Wonder And Whimsy-An Interview With Director James Bobin #ThroughTheLookingGlassEvent
It takes a special kind of director to bring a sense of pure wonder and whimsy to a film such as Disney’s Alice Through The Looking Glass, and no one was better suited for the challenge than director James Bobin.
Engaging, charming and animated in his own right, from the moment you sit down to talk to him it’s easy to see just why such movies as The Muppets, The Muppets Most Wanted, and the current return to Wonderland in Alice Through The Looking Glass, appeal to everyone across the boards and draw you into the story in a way that you just can’t help but leave the theater with a smile on your face, and maybe even a song in your heart. Was it daunting to step into the shoes of Tim Burton, director of Alice In Wonderland, and try to retain the charm of the first film but bring his own stamp to the sequel? Last week I had a chance to sit down with James and asked him just that, and what it took to brings his own unique vision to the spectacular world created on screen by in the original, while also introducing his own comedic yet thoughtful take in these new adventures of Alice as she returns to Wonderland to save Hatter.
On How He Came To Wonderland:
“I was at Disney and at the time I was just finishing Muppets Most Wanted, and I was talking to them about other projects that they had coming up that I might become involved with. They mentioned Alice and of course I jumped at the chance without hesitation, I knew Alice inside and out because being from England, like everyone here it was a part of my childhood and who I was. Here in England it’s a book that your grandparents have at their house, your parents have at their house, and I have at my house. It’s a thing that everyone knows. You grow up with it. I’ve always loved Alice and I’ve always loved Lewis Carroll and I especially love his kind of tone and his intelligence. Ultimately it was the chance to work on a sequel to Tim Burton’s movie, which I could then bring some of my own sense of comedy and wonder yet share the message of the story. Alice is like part of your life. Like she’s just someone who you know really well. She’s like Christopher Robin and in the end she’s just like part of your makeup. For me, my parents read it to me and read it as a kid. My grandparents read it to me. Everyone has it. And so for me, I did the same with my children. I have in my kid’s playroom a poster from the British library, which is the piece of the original manuscript that she fetches underground. It’s just a copy but it’s beautiful. it’s the thing he wrote for Alice Little and it’s the first page and it has his little drawings, which are very different to the way you think she’s going to look. It’s like Lewis Carroll, drawings for Alice Little. And it’s really pretty. So we love Alice in our family.”
On Sitting Down In Tim Burton’s Director’s Chair:
“Luckily for me, it all felt like a very natural thing to do to do to try and use the world that Burton had created with the first film as obviously Tim’s vision is so beautiful and so beautifully constructed. That was a really good foundation to start from. But I also thought that I could kind of bring some of that British comedy back a bit, which is hopefully what people will see when they watch the movie. So it’s a bit different. I mean it needed to be different. I think sequels need to be different. It’s nice to pay tribute and make sure you respect the origins of the story and the characters but people want to see generally something which is a progression or something new or if it has a different sight, feel or tone. And so you’ll notice that in the design it’s a bit different too. The palettes are a little bit brighter. In the movie, the story itself is very much about the human relations and the family. And so we have a lot more, I guess, like a photo real design. The world is more Victorian in some ways and that’s partly because when I was a kid growing up the books are illustrated by a guy called John Tenniel who’s like an unbelievably beautiful artist. To me was where the world where Alice lived. And so when I was talking with Dan Hennah our production designer, about the world I used to say to him look at Tenniel’s drawings and all of the characters in the foreground and look like what’s behind them. That is the world I want to create for this but while obviously bearing in mind Tim’s origins and then keeping that, but also pursuing this idea of making it feel like the world of Victorian imagination”
On Expanding Upon Original Vision:
“it’s a delicate balance, because obviously I loved the first film in terms of Tim’s work on it. Its look is beautiful. It really is a spectacularly interesting world to live in and the characters are so spectacular especially elements such as Helena’s look and all that stuff. I really wanted to pay tribute to that, to keep that sense of the universe being whole, but we were lucky with our script that we could move through time. That meant I was able to do different things and use different places. We hadn’t really ever fully explored the geography before and when I was working on design choices, I was trying to bear in mind the world that Tim created so it felt like I was in the same world but at the same time, I wanted to be able to bring a slightly more human, whimsical yet at the same time almost a historical feeling to all of it vs. the fantasy feel of the first movie. It was my goal all along to bring it slightly more into the Victorian realm while utilizing the visions that John Tenniel could bring but at the same time being careful that the movies were connected and didn’t feel like a completely different film. It should feel like it’s the same world, because it really is. It’s a continuation of the story from the first film. The story is what happens next and what happened before. In a very real sense, Alice Through The Looking Glass is both a prequel and a sequel.”
Personal Challenges In Bringing The Story To Life:
“Even as a kid I realized that it’s quite an unusual story and that’s what’s great about it. We have done a story which is not Lewis Carroll’s story, but that’s because the Looking-Glass book is a very unusual book. because Lewis Carroll wasn’t that concerned with narrative. He liked imagery, ideas. But I’m not sure I could do that in this situation. I knew the story would be a new story. I knew Linda had an idea about the time travel movie based on the characters from before. But at the same time I wanted to pay tribute to the book. The book’s incredibly important to me and Lewis Carroll is very important to me. The book kind of falls in on itself deliberately. Things happen. And then other things happen. And they seem very consequential. It’s only cause and effect. And so I knew that for a film would make an interesting avante guarde movie. But I’m not sure I could do that in this situation. So I wanted to take elements of the book like the backwards room and obviously the looking glass and the characters and the spirit of Lewis Carroll, the idea of something which is fairly complex but not so complex that my eight year old daughter wouldn’t understand it. It’s important you understand the story. But also I remember as a kid, I liked working stuff out in a movie. I didn’t want to be given it all straight away. I wanted to be ahead—and I wanted to feel like I was ahead of the characters in the movie. This is kind of a puzzle plot in a way. I’m hoping that even kids may be ahead of the story some ways that when Alice works it out in her head you may already know that stuff, which is great and very satisfying as the kid I think to think I’m cleverer than the people who made this movie. So that’s kind of the challenge to try and make a story, which is complex and interesting but not overly so in a way which would be distracting for children.”
The Transition From Live Action Muppets To CGI:
“Well, it’s kind of why I did this film because it’s so different. The Muppets I dearly loved and it was really fun. It’s very in camera and so the Muppets you kind of shoot where you shoot and you have that footage and the edit becomes the footage you have. With this what I found was you had much more flexibility because you can basically keep pursuing ideas way longer than you would be able to in live action because it’s animated. You could have an idea almost a year later and put that into the animated creature’s mouth, which is fun. So it’s good in that way because it means you can be very creative for a long time. But it also means you’re basically shooting for like two years, which obviously is physically very tiring. it was really interesting. But the other thing I’ll say about it is that what’s funny about ideas is it’s really the idea doesn’t ever change. It’s just the execution of those ideas. So a tree or animation, they basically end up the same but while the process is different the only thing that changes is really how you come to approach the execution of the idea. I really loved it. It was really fun. One of my major objectives was to try and create a world where you’d be happy to spend an hour and a half of your time because there’s very few things in the world these days you do for an hour and a half. You know, there really isn’t. I mean this is the time of short- we’re in a period of very short attention spans, which is much to my great regret. And there aren’t many things you do for that long. So I really wanted to make sure everyone was very happy and you sure must be sad to leave at the end. It’s like that’s the feeling I wanted to convey. And I I hope I succeeded in that.”
On What He Hopes The Movie Will Convey:
“When I came into the movie there was already a script. Linda had already had the brilliant idea about time travel and the story was pretty much in tact. It was then really just trying to push the script in certain directions trying to bring out the themes of the movie. And often the way themes work the best is if you have lines that are going to work and stick in your brain a bit and you sort of want to stay on point.
And this idea was that Time is a very important character in this movie and so he has great moments of wisdom in the movie when he says to Alice that you cannot change the past but maybe you can learn from it, that’s a very profound thing for him to say and it’s a very nice thing for everyone to learn because it’s true – you can’t change the past. I studied history at the university and so I’ve seen people make the same mistakes over and over again. We all do and humanity does on the big scale. It would be an amazing thing if people would just take from that– this film that that is the truism. It’s really trying to say things in a way which is memorable without people getting hit over the head with it too much such as when Alice affirms it and says to Time “You were right.” I love that and it’s a very important thing that she learns that time gives as much as he takes. That for me is the message of the book.
Though the Looking Glass is really a book about Alice growing up and about the passage of time. Alice becomes a queen but at the same time, it’s really a kind of a metaphor for Alice Little who by that time had grown into a woman. So for Lewis Carroll it was the idea of the passage of time. And to him it made him kind of sad. The book is sad. The poem– the book ends with a really beautiful poem, which is a poem about the time and he wrote the book for her when she was a little girl. It’s him remembering the golden afternoon in the water. It’s really beautiful. And if you look at it it’s what’s called an acrostic poem, which means that the first letter of each line adds up to the name Alice Pleasance Little down the side. So it’s a very clear dedication to the girl, which is lovely. It’s got a very sort of melancholy feel, but, you know, in my personal life I too feel the passage of time can sometimes be a sad thing. The way I overcome that is if you really appreciate the time that you’re in at that time and the people you’re with then you can’t have regrets because you did your best to appreciate it at the time. That for me is like the brilliant message for your life. I know for this film and the fact that Alice learns that in this film is really important to me because it’s a personal thing for me too that you can learn to appreciate time and the fact that her father has passed. And that was the past and she’ll deal with that. But her mother is still here and if you can appreciate the time you have then that’s a great– that’s the thing to go away with.”
On Paying Tribute To Lewis Carroll:
“When Alice goes into the backwards room for the first time with the chess match in progress, the chess match is in the original position as it was in the book replicating the exact same layout of the chess game in progress. So the chess game in progress in the book is the same chess game in progress in the backwards room. Those kinds of things are very important to me. I liked the fact the mantle piece clock in the room is the same mantle piece clock that John Tenniel drew in 1871. So those little touches mean a lot because there are things that people will notice. Or like when the Red Queen bumps ahead as a child the first thing she sees upon coming round are white roses. And so we always wondered, in my head, what’s up with the white roses thing? Why does she keep changing it to red? Maybe because in her head there’s a kind of moment where this is a thing that she see the terrible moment in her life. And that’s why there could be no white roses. So, you know, I think that’s kind of of stuff I really like.”
What Did New Technology Make Possible?
“Obviously, what’s happened is, as with everything in the world, computing power, raw computer power is a lot of the answer of this question because they drive the models and the various ways we build animation and graphics. But what it end, the end result is that you can see these people and in the animated characters particularly in a very clear way. Like if you look at the Cheshire Cat you can now see his individual hair on his fur, which is beautiful, and see it moving. And the thing I’m particularly impressed with these days is eyes because eyes are, as you know, the windows to the soul. So it’s very important how light plays with the eyes. I think over the past six months or so I’ve first started to see eyes that feel real and lifelike because they refract the light in a really beautiful way and they have depth. Obviously your eye you have the lid, and then you have the cornea and that stuff is the pretty part of your eye but you see that. In movies you haven’t really been able to see that up until now. So in the past six months to a year we have really started really seeing eyes that feel totally real and it’s not far from being photo real. You really do start to see photo real people and that’s the next level when you find the human face and that is the hardest thing to do of all. In this film we never really had them because you have characters, which are creatures, which is kind of doable. But a real human face is going be the ultimate challenge for CG. When that actually works then there’s a whole new world available to me.”
Funny, unassuming and engaging company it is easy to see that under the watchful eye of director James Bobin, Alice Through The Looking Glass takes us all on a journey to Wonderland where for a few hours we can sit back in our seats and immerse ourselves in the whimsical wonderment of this glorious film and when that last credits role, we are left with the reminder of the importance of time in our own lives, and that once upon a time, there lived a young lady named Alice. This weekend, take the family and share the magic that is Disney’s Alice Through The Looking Glass now playing in theaters everywhere.
Want To Know About Our #ThroughTheLookingGlassEvent?
To Read About What It Was Like To Be On The Red Carpet for the Premiere of Disney’s Alice Through The Looking Glass click here
Meet Alice herself in our interview with Mia Wasikowska
Read more about the messages found in Disney’s Alice Through The Looking Glass
Learn More About Mom, Mentor, Friend And Producer Suzanne Todd
Alice Through The Looking Glass Is Now Playing
Keep Up With All Of The Latest from Alice Through The Looking Glass
“In a Wonderland they lie, Dreaming as the days go by, Dreaming as the summers die: Ever drifting down the stream- Lingering in the golden gleam- Life, what is it but a dream?” ― Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
Disclosure: I have been invited by Disney to cover this media event. All material and expenses for this event have been provided courtesy of Walt Disney Studios but all opinions my own.