Director Tim Burton
The idea of putting his own spin on a classic tale like Alice in Wonderland was impossible for Tim Burton
to resist. Known for his dark, elaborate, and innovative vision in memorable films such as The Nightmare before Christmas, Batman, Sweeney Todd, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, among others, Burton set his sights on creating a haunted version of Alice in Wonderland, starring Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter.
In this exclusive interview, Burton talks about Johnny Depp, Sleeping Beauty and fatherhood.
Q: What made you say yes to the project? Was it the script, your relationship with Disney, or the 3D element?
Tim Burton: It was the 3D element. When Disney came and said Alice in 3D, I thought it was the perfect mix of medium and material. I never felt like I saw a good version of "Alice in Wonderland." It was always a bratty girl with a whole bunch of weird characters. I like what Linda [Woolverton] did with it because she put it in a different context and at the same time allowed the characters to be.
Q: Alice's true identity is constantly questioned by the inhabitants of Underland. Tell us about Alice the character and the casting of Mia Wasikowska.
Burton: That's the thing with all the craziness—it really is a simple story. It's about a girl finding herself and her journey. It's like what happens to all of us, how you use your dreams and your fantasy life to deal with everyday problems. Some people say this is fantasy and that's reality but all that stuff really blends in our minds and in our hearts together. It is really about a girl trying to maneuver her way through life.
When I met Mia I just thought, "Boom." She was a young person with an old person's soul. By just looking at her you can sense this internal life, so we needed somebody with that kind of gravity. She hasn't done a lot of things but she just had this real strength, which I really loved about her. I find her very intriguing. It's a hard part but it's a very internal part. There's not a lot of screaming. It was more about observing, thinking and soaking-in - that's very hard to do.
Q: Did you and Johnny Depp collaborate together in developing The Mad Hatter?
Burton: We always do. In this particular case, I…do sketches and he does too. He showed me his sketch and I showed him mine and they were similar. So that was great.
Q: Do you always think of Johnny when you're developing a new project?
Burton: Well, let's put it this way: yes and no. We don't go out of our way to say "anytime." It's when it feels right or when it's a new challenge. I know Johnny is capable of so much. As many times as we have worked together, it's very important, I think, for both of us really, well for any artists…if you've worked with someone seven times or so, you always want to surprise each other.
Q: At what point did you know you were done editing the film?
Burton: Last week when it had to be done. I felt the pressure and I didn't like it. It just needed a little bit more time, but hey, it's amazing that we did it in the time we had, so I'm proud of it. But you never feel finished, really…this one was a bit harder.
Q: Rumor has it you might be directing Sleeping Beauty.
[Laughs]. Nope, that's a rumor alright.
Q: Speaking of projects, The Pee-wee Herman Show was in Los Angeles a few weeks ago; were you able to go see it? There's talk that Pee-wee's Playhouse: The Movie might need a director. Would you consider taking it on?
Burton: You know what's funny about that? I remember when we were working together back in 1984, geez, we were joking about that on set, we joked about making a movie on what ever happened to baby Jane. [Laughs]. I saw an ad for the show and I thought, “Wow, man that's great." In fact, it scared me because he looks exactly the same.
Q: Producer Suzanne Todd called you a modern day Walt Disney.
Burton: [Laughs] If they can cryogenically freeze me in the hollows of Disneyland, good, I'll join them.
Q: A majority of your feature films have been nominated for Academy Awards, and you would rank high as one of the greatest directors of our time. Do you feel like you've made it?
Burton: I don't think that. I laugh at it all. It's surreal. It's a beautiful, wonderful surprise. That's what keeps me going—the absurdity of life.
Q: You shot the film in 2D and later converted it to 3D. Are you a fan of 3D?
Burton: I think 3D is here. It's not a gimmick. 3D is another tool that helps bring people into the story. So, I think it's great. But it will be like anything where you'll see some good work and you'll see some bad, especially if everyone goes for it.
Q: In the midst of all your accolades and successful projects, what's fatherhood like?
Burton: It's hard. I've been away for a long time, so I am quite sad about that. It's been the hardest thing. I see them on Skype and you just kind of watch them grow up. Again, that's another surreal surprise that happened in my life.
Q: Are your two children familiar with your work?
Burton: The one that's two years old doesn't know but my [older] boy kind of knows. But he reminds me very much of how I was—not quite sure. Look, if I don't know what I'm doing how can I tell him what I do? [Laughs].
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