Life intersected with art when Tim Burton chose to make a cinematic adaptation of Big Fish by novelist Daniel Wallace; Edward Bloom (Albert Finney) lies on his death bed recounting his youthful adventures to his estranged son William (Billy Crudup). “My father had been ill for a while,” confided the filmmaker, “I tried to get in touch with him, to have, like in this film, some sort of resolution, but it was impossible.” Not all was lost for Burton. “I went back to thinking about my father, and as bad a relationship as I had, early on it was quite magical…It’s important to remember that. I forgot that for too long.” The director added, “I think it’s a thing where everybody loses a parent and, no matter what your relationship is, it’s obviously cause for reflection. I found that even though I wasn’t really close to him, that I still had lots of emotions that were all over the place. And I thought that this film, when I read it, was a good way of visually exploring those feelings, which are complicated and hard to actually put into words.”
Scottish actor Ewan McGregor (Trainspotting), who portrays the young Edward, observed that the story “can connect to all of us because whatever our relationship is or has been with our parents, we can all relate to that. And it's a reparation of a severed relationship. It's hugely moving and it's a beautiful, simple tale.” Playing the elder Sandra K. Bloom (Edward’s wife) is two-time Oscar-winner, Jessica Lange (Blue Sky). “I think in families there is always the mythology,” stated Lange. “It’s interesting because at the end of this film when he says that thing about my father’s stories and his stories lived on after him, that line at the end of the film resonates more than any other in the film because it’s true. I see my kids; my father died when they were quite young, and yet they still tell stories that I told them - his stories - so it’s great. That is how a person lives on, in the stories.” Five-time Academy Award-nominee Albert Finney (The Dresser) could relate to the elder Edward. “My son said to me that he thought that my relationship with my nephew was more open than it was with him. I said, ‘Well, it’s bound to be more complicated with you. You’re my son!’”
It was the work of screenwriter John August (Titan A.E.) which finally convinced the Californian native to produce the picture. “I read the script before I read the book,” remarked Tim Burton. “And I was glad that I did because I think it was a case of where John [August], the writer, actually helped focus the material.”
Outside of a week of principle photography in Paris, France, the movie was shot in the American Southern state of Alabama. “It was a film with a fairly quick schedule,” said the director, “we were shooting very quickly, so we had to move to sometimes three locations in a day.” The really tricky part for Burton was in the casting of the older and younger versions of Edward and Sandra Bloom. “It was an interesting case, because in the case of Albert [Finney], Ewan [McGregor], Alison [Lohman], and Jessica [Lange], you couldn’t quite think of just one person; you had to think in tandem.”
A significant judgment call for the filmmaker was how to handle the distinct local dialect. “I remember liking To Kill a Mockingbird  and feeling like, well there is a lyrical aspect to the language. And so we tried to go for what was more of a poetic cadence, and little bit less of the ‘Come on…tell-you-a-story-on-the-porch-with-a-mint-julep’ type of thing that I always equate to it.” Asked about the difficulty in replacing his Scottish accent with a Southern drawl, Ewan McGregor answered, “For me, as a Scot, it's a much easier accent to do than a standard American accent because you can really hear it.” Burton was impressed by McGregor’s cinematic performance, “Everybody had a particularly tricky job, and his [Ewan] was to play a sort of romanticized version of a character while still keeping it a human being.”
As irony would have it while filming the story, fatherhood arrived for Burton; British actress Helena Bonham Carter (A Room with a View), who also stars in the picture, was pregnant with their first child. Other members of the cast included, Marion Cotillard (La vie en rose), Danny DeVito (Get Shorty), Steve Buscemi (Fargo), Robert Guillaume (Lean on Me), Miley Cyrus (The Last Song), and Loudon Wainwright III (The Slugger’s Wife). Released in 2003, Big Fish caused film critic Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly to write, “It’s like Forrest Gump  without the bogus theme-park politics.” Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times was once again not impressed; he wrote, “there is no denying that Will has a point: The old man is a blowhard. There is a point at which his stories stop working as entertainment and segue into sadism.”
For his work on the picture, which grossed $122 million worldwide, Danny Elfman received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Musical Score. Big Fish was also lauded at the Golden Globes with nominations for Best Picture – Musical or Comedy, Best Supporting Actor (Finney), Best Original Score, and Best Original Song. And at the BATFTAs, the movie was nominated for Best Film, Best Direction, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Finney), Best Production Design, Best Visual Effects, and Best Makeup & Hair.
“We just felt that if you have an eccentric character, it's fine in the book,” explained Burton about the decision to create a back story for Willy Wonka, “but it just felt for the movie that if you've got a guy that's acting that strange, you kind of want to get a flavor of why he's the way he is; otherwise he's just a weirdo.” To portray the pivotal role, Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean) sought inspiration from television. “I had these memories of children's show hosts, guys like Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Roger's Neighborhood, and local guys like Uncle Al and Mr. Green Jeans,” began Depp. “Even then, how odd it was, the way they spoke with this bizarre musical rhythm cadence in their speech pattern. Also I was thinking about game show hosts and that perpetual grimace/grin on their face. I kept thinking they're certainly not like that at home. You feel like they go on stage, put a mask on, and do their thing and take it off. It's almost like a clown. So those two things, as well as the fact that there's such dark and light in that story and such a subversive kind of undertone and a twisted/perverted side to the character, became the basis for this version of Wonka. Tim and John August, who wrote the screenplay, were great about it.” Burton added, “I think he just comes across as really emotionally repressed and stunted. When people get traumatized they just sort of shut down. Also related to that, I've met people that are kind of geniuses in one area but are completely deficient in every other area of their life.” As for Depp referencing a certain celebrity musician as a character role model, Burton responded, “Here's the deal. There's a big difference: Michael Jackson likes children, Willy Wonka can’t stand them. To me that's a huge difference in the whole persona thing.“
“I enjoy playing someone with slightly twisted social skills,” chuckled Johnny Depp. One thing that had the actor wondering was the reaction of his own children. “I was so scared when they were going to see Charlie, way more than the idea of being reviewed by a movie critic. I was so in fear that my kids were going to not react well to the film. So I was sitting at home waiting for them and they arrived back and my son of three years old, Jack, walks in and looks up at me and quoted Wonka. He went, 'You're really weird.' [Laughs] I felt suddenly liberated.”
Cumulating film critics responses to the picture, movie review website Rotten Tomatoes concluded, “Closer to the source material than 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is for people who like their Chocolate visually appealing and dark.” Judging by the worldwide box office receipts, which amounted to $475 million for the $150 million production, Tim Burton was able to hit the sweet spot for audience members. At the Oscars the film was nominated for Best Costume Design; while at the BAFTAs it received nominations for Best Visual Effects, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup & Hair, and Best Production Design. In recognition of his portrayal of Willie Wonka, Johnny Depp was up for the Golden Globe for Best Actor – Musical or Comedy.
While out walking in the woods a timid groom (Johnny Depp) rehearses his wedding vows only to find himself inadvertently proposing to the revived corpse of a jilted bride (Helena Bonham Carter). “It’s basically a love story, an emotional story [with] humor,” said Tim Burton of the Victorian era tale loosely based on Russian-Jewish folklore. “And like any kind of fable or fairy tale, there may be elements that are somewhat unsettling. But that's part of the history of those kinds of stories.” Depp could relate to his animated persona, “He's a character that's not so far away from other characters that I've played in the past for Tim, like Edward Scissorhands or a little bit of an outsider - a bumbling, deeply insecure nervous character, a lot like me in life.” The actor went on to say, “Working with Tim is really like going home for me. It's this place that's very comfortable even with the knowledge that there's a lot of risks that have to be taken and you have to really be prepared to explore. But there is great comfort there.”
As with actor Vincent Price (House of Wax), Tim Burton took the opportunity to meet another of his childhood movie idols. “Johnny [Depp], Helena [Bonham Carter] and I went to his [Ray Harryhausen] house in London,” recollected the director. “We met him for the first time and he is just such an amazing man and so generous with his time and his enthusiasm and all. Then he went to the set of Corpse Bride and production kind of ground to a halt that day cause everyone was like, ‘Uhhh…’ I think he not only inspired stop motion animators but any animator.”
Contemplating why he approaches the topic of death with a sense of humour, Burton said, “I’d rather go later than sooner, but I think a lot of it has to do with the culture I grew up in – death was very taboo, very dark and not to be discussed. But living in Southern California, I was also near the Hispanic community for whom death was a day-to-day celebration. It made it feel like, ‘Yeah, you know, it’s a part of life; it’s going to happen to everybody…’ I was always impressed by the way other cultures treated it with a sense of fun. It just seemed more accurate and more right to me.”
Corpse Bride was nominated for Best Animated Picture at the Oscars and quadrupled its $40 million production budget at the box office by earning $117 million worldwide.
2005 saw the release of Cinema16: American Short Films on video; the retrospective included Vincent (1982) by Tim Burton. Two years later another project of long-standing interest to the California native would be resurrected.
The scored stage version of the cannibalistic tale about a Victorian era barber obtaining his revenge by turning those whom wronged him into meat pies first appeared in 1979. “It was a big flop in London,” stated Steven Sondheim about the initial public reaction to the Tony Award-winning theatre production. “London critics hated it, which was ironic because it was sort of a love - my love letter to England and I really felt like a rejected lover.”
Making the transition from the theatre playhouse to the movie cinema required some revisions to the tale. “I wanted the story to be told and I wanted it to go swiftly,” said Sondheim. “That meant that we had to excise certain parts of the songs and excise certain songs.” Burton found that the revisions had gone too far, “When I first read the script there was less music in it so we put more music into it. When you listen to the soundtrack you get the story by the music. Keep it musical. I thought it was a real plus and a real strength of the piece."
Tim Burton was taken back when he was given the approval to proceed with the project, “It was an amazing thing, you go to the studio and say you’re going to do an R rated musical with lots of blood and no professional singers, and it’s about a serial killer and cannibalism and they go “great!” That was unheard of, I’ve never had that happen in my life before! That gave me hope that there are still people in Hollywood who are willing to try different things.”
“We always saw him as emotional,” stated the director on how he and Depp viewed the title character. “That’s what Johnny brought to it. When Peter Lorre [Casablanca] looks at you, you just see all sorts of things that are going through the guy’s head, both positive and negative. But even for a monster there is a humanity that comes through. It’s very interiorized, which was very interesting to try and do. That was the goal to mix all things together.” As with his other cinematic roles Johnny Depp stated he had a series of role models for Sweeney Todd including Lon Chaney Sr. (The Wolf Man), Boris Karloff (Frankenstein), Peter Lorre, and musician Iggy Pop.
Other actors featured in the $50 million musical production are Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman (Truly Madly Deeply), Timothy Spall (The Damned United), and Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat). Grossing $153 million worldwide, the picture won the admiration of Richard Corliss of Time, who wrote, “Burton and Depp infuse the brilliant cold steel of Stephen Sondheim’s score with a burning passion. Helena Bonham Carter and a superb supporting cast bring focus to this musical nightmare. It’s bloody great.” Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter observed in his review, “The blood juxtaposed to the music is highly unsettling. It runs contrary to expectations. Burton pushes this gore into his audience’s faces so as to feel the madness and the destructive fury of Sweeney’s obsession.”
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street received Academy Award nominations for Best Actor (Depp) and Best Costume Design, and won the Oscar for Best Art Direction. The picture was up for BAFTA nominations including Best Costume Design and Best Makeup & Hair; while at the Golden Globes it was a candidate for Best Picture – Musical or Comedy and Best Actor – Musical or Comedy (Depp) along with nominations for Best Director and Best Actress – Musical or Comedy (Bonham Carter).
To expand the story about a rag-doll who wakes up in a post-Apocalyptic world into a full length feature picture, the physical puppets were replaced with digital replicas. “He is a big fan of stop motion,” said Burton of his protégé Acker. “A lot of his inspirations come from that world, and that’s what I love about it, too, because in the animation and in the actor’s performances, it’s got a naturalness to it, which I found very different than most animated films. You get a lot of times where people try to push the voices broader. But in the performances and in the animation, he really went for that kind of stop motion grounded reality that I love as well, and he made the right choice, because with the budget he had and then with the kind of camera moves and the action that he wanted, I think he got the best of both worlds.”
“I saw this amazing Academy Award-winning film called Balance  by the Lauenstein brothers back in the Eighties,” remarked Shane Acker. “And all the characters are identical puppets, but they have different numbers on their backs. And what's amazing is, through the course of the film these different personalities emerge from the identical puppets. From an economical standpoint it's really smart, because you just make a couple of puppets and change the numbers. Once I started getting into that world, I thought we really need to separate these characters more, so that whole design idea went out the window. The loose idea is that the puppets are versions, so as they increase the characters get more and more refined. Let's say 10 is the perfect doll, the closest we can get to perfection as humans is 9 because we're all flawed in some way.”
9 (2009) stars vocal performances from Elijah Wood (Forever Young), John C. Reilly (Chicago), Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind), Christopher Plummer (The Last Station), Crispin Glover (Back to the Future), Martin Landau (Ed Wood), and Fred Tatasciore (Foolish); the movie earned $42 million worldwide surpassing its $30 million production budget. At the Annie Awards the picture was nominated for Best Animated Effects and Best Production Design.
At the end of November 2009, the Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted an exhibit of the sketches, paintings, storyboards, props, cartoons, and puppets created by Tim Burton. “I don’t really go through things very much, so it was interesting for me to go back through it all,” remarked the director. “It helps ground you and gets you to remember what interested you to begin with. It’s you, but a different you. You can look at yourself objectively.” Burton added, “The whole sketching and drawing process to me is the equivalent to how some people write notes. I’ve never really felt like a writer. It was always a visual thing for me. With Jack Skellington, for example, that was just a doodle I kept drawing over and over and over for no apparent reason.” As to what he thinks of the idea of the public exhibition, the filmmaker stated, “It’s such a strange and surreal event to me. I haven’t quite grasped it. I might as well put my dirty laundry basket in there as well.”
“I wouldn't call it a sequel because there are so many stories in Alice in Wonderland,” remarked the moviemaker. “The goal was to take the randomness of the book and make it its own story. A lot of it is based on the Jabberwocky poem in one of the stories. That's not a big part of the story, but we're just using elements of all of the books because that's the nature of the material. They don't really follow a specific, linear structure.”
“It's about finding the narrative and finding the themes and trying to knit things together and form continuity,” explained music composer Danny Elfman on how he scored the picture. “The decision-making process is about who gets a theme and who doesn't. You can't just give every character a theme. It just starts getting too crazy.” Elfman carried on to say, “The challenge is to be inventive…to add energy and motion and anticipation and a sense of something building.” As to why he continues to work with Burton, Danny Elfman remarked, “The joy of working with Tim is and always has been his unpredictability. I never know how he is going to react to something. People say, ‘Oh, you've worked with him so long, you must know when you write something that he will love it.’ It's quite the contrary. I've never found the secret, magic key.”
"I was at dance school doing about thirty-five hours of practice a week until I was fourteen,” explained Mia Wasikowska (The Kids Are All Right). “Then ballet started to grate – the whole idea of trying to attain perfection started to ruin the experience, so I decided to try another type of performance." The Australian actress found herself entering a strange new world where she had to speak her lines to sticky tape or a tennis ball or cardboard cutout. “I was basically planted in this sea of green. I really had to use my imagination." On how she viewed the main character of Alice Kingsley, Wasikowska said, “She’s grown up a lot and is somewhat of a different person, and she’s going back to her roots and discovering herself"
“I like to work with actors who bring something to it,” revealed Tim Burton. “If there was a Lewis Carroll line or something from the book that wasn't in the script and they wanted it to be in the script, they would tell me. There was a lot of that. If an actor connects with something and feels passionate about it, it's always nice. You usually get something better from them because it's something meaningful that they can grasp onto.” Populating the fantasy world of Wonderland are Burton regulars Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, as well as newcomers Michael Sheen (The Queen) and Anne Hathaway (Rachel Getting Married).
Michael Sheen voices McTwisp, The White Rabbit which lures Alice back to Wonderland, “He’s a warm character but, at the same time, he can be quite fussy and quite strict with Alice as well,” said Sheen. “He has an edge to him, a nervous energy, always feeling like he’s behind time; time is very important to him. But he’s quite brave when called upon.” The British actor marveled, “One of the things I love about the film most is that the animals really do look like animals. They’re not humanized, in any way. When a horse suddenly turns around to the Knave of Hearts and says something disparaging about dogs, you really don’t expect it. It’s really effective.” There were some perks for being part of the cast. “My daughter is still living off the fact that I’m in New Moon . Now that I’m in Alice in Wonderland as well, it’s just gone stratospheric. At school, I’m treated like royalty now. But, everyone is convinced that I have red eyes because that’s two characters now with them.”
Playing the part of the White Queen is Anne Hathaway. “One of the most fun parts about my character was this freedom that Tim gave me from the first conversation we had,” remarked Hathaway. “He said, ‘In Wonderland, I don’t want anything to be all good or all bad, so I don’t want it to be that the Red Queen [Helena Bonham Carter] is the bad one and you’re like the nice benevolent one who’s all good.’ He said, ‘Have fun exploring the relationship between the two of them. They come from the same place.’ I thought, oh how fun if my character has a sort of hidden psychosis.”
Along with the White Queen, Alice has another ally in the form of The Mad Hatter, portrayed by Johnny Depp. “I think he’s so brave and smart with his choices,” declared Mia Wasikowska when talking about her co-star. “He can play a crazy character but still give it a core humanity which I think people can identify with.” To play the part, Johnny Depp returned to the source matterial. “The book is the basis for everything. There are little mysteries, little clues in the book that I found fascinating, that were keys to at least my understanding of the Mad Hatter.” Explaining the relationship between the two film personas, Wasikowska remarked, “They’re on the same side. They have an understanding about each other. They both feel like outsiders and feel alone in their separate worlds, and have a special bond and friendship.”
“I had a weird connection [to the tale] because I live and work out of the studio of the illustrator, Arthur Rackham,” revealed Tim Burton. “In 1905, he did some amazing versions of Alice in Wonderland and Sleepy Hollow that I've been involved with.” Performer Michael Sheen found himself drawn to the themes addressed by Lewis Carroll, “For me, the allure of the story is that we all live in this illusion that we’re civilized and that everything makes sense and everything has a place, and Alice in Wonderland shows you that actually it’s a very thin film between sanity and insanity, and total wildness, chaos and fear. Somehow, that seems to be the most true expression of what it’s like to be a child, where things are both familiar and strange, at the same time, and when you think you know what something is, it suddenly shifts and becomes something else.”
A real life drama unfolded beyond the film set of the $200 million production when Disney decided to cut the time period between the theatrical and DVD release of Alice in Wonderland from seventeen to twelve weeks. Cinema owners balked at the idea and threatened not to screen the picture; however, a settlement was reached allowing the movie to gross $210 million within its first three days of being released worldwide.
Following in the footsteps of its predecessors, the picture has generated mixed reactions from film critics. Todd McCarthy of Variety wrote, “Alice in Wonderland has its moments of delight, humour and bedazzlement. But it also becomes more ordinary as it goes along, building to a generic battle climax similar to any number of others in CGI-heavy movies of the past few years.” McCarthy’s colleague Michael Rechtshaffen from The Hollywood Reporter was of a different opinion, “Although Carroll purists might pooh-pooh some of the script’s more radical alterations, like bringing Alice up to legal age, the shift helps hit home the film’s welcome message of female empowerment. Ultimately, it’s the visual landscape that makes Alice’s newest adventure so wondrous, as technology has finally been able to catch up with Burton’s endlessly fertile imagination.”
Three productions on Tim Burton’s cinematic agenda are a black and white stop-motion animation version of Frankenweenie (2011); Maleficent, a retelling of Sleeping Beauty (1959) from the villainess fairy godmother’s point-of-view; and an adaptation of a 1960s gothic television series about a newly-hired governess who searches for her origins while working for a wealthy family shrouded in mystery. “Dark Shadows is happening,” enthused Johnny Depp who is cast to play the pivotal role of a two hundred year old vampire. “It’s like a lifelong dream for me. I loved the show when I was a kid. I was obsessed with Barnabas Collins. I have photographs of me holding Barnabas Collins posters when I was five or six. I’m very excited to do it.”
Responding to the persistent criticism that he values style over substance, Tim Burton remarked, “People don’t realize, because of the surface way the films look and the cartoonish nature of them, that the only thing that keeps me going through a movie is that these characters mean something to me.” However, the director did admit, “If I were to hone myself, it would be: how could I make images feel a certain way, so that what you’re looking at is the thing.” When asked what he looks for in a story, the filmmaker replied, “I always appreciate movies and things that have everything, because that’s the way I feel about life. There’s nothing that’s just funny, just dramatic or just scary. It’s all mixed together.”
A self-described “happy-go-lucky manic depressive”, Burton experienced a revelation while returning to his hometown of Burbank, California. “I remember going to my ten year high school reunion, and when I looked around the room it was obvious that the people who’d done the most with their lives were the ones who’d been troubled in school. People who were satisfied with themselves in high school and thought they had it all, stopped growing. Going to that reunion was a shock. The one good thing about having that kind of childhood is that it gives you time on your own. Because you’re not popular you’re not out socially, so you’ve got time to think and to be quietly angry and emotional. And if you’re lucky, you’ll develop a creative outlet to exorcise those feelings.”
Read the screenplay for Alice in Wonderland and be sure to check out Lenny's Alice in Wonderland site and the Alice in Wonderland Movie fansite.
For more on Tim Burton, visit his official website or fan-site The Tim Burton Collective.
Blood Relations: The Making of Dark Shadows
Digging Up the Past: Frankenweenie Recreated in 3D
Grave Circumstances: Hugh Macdonald talks about Frankenweenie
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.
Digging Up the Past: Frankenweenie Recreated in 3D
Grave Circumstances: Hugh Macdonald talks about Frankenweenie
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.