used in the glue to make the hats and everything was damaging. So, in terms of the Hatter, looking at it from that perspective of this guy who literally is damaged goods, physically damaged, emotionally a little obtuse and taking that and deciding that he should be, as opposed to just this hyper, nutty guy, he should explore all sides of the personality at an extreme level. So he can go, from one second, being very highfalutin and a lot of levity, and then straight into some kind of dangerous potential rage, and then tragedy. It was interesting. Trying to map it out was really interesting.
Burton: I mean, it being a Disney movie, we decided not to focus too much on the mercury poisoning aspect. It didn't translate well to 3-D.
Cinematical: Johnny, you've created so many wonderful, memorable characters. When you take on something like the Mad Hatter, do you have to look back at your own work to make sure that you don't repeat anything or make it too similar?
Depp: Especially if you're dealing with, because I've used an English accent a number of times, so it becomes a little bit of an obstacle course to go, "Oh, that's teetering into Captain Jack-ville," or "This one is kind of teetering over into Chocolat or Wonka." You've got to really pay attention to the places you've been. Also, that's part of it. That's the great challenge. You may get it wrong. There's a very good possibility that you can fall flat on your face, but again I think that's a healthy thing for an actor.
Cinematical: How has your professional and personal relationship with one another grown?
Burton: Well, I don't know. I couldn't really look at him during the shooting because he looked like a scary clown, so we didn't make much eye contact during the shoot. Look, I've always loved working with Johnny from Scissorhands on for many reasons. He likes to play characters, be different things. He doesn't like watching himself which I love, because that makes it a lot easier for me. Which is great and each time you do something, he's always trying to do something different, surprises. It's great when you know somebody and they keep surprising you.
Depp: Each time out of the gate with Tim, the initial thing for me is to obviously come up with a character. But then, there's a certain amount of pressure where I go, "Jesus, will this be the one where I disappoint him?" So, I try really hard, especially early on, to come up with something that's very different, that he hasn't experienced before, we haven't experienced together before, and that would stimulate him and inspire him to make choices based on that character. I try not to embarrass him, basically.