James Bobin interview: Alice, MIB 23, Muppets

We chatted to director James Bobin about Alice Through The Looking Glass, MIB 23, The Muppets and Flight Of The Conchords...

On a visual level, Alice Through The Looking Glass is a stark contrast to director James Bobin’s previous two films, The Muppets and Muppets Most Wanted. Where his Muppets work relied mostly on practical effects and furry cast members, this sequel to Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland is a festival of stunning CGI.

But you can spot Bobin’s eye for comedy (he directed TV’s The Ali-G Show and co-created Flight Of The Conchords before transitioning to cinema) all over Alice Through The Looking Glass. Particularly in scenes where his old chum Sacha Baron Cohen steals the show as the villainous personification of time itself. 

Mr Bobin – a Hampshire native who’s since moved to the States – was in London recently to promote this new movie, and took the time to chat to us about it. We snuck in a few questions about his other projects too, including the upcoming Jump Street/Men In Black crossover flick MIB 23. Bobin was polite enough to answer everything we put to him, and proved to be a warm, oft-chuckling interviewee. Here’s our chat…

NB: this interview took place before The Muppets TV series was cancelled.

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You’ll probably never outrun ‘everyone knows the sequel’s never quite as good’

[Laughs] Come on, I earned that on Muppets.

So, when you came onto Alice Through The Looking Glass, what were the first things you did to avoid that trap?

Well… It was a thing whereby, as you know… if you grow up in England, Alice is a part of your life. And so I knew Alice pretty well, and I liked both books and I read both books and I was aware there were two books. So that’s a good start. 

Um, and I remember as a child laughing at Lewis Caroll and finding him very amusing. He’s very witty, and the characters made me laugh and Alice made me laugh because she’s so defiant. And, with my background in, largely, comedy… I felt like what I could do with this is try and bring elements of that back to the story in some ways. And I thought that would be an interesting device. 

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What Tim [Burton] did was beautiful and visually absolutely stunning, and the characters are fantastic. But I felt like, with this, because of who I am, I would inherently bring something a tad lighter, I guess. And so that’s what I hope we ended up with, which is a story which is new, but feels in the spirit of Lewis Caroll. But with trying to bring some of the humour, that I remember from being a kid was very Lewis Caroll.

Was it easier or harder making a sequel to someone else’s film, rather than your own as you did with Muppets?

It’s very different, you know? It’s such a different world. Um, they’re different challenges. You can’t really compare the two. They’re so different, especially because there’s no sense really… I mean, I guess Muppets one and two are fairly close together… 

Yeah, no… it was that thing whereby you are aware, I guess,  that I am in this world and starting from a point where Tim [Burton] has designed the universe effectively. Or the designed the universe and its parameters. Whilst that, because the film was set in a different time and a different location, there was a lot of things I could change in the design. And bring things I like, like the drawings of John Tenniel for example, to the production design.

You are aware that there are things that have been established, like the characters themselves, for example. They were clearly drawn before and that’s what they’re going to look like again. Even though you can vary them a little bit, that’s what was set. So, it’s totally different, I guess you have been given someone else’s world to work with.

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And how involved was Tim Burton throughout the process? I’ve seen he’s doing press, which suggests it might be more than many big name producers… 

Yeah, yeah, he’s around. The thing is, as a producer, you know… he’s based in London, and we shot here at Shepperton. So that was very handy. He was around for that, for the shoot. And then when you’re designing stuff, he’s just an email away. He was very helpful, and, you know, he knew the script. And I was very careful to make sure we talked about the design of Time, the new character. And on locations, we had new locations and stuff. So he was very helpful.

The rules of Underland must be quite fluid, so I guess you didn’t have to ask what can and can’t happen there? 

Yeah, and also of course Lewis Caroll is the man that likes bending rules and reversing situations and making things unusually odd. So, there’s a certain licence in that. And you do wanna make sure you feel like it’s the same world, I guess that’s very important, but within that there’s a certain amount of licence, you’re right.

Was the script already nailed down when you came in, or did you make changes to it? 

Er… sort of. The story of time, of time travel, was very much part of the script when I came in. One of the elements I brought in when I read it was the idea of the character Time. Because I knew Lewis Caroll’s books pretty well, and I knew that when the Hatter met Alice in the first book, what he says to her is that ‘I’ve been stuck at this tea party since last March, when Time and I quarrelled’. 

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So I thought, that’s good, because obviously Hatter knows this man called Time. Time exists as a person, and he’s annoying. It’s a very Lewis Caroll idea. And so I thought that’s sort of Lewis Caroll’s character, even though he’s never in any of the books and never mentioned ever again… he’s a person. And that would be therefore a very useful antagonist in this plot. Because if you’re going to do a time travel film in the Lewis Caroll universe, it would be great if you had to ask permission to travel through time. It feels very English.

I was writing my review last night, and I couldn’t stop talking about Sacha Baron Cohen and how funny Time is. 

He’ll be very pleased to hear that, thank you. He does a great job, and I’m really thrilled with him. I’ve worked with him, as you know, for many years. This is like going back to the last century, we worked together on The Ali-G Show and The Eleven O’Clock Show in the 1990s. And one of the things I’m always aware of, with him… he’s very good at playing… like, Borat does some really terrible things, and says some terrible things, but he’s a very likeable person. You really feel for him. And you often feel sorry for him. 

I think that’s a great trait that Sacha has, and I was very keen to bring that out in Time. I didn’t want him to be this one note comedy bad guy. That wouldn’t work. You have to have a character that has dimension. And therefore I wanted to make him lonely. I thought, if you are a despot who lives in a gigantic castle of infinity, surrounded by robots, you’d be kinda lonely. Forever. So therefore if you were to come into contact with a female – and luckily for him it happens to be The Red Queen – then you can easily be taken advantage of. And that was a good idea, I think.

And how has your working relationship with Sacha Baron Cohen changed, in the decade and a bit since you last worked together?

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It hasn’t, that’s the great thing about it. It hasn’t. He and I worked together for a long time, so through that you develop a certain trust. He and I share a lot of sensibilities. And, therefore, he trusts me to use the things that he does in a constructive way. In a way that makes the character work. Um, and that’s hugely helpful. It means that he brings a lot of energy to set, and lots of ideas to set, but at the end of the day trusts me to pick the ones that will work. Which is great, because that’s the basis of any successful working relationship, with a performer and a director, I think.

It says in the press notes that he did a bit of ad-libbing as well –

[Laughs] A bit?

It might not have said ‘a bit’. 

[Still laughing] He did a lot of ad-libbing. And that’s great. Again, I’m very much a believer… and this is with everything that I’ve ever done. That you get what you have on the page, and then you play if you have time. And that works really well. Even if you don’t end up using the actual lines, if there’s a certain energy that one of the performances brings, you can use it to create more of a sense of… looks, or interesting moments. And so, no, I’m very keen that he does that. And he brings alternatives all the time, which is very helpful.

Are there any particular bits that are him, that made it to final cut?

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He’s very good at falling over. He’s a very physical comedian and he’s very good at falling over, so I knew that thing in the corridor would work very well. Also, with that introduction straight away, you know this guy. It’s set up as though he’s this terrible, powerful guy and then he just falls over. And you go ‘okay, I get it.’ 

You open the film up with Alice adventuring on the seven seas. What was the appeal of starting the story there?

Well, it’s all very well saying you’re a sea captain, it’s far better to show you being a sea captain. And particularly because I think she’s so competent, Alice. I think it’s that thing whereby the film starts with all the various tenets of her life being knocked away. She loses the support of her mother, she loses her job, she loses to Hamish and everything is turned upside down very quickly. And that’s much more devastating if you understand where she’s just been. And the things she’s just been doing, and the things she’s capable of. And the fact that, because she’s a woman everybody treats her so terribly. And therefore those things feel the much sharper, in contrast.

And what was the sea captain scene like to shoot?

Ha! Cold. The sea captain sequence, we saved until last, brilliantly. And so we were at… I think it was Longcross, in Hampshire… and it was on this enormous, 200-foot gimbal we built which could rock to one side by 90 degrees. So we were all tied in, and it was these eight two-ton water dump things. And obviously huge fans.

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So it was absolutely freezing, but actually quite fun. And it’s that thing whereby you’re filming, it’s quite unusual to have a combination of those two things. You’re wet and it’s freezing, but it’s fun. And it feels like you’re at sea, it does, even if you’re in the middle of England, basically. You’re in the middle of Hampshire, on dry land, and it feels like you’re at sea, which was great.

And bless Mia [Wasikowska]. I could wear what ever I wanted to wear, which was a thick coat and like a scarf. She was wearing a rather thin, 19th century woollen frock coat. No gloves. Nothing. She was jolly cold, so bless her for that. That was amazing.

When we interviewed you last time for Muppets Most Wanted, I think you were just starting on this. You said that this would be a lot more digital than The Muppets’ analogue. Were you surprised, then, that you actually got to build things like a giant boat? 

Yeah, no, and also… part of the reason I did this film was because it’s so different to Muppets. Muppets is pretty much the anti-CG movie, and this is very much a CG movie. So I wanted to embrace the idea and try stuff out. At the same time I was conscious that I do like building sets. So, on this film, in places where you could have drawn Wit’s End and designed it as a CG environment, I was quite keen to have that be a real place. And as a consequence we built that at Shepperton, on a 29,000 square foot stage, which was great.

So, err, that was interesting. So yeah, it was one of those things, in the end, it feels like the best solution is often a combination of the two, whereby you build and use CG to extend it.

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Another thing you said back then –

[Laughs] Ah, don’t quote me from three years ago!

I’m going to! You said that a lot of the film would be built in post –

Oh, I see. I see what you mean. Yes, that’s true. That is interesting, you’re right. Because when you do a film like Muppets, which was so in-camera – like any live action film – you basically make the best of what you have. Which is great, and that’s how filmmaking works. But with this… you’re right… I was very prescient three years ago! It’s true, because yes, when you’re doing a film like this and you have fully animated CG characters, you can keep… you’re effectively shooting the entire time, because you can change stuff.

And you can change the animated voices up to the point that you stop, which is fair enough. But you can create new moments, or new sequences, because you’re in a fully CG environment. So yes, that was fascinating to discover. And it’s that strange thing, that in some ways is very liberating and in some ways it makes your life hard. Because the options are innumerable. And so it does get hard to nail down what it’s going to be. It has to be quite a force of nature of make it happen.

But, um, it is interesting because it gives you flexibility in a way you never had before. Certainly in the Muppet films, for sure.

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It must be weird when you’re shooting, say, a shot with all the digital characters together. What do you have there, is it the balls-on-sticks?

Yeah. You know, it’s mostly for eye-line. Just so the actors that are performing have a natural interaction with those characters. Um, you often have just cut-outs, because it’s simple and it’s very graphical. But if there’s interaction you need to actually build a proxy. A blue proxy or whatever it’s going to be. 

And so, for example, our little oil can guy, when Sacha picks him up, you have to build that thing, to be roughly the size and the shape of the thing that it’s going to be. And you have a version when just picks the blue thing up, and later on you make it into a full CG character. Um, so yeah, you do want something.

And it’s funny, actors who have worked in this environment before are very much used to referencing the cut-outs in their performance. When you talk to someone, you look over there. Even if you’re not talking, you’ll exchange glances with somebody. And it’s something that, if you’ve worked in the CG environment before, like Johnny [Depp] has… he’s just a natural at it. He just does it all the time and is great at it. But if you’re new to it, it can be hard, they need reminding sometimes that there are other people in the room.

Just to talk a bit about other projects before I’m ushered out… 

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[Laughs] Yes?

Don’t worry, I’ll bash through them quickly. Talk seems to crop up every now and then about a Flight Of The Conchords movie –

[Laughs] 

With your name in the mix as well as Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, of course –

No, no, sure. I mean, Jemaine always talks about it as his press conferences, so it’s fine. I mean look, we’re still really good friends and we’d love to do something together. It’s just purely a question of timings. Time, very appropriately. Err, they’re really good and I love working with them, so it’s just a question of trying to find a time when we can all be in the same place at the same time together.

They live in New Zealand and I live in LA, and we sort of cross paths occasionally. Actually, quite frequently. I’m lucky because both of them spend a lot of time between London and New Zealand, and LA is in the middle of that journey. So it’s quite handy, they can sort of stop over. Bret often stays around. They’re often doing work in LA, so that’s helpful. I do see them fairly regularly, it’s just the boring old schedule thing. That’s all it is.

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And obviously your time’s going to be taken up now with the Men In Black and Jump Street crossover MIB 23 –

Yes.

– how did that one end up on your desk? It seems like such a random thing to appear through the letterbox one day.

Um, how did I hear about that? It’s a good question. I don’t remember. It’s one of those things whereby you hear about the idea and think it’s a cool idea, and I know Rodney Rothman who wrote the script. And I know [21 Jump Street and 22 Jump Street directors] Phil [Lord] and Chris [Miller] pretty well. 

And so, I love the Men In Black world. I’ve always loved the first film, it’s just so fantastic. And the idea of having Jonah [Hill] and Channing [Tatum] being a part of that was incredibly appealing. And you read the script and go ‘ah, I completely get it, this is amazing’. And so, it’s exciting, and it’s just fun to do that world. I just like comedy adventure, and that’s what it feels like to me.

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You were speaking to CinemaBlend about MIB 23 recently –

– oh dear. Quoting me to myself is a terrible idea.

It’s what I seem to keeping doing! You said you were approaching it as if neither world existed before. Does that mean that it’s not going to be the Men In Black characters that we know?

No… it’s probably more, what I meant more than that, was that… as an approach, in terms of ideas, you have to think about that as if an audience hadn’t seen them before. Make the film stand on its own two feet, is the idea there. It has to be a thing that works anyway. You can’t rely on those two things, or people having prior knowledge in some way. That’s what I meant by that, I think. I don’t know. I was probably completely jet-lagged, [Laughs] who knows what I was saying two days ago? 

[After I’ve stopped laughing] So you’re not ruling out having a call-back to the other MIBs? 

It’s really early, honestly. We’ve only just started working on it, so anything right now there’s lots of possibilities. All sorts of ways you could go with it. So, I dunno yet. It’s too early. 

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[At this point I’m given the ‘one more question’ signal from a PR person, who then mysteriously disappears for a few minutes. That’s why the chat descends into quicker, frantic questions from here as I try to squeeze in as much as possible] 

You must be excited about delving into that world visually? Like, the first film was very practical and the new one was more CG, and now you’re well versed in both of those… 

Yeah yeah, absolutely. I do feel that was part of the appeal. It draws upon things that I’ve been doing recently, obviously. This [Alice] is a very CG-animated film, and The Muppets is all in-camera, and I love that. And I do love the idea of trying that sort of world. You know, the Rick Baker world of aliens is a fantastic one. And I’m thrilled that that could be a thing I could work in, and I think the idea of bringing Jonah and Channing into that universe is a very exciting one. 

And do you think you’ll be trying to do a bit of a blend of both sorts of effects in that one?

Again, it’s quite early.

Sorry!

No, I mean, yes! Very possibly, because it does have a certain… it’s what brings the B-movie quality of Men In Black is that they use those effects that I like a lot. Very possibly. 

And has there been talk of more Muppets for you – 

[Laughs]

– or are they staying in the TV world for now? 

Err, well, the TV show seems to be doing okay. I don’t know. I don’t know if they’ve renewed it yet or what. I don’t know. Look, I love working with Muppets and I loved making those films. They’re very dear to me, as you know, and I’ve spoken at great length about my love of Muppets. So, anything I could do ever to help them, I will always do. So, who knows? Maybe.

As you said earlier, there are two Alice books and now we’ve got two Alice films.

Yes. [Laughs]

Does that mean they’re done, or are they still propping the door open do you think? 

I don’t know. I mean, I really love Mia as Alice. And I love this world, and I really think that – you know – we’ve already written a story that works as a Lewis Caroll-inspired story. So, there seems no reason why you couldn’t do another one. Um, but saying that, who knows? As you said there were only two books by Lewis Caroll… I don’t know… would have to think of a new way for her to travel between one world and the other. [Laughs]

It must be quite weird for Mia coming back. From her perspective, it’s been some time since the last one…

Yeah. It’s five, six years I guess between the films. The shooting, maybe only four years. Or five. I couldn’t say. I think so. But I think she really liked playing Alice, and I think she was interested in what this film was going to do for the character. Because, again, it is that thing where you can dig a little deeper into their psychology a bit. And then, in a way, often explain things that happened in the first film a bit. 

That’s funny too, I think particularly for The Red Queen and The White Queen in this film. The story we tell in this film does explain does to a degree explain their behaviour in the first film, which is good. And it’s great tying it together, and I think both Helena [Bonham Carter] and Anne [Hathaway] appreciated that. But no, I think Mia is such a fantastic Alice, it would be great for her to do another one, I’m sure. It’d be fun.

Yeah, I was wondering going into this how you were going to have more Red Queen and more Hatter and everything, but you found loads of ways to explore them. 

It’s one of those things… like, I love the Looking Glass book, but it’s a very strange narrative. Lewis Carrol feels far more interested in the idea of structure and ideas and imagery than he was in the idea of a fantastic story. It’s not really what he was interested in. And so, once we knew that it wasn’t going to be the book, but based upon the book with other ideas in, we really had freedom to do what we wanted to do and to create a new story.

On that note, having stretched by ‘one last question’ rather far, it’s sadly time to stop chatting. James Bobin, thank you very much!

Alice Through The Looking Glasses reaches UK cinemas on Friday 27th May 2016.