Watching Alice

As Alice In Wonderland returns to the big screen, we see what Michael Sheen, Christopher Lee, Richard Zanuck and Will Self have to say about it.

by Kate Carter and Jennie Kermode

Tim Burton's 3D version of one of the most popular books of all time, the new Alice In Wonderland already has audiences queueing round the block for tickets. Stars Michael Sheen (the White Rabbit) and Christopher Lee (the Jabberwock), producer Richard Zanuck and Will Self, who wrote the preface to a popular edition of the book, were keen to talk about their experiences and what fans can look forward to.

"I only had children to read Alice to them," says Self, who describes himself as a 'committed Alician'.

For Lee too, the book is of great importance. "I believe it was the first book I ever read, when I was seven or eight - about two hundred years ago. I was fascinated by the funny stories and the adventure, and I felt I knew the characters. It all made perfect sense and I've never forgotten it. It's not really a children's book. It's very frightening."

"It's very political," says Self. "The Mad Hatter is based on Gladstone's indictment of liberalism. There are some buried political references. Dig hard for them. It's a universal satire on power and the Red Queen in Tim Burton's version puts the focus on the critique of absolute monarchy. When it was written, of course, the British monarchy was a new house and Russia and Germany were absolutist."

Self and Sheen agree that the enduring appeal of the book lies in its dreamlike structure and the way it seems to shift once the reader gets a handle on it. As children grow up, they explain, the world always seems to be shifting. The book expresses a deeper truth about a world that seems to have rules but is out of control.

"It's been filmed many times, but with Dick [Zanuck] as producer and Tim as director I knew it would be miraculously realised," says Lee. "As an actor I got great pleasure out of working with both of them. Tim has a mind like no-one else in the world. As for Johnny Depp, he's wonderful. When I was in Sleepy Hollow it was an enormous set with many, many people. I started speaking to Johnny, but from the first shot things didn't go as they should. Still there was this enormous wave of enthusiasm from behind the camera, and I heard a voice from behind me saying how it was going to be wonderful."

"Once we started working on Alice, I was amazed by where it took us," says Zanuck. "Places we never knew before even though it was read to us as children. Tim read it to be and I was astonished by how it all came back as if it had been embedded in my subconscious. Tim was the perfect person to take it into the world, making the dark and surreal familiar. I wouldn't have wanted to go to this place with anyone else. We filmed raw stock and implanted imagination. It took us three years of work and 40 days shooting. If viewers are not entertained and moved, I'll be surprised."

"I turned up in my rabbit tail and ears to two sessions in the US and UK, with someone else playing Alice," Sheen says of his experience. "Tim sent artwork and we talked about the characters like Jungian archetypes. He didn't want to revolutionise the story. There's so much going on in the film that the story needs to be disciplined to keep the audience focused."

Performing as the Jabberwock was a strange experience for Lee, who doesn't actually get much to say, though he notes philosophically that it's better to have two lines than none. "I still don't know what the finished work looks like," he admits. "I relied entirely on Tim. I was in a studio in a glass cubicle with a mic. Tim sat outside and didn't move a muscle - he sat still after my brilliant burbling and then said 'Would you mind doing it with your own voice?'"

"Every actress wanted to be Alice," says Zanuck. "We had hundreds of volunteers. We wanted someone very fresh so we looked in Australia, the UK and the US. It boiled down to 200 on tape and then we brought 40 of them to the UK for Tim to see. He taped about eight, then two of them did the full blown screen test. Johnny felt it was essential to show Alice's purity. She needed an inner beauty and to be very strong and pure, and funny at first."

It's important to focus first on characters, Zanuck stresses, even when making so much use of CGI. The decision to cast an older actress as Alice rather than a seven or eight year old was made by the screenwriters before he and Burton came on board, but it was one he agreed with, feeling that it would make it easier to create a convincing story arc. A more mature actress, he argues, could grow in the role and emerge as a different, stronger person.

Is the film as wonderful as they all hope? You can find out for yourself as it reaches cinemas this week.

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