6 Mar 2010: As the director emerges blinking from Wonderland, we peek behind his shades to talk Johnny Depp, Walt Disney and why finishing a film is ‘like death’

Nothing is as it should be. Tim Burton hurries into the London hotel room looking not like he has just fallen down the rabbit hole in Alice In Wonderland, but immaculate in black suit, black suede loafers, stripy socks and pin-striped shirt; hair on the large side but not totally feral. The tinted glasses favoured by both Burton and his best buddy Johnny Depp are missing, leaving the director’s face open, benevolent even. He drops into an armchair, crosses and uncrosses his legs, jumps up to turn the air conditioning from freezing to hot.

  • Alice in Wonderland
  • Production year: 2010
  • Country: USA
  • Cert (UK): PG
  • Runtime: 108 mins
  • Directors: Tim Burton
  • Cast: Alan Rickman, Anne Hathaway, Barbara Windsor, Christopher Lee, Crispin Glover, Helena Bonham Carter, Johnny Depp, Matt Lucas, Mia Wasikowska, Michael Sheen, Stephen Fry, Timothy Spall
  • More on this film

Burton – his soft Californian voice thick with cold – talks in fractured, distracted sentences with his arms behind his head, holding on to the ears of the armchair. At one point, towards the end of our allotted slot, he is almost in tears when talking about Alexander McQueen, whose funeral is taking place nearby. He leans forward and blinks furiously: “I did some drawings for him … Oh God. It’s the most tragic thing … A couple of good friends of mine … It’s the most haunting thing for me to this day …”

Outside the hotel room it’s a different, make-believe world: the corridor is lined with lavish Alice In Wonderland posters featuring Depp as a psychedelic but tender Mad Hatter, Helena Bonham Carter as a petulant, mercurial and very funny Red Queen with an enlarged forehead, and 19-year-old Australian Mia Wasikowska as a stridently feminist Alice who looks remarkably like a sulky young Gwyneth Paltrow.

Disney staff stride up and down, herding international press from one room to another, handing out Mad Hatter stopwatches and Alice mugs. It’s all very corporate for Burton, who’s supposed to be the cool kid, the king of gothic fantasy, the ultimate outsider. In 1994, after starring in Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood but before his appearances in the director’s Sleepy Hollow, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride and Sweeney Todd, Depp wrote of Burton: “He is an artist, a genius, an oddball, an insane, brilliant, brave, hysterically funny, loyal, nonconformist, honest friend.”

He may be all those things, but Burton, now 51 and living in Hampstead with Bonham Carter and their two young children, is less indie than most might think. His 3D version of Alice – in which she returns to Wonderland for a second time and reluctantly deposes the Red Queen – cost nearly £160m. According to Variety, it’s “a Disney film illustrated by Burton, rather than a Burton film that happens to be released by Disney” – a glorious CG action adventure with obsessive attention to detail.

Burton, who only finished the film two weeks before its release, is exhilarated but exhausted. He’s got a typical director’s hangover; right now he never wants to make another film. “Alice was an experiment,” he says. “We didn’t know what the movie was till the very end. It was exciting and scary. Working on the CG just got more and more and more intense. The intensity peaked last week, when we had to stop.” He starts to shout: “We had to stop! STOP! I never consider a film finished and this was no different.” He suddenly looks bereft: “Finishing a film is like a death in some way.” Surely it’s more like a birth?

“You’re right. Of course it’s a birth. But something definitely dies, too. It’s an unnerving feeling that takes time to get over.”

‘Beyond all the kooky bells and whistles of my Alice, it’s a simple internal story about somebody finding their own strength’

When Disney approached Burton with the Alice project, he immediately wanted to make a definitive version of a film that has been adapted for cinema and television nearly 30 times. “I’ve always hated Alice on screen,” he says. “She’s a very annoying, odd little girl. I wanted to make her into a character I could identify with: quiet, internal, not comfortable in her own skin, not quite knowing how to deal with things, being both young and having an old soul.” Did he want Wasikowska to be feminist? “I’m OK with it! Beyond all the kooky bells and whistles of my Alice, it’s a simple internal story about somebody finding their own strength. She’s been battered around by real life, has never quite fitted in …”

Burton drifts off. For all his public reputation as being bonkers (he lives not with Bonham Carter, but in an adjoining cottage! They don’t comb their hair! They are Mr and Mrs Mad Hatter!), Burton is simply an outsider made good. He grew up an introverted child in the Los Angeles suburb of Burbank, a bland place he refers to as “Anywhere USA”. He watched “crappy” monster movies such as The Brain That Wouldn’t Die on TV. He felt alienated but assumed all kids felt the same.

“In my head I was a completely normal child,” he says, “but somehow society deemed me to be weird. I felt quite sad about it because people put me aside. And, in a way, nothing has changed. Though my friends would tell you that I’m a pretty regular guy.”

Until he temporarily lived in London while making Batman in the late-80s and Sleepy Hollow a decade later, Burton never felt at home anywhere. “When I first came here I had a past-life experience,” he says. “I don’t get those very often, but I felt extremely at home and comfortable. Weird.” He met and fell in love with Bonham Carter on 2001’s remake of Planet Of The Apes and soon after moved to his spiritual home full-time.

While earlier films such as Edward Scissorhands were inspired by his Anywhere USA upbringing, recent work such as Sweeney Todd and Alice suggests an Anglophile who by now is pretty much a naturalised Brit. Burton nods enthusiastically: “I’ve now made more films here than there. I like being away from where the business is. I feel more connected to the film process here. I like the artists, painters and sculptors who live here. They inspire me when I’m making a film.”

‘It’s good to scare kids a bit if they can handle it. Though it might be strange for my son to see his mother with such a large forehead!’

A respected artist himself, with an acclaimed exhibition currently running at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Burton’s heavily stylised cinematic world is endlessly inspired by his visual imagination. Yet, for all his talk of not making another movie, he is more smitten by film than any other artistic endeavour. He says his own films are “all my strange children in some way”, and that they’re all imperfect. “The flaws of a film are part of what it is. I’ve never made a film that is even nearly perfect. I have different feelings towards different films. Scissorhands was very personal. Nightmare Before Christmas I developed from scratch. I felt very strongly about the material in Ed Wood. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was my first film back in ’85. Beetlejuice was such a weird hybrid of a thing. Batman was a big thing for me. My films are like a time capsule of my life; they define my life.”

He is unapologetic about using actors on a loop (Depp’s now been in seven Burton films to Bonham Carter’s six). “I like working with actors who have no real vanity. They’re not worried about their careers, they’re just kind of, ‘Boom! You want to make my forehead big? OK!’ I don’t think Johnny has ever watched a film we’ve made together. I know Helena didn’t watch Sweeney Todd. She’ll watch Alice because we’re taking our six-year-old son Billy Ray to the premiere tonight. It’s good to scare kids a bit if they can handle it. Though it might be strange for him to see his mother with such a large forehead. I’ve tried to warn him …”

As the interview draws to a close, Burton talks briefly about heading the jury at Cannes in May. He didn’t watch a film for the two years he spent making Alice and is genuinely excited about “reconnecting to movies”. He pushes a hand through his hair till it starts, finally, to stick up: “It will be another visit to Wonderland for me. I always go out of my way to be as open as possible with other directors’ work because I am acutely aware of the pressure to categorise and label everything. But I’m a moody person,” he smiles, “so you never know!”