Tim Burton's aesthetic is one of the most recognizable ever committed to film—and bringing it to life can be a risky endeavor. In his mind, cute things should also be intensely disturbing and frightful, and morbid imagery is funnier than twee romance. "There was something particular about Alice, a kind of weirdness about the world where even the good people are off base," says the director of Alice in Wonderland, which has been in the making since 2007. "I know these characters." Burton's stories are often appreciated by the very young, who, in his movies, are much tougher and wiser than they seem. His teenage Alice is no exception: In Burton's take on Lewis Carroll's off-kilter, underground world, the heroine (Mia Wasikowska) battles the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) 12 years after their initial encounter in Wonderland.
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I was a suburban teenage goth. You must have a lot of fans like that confessing their secrets to you.
I like you already. There's a certain kind of person that I respond to. Even though I wasn't hard-core [goth], I was depressed. I couldn't get out of the house much. But I do find that the best thing in the whole world, better than any studio coming at you, is when somebody jumps straight out, and you realize you've done work that's connected with that person. I can't think of anything better.
Your stories never shy away from showing how twisted and disturbing childhood and youth can be; they don't romanticize it.
If you look at any kind of great children's literature, it's fucking weird, you know? But there's always this concern, like, "Oh my God, he's going to get too dark or too weird," or whatever. In this book, a girl drinks something that says drink me. There's smoking caterpillars, giant mushrooms, all sorts of shit! I mean, c'mon. I didn't write this! [Laughs] As an adult, you forget this stuff, but the kids, they always remember. They can handle it.
Most of your characters have something in common—a tortured awkwardness.
Once you have those feelings, no matter how happy you become, they remain. It's kind of like a form of trauma. You never quite get over it.
You've aged Alice to 19, so the film turns her adventure into more of a coming-of-age story.
I was trying to take the spirit of what those characters gave me: a person who is a child but not a child, that awkward time when you're trying to figure yourself out.
What's your personal connection to Alice in Wonderland? Did you read it at a young age?
I'm from Burbank, and I wasn't so much brought up on the books as it was that I saw the Tom Petty video, I heard the Jefferson Airplane song, I saw these images coming up, the white rabbit, the caterpillar.
You tend to use the same actors again and again, almost as if they're a part of your own art collective.
It's fun to work with them. Obviously, Johnny [Depp], I've worked with many times. The joy of that is that you get to see somebody change from one point to another. I've had that a bit with Helena, too. But at the same time it's also great to mix it up.
So you didn't feel nervous about trusting a relative unknown actress, Mia Wasikowska, with the Alice character?
What I liked about her is that she had this thing we were describing earlier: She's a young person with an old person's soul. Being very internal and having a rich internal life, kind of melancholy, kind of sad...Without having to do anything, she was able to convey that very simply and internally.
You had quite a bit to convey with special effects in Alice in Wonderland; James Cameron criticized the fact that you chose to shoot in 2-D and then convert to 3-D.
I wonder why. Because he owns all the equipment, right? So of course he's going to say that.
Do you think the possibility of beating Avatar in ticket sales will be enough of a "screw you"?
This is not Celebrity Deathmatch. There's so many ways to achieve something. I try to use [3-D] to service a project—I don't really care if I can have Judy Garland in a movie now, just because we can do it. Whatever.
You're a writer, too—how would you categorize your style?
I don't. The minute you start doing that, you become a commodity or something. I never want to become a thing. I want to be a human being as much as I possibly can.
Since you do try to distance yourself from Hollywood, do you feel like everything you've done has satisfied your creative impulses?
No. No, no, no. Every film is flawed in some ways. But it's still your baby, and therefore you care about it. It may be ugly, but it's yours. You keep striving. You have to.
Sometimes you let strangers get close to you. The sketches at your retrospective show at the Museum of Modern Art offered an intimate glimpse into your vision.
It's a bit alarming. I kept thinking I would turn a wall [of the exhibit] into my dirty laundry.
Did it affect the work you were doing at the time?
It was such an out-of-body experience, it didn't really quite affect me. It was so surreal, and such a great honor. I never really look at anything ever again, and here I looked back at stuff. It was a good creative reenergizing. I think it's done something for me, inside.
Alice in Wonderland opens Fri 5.