While in Los Angeles for Alice Through the Looking Glass premiere event, I had the opportunity to sit down with James Bobin, the director of the movie. After working on the project for over 3 years, he was excited to share Alice Through the Looking Glass with the rest of the world. We had time to discuss what the movie meant to him, what he takes away from it and even told some fun behind-the-scenes stories. Here’s a bit of our conversation with James Bobin.
English Director James Bobin has had a busy month. Just in the week we met him, he had been traveling to London, Madrid, & New York City, before heading to the Alice Through the Looking Glass Premiere in Los Angeles. And even with all that travel, he walked into our room at the Beverly Hills Montage Hotel with a cup of coffee, ready to tell us all about his experiences.
Bobin started in the industry as a director and writer on Da Ali G Show and helped create the characters of Ali G, Borat, and Brüno. He moved to feature films, directing both The Muppets and Muppets Most Wanted. And he spoke of the difference of directing “muppets” versus CGI characters in Alice Through the Looking Glass as a fun challenge.
How did you get attached to the project (Alice Through the Looking Glass)?
I was working for Disney already. I made some Muppets movies for them back in the day. So, I remember being on set, with my executive, Kristen Burr, and she was 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 so Alice is like part of your life. She’s just someone who you know really well. She’s like Christopher Robin. 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. So we love Alice in our family.
So when I found out we were doing it, I was really excited because when you know something, it’s quite a 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 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. I think comedy is often about the specificity of language.
On the Difference Between His Directing & Tim Burtons’s….
It felt like a very natural thing to do is try and use comedy in this world because 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 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.
You’ll notice that in design is a bit different too. The palettes are a little bit brighter. The story itself is very much about the human relations and family. And so we have a lot more real design. The world is more Victorian in some ways. And that’s partly because when I was a kid growing up, the books are illustrated by John Tenniel, who did unbelievably beautiful engraving. And that to me was the world where Alice lived.
And so when I was talking with our production designer about the world, I said to him ‘look at Tenniel’s drawings. And all the characters in the foreground and look like what’s behind them.’ And that is the world I want to create for this. And obviously bearing in mind Tim’s origins. But also pursuing this idea of making it feel like the world of Victorian imagination.
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?
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. So 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. 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.
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, we needed to create a character, which is Time.
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 right for the movie to have a new character and that it would be Lewis Carroll’s idea.
What he was going to be is more of 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 travel through time. 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 Sacha’s very good at playing the sort of over confident idiot. And that was a very good character choice for him.
What was the most challenging aspect for you?
The story is challenging because it’s not the story of the book. 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, it 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 (Woolverton) 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. So 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. 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 feel like I was ahead of the characters in the movie.
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 to think ‘I’m 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.
What sort of ways did you pay tribute to Lewis Carroll in the film?
When she (Alice) 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. At the very beginning of the 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. There’s those kind of things that are very important to me. 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.
When the Red Queen bumps her head as a child, the first thing she sees upon coming round is white roses. And so we always wondered, what’s up with the white roses thing? Why does she keep changing it to red? And then maybe because in her head there’s this terrible moment in her life. And that’s why there could be no white roses. That sort of stuff I really like.
What was the transition like going from directing live action and Muppets to a lot of CGI characters?
Well, it’s kind of why I did this film, because it’s so different. Muppets I dearly loved and was really fun. It’s very in camera where you kind of shoot where you shoot. 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. 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.
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. We’re in a period of short attention spans, which is much to my great regret. And there aren’t many things you do for that long. So I really wanted to make sure everyone was very happy and you sure must be sad to leave at the end. It’s like that’s the feeling I wanted to convey. I hope I succeeded in that.
On his biggest takeaway from the film….
In my personal life, I feel the passage of time can sometimes be a sad thing. And the way I overcome that is if you really appreciate the time that you’re in and the people you’re with then you have no regrets because you did your best to appreciate it at the time. And that for me is a brilliant message for your life. And I know for this film and the fact that Alice kind of learns that in this film is really important to me ’cause it’s a personal thing for me too that you can learn to appreciate time.
That said if you haven’t had a chance to see Alice Through the Looking Glass, go see it. It’s a wonderful story of bravery, kindness, loyalty and will make you want to hug your loved ones……enjoying every bit of time you have with them.
Alice Through the Looking Glass is in theaters now.
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Other Articles from the Alice Through the Looking Glass & Zootopia Blu-ray Event you may enjoy:
My Alice Through the Looking Glass Red Carpet Premiere Experience
Get to Know Alice’s Mia Wasikowski
5 Reasons Why Alice Through the Looking Glass is Better than Alice in Wonderland
Exclusive Interview with Suzanne Todd, Producer of Alice Through the Looking Glass
Zootopia’s Clark Spencer, Rich Moore, & Byron Howard
9 Things You Didn’t Know About Zootopia
Exclusive Interview with James Bobin, Director of Alice Through the Looking Glass
Disclaimer: Disney sent me to Los Angeles on an all-expenses paid press trip, in exchange for my coverage of the red carpet premiere of Alice Through the Looking Glass. All opinions are my own.