SDCC Redux: Burton on Alice in Wonderland & 9

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Filmmaker Tim Burton pulled double duty at San Diego Comic-Con in late July promoting his own version of Alice in Wonderland that opens next March and the animated film 9, which he co-produced and opens next month. Speaking to the press following the “Alice” presentation in Hall H, Burton revealed what attracted him to the world that Lewis Carroll crafted way back in the 1860s.

“It was something about the imagery he created,” said Burton. “It still plays in people’s mind. I just felt like doing it in a different way, because I’ve never seen any movie version that I really liked, so the intent was to take that imagery and try and make it into a movie.”

Another factor that pushed Burton to do the film, beyond its half-whimsical/half-terrible themes that have attracted the director in the past in such films as Edward Scissorhands and Sleepy Hollow, was the lack of a film version of the story that he could connect with.

“Seeing other movies of it, I never felt an emotional connection to it,” said Burton. “It was always a series of some girl wondering around from one crazy character to another. So this was an attempt to give this a framework, an emotional grounding, that I’ve never really seen in any version before. That was the challenge to me – to make Alice feel like a story as opposed to a series of events.”

Much of Burton’s vision of the film comes from different elements of the books including the Jabberwocky poem in one of the stories.

In the Burton version, Johnny Depp plays the Mad Hatter, Helena Bonham Carter plays the Red Queen, Anne Hathaway is the White Queen and Mia Wasikowski is Alice. Burton said that Depp worked hard to give the Hatter more depth and presence than in past portrayals. In fact, the pair swapped sketches and themes for the character prior to creating this new version.

“It’s an iconic character,” said Burton of the Hatter. “It’s been portrayed in animation, in live-action. I think with Johnny, he tries to find a grounding to the character… something that you feel instead of just being mad. Again, a lot of versions its a very one-note kind of character. His goal is to bring out a more human side to the strangeness of the character. For many years, every time I work with him, that is what he tries to do, and this was no exception.”

For Alice, Burton turned to Mia Wasikowski, who audience might know best from her role in the Showtime original series “In Treatment.” Burton said it was Mia’s ‘gravity’ that won her the role.

“Most Alices are sort of this precocious girl just kinda wandering through things,” said Burton. “It is hard to sort of put into words, but I wanted someone that just had a gravity to her – an internal life. Someone you could just look at and see wheels turning. There’s a simple kind of power to her that I really like. Not flamboyant, but just somebody that has a lot of internal life to her.”

For 9, Burton gets producer billing for an original story by newcomer Shane Acker about a post-apocalyptic world where humans are gone and the planet is ravaged by evil machines that have taken over. The last shreds of humanity exist only in nine ‘sack-people’ created by a human scientist prior to our demise. The movie is based on a short that Acker created and was nominated for an Oscar in 2005. Burton said he was immediately attracted to the curiousness and originality of the story.

“It was unique thing,” said Burton. “It is somebody’s personal project. You see it in films, but you rarely see it in animation. That is one of things that appealed to me. I wanted to help and support him so he could make his movie. When I saw his short, I could really relate to it. It was such a unique thing. I felt close to it.”

Added a smirking Burton: “I’ve dealt with characters with no eyeballs before, so…”

Burton’s role with the film was equal parts mentor and bodyguard allowing Acker to get his full vision to the screen with a limited budget and little outside interference.

“The thing is, it’s his film, and it’s like protecting an athlete,” said Burton. “You want him to win the race. You want him to be able to do what he does best and not have to deal with too much bullsh*t.”