CN speaks with Alice Through the Looking Glass director James Bobin

April 27th, 2016

The Carroll News participated in a conference call interview with James Bobin, director of Walt Disney’s sequel, “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” produced by Tim Burton based on characters written by Lewis Carroll.


Q: Will the film be a continuation of the first film’s original story line in “Alice in Wonderland?”


James Bobin: The original book is particularly important to me because, growing up in England, I read this book 100 times, so I knew it pretty well. But, that also meant that I knew going into this that the book’s story is rather unusual. The book’s story is a very strange sequence of events, and it’s beautiful and great, but doesn’t really work as a driving narrative to sit down and watch for an hour and a half. It was really keen to combine elements of the book that I thought were important, but at the same time use the character’s from Burton’s first film to try and tell a story that feels the spirit of Lewis Carroll. We tried to keep elements of the book, like location and some dialogue, but really the story is an original story. It serves as both a prequel and sequel to the first film.


Q: You’ve taken on such iconic characters in your direction experience, from 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?


Bobin: I feel that with both the Muppets and Alice, I have a very clear idea of what they mean to me, so I have a sense of what I think they are. With the “The Muppets,” I remember them very clearly from my childhood and I remembered why I liked them. So I wanted to try and make them feel like that again. I’m not the only person who loves these characters, everyone loves these characters. It’s a responsibility to try and reintroduce these characters. However, Alice is different. She’s been around for almost 150 years. It’s incredible to make a movie as a testament to Carroll’s incredible imagination to this world. I want to be true to Carroll but at the same time I want to make a film  whereby you are transported to an incredible place, to that part of the story where Carroll thinks. This film should introduce Carroll’s work and be true to it, but at the same time, making it relevant is my job.


Q: How do you approach creating the unique areas of Wonderland? Does your process involve your own sketches or more in-depth concept art?


Bobin: When you read a script, you can’t help but visualize it neatly in your head. That’s just your own brain creating images for you. That’s often very based on the things you’ve read and the world you’ve been affected by. Often I do my own sketches, because I like drawing, so I’d do those sketches of places in this film. Time, played by Sasha Baron Cohen, has a castle; he lives in this incredible place. I had an idea about distance and some sort of obstacle to get to his castle and it being made with gigantic clocks made of stone. But those kinds of ideas in my head had to start by sketching them out and then handing them over to professional concept designers. It’s always good to have a sketch or visual to use to tell a story. You describe what you’re feeling about a place, and often these guys are so brilliant at their jobs, they can interpret your thoughts into actual visuals. 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. But you know, beyond that there’s the question of how you see things and how you visualize them. I was very interested in the Victorian world and imagination. Victorians obviously were of a time prior to that of science fiction. A lot of their fantasy world was based on nursery rhymes and medieval stuff. So I tried to incorporate elements of that in the design throughout the film.


Q: You mentioned you built real sets for the film, including Wit’s End. What was the building process like making these set pieces?


Bobin: Wit’s End is the town in the movie. It’s basically the place where the Hatter has his family shop. And it’s where the Red Queen and White Queen grew up. I’ve often enjoyed walking around small English villages and understanding how they grow through 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 has been there for a long time and developed in a very random way. I didn’t necessarily obey the laws of architecture to a degree, because through time buildings settle and move. But here, things were built on top of each other over time. 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. 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 they’re standing at, it should be impossible. The idea of impossible buildings was also appealing. The set was a mixture between Cotswold in England and my old town, Dubrovnik, which has trees on the roof. The set needed to have both the feel of historical, fantasy, and time having passed there. But at the same time have the sense of the magic.


Q: How will the setting and appearance of “Alice Through the Looking Glass” differ from “Alice in Wonderland?”


Bobin: This film has to stay in the world that’s been created. I don’t want you to feel like you’re in somewhere completely different. In terms of character design, they are very similar. But this new world feels like a fake place. But this movie is set in a different time and place so therefore, I could try and incorporate other ideas. This is a land where the population is both human and frog and fish and some people with heads of animals. So it has to feel like a place where they could live. Therefore this film has a slight magical sense about it.


CN: This sequel brings back original characters and actors, including Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, and the late Alan Rickman. So what new additions or stories were added to their characters and what was it like working with them on this film?


Bobin: They’re all basically heroes of mine. I love exploring why people are the way they are. This film, particularly for the Red Queen and White Queen, is explanatory and suggests that things aren’t always as simple as good and evil. In terms of new characters, I was very keen to introduce people who felt like they were part of this world. When Hatter first meets Alice in the first book, he says, ‘I’ve been stuck at the Tea Party since last March, when Time and I quarreled.’ I said, that would be a good idea for a character. The idea of Time, in Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, is a person. Time is a personification of time and is a person you can talk to. Sascha Baron Cohen as Time was a no-brainer for me. I knew he’d be fantastic at playing a bad guy you’d feel sorry for.


Q: What made you think Sascha Baron Cohen would be a good fit for “Alice Through the Looking Glass?” Did you decide you wanted Sascha before writing his character Time into the script, or vice versa?


Bobin: Contemporaneously, they both happened on set. When you’re thinking about ideas, often somehow the person to play that part gets into your head. And you may not even be aware of it at the time. But suddenly it felt to me that when I realized that Time could be a bad guy in this film, I didn’t want him to be the ultimate bad guy, because that was the Red Queen. He would be a fairly useless antagonist. And yet at the same time, I wanted him to be likeable. It was very important to me that you actually felt sorry for him. I like the idea that Time is lonely. The idea that he has this fairly god-like persona. And yet he’s surrounded by these things that are robots, they don’t really give him any feedback about his self. And so Sascha’s very good at playing vulnerable characters. I knew that Sascha would play Time in a way by his liking, because he’s a guy who’s incredibly confident and arrogant and he can’t see his own flaws. But at the same time you understand that he is flawed and you do feel sorry for him because he is lonely, and, therefore, vulnerable. In one of his lines in the film, you realize he is conquered by love. And time conquered by love, that’s a funny idea to me. But love is the thing that brings him to his knees and is what defeats him.


Q: What does the character of Alice mean to you, and to cinema as a whole?


Bobin: I really feel that Lewis Carroll had this amazing perception of Alice Little, who was a real girl. In the 1860’s, he was 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. Alice Little, the real Alice who he wrote the book for, was born in the same decade as Emily Pankhurst, who in the future in the 1900s became a leader of the Suffragette Movement in England, who got women the vote. I feel that Lewis Carroll was very perceptive of this changing role of women in society. 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. I think that’s why Alice is so strong and why she still makes an impact on audiences today, because she feels like an ideal which was very ahead of Carroll’s time.  And yet, she is still relevant today. 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.


Q: In a previous project of yours, you has a lot of different music integrated in the storytelling. Was it different to try and make such a big production without music?


Bobin: If I could put music in everything I would. I was aware this would not be a musical. But it doesn’t mean that music isn’t important to the movie, because the score’s incredibly important to write. Music plays a big role in the film, because it sets feelings and tones throughout the film. There are no actual sequences of dancing, singing or anything which I love, but at the same time, this film works very well without.


Q: Could you discuss the experience of directing Johnny Depp in one of his most eccentric and iconic roles as the Mad Hatter?


Bobin: Johnny’s done the job before, he knows his character very well. When he created the character with Tim, it’s always what I thought the character should be. He was very much aware of this character and how this character is played, how he works and his strengths, etc. So for me, it was kind of the question of using that knowledge in terms of shaping the character for this film. He plays the Mad Hatter in a very vulnerable way. Johnny’s best characters, I find, are characters that have a great vulnerability about them. In this film, we were very keen to use that as a kind of emotional design to provide an engine for the movie. Very quickly in the beginning of the film,  the Hatter and Alice have a special relationship. And yet, he’s stubborn and there’s this tragedy because it’s something that is killing him. So we see the vulnerability of the Hatter and how the Hatter has this great way of conveying his sadness. And so, he then starts becoming crazy, especially in his work. It becomes too much, but toward the end of the film, he becomes himself again. And Johnny was very interested in how the Hatter is different in this film from the beginning.