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Tim Burton's descent into the rabbit hole

The director's clip of 'Alice in Wonderland' is cheered at Comic-Con, but he's still as nervous as a Mad Hatter.

August 01, 2009|Gina McIntyre

When Tim Burton, one of Hollywood's most distinctive directors, came to Comic-Con International last week with never-before-seen footage from his upcoming adaptation of "Alice in Wonderland," the audience at the San Diego Convention Center went wild at the sight of Alice, the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and other beloved characters from Lewis Carroll's surreal storybook classic.

The rapturous applause, however, did little to assuage Burton's anxiety. "If you saw how much was missing," Burton later said with a laugh, "you'd be nervous too."

Opening day for "Alice" is still seven months away, but Burton, now back in the editing bay in London, might as well have an impatient white rabbit following him around with a ticking pocket watch tucked in his waistcoat. The movie is being made using a combination of live-action, animation and other techniques, creating a logjam of visual effects tasks that will likely keep Burton from finishing until the very last moment.

Penned by screenwriter Linda Woolverton, Burton's "Alice" sees the curious blond (19-year-old Australian actress Mia Wasikowska) tumble down the rabbit hole into a world populated by an array of human and animal oddities. One of them, the outrageous-looking, orange-haired Mad Hatter, played by Burton's longtime collaborator Johnny Depp, accompanies her on much of her journey across the strange land. (Depp turned in a surprise guest appearance at Comic-Con, which only stoked the level of excitement surrounding the film.)

In assembling a story that borrows from all of Carroll's "Alice" material -- he said the script captured "a lot of the vibe" from the famous nonsensical poem "Jabberwocky," which contains wholly fabricated words and a loosely constructed narrative at best -- he wanted the movie to be more than simply a document of a girl wandering through a surreal landscape; all of the characters needed to have an internal life and to be more richly drawn than in earlier big-screen efforts. Alice, for example, evolves from an astonished naif to empowered action heroine, sporting her very own suit of armor, over the course of the film.

"Every other version I've ever seen, I've never really connected to because it's always just a series of weird events," Burton said. "She's passively wandering through, meeting this weird character, that weird character. It's fine in the books, but the movies always felt like there wasn't anything underneath them. That's what we tried to do. Instead of the Hatter just being weird, [we wanted to] get some kind of character underneath him. That's the goal, is to give the 'Alice' material a little more weight to it."

Burton said his decision to combine live action and animation made the project the most technologically complex he's worked yet. Before filming began, he tried to ensure that the actors would be comfortable reacting to characters and locations that are being rendered only now, during post-production in London, where the director resides with his partner and "Alice" star Helena Bonham Carter, who plays the villainous Red Queen.

"This is the first time I've dealt with a lot of green screen, and it drives you nuts," Burton said. "On a live-action [film], you've got actors, you've got sets and that's what I like. This is almost the opposite of that. After a while you start to get kind of jittery and crazy."

He was particularly grateful for the elaborately detailed sets and costumes that did exist as they helped ground the cast and crew. "We had some reality to hang onto there a little bit. It helps, believe me," he said.

It was Burton's experiences fighting to make artistically risky studio films like "Alice" and 2007's gothic musical "Sweeney Todd" that prompted him to get involved in "9," which he also promoted at Comic-Con. The unusual and inventive film, which arrives in theaters Sept. 9, follows a band of tiny, hand-sewn-looking sock-puppet characters as they struggle to survive in a harrowing, post-apocalyptic landscape. The movie is based on director Shane Acker's Student Academy Award-winning short, and Burton said that when he first saw Acker's work, he was struck by the fact that the director's sensibility was so similar to his own.

He and fellow producer Timur Bekmambetov -- the Russian director who helmed last year's Angelina Jolie action movie "Wanted" -- became sounding boards for Acker; both directors share an agent, Mike Simpson, who introduced them to the 38-year-old filmmaker.

Acker was born in Illinois and attended UCLA, first earning a master's degree in architecture. He later completed another master's in animation (where he made his the original 11-minute version of "9" as his thesis project), before heading to New Zealand to work as an animator on "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King."

Burton said he was willing to take on any battles that arose over the creative direction of "9," but none materialized. "The kinds of fights I've had in the past on things didn't really manifest themselves on this," he said.

Burton is planning to next direct a "Dark Shadows" movie that will star Depp as lovelorn vampire Barnabas Collins, the tortured soul who originally appeared in the 1960s soap opera of the same name. Before that, though, he'll finish shepherding "Alice" through her many adventures in Wonderland. And time is short.

"Any film you do, you just kind of finish and you wish you could have spent a little bit more time on this or that," he said. "I don't yet know how much at the end of this I will have felt that I've compromised or not. This one could be pretty rough that way."

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gina.mcintyre@latimes.com

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