James Bobin talks about his love of Lewis Carroll and why Tim Burton is the perfect producer.

The British director  made his name on the small screen, first as one of the creators of Da Ali G Show and later as one of writers and producers of another cult favourite, Flight Of The Conchords, which he created with Kiwi comedy duo Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie.

He teamed up with the latter for his big screen directorial debut, the 2011 reboot The Muppets, and also co-wrote and directed the sequel Muppets Most Wanted (2014).

In his latest movie, Bobin faced the daunting challenge of taking over the directorial reins from Tim Burton for the fantasy sequel Alice Through The Looking Glass. However, he maintains Burton couldn’t have been more supportive.

James Bobin Q+A

Tell us what originally attracted you to the project.

Lewis Carroll’s work is everywhere in English culture, and if you are English, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is part of your DNA. We grew up with Alice, so she’s been around for a very long time and is very familiar to me. I think it was an incredible achievement of Carroll’s to have created a character like Alice who embodied a particular time period from the past but who was also so ahead of her time. Alice is very forward-thinking and almost out of place because she’s a strong character in a very patriarchal, Victorian society…sort of a modern woman in an old-fashioned society. So it was because I knew Alice so well and saw this as an amazing opportunity to become a part of this incredible legacy. It was a real honor to be asked, and I’m delighted to be a part of it.

Why do you think Tim Burton’s film was so successful and what excited you about being able to continue the story?

Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland was a spectacular production. His films always have such a unique vision and style, and people were curious to see what he would do with a story from the mind of Lewis Carroll. We’ve all seen versions of Alice in Wonderland before, but Tim gave his film such an interesting, dark, gothic feel which is very Victorian in its own way. When you combine that with a story that showed Alice in this kind of dark prism and which was fantastic and beautifully put together, it obviously appealed to audiences. This film is a continuation of that story to a degree, and I have tremendous respect for Tim’s work and was excited by the prospect of taking elements from his movie and pushing it forward by introducing new characters, new ideas and new worlds. I’m from the comedy world, and I believe Carroll is one of the earliest satirists. The combination of political commentary plus satire plus absurdism is pure English humor, and I wanted to bring elements of that to this story.

James Bobin interview

Tell us what the story is about.

Our story takes place three or four years after the first film, but it is not based on Lewis Carroll’s book Through the Looking-Glass. The book is essentially an allegory of a chess match spread out over eight chapters in which Alice eventually becomes queen, but it is also eight chapters that bear no relation to one another…they’re completely random, bizarre, weird episodes in his life and it’s really dark and very odd. Our film tells a new story which has elements from both books, but it’s really much more about the characters from the first film and what’s happened to them since, as well as what happened to them in the past..

How has Johnny Depp’s character, the Hatter, changed since we last saw him?

The Hatter is on hard times, and Johnny has to play him as a sensible grownup who is still somewhat mad, which is very difficult to do. It is hard to be sensible and mad at the same time, but Johnny carries it off brilliantly. The Hatter really is the other central character besides Alice who we really care about in the film and really want to see happy. We see him as his normal self in a flashback when he is a young man, which is a different tone for his character because it’s just a degree of madness. We know the Hatter was driven mad by excessive mercury poisoning, but in this story we learn more about his family’s history, which is key to finding out what actually happened to them.

What does Mia Wasikowska bring to the role of Alice?

I am so thrilled that Mia is Alice. If I had been casting the role I would have chosen her, too. Alice is the central character in the story and it is a very multifaceted role to play, but Mia is strong and so very good at playing roles with complex emotions. She is the film’s anchor and she brilliantly grounds Alice in this Victorian world. Alice is us, she is the audience, and we view everything through her.

James Bobin interview

Bobin chats with producers Suzanne Todd and Tim Burton

How was it working with Tim Burton as a producer? Can you talk about the differences between the two films?

Tim was the perfect collaborator. He has such good ideas and such strong viewpoints about what this world should and could be, but at the same time he gave me a great deal of freedom. In Tim’s film the story included things from both of Lewis Carroll’s books. For example, Iracebeth’s pet, the Jabberwocky, and Tweedledee and Tweedledum, were featured in Alice in Wonderland, but neither one was actually from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but the Looking-Glass book instead.

Was it important for you to bring back members of the original creative team?

The creative team from Tim Burton’s film did extraordinary work, and I wanted to pay respect to Burton’s gothic style and sensibility. But at the same time we wanted to find new worlds to play with and new sets to build, which is what we did. Obviously this film still has a huge amount of CG effects, but I’m very much a fan of the tactile environment. I love the idea of actors interacting with sets and think it’s nice for them to be able to pick up something and really see and feel what it is…it helps in so many ways. So we actually built a number of major sets like the town of Witzend, which is a key setting for several significant events that take place in our story. Our production designer Dan Hennah is someone I’ve wanted to work with for a long time. He did all the Hobbit movies with Peter Jackson, and in The Desolation of Smaug he built a town called Lake Town, which, in the book, is a fantastically beautiful town, literally on stilts on a lake. His work is just phenomenal. In terms of costume design, we were incredibly fortunate to welcome back Colleen Atwood, who won an Oscar for her work on Alice in Wonderland. I was desperate to have her because she’s so fantastic and I’ve been a big fan of hers for a very long time. She is truly a genius.

James Bobin Q+A

Tell us about some of the new characters in the film.

I was looking for new ideas and new characters that weren’t in the second book and wanted to add a new character, a villain, as well. Time, our new character, was very much Carroll’s idea, not mine. Time is a very pompous, arrogant, self-opinionated buffoon, so I turned to my great friend, Sacha Baron Cohen, who is all of those things as an actor. Sacha is excellent at playing the confident idiot, and a confident idiot is my favorite type of character. We also meet the Hatter’s family, who are actually a very large part of this story, particularly the Hatter’s father (Rhys Ifans), who is not at all like his son. His father is the milliner in town and is always very serious. Most of the faces audiences remember from the first film are back again, as I was very keen to not mess with those characters, as they are so beautifully played and help to create a cohesive universe.

What can fans of Alice in Wonderland expect with this film?

Alice is always involved in adventure. She’s sort of the calm center in a world of craziness and is very much a person who lives this incredible life both upstairs – upstairs being Victorian England – and downstairs (downstairs being Underland). It’s an adventure…i t’s a quest. Underland is a beautiful place to spend an hour and a half of your time, and you’ll learn something about humanity at the same time.

James Bobin Q+A