Monday, 1 March 2010

Alice In Wonderland week: Linda Woolverton Q&A

Alice In Wonderland screenwriter Linda Woolverton also wrote the scripts for Disney's The Lion King and Beauty And The Beast.

I’m assuming you’re a big fan of the book.

Huge fan. Read them as a child, of course. Had them read to me. Keep reading them over the years. I had always wanted to do something with the world but I didn’t have the hubris. That’s how I felt the whole time. How dare I? Are you really going to do this Linda? Take his work and reconceive it? I reconceived it in a way that was beyond where his work was, took her older and brought her back. Who has the balls to do that? I don’t know. I was crazy. Crazy. And the whole time I kept thinking, Linda, what are you doing, who do you think you are?

Why did you decide to do something outside the canon rather than a straight adaptation?

It had to be outside the canon for me to be able to do what I wanted. In other words, I had to take her outside so I could play. To adapt the books would be incredibly difficult and certainly not made into a film because, just purely structurally, it doesn’t lend itself to the dramatic structure at all. Because that’s not the way he wrote. That’s wonderful but it doesn’t naturally become a film. I would look at the Disney film and think, Did they blow it. This is an incredible work that needs to be made into something that honours the work. I felt the whole time I needed to honour the work, primarily, but also take those incredible, beloved characters — there aren’t any better characters, there just aren’t, in literature, in my mind — and make them into a tale that is accessible to a modern audience and give them a different spin. There’s no way I could have done that just adapting the material as it exists. Because that would be wrong. But to go out of it and bring her back, in a different way, it still leaves the beauty and perfection of the work intact, of his work, Lewis Carroll’s work. So I wasn’t messing with it.

How did you begin to build this story?

I had been running at it in a lot of different ways in my head over the years. Ultimately I got an image of her standing in a very crucial decision making moment in her life, and looking over and seeing this rabbit. And the image of the white rabbit, leaning against the tree, looking at her, like, What are you doing? And her looking at him, knowing that she had to put a pin in this crucial decision and follow this rabbit, cos that was her destiny in some way. And ultimately what is the most crucial decision, certainly in Victorian England, when women couldn’t work? Marriage was the only way out of their circumstances. It’s very thematic. Who am I? What am I going to do? Who am I going to be? Am I going to be this? Or am I going to follow my own path? Which is the rabbit. Am I going to be this? It’s this sense of a society and everyone driving her towards this gazebo [where she’s proposed to], and everybody looking at her, and the words have to come out of her mouth that will set her destiny for her whole life. That crucial moment, that’s what I saw. And there was this other image I saw, and it isn’t in the film but it was her standing there, looking around for the rabbit, and his paw coming up out of the earth, grabbing her around the ankle, and jerking her down. That’s not in the movie, but that image, that was a very crucial image for me. It wasn’t a voluntary act of going down. It was her being brought back for a reason, against her will.

Once you had that way into the story and had Alice returning to Wonderland, how did you begin the process of finding the themes and incidents what you wanted to bring into play?

Again, it was essential that I stayed in the world and I stayed in the tone of Lewis Carroll. That was very important to me, and basically I was just looking through the books and there’s an illustration of the Jabberwocky with, actually it’s a boy, holding a sword, we see his back, and he’s got a sword up and there’s the Jabberwocky. I saw her. I did not see a boy. That’s her. And that is what she is being driven to in this story. That’s Alice slaying the Jabberwocky. That’s what I saw. Again it takes hubris to dare to change things around. That alone, that one illustration really drove me a lot, about where I was going to take her, this Victorian girl in her little blue dress will ultimately stand in armour, holding that Vorple Sword and will slay that creature, and I have to get her from here to there and isn’t that going to be interesting.

Obviously there were certain things you had to include, like the tea party. Did you have a hit list of things that you want to incorporate?

The tea party was essential. Once I figured out what did they needed her for — the world is broken and they need her to fix it, basically — then the idea of the tea party became the place where this underground resistance gathered. It lent two levels. First level was the tea party, the nonsense tea party that’s all crazy and wonderful and makes no sense at all. Underneath that it was like a ruse, the craziness was a ruse for the real stuff that’s going on, which is the resistance. I honestly don’t know when that came to me, but I do know we couldn’t just recreate the tea party. Again, why? You can’t do it any better. But I could maintain the nonsense of it, the wonderful, glorious nonsense of the tea party, but have some other storytelling element beneath it, driving it.

Can we talk about the character of Alice herself who’s different to the one in the Disney cartoon and in Carroll’s book. For Tim, one of the key attractions of your script was she was a girl on the cusp of womanhood, having to cope with the loss of her father.

I think the Carroll version… I really like that little Alice, because she’s spunky and feisty, in moments. She had muchness. And [because of] the father’s death, I believed, in Tim Burton’s version, she lost it. She lost something with the death of her father and it takes going back to Wonderland to get her muchness back, to get her courage and her strength back. It killed her. It took out her soul when he died. And so that’s why she’s willing to go along because she doesn’t have any strength left. She’s still suffering from the loss of the most crucial person in her life. Everyone is jamming her and shoving her about what she’s going to do, and, again, it’s a very teenage moment. What are you going to do with your life? Who you going to be? And I really wanted it to resonant with teenagers, and I guess my daughter. So she’s broken, she’s lost her father, there’s an empty hole on the inside, and it takes her going back to fill it, to regain that spark that she had as a child. I like her. I like the little Alice a lot. And becoming a teenager does rob you sometimes, certainly girls, of that free-spirited, don’t care what anybody thinks, joy and then you get busy about being social and pleasing boys and all that thing that happens and I think girls lose touch with that. A lot of people can read it in different ways, but for me, when she goes back she regains the thing that she had lost when her father died.

You said it took a lot of hubris to adapt this story. What was the most challenging aspect of taking these very iconic characters that everybody knows so well and making them your own, as it were?

I had to put the fear aside, honestly. I was very intimidated. I went to London for Christmas when I first started to write it and I was walking in Hyde Park and there was a stature or a bust of Lewis Carroll in a garden there, and I stumbled upon it. That was the most intimidating moment for me. So I had to close my eyes and put it aside and say, Okay, I’m just going to do the best, honourable version of this incredible tale and bring it to modern audiences in a different way, bring it alive in a different way. Hopefully, every time I attempt a classic of some kind, it sparks interest in the original. That’s what I’m always hoping. Kids who’ve never read it, I want them to go back and read it now. They’ll definitely go see a movie. Now go back and read the original version of the books.

The film restores the surreal nature of the original stories. Was that essential to you to retain the tone of the book? After all, if you’re only exposure to Carroll’s world was the Disney cartoon, you wouldn’t have got that.

That’s absolutely right. It was essential to keep the bonkers… It’s bonkers, it completely is, and that was again really important to me. There’s an edgy tone and I hate to use the word edgy, and I can’t use the term dark, because I don’t believe the film is dark. At its heart, I don’t find it dark at all.

She finds a dark wonderland.

She does and then she helps put it back. It is dark because it’s messed up because of that Queen. She’s got a tumor growing in her head. She does. But there’s no way you could be true to Carroll if you didn’t have the nonsense aspect of it, there’s no way. I don’t think the Disney movie did the books any good service at all. I don’t remember when it was done. Do you?


We’re a completely different world now. So the nonsense was essential. If I didn’t think I could pull off the nonsense and the tone, I wouldn’t have dared touch it. It would have been wrong.

I’m interested in talking about the Mad Hatter because you’ve given him some soul and some tragedy and a backstory that really isn’t in the books.

First of all, I have to say there is a draft of the script that Tim liked and I came and met with him and he really, really helped me make the script better. He had so much wonderful input that really deepened the characters, really deepened the Hatter who was not as tragic. That was very much Tim’s notes. Tim really wanted to focus on him and make that, Why is he this? Just opposed to being crazy. Why? So he kept asking me questions and really pushed me to explore the character more, which was wonderful. So very collaborative with Tim after that first draft. Especially with regard to the Hatter.

What about the Red Queen and her tumour?

She had to be an amalgam of both of those Queens. Again, I got the idea from the illustrations. There’s an illustration of the Queen, the Queen of Hearts, she’s got a gigantic head and she’s yelling at somebody, the Hatter maybe, and her head’s so big. It’s just gigantic with a big old mouth, and that was it for me — she’s got this gigantic head. She has to have people around her who have equal gigantic parts to feel comfortable with herself. And that’s what the courtiers, with their fake body parts, [are] which I thought was my little fun prod at our world right now. The bigger the better, posteriors, breasts, whatever, and if you don’t have them naturally you can buy them and put them on. It was my little take on the falsity of the perception of what beauty is.

Where did the idea of the tumour come from?

Because she’s so crazy. But hideously crazy and I just thought her sister would be worried about her. It came up in a conversation between the White Queen and Alice, the tumour idea. It almost gave her an excuse for her behaviour. It’s like almost it’s not really her fault. She’s got something growing in there, pressing on her brain.

Why did you choose to amalgamate those two characters, the Red Queen and the Queen Of Hearts, into one?

Cos we need one villain. I learnt that from Howard Ashman, the late, great, who I wrote Beauty And The Beast with. He wrote the lyrics. He taught me a lot. And he said why have two average characters when you can have one great character? Put these two together and make one great character, and she does an amazing job.

Let’s talk about Tim. There are so many elements within Alice that are so perfect for him.

He’s a genius. Absolutely a genius. And it’s funny, every draft became more and more for Tim. The first draft wasn’t. It was my brain, and my life at that moment in time wasn’t in a very good place. I was kind of down the rabbit hole myself. But once he came on and it was so obviously [right], the misfits, the outsiders, the topsy-turvy world, the strangeness of it all, was so perfect, I would write more and more for him, more and more towards his vision, because now I’m writing for a director, for his vision and tone. So it became much more specific to Tim, for Tim, and with regard to working with him, it was like a dream. Working with Tim Burton was like a dream. He was so respectful. He would only ask me to try something. If he had an idea he would say just try it, he never said do this, do that. He was always so respectful to me as an artist, a fellow artist.

What do you think about what he’s done with the movie?

I was amazed. I’d never seen a green set before, and everything was green, and he was operating in that green world, which gets to you after awhile. As a writer, you can’t have a better experience. Two-dimensional words on a page, that’s what I do. I put words on a page. I don’t create movies. Things from my head land on the paper. Or the computer screen. And other people have to make them into movies. Cos I am not a filmmaker, I’m a writer. And to have someone like him and to take someone like him to take the words and translate them into this incredible vision that’s on the screen is beyond a dream. I’m just so thankfully and blessed that he grabbed it and ran with it, and when I see it I see things that I thought of, which is so crazy, like there’s a badger claw falling down the rabbit hole which is something I threw on the paper because I thought it would be funny or interesting, and to see it in reality just there, it’s really hard to describe, honestly.

Here’s a funny story. There was a point in time when there was some confusion about the comparative sizes of everybody, like how big is Alice compared to the Dormouse to the White Rabbit. So I had to figure out how to communicate how I had originally seen it. Like they’re all sitting around the tea party and is the rabbit the size of a rabbit? So what I did was I sat in the hotel room and I drew all of the characters, comparative size. I cannot draw at all, and here I am drawing for Tim Burton. I showed them to Dick Zanuck first. Then I took them and showed them to Tim and I could not believe I was doing that. Ridiculous looking, pathetic drawings, and he was very polite. It was very sweet. So I am awed by the film.

What do you make of Johnny’s performance?

I met with him and Tim, briefly. After he read the script he wanted to talk to me, so went over there, and he’d done a lot of research, and actually sent me the research he’d done, the whole business of Hatters and why they go crazy, because of the materials they use in making the hats. So again I redid the character for him. And he takes that and creates what we see which is remarkable. There’s such tragic beauty to his depiction of the Hatter. And he’s vulnerable and he’s lost and he’s barely hanging on and I think we will love him so much in this role. You’ve seen his eyes, right. It’s right there in his eyes, the loss of his family, and the whole clinging to sanity aspect of it. I think he has transcended anything that I could even conceive of.

What about Mia’s Alice?

She needed that innocence of being in this crazy mad world and we can just see the wonder and her journey, you can watch her make the journey and grow in strength and determination and frustration, it’s all there. She doesn’t lack as an actress, anything, in my mind. She totally embodies the character of this version, and you can also see the little girl Alice in her too, you can see the little girl who wandered through there, in her performance. She’s quite a remarkable actress and a wonderful person.

What is it that makes Lewis Carroll’s stories so enduring and so special?

You can’t pinpoint the time and place, I guess. It keeps them so fresh, they’re not set in a time and place, they exist in their own reality and if you want to take a journey into a reality that has nothing to do with the real world, you get to go there and every time you read them there’s something else, even, as a writer, the language alone or the humour, the absurdity, I guess it really just sparks and I really don’t want to say the child-like thing in all of us, but it does, it’s a world in which remarkable, impossible things can occur, and the rules are just thrown out the window. I it’s a vacation from reality, for me, which I always like. 


Karen at Johnny Depp Reads said...

This is a fabulous interview Mark! Thanks for sharing it with us!


Mark Salisbury said...

Glad you liked it.

Becca said...

Absolutely amazing - thank you so very much for giving this to us!

Mark Salisbury said...

You're welcome. Thanks for stopping by.