After collaborating on Tin Man, a thought-provoking revamp of The Wizard of Oz, writer/director Nick Willing returns to Syfy with Alice, a decidedly different take on Lewis Carroll’s classic fantasy tale. Available on DVD/Blu-Ray on March 2, 2010, Alice stars Caterina Scorsone as a fiercely independent twenty-something, who suddenly finds herself in a parallel universe, where Wonderland is ruled by the evil Queen of Hearts (Kathy Bates). The mini-series also features Andrew Lee Potts as the enigmatic Hatter, Tim Curry as resistance leader Dodo and Matt Frewer as the White Knight.
Here, Willing talks about the challenges of bringing his offbeat interpretation of Alice in Wonderland to life…
How did Alice come about?
I had already made a version of Alice in Wonderland in 1999 for NBC, which was very well-received, with Whoopi Goldberg, Marty Short, Gene Wilder, Ben Kingsley and many other famous stars. So I wasn’t initially suggesting it, because I felt I had quite a rough time trying to translate that book into a movie.
The thing about Alice in Wonderland is that there isn’t a particularly strong classic film story in there. It’s a series of vignettes, of poetry and so on. And the character is also quite passive. It was Robert Halmi Sr of RHI who called me and said, ‘Listen, I’d love you to try and do it again, because I know you had such a hard time with it. What if you did your own kind of groovy version of it, because it’s been ten years since we did the last one?’
We felt that we had discovered in Tin Man a way of reinventing or re-imaging the classic, so we wanted to take another classic that was fantasy-based. And in his opinion, there was none better than ‘Alice.’
So I took a little persuading- like ten minutes- and then started writing. And Syfy jumped on board pretty much immediately. They were very excited about it from the start, so that’s how it happened.
It really grew out of the Tin Man experience of translating a classic story that we all know and love, and spinning it in a different way.
I think that’s what excited most of the people that were involved with Tin Man. It was the original story, but it found new and different things in it.
Could you talk about some of the challenges for you going into this project?
The most difficult thing was finding Alice. I must have seen 500 actresses for the role of Alice, both in America, Canada and the UK.
At one point, we thought of casting her as English because she was so hard to find. But in the end, we found the perfect Alice, Caterina Scorsone.
The script was pretty much done when we started prep and we were quite pleased with it. But it was really getting the design concept right; getting the tone of the film visually in the costume and the sets. And in the visual effects: the look of the flamingos for instance, the Jabberwocky and all the creatures in Wonderland; creating that world effectively and doing it in a new, original way.
What was the key to the story for you?
The first thing that tickled my fancy was the idea of imaging Wonderland as it is today, 150 years on from the original. Alice in Wonderland was written in 1850 or so and I thought, wouldn’t it be delicious to imagine that world in the way that we have evolved and changed? And how would it be today?
Perhaps we’d have similar characters, but wouldn’t they be different? And wouldn’t they have similar quests? But maybe they have changed as ours have too. It was the idea of bringing it into modern focus that attracted me.
Do you find that the mini-series is still a good form to work in?
I think it’s one of the best and I’m not just saying that because I’ve made a few. I’ve made a lot, but it’s taken me a long time to figure out how to really make it work. It’s not an episodic thing like television series are. You get to tell one big sweeping story, but you’re given more time to develop the characters and work in further twists and turns.
For a writer, that’s extremely exciting in a way that you don’t get in movies or in episodic television. So for me, what is exciting about the mini-series and why I hope we keep making them is they are iconic. The mini-series I grew up with are still very much in my mind.
So you’ve now done a lavish Hallmark version of Alice in Wonderland in 1999 and a dystopian, Dark City version in 2009. Have you finally purged Lewis Carroll from your system, or can we expect an even more outrageous version from you in 2010?
Yes, in ten year’s time, I’m going to try something that all of you guys will find totally shocking! I don’t know, to take your answer seriously one of the things that to me was exciting about this version was that it was so different. And because I’d already done one, I felt liberated from having to do a faithful adaptation. I took greater risks.
I think if I hadn’t made that faithful adaptation, I would have found it much more difficult to be as fast and loose with the original material as I was. But I think that’s what helps this film, is that I didn’t have to worry about taking great leaps of the imagination and trying something new and different.
And you know, one of the interesting things about this is that now that I’ve had this experience, the next time I write a story of this kind, I’m going to take bigger risks. One of the most repressing aspects of adapting or working from a book is that you’re afraid to change things. Often for movies, to make it work for our modern audiences, it’s important to change things.