Tim Burton is wearing black. No surprise there. Every time I've seen the director, he's been wearing black. The mother of his two children, the actress Helena Bonham Carter, once told me: "I do try and buy him the odd colourful shirt, but he never wears them. If I dressed him, he wouldn't be wearing black all the time." Nonetheless, black does suit the 51-year-old filmmaker. It's not so much that it makes him look cool - it doesn't - but it complements the gothic aesthetic that his movies such as Beetlejuice, Batman and Corpse Bride are famed for. Even his new film, an adaptation of the classics Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking-Glass, is somewhat darker than Lewis Carroll's books.
Not that Burton considers his latest to be very dark. "It's a Disney movie, so we didn't focus on the darker aspects," he says. "I think the thing that intrigued me about making Alice in Wonderland was that I was asked to do it in 3D, because it seemed like the perfect mix of the medium and the material. If it was offered to me a few years ago, I don't know if I would have been as intrigued by it."
As soon as the director agreed to take on the project, his first task was to look at the other incarnations of Alice. "Looking back, there were 20-something versions," he says. "The characters and the images and the iconic way they have infiltrated culture is so strong that I thought this would be something interesting to do." One of the big surprises of his vision is that his Alice is aged 19 rather than seven, as she is in the book. In this way, it's a sequel of sorts, rather than a straight adaptation, although many of the events that happen to Alice in the novel happen to the older character in the film, portrayed as an echo of the past.
Burton feels justified in taking such dramatic licence. "We are not trying to be literal to the story. We are trying to be truthful to the spirit of the characters and the place that Lewis Carroll gave to each and every one of us." The characters and the place are the keys to understanding Burton's work, and possibly the man himself. His first feature film, in 1985, took the man-child of American television, Pee-wee Herman, out of his playhouse and put him on a roadside adventure in a suburban setting that seemed idyllic until the moment you scratched below the surface. This idea of suburban falsehood was repeated in what remains his masterpiece, Edward Scissorhands, in 1991, and in 2003's enjoyable Big Fish.
The desire to showcase suburban America can be traced to his upbringing. The son of Jean, a gift shop owner, and Will, a former baseball player, Burton was raised in Burbank, California, an archetype of the 1950s American residential dream as seen in many popular TV shows from the era. For the director, this was not the happy place that the realtors were touting. "The symbolic thing growing up was feeling like I was living in a repressive society where everything was sort of, for lack of a better word, gloomy," he says. "This backdrop would battle against the creative mind that was colourful and vibrant. It became this symbol of repression against creative life."
Burton would retreat into his imagination, creating magical worlds through illustrations and stop-motion films. He became obsessed by horror, especially the work of Vincent Price, and after attending the California Institute of the Arts, he got a job in the concept art department at Disney. All of these interests would come together in his first short film, a six-minute stop-motion animated work called Vincent, which was inspired by a poem by Price, who appeared on the film as narrator.
He says of his love of horror films: "I just like them, always did. Ever since I was a child they have a special place in my heart. They're always stories about outsiders and weird fables, and I think I responded to them in that way." Stop-motion is a tool that Burton has returned to throughout his career, most notably with The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride. His next project is scheduled to be a feature-length version of a short stop-motion film he made in 1984 titled Frankenweenie, which was inspired by Frankenstein and is about a boy who creates movies starring his dog. It's rumoured that Disney fired him after he made the short because it was not what they were expecting and was too dark and sinister for Disney's traditional family audience.
He says that the continuing fascination with stop-motion techniques is because "there is something that is emotional about that medium that is different from other forms of animation for me". Although in Alice, stop-motion is probably the only form of animation that he doesn't use. Another theme that can be traced back to the director's youth is his obsession with the underworld and all things gothic. Beetlejuice and his two Batman films carry these hallmarks. Even in Alice, he changed the name of Wonderland to Underland.
The director argues: "I wouldn't call it an obsession - a lot of it goes back to suburban American culture, in which death was looked upon as a dark, forbidden subject. But living so close to Mexico, one became aware of their culture and their day of the dead ceremonies where they had skeletons and to me it seemed much more accurate. It's not so much about death but a celebration of life in a way."
Burton's first Batman film, in 1989, was pivotal in the transformation of comic-book superhero movies from kids' films to blockbuster entertainment. It was the first film to give the guy in the cape a complicated inner life, and the fabulous gothic set design was compared to Metropolis and Blade Runner. "I feel funny about defining the modern superhero," he says. "I feel grateful that I was able to do it and we felt like we were kind of in new territory in that way, but then there are so many of them now. I don't really read much, but the thing that always kind of bugs me is that everybody tried to rag on what I did. They are always kind of badmouthing it and yet there are a zillion dark comics out now."
Alice in Wonderland is Burton's seventh collaboration with Johnny Depp, the actor most closely associated with the director. They first collaborated on Edward Scissorhands, after the Alice in Wonderland producer Joe Roth suggested the actor for the role after seeing him interviewed on television. Roth says: "Both their careers could have been completely different had they not met." It's a sentiment shared by Depp, who remembers that when Burton first started casting him, the director always had to fight with the studios to keep him in the cast. Then came the success of Pirates of the Caribbean and Depp was no longer considered box-office poison.
Burton, the godfather to one of Depp's children, says of the relationship: "We see him and it's great because Johnny's a friend. I enjoy working with him and it's always good, whether social or working, and it's a good creative environment." He also says that the relationship has stayed the same despite Depp becoming one of the biggest movie stars on the planet. "That's the good thing about him. He's gone through so much of the other side of it that it's not going to change him."
As for Burton, it seems that he is busier than ever. Currently the Museum of Modern Art in New York is hosting a retrospective of his work, which includes showings of rare films, as well as illustrations and storyboards from his movies and fictional writing. The exhibition will later in the year move to the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, where additional elements from Alice will be included.
Sandwiched in between these two exhibitions will be a lot of movie watching, as Burton will head the jury at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Alice In Wonderland is released in UAE cinemas today.