×

EXCLUSIVE: Richard D. Zanuck Goes Down the Rabbit Hole with Alice and Wonderland

By Jami Philbrick — May 31st, 2010

Producer Richard Zanuck talks about the Tim Burton film

Lately it seems like the word legend is thrown around pretty frequently but never has it been more perfectly apt then when used to describe Hollywood producer Richard D. Zanuck. Born into a show business dynasty as the son of former head of 20th Century Fox, Daryl Zanuck, he made a name for himself in 1975 when he collaborated with director Steven Spielberg to essentially create the summer blockbuster with the film Jaws. Since then Zanuck has produced some of the most beloved and critically acclaimed films of his generation including The Verdict, Cocoon and Road To Perdition but it was '1989s Driving Miss Daisy, which earned him an Academy Award for Best Picture. Recently Zanuck has stayed very busy producing hit films like Yes Man, The Book of Eli and Clash of the Titans, but it his relationship with visionary director Tim Burton that excites the seventy-five year old producer the most.

Zanuck has produced Burton's last five films including Planet of the Apes, Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sweeney Todd and Alice in Wonderland, three of which starred Burton's constant muse Johnny Depp, and the three are set to reunite shortly on an adaptation of the '60s cult TV series, Dark Shadows. But now their latest collaboration, Alice in Wonderland, which has become the sixth highest grossing film worldwide of all-time is coming to Blu-ray and DVD on June 1st. We recently had a chance to speak with Richard D. Zanuck and the legendary producer talked about his illustrious career, his unique relationship with Burton and Depp, Dark Shadows and Burton's re-imagining of the classic Lewis Carroll novel. Here is what he had to say:

Alice in Wonderland was to give "some framework of emotional grounding, and to try and make it feel more like a story as opposed to a series of events." Can you talk about his unique vision for the film and what you liked about his re-telling of the classic story?}

Richard D. Zanuck: Well I actually want to get involved in everything that Tim is doing because it is, particularly at this point in my career, it's very stimulating for me to watch his imagination run wild with these tales. When I say wild I don't mean undisciplined it's just he has such incredible vision and the way he puts everything a little off center, its just fascinating to watch and I've enjoyed these last five pictures with him. It's been a wonderful experience. But the secret to Alice in Wonderland, and what attracted both of us actually was the product of the writer Linda Woolverton who wrote this and had the basic concept. The secret to it was making Alice an older girl, a young lady and that provided, and I hate to use the word arc but for lack of a better word it provided that character to start off in one place, experience a whole different set of experiences and then come back at the end a different, stronger personality.

So you have that wonderful character change during the piece and she became a woman during the course of the film. It starts out that she is very uncomfortable leading the life that's been programmed for her and she is someone that would make her own decisions. During the course of her journey in Wonderland she becomes a very resolute, hardened person that makes her own decisions, fights her own battles, so when she returns to that life that she had led she is a different person. So that was not in the original Lewis Carroll story, that has been done over and over again. It's hard to have that kind of arc with a nine year old, there is not going to be that much of a difference through the experiences. So I think that is what Tim meant when he said that he didn't want Alice, as in the original story and the many versions that have done of this, to just walk through and meet a bunch of strange and curious characters but be virtually the same person.

So that was the big grounding, so to speak, that Linda Woolverton provided and that Tim gravitated to and I think that's what's made it all around the world a success. It's a female empowerment story really, that's the basic underlined theme of it and young girls have responded to it all around the world by going back to it repeatedly, particularly in the Far East, by the way. This Japanese business we've done, over $100 million in Japan alone, it's become a cultural thing for young girls to see it and to see it more than once because it empowers them with great strength and the idea that they can do it on their own. Their lives don't have to fit a formula prescribed by others. So it's all those things. That's the long answer to your question but that's what made it a success and that's what Tim really honed in on.

You've worked with Tim Burton now on five films, can you talk about his process as an artist, a director and his unique vision behind the camera?

Richard D. Zanuck: Yeah it's applied to everything that I've seen him do. You know, he is foremost an artist in the true sense of that. In New York they had for the last four months, it just finished in April and it started in November actually, the Museum of Modern Art devoted a tremendous section of their museum to his artwork. It's all hung and framed. There are giant pieces of sculpture some fifteen feet high and then little tiny doodles that he made as a kid. It was the most remarkable thing. I'm saying all of that because he comes from a world of art. He is truly an artist. In fact, he is the only individual who has been so honored by the museum that is still alive and still in his prime.

At any rate he brings his artistry and his great imagination. It's a joy and as I say very stimulating for me to see all of that work. It's been like that on every film. I try to imagine before we start a days work, the night before I'd lie in bed trying to get off to sleep and imagine how he will present or attack the next day's scene. I've been wrong every time because he always has a little different slant and a little different way that he is going to tell the story of that particular day's work. Actors appreciate it because they recognize that he's fresh, he puts them at ease, he lets them do their own thing and then he molds that thing. So it's always been a pleasant experience with him and most producers would love to have their directors as productive and stimulating as he is. I mean there is never an outburst, he never seems to slow down and he's just really fun to work with.

As a follow up to that, three of the Burton films you've worked on have also included his constant collaborator Johnny Depp, can you talk about the unique relationship that the two have together and what their working style is like on set now after collaborating so many times over the years?

Richard D. Zanuck: Well it is very unique on and off the set. They remind me on the set in particular of two high school chums. They go off while the scene is being set-up and they're off in a corner giggling. They have there own private jokes and they speak short hand to each other. They're best friends. Johnny was really put on the major film map by Tim with Edward Scissorhands and they are devoted to one another. But they use almost sign language with one another. It's fun to watch them because they have a lot of respect for one another and they both bring enormous talent to the table. Johnny for one is unlike any other star in that he will take the chances with these characters where most actors would be worried about their futures. He could have laid eggs with a lot of theses characters starting with Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Sweeney Todd, all of the ones that he's done most actors would be scarred of but he takes it as a real challenge. Tim loves it because he loves doing these off beat, off kilter characters and stories so they are like a real team in terms of what they are trying to accomplish together. It's fun to witness.

Finally, we wanted to ask you about the upcoming adaptation of the classic '60s cult TV series "Dark Shadows" that you are producing, which will star Johnny Depp and be directed by Tim Burton. At one point you had said that you hoped filming would begin this summer, since its clearly not, where is the production at this point and when do you think you'll begin filming?

Richard D. Zanuck: That film is still in the works but it's been delayed a bit. We expected to do it much earlier, actually before Alice was finished. We must have been intoxicated when we thought that Tim could direct this picture while he was doing the post-production of Alice. Most of the post-production on Alice was done on computers and there were months and months of down time. At one point we thought that we could make it then and then we realized right away that Tim couldn't do it. Then that put it behind a couple of pictures that Johnny had lined up and right now we're waiting for him to finish The Tourist with Angelina Jolie and then he is going to take some time off and then do Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides next.

It's unlikely, while everybody intends to make the picture, and we're still working on the script and all the rest, it's unlikely that we can start it earlier than the beginning of next year. Johnny had committed and he has to do Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides first. He had a long-standing, firm, unchangeable contract to do that. That's a big project and he doesn't start that until later in the summer. So there you have it and we're waiting in line. But it is still very much alive and we are currently working on the script.

The original show was on for several years and dealt with many different sci-fi topics from monsters and vampires to time travel and alternate universes, what elements do you hope to capture in this film and will the vampire, Barnabas Collins, still be the main character?

Richard D. Zanuck: The main character? Yes. But one of the problems we've had with the script is that there are hundreds of episodes of this and boiling it down to an hour and a half or two hour movie with one story has been a real challenge and that's what we are doing now. But it will have all of the elements of the TV show. It won't be high camp, obviously. It won't be soap opera, which the show was. No, it will be scary, it'll be very funny and it will carry the Tim Burton stamp of uniqueness.

Related Stories