I did my James Bobin interview for the Alice Through the Looking Glass movie at the five-star Montage Beverly Hills. This is the type of hotel where the stars stay, it’s kind of a big deal. Located in the heart of Golden Triangle, its elegance and vintage Hollywood decor is a perfect setting for high-profile, celebrity interviews. This is where I’ve done other interviews in the past, and where I interviews Producer Suzanne Todd and Alice, Mia Wasikowska, herself.
I know myself and the Disney influencer team were all equally stoked to meet Director James Bobin. Its not often you get to pick the brain of a Hollywood film director, much less, one who directed a masterpiece like the Alice Through the Looking Glass Movie. Held on the day before the film’s premiere day and following our screening at Walt Disney Studios [review here], we were all ready to get the deets on the film.
James Bobin Interview for Alice Through the Looking Glass
We had set out some toys for a little fun well, Carol of All Mommy Wants, my doll-faced friend and colleague, set them out (she’s always so good about that stuff). James loved them. We kinda did ha!
James was very nice and down to earth. He actually asked us all how we were before we had a chance to ask him. He told us about the last week having been to multiple European destinations and even Japan for the press coverage on the film. Now in LA for the premiere and press with us among others, we talked with James on a few topics:
On Production Time
Nearly three years in total. But that’s right from the very first conversation I had about the film. 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 in London in 2014. So even that was two years ago.
On Getting Onto the Project
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 with my executive director and she mentioned the word Alice to me. And of course I jumped at that because I grew up in England. Alice is like part of your life, she’s just someone who you know really well.
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 in my kid’s playroom, a poster from the British library, which is the front piece of the original manuscript. Just a copy, but it’s beautiful. And it has his little drawings, which are very different to the way you think she’s gonna look. It’s Lewis Carroll drawings for Alice Little. And it’s really pretty. 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, you know, who I felt Alice was to me growing up.
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. I think comedy is often about the specificity of language. So for me, you know, all my life so far I’ve been making jokes and comedy.
It felt like a very natural thing to do is try and use that in this world because obviously Tim’s thing is 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 human relations and family. We have a lot more, I guess, like photo design. Like 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 a guy called John Tenniel, that to me was where the world where Alice lived.
When I was talking with Dan Hennah our production designer, about the world, I used to say to him, “Look at Tenniel’s drawings, and all the characters in the foreground and look what’s behind them. That is the world I want to create for this.”
Obviously bearing in mind Tim’s origins, but also pursuing this idea of making it feel like the world of Victorian imagination.
On Miss Piggy in Wonderland
Miss Piggy would be amazing as the Red Queen. She’d have a gigantic pig head. It would be so great.
On Sacha Baron Cohen and Casting Him for Time
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. 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.
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, then 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 when 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, you know, right for the movie to have a new character and that it would be Lewis Carroll’s idea.
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 time? That’s a very English way of doing time travel. 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.
Sacha is very good at playing the sort of over confident idiot. And that was a very good character choice for him.
Sweeney Todd was very much inspiration for us. When I watched that movie I loved his character in that. And obviously he plays with Johnny. So that feels like that world fit 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.
So 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 because obviously those guys we were incredibly in depth.
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. So we’d do things like never wash Borat’s suits. So he smelled quite bad.
I knew Sacha with me would have a fun time creating the new character of Time. Like who he was, how he spoke, how he held himself. Sacha’s a very physical comedian.
With Time it’s like how he holds himself, his walk, how he sits, you know, it being a thing whereby we’d already had a lot of English accents. And Sacha could do pretty much anything. And we thought time as a concept is a kind of Swiss idea, like clock makers etcetera. And in Switzerland there are two languages, French and German. So we thought German was quite precise in its language.
And then we thought, well, you can’t just do a basic, German, you know, you have to do something fun with it. And so we thought like who has an interesting voice who is German? And we came up with our friend– our documentarian friend who Time is basically based upon.
On Challenging Aspects of the Film
For me, the story is challenging because it’s not the story of the book, which I knew it would never be. I loved the book very dearly. But even as a kid I realized that it’s quite 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.
I knew that for a film it would make an interesting avant garde 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. 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.
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.
You Can Not Change the Past but You Can Learn from it
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 like trying to bring out the themes of the movie. And 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 kind of– sort of want to stay on point. And 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 know, you cannot change the past. But you– maybe you can learn from it.” And that’s a very profound thing for him to say. And it’s a very nice thing for everyone to learn generally because it’s true. You know, you can’t change the past.
On Paying Tribute to Lewis Carroll
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 that 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.
So there’s those kind of things that are very important to me. And 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.
Because there are things that people will notice, and other things for bigger Alice things. Or like when the Red Queen bumps her head as a child the first thing she sees upon coming round is white roses. And so what I always wondered, in my head is, 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 a kind of moment where this is a thing that she sees, of the terrible moment in her life. And that’s why there could be no white roses. So, you know, I think that sort of stuff I really like.
On Technology from 2010 to 2016
Everything in the world, computing power, raw computer power is a lot of the answer of this question, because they drive the models and the various ways we build animation and graphics. But what the result is that you can see these people and in the animated characters particularly in a very clear way. Like if you look at Cheshire the cat you can now see his individual hair on his fur, which is beautiful, and see it moving.
And the thing I’m particularly impressed with these days is eyes because eyes are, as you know, the windows to the soul. It’s very important how light plays with the eyes. And I think over the past six months or so I’ve started to see eyes that feel real and life-like because they refract the light in a really beautiful way. And they have depth.
Obviously your eye you have the lid, and then you have the cornea. And that stuff is 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. That’s the next level when you find the human face.
On Film Locations
The house that was in the original film, the Ascot Mansion, we went to. But it’s in Cornwall, which is quite a long way from where were filming the rest of the stuff. So I had to find a house nearer London because we were shooting a lot of London stuff this time.
The exterior of the house is in Oxfordshire. So that is the exterior of the house. But the interior of the house, the dining room, the ballroom, that beautiful long corridor where she talks to her mum, that’s Sylan House, which is really beautiful. And the greenhouse, dining room and all that stuff, the Sylan House is enormous and did all that stuff for it.
The harbor is Gloucester Docks, different docks because we went to that same place, but it felt a little small. Gloucester Docks is disused industrial space from the 19th Century. And we basically shot there because it felt to me like what East India Dock would’ve looked like in 1871 at the time when London was the busiest port in the world. It had to be super busy.
They had to dredge the dock to get The Wonder in. The boat– the boat is enormous. And so the dock hadn’t been used for some time. They had to dredge, because Gloucester, if you know, is quite inland. And so most people are surprised that Gloucester has docks. But it had a canal built-in the Victorian times. And 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.
On Funny Moments with Helena
So this is a costume bit that you may have heard. Colleen always adds things in for fun, like something that only she and the character are gonna know about. And so apparently Helena, as the Red Queen, wears bloomers with hearts sewn into them.
And we’re never gonna see those obviously. But she knows they’re there. And that is so brilliant for a character that you are completely the character once your underwear is also for that character.
I never knew that until Helena told me that the other day. So I loved the idea so much.
The interview was a lot of fun. Getting the back story on James Bobin and his connection to Lewis Carroll was especially heartwarming as was learning the depths of his history with Sacha Baron Cohen. If you haven’t already seen the film check it out. It’s in theaters now and it’s absolutely amazing.