In a cavernous soundstage at Culver City Studios in Los Angeles in November 2008, Johnny Depp stands before a massive green backdrop wearing a frizzy orange wig, turquoise frock-coat over a red waistcoat, and a checkered kilt complete with sporran. On his legs he has striped socks, one blue and turquoise, the other red and cream. On his head is a top hat, with hatpins and price tag tucked into a silk ribbon. In his hands he wields a huge broadsword that is almost as tall as he is. With his white-painted face, rouged cheeks and fluorescent green contact lenses, Depp is almost unrecognizable. But as Alice in Wonderland’s Mad Hatter, he is suitably freaky. No surprise really, given that the man behind the camera is Tim Burton and together he and Depp have, over the past two decades, created a memorable series of onscreen oddballs, including Edward Scissorhands and Willy Wonka.
Next to Depp is Alice herself, played by the Australian newcomer Mia Wasikowska, but looking quite unlike any Alice you have ever seen. In a Joan of Arc suit of armor, tight blond curls cascading past her shoulders, a steely-eyed Wasikowska sits atop a green animal-shaped box on poles, being carried by men dressed entirely in green, brandishing her own sword to the imaginary hordes of the Red Queen’s army; playing-cards loyal to Helena Bonham Carter’s monstrous-headed monarch that will be added to the scene via computer-generated imagery (CGI) in the coming months. “There’s definitely not a whole lot to draw from in terms of your environment,” Wasikowska admits during a break in filming. “It’s good that it leaves a lot of room for your own imagination, but it is kind of hard to jump into a moment. You have to imagine you’re sitting on a beast, it’s all dark and gloomy and there’s one army here, the Red Army, and another army here, the White Army.”
To create his 3D version of Lewis Carroll’s hallucinatory classic Burton is shooting his actors in front of green screens rather than on real sets, then using the latest digital technology to insert sets, props, backgrounds and even some characters into the frame in post-production—the color green chosen as it is so far removed from skin tone. He dabbled with this technique for several sequences on his previous film—a very bloody adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s horror musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which also starred Depp—and was intrigued enough to commit fully to the process for this. And so, apart from those scenes featuring Alice in the real world—which he filmed in Cornwall for two weeks before the production relocated to Los Angeles—Burton has spent the past few weeks in this sterile, all-green environment and has several more to go.
Outside, the Californian air is heavy with ash, raining down from several wildfires raging around Los Angeles. Inside, conditions are not much better. The green itself is a bilious shade, bordering on the fluorescent. The film’s Oscar-winning producer, Richard Zanuck, says that sickness and lethargy have been a constant problem among cast and crew. Burton has even had special lavender lenses fitted into his glasses to combat the effect.
“The novelty of the green wears off very quickly,” Depp says in his trailer later, the Hatter’s make-up now gone. “It’s exhausting, actually. I mean, I like an obstacle—I don’t mind having to spew dialogue while having to step over dolly track while some guy is holding a card and I’m talking to a piece of tape. But the green beats you up. You’re kind of befuddled at the end of the day.”
Many of Carroll’s creations will be fully animated characters, including the Dormouse, the White Rabbit, the March Hare and the Cheshire Cat, and Burton has amassed an eclectic group of British actors to voice them, among them Michael Sheen, Stephen Fry, Christopher Lee, Paul Whitehouse and Barbara Windsor. On set, these characters are represented either by green cardboard cutouts, full-size models or actors dressed in green. The tubby twins Tweedledum and Tweedledee are being played by Little Britain star Matt Lucas, but only his rubbery features will make the finished film, although all his movements are being recorded to provide the basis for the digital Tweedles.
As Burton readies a close-up of Depp and Wasikowska, he has a 4ft-long model of the finished set brought out for his actors to look at. One of his monitors has an image of the set with a temporary digital background. “It’s really helpful to go and see the screen, the composite one, and think, ‘OK, that’s where we are,’” Bonham Carter says. “You’ve always got a hell of a lot of imagining anyway. You just do a bit more.”
Tall and rangy, his mass of unruly black hair peppered grey, and wearing black shirt, black jeans and scuffed black boots, Burton wastes little time between set-ups. With his actors in place, he heads back to his monitors, settles in his chair, and picks up a microphone. “Come on, kids,” he shouts, his cheerful voice booming around the soundstage, “let’s put on a show.”
Written by the Rev Charles Dodgson, a mathematics lecturer at Christ Church, Oxford, under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland first appeared in 1865, and was followed six years later by Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. The books, now published together under the more familiar title of Alice in Wonderland, told of a little girl’s journey into an alternate land populated by bizarre characters, and changed the landscape of children’s literature. A century and a half later, they continue to delight. “It’s still new. It’s still fresh,” Depp says. “If it were written yesterday and released on shelves today, people would still be as amazed by it as they were then.
“It’s a monumental achievement.” Cinema was quick to latch on to Alice’s appeal, the first film appearing in 1903. And while there have been frequent attempts to adapt the story since, notably Walt Disney’s 1951 cartoon, none has truly managed to capture the anarchic spirit and surreal, nonsensical, fever-dream logic of Carroll’s writing. But if anyone can, Burton can.
The American screenwriter Linda Woolverton, whose credits include Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, had been considering doing something with Carroll’s world for some time, but couldn’t find a way into the story. “I wrote this at a very dark time in my life,” she says. “A lot of bad things had happened—death, divorce, moving across the country—so I was kind of down the rabbit hole myself at the time.” It was only when she thought of making Alice older and bringing her back to Wonderland that it all came into focus. “I got an image of her standing at a very crucial moment in her life, looking over and seeing this rabbit leaning against the tree, looking at her, knowing she had to put a pin in this crucial decision and follow this rabbit, because that was her destiny.”
Burton’s film takes place a decade after the events of Carroll’s book and incorporates a lot of the themes and characters from the original. “But it’s an entirely different story, a different Alice,” Wasikowska says. “She’s grieving from the loss of her father and feels very isolated and alone and awkward in her skin. She doesn’t fit into the society she’s a part of, and she doesn’t like what’s expected of her, which is to get married and be a good wife.” Finding herself being proposed to at garden party, Alice spots a familiar-looking white rabbit, and consequently follows him down a hole and into Wonderland. What she finds is, according to Burton, “a place in decline, overgrown, a little bit depressed, with a slightly haunted quality to it.” His vision of Wonderland—devoid of color and life under the oppressive rule of the Red Queen—was inspired by the work of Arthur Rackham, who illustrated the 1907 edition of Alice in Wonderland, as well as a black-and-white photograph of a family having tea during the Second World War with London, disheveled, in the background.
After being reacquainted with the Mad Hatter, Alice is taken to see the wise, old, hookah-smoking Caterpillar (Alan Rickman), who informs her that her presence in Wonderland is no accident. Rather, according to ancient prophecy, she has returned to slay the Red Queen’s dreaded Jabberwocky and bring about the end of her reign. Wasikowska found her character easy to relate to. “Returning to Wonderland is Alice rediscovering who she is and having the strength to be more self-assured when she comes back,” she says. “Alice is such an iconic character. I wasn’t sure at first how much they wanted to play with that, or how different they wanted to make her. Tim decided it was important to keep some of the iconic nature. So, for me, the challenge was finding Alice the teenage girl, and bringing that to the story. I wanted to make her real to teenagers and young adults.”
Burton had been determined to cast an unknown as Alice. “She had that emotional toughness; standing her ground in a way which makes her kind of an older person but with a younger person’s mentality,” he says. Anne Hathaway, who plays the White Queen, says, “I love watching her work because it’s very quiet what she’s doing but it goes so deep, and every time she says a line it’s as though she’s saying it for the first time.”
Despite having only 40 days to complete the green screen section—roughly 90 per cent of the film—the atmosphere on set is fun and familial. Burton favors working with many of the same key creative personnel time and time again. Between takes, he and Depp laugh and joke constantly, their current obsession orange-haired characters in cinema and television. On a shelf beneath his monitors Burton has a collection of toy dart guns of varying caliber; he selects one as he waits for another shot to be readied, firing it into the ceiling.
Alice marks the seventh time Burton and Depp have worked together since Edward Scissorhands in 1989, and for Depp it is always a joy. “He leaves you such room to play, to mess around. That’s the opportunity you dream of as an actor, to say, ‘Look I’d like to try something. It might be absolute crap, but I’d like to see if it works.’ If you don’t try to push a little harder or go a little bit outside, what’s the point? And if it doesn’t work, he’ll just say, ‘All right, you tried it, now try this.’ But when it pays off, and I hear that cackle off screen, that’s when I know I’ve hit something on the nose, for Tim.”
Depp was in Chicago filming Public Enemies when Burton called to discuss the Mad Hatter. “The funny thing is, I had just re-read the book, so it was still pretty fresh in my mind,” Depp says. He was keen to incorporate into the film a number of lines from the book that he thought were key to the character. “He says, ‘I’m investigating things that begin with the letter M.’ When you dig a little deeper you find out why. It’s because of the mercury.” Depp’s research revealed the term 'mad as a hatter’ had an unfortunate basis in fact. Hatters suffered from mercury poisoning, a side effect of the millinery process, which would affect the mind.
In creating the Hatter’s look, Depp felt his entire body would have been affected by the mercury and he worked closely with Patty Duke [Editor’s note: Patty York, not Duke], who has been his make-up artist for 18 years, and the costume designer Colleen Atwood, whom he also met on Edward Scissorhands, to bring him to life. “He’s a little bit punked out, but he has a lot of accoutrements on his costume that are the tools of a hatmaker’s trade,” Atwood says. '”He has a bandolier of thread, he has ribbons tied on—all things he can make a hat with at any moment. At the first fitting I found all these crazy thimbles and showed them to Johnny. He stuck them on his fingers and started playing music on them. We had a lot of fun with all those bits that add to the character and he can use when he’s doing the part.”
The following day Burton is directing a scene in which Hathaway’s White Queen banishes her older sister, Bonham Carter’s Red Queen, from Wonderland. Hathaway wears a small green box on her head that, in post-production, will be digitally transformed into a crown, and she seems to glide across the stage floor, her hands raised like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. “It’s like she’s on wheels, and her hands begin talking before she does,” says Depp, who admits to being a little envious of Hathaway’s performance. “In a way, her hands have their own personality. There is a part of it that’s really subtle and a part of it that’s really out there. It’s like Glinda the Good Witch on some sort of hallucinogen.”
Although on the film for only nine days, Hathaway has immersed herself in her role. “I wanted the White Queen to have the punk spirit of Debbie Harry, the etherealness of [the American artist] Dan Flavin, and the glamour and grace and emotion of Greta Garbo,” she says, pointing to a postcard on her trailer’s fridge door featuring one of Flavin’s signature fluorescent tube light sculptures. “That kind of reminded me of their relationship, the way the red’s pushing down on the white. It’s actually three red tubes for every white one, and the white one is still the more dominant.”
Bonham Carter met Burton in 2000 when he cast her as a chimpanzee in his remake of Planet of the Apes. The pair became romantically involved when Burton moved to London the following year after his break-up with the model and actress Lisa Marie. Since then they have worked together on six films and have two children, Billy, six, and Nell, two. “I didn’t know, as ever, if I was going to be in it,” Bonham Carter says. “I assumed not. Then everybody else seemed to know before me, and Tim said, ‘Obviously it’s you,’ and showed me the first drawing he’d done of the Red Queen, and there’s this doodle of a really angry woman with a big head.” Her transformation into the Red Queen requires three hours in make-up each day. The result, physically inspired by Bette Davis’s Elizabeth I, is startling, especially for her son who, along with his younger sister, is visiting mum and dad at work today. “Billy doesn’t want to look at me,” she shrugs. “I don’t know if he’s scared or embarrassed. Nell—not a problem. Nothing fazes that girl.”
Alice in Wonderland requires somewhere in the region of 2,000 visual effect shots, a considerable number, particularly given the film’s relatively tight production schedule. When I meet Burton in November 2009, a year later, the pressure to complete the effects in time for the film’s March release date is clear. For an artist used to controlling every detail, micro-managing each CGI shot has been arduous and time-consuming. “There’s never a shot where I just go, ‘Great!’?” he sighs. “There are comments on everything. There may be 20 comments per shot. Maybe more. And you’re talking 2,000 shots, so there’s lots of dealing with stuff. You make a comment and you may not see the results of that for a month or two.”
Despite the frustrations, Depp believes Burton’s vision will, ultimately, prove worth it. “Alice in Wonderland—if you’re not walking on a tightrope, juggling super-sharp knives, there’s really no reason to do it,” he says. “Because if you’re not willing to get into the same arena or take the same chances as Charles Dodgson did, what’s the point? Tim is that guy who will get up on that high wire and juggle double-edged daggers to amaze and astound us all. He couldn’t have bitten off anything bigger to chew. This is almost lunatic time. To choose to grab Alice in Wonderland, that in itself is one thing, and then to do it to the Tim Burton level is madness. It’s so huge because, whether it’s the CGI or the green screen or the 3D or the live action, he’s done it all here. It’s the greatest undertaking I’ve heard of.”