Earlier this year, Alice in Wonderland, the 3-D adaptation of the classic Lewis Carroll tale, quickly became not only the first blockbuster hit of 2010, but the sixth highest-grossing film of all time. Much of the reason for the movie’s popularity probably stems from the visionary work of director Tim Burton, who successfully brought the movie to life in his signature surreal, wildly original style. Just before the movie’s release on Blu-ray and DVD June 1, Burton talked about why the original tale remains so powerful, and how utilizing 3-D was necessary in telling his version of the story.
MovieMaker (MM): The film almost suggests that you were Lewis Carroll in a former life.
Tim Burton (TB): 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.
MM: It’s filmed as though you put a camera into our dreams and recorded them. Was that dream-like quality what you wanted to create?
TB: 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.
MM: What has happened to your aversion to CGI?
TB: 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.
MM: Was it always going to be a 3-D film?
TB: 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 earlier 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.
MM: 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 moviemaking?
TB: 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.
MM: But when a film gets as big as this, is it still possible to control it?
TB: The time issue meant it was like a backwards process of making a movie. Normally, you film a shot and see it the next day, but here you did not see a shot till near the end.
MM: Having made so many films with Johnny Depp, do you now see him as your avatar as you go into these strange dream worlds?
TB: To some degree, we have pretty similar tastes that way. That’s the energy, that’s what keeps it going.
MM: Is Tim Burton now becoming more of the mainstream?
TB: 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.
MM: What about the green screen?
TB: Johnny was acting to a tennis ball, which he loved. He was the only one who really liked that. Everyone else hated it.
MM: Was finding Alice a difficult process?
TB: We had a big search but Mia [Wasikowska] 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.
MM: Is Helena Bonham Carter (Burton’s long-time partner) always going to be in your films?
TB: 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 okay. But it’s not because we are together, that would be a real mistake that would only end in tragedy.