James Bobin interview: from Ali G to Hollywood

Feature by Simon Bland | 16 May 2016

James Bobin helped bring the Muppets into the 21st century, but can he rescue Tim Burton's garish Alice in Wonderland series? We chat to the Hampshire-born filmmaker about CGI, Ali G and his upcoming 21 Jump Street/Men in Black mash-up

James Bobin has come a long way from his days directing Ali G around English council estates. Since 2004, he’s helmed two series of every indie kids' favourite TV show, Flight of The Conchords, and injected a new lease of life into The Muppets on not one but two separate occasions. His latest work is his most ambitious yet and sees him inherit Tim Burton’s garish, candy-coloured Wonderland world for part two of the story, Alice Through The Looking Glass. All this in just over a decade. Clearly Bobin likes to keep busy.

Bobin isn't the obvious choice to take up Tim Burton's mantle. Unlike the Edward Scissorhands director, Bobin has been judicious with his use of CGI effects in his work so far. With 2011’s The Muppets, 2014’s Muppets Most Wanted and on Conchords, Bobin was more likely to reach for sticky back plastic and crepe paper for his special effects, rather than a laptop. However, with the green-screen-heavy Alice Through the Looking Glass, the director delved deep into the opposite end of the spectrum, where his only limit is the scope of his imagination. We caught up with Bobin to discuss this filmmaking juxtaposition, his upcoming 21 Jump Street/Men in Black mash-up, MIB23, and, erm, Weekend at Bernies

On using practical sets on Alice Through The Looking Glass

“One of the reasons I liked this film was because it was the direct opposite of The Muppets. Muppets was like the anti-CG movie but I don’t hate CG. I felt like The Muppets was all about fuzz and fur and puppetry and performance whereas this world was like the complete opposite. It’s a world of imagination – that’s why you could utilise the full tool set of both CG animation and real environments, so I wanted to do as much of that as possible. At the same time, I attempted that because I also feel that actors like working in environments. With CGI it’s basically just a room, so certainly on this one we tried to build whatever we can that felt correct in terms of scale of the room.”

On what he’s taken away from working on both methods so intensely

“It’s strange. What’s interesting about it is the genesis and creation of ideas don’t ever really change, all it is is literally the execution is different. I guess the biggest difference in the two processes is that fact that you have so much flexibility in post-production on a CG animation movie that you don’t really have on a puppetry film. In most live action films you get what you get in the shoot and you make what you can with what you have but with this Alice film you can continually change and iron things out because you are animating. It’s an advantage in many ways because it means you’re basically continually shooting but it also means you’re completely exhausted by the end of it.”

On reuniting with Ali G creator Sacha Baron Cohen

“I’ve seen him regularly over the past few years, we just haven’t really worked together for a while. It was just nice to have him back because when you’ve worked together with someone for a long period of time, as we did when we made Ali G back in the day, you learn to trust each other implicitly. It means he’s bringing such brilliant ideas to the set and we try stuff out but then he trusts me to choose the ones that are going to work and that is the best kind of working relationship you can have.”

On working on an increasingly larger scale

“My job hasn’t really changed that much. Remember of course that when you’re shooting a scene that’s set to a blue screen it doesn’t feel like a particularly big thing. When you’re in a studio in Shepperton it doesn’t feel like you’re making this gigantic film because the job you’re doing, which is talking to each other about the performance, about the idea and about the joke, is basically the same as it was fifteen years ago when we were doing Ali G out the back of a van. What I do in terms of talking to actors, having ideas, thinking about dialogue and blocking scenes – that bit doesn't change. What has changed is when I turn around and look behind me, how many people are watching what I do.”

On keeping scenes between Johnny Depp and Sacha Baron Cohen PG

“Oh, it frequently goes above PG but the thing about that is even though that stuff is unusable there are moments within it that you can use because it carries an energy and you often get interesting looks out of it or moments or exchanges and glances, so I’m pretty cool with letting that flow. The only trouble we had was when we were shooting this scene between Sacha and Johnny – it was supposed to be outside, and when you’re shooting outside on a stage you have to have a lot of lights, and lights create heat. The room itself was like 140 degrees and they had these enormous costumes on, so I think they were both incredibly hot but there was one take when they were talking for like 15 minutes and at that point the camera, that was on the end of a crane, broke. They basically melted the camera. I didn’t call cut, the camera called cut.”

On directing Alan Rickman’s final credited performance

“Obviously, it was a terrible shock. He did the first one so fantastically as Absolem and we’ve been working on this for a while as Absolem the Butterfly and he’d done such a brilliant job; he is Absolem. That voice is so distinctive it can only be him and so obviously I’m incredibly honoured to have had the chance to work with him. It’s a great tragedy but I’m very proud of what he did and very proud of the role he has in the film and I hope people like it too.”

On possibly returning to the world of Alice

“Maybe. I really like Mia as Alice, I think it’s such a lovely character and I like the world that Tim built and the characters that they created together. This really isn’t the story of the Looking Glass book, this is more of a story in the spirit of Lewis Carroll and so I think if this one succeeds then there’s no reason why you can’t do more.”

On MIB23...

“It’s very early stages but I love both worlds and they work incredibly well together when you read the script. I’m excited to share it. It’s something that I like in terms of the comedy of both worlds and they blend together in a very interesting way and it’s a chance to use the skills I’ve built up over the past few years from Alice and also from Muppets, so it’s a perfect combination (of practical and CGI effects) for me. That’s why it appeals to me so much. It’s totally in my area.”

On his own favourite fantasy film

“That’s a good question. I think probably my favourite film of that genre is something like Time Bandits. It's one of my absolute favourite films of all time and it’s quite a hefty influence on this film, I think.”

On movie guilty pleasures

“I enjoy the Weekend at Bernie’s movies very much. I’m amazed that no one’s brought that back because it’s such a fantastic idea.”

Alice Through The Looking Glass is in cinemas from 27 May