Tim Burton in Wonderland

The last time I was at a press conference with Tim Burton, Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp the mood was jovial. The overzealous trio bounced off each other like rabbits on speed, so eager to flaunt their eccentric on/off screen partnerships.

IT was 2008 and they were in London promoting the ghoulish gothic masterpiece Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the sixth collaboration between the indomitable director (Burton) and his muse (Depp), in a creative partnership that has spanned 20 years.

Needless to say, this time around, at the junket for their 3D spectacle Alice in Wonderland (based on Lewis Carroll’s written classics Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass), the love remains. There’s a heartfelt homage from Depp, who credits Burton as being ‘one of the only true artists working in cinema’, with a ‘commitment to his vision, impossibility of compromise and doing exactly what he wanted in his own very unique way’.

But the overarching mood at Park Lane’s Dorchester Hotel is just, well, awkward. No less after one journalist makes a sleazy insinuation about (the White Queen) actress Anne Hathaway’s ‘panties’ – or lack thereof.

Burton – dressed head-to-toe in black, bar a salt-and-pepper beard – shuffles about in his seat uncomfortably while the ethereal Bonham Carter gazes into the middle-distance. At one point, when she can’t constitute a response to yet another inane question, she announces: ‘I can’t remember, I really can’t, so I’m now going to make something up.’

The panel look like they’d rather be swallowed up by a gaping great rabbit hole. Thankfully Burton sees the lighter side…

Mr Burton, what is the secret of your love affair with Johnny Depp?
‘Don’t try to make something more out of this. Please!’

You must have some quarrels sometimes?
‘We’re Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling.’

What was your attraction to this project – why did you want to make Alice in Wonderland?
‘I think the thing that really intrigued me was the opportunity to do 3D and Alice in Wonderland because it seemed like a proper mix of the medium and the material. A few years ago I don’t know if I would have been as intrigued by it, but the trippyness of that world and the tools of 3D seemed like a good mix, and also just going back and looking at the fact that there were, you know, 20-something versions, and I never really connected to any of them, but yet the characters and the images and the way that they infiltrated culture, they were just so strong it seemed like an interesting challenge.’

The film is so long-awaited, there’s so much speculation and hype – how does that pressure affect you during the process and is there a fear of disappointing anyone because it’s such a well-known story?
‘No for that reason I didn’t feel like there was a definitive version you know… it’s so much a part of culture. For me, I knew the world of Alice not through the books but through music and bands and other artist interpretations, so to me it felt like it was open territory because it is so in our culture. But also thinking about it I didn’t have time. I just finished the movie like, last week, and it got more intense because it’s kind of a backwards process to making this movie so it got completely intense at the end, so you don’t have time to think about those types of things.’

What made you choose Antony House in Cornwall for the filming?
‘I loved it. I mean we looked at a lot of places but there was a simplicity to it that for me kind of matched – like Alice going into a prison – there was something… it’s a beautiful house but the kind of great, simple, strong kind of structure felt graphic and nice, and it was nice to film… because you know we had to shoot a lot of this in Los Angeles, so it was nice to be in Cornwall. We stayed right on the grounds in the haunted house. It kind of kept us going for the rest of the movie.’

Does your dalliance with CGI mean you’re giving up on stop motion [animation], and did you envisage an Alice in stop motion?
‘No. Because we’re using all these different elements, it just made sense to use this technique. I mean stop motion is kind of the only one we didn’t use in this, but I’ve got other stop motion projects, because I do love it, and you try to pick the medium and the material and all of the techniques just made sense to do this way.’

What’s the difference between Wonderland and [Alice’s new world] Underland?
‘Well it’s spelt different. That’s about it! We were not trying to be literal to the story we were trying to be true to what we felt was the spirit of the characters and the spirit of the place, and it’s what Lewis Carroll gave to each and every one of us.’

First published on The London Word, February 2010.
© Abbey Stirling