British Director James Bobin is known for his work on the Muppets and The Muppets Most Wanted, as well as many TV shows such as Da Ali G Show. Last week I got to sit down and chat with Director James Bobin about his work on Alice Through the Looking Glass and over the last 3 years. Read on to see what Bobin had to say about working on the movie.
On growing up with Alice
When Disney first mentioned the word “Alice” to him, he jumped at the opportunity. Having grown up in London, it was like he'd grown up with Alice. She's a part of your life when you grow up in London, Bobin said. He was VERY excited to work on Alice Through the Looking Glass.
She's just someone who you know really well. She's like Christopher Robin. She's just like part of your makeup. My parents read it to me. I 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, we have a poster from the British library, which is the frontest piece of the original manuscript. Just a copy. But it's beautiful. It's the thing he wrote for Alice Liddell. And it's the first page. And it has his little drawings, which are very different to the way you think she's gonna look. It's like Lewis Carroll drawings for Alice Liddell. And it's really pretty. So we love Alice in our family.
I read Lewis Carroll as a kid, he used to make me laugh. He has a very witty way of writing. And he's very clever with language. I think comedy is often about the specificity of language. And so for me, all my life so far I've been making jokes and comedy, and so it felt like a very natural thing to do is try and use that in this world 'cause obviously Tim’s thing is so beautiful and so beautifully constructed. That was a really good foundation to start from. But I thought if I came on that I could kind of bring some of that British comedy back a bit, which is hopefully what you guys saw when you watched the movie.
Bobin wanted the movie to be different. He believes the sequels have to be different. They should pay tribute and respect the origins of the story and the characters, but people want to see something that is a progression or something new, with a different sight, feel, or tone. The palettes in this movie are brighter than the first one. The story is much more about human relationships than the first one was. The set design of this movie is a bit more Victorian and a nod to the original illustrations done by John Tenniel, while still trying to honor a bit of the Tim Burton feel from the first movie.
On Miss Piggy in Wonderland
If Miss Piggy was in Alice Through the Looking Glass, which character would she be?
Miss Piggy would be amazing as the Red Queen. She’d have a gigantic pig head. It would be so great.
On working with Sacha Baron Cohen again
Having worked with Sacha, Bobin loves to work with him and would have loved the opportunity to work with him again. He was his first choice to be cast as Time in Alice Through the Looking Glass, partly because he's amazing at playing an over-confident fool. He also loved the way Sacha works with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonhem Carter based on previous films such as Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Obviously, when you work with someone as brilliant as Sacha, you always try to think of ways of getting him back involved in things you're doing. He and I worked years ago on Borat and Ali G and Bruno.
To do that job, you have to create characters that live in the real world. And people aren't gonna say to you, “I don't believe who you say you are.” And to his great credit, they never, ever did. I mean people throw us out of stuff for all sorts of different reasons, but never because they didn't believe who he was. And so I knew that if you're going to create a new character for this world, particularly whereby you have iconic characters like the Mad Hatter and Alice and the Red Queen. And we needed to create a character, which is Time. And then Time, of course, is Lewis Carroll’s idea. It's not my idea.
I only borrowed it from him. Lewis Carroll talks about time as a person in the book Alice in Wonderland. Hatter says when he very first meets Alice at the tea party, he's kinda stuck and he says to her, “I've been stuck here since last month where Time and I quarreled.” And I thought that is a brilliant idea for a character. In Wonderland, Lewis Carroll thinks time is not just an idea but a man, a person. And so that would be a very useful character to have in this film. And it felt very right for the movie to have a new character, and that it would be Lewis Carroll’s idea. I thought that we have a really lovely kind of bad guy in the Red Queen.
He was gonna be more of a kind of obstacle, like a powerful obstacle to Alice’s situation. Plus, I thought that if you're gonna do a time travel movie, it’d be nice and very British to have to ask permission to do, to having free time. You have to go to somebody then, “Please, may I borrow your chronosphere?” I felt that would be a very nice way of starting the character. Therefore, when you have a powerful character, what's quite fun is if you undermine them immediately by making it pretty obvious that he's a fool.
On the challenging aspects of Alice Through the Looking Glass
Bobin said the story itself was challenging because it isn't the story in the book. And he said he knew it would never be the story in the book, even though he loved the book so dearly, which he recognizes is unusual because Lewis Carroll wasn’t that concerned with narrative. He liked imagery and ideas, and 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 knew the story would be a new story. I knew Linda [Woolverton] 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.
And Lewis Carroll is very important to me. So I wanted to take elements of the book like the backward 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 8-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 feel like I was ahead of the characters in the movie. And so and this is kind of a puzzle plot in a way.
And so 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 like to think I'm cleverer than the people who made this movie. So that was a 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.
On working in CGI vs puppetry
Bobin was excited to work on a film that was different. He's never worked with CGI before Alice Through the Looking Glass. He loved that in CGI you could have an idea a year later and go back and add something in, whereas in live action, once the shot was done, that's it; you can't go back without re-shooting the entire scene. He said that because in CGI you can be so creative, you can also be creative for a really long time. You can basically shoot for 2 years if you want to, and that's physically tiring. The ideas don't really change, but the execution of those ideas change.
On what Bobin wants people to take from Alice Through the Looking Glass
Bobin loves all the quotes in Alice Through the Looking Glass. He would love for people to come away from the moving believing the truisms. One of the most important themes is that you can't change the past, but you can learn from it. It's profound. If humanity and people, in general, would take a moment to learn from the past, we wouldn't make the same mistakes over and over. It's also important that Alice learns that time gives as much as he takes.
For me, the book is really about Alice growing up and about the passage of time. Alice becomes a queen. But it's really a kind of a metaphor for Alice Liddell, 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 he wrote the book for her when she was a little girl. It's him remembering the golden afternoon in the water. It was like really beautiful. And if you look at what's called an acrostic poem, which means that the first letter of each line adds up to the name Alice Pleasance Liddell down the side. So it's a very clear dedication to the girl, which is lovely.
And it's got a very sort of melancholy feel, but, in my personal life, I feel, too, the passage of time can sometimes be a sad thing. And the way I overcome that is if you kind of really appreciate the time that you're in at the time and the people you're with then you can't have regrets because you did your best to appreciate it. And that for me is like the brilliant message for your life. And I know for this film and the fact that Alice kind of learns that in this film is really important to me 'cause it's a personal thing for me, too, that she does learn to appreciate time and the fact that her father has passed.
And she’ll deal with that, but her mother is still here. If you can appreciate the time you have, then that's a great—that's the thing to go away with.
On nods to Lewis Carroll
Bobin loves Lewis Carroll so much he included many in the film. In the backwards room, the chess match is set up to match the original on the title page of the book. The mantle piece clock is the same clock that John Tenniel drew in 1871. The pocket watch says “Carroll” on it. When the Red Queen bumps her head as a child, the first thing she sees are white roses.
READ ABOUT THE RED CARPET PREMIERE OFALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS
ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS is in theatres everywhere.
I’ve been invited on an all expense paid trip to LA courtesy of Disney. As always, all opinions are my own.