HOLLYWOOD — Tim Burton, the filmmaker who gave a new spin to the classic children’s book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” has now taken up the challenge of a greater classic, “Alice in Wonderland.”
Both films feature his frequent collaborator Johnny Depp, who played the central role of Willy Wonka in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” — itself a remake of Mel Stuart’s 1971 film “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” whose screenplay was by the book’s author, Roald Dahl.
Depp volunteers: “Tim’s movies are for everybody. No one’s immune, if they have any imagination and curiosity. . . . The wonderful thing about Tim’s vision is that he leaves a famous story recognizable for the purists but he adds ingenious twists of his own. In my opinion, the new ‘Alice’ is a gem that will be enjoyed by my children and someday my grandchildren, as well as myself in my dotage.”
The central character of Alice, from the 1865 tale by Lewis Carroll, is played by Australian Mia Wasikowska, while Depp portrays the Mad Hatter. Burton’s offscreen partner, Helena Bonham Carter, acts the role of the Red Queen — again costarring with Depp following Burton’s 2007 musical epic, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”
This is Burton and Depp’s seventh collaboration. Might it be their lucky number seven — their top-grossing hit together?
Burton laughs drily at the suggestion. “With a project like ‘Alice,’ you’re aware when you’re making it that it could go one of several ways. Critics might savage it and the public like it — or the public might love it. Or critics might like or love it and the public might stay away.
“Of course, when you have Johnny in a picture, you’re working with a net. He brings in a minimum amount of box office. Which, by no means, is the reason I keep working with him. I’ve had the chance, after more than one hit movie, to work with major box-office strength — you know, reigning superstars. A handful were offered to me. Some of them I wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole.
“Johnny and I are friends. We’re fellow artists, and we share a vision and an offbeat view of life. We’re . . . I guess one good, descriptive term would be: nonconformists.”
“Alice in Wonderland” marks 20 years of the offbeat duo working together. They began in 1990 with “Edward Scissorhands.” Depp was then still struggling to move away from the small screen and prove himself a viable and versatile movie star. Burton was an artist — he still carries around a small sketchbook and watercolor kit most of the time — experiencing a similar struggle to put his personal, idiosyncratic vision up on the big screen.
“What made me special in some people’s eyes,” he recalls, “was my work. That’s all. Nothing else.”
Burton is likely referring to his ordinary background and very ordinary looks — now more distinctive, if not more attractive, via wild hair and increasing poundage.
He was born in the nondescript Los Angeles suburb of Burbank in 1958 and took up drawing at an early age. Though he played water polo in high school and liked to swim, he was no jock.
“I was an outsider,” he says. “Sometimes I was lonely . . . when you’ve been an outsider, you remain one, regardless of the level of professional success that you achieve.”
Burton’s talent won him a fellowship at Disney, where he worked on animated features, including 1981’s “The Fox and the Hound.” But such pasteurized projects didn’t jibe with his creative vision, and in 1982 he created a 6-minute short titled “Vincent,” a homage to actor Vincent Price, whose horror films he had enjoyed while growing up. (Price made his final film appearance in “Edward Scissorhands.”)
Then, in 1984, Burton made a 27-minute short titled “Frankenweenie” that combined horror and his quirky sense of humor with the macabre. It was deemed not suitable for children and didn’t receive a commercial release.
Burton’s big break came with 1985’s offbeat “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” starring Paul Reubens as boy-man Pee-wee Herman. That surprise hit led to a sequel that wasn’t helmed by Burton. Lacking his bizarre yet appealing vision, it was a flop.
In 1988, as Burton puts it, “I proved to the studio brass that I was rehireable” — with another eccentric hit, “Beetlejuice,” starring Michael Keaton.
Burton was then tapped for the big-time assignment of “Batman” (1989, starring Keaton) and its sequel “Batman Returns” (1992). The second film is darker and quirkier than the first, due to the extra control Burton was able to wrest from the studio after the huge success of “Batman.”
But in between those “Batman” films, Burton hit his stride with 1990’s “Edward Scissorhands,” working with Depp and starting to deliver films that weren’t guaranteed hits but usually turned out critical favorites and audience pleasers.
“It’s really gratifying,” says Burton, “when you go out on a limb — by choice, of course — and you shock some people and delight others, and then the whole thing develops into a really big hit. It’s like revenge, but sweet, not bitter.”
Depp is the godfather to Burton’s son, Billy Ray, born in 2003 with Bonham Carter (they also have a daughter, Nell, born in 2007). Burton met and joined with his English partner while they were filming the remake of “Planet of the Apes” in 2001. Prior to living with her, he was “engaged” (his term: he avoids discussing his personal life) to entertainer Lisa Marie from 1992 to 2001. Burton once told celebrity magazine Movieline that he and Marie slept in pajamas and were often more passionate about watching old movies on TV than about sex. He described the couple as “queer heterosexuals.”
Burton has long since got used to being misunderstood by much of the public, and even his peers. “I am not this dark, grim personality. You can’t always look at a movie that I’ve done and infer from it what sort of individual I am. . . . I wear black mostly, which saves me time on color coordinating and accessorizing, but some people take it to mean that I’m sad or in mourning, and I’m not.
“I like clowns. I do not read comic books. I have a very good sense of humor. I made ‘Sweeney Todd,’ but I’m not a fan of musicals. It’s really pretty useless to try and categorize people. I have as many contradictions as the next guy. You can’t figure me out, so you should just hopefully enjoy what I put on the plate — or not enjoy it.”
There are bound to be some who’ll take umbrage at the liberties Burton has taken with this “Alice in Wonderland.”
For one thing, in the film he calls it “Underland,” and it’s not the peculiar but generally cheerful place we grew up with via John Tenniel’s classic illustrations for the first edition published in 1865. Rather, it’s grim and looks bombed out and somewhat frightening. Likewise, when Burton redid the sweet world of the Chocolate Factory, he made it both more whimsical and grotesque — and he turned Willy Wonka from an odd but genial uncle into a somewhat demented boy-man some critics said resembled a white-faced Michael Jackson.
“The thing with ‘Alice,’ ” says Burton, “is there are numerous versions, live action and animated. Some with grown women as Alice, which I find offputting. This is the fantasy world that I envisioned, and (writer) Linda Woolverton came up with a contemporary yet, I think, fascinating perspective on Alice and the land she journeys through. . . . It’s decidedly offbeat, but so was ‘Alice’ when the book came out, and nobody knew what to make of it.”
The film, perhaps surprisingly, is a Disney production — the same studio that released the animated 1950s version that some fans consider the definitive film of the book.
Does this darker Wonderland/Underland owe something to post-’50s interest in Lewis Carroll, a Victorian instructor apparently obsessed with little girls, puzzles and hidden meanings?
“Carroll himself was a fascinating individual who it’s hard to decipher,” explains Burton.
“He’d make a worthwhile movie all on his own. But if we were influenced, it wasn’t really consciously, though I think when you make the umpteenth version of a classic, you bear somewhere in mind the source and what type of person he was, and I think today we’d consider Carroll a darker character than we did in older, more innocent days.”
Somewhat like Carroll, Burton embeds his work with symbols that may hold meanings known only to himself. For instance, fathers fare negatively in most of his films. Does this betoken a negative relationship with his own father? Burton isn’t saying. His films also feature more than the usual number of scarecrows.
What do scarecrows represent for him?
“Well, they’re interesting figures with a long history, functioning on several levels.
“The worst is a recent symbolism, with the torture-murder of student Matthew Shephard. When he was left there to die (by two young homophobes now serving life sentences) on a crude fence in Wyoming, he was at first mistaken for a scarecrow. The scarecrow as sacrificial victim to our enduring bias and hate.
“But not everything I put on screen has a meaning or needs one.
“If I like clowns, and I do actually like them, I might stick in a clown. It could be a funny, goofy clown, or a sinister clown — bearing in mind that many children find clowns frightening instead of jolly. They’re also colorful, they’re deceptive, they’re entertaining, and they’re a symbol in some cases of the castrated male, because clowns are nearly always male and are often cast in a pathetic light — which is just one way to look at them.”
Burton is known to be a big fan of Bollywood, and a recent rumor has it that he’ll be directing an Indian-style musical in the near future. True or false?
“False. Bollywood, near future? No. Musical? Not likely. But yeah, I do love Bollywood — the color, the sounds . . . I may be an uncolorful person when you look at me, but if you could look inside, then I’m very — I’m even extremely — colorful!”