Hollywood’s odd couple
It’s reputed that Tim Burton decorates his Christmas trees with the effigies of dead babies. Whether or not the story is true hardly matters. It’s enough that it seems true. On hearing this strange tale, we nod our heads knowingly and say, ‘Yes, that sounds like Tim.’
Over the past 20 years Tim Burton has grown from a cult film-maker into the creator of strange gothic blockbusters while Helena Bonham Carter has gone from Maurice, Howard’s End and A Room With A View into a darker, murkier world of The Corpse Bride and Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd.
Even away from her husband’s movies, her roles have taken on a darker edge particularly in the Harry Potter series where she plays evil witch Bellatrix Lestrange. But, together they have become Britain’s Mr and Mrs Goth. Last December the pair posed for a surreal photo-shoot for Vogue entitled Tales of the Unexpected where they made the most of their reputation for spooky strangeness.
Burton, a native-born Californian, has developed a long love affair with Britain ever since he used Pinewood to film his two Batman films in the early 1990s. Subsequent films like Sleepy Hollow, Sweeney Todd and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were also filmed here.
Burton also has a huge regard for British talent using such well known character actors as Christopher Lee, Alan Rickman and Michael Gough in multiple films. Burton has confessed in his autobiography Burton on Burton and in various magazine interviews that he found it difficult to settle into the clean-living, sunshine world of Los Angeles.
In fact he mocked the uniformity of US suburban living in his cult movie Edward Scissorhands which represented his first collaboration with Johnny Depp and a brief opportunity for Burton to work with his childhood hero Vincent Price.
Burton’s first film was a black and white stop motion animation called simply Vincent. It was a poem, written by Burton, about a young boy who spends his days in a fantasy world dreaming of being horror-meister Vincent Price. The poem is read by Price and it is hard not to see the autobiographical nature of the poem and the film given that Burton’s drawings conjure up a lad that looks not too dissimilar to the author of the piece.
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In fact it is Burton’s skill as a draughtsman which lies at the heart of his success. His films have a uniform look about them - a Tim Burton look. If you look at his drawings which litter his autobiography you can see that his vision is transplanted intact up on the screen. This is the secret to how he can maintain his distinctive look in a film industry which is largely successful in burying people’s individual style.
Not even Steven Spielberg maintains such a uniform look to his movies. The only other contemporary directors who have such a distinctive style are Woody Allen and Terry Gilliam. Prior to this, you have to stretch back to the meticulously recreated world of Alfred Hitchcock to find a director with such a signature style.
Having interviewed Burton, read his autobiography and watched all his films (a number of times) it is easy to see that here is a man who wears his heart on his sleeve. He is a romantic goth. A man brought up on cheap horror and cheesey B movies, who rather likes being out of step with the rest of the world.
While Helena Bonham Carter was getting to grips with her corsets in Howard’s End and A Room With A View, Burton made a confident debut movie with Pee Wee’s Big Adventure before going onto make the cult classic Beetlejuice which can now be seen as something of a statement of intent.
In Beetlejuice, complete with a memorable score by Burton’s regular composer Danny Elfman, he sets out the gothic tinged, heightened reality in which his future films will be set. It’s a world informed by his drawings. A world where the laws of physics do not apply. It’s a world dominated by Burton’s love design, darkness and dreams.
A news story this week revealed that Burton and Bonham Carter didn’t send their son Bill to a London Montessori school because the head didn’t approve of fairytales. Helena Bonham Carter told reporters: “Tim has a theory that we impose our own fears on the kids and it’s the kids who are quite robust. The school principal recommended no fairytales, which is why we didn’t send Bill to Montessori - because telling Tim Burton that fairytales are not a good idea is a no-no.”
It is as if Burton can only communicate through his movies. In interviews, gestures, waving hands and an awkward smile stand in for a lengthy answer to a question. In an interview with The Times recently Bonham Carter said that she believes that their relationship has encouraged Tim to talk more. “People who know him say I have..made him talk more. Every sentence was unfinished. I used to say that he was a home for abandoned sentences.”
However, it is in his work that Burton comes alive. It has been suggested and not denied that his close friend Johnny Depp acts as an on-screen alter-ego for Burton, the outsider trying to make sense of a confusing world. Edward Scissorhands and Victor Van Dort in The Corpse Bride are two of the very obvious Burton substitute roles. But, even Depp’s period police detective Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow, on closer inspection, reveals a hidden Burton within. Crane is an outsider and is mocked by his contemporaries. While his colleagues are loud and brutish, Crane is nervous and cautious. However, Crane’s seemingly avant garde policing methods are the ones which solve the mystery and save the day.
Burton’s message is clear. Crane maybe different from the rest, his methods may not be accepted but he should not be mocked or ignored. Is this a plea from the heart. Burton’s stamp on the story is increased by the use of his trademark twisted trees and scarecrows. Burton’s movies don’t use real trees but instead use artificial constructions created to match Burton’s unique landscape. He loves to shape his world and not be confined by the realities of filming on location.
Burton’s control of his visual world extends into his work based on other people’s stories. His Batman movies cannot be confused with those of the other recent Batman directors Joel Schumacher and Christopher Nolan.
Similarly his Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is very much his interpretation of the world of Roald Dahl. The many inventions in Willy Wonka’s factory have a similar feel and look to those found in the inventor’s laboratory in Edward Scissorhands. And now his Alice In Wonderland is set in a distinctly Tim Burton-styled world - although one which is rather more colourful than his usual restricted colour palette of grey, dark blue and purple.
Alice in Wonderland features a veritable explosion of colour which Burton cleverly uses to add to the slightly dangerous atmosphere rather than using it to promote a feeling of sunny, well-being.
Talking about the new film, Tim Burton, said that it was the images of Alice in her topsy turvy world that attracted his attention rather than the book itself.
“I was much more fascinated by the iconic images—I think people are always surprised when they go back and read the stories, because they don’t have that “Lord of the Rings” sweeping narrative. They’re absurdist, surreal. But those characters are in our dreams, our tales. Those things that stay in your brain. Why do all these musicians write songs about it? Illustrators are recalling it all the time. You see it in other imagery. It was key to try to make that world. The things that I felt were unique to “Alice,” they’re unique because they’re so different. Like the bizarre size changes? And where you have some animals that talk, some don’t. It seems quite random in what Carroll did. But, at the same time, it’s not. There’s something very deep. Things that seem random maybe aren’t? The goal is just to try and capture that.”
He said that capturing atmosphere was a high priority when it came to recreating Alice’s world on film. His attention to detail went as far as correcting a long standing misapprehension. “The world that Alice goes into is Underland and has always been Underland, but according to the film version, when Alice visited as a child, she misheard the name and called it Wonderland. Everybody’s got an image of Underland. I think in people’s minds, it’s always been a very bright, cartoony place. We thought if Alice had had this adventure as a little girl and now she’s going back, perhaps it’s been a little bit depressed since she’s left. It’s got a slightly haunted quality to it.
“In any fairy tale land there is good and bad. What I liked about Underland is that everything is slightly off, even the good people. That, to me, is something different. It’s so much a part of the culture. So whether you’ve read the story or not, you’ll know certain images or have certain ideas about it. It’s such a popular story. The reason we did something with it is that it’s captured the imagination of people for a very long time.”
Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is not a straight re-telling of the Lewis Carroll story or even an amalgam of the two Alice books. It’s a return to Underland when Alice is older. It’s a return journey. Tim said that he wanted to do something different, to make a statement about the enduring world that Carroll had created which was why he decided to make Alice older, so she could interact with and comment more upon this fantastic landscape that she had become involved with.
“What I like about this is that it’s more of a personal journey. These are the things that are actually the most important in life. That moment where you make that important choice. Maybe it happens to everybody. Maybe it does a couple of different times in your life, where you learn something, you grow. You know, it’s like you’ve got two sides of yourself in conflict. Emotionally conflicted. And then, when you make that personal growth, it’s quite an amazing thing.”
Leading on from that he said that a younger Alice wouldn’t have brought that sense of drama to the role, that need for understanding. ““The thing that fascinated me about “Alice” is that its iconic images have been absorbed by our culture. I probably knew more about “Alice” from listening to bands and songs—so much of the story’s imagery comes into play. So, that’s the thing that was always strong about “Alice.” It was never the plot points of the story, because they were absurdist tales—they didn’t really have a certain narrative dynamic. I think that’s why those other versions, (of the story), were always lacking, because there was this little girl observing things and saying, ‘oh, that’s weird.’ There was one weird character after another, without much of a context to it.
“So, we tried to ground each of the “Alice in Wonderland” characters. We tried to give them it a bit more depth, and to give her a story. There’s such a mystique about “Alice in Wonderland.” I just felt that it would be more appropriate if we tried to be true to the spirit of what those characters were, and then, just give it all a bit more of a foundation.”
This involved talking things through with the actors and in particular with Johnny Depp who plays The Mad Hatter. The character was created by actor and director sitting down and talking through the script with both of them putting their thoughts down in the form of quick doodles, lodged between the lines.
“Well, I’ll do a little sketch, he’ll do a little sketch. We’ll talk. It always is different. With him, we use references, but they’re never specific references. Because he never wants to feel like he’s doing just one thing. So, we use a lot of abstract references. But I’m always excited to see what’s gonna come out. So, we’ve tried to make the Hatter mad, of course, but also give him a certain emotional quality under the surface. Johnny’s pretty good about trying to find the reality of something unreal.”
But at the end of the interview, after all the talk of illustrations and visuals Tim reveals a far more personal connection to the film.
“I have a weird connection with the books. The house where I live in London was owned by Arthur Rackham – the famous English book illustrator who created the iconic colour plates for the 1907 edition of “Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland”. I live and work out of the studio where he did some amazing versions of Alice in Wonderland. So I felt there was a connection to the material and me. And that always helps, somehow.”
That house nestles snugly next to Helena Bonham Carter’s and the houses are connected by a door which allows them to occupy separate properties but still live under the same roof. In Alice Helena plays a foul-tempered Red Queen with a head far too large for her body and a penchant for using pigs as foot-stools.
He said that because the film is to be screened in 3-D, it meant that technology played a big part in the production process but he tried to make sure that it didn’t dominate their creative discussions.
“This seemed like the right kind of story to do in 3-D. I always try to say, ‘Is it the right medium for this?’ and not just do it because it’s a gimmick or it’s fashionable now, and it did feel like it was the right kind of material. So seeing it come to life in 3-D supports the material. It gives you that kind of ‘out-there’ feeling that was a very crucial element to the film.
“I’m not a special-effects-just-for-special-effects kind of filmmaker. I try not to treat it like that. Even with all the stuff in this movie, we always tried to go back to the simplicity of it being one person’s journey. It’s Alice’s journey. And that’s it. It’s a very simple thing—and that’s what we always tried to keep it.”
Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, certificate PG, is playing at cinemas across the region from this weekend.