Director James Bobin on taking Alice Through the Looking Glass

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May 27, 2016, 3:48 PM EDT

You may not know the name James Bobin, but if you love contemporary comedy, you certainly know his work. He was a writer and producer for Sacha Baron Cohen's Da Ali G Show and an executive producer and writer for Flight of the Conchords, and he directed the last two theatrical Muppet movies. 

With all that comedy on his resume, some might be scratching their heads about how Bobin came to direct Alice Through the Looking Glass, the VFX-heavy sequel to Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. Blame it on fellow Brit Lewis Carroll. The famed satirist is a personal favorite of Bobin's, who admits that he leapt at the opportunity to explore and expand the playground of a writer who helped shape his own comedic sensibility. In this latest adventure, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is older and more worldly when she returns to help the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) who is in dire straits.

In a chat with Blastr, Bobin tells us about the timeless appeal of Alice and how he's made Underland his own.

What specifically appealed to you about doing an Alice sequel?

James Bobin: First, I like a challenge. I think as a director it's always worth pushing yourself and finding out new areas and exploring new ways to tell story. Second, Alice is such an integral part of growing up in England. The books are in your grandparents and parent's house. Everyone reads them as part of growing up. It felt to me that I knew these people already, certainly from the books, and then from Tim's brilliant interpretation in 2010. I loved what he did with the design of the characters and the creation of that world was so beautifully realized. To me, it felt like there was something I could do with this in the sense that I could take that world and bring in elements like humor.

As someone primarily known for your comedic work, what kind of humor were you interested in exploring in this realm?

I always thought of Carroll as a satirist primarily. He created a world where he built jokes about people he knew into the story. He thought Victorian society was ridiculous. I'm sure people he knew were the Mad Hatter and the Cheshire Cat and based on his friends in Oxford. As such, I wanted to bring a bit of that to the story. English comedy, particularly, has been influenced by him. He's a satirist and a surrealist. For me, there's a direct line from him to say Monty Python in the '70s which was surreal, cerebral comedy. It was very interesting to bring a bit of that to this world and I was very confident that I knew what I wanted it to be.

Burton really fused both of Carroll's stories into one narrative for Alice in Wonderland, so what did you use to craft a narrative for your film?

Alice is effectively a story about a game of cards. Through the Looking Glass is a story of chess. [Carroll] was obsessed with chess and wanted to make a story over the course of eight chapters, because there are eight squares on a chessboard. If you say Alice at the beginning of the story is a pawn, in the final chapter of the book she becomes a queen because that's what happens when you play chess. He wanted to write a story of that idea. He was very concerned with hidden math within the story but not that concerned with a narrative, or cause and effect. The chapters aren't that related and there's no real consequence of actions. I thought what we could do here is borrow a lot of the grammar and imagery of that world, and try to use the characters we know so well and create a new story.  I was curious to learn more about the characters Tim, Johnny, Helena (Bonham Carter) and Anne (Hathaway) created, where they're from and where they're going.

What's Alice's journey in this story?

It relates to Alice's journey in terms of her life upstairs and her life in Victorian, England. She's a different person in that world but in Underland they feel like her people. We play upon when she has a choice of stepping into the mirror or not. Society rejects her beliefs and she finds it hard to fit in, and the pull is Absalom (Alan Rickman) is leading her back to the place that she feels most comfortable.

How did screenwriter Linda Woolverton manifest all of this into the script?

Right away, Linda's draft had an idea of time travel. To that degree, I felt it would be fun to introduce a new character because when you have a movie about time it tends to draw the question of what does time signify in Underland? Interestingly, Lewis Carroll addresses this in the first book. When Alice meets Hatter for the first time at the tea party he is stuck and says, "We're all stuck here because last March, Time and I quarreled." I thought that would be a good idea for a character, that Time is personified as a person in Underland. Therefore if we had a movie that involved time travel for Alice, that it would be fun if she had to ask Time's permission because it's his realm. It ties together Carroll, the characters from the first movie and moves them forward in a humorous and emotionally engaging way.

You have a long history with Sacha, who plays Time. Was he a natural casting choice for you?

Sacha and I worked together on The Ali Gi Show for ten years, so I knew exactly what he was capable of. The great gift he has is to completely inhabit a character. I used to go on the case with Sasha and shoot Ali G, Bruno and Borat and no one ever said to him, "I don't believe who you are"...ever.  For me has a natural comic gift and one of my favorite comedy tropes is the confident idiot. He is very good at playing that character. Time in this movie is a bit of a confident idiot. One of the things about Time that I wanted to make sure is that he has an Achilles Heel. He wasn't all powerful because you don't like those guys, and you have to like this guy.

Can you tease his arc in the film?

I kept thinking if you were Time and lived forever, that sounds like a lonely existence. I figured I'd make him a lonely person who is susceptible to the charms, or otherwise, of someone like the Red Queen (Carter). She recognize Time's power for what it is, understands his need for company and uses it to her advantage. Thus they are allied for awhile in the story.

How was it working with him again on this film?

Sacha fits into the world so well because he worked with Helena and Johnny before. He felt of that world and the characters are fairly larger than life and he brings that too. I knew he would be able to hold his own in this company and he did. He's fantastic in this film and I'm really pleased.

Did you want the visuals of your film to match what Burton did, or did you want to do your own thing?

it's very much in keeping with the first film, but this one is a bit more photo-real, a bit more Victorian. I've always admired the work of John Tenniel,  who did the drawings in the original Alice books. I love the idea of exploring the Victorian imagination and what Victorians thought the world of fantasy would look like. Traveling in time allows us to visit different locations and periods and this film has a slightly more human feel to it because we have a town in it. You see the population of the land. We have the town of Witzend that we built, and it's a mixture of an English Cotswold town with a Dubrovnik old town. It feels real but has magical, weird trees coming out of the ground and slightly skewed.

Do you have a favorite sequence that really lands what you intended?

I like the opening sequence very much because it's unexpected and it tells you a lot about Alice's character in a short amount of time. Towards the end, there's a sequence where Alice has to save the world basically by returning the Chronosphere to its original position. I love the way it plays out with great poignancy to it, with action and sadness. 

Alice Through the Looking Glass opens in theaters on May 27, 2016.