Director James Bobin Talks About Bringing Time Travel to ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’ and Working With Large Special Effects

By May 26, 2016
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Director James Bobin blasted into the public consciousness in a big way with his work on The Muppets and The Muppets: Most Wanted in 2011 and 2014, which not only brought the beloved property and its characters to life once again, but felt like a callback to a form of joyful cinema that had been long lost up until now. In addition to directing the upcoming Men in Black and 23 Jump Street crossover film though as well, currently titled MIB 23, Bobin is first set to release his newest film, Alice Through the Looking Glass, the long-awaited sequel to Tim Burton’s 2010 box office hit film.

I recently got the chance to sit down and speak with James about the film as well, including what it’s like getting to see it on the big screen finally, how he navigated moving on from the previous film and combining Burton’s influences with his own, as well as what it was like getting to work with Sacha Baron Cohen once again. I may or may not have gotten him to briefly tease MIB 23 also. Check out our full conversation below:

So how are you doing?

I’m good, I’m good. I’m enjoying this because you know when you live with a film for so long, not by yourself but with a collect group of people in a small room in Burbank, you pay such attention to every little detail, but until you get it to this large scale, then the work really shows because you see stuff. Like in Time’s castle where you’ve always known that the scale of the castle is going to be impressive, but when you see it on the big with 3D glasses on then you can see WAY back and that is so beautiful. It’s so nice to see a thing where you have scale like that, it’s so lovely, and I remember being a kid and loving big sets like that.

Like I remember being a kid and loving big sets and watching Oliver in the Consider Yourself sequence when they were going around Times Square, and they built it, and it’s incredible. It’s a gigantic set. I love the idea that films like this can have large scale like that.

And they always end up being the ones that hold up the longest over time as well.

Yeah, well exactly it’s memorable, it imprints in your head. Obviously as a director, you are just a product of the influences of your entire life so it’s a very nice idea that I am at the same time, doing the same thing for people down the line, who might say that they remember watching Through the Looking Glass when they were eight and looking at Time’s Castle. That’s an amazing thing because you think, ‘Well, that was me thirty years ago.’ Which is great, a great privilege.

How were you first introduced to the project initially, especially following Tim’s original film?

I had been working with Disney for awhile, and I had made two movies with them and had a great time doing it, and they were great to work with. So they basically were opening to allowing me to do whatever I wanted, which is a great thing as a director. So I think I was on the set of Muppets: Most Wanted actually doing pickups, and I heard that the Alice sequel might be a thing, that there were two books so they were thinking of making another. Lewis Carroll made another one, so why not?

And the first Alice did really well.

Yes! [Laughs] It did really well. My ears perked up though, because I know Alice. I grew up in England and in England, you’re immersed in that world, you just know it. Also, Alice is just a character that is very much like the kids growing up there. They’re quite good at independent thinking and they’re quite spirited, and everyone knows that girl. You know? And I see it now in my daughter, she’s now 8 and I see a lot of Alice from the books in her. So I felt like I already knew Alice, and in a way, that’s the best starting point for any project is when you feel connected to the central character and the world that you want to portray. But I also, when I read their books, I remember laughing because they’re quite funny. Lewis Carroll was quite a wordsmith, he had an unbelievable grasp on language, and those were the things that interested him the most – the ideas of weird similes and alliterations and just very clever use of language. And comedy is often based on the specificity of language.

Some things are funny said a certain way and some things are funny when they’re said a different way. So it’s very specific and I think he’s a genius at that, so for me it was for me, that I’d always been working in the world of comedy and Tim’s movie, is a beautiful movie and it has a lot of design elements to it that I really enjoyed, and I really liked that idea of bringing that architecture as a base and then bringing in from my world the sense of comedy and absurdist humor of Lewis Carroll to that world. I thought that would be a very interesting film for everyone to see, the idea that it would be a sequel which paid tribute to the film and the books, but also had its own life to it I guess.


It’s interesting though because the comedy and the Time character with Sacha ended up being my favorite parts about the movie as well.

Thank you, that’s good! I’m glad. You know, it needed to be something that was pretty evident. I wanted to create a new character because it was a sequel, but I also wanted the addition to a character of an overtly comic nature because you knew he was going to be funny because it was Sacha. But also because you know, why Time works in the film is because he’s not trying to be funny all the time, you like the guy. He says some deeply profound things in the movie. You know the first time you see him in the corridor, you don’t know what to think of the guy, could he be scary? But then he falls over, so you know he’s goofy. But then he says something like, ‘Everyone has to give up everything eventually my dear,’ which again, is a super deep thing to say for such a twit, which makes him complex because he’s powerful, but he’s also a fool, but he has very profound thoughts every now and then. So instantly, that character interested me.

That was my thing with Sacha too because we’d worked together for many years and we both like characters with great depth, like why Ali G. had three characters and not twenty. Sacha can do twenty characters, but that isn’t as much fun as doing three characters in depth, and remember we were working in the real world at the time too, where we could never risk being caught because it would ruin the whole show. No one could ever look at him and say, ‘I think you’re acting,’ and no one ever said that to him. Which is amazing because we did that show for several years. I never went on location with him, where anyone ever said that they didn’t believe who he was, which is amazing. He isn’t from Afghanistan, he isn’t from Spain, he’s Sacha! The performance is so fantastic that you forget that though. I remember during the days of Borat, and I used to tell Sacha stories about the day, but then forget that he was there too. So when I was doing Time, I knew that he had a great command of character, and we needed a character that could work in the same world as Johnny’s Hatter and Helena’s Red Queen, which are fairly big characters, so you need a big performance as well to hold your own in this world. So I knew that Sacha could do that, and I knew that between us we could come up with something fun and Time was really a Lewis Carroll idea, it was in the book where Carroll refers to him as a person.

So if you’re going to put a new character into the story, it better be from Lewis Carroll and not from yourself, because I was obviously I was very aware of him and I was aware that there are Lewis Carroll scholars out there, so it’s a very tricky world, and you want to make sure you’re doing your best by him, and understand where he was coming from in his desires in the book. So that was why, even though we changed the story, I think that’s okay because the story he chose to tell in Alice Through the Looking Glass was a rather unusual one, where he didn’t really care about the story or narrative drive and the story kind of folds in on itself. It literally has an episodic nature to it where one minute she’s with a sheep in a shop and then she’s in a boat with the same sheet about something else, and you know that it’s going to be a tricky film to make because no one’s going to understand what the hell’s going on! You know it’s going to be a very interesting post-Soviet, avant garde movie. 

And then you add in time travel as well, which is tricky by itself.

Well, time travel is actually an idea post-Lewis Carroll, as a literary device it didn’t come into play until “The Time Machine” in 1895 when it was incorporated into a story, but you do also have Charles Dickens in “A Christmas Carol” when Scrooge is taken into the past.

But he’s not interacting with it in the story, as much as he’s just being shown it.

Right, it’s a construct for a story rather than the idea in itself, and really “The Time Machine” was the first time when someone said, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting to go into the past?’ And of course, I do like the idea of breaking the past or changing it, but H.G. Wells’ story really is more about fate, and how you can’t change anything, and everything’s going to happen no matter what you do. And that really is more of what we tap into in this than anything else. In this film, Alice cannot prevent The Red Queen’s accident, it’s fate, and that’s really interesting that we get to play with that a little bit in this story. I think in time travel movies, you can end up in a rabbit hole very easily, so we wanted to make sure that the rule was fairly simple, but it was also that you can’t change the past, because it’s the truth.

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End up in a rabbit hole literally with Alice, and anything with Lewis Carroll.

Of course. Well that’s the main thing about him, is that his use of language has affected the English so much, and so much of what we use in our language comes from him.

What I found really interesting about this as well for you, coming off of The Muppets movies, is how special effects heavy it is compared to your previous work.

Oh well that’s kinda why I did it because so much of The Muppets is in-camera, which I deeply love. In a lot of ways, it’s kind of the anti-CGI movie as well where I chose not to create a CGI Kermit or CGI Miss Piggy.

Thank you so much for that by the way.

Of course, thank you. Because I felt to me as a kid that they were puppets that there were sticks in their arms, but I didn’t care. When my kids came to the sets of those movies too, they would just talk to the characters as well, and not their operators because in their minds, they were real. So it didn’t matter. So in this film, I wanted to try something that was on the other side of the spectrum, which was CGI-based, with CG environments and characters. What’s interesting is that the essence of the idea doesn’t change either, it’s just the execution that changes.

At the end of the day, the only real difference is the freedom that effects gives you in terms of dialogue and ideas, in terms that you can insert things into scenes that you’d never thought of before. You can keep changing it. Up to a certain point at least, because eventually they’ll tell you to stop changing things or you’ll never finish it. So that was interesting, but no I liked it. I also think with something like this where you are in Wonderland too, we’re lucky that we can create these incredible vistas and landscapes using computer art, to create a world that you could not create ten or twenty years ago, so in a weird way technology has afforded us the opportunity to visualize it the way that Lewis Carroll saw it all those years ago. To me that’s brilliant, that’s an amazing thing because all of those books that you couldn’t really do in the old days, you can finally do now.

I have to ask you, about the Men in Black and 23 Jump Street crossover, which boggles my mind by the way.

Good! Good. Mind-boggling is a good way to describe it. Thank you very much, I’ll have to use that. 

What can you tell me about the film?

Very little cause it’s super early. But all I can say is that I’ve read the script and it works and it’s gonna be exactly the film you hoped it would be [Laughs]!

Alice Through the Looking Glass is set to hit theatres on May 27th.

Make sure to keep checking back for more updates — right here on GeekNation.

Alex Welch

Alex Welch

Alex dreams of meeting a girl with a yellow umbrella, and spends too much time* staring at a movie screen. His vocabulary consists mostly of movie quotes and 80s song lyrics. *Debatable