Taking a whopping six years to make it to the screen, Disney has finally delivered on a proper sequel to Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland.” While Burton doesn’t direct this sequel (as he was busy directing “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” the Niner Times was able to sit down to an interview with “Alice Through the Looking Glass'” director, James Bobin, to talk about the film.
You’ve taken on such iconic characters in your direction experience, from the “The Muppets” to “Alice in Wonderland.” How do you deal with the pressures of adapting such classic stories while still putting your own original touch on them?
For me, a lot of it is, filmmaking is so subjective because about your own personal opinion to a degree, and I feel both with “The Muppets” and “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” you have a very clear idea of what they mean to me. And then my implementation of the work and it arises from that. So I have a sense of what I think they are. Like with “The Muppets,” I remember them very clearly from my childhood. I remembered why I liked them and I wanted to try and make them feel like that again. So you are aware of the responsibility because obviously I’m not the only person who loves these characters, everyone loves these characters. All you can do is, at that point of the situation, is time to treat your own sense of what they are and how they behave and what they mean in the space to occupy in the world about that. It’s a responsibility but at the same time, with “The Muppets” particularly it felt like they hadn’t been around for a while, and so I kind of try and reintroduce them. And my kids who were growing up for the time, didn’t know they were, which felt like a very bad thing. Alice is in a different version, been around forever and it’s incredible for making a movie, which is 150 years old. And it’s a great testament to Lewis Carroll, his incredible imagination in this world.
And so again, it’s that thing where you have a responsibility and I want to be true to Lewis Carroll, but at the same time I want to make a film whereby you are transported to an incredible place in an hour and a half, in that part of the part of the story where Lewis Carroll thinks, with more experience, in mathematics and structure. And I’m more interested in narrative and storytelling. But I guess that’s kind of like time, it should introduce that work and be true to it, at the same time, making it relevant is my job.
How different is it doing family films, such as “The Muppets” and its sequel and now “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” compared to your adult-oriented TV work like “Flight of the Concords,” “Enlightenment” and “D-Ali G Show?”
I mean, it’s really not that different. It’s funny, I always think that “Flight of the Concords,” even though it does have references which makes it slightly abrasive as sometimes it gets, one of the great things of “Flight of the Concords” is to know what speaks to people through its heart. And that there are people of all ages there. And so I think “Flight of the Concords” and “The Muppets” were not that different, it felt like very similar territory. I thought in a way, it’s kind of where my humor was, as humor’s a very broad church.
Everyone has different sense of humor and it encapsulates all sorts of forms of humor. I was just trying to make things look a number of levels, that’s what I think is consistent across my humor, so I like things that work for numbers of ways and can be appreciated by different people for different reasons. That’s what I liked about both – and therefore also I guess to a degree about “Borat,” I mean Borat was a character whereby he’s funny because he’s crazy. But at the same time he’s helping understand the breakdown of post-Soviet Eastern Europe. He’s interesting in that type sense where you can appreciate that on number of levels. And I always wanted to make “The Muppets” like that too, whereby I could watch with my five-year-old daughter, at the time she’d laugh and I would laugh. For lots of different reasons.
And then I guess with “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” it’s that same idea whereby Lewis Carroll is a genius and a mathematical, incredible guy. And he was asked in a very interesting way which meant that you could tell it as a story for children, but if you liked language and if you like the entomology, you’d like that in Lewis Carroll. And so it’s the idea that the, all of these various strands of my sense of humor all have this sense that work on a number of levels. I guess that’s the thing when you have them all together.
Did you feel obligated to follow the style set forth by Tim Burton, arguably one of the strongest elements of the first film, or did Disney and Burton being a producer on the film allow you to handle the sequel in your own manner, in your own way?
It was both, actually. Tim’s visual products, they’re strong and so beautiful, and they just looked incredible. And I love that world looking from the character’s side, I think that is something I didn’t want to change, at least in the way it was done. And I think when you’re making a film which is a sequel you have to stay true to the original design in the sense that it feels like the universe. But what was good about this film is that the new movie is set both before and after that film, it’s also geographically different in location and different places we visit which we haven’t been to before.
So it meant I had a chance to try and do things I found interesting on being aware and staying true to that work, to make sure you’ve done that universe. I could then incorporate some of the ideas I had about how the world should feel. Also to the degree the story itself in this film is more human than it was. There are people in it, there were a few in Tim’s film, but there are courts here and they were unusual. This film has more of a sense of family and all, but they’re all a human parent system, there’s a town so there’s a certain slightly more real element of it.
It obviously starts as real. But also I’ve always been a huge fan of John Tenniel, who did the illustrations in the original book. He was a visual cartoonist in England, he did two books, “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass,” snd both look very striking. Then I grew up in them, which is the version that you read. So I’m very familiar with those visuals. So for me, I wanted to bring a bit of that element back into the world whereby I had a sort of slightly Victorian caricaturist feel to it. And so that’s kinda what drove some of the new design in terms of the new characters.
How do you approach creating the unique areas of Wonderland? Does your process involve your own sketches or more in-depth concept art?
Both, really. When you read a script, you can’t help but visualize it neatly in your head. And that’s just your own brain creating images for you. And that’s often very based on the things you’ve read and the world you’ve been affected by, so it’s not instantly in your head, and it’s very personal that sort of thing you come up with.
So I’d often do those sketches of places, in this film, for example, Time, played by Sasha Baron Cohen, has a castle, he lives in this incredible place. And I had an idea about this distance and some sort of obstacle to get to where he was. And it being to do with time and gigantic clock made out of stone.
It’s that kind of stuff. But those kinds of ideas in my head had me start to sketch them out, but then obviously handing them over to actual professional concept designers. Then it’s always good to have a sketch or something to have a visual to use to tell a story that way. But then you describe what you’re feeling about a place, and often these guys are so brilliant at their jobs, they can interpret that into actual visuals, and give it a certain lighting. Because my sketches tend to be pencil on a piece of paper, whereas the concept art gives lighting a sense of space and place. And that really helps. So often in this phase it starts with drawings and then ended in the work concept design.
But beyond that, there’s the question of how you see it and how you visualize it. And for me, a lot of it was because I was very interested in the Victorian world, as imagination. Victorians, obviously were of a time prior to that of science fiction. A lot of their fantasy world were based on things like nursery rhymes and just, that sort of things I really like the idea of. And so often they’re quite historically based. Now I love that about the world, the Victorian fantasy world is based on medieval stuff for example. So I tried to incorporate elements of that in the design throughout the film. And that’s kind of what we ended up with, which is a slightly more, I guess, historically accurate kind of world.
You mentioned that you built lot of sets in real time for the movie. And then you mentioned you built the set of Wit’s End. What was the process of building that?
Wit’s End is the town in the movie. It’s basically the place where the Hatter is from, his family has a shop there, selling hats. It’s also where the Red Queen and White Queen grew up. But design-wise, it’s a blend of influences. I always like, I mean, again, I’ve often enjoyed walking around small English villages and understanding how they grow through time. And things with design, they weren’t really planned, they sort of – we call it higgledy piggledy in England.
And it’s the sort of thing where things were built on top of each other all the time. You get a real sense of place through time. And so when I was designing with Tim, I went to this place that felt like it’s been there for a long time, and developed in a very random way. And didn’t really necessarily obey the laws of architecture to a degree, because through time, buildings settle and move. And so I wanted this place to feel like that and at the same time, have an element of magic. I think the idea of Wonderland to me is the idea of history plus magic. And so I really wanted to have the sense of why these buildings almost shouldn’t stand up. Because of the angles they’re built at, the angles are standing at, it should be impossible.
The idea of impossible buildings also appealed, so with them is a kind of mixture between, I guess, the Cotswold that is in England, and my old town, Dubrovnik, where it has trees on the roof, and strange clouds growing throughout it. So, it needs to have both the feel of historical, fantasy, and time having passed there. But at the same time have the sense of the magic tuppence here. And so that’s gonna work. And so it also helps in terms of the correct choice of the place you live in. And how, and how that blends together to create a sense of place, I guess.
On the topic of the late, great Alan Rickman. What was it like working with such a legendary actor, especially in one of his final performances?
It was amazing. I mean, he’s an absolute legend in both screen and stage in the UK. In England, he’s very well known for his theatrical work since the ’80’s. And obviously since then, you know, then he made “Die Hard” and things changed. But he was an absolute total genius, what with an incredible powerful performance in terms of his voice.
That great thing about Alan is that he had that voice that was so recognizable that from the moment he opened his mouth you knew it was him. And I think that’s an incredible power to have. And Absolem the character and just incredibly wise and inscrutable character. You were never quite sure whether it’s helping you or not. Alan instantly has that in his voice. He has that great sense of knowledge and of wisdom. But also he’s just slightly ambivalent. And I love that about his character. He played it so beautifully, and he’s done it before, of course so he knew the character inside out. And that, in this film, has developed into a butterfly from a caterpillar in the first one.
But still he has that same sense of being, he helps Alice but in a way whereby he wants her to work it out for himself. And that was by the cat, but certainly Alan was just fantastic and, you know, it’s a great change, you know, from tragedy. ‘Cause of course, you know, such a brilliant performer and had far too little time with him, frankly. But I’m obviously honored to have him in the film. And this being his last moments you know, is an honor for us.
Alice is considered one of the strongest female leads in storytelling history. What does the character of Alice mean to you, and to cinema as a whole?
Obviously what was of great appeal to me of – and to everybody I hope, is that I really feel that Lewis Carroll had this amazing perception of Alice Little, who was a real girl. He went to, in the 1860s, ‘70s, who is growing up in a time when women’s roles in the world were very different, in a very patriarchal society. I think he felt that things were changing. And if you look at it, Alice Little, the real Alice, he wrote the book for, was born in the same decade as Emmeline Pankhurst, who in the future in the 1900s became a leader of the Suffragette Movement in England, who got women the vote. And I feel that Lewis Carroll was very perceptive of this changing role of women in society. And so I think he imbued her life with the way he saw girls and women at the time, as being capable of independent thought. Not being defined by other people. And I think this stuff is so strong for Alice, and I think that’s, in many ways, why she does make such an impact today, because it feels like an ideal, which was very ahead of its time. And yet it’s still relevant today.
Because the solution hasn’t arrived. You know, look at how many women’s protagonists there are in cinema, very few. And that needs to be addressed. So I’m incredibly proud of the fact that the film has a theme of a female protagonist, I think it’s incredibly important, because Lewis Carroll started this, and I think that he would be pleased with the progress that’s been made. But by no means has the job been done.
“Alice Through the Looking Glass” hits theatres, Disney Digital 3D and IMAX 3D on May 27th.