Interview | James Bobin on Making ‘Alice’ and ‘MIB 23’
It sure is an exciting time to be James Bobin. The director of The Muppets was handed the reins of one of Walt Disney’s most lucrative franchises, and this weekend he unleashes it upon the world. Alice Through the Looking Glass, a film that jettisons much of Lewis Carroll’s original storyline but strives to marry the original author’s wit and melancholy with the grandeur and new characterizations from the previous, Tim Burton blockbuster.
I got on the phone with James Bobin earlier this week to find out more about Alice Through the Looking Glass, including why his sequel looks so much brighter than the original, and how he feels about making big changes to the classic source material.
But of course, we also got to talking about the OTHER reason why it’s an exciting time to be James Bobin. After Alice, his next project is the bizarrely ambitious MIB 23, a film that combines the Men In Black and 21 Jump Street movie franchises. It seems like an unusual experiment, but as James Bobin explains below, the two films have a lot more in common than you might have thought…
Crave: I guess I just want to start here. What made Alice Through the Looking Glass the film you really wanted to make right now?
James Bobin: [Laughs.] Well you know, I’m English, so Alice is a part of your life growing up in England. I’m also only one in a long line of people who have worked in Lewis Carroll’s imagination. So as a kid growing up I loved the books. They felt like part of my childhood and really a part of my DNA in terms of my sensibilities about story and adventure, and well, she’s so quintessentially English. Alice is kind of a weird, interesting idea about Englishness. So for me it’s a very important thing, so the idea of being asked to take part in the world of Alice is a real honor.
And yet, oftentimes when we adapt things that are important to us culturally – and particularly as children, lately – a certain faithfulness is expected, and these movies are very loose adaptations.
Yeah! No, no, of course. It’s that thing whereby you have to recognize that Lewis Carroll, or Charles Dodgson as he was really known, was a man who… I’ve read these books many, many times and I really love them. So to me it was very important to try and stay true to the spirit of them, but in terms of narrative, particularly in the second book, I mean really it’s a story about Alice becoming a queen over eight chapters of a [chess] match. Which is great, but it means that the story as such has little cause and effect. It has a deliberate obtuseness to it, whereby things happen and another thing happens and it becomes vaguely episodic, which is quite a hard thing to maintain as a movie. Which would be interesting, but it would be kind of avant garde. [Laughs.] Which would be fine but a different sort of thing.
So I thought there was a kind of way of keeping the spirit of Lewis Carroll, an idea of a story which I think he would find interesting. And obviously when I came onto the project there was already a script around which Linda [Woolverton] had written […] involving time travel. And even though time travel as a literary device actually kind of post-dates Lewis Carroll, it’s more I guess with The Time Machine and H.G. Wells and that sort of stuff, it [Alice] came before… I think as a mathematician the idea of time travel, that very idea would be appealing to him because mathematics and time travel are very closely intertwined. And also the idea of telling the story backwards. The backwards room is a very important motif of the book, and the backwards story whereby Alice learns things by going further back into time I thought was an interesting idea too.
And then finally the idea really was, when you read Looking-Glass, it’s really quite a melancholy book about the passage of time, about the idea that Alice Liddell – who is the girl that he wrote the first book about – was by the time he wrote it, grown up. And so the book ends with this very lovely acrostic poem about how he remembers the summers golden, summers past, and the idea of the passage of time of Alice growing up. So for the film I was very keen, since we had this time travel element in it, that we then obviously make sure we attach ourselves to the idea of whereby Alice in the film has the sense of time where she kind of thinks initially that Time is her enemy, that he’s stolen her father, but through the film she learns to appreciate the passage of time. I thought those two ideas linking to the book would be quite satisfactory to people who knew the book very well.
That links it to the book, but what about the elements you have left over from Tim Burton’s film? For example, Alice’s relationship to The Mad Hatter is played up a lot more in the movies than it ever was in the books.
For sure, yeah, well I think that’s one of those things that, exactly, in Tim’s movie became more of a thing whereby they were… in the book they are more acquaintances rather than friends. The Hatter is a very different character in the books than in the movie. In this film Johnny [Depp] plays The Hatter in a very vulnerable way, and The Hatter in the books is really a guy who is based on Charles Dodgson’s acquaintances from Christ Church, Oxford and the High Table he used to sit at for supper with quite obtuse, strange people.
But The Hatter in the movies has a slightly more emotional connection and I guess that is an updating to a degree, because it’s an idea that to me, I kind of like the idea of being emotionally engaged with characters these days. Obviously with Lewis Carroll that was a different time, a different idea, and he wasn’t really concerned with that idea because the characters themselves were so unusual.
So I think that’s a more modern interpretation for sure but I think one that kind of works, because both Alice and Hatter feel like they have great similarities, and I love their friendship, and I thought that this was a good basis for a story that Alice was out to save her friend because he’s the one person who may understand what she encounters in the above-ground world of Victorian England. She is a woman with modern ideas set in a Victorian setting, and she comes back from her sea voyage as a captain and encounters the crushing reality of Victorian life. She’s constantly pigeonholed to either being a wife or not much else, and that friendship is quite an interesting one, with the one person who might understand about the world that she lives in, because her friend, who is The Hatter, and she gets there and finds he has even a bigger problem because of the situation he finds himself in.
I thought that was interesting. So I think that again, it’s different from the book but I think in a way that serves the film, in a good way.
Tell me about the visualization of this film. Is it just me or does your film have a significantly brighter palette than the previous one?
Yeah. Again, it’s a thing that I was very conscious of in the first film, because of Tim’s fantastic production design in the first film. So I felt that those were the parameters I was working within, but at the same time the film has a different geographical setting, it’s set in different time periods, and it has a slightly different tone because Tim and I are different sort of people. You know, my background is largely in comedy and Lewis Carroll made me laugh, and so I was very keen to bring a lighter element to that. And again, and along those lines, it tended to mean that for me I like a slightly brighter palette. It’s not a huge difference.
The biggest difference I think, for me, is that I grew up with the world of Alice being defined by the illustrations by John Tenniel, and he was a man who was a political cartoonist who did just two books: Alice, one, and Alice Through the Looking-Glass. But [he] portrayed the world as a world of Victorian imagination, and that is a slightly more human world, in a way. The story matched that too. The story is about a family, it’s about people. You see a town, you see townsfolk. So I was going to build a world which was slightly more Victorian in origin. I guess a tad photo real, to a degree.
So when I was trying to design the world I would often say to Dan Hennah, my designer, who made this a happy job: if you look at the illustrations by John Tenniel, kind of ignore characters in the foreground, and look at the world he was painting behind them of both people and the landscape and the architecture, that was my inspiration for the film. So it has a slightly more Victorian feel, a maybe more historic feel, I guess.
Your next big project is more contemporary, but it’s still really, really, really big.
But remember, I think Men in Black is a sort of ‘50s b-movie, almost. So I think with me it’s still working in an area I find fascinating […] The things that they have in common is, I think, it’s a very old idea, that the world isn’t what we see in front of us. There’s more to the world than what we see, and I think that’s true of both Alice and the Men In Black world. So there’s a kind of continuity in that sense.
And yet it’s such a strange project, because you’re combining two projects that seemingly have nothing to do with each other.
[Laughs.] Yeah, then okay, actually two things… one, it’s very hard to talk about because it’s the super early stages, but the thing about it is that if you look at how they work as procedurals they’re not that different in terms of their structure. And again, it’s hard to talk about without you having read the script, but I’ve read the script and for me it really works, and that was very exciting, because obviously it’s one of those things that’s not an easy thing to do.
But the script, even the first draft that Rodney [Rothman] wrote, had a brilliant sense of how this could work and I was very excited by that. So it’s a hard thing to talk about until you see it, to be honest! [Laughs.] But yes, it’s one of those things whereby there are more similarities than you think and the way the world is structured kind of works for them both. It’s very interesting.
Let me ask you this question, and this is more of a hypothetical I suppose, but if 21 Jump Street and Men In Black can crossover, do all of the Sony movies take place in the same universe? Theoretically, could your guys meet the Ghostbusters or the Andrew Garfield Spider-Man?
[Laughs.] That’s a good theory! That I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s one of those things whereby there has to be parallels in structural terms to a degree, or a sense of… not necessarily of tone even, a thing of whereby the world makes sense somehow. So it would be a case-by-case scenario. I couldn’t possibly say. It would be too hard to comment on because you don’t know. But it would be something I think would be a case-by-case scenario.
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.