Disney’s Alice Through the Looking Glass is now in theaters everywhere. One of the many talents behind this wonderful and whimsy film is director James Bobin. James Bobin is an English film director, writer, and producer. He worked as a director and writer on Da Ali G Show and helped create the characters of Ali G, Borat, and Brüno. We had the honor to meet with and interview James Bobin while in LA for the red carpet premiere event. He was very generous with his time and answers, making it a charming and entertaining interview for sure. You can read the highlights below.
Q: How long have you been working on on this film? When did you start?
James: 2013. So nearly three years in total. But that’s right from the very first conversation I had about the film, in terms of even attempting to do it. Then obviously it’s a presence where I only finished it like a month ago. I finished QC’ing the final 3-D images a month ago because it takes a long time. And we shot in Shepperton Studios [STAMMERS] in London in 2014. Even that was two years ago. So it’s a long time.
Q: Well, how did you get attached to the project?
James: I was working for Disney already. I made some Muppets movies for them back in the day. And that was really fun. I remember being on set and talking about things they were thinking about doing. And she mentioned the word Alice to me. And of course I jumped at that because I grew up in England. And Alice is like part of your life. Like she’s just someone who you know really well. She’s like Christopher Robin. She’s just like part of your makeup. For me, 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 it in my kid’s playroom. We have a poster from the British library, which is a piece of the original manuscript. Just a copy. But it’s beautiful. It’s the thing he wrote for Alice Little. 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 the Lewis Carroll drawings for Alice Little. And it’s really pretty. So we love Alice in our family. When I found out we were doing it, I was really excited because when you know something it’s a quite good way for starting it. You think you have a clear idea of who she’s gonna be in the film. And, who I felt Alice was to me growing up. But also ’cause I keep saying when 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. And, 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. So it’s a bit different. I mean it needed to be different. I think sequels need to be different. It’s nice to pay tribute and make sure you respect the origins of the story and the characters. But people want to see generally something which is a progression or something new or if it has a different sight, feel or tone. So you’ll notice that in the design it’s a bit different too. The palettes are a little bit brighter. In the movie, the story itself is very much about the human relations and the family. And we have a lot more photo real design. Tthe world is more Victorian in some ways. And that’s partly because when I was a kid growing up, the books are illustrated with an unbelievably beautiful engraving. And that to me was where the world where Alice lived.
Q: If Miss Piggy was a character in this one, who would she be? Would she be Alice, Red Queen, who would you cast Miss Piggy as?
James: Miss Piggy would be amazing as the Red Queen. [LAUGHTER] She’d have a gigantic pig head. It would be so great.
Q: So you worked with Sacha Baron Cohen in the past with the Ali G Show. Was he your immediate first choice for the character of Time?
James: Yeah, I mean 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. So then I thought that we have a really lovely kind of bad guy in the Red Queen. So you don’t want to do that again or else it gets confusing. What he was gonna be is 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? That’s very English way of doing time travel. So I felt that would be a very nice way of starting the character. And 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. And, you know, Sacha’s very good at playing the sort of over confident idiot. And that was a very good character choice for him. He is great.
Q: Oh, so Miss Pirelli was like…
James: Yeah, and then Sweeney Todd was very much inspiration for us. Like when I watched that movie I loved his character in that. And obviously he plays with Johnny. So that feels like that world fitted into this one neatly. And if you’re gonna work with Helena and Johnny as he has many times he kinda fits into the universe already. So that was a good start because to raise your performance to match the levels of Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter is not easy to do. I knew he had it in him. It was just a question of kind of working out what that guy was gonna be like. And then we started talking about the character like we did with Borat and Bruno ’cause obviously those guys we were incredibly in depth with. We didn’t do many characters with the Ali G show. We did three characters. But we did them in great depth because we were in the real world. We’d do things like never wash Borat’s suits. So he smelled quite bad.
Q: What was the most challenging aspect for you?
James That’s a good question. For me, the story is challenging because it’s not the story of the book, which I knew it would never be ’cause I loved the book very dearly. But even as a kid I realized that it’s quite an unusual because Lewis Carroll wasn’t that concerned with narrative. He liked imagery, 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 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. I wanted to take elements of the book like the backwards 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 eight 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 be ahead of the characters in the movie. And so 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 think I’m more 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.
Q: What was the transition like going from directing live action and Muppets to a lot of CGI characters?
James: It’s kind of why I did this film because it’s so different. The Muppets I dearly loved and was it was really fun. It’s very in camera. And so the Muppets you shoot where you shoot. And that’s what you have in the movies. You make it, the edit becomes the finale footage you have. With this what I found was you had much more flexibility because you can basically keep pursuing ideas way longer than you would be able to in live action because it’s animated. So, you could have an idea almost like a year later and put that into the animated creature’s mouth, which is fun. So it’s good in that way. Because it means you can be very creative for a long time. But it means you’re basically shooting for like two years, which obviously is physically very tiring. So, it was really interesting. I really loved it. It was really fun.
One of my major objectives was to try and create a world where you’d be happy to spend an hour and a half of your time because there’s very few things in the world these days you do for an hour and a half. You know, there really isn’t. I mean this is the time of short attention spans, which is much to my great regret. And there aren’t many things you do for that long. I really wanted to make sure everyone was very happy while watching the movie and maybe a little sad to leave it at the end. That’s the feeling I wanted to convey. I hope I succeeded in that.
Q: One of the things that I loved the most about Alice is the quotes. This one had so many great one-liners. What’s the process for that?
James: I came on and there was already a script. So Linda had already had the brilliant idea about time travel. And the story was pretty much in tact. And it was then really just trying to push the script in certain directions of trying to bring out the themes of the movie. Often the way themes work the best is if you have lines that are gonna work and stick in your brain a bit. So you want to stay on point. The idea was that Time is a very important character in this movie. And so he has great moments of kind of wisdom in the movie when he says to her, you cannot change the past. But you– maybe you can learn from it. That’s a very profound thing for him to say. And it’s a very nice thing for everyone to learn generally ’cause it’s true. You know, you can’t change the past. But if you– if humanity– I mean I studied history at university. So I’ve seen this a lot. If people make the same mistakes over and over again. We all do. You know, and humanity does on the big scale. And, you know, it would be an amazing thing if people would just take from this film that is the truism. It’s really trying to say things in a way which is memorable without people getting hit over the head with it too much.
Q: Well, and like Alice when she affirms it, she says you were right.
James: Yeah, I love that. Time, it’s a very important thing that she learns that time gives as much as he takes, that for me the book about the looking glass is really a book 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 Little 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 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 really beautiful. And if you look at it it’s what’s called an acrostic poem, which means that the first letter of each line adds up to the name Alice Pleasance Little down the side. So it’s a very clear dedication to the girl, which is lovely.
Q: So you have such a clear appreciation for Lewis Carroll and and his books. I notice at the beginning of the movie the pocket watch had Carroll right there.
James: Yes, very good.
Q: So what other sort of ways did you pay tribute to him?
James : When she goes into the backwards room for the first time with the chess match in progress, the chess match is in the original looking glass book. Prior to the title page is a layout of the chess game in progress. So the chess game in progress in the book is the same chess game in progress in the backwards room. So there’s those kind of things that are very important to me. I liked the fact the mantle piece clock in the room is the same mantle piece clock that John Tenniel drew in 1871. So those little touches mean a lot.
Q: What were you able to do as far as technology from the first movie to this movie? What were you able to do in the environment for or with characters?
James: That’s a good question. Obviously, what’s happened is, as with everything in the world, computing power, raw computer power is a lot of the answer of this question, ’cause they drive the models and the various ways we build animation and graphics. The end result is that you can see these people and in the animated characters particularly in a very clear way. If you look at Cheshire the cat you can now see his individual hair on his fur, which is beautiful, and see it moving. The thing I’m particularly impressed with these days is eyes because eyes are, as you know, the windows to the soul. So it’s very important how light plays with the eyes. Over the past six months or so I’ve first started to see eyes that feel like real and lifelike ’cause they refract the light in a really beautiful way. And they have depth. ‘Cause obviously your eye you have the lid, and then you have the cornea. And that stuff is the pretty part of your eye. But in movies you haven’t really up until now. So in the past six months to a year you start really seeing eyes that feel totally real. And it’s not far from being photo real. You know, seeing photo real people. And that’s the next level when you find the human face.
Q: Did you really have The Wonder again come into the dock?
James: Yeah. They had to dredge the dock to get that boat in. The boat is enormous. The dock hadn’t been used for some time. They had to dredge. ‘Cause Gloucester, if you know is quite inland. Most people are surprised that Gloucester has docks. But it had a canal built in the Victorian times. And there had subsequently kind of silted up. So we had to dredge parts. We had to get that boat into where we were shooting. So it was a big deal.
Q: Do you have any funny moments or something to share with us while working with Helena?
James: On her? So this is a costume story that you may have heard is really a bit– I didn’t know this. But when she and Colleen talked about the costume, Colleen always adds things in for fun, like something that only she and the character are gonna know about. So apparently Helena, as the Red Queen, wears bloomers with hearts sewn into them. We’re never gonna see those obviously. But she knows they’re there. And that is so brilliant for a character that– as an actor that you are completely the character once your underwear is also for that character. And I never knew that until Helena told me that the other day. So I loved the idea so much.
Disney’s “Alice Through the Looking Glass” is playing in theaters everywhere NOW!
In Disney’s “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” an all-new spectacular adventure featuring the unforgettable characters from Lewis Carroll’s beloved stories, Alice returns to the whimsical world of Underland and travels back in time to save the Mad Hatter.
FTC Disclaimer: I attended an expense paid trip by Disney to press events for Alice Through The Looking Glass. All opinions shared are always honest and my own. Interview photos by Photo Credit Jana Seitzer from Merlot Mommy.