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Alice in Wonderland - Tim Burton interview

Tim Burton directs Alice in Wonderland

Interview by Rob Carnevale

TIM Burton talks to us about some of the challenges of creating Alice in Wonderland in 3D, working with Johnny Depp for the seventh time, and why he agreed to go back to Cannes this Summer.

He also discusses why he never reads his own reviews and why he tries to stay off the Internet as much as possible…

Q. Why did you want to make Alice in Wonderland?
Tim Burton: I think the thing that really intrigued me was the opportunity to do a 3D Alice in Wonderland. It seemed like the proper mix of the medium and the material. A few years ago I don’t know if I would have been as intrigued about it. It just seemed like the trippiness of that world and the tools that came with the effects. There have also been 20 odd versions of Alice that I’d never really connected to… for me, they tried to be too literal to the book. The books are great but they’re just absurdist stories and pretty much every version had the same problem – obnoxious child goes from one weird encounter to another. That’s kind of what it was which, for me, was never engaging.

I think, for me, what was more interesting was the effect those characters had on pop culture and how many musicians and songs and other books and writers, artists and illustrators have incorporated that imagery into their work. That, to me, is what I find so fascinating. And that’s what I liked about this script. It took the Alice characters but put them in a slightly different context. And actually, we tried to psychologically delve into what Lewis Carroll did – we used those characters to explore our dream life, and how we use those characters – or any kind of fantasy characters – as metaphors and symbols for real problems and real issues that you deal with. So, that’s what I liked about it.

Q. Why do you like working with Johnny Depp so much?
Tim Burton: Because he doesn’t like looking at himself either. I don’t think he’s ever seen a movie that we’ve made – and I like that because there’s no vanity there. There’s no: “Oh, that side’s not good, or that’s my career there!” He’s never been worried about his career, or how he looks, and that’s quite liberating for me. It’s quite exciting actually. And it’s the same with Helena [Bonham Carter] – she never watches her films. It means that they enjoy doing it. It’s where you get the energy and I like that and appreciate that. I actually now get nervous if people want to keep looking at what I’ve done. I kind of go: “Oh Jeez, here we go…!” [Laughs] It saves a lot of time when actors don’t mind how they look – believe me, you can save several hours a day.

Q. Don’t you think they sometimes learn from looking at themselves?
Tim Burton: Some people do, some people don’t. I understand that… to me, I get it when people have trouble seeing themselves. I’ve only known a few who can look at themselves and learn something. Often, it screws with their heads, in my opinion, and it takes away that go for it attitude that you want to get from an actor. I know there are some who find it helpful, but usually I’m nervous about it.

Q. You’ve said that you like it when actors surprise you. What did Johnny and Helena do this time that surprised you?
Tim Burton: Well, with Johnny we’ve done so many films that each time he’s doing something different. But always something that’s important to both of us is to find the humanity in a character. There’s a certain tragedy to the character and a certain kind of pathos that I really felt strongly about, that he did. It’s not a big demonstrative thing… it’s just the simple stuff he does in a way. That, to me, is the thing that helps ground it and give it a foundation. Helena is also the perfect person for The Red Queen. Even the distorted look that we gave her somehow suits her!

Q. Why do you always see her as a witch, or a murderer or the Red Queen?
Tim Burton: I think she enjoys it [laughs].

Q. Do you ever worry that Johnny might not want to work with you again?
Tim Burton: We don’t think about it. I think that’s part of why it continues. People say we’ve made seven movies together. We’re like: “If you say so!” It’s not like I know him so well that it’s assumed we’re going to work together. It’s important to us, and any person, to keep that edge, to keep that challenge going and to keep things fresh and moving, to do something slightly different that way. So, that’s the key thing for both of us – that artistic edge you want to keep filling.

Q. Was he always first choice for The Mad Hatter?
Tim Burton: Well, that’s a given. I used to have to fight to get Johnny in a movie because they didn’t think he was a box office draw. They liked him but they didn’t… he wasn’t Tom Cruise. But I worked with him on several occasions. Once he did Pirates [of the Caribbean], then I never had to talk the studio into it. I didn’t even have to say his name. They said it before me. Prior to that point, however, it was hard.

Q. Would you like to discover someone else?
Tim Burton: Yeah, but I’ve worked with new people on this. Mia [Wasikowska, Alice] is new. I’ve never worked with Anne Hathaway before. She’s another one… I sensed Anne’s another one who’ll go for it. She’s got that quality that he does and I love that. I sensed that in her. So, I’m meeting new people all the time.

Q. Did you take a hands-on approach with the designers to create the creatures?
Tim Burton: I worked with several designers. Especially on something like this, it’s such a puzzle-like kind of thing. There were so many elements that went into it, and a lot of different influences. Finally, they’ll come up with something that I feel close to.

Q. Did you want it to remain similar to the creatures in the original?
Tim Burton: Well it’s funny… so many great illustrators have done versions of Alice. But the definitive one are those [John] Tenniel drawings. And even though we didn’t make them look like that, I was always looking at those for the spirit of them. For all the great illustrators, those Tenniel ones are the ones I feel most connected to. So, we were always looking for the spirit of it somehow.

Q. Do you have a favourite character?
Tim Burton: Well, I like them all! Those characters are so strong and that was the goal… to do them justice, so I feel quite good that I kind of like them all.

Q. Do you read your own reviews?
Tim Burton: I don’t really. I guess from the beginning of my career I usually get really horrible reviews. People always think I get really good reviews, but I don’t [laughs]. You get some good… you get some bad… But they’re things you can’t control. They’re just out there. That’s why I don’t go on the Internet much – because you can go down a dark hole looking at stuff. Once, I clicked on my name and freaked out. It’s too bizarre, it’s too weird, it’s too unsettling.

Q. What’s the strangest story you’ve read about yourself?
Tim Burton: Well, the one that comes to mind is by a German journalist who wrote that Helena Bonham Carter and I lived in two separate houses connected only by a tunnel! It sounds very dramatic… I thought that was funny and I just let than one be.

Q. Do you let your kids help you create your movies?
Tim Burton: Of course. I think anybody who has artistic aspirations… you can learn a lot from children because they see things new every day. That’s the beauty of what you want to achieve as an artist – seeing things in a different way. Kids are constantly saying things that are funny and surprising and their observations are just… you know, they’re like little artists themselves.

Q. Why did you accept the invitation to be a judge at Cannes this year? You seemed so unhappy the last time you were there…
Tim Burton: But I learned something from that. I was unhappy but first of all it’s a real honour. And you know what? I’ve just been in Wonderland for two years. When I finish a movie I tend to get kind of depressed. I’ve been in kind of this green hole for that time, so I think it’s just a way for me to re-connect with movies. I know Cannes now, I’ve been there a few times so I get it now. I’m kind of excited by it now because it’s kind of like its own weird Wonderland on its own. I’m just excited to really connect with cinema. I think the spirit of any film festival is just to be open, to see things and let it affect you.

Q. Do you watch your own work much? Which are the films you’re most proud of?
Tim Burton: I don’t really look at stuff ever again… much. People have said before: “They’re always your children… ugly or not.” But I think there are some that are maybe a bit more personal, like [Edward] Scissorhands or maybe Nightmare [Before Christmas], which is something I designed a long time ago. But I’ve enjoyed each one. I enjoyed Big Fish, I’ve enjoyed this one… I mean, you have to feel passionate about whatever it is you’re doing and you have to make it personal. If it’s Edward Scissorhands, which is an original thing for me, or Alice in Wonderland, which is a known thing… you still have to feel like it’s your own.

Q. What’s next for you?
Tim Burton: Nothing… I need a break.

Q. So, what gives you pleasure away from cinema?
Tim Burton: I’ve been away from my family for a long time. Now, being home, I’m just so happy to see my kids. They’re so amazing and surprising and weird and stuff. I’ve had so little time of that. But after about a week I may well go: “Get me out of the house!” Right now, I’m just trying to be a human being.

Read our review of Alice in Wonderland

Read our interview with Anne Hathaway