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Alice Through the Looking Glass interview: director James Bobin

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james bobbinAlice Through the Looking Glass is released in the UK on the 27th of May, and I recently sat down with the film’s director James Bobin. James previously directed ‘Muppets Most Wanted’, ‘Flight of the Conchords’ and is set to also helm the Men In Black-21 Jump Street crossover movie. Bobin was surprisingly cool to talk about that, and more Conchords, as well as tea and making a Weekend at Bernie’s remake with Sacha Baron Cohen as Bernie. You can also read my report of the Alice Press Conference.

In Disney’s “Alice Through the Looking Glass”, an all-new spectacular adventure featuring the unforgettable characters from Lewis Carroll’s beloved stories, Alice returns to the whimsical world of Underland and travels back in time to save the Mad Hatter. Directed by James Bobin, who brings his own unique vision to the spectacular world Tim Burton created on screen in 2010 with “ Alice in Wonderland”, the film is written by Linda Woolverton, based on characters created by Lewis Carroll, and produced by Tim Burton.

“Alice Through the Looking Glass” reunites the all-star cast from the worldwide blockbuster phenomenon, including: Johnny Depp, Anne Hathaway, Mia Wasikowska and Helena Bonham Carter, along with the voices of Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen and Timothy Spall. We are also introduced to several new characters: Zanik Hightopp (Rhys Ifans), the Mad Hatter’s father, and Time himself (Sacha Baron Cohen), a peculiar creature who is part human, part clock.

Fast talking, quick with an answer, interesting, and easy to get along with, I had a total blast with James; a genial fellow who asked if I minded him taking his jacket off now he’s “not on TV anymore”, before putting his feet up on the chaise lounge in his plush Corinthia Hotel suite and relaxing.

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To start off with, what was the hand over process between you and Tim Burton?

It was pretty straight forward. It’s quite a long time since the last one, so when I heard the studio had it coming up I talked to Disney about it and said what I want to do with it, then I went to see Tim. That was the first thing I did: to go and see Tim in Vancouver, where he was making Big Eyes – it was that long ago.

He was great. He was incredibly open and honest, and gave great advice about it. He was sort of saying how hard it is!

 

Yeah, in the press conference you were saying how he told you not to shoot on green screen, right?

[laughs] ’cause he said… I mean, I knew that because on Muppets Most Wanted – the sequence at the end, where Kermit’s on a helicopter – obviously that’s a blue screen environment.

 

No!

Yeah! [laughs] I know! We didn’t really go to the roof of the Tower of London and shoot puppets on a helicopter! But, yeah, I knew that blue was a better choice, but he said that green all day drove him so crazy that after like week four he had to wear purple sunglasses to counter the green in his head.

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Like Tim Burton wouldn’t wear purple sunglasses already!

[laughs] Yeah, he would probably have worn them anyway! So just that sort of stuff, about how it’s an unusual process, and it’s like making a film backwards in a weird way. Having him on the end of the phone was incredibly useful, because while I wanted to bring my own feeling and tone and look, Tim created this world and his design language is so beautiful – I just wanted to build upon that, not change it. Enhance it, I guess.

 

I suppose it’s that juggle between being respectful to “the world”…

Right.

 

…but also making it your own.

Yeah! You have to obey the rules of the universe that has been created – the world has to make sense. But because the film is set in the past, and also ahead of the time of the last film, and in different geographical locations. The town of ‘Wit’s End’ was a cross between a Cotswolds village meets medieval fortress town sort of idea, and that felt right to me. This quasi medieval meets high Victorian.

 

And that’s so evident in the great costumes and sets.

If you look at when the townsfolk gather for the crowning ceremony, there are doublets and stockings – but also some guys in high frock coats. And also you’ll notice: the buildings themselves should not stand up. They are probably impossible, which is what I like about them. If they were real buildings they would fall over. But if you go to old European towns ,or the Shambles in York or whatever, you get a feeling that things are falling over on you, because time settles buildings and that’s important.

 

What’s your directing style like?

[laughs] That’s a hard question to answer… I think to answer a question like that you need to have a comparison, and directors don’t hang out that often together, and don’t visit each others sets that often – so you don’t really know. [laughs]

 

So how do you approach it?

Exactly. Well, for me, I don’t know… I feel that… I’m quite… I talk a lot to actors is what I do, and obviously… often blocking and the look and the feel of the camera and stuff are things I work out in advance. On the day, it’s more in terms of working with actors on performance, and I’ve always loved that. That part of the job has never changed – that’s sort of the coal face of the job – it really all changes as you progress. As I did Conchords to Muppets to this, I noticed that it’s the number of people behind you that changes. I say… I hope that I’m a collaborative director. I encourage ideas from everybody.

 

How do you find working with huge Hollywood stars like Johnny Depp? Does that change the way you approach it at all? Do you change what you do to cater in any way to people of that… stature?

Possibly. Subconsciously. Definitely not consciously – because you are just who you are. I think that’s what they expect, and actors are just… they have different styles and ways of working, but generally I think if you engage they appreciate that. Which is good. I always try and do that. I’m not a dictatorial director in that way. So that approach has always worked for me – no matter who I’m working with and it hasn’t failed yet, but I’ll tell you when it does! [laughs]

You approach them because of the character, and you have an idea about how this character can work within this particular story, and they often will listen, and that’s what’s… Johnny’s a good listener, and a good collaborator – because he’s interested in trying stuff out. And that’s all you can ask of anyone: to try stuff out and see what works.

 

One of the things I liked the most about the film is your portrayal of Alice… because she is so strong. And I really liked the way that the first time we meet her – in your film – she’s a captain…

Yup.

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…and she has this tremendous action set piece where she’s making all the decisions, and all the right decisions, but it’s in the “real” world, not in Wonderland, so you can see that she is a great leader and not just in a fantasy world.

Yes! Well it’s one thing to show up to a party and say that you’ve been a sea captain for three years, but entirely another to show her doing her job. Because… Alice is pretty much a character out of time, with a very clear determination of what she wants to do and doesn’t suffer fools gladly and doesn’t care what people think about her. Which is all valid lessons in the modern world too frankly, but also in Victorian times and a patriarchal society where that was frowned upon, she is almost considered crazy because she thinks those things.

 

Definitely.

Which is incredible, but probably true. So we really felt it would be a very useful thing to show her doing that, instead of just saying she did that, because the point of the return to London is the realisation that things haven’t really changed, and England is still the same society where you are pigeonholed as a woman immediately as a wife, or a governess, or a mad old aunt – that’s it. So I loved the idea of Alice, particularly with her mother – from the prior generation – who says “I have to make sacrifices, as women that’s what we have to do”, and Alice says, “Why?” [laughs]. I love that idea, because the Alice that Lewis Carroll wrote the book for, that generation of women grow up to seek equal rights. That generation of women grew up to change the world.

 

And we see… that brought back into the “real” world again at the end, and Alice changing her mother.

That’s what I love about the end scene is her mother’s ideologies being affected by her daughter’s decision making, and then they come to a compromise. That’s the great thing about relationships, and the only way they really work: listening to each other and coming to an agreement. I think that’s very sage advice for anyone, in any situation.

 

What is your approach to effects heavy work? The large volume of CGI you dealt with in Alice… is that harder or easier than working with Muppets?

[laughs] Good question! Look… Muppets is tricky, because everything on set is tricky. It’s a question of shot selection and it’s quite limiting – A TOTAL JOY – but quite limiting because of the way that world has to be shot and created. CGI is a completely different sort of challenge. It’s trying to create a believable world. The danger of CGI films is heading towards video games territory. It’s a certain coldness, and it’s hard to determine at what point that is reached – but you kind of feel it.

What I wanted to do with the CGI is extend the world, so a lot of sets were part built, part CGI extensions, and that works very well. But then at the same time, sometimes, like with Time’s castle, it’s so enormous that you have to go full blue, and then really it’s a question of having to explain to the performers where they are – that’s key. You have tools: you have concept art, you often have 3D models on stage, you just explain to people. But in that situation, it’s good. Time’s castle is supposed to be cold, it’s supposed to be… he’s supposed to feel like a lonely despot, so scale is… and coldness is good, and not being aware of his surroundings is good – because it’s so enormous – so that worked well for that I guess.

 

How do you find shooting for 3D?

[chuckles]

 

Because you didn’t shoot in 3D…

No.

 

…So what kind of allowances do you have to make for that process to happen later on?

Um, my thoughts on 3D are very much that it should never just be used on it’s own. 3D should never be used for its own sake. It has to be organic, like a thing that is just how you view the world in three dimensions… unless there’s a particular point you want to make in a scene, or there’s a feeling you want to create – like the depth, I think is interesting. When Alice puts her hand through the mirror, that’s a great 3D moment – but sometimes it just comes out better in 3D and you don’t even realise. For example, the church, the pews create a wonderful depth – there are certain happy accidents like that. There are certain shots you plan, like the shot in the asylum, going down through the various stairways, the camera descending as Alice is ascending – I knew that would be an interesting rabbit hole move.

 

If you could use a chronosphere to travel back in time and change one thing, what would it be and why?

[laughs] Dangerous, dangerous. A bit like Stephen King going back in time to stop Lee Harvey Oswald killing the president. I think all evidence suggests that it would be a very bad idea, which is why we had a rule in this film that you can’t change the past – but you can learn from it. Again, you don’t want to preach to people, but a message in the film is to learn from our past, so we don’t make the same mistakes in the future, but personally… I don’t know… Nothing. I’m very happy! [laughs]

 

Tea is very important…

Hugely important!

 

…in the world of Alice. What is your favourite type of tea?

Marks & Spencer’s Gold. I live in LA, so I can’t get it, so please, Marks & Spencer’s send it to me [laughs].

 

And how do you take it?

Like a builder – milk and one sugar, please.

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I saw last night that you had been talking about the Men In Black, 21 Jump Street crossover movie.

Yes.

 

Whereabouts is that?

Super early. I probably shouldn’t even be talking about it! [laughs]

 

Is it something, like you were saying about Alice earlier, that you heard about and pursued, or something you were approached about?

Er… That was – to be honest – I know Chris and Phil (Lord – 21 Jump Street, LEGO Movie directors), so I knew this thing was boiling away, so I enquired about it. Um, I think a) it’s a very bold move – which I like in cinema – and b) bold moves often give you credit, because people like originality, and c) both worlds are great, and they are surprisingly similar in their structure when you look at them both closely. The film to me feels like exactly the film you’d want that idea to be, and that’s a great starting point for any project.

 

In terms of your other stuff as well… I’m a big Conchords fan, so I have to ask you this…

Please.

 

Is there ever going to be any more…

[laughs]

 

… on TV, or even a movie, or anything at all with Brett and Jermaine again?

Well, Brett, Jermaine and I are great friends, so we are obviously always talking about doing something again in the future. It’s just down to the boring old scheduling thing – that we’re all quite busy. There is intent there. And it’ll probably be a film, and I know this because Jermaine keeps mentioning it all the time! TV we liked doing, but we’ve done that, and I am a huge fan of musicals – so I’d wanna do a musical with those guys. Who knows when, but it’ll be fun at some point.

Flight of the Conchords

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If you could remake any film, which one would it be and why?

Weekend at Bernie’s.

 

Starring?

Sacha (Baron Cohen). Dead guy. It’s very hard to be a dead guy. It’s an incredibly hard performance to pull off, but it’s an incredible idea and I can’t believe it’s not been done again.

 

And if you could be killed by any movie monster, which one would it be, and what would your last words be?

[laughs] … [laughs] … That is a difficult question… I think that’s… What’s a fun movie monster to talk about? In Men In Black 2, there’s a worm called Fred, I believe, who lives in the subway. That guy seems pretty fun, and then my last words would be: “I should have been late for this meeting”, or something [laughs].

 

Great. Thank you very much.

Alright. Nice to meet you. Cheers.

 

Alice Through the Looking Glass is released in the UK on the 27th of May.

 

 

 

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