Excerpt: The Making of “Alice In Wonderland” (Film)

[This is from a paper written for an entertainment class, and for which I interviewed Alice screenwriter, Ms. Linda Woolverton.] 

From Conception to Development
The process from conception to development for Alice was remarkably glitch-free and star-aligned in their favor. At its nascence, the idea of an Alice in Wonderland extension was merely a musings of an idle screenwriter. “What if,” Woolverton wondered, “Alice was older and she went back?” (L. Woolverton, personal communication, October 10, 2010). It was a notion that the screenwriter of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast mulled over during a period of pouring distress in her personal life: in the midst of divorce, Woolverton was coping with a death in her family, a failure on Broadway, and the unease of relocation (L. Woolverton, Women of Cinematic Arts forum: keynote address, October 9, 2010).

Around the same time, producers Suzanne and Jennifer Todd, and Joe Roth were searching ideas for a “large fantasy movie” (Callaghan, 2010). Incidentally, the Suzanne Todd was a huge fan of Woolverton’s writing, and the producers then asked Woolverton if she had any ideas along the lines of what they were hoping to develop (Suzanne Todd, 2010). The answer was yes, and in early 2006, Woolverton pitched to the producers her take on the Carroll classic – a version that saw Alice as a teenager whose journey down the rabbit hole was one of heroism and empowerment for her – to favorable regard (Suzanne Todd, 2010).

The producers knew this was at base a Disney film. The idea was “exactly in Disney’s wheelhouse, and what they do well” (Suzanne Todd, 2010); given their first look deal with Sony Pictures, however, they were obligated to bring the idea to Sony. Sony fortuitously passed on the project (Suzanne Todd, 2010). Roth then took the idea to Disney, who bought the pitch.

Woolverton began writing the script. In so doing, Woolverton, who was “down the rabbit hole [herself] at the time” (Salisbury, 2010), crafted a rendering that drew from the parallels of her personal life. Grappling with grief, writer’s block, and feelings of undeserved audacity to “change” Carroll’s work, this was for her a process fraught with writers’ challenges. (L. Woolverton, personal communication, October 10, 2010). Nevertheless, these were precisely the elements that helped shape the script and story. In creating within the world of Lewis Carroll, she sought to remain tonally faithful to his work (L. Woolverton, Women of Cinematic Arts forum: keynote address, October 9, 2010; L. Woolverton, personal communication, October 10, 2010).

The result was a character exploration of a now-older Alice through her adventures in going back to Underland, which she misheard as “Wonderland” as a child. In Woolverton’s version, Alice is now 19, about to be betrothed, and “facing imminent choices about life and who she [is] going to be” (Callaghan, 2010). The purpose of her return to Underland is singular: to slay the Red Queen’s Jabberwocky and restore the White Queen to power as prophesied by The Oraculum, an endless oracle-like calendar of Underland (Boucher, 2010). In so doing, Alice slays her “own personal demons” and embarks on a fruitful personal journey towards finding a sense of self and inner strength, something she lost when she lost her father (Callaghan, 2010). Her tale is one of shedding her childhood and personal empowerment by way of delving into a world replete with the unknown – a metaphor for life (Callaghan, 2010).

By early 2007, upon completion and several rewrites of the first draft, the Todds drew up a list of directors that they wanted for the job and began sending the script out. Tim Burton was the Todd sisters’ first choice on their directors list, their “dream director” for the surreal material. Burton had heard about it by that time, and being a fan of Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, already had some level of interest in being involved with the project (Suzanne Todd, 2010). According to Burton, “they gave [him] a script and they said 3D…and even before I read it, I thought, that’s intriguing” (Disney, 2010). His curiosity meant that it was down to a matter of his affinity for the script (Suzanne Todd, 2010) – and indeed by yet another stroke of luck, Burton, having really responded to the script, signed on.

Once Burton was attached, it seemed obvious that long-time Burton collaborator Johnny Depp would follow suit; this was similarly true with Helena Bonham Carter, Burton’s life partner. The issue was that the story in Woolverton’s first draft was heavily focused on Alice. Knowing that he wanted Depp to play the Mad Hatter, they had to rewrite a Hatter storyline more integral to the plot as a way to entice Depp to play the part (Suzanne Todd, 2010; L. Woolverton, pers3onal communication, October 10, 2010).

Burton and Woolverton met in London to further hone the script. They expanded and adding richness and depth to major characters and their relationships, and the story evolved to center on both Alice and the Mad Hatter. The element of their friendship was further explored and brought to surface, thus correlatively adding different layers to their individual characters. Alice’s relationship with her father and how that has shaped her, as well as the sisterly relationship between the two queens of Underland were also further fleshed out (Suzanne Todd, 2010; Boucher, 2010; Callaghan, 2010).

The time was also spent reducing and tightening the script. Since the producers had always planned for this to be an expensive motion capture, live-action 3D film, their estimated budget of $1 million per page of the script meant trimming down the script as close to skeletal as possible. Determining the scenes to cut out without losing the essence of the story proved challenging for writer and the filmmakers. The script was ultimately whittled from an approximate 110 pages down to a slender 83 pages (Suzanne Todd, 2010; L. Woolverton, personal communication, October 10, 2010).

Select References
Boucher, G. (Interviewer) & Woolverton, L. (Interviewee). (2010). ‘Alice in screenwriter is ready for haters: ‘It’s audacious, what we’ve done’ [Interview transcript]. Retrieved from http://herocomplex.latimes.com

Callaghan, D. (Interviewer) & Woolverton, L. (Interviewee). (2010). Wonder Woman. [Interview transcript]. Retrieved from http://wga.org/content/default.aspx?id=4004

Salisbury, M. (2010). Tim Burton and Johnny Depp interview for Alice in Telegraph.co.uk. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk

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Adrienne is an expert on storytelling for branding and impact through video and digital content. She is a video producer and writer.