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Tim Burton on past ‘Alice’ films: ‘There wasn’t anything underneath them’

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Hero Complex contributor Gina McIntyre sat down with director Tim Burton Friday afternoon in San Diego to talk about the very busy schedule the filmmaker is keeping these days. He’s just produced the dark, PG-13 rated animated fantasy ‘9,’ due out Sept. 9; he’s in post-production on his elaborate adaptation of the works of Lewis Carroll, ‘Alice in Wonderland’; and he’s looking to bring vampire Barnabas Collins to the screen with a ‘Dark Shadows’ movie starring Johnny Depp. Part two of the conversation follows...


G.M. How challenging has it been for you on ‘Alice in Wonderland’ since you’re marrying several technologies to give the film its unique look? But also, how liberating has it been to utilize these new tools?


T.B.: I don’t feel liberated yet, no, only because it’s a very strange process and I like what I like. That’s why I like stop-motion. On a live-action, you’ve got actors, you’ve got sets and that’s what I like. This is almost the opposite of that. You’ve got a lot of pieces and not until very late in the game do you see a finished shot. I think I’ve yet to see a finished shot. It’s quite a scary, daunting process. It’s exciting but it’s the opposite of what I’m used to. You see a piece of a shot and it’s like a puzzle. You’re trying to hope and make sure it gets to the right place but you’re only seeing one piece at a time.

G.M. Did the process change how you worked with the actors?
T.B.: No. Because it’s such a long big process, the key with that is to try to keep that as energetic as quick and moving as possible because otherwise you just get bogged down in technology. We just didn’t worry about the technology to begin with and just started to shoot so the actors could keep their energy and their focus. With these kinds of things you’re acting against an animated character or something that’s not there, so there’s a lot of that kind of stuff.

G.M. The sets and the costumes that Disney has on display here are just beautiful.
T.B.: We had some reality to hang onto there a little bit. It helps, believe me. This is the first time I’ve dealt with a lot of green screen and it drives you nuts. After a while you start to get kind of jittery and crazy. It’s a weird phenomenon. I’d never really experienced it to this degree. The thing is, you can’t really deal with Method actors in that scenario. They’re in trouble. That was part of the thing, you’re going to be working in a void and you’re going to be dealing with people who aren’t there and you try to suss that out before you work with somebody. You can kind of tell when you meet somebody if they’re going to go for it and I like those people anyway. I worked with some new people that I hadn’t worked with and they were all great.
G.M.: There’s so much ‘Alice’ material. How did you go through and select what to include in the film.
T.B.: Linda [Woolverton] the screenwriter, that was the thing I thought she did well and it was a hard thing to do. As books, [the story], it’s very episodic, this story, that story. She ended up kind of using a lot of the vibe of the Jabberwocky poem, the weird language, that figures into it. You can’t have every character but we tried to keep the few iconic ones, the Hatter, of course, and the Cheshire Cat and the White Rabbit and the March Hare and Red Queen, White Queen, that fit within the story that Linda wrote. Obviously there are a lot of characters that aren’t in it. It was more important to take that material and try to make it a movie. Every other version I’ve ever seen I’ve never really connected to because it’s always just a series of weird events. She’s passively wandering through, [meeting] this weird character, that weird character. It’s fine in the books, but the movies always felt like there wasn’t anything underneath them. That’s what we tried to do. Instead of the Hatter just being weird, is get some kind of underneath him, some kind of character underneath him. That’s the goal is to give the Alice material a little more weight to it.
G.M.: That notion of making her less passive is very interesting. Was that something that you talked about with actress Mia Wasikowska?

T.B.: What I liked about her is she’s not a big demonstrative actor. She’s got that old soul quality, somebody you can see has an internal life and intelligence and a gravity to her and kind of a slightly disturbed quality, which fits into the material. You’ve got to believe that she’s got an internal life. That’s what a lot of these stories are, characters kind of working out their issues or problems. You like to find somebody and they don’t have to say anything or do anything, but you look at them and you know there’s something going on, they have some kind of gravity.

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G.M.: Was that a difficult quality to find in a young actress?

T.B.: I met lots of good actresses but [Mia] just had something different about her that I liked. She’s very quiet. It’s not even something that you can put into words. I like those kinds of things were you can’t necessarily identify it in a verbal or specific way. It’s more of a feeling.

G.M. How long is the post-production process, one year?

T.B.: Well, it comes out in March, so that’s when it will end. It will go all the way up to that. It’s the kind of project, most of these that use this kind of technology take probably a couple of years longer than we have. I don’t mean that as an excuse. In some ways there’s something kind of good about just having to do it, but in reality I wish there were more shots done than where we are at this moment. It’s been daunting. If you saw how much was missing, you’d be nervous, too. [laughs]

G.M.: Would you do something this technically complex again?

T.B.: Right now it’s hard for me to say. Usually you talk about a film, even at the end it’s hard, I don’t like it. But at this stage all I can think about is how much I’ve got to do. It’s hard to say. I don’t really know what the outcome’s going to be. Any film you do, you just kind of finish and you wish you could spend a little bit more time on this or that. I don’t yet know how much at the end of this I will have felt that I’ve compromised or not. It’s a hard call to know. I don’t even think I’m that much of a perfectionist, but it’s hard to let go of anything. It’s tricky. This one could be pretty rough way I don’t know.

G.M.: You’ve talked about doing ‘Dark Shadows’ next. Is that still the plan?

T.B.: I think so, yes. That’s the plan. There was something very weird about that, it had the weirdest vibe to it. I’m sort of intrigued about that vibe. It’s early days on it, but I’m excited about it.

G.M. We seem to be in the midst of vampire-mania, what with ‘Twilight’ and ‘True Blood’ and other projects. What do you make of that?

T.B.: It happens. You look at the history of film and whether it’s vampires or witches or wizards or whatever, it’s like any great fable or fairytale, it’s got a power to it. I think that’s why people keep going back to it. There’s something symbolic about it that touches people in different ways. It’s symbolic for something, I’m sure with everybody it’s slightly different but it’s still powerful. All great stories, there are about five different variations. I grew up on monster movies and it wasn’t until later that I realized it’s all the same story basically, but the monsters are great and they’re all different and it makes it feel like it’s all different. The monsters have more personality than the actors around them a lot of times.

— Gina McIntyre

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