Visionary director Tim Burton and consummate actor Johnny Depp are almost the Tweedledee and Tweedledum of fantasy filmmaking: Depp brings to life the characters that emerge from Burton's magically twisted mind. But with this new film, Alice in Wonderland in 3-D -- based on the legendary novel by Lewis Carroll -- Burton and his favorite cohort Depp fashion not quite an interpretation of the surreal tale so much as they're booting up a whole new fantasy franchise.
The 46-year-old Depp, of course, is the movie star that won't get sucked into being a movie star, so he always refashions himself as much as he refashions characters to be an expression of his own convoluted psyche. And Burton is a master of rebooting a franchise -- look at what he did to restart the Batman series in the 1990s.
This former Disney animator has gone from being everybody's favorite eccentric to the ultimate mainstream player, transforming a literary classic into a high-concept, 3-D tent-pole success. And on the heels of what Avatar did in skewing audiences toward new digital technologies, Burton's Alice in Wonderland helps confirm that 3-D is here to stay. In a shambling press conference, the two spoke about their enduring relationship and more.
TB: It was [just] that -- that Alice in Wonderland in 3-D seemed like the world that Lewis Carroll created, with the kind of trippiness, size and spatial elements. Then I started thinking about the world of Lewis Carroll, and 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 into their work. It made me realize how powerful the material was. If it were written today it would be mind-blowing, so the combination of the medium and the material just seemed really right.
Q: This is not the Alice in Wonderland that we're used to; you've put your own stamp on this.
TB: There have been so many versions and for me, I've never seen a version that I've really liked. I didn't feel like there was a definitive version that we were fighting against. Also, I liked what Linda [Woolverton] did with the script; she almost treated this story as how the Alice material has affected us, at least for me.
It's the story of someone using this kind of imagery and world to figure out problems in things in their own life. What's fantasy and [what's] reality, and how they're not separate things -- they're one thing -- and it's how we use those things to deal with our issues in life. I don't even know what I'm talking about.
Q: What was your reasoning for shooting this in 2-D and converting it?
TB: Because of all the techniques we were using, there was no point in shooting it in 3-D when there's nothing to shoot. We were using so many different techniques; we had live action, animation, and virtual sets.
When we did the [3-D] conversion from [The] Nightmare [Before Christmas] (1993), [senior visual effects supervisor] Ken Ralston and I looked at things that were shot in 3-D and things that were shot in 2-D conversion and it's like anything. With all of these tools you can see good 3-D, bad 3-D, good conversions and bad conversions.
We all did the proper planning so that when we got to that stage -- when we had the elements finally together -- it was just another piece of the technology. In fact, that was probably some of the easier technology than other elements that we were dealing with.
JD: I think so, somewhere around there.
Q: When he came to you and said I want you to be the Mad Hatter, what was your reaction? Why did you want to play that character?
JD: To be honest, he could have said, "Alice," and I would have said yes; I would have done whatever character Tim wanted. But certainly the fact that it was the Mad Hatter was a bonus, because it was a great challenge to try and find this guy and not just be a rubber ball that you heave into an empty room and watch it bounce all over the place. To find that part of the character but [I also wanted to add] a little bit more history or gravity to the guy.
Q: There's a tragic nature to the Mad Hatter that you bring out in a way that's never seen before in Alice in Wonderland.
JD: There's the whole Hatter's dilemma really, which was where the term "mad as a hatter" came from. The amount of mercury they used in the glue to make the hats and everything was damaging, so looking at it from that perspective of this guy, who is literally damaged goods, physically damaged, emotionally a little obtuse, and kind of 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 could go from one second being high falutin' and a lot of levity and then straight into some kind of dangerous rage. It was interesting trying to map it out.
TB: It being a Disney movie, we decided not to focus too much on the mercury poisoning aspect [laughs]. It didn't translate well to 3D.
JD: My whole experience on the ride since day one has been pretty surreal in this business. I'm still completely shocked that I still get jobs and still am around. But I guess more than anything it has been a kind of Wonderland. I've been very lucky. Does that answer your question?
Q: Did you dream that it was going to be this way when you started?
JD: No, not at all. I had no idea where anything was going, but it's almost impossible to predict anything like that. I had no idea. I felt like after I'd done Cry-Baby (1990) with John Waters and Edward Scissorhands (1990) with Tim that they were going to cut me off right then. I felt at that point that I was on solid ground and I knew where I was going and where I wanted to go, and I was sure that they would nix me out of the gig. But luckily I'm still here.
Q: You've collaborated before; how do you view how your professional and personal relationship would be affected by sharing Alice in Wonderland?
TB: I don't know; I couldn't really look at him during the shooting because he looked like a scary clown. We didn't make much eye contact during the shoot. I always love working with Johnny, from Scissorhands on, for many reasons. He likes to play characters and be different things, he doesn't like watching himself, which I love because that makes it a lot easier for me. Each time we do something he's always trying to do something different, and it's great when you know somebody and they keep surprising you.
Q: Do you feel the same way?
JD: Yeah. Each time out of the gate with Tim the initial thing for me is to obviously come up with the character, but then you start thinking there's a certain amount of pressure where you go, "Jesus, will this be the one where I disappoint him?"
So I try really hard, especially early on, just to come up with something that's very different that he hasn't experience before, that we haven't experienced together before, that would stimulate and inspire him to make choices based on that character. I try not to embarrass him, basically.
Q: You've created many wonderful characters; when you start developing something new, like the Mad Hatter, do you look back at your own work and make sure you don't repeat anything?
JD: Definitely at a certain point, especially because I've played English a number of times, 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 Jackville."
So you've got to really pay attention to the places you've been. But that's the great challenge is that you may get it wrong, or there's a very good possibility that you could fall flat on your face. But I think that's a healthy thing for an actor.
Q: Was there anything in Alice that technologically you couldn't do yet?
TB: We were just using all different technologies, so they're all out there. People go purely motion-capture, purely animation. Everything's a new tool, you always have limitations, you can do more, it's all great, and I never try to focus too much on the technology. The fun of it for us is the artistic thing of it and feeling like we're making a movie and not get too involved with technology.
Q: If the next project involved donning a suit with dots for the cameras like they did in Avatar would you do it?
JD: I don't know; what color is the suit? It's black? Well it matches my eyes. I don't care, I'll put anything on, it doesn't matter to me. Obviously. Look at me.
Q: Of all the characters and the movies you two have worked on which have been your children's favorites?
JD: My children's favorite, and it's funny because they've seen it but they have a difficult time watching it because it's their dad and they make that connection, but Edward Scissorhands is by far my kids' favorite. They connect with the character and also I think they see their dad feeling that isolation, feeling that loneliness. He's a tragic character so I think it's hard for them. They bawl.
TB: For me, my kids don't really like my movies [reconsiders]. I can't say that. [It's that] they're too young. My son's getting older but since I don't really know what I do I can't really describe to him what I do so he doesn't really know what I do and so, whatever.
Q: One of the great earmarks about a really great happy dance -- which you did in the film -- is that it's completely unique to the person. So is this one part of your own personal repertoire.
JD: No. The happy dance was something that Tim had a very curious vision for.
TB: Listen, he's injured himself, he cannot do it today. It has to be the right circumstance, the right music and everything else.
Q: What were your personal preparation for that -- a lot of mirrors?
TB: Smoke and mirrors, yeah.
JD: I tend to avoid mirrors at all costs. We had to treat that like a stunt.
TB: You wouldn't question Fred Astaire like this would you [laughs]?
Q: You seem to be going through the entire canon of 19th-century fantasy literature.
JD: I'm hoping to do [Fitz Hugh Ludlow's autobiographical 1857 book] The Hasheesh Eater next.
Q: What's the attraction to you as an artist of that era's literature?
JD: I just adore it. From certainly J.M. Barrie [who wrote Peter Pan] and the wonderful characters he created, to Lewis Carroll, and even French literature, or Edgar Allan Poe. Like Tim said about Lewis Carroll, you open those books, you open [Charles Baudelaire's 1857 book of poetry Les Fleurs du mal, a.k.a.] The Flowers of Evil, and begin to read; if it were written today you'd be absolutely stupefied by the works. So it's this incredible period where the work is ageless. I love all those guys. It's my deep passion, those great 19th-century writers.
Q: When did this book enter your life and was the proper English an influence to your understanding of it? And how did it influence you?
TB: I'm from Burbank so we never heard about Alice in Wonderland except through Disney cartoons, the Tom Petty video [for "Don't Come Around Here No More," 1985), and the Jefferson Airplane [who recorded the 1967 Carroll-inspired hit "White Rabbit"]. It's interesting because that's what made me realize the power of it.
I got my introduction much more through other illustrators, music, culture and writers; the imagery would come up in other work. Then as soon you start to delve into it you realize just how powerful it is and that's why it remains that way.
Q: Do you want to add to this?
JD: I have a thing about long necks too. It's funny, even though you can't quite place when the book or the story came into your life, I do remember vaguely at 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.
Most people haven't read the book but they definitely know the characters and reference them. Ironically, it was maybe only a year prior to Tim calling that I had reread Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. What I took away from it was all these very strange little cryptic nuggets that he'd thrown in there and I was really intrigued by them and fascinated by them because they were asking questions that couldn't be answered almost, or making statements you couldn't quite understand, like "I am investigating things that begin with the letter M."
That took me through a whole stratosphere of possibilities, and doing a little research and discovering that the M is mercury. And, "Why is a raven like a writing desk?" Those things just became so, so important to the character. If I read the book again today I'd find 100 other things that I missed last time, so it's constantly changing.
Q: And what is happening with The Tourist? What have you enjoyed about working with Angelina Jolie?
JD: I haven't done anything yet.
Q: When does that start shooting?
JD: I think next week [and has since started].
TB: But how do you think it's going to go?
JD: It'll be swell.
Q: What did you like about the part that made you want to sign on?
JD: I like the [original] French film a lot [Anthony Zimmer], and my friend played the part [Yvan Attal]. I thought I might be interesting to explore this character. You never know what's going to happen. I suspect there may be a few paparazzi in Venice.
Q: It's rumored that there's no Keira Knightly or Orlando Bloom in the next Pirates. Does that mean there's going to be more Jack Sparrow?
JD: Yeah, there's no Keira or Orlando in there but I don't know, I don't think we'd ever throw too much Jack Sparrow in there, I think there will be a little bit of everybody.
Q: Were you wavering after Disney Chairman Dick Cook left. What reassured you?
JD: One thing that I found very reassuring was a very good conversation with Dick Cook, who is someone I admire greatly. That helped a lot. And also knowing that we're coming at it from a different angle at this point; Rob Marshall totally knew to take a new story.
Q: What did Cook say after he left?
JD: He was a perfect gentleman.
Q: Do you see making the Dark Shadows film -- based on the old vampire soap -- this year or is it still on the fence?
JD: No I see it going. I hope it does, I do. We worked like dogs to get that.
For more interviews of Brad Balfour or his editorial work go to: filmfestivaltraveler.com
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