In anticipation of the premiere of their new original mini-series Alice on Sunday, December 6 at 9:00 PM ET, Syfy made both the series star Caterina Scorsone and writer/director Nick Willing available for a conference call interview.
Here are some highlights from that call:
Question: Nick, could you perhaps tell us a little bit about the prep you had to do for this particular project going in and maybe some of the challenges associated with that for you.
Nick Willing: The most difficult thing was finding Alice. I must’ve seen 500 actresses for the role of Alice, both in America, Canada and the UK. At one point we even thought of casting an (English) because she was so hard to find.
But in the end we found the perfect Alice, Caterina Scorsone, who I believe is on this call. And the prep, otherwise, was more to do with - we - the script was pretty much done when we started prep.
We were quite pleased with it. But it was the - it was really getting the design concept right, a look at the film, getting the tone of the film both visually, you know, in costume and in the set.
And in the visual effects, and the look of the flamingos, for instance and the jabberwocky and all the creatures in Wonderland; creating that world effectively and doing it in a new, original way.
Question: For Caterina, what maybe first attracted you to this particular role?
Caterina Scorsone: Okay. Well the attraction was manifold. I mean it - you know, Alice in Wonderland is a classic piece of literature and most of us have, you know, either read it or seen various adaptations.
And so, you know, that’s a huge draw initially. And then I was sent Nick’s script and it’s incredible. And not only does it have kind of all of the classic characters and many of the themes of the book in it, but it’s been re-imagined into this fantastic adventure and a kind of journey of self-discovery for the character.
Question: Mr. Willing, you had done Tin Man for Syfy a couple of years ago. How did Alice come about? Did you come to Syfy and say look, I’ve got a new take on Alice in Wonderland or did they say to you so now that we’ve done Wizard of Oz, what else can you reinvent for us?
Nick Willing: Well they - I had already made a version -- I don’t know if you know -- made a version of Alice in Wonderland in 1999 for NBC which was very well received then with Whoopi Goldberg and Marty Short, and Gene Wilder and Peter Ustinov, and many, many other famous stars.
Caterina Scorsone: Ben Kingsley.
Nick Willing: And Ben Kingsley. And so I wasn’t initially - I wasn’t suggesting of 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 particular strong classic film story in there. It’s a series of (bin yets), of poetry and so on.
And the character is also quite passive. So - but Robert Halmi - it was Robert Halmi, Sr., actually of RHI who called me and said listen, I’d love you to try and do it again, you know, 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 ten years since we did the last one? Why don’t we do it again?
And it was that - it was kind of that experiment. We felt that we had discovered in Tin Man a new way of reinventing, re-imagining the classics. And so we wanted to take another classic that was fantasy-based.
And there were none better than - there was nothing, you know, in his opinion better visually than Alice.
So I took a little bit of 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 it was - that’s how it happened.
It was - it grew out of Tin Man - really 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 who were involved with the Tin Man and saw Tin Man.
It was - they knew the original story but this was - kind of found new and different things in it, and explored new and different areas. So that was really my - how this thing started.
And then it took a year to write, obviously, because we had the writers’ strike and we had a financial apocalypse, and various other things.
Question: Would you say that the key to this was finding the purpose of the quest? And once you figured out that, did the rest of it sort of come into focus for you?
Nick Willing: The first thing that tickled my fancy was the idea of imagining Wonderland as it is today; 150 years on from the original. Alice in Wonderland was written in 1850 or so; a long time ago - 150 years ago.
And I thought wouldn’t it be, you know, delicious to imagine a world - that world as - in the way that we have evolved, also 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 an idea of kind of bringing it into, you know, modern focus that attracted me.
Question: In the film you seem to be commenting on our culture of instant gratification? Is this a bad thing in our culture? Have we gone overboard in our love of instant gratification and our loss of patience, do you think?
Nick Willing: Yes. I mean, yes. I think that if it starts to take the place of deeper, more lasting things that ultimately will give you a greater sense of security and pleasure, that instant gratification can be very dangerous if we’re simply led by our nose; whatever sense your impulse takes us.
Then often that may lead us in the wrong way. It’s very important, I think, for all of us to find and get what we want for our lives. But it’s important to also do it in a way which is informed and which draws on more lasting things. And that, I think, is something that we’re losing particularly as we bring up our children.
It’s something that I always regarded as part of the Queen of Hearts character in nature. She was a person who acted - she simply said and did, and acted in the way she simply wanted to act.
And she always got what she wanted when she wanted it because she was queen of the scream. And if she wanted to cut off somebody’s head, she’d cut off somebody’s head.
So I translated that. You know, as I said earlier, one of the things that attracted me about this story was trying to find things in it that would connect to our modern world. And that is one of the things that I translated into a world which she has influenced to act as she would act.
Question: What was it like working with Andrew-Lee Potts from Primeval as the Hatter?
Caterina Scorsone: He was wonderful. He was wonderful. And we were so lucky to have him and I was so lucky. So he - his character, Hatter, is the companion of Alice through the whole adventure in Wonderland. He was absolutely prepared as an actor and he was funny everyday, and great with all of the action and the physical stuff; and the CGI which I’m sure Primeval helped it. So he’s a great actor and a great person. And we were really lucky to have him.
Nick Willing: Yeah he’s - you know, I think he’s quite unique among English actors because he’s one of these actors who loves fantasy and science fiction. And I know a lot - coming from England myself, I know a lot of actors. And that’s quite rare, frankly. Most actors won’t be doing, you know, Shakespeare at the National. But he’s a guy that really loves this stuff. So he came with so much enthusiasm and energy for the role.
And because he was trapped here on his own without his friends back home, he was - he invested almost everything - every muscle of his body in our project. And so I think we had - we were very lucky to get him and very fortunate to get one of the great performances of the film.
Question: This Alice is smart and feisty and strong. And she starts off as the rescuer instead of the damsel in distress. But she’s still permitted to enjoy a love interest or two. Can you comment on playing such a multi-faceted version of Alice?
Caterina Scorsone: Yeah. I mean, it was a pleasure. It was really - you know, from the moment I got the script, I mean, I - you know, I read the script in one sitting and it’s quite a long script. But it was a page-turner. And I just couldn’t believe it. And it was so - I mean, it just came off the page so easily. You could kind of really imagine yourself having the adventures just reading it. So that was great.
And then when I got to set and met Nick and met the cast, and started rehearsing, and I started realizing how much everyone was passionate about the script, and how passionate Nick was about the character and about her journey, and about making sure that we gave the character the dignity of being multi-faceted, I mean I was elated.
You don’t often - especially as an actress, you don’t often have an opportunity to play a role where the whole range of the humanity of the person is explored. And so I got to do that with Alice. And yeah, so it was literally everyday on set, moments of pause where I’d be like okay, remember this.
Remember this because it doesn’t happen all the time. And so it was really kind of one of those special, special experiences for me.
Question: Nick, when you were writing this, how much would you refer back to the original book or would you just try to, you know, try to make separations as much as you could? And were there things that you deliberately excluded in this film from the book?
Nick Willing: You know, I - when I first wrote this I - it was hugely long. It was a six hour - I overwrote. And I wanted to include everything that I could. But gradually - I mean, it’s - writing is one of those funny things where, you know, sometimes the first idea is the best idea and sometimes it’s the worst idea.
And you never know when you write it which one that might be. So I’ve found that the process of writing this was incredibly exposing of my character. I found myself in this story more than any other thing I’ve written.
I used parts of myself that I’ve never used before, if you know what I mean. But - and - but one of the driving factors in writing it was in trying to make it as psychological as possible.
If the book is about a little girl who falls into her unconscious and written in 1860 it was an incredibly modern and exciting theory - idea to have because the unconscious is still something that was being, you know, discovered if you will then.
But if it's that then – and if we accept that the unconscious is a place in my dreams where we can work out problems that we have in our lives, then let us make this world or events incredibly psychological and helpful to her in discovering what she needs to discover in order to flourish and become and full and complete person.
So I would draw – what I did was I drew on aspects of the book. They were like triggers, if you will. There were things that – for instance the minute – when I first read Alice in Wonderland, I also saw Tweedle Dee as an odd thing. I always thought Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum as torturous of her. I felt that they were like, you know, nasty little school boys who wants to pull the wings off flies and torture little girls. And that's the opportunity they got for Alice.
So in the film I actually made them the queen's torturers and torture poor old Alice. So, the book was kind of a trigger, an inspiration, and then from there it spawned many things.
Question: For Caterina, what did it do for you to play Alice as a grown up woman?
Caterina Scorsone: Oh wow, such a good question.
See, you know, I think like Nick, it was – this movie was really special and incredible in that it was in – it was exploring topics that we don't often talk about especially in our kind of, you know, pop culture. You know as an actor, you know, living in LA right now, usually I'm, you know, auditioning for procedural dramas. And you know, we're trying to find out who stole the money and, you know, where the body is.
And you know, there's not tons of room for you know, deep, psychological plumbing. And that's why most of us got involved in acting in the first place, to do that kind of psychological exploration. And so having Alice in this script as it directed toward forward was pretty amazing for me as an actor and as a person.
And yeah, I mean – I think Nick – didn't you say that this is the most emotional set you've ever been on?
Nick Willing: Yeah, it was a very emotional set. It was.
Caterina Scorsone: It – for everyone – I mean crew members, cast members, it was – I think the subject matter that we were dealing with kind of that, just everyday talking about ideas of, you know, repressed emotions and feelings that we don't want to feel and memories that we don't want to have. And you know, it was just a really – it's you know, agitated and brought up all sorts of really rich emotional experiences for everyone.
And I definitely think like Nick, by the end of working on this film had discovered all sorts of things about myself that, you know, might have been there and I might have been aware of. But I have never taken a whole day with lights and cameras and costumes to really think about and explore and articulate them.
So it was definitely a journey for me. I'm really grateful.
Question: For Nick, what were the most fun aspects of Alice and Through the Looking Glass to give a modern twist?
Nick Willing: The flamingos I thought were very delicious. One of the things that you remember that Alice is invited to or appears at a croquet game with the queen. And she can't handle her pink flamingo, long pink neck. And I translated that into a, you know, flying machine flamingo, that she has to sit on and manipulate its long pink neck to make it fly.
And it sort of looks like a Vespa, a cross between a jet ski or Vespa, but that flies. And that was very delicious. Also the jabberwockies, this huge beak, I've never seen a jabberwocky done before. There was a film by Terry Gilliam, but that was years ago and it only had fleeting glimpses of the actual jabberwocky in that film and I've always wanted, ever since I was a little boy, I've always wanted to make a real jabberwocky.
And now technology has caught up with me and we were able to produce this amazing creature with a long neck and a goofy face, that was both funny and terrifying at the same time, which I think is what the jabberwocky is all about.
It was the one thing that we kept quite close to the (Tenniel) [illustrations from the book], you know, illustration. Those are my favorite sort of kind of groovy things to do. I really enjoyed those – doing them. But I, you know, I also enjoyed enormously working on the costumes with (Angus Strike), who's a brilliant costume designer, and the sets with (Michael Joy).
The look of the film, how it, you know, we've got this kind of exciting, funky twist to the look, but retro modern. That was enormously good fun, you know, when you're prepping. But my favorite thing, is always my favorite thing, most fun I always have on any film, but particularly on this film, is with the actors.
The actors are more intelligent than I think most – I mean they're almost as bright as the people I know, you know, because I don't know why. I think it's because they make their life exploring, because they've got to bring emotions to the screen. They spend their life exploring their emotions, you know, and that makes for a very entertaining companion, because they're always lively, they're always usually quite funny. They've always got an answer and opinion on everything.
And it makes the day just wonderful, you know. So I always spend most of my time hanging out with the actors if I can and working on little bits of the stuff, and excuse to get time with them I always, you know, I think I have over a week of rehearsals mostly just because I wanted to hang out with them.
Question: Speaking of these profound themes that have come out in this call, is that something you went into the film with or did those emerge as you were doing it?
Nick Willing: It was – I went in doing it really, because I felt that, you know, one of the things that I think about science fiction is that it gives us a popular risk platform to explore things that we wouldn’t – difficult things. And it gives us a way of finding out difficult things and exploring tricky things. That's what science fiction is, it's a way of kind of kind of making comment on the present by either looking into the future and see into, you know, or inventing and entire world.
And it's that comment on the present, and that comment on our emotional personality that really excited me about this story. So I don't want to make it sound like it's, you know, high brow, it isn't. It's an incredibly commercial and popular story, it's just it explores themes that we, all of us, in everyday life have to put with and bear and explore ourselves.
So getting that out of the story and finding that with the actors was one of my goals early on.
Question: What is your favorite guilty pleasure movie or TV show?
Nick Willing: Caterina, what’s your favorite guilty pleasure?
Caterina Scorsone: Goodness, I have so many. That’s what this movie is all about. My favorite - my very favorite movie which I suppose is a bit of a guilty pleasure in that it’s like, you know, every scene, you know, pushes every button is True Romance directed by Tony Scott with Patricia Arquette and Christian Slater and it’s a fantastic, fantastic film, very violent, very romantic.
What about your Nick?
Nick Willing Get Smart. You know, I know I grew up in Portugal as a little boy speaking Portuguese and I learned to speak English through Get Smart. Yeah, and he…
Caterina Scorsone: That explains everything.
Nick Willing Yeah, exactly. And 99 I had a terrible crush on 99 who was just the most (unintelligible) thing in the world to me when I was 5. And so that was my - that’s my -- nobody knows it so don’t tell anybody that because it’s so embarrassing.
But my favorite film is the first time I ever watched -- when I was growing up in Portugal I watched it in a (bit like sort of a parodies) I watched it in a (bond) when the cinema came to town and it was Pinocchio and I went along and the drawings were moving on the screen. I couldn’t believe how that was possible, you know. It had been 1923…
Question: Is that what inspired you to continue with the cartoons?
Nick Willing Yeah, I started as an animator when I -- as soon as I - because I was drawing even then. I was 5 and was really drawing. So when I got to 10 I started making flicker books and then animated cells when I was 12. And that’s what got me into the films. It was completely just because I wanted to do that, make those pictures move. It was so amazing. I still remember that feeling - that first - one of the greatest feelings I can ever remember is seeing the opening shots to Pinocchio and thinking, “God, this is pure magic.”
Alice airs Sunday, December 6 from 9 to 11 PM ET, and concludes Monday, December 7 from 9 to 11 PM ET.