Down the Rabbit Hole with Tim Burton, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter
I am a huge fan of Tim Burton. He did, after all, make the official greatest film of all time - Edward Scissorhands. For his take on Alice, in 2010, I jumped on the train to London to chat to Tim, as well as Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter for The Big Issue. It didn't make the article, but I took the opportunity to tell Burton to scrap the rumoured sequel to Beetlejuice (so far, so good).
What happened when Alice was reunited with the Mad Hatter and the Red Queen? Laura Kelly finds out when she speaks to the movie's director and stars Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter...
When it was announced my years ago that twisted auteur Tim Burton was to follow up his bloody musical Sweeney Todd with a brand new take on Alice in Wonderland, few were taken aback by the combination of director and project. It felt somehow inevitable that the artist who gave us modern fables such as Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Big Fish would at some point get round to taking on Lewis Carroll’s fairy tale.
However, according to the man himself – talking to The Big Issue in a plush room at London’s Dorchester hotel – he wasn’t the slightest bit interested in going down the rabbit hole until recently. “A few years ago I don’t know if I would’ve wanted to do Alice in Wonderland,” he says, fluffing his trademark wild hair and constantly shifting in his chair, “but the idea of doing Alice in Wonderland in 3D seemed like the perfect mix. It seemed like the trippiness of that world would be great in 3D.”
With 20-odd alternate versions of Alice already out there, Burton faced an uphill climb to make his version stand out, even with the bells and whistles afforded by 3D. So far he hasn’t been helped by the controversy over whether UK cinemas would even show the film, which overshadowed his artistic vision with a political row about how long studios should wait after cinema releases before getting the DVDs out.
The dispute was resolved at the 11th hour — on the same morning as The Big Issue interview with Burton. Burton says the wrangle was “terrible”, but he’s thoroughly confident in the film itself.
The director has never shown any trepidation in taking on sacred cows — as his adaptations of Batman, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and (the probably best forgotten) Planet of the Apes reveal – but Carroll’s classic children’s tale is so beloved that tinkering with The Mad Hatter, the March Hare and the Jabberwocky is bound spark some outrage.
However, the very fact all those other versions are already out there made Burton feel he had carte blanche. “I didn’t feel like there was a definitive version,” he explains.
“l knew the world of Alice, not through the books but through music and bands. To me it felt like it was open territory because it’s so in our culture.” With that in mind, Burton has let the tinkering run riot, ditching almost all the original plot to make a sort of sequel to Carroll’s story.
Picking up with Alice 12 years after her first (by now forgotten) outing with the White Rabbit, just as she is proposed to by a weak-chinned Lord with “delicate digestion”, we follow her return to a Wonderland ravaged by the dictatorship of the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter).
Aided and abetted by the Mad Hatter — Johnny Depp, in a wild performance that incorporates at three different unhinged characters, the angriest of which comes with an abrasive Scottish brogue — Alice must allow the downtrodden inhabitants of her childhood fantasy world to reassert themselves.
It’s a remarkably brave call and extremely effective. Giving a mission to our heroine strings all the strangeness together— giving the crazies a purpose, from the Hatter and the Red Queen to the monstrous Bandersnatch and even the little hedgehog croquet ball.
Burton says the aim was to make us relate to each character, just as he did. “It’s nice with each character to feel what they’re about — to not make them all just mad. Each one has their own sense of madness. In all the other versions everybody’s crazy and the girl’s just, well, meh.”
Burton’s Alice is anything but indifferent. The film climaxes with her in full-on Joan of Arc mode, and the director says her journey reflects his own travels, from uncomfortable beginnings growing up in the bland Californian suburb of Burbank, to his battle against being pigeonholed as he found success.
“I relate to the way she felt,” he explains. “You’re young but you feel like an old soul, you don’t feel comfortable in your own skin. You feel like society is putting you in a box. I’ve always hated that and I’ve always felt that.”
Burton was stifled by his childhood hometown, which later became the inspiration for the pastel-shaded suburbs of Edward Scissorhands, and found escape in drawing and making short films. His talent brought him the the attention of Disney, where he spent a few unhappy years in tehir trainee programme, animating the foxes’ “wet, drippy eyes” on The Fox and the Hound and creating films that were quickly buried, such as the short Vincent, which was well-received at film festivals but was too dark for Disney to get behind.
Finally escaping to make madcap comedy Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Burton has gone on to blaze his own trail through the movie industry, making some of the most identifiable and inspired movies of the last 20 years. Burton’s old friend and frequent collaborator Johnny Depp is fulsome and lavish in his praise of the director, when The Big Issue later catches up with him alongside Helena Bonham Carter.
“As far as I’m concerned, he’s one of the only true artists working in cinema,” says Depp.
“Real artrists, a real auteur, is virtually non-existent at this point. I’ve always admired Tim for his commitment to his vision and the impossibility of compromise and for doing exactly what he wanted, the way he wanted.”
The fact Disney has changed its mind about Burton to such an extent that they’ve let him helm a kids’ film — and backed him even when it turned out to be a kids’ film in which disembodied heads are used as stepping stones and monsters have their serpentine tongues cut out – shows how his star has risen.
Although it can’t have been too hard to get his long-term partner Helena Bonham Carter on board, Alice in Wonderland is bursting at the seams with high-profile talent — all willing to be made to look thoroughly foolish in service to Burton’s vision.
Matt Lucas appears as near-spherical twins Tweedledum and Tweedledee, for which he submitted to looking like “a round, green pillow with spots”, according to Bonham Carter. Renowned thesp Alan Rickman brings all his gravitas to voice a blue caterpillar, Stephen Fry is the toothiest Cheshire Cat ever and Barbara Windsor flourishes her sword as a feisty wee dormouse.
“For me, every day is Halloween” - Tim Burton
But saving the best (or worst) for those closest to him, Burton has thoroughly transformed two of Hollywood’s most beautiful stars.
Depp is given an orange fright-wig and unnaturally enlarged yellow eyes, which he esoterically insists comes from his research into the poisoning real-life hatters used to suffer from due to the mercury in the glue they used.
“I found this thing called the hatter’s disease,” says Burton. “The way it would manifest with some was Tourette’s-like symptoms, some would get personality disorder, some darker and weirder. I think there was also an orange tint to the actual stuff, so that’s where the orange bits came from.”
The mother of Burton’s children, meanwhile, is transformed into a bubble-headed tyrant, whose temperament was modelled on their two-year-old daughter, according to Bonham Carter: “She’s got the big head and she’s a tyrant and toddlers are tyrants. They have no empathy, they’re like dictators and they’re all about ‘me’.”
Bonham Carter says her and Depp are happy to be grotesque. “I think we both kind of like it,” she laughs, as Depp nods in agreement. “I like being disfigured. I like being made not to look like what I actually come as. Although, I think Tim just always thought my head was too small.”
Burton's choice to use so much CGI and green screen comes as a surprise from someone who has previously been such a strong supporter of more low-tech special effects techniques, especially stop-animation. Those who loved the sandworms in Beetlejuice or Pee-Wee’s grossly ghostly Large Marge, and fans of The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride, needn’t worry, though.
“You try to pick the medium and the material that fits. All the different techniques made sense to me,” Burton explains of the high-tech approach. “But I have got other stop-motion projects coming, because I do love it.”
No doubt, just as with every new Burton release, Halloween will be packed with attempts to bring the peculiar computer-generated residents of Wonderland into the real world. The director’s creations always have lashings of the macabre that suits that time of year.
Burton says he debuted his costume as one of the Red Queen’s court last year. “For me, every day is Halloween,” he laughs.