From Fantasy Football to Hollywood, director James Bobin tells Alistair Harkness about taking chances, Alice as a proto-feminist and Sacha Baron Cohen channelling Werner Herzog
“And the show wasn’t that good.” James Bobin roars with laughter.
The British director, who co-created Ali G, Borat, Bruno, Flight of the Conchords and successfully rebooted The Muppets recently, is referring to the 11 O’Clock Show, the thrice-weekly Channel 4 satirical comedy programme that was a late-night television staple of students and twenty-something at the tail-end of the 1990s.
Best remembered for launching the careers of Sacha Baron Cohen and Ricky Gervais, it was also where Bobin started learning to be a director, graduating from his first TV job doing video sketches on Frank Skinner and David Baddiel’s Fantasy Football League, to having complete freedom and “far too much responsibility” directing a whole TV show at the age of 24.
“Which was good,” he adds. “The best way to learn is just to do it and because you start cutting together stuff quickly, and because you shoot it quickly, through that you start developing ideas.”
Bobin spent three years on the show and his career trajectory since is testament to its status as a crucible of creativity. It might not always have been “that good”, but it allowed raw talent to be identified and honed. “If you look at the heads of comedy now, they’re all 11 O’Clock Show people,” says Bobin, who co-created Da Ali G Show with Baron Cohen off the back of it. “I moved to America because Da Ali G Show was so successful and I thought I should stay and see where this goes. And here I am!”
The “here” in question is London’s Corinthia Hotel promoting his new blockbuster Alice Through the Looking Glass. The film is the (slightly) belated sequel to 2010’s Tim Burton-directed Alice in Wonderland, once again starring Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter and Mia Wasikowska as Alice (Burton remains on board as producer). Given the first film grossed more than a billion dollars, it seems like an unusually long wait for a sequel, especially since Lewis Carroll’s follow-up story was ready and waiting.
“I think they just wanted to get it right,” says Bobin. “And obviously the thing has been around for 150 years so another five doesn’t matter really.”
Actually, the film’s plot deviates significantly from Carroll’s book, which was structured like a chess match. “It’d make a very avant-garde film,” quips the director. Nevertheless, Bobin signed on in part because he’s always been fascinated with the Victorian imagination and he drew a lot of inspiration from John Tenniel, the original illustrator of the books. “If you look at the background of his panels you see how he saw the world. That was very useful for me.”
Ditto the Victorian context. The new film sees Alice going through the titular looking glass to save the Hatter, who’s dying of a broken heart and needs Alice to travel through time to find out what happened to his family. Time itself is personified in the form of Bobin’s old colleague, Sacha Baron Cohen, a plot conceit he took from a brief mention of Time in Carroll’s original story.
But Alice is also more grown up in this film. She’s a seafarer and adventurer, a proto-feminist, battling the patriarchal oppression of the day. Her forthright attitude makes her seem as insane in the backwards-thinking real world (at one point she’s committed to a sanitarium) as the Hatter is in the upside-down world of Wonderland.
If this sounds fanciful, the subtext is there in Carroll’s books, reckons Bobin. “Alice was such an unusual character because she was so outspoken. I think Lewis Carroll was playing with something there. And that generation grew up to be the Suffragettes. Alice Liddell, who’s the real Alice, was born in 1852. Emmeline Pankurst was born in 1858. They’re the same generation.”
The Hatter, on the other hand, is just odd. Even by Johnny Depp’s standards. “It’s a very bold look,” concedes Bobin. “But Johnny is so good at playing vulnerability.”
He’s also good at basing his various weirdos on pop and rock stars. Everyone knows Keith Richards inspired Jack Sparrow – and it’s easy to spot Michael Jackson in Willy Wonka and Jack White in the Wolf from Into the Woods. The Hatter’s inspiration, however, is harder to pin down.
“I don’t know if there is one,” says Bobin.
Syd Barrett, maybe?
“Maybe. Yeah, that’d be a good one. His English is quite archaic. He sounds like a BBC Radio announcer from the 1950s…”
With the odd Scottish interlude...
“His anger is Scottish,” chuckles Bobin. “Don’t know where he gets that from.”
The inspiration for Sacha Baron Cohen’s character, on the other hand, is much more obvious. Was it his or Bobin’s idea to play Time as Werner Herzog?
“Ha! You spotted that. Well, Sacha and I have worked together for years creating characters, so we had a fun time doing that.”
The Herzogian German accent certainly works for a character who’s more comedy antagonist than villain. “When you talk slowly and precisely, even if you’re saying things that aren’t intelligent, you sound intelligent,” says Bobin. “That felt like a good thing for the character to have.”
Next up for Bobin – in lieu of the Flight of the Conchords movie that Jemaine Clement has said he’s working on (“We’re keen to make a film at some point,” confirms Bobin) – is the recently announced Jump Street/Men in Black crossover film, tentatively titled MIB 23. Was this the only idea for a Jump Street sequel not parodied in 22 Jump Street’s closing credits?
“Ha! Yeah, it’s one of those things where you do think: how is this going to work? And then you read it and you understand exactly how it’s going to work. I can’t say too much, but it feels to me already that it’s the film that people will want it to be.”
And has he consulted with Johnny Depp on diving into the Jump Street world that launched the star’s career 30 years ago? He laughs. “It’s so early. But he had a cameo in the first one, so who knows?”
• Alice Through the Looking Glass is on general release from 27 May