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Q&A – Tim Burton Recounts His Time With 9 and His Upcoming Alice

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Although 9 isn’t a Tim Burton movie, the animated film does bear his thumbprint. Burton served as a producer on the project to help out Shane Acker after spotting Acker’s stunning short film about rag dolls trying to survive a post-apocalyptic world. The full-length version took five years to realize. Burton explains why the first time is always special, and what it’s like to go down the rabbit hole.

Q: What made you want to step aboard 9, considering you were in the middle of Sweeney Todd at the time?

A: When I first saw the short, I felt really close to Shane’s design sensibility and the kind of characters he had. The short felt like a piece of a larger picture, and I felt I could offer him an environment, some support, so he could just concentrate on making his film.

You see a lot of personal films, but you rarely see personalized animated films. That’s what I like about it. We’ve all seen post-apocalyptic imagery a thousand times, but I was surprised with the poetry of this one, the sort of quietness, and the things between the lines, with the style of the performances going for the more naturalistic. It just felt like it was in new category of animation.

Q: What advice did you give him?

A: I tried to treat it as, “What do I want when I’m on a movie? What’s helpful to me?” So I suggested a screenwriter [Pamela Pettler] I had worked with, who I thought would be a good fit, and people like Danny [Elfman]. Also, as an animator, you get tunnel vision, and Shane just had this in his mind for so long, that it’s good to have people who can step back and look at the big picture, and that’s what we tried to do. Shane’s enough of an artist that he’s not feeling insecure, so there’s no “my idea” versus “your idea.”

Q: What sort of expectations did you have for the finished product?

A: The great thing is that when you go through this early in your career, you have a film not many people know about, they don’t know about you, and so the film is more of a surprise. On a second film, you’re not going to have that luxury. It doesn’t matter if the movie is a success or not a success, it’s still a wonderful moment that will never be the same. I know I’m enjoying seeing that happen with this because no one really knew about it, and it got finished quietly on its own — so I’m certainly enjoying it vicariously!

Q: Did you worry that people will think it’s meant for a younger audience?

A: People freak out, like it’s going to be too scary. It’s not. It’s a simple monster movie, and they’re not horrible or anything. I just think, I would have liked it as a kid. It’s got the safest kind of scares possible, but it was made, even with the studio, with no real market in view, which is a rarity, and a nice surprise for me.

Q: Your upcoming Alice looks like it might be a more adult interpretation, considering she’s meant to be 19…

A: With Alice, the imagery has been around for so long, it’s so iconic. The problem with the books is that they’re episodic and kind of random events that the movies have always suffered from the idea of a passive little girl going, “Oh, that’s weird. Oh, I’m shrinking! Oh, I’m growing! I say!” So the goal was to try and take that imagery and be true to it but make it a new movie. So she’s older, which puts in context. That’s what’s always been missing.

I think, with all these stories, whether it’s Alice, or The Wizard of Oz, or any of these classic stories, they’re always exploring what’s in a person’s inner psyche. You see Alice — Mia Wasikowska — is intelligent. She’s got an internal life because all of these things are symbolic for working out whatever psychological problems you have. That whole question of fantasy versus reality — most fantasy speaks to reality. It speaks to something real in somebody’s life. That’s why those old stories told around campfires were told because they connect to real emotion. It’s not just a story about Goat Boy and Lizard Man…

Q: That sounds like it could be a fun movie!

A: I know, huh? But there’s a reason they’re being told. So I try to put some logic into it. I carry a little book and just try to draw sometimes, and that helps as a sort of visual journal to help explore ideas. Sometimes it helps to doodle to spark something. That’s the great thing about the middle of the night. Then you get up and you go, “What the …? I didn’t realize Vicks Nyquil was that strong!”

Q: But your version of Alice won’t be as adult as Alan Moore’s was in Lost Girls

A: It’s a Disney movie! [Laughs]. Look, these things are what they are. They’re best left open for interpretation. That’s what I love about Roald Dahl on downwards — all children’s literature is somewhat politically incorrect. We’re not doing anything in it that’s more than what’s already in Alice in Wonderland.

Q: Alice will mark the seventh film you’ve done with Johnny Depp, Dark Shadows the eighth…

A: And this is 9! Oh, geez. Let’s just take them one at a time!

Click here for an interview with Shane Acker.

Click here for a gallery of Tim Burton’s movies.

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