I originally conducted separate interviews with both Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean in the lead-up to the theatrical release of the film MirrorMask. Both Neil and Dave were a delight to chat with, and I only wish more time had been alotted to do both gentleman justice. Who knows? Maybe that will be rectified at some point in the future.
First up on the schedule was my conversation with Mr. McKean, Below, you’ll find my original intro for the piece, followed by the interview itself.
15 year-old Helena longs for a normal life. Maybe that’s because she was raised in a family of circus performers. When her mother falls seriously ill after an argument, Helena blames herself - right up until the night before her mother’s operation, when Helena falls asleep and enters a dreamworld full of masked denizens and bizarre creatures ruled by two opposing queens. The White Queen has fallen gravely ill, and it is up to Helena to navigate the strange world she finds herself in and retrieve the one object that can cure the queen’s malady - the MirrorMask. But is she dreaming, or is something far more sinister afoot?
That, in a nutshell, is the story of MirrorMask, a fantasy adventure directed by Dave McKean, written by Neil Gaiman, and produced by The Jim Henson Company (quite the power trio, eh?). The film recently had its premiere (to critical and audience acclaim) during the Sundance Film Festival, and will a screen near you in the coming year (you can view the trailer at the official site).
Here’s my conversation with director, artist, and all around swell guy Dave McKean…
KEN PLUME: What was the initial mandate for the project, that was presented to you , and your initial reaction to it?
McKEAN: The initial proposition was from Lisa Henson at Hensons. They just had this little opportunity to make another fantasy film in the tradition of their father’s films - Jim Henson’s films Labyrinth and Dark Crystal. They were pretty expensive when they were made and they were not so successful when they first came out, but over the years they’ve done great, and somebody noticed this. But the proposition came with a much smaller budget, and the offer of sort of creative control. And it seemed like an interesting opportunity, but then when Neil and I actually sort of sat down and started thinking about it, we just had lots of ideas and lots of possibilities - and it grew and actually became something very interesting.
PLUME: Did you have any reservations about the mandate?
McKEAN: Well, yes… the two main things were the budget - which was very low, so it was a bit alarming committing to doing something, especially since it was a film that was going to include a ton of CG and animation.
PLUME: The budget was what, $4 million?
McKEAN: Yes, $4 million - so committing to that without ever having done it before… I’ve never done anything like that before… So that was a bit worrisome. And then the idea was to make a family film - it was always to make a family film. I mean, even though I think that’s a great thing to try and do - I’ve got two kids, and I’ve sat through enough films that I would call children’s films rather than family films to know that it’s great when you find a family film. If we all go along to a Pixar film - which is a real family film - everybody has a great time. They’re wonderful films.
PLUME: In other words, an inclusive film…
McKEAN: A completely inclusive film. It doesn’t talk down to anybody, and it doesn’t talk over anybody’s heads… Just something that would appeal to anybody. But that was tricky again, because Neil and I are both more known for doing more adult material, and certainly darker and stranger material…
PLUME: Because it’s your preference, or that’s just the material you found your self doing more often?
McKEAN: It’s not my preference at all. I’m happy doing whatever really occurs to me - some of it is very adult, and some of it… We’ve done some children’s books together… and so some of them are for children. Personally, I like to spread. I like being able to do anything. I think that’s healthy, doing anything and everything, rather than just getting completely obsessed with one particular genre or particular kind of work.
PLUME: Do you feel that you’ve in any way been pigeonholed into being perceived as an adult artist?
McKEAN: No, not really, because I tend to be known for different things. I mean, there are a lot of comics or sci-fi fans out there who sort of think of me doing that kind of work, but there are just as many people who like the CD covers I’ve done, or the children’s books I’ve done. So different people like different things, and then some people like everything. I mean, very few like everything… and that was another thing about this film, and it’s been highlighted when we finally get to show it to people - we realized it’s going to be a minority of people who like it and get it, but I really couldn’t pinpoint that minority. It’s certainly not an age group… It’s not a particular kind of person, or male or female. It’s just a bunch of people, and some of them are seven years old and some of them are 70, and they get it. And it’s always going to be a minority - but that’s okay. It’s absolutely fine with us.
PLUME: When you sat down with Neil to begin brainstorming exactly what the project would be, what are the elements you agreed on right off the bat, and what were the fundamental differences? I had heard you had a few fundamental disagreements…
McKEAN: We did have a bit of a strange, rocky start to working on it together. We’d never actually worked on the same thing in the same room together before, in terms of actually working out what it was going to be or writing it. So that was a bit strange, having worked together for 17 years, to find out that we’re completely incompatible. But there were a few things. I’m not a big fan of genre fiction, generally… I’m not a big fan of fantasy films and horror films…
PLUME: Well, you picked a fine project to work on…
McKEAN: But the thing is, some of my favorite films are fantasy films, and horror and science fiction films, and the difference is when those films are about real people and real situations and real things, then that’s when I’m completely fascinated by them.
PLUME: So you don’t like the fantastic just for fantastic’s sake…
McKEAN: No. Because it just has no interest to me, and doesn’t impact my life at all. I don’t care what a Hobbit thinks, because I’m never going to meet one. But I do care what a 17 year-old girl thinks, because I’m going to get one very soon, because mine’s 11! You know what I mean? If you’ve got a story that involves ghosts or something… A story about ghosts that is about people that need to believe in ghosts or think that they see ghosts is fascinating to me, but a film that actually comes down firmly on the side of “Yes, there are ghosts, and they’re going to help you work out all your problems” - Well, forget it. I’ve lost it already. So that’s my particular preference. I’m sure when you talk to Neil you’ll get a different feeling about it. But we both had these sort of ground rules, and they were good to establish at the beginning.
PLUME: How would the conflict manifest itself while you were working out that story? What points would you stick on and which would he stick on, and how would you resolve it?
McKEAN: Well, the conflict manifested itself as a lot of staring at each other over plates of pasta, and then I would go off in a huff upstairs and play the piano, and Neil would go off on a huff downstairs and sit by the radio and just write stuff, because that was the way he got through it. But we kind of worked this through in the first few days, and then when it became obvious that if we carried on being this way we were actually going to get nowhere, we just decided to work separately for a bit, and Neil just wrote and I just came up with images and ideas and things upstairs, and then slowly we - we read them to each other - and slowly it all began to make shape.
PLUME: Is there a demarcation point where you can say it transitioned from being rocky to, “Yes, this is coming together…” ?
McKEAN: Yes. The point was when we decided - I think it was Neil’s idea, actually - to get one big, huge piece of paper and draw a line down the middle of it, which represented time, and then put all of these little notes on to the piece of paper… So that both of us could understand the overall shape and look of it, and see how the rhythms of it were. And I think that was a nice thing to do. Then Terry Gilliam came round to the house for lunch, because he lived close by - we were staying at Jim Henson’s old house in London - and we were due to go out, but he came down and just looked over what we were doing and remarked that it looked like a film. As soon as he said that, we kind of felt that we must be on the right track.
PLUME: So it was a mini-epiphany…
McKEAN: Oh, absolutely. Yes. A blessing… A blessing from a mighty Python.
PLUME: As working environment, how was it to work in Henson’s house? It was, what, a 10-day period?
McKEAN: That’s right. It was 2 weeks, and in that time we sort of brought all the ideas and images together that we were going to use - having thought about it separately before that - and then worked it all through and wrote a first draft.
PLUME: Was the house a conducive place to work in?
McKEAN: It was a very strange place to work in. There are some people who like to be surrounded by other people’s work, and there are people who like to be surrounded by their own work, and Jim was definitely of the latter category. There were Miss Piggys hanging off the ceiling and Kermits on the wall, and it was an odd one. But it was wonderful for that, and it was in a great place right by a park, so we could walk around the park and just talk about what we were going to do that day. Looking back on it, it was a great 10 days, and I’d very much like to do it again.
PLUME: With Neil or with another collaborator?
McKEAN: I think for next time I’d like to do an adult film. I don’t want to get pigeonholed just doing just family films and fantasy films… I don’t really want to get pigeonholed just doing anything in particular. But I’d like to do an adult film, and I’d like to do a film that gets down to the real language of film - so a rather more experimental film. But then I think after that I’d love to do this again. I think this was a great template for making a film - just starting with a huge, blank sheet of paper… Not based on a book, not based on anything you’ve done before… And just blue sky thinking different ideas. And I think next time, having done it once and learned so much and seeing pretty clearly what we did wrong - I’m sure we’ll make a whole bunch of mistakes next time as well, but it gives you a much higher platform to jump from next time, and I think we could make a much wilder and bigger and better film.
PLUME: Seventeen years on and after this experience, do you view Neil, as a collaborator, in a different light now?
McKEAN: It’s strange… In some ways, I feel like we’ve almost come back to square one, because we started as completely different people - both involved in our own worlds doing different things. We met on a magazine that didn’t happen. Neil was very separate from me - he was writing several stories for other illustrators to do. I was writing and drawing my own stories, and we got together simply because we liked each other and fancied trying it. And since then we’ve done lots of different things, and gone through a period of feeling like maybe we have strict identities and roles with each other - I’m the illustrator and Neil’s the writer, or whatever. And it feels now a much more liquid, easy, improvisational way of working, and I kind of like that. I’m happy for it to be more of a challenging relationship with each other.
PLUME: In some ways, do you think you now have a different respect for each other’s abilities?
McKEAN: Yeah… But again, you’d have to talk to Neil. I certainly recognize my failings as a writer much more clearly now… Because I love writing, and I don’t do it very much, but I do love writing. And I recognize Neil’s strength as somebody who’s always on the story, whether something works and if it’s being understood, and that’s great. I don’t know. It’s been a very long, strange process, and in amongst all that, we learned a lot about each other, I think.
PLUME: So you have a script in hand now, and a set budget…
PLUME: What were the issues that leapt to mind when you looked at the script with the understanding that now you had to realize it?
McKEAN: Well, it’s actually wonderful. I think it would have been the kiss of death to say, “Right, you can have complete creative control *and* $200 million.” Because I think we just would have stared at the white piece of paper, and we’d still be there now staring at the white piece of paper. It’s very good to have a box to fight against, and to know where your limitations are, because it immediately implies a certain kind of thing… a certain kind of shape… a certain approach to things. And I knew straightaway that we would not be able to do photo-real animation, so that ruled out a whole load of stuff, because it’s too expensive and too time-consuming - and actually, at the end of the day, it’s not very interesting to me. So I’d much rather do something that looks illustrative and looks like something you’ve not seen before. Then, as were writing it, there are certain things that I know are expensive that are maybe not obviously expensive. Shooting a lot of live action with a lot of extras and all this kind of stuff may seem pretty easy to do, but that’s where the money goes. Whereas creating a city crumpling up into a piece of paper or a tower landing with one huge, giant claw - it sounds absurd and huge and crazy, but in fact that’s not so expensive… That’s pretty simple to do. So it wasn’t always obvious, and it’s good, I think, that we both sat in the room together so that - Neil was writing the screenplay, certainly, but I was there to say, “No, we just can’t afford a classroom full of children. It sounds crazy, but we’re just not going to be able to run with that.”
PLUME: Well, certainly one of your strengths as an artist is your improvisatory nature, in puling disparate elements together into something unique…
McKEAN: Yeah. Absolutely. I’ve always liked making things that don’t deny the medium that they’re made in. If it’s collage, I’m happy for it to look like that. If it’s a film made with computers, I don’t mind that it looks like a film made with computers - so long as it still has a feeling or a mood or an atmosphere that is relevant…
PLUME: But you’re not afraid to mix mediums, either…
McKEAN: Nope. I really don’t care about any of that stuff. I’m really not a purist in any sense whatsoever. I’m happy just to mix and match and take what I need. I’m a complete magpie. So long as it works for the piece and you’re telling the story in the most concise way, and in a way that really connects with the emotions of the story.
PLUME: What would you say was your greatest joy in the process of realizing the film?
McKEAN: Finishing it.
PLUME: Is it well and truly finished now?
McKEAN: It is… Well, I can’t quite bring myself to say that it’s completely finished - there are 3 or 4 little stupid things in it - but having now seen it a couple of times in front of an audience, I’m desperate to just tweak. But it’s basically finished, and the high spots are all the way through. I mean, sitting in the room and sorting it all out at the beginning was great, doing the storyboards and imaging what this would be like moving was great, working with the actors for the first time - because I’d never worked with actors before - was almost always wonderful, and our young girl, who’s at the center of the story, was fantastic.
PLUME: Was there any learning curve for you, in dealing with the actors?
McKEAN: Oh, it wasn’t a learning curve - it was a vertical slope! It was great. And working with a crew… And one of our actresses is Gina McKee, who’s a hugely experience actress - so I learned a lot from her, just because she knows film inside and out, upside and backwards. Then sitting down with the animators - a very young team of guys and girls fresh out of art school, first job for them. It was lovely working with them - what they brought to it and their techniques, and the stuff they’d learned, and how it exploded the project. I always had a sort of basic level way of doing things - in case things went wrong, I knew we could do that - but it was great working with them and elaborating on that and making it more interesting and more elaborated. That was all great. It was a very long post-production process - it was about 17 months… And a lot of that, I have to be honest, I was completely miserable. It just went on and on and on and on. Yet in amongst that, there were some great moments - when you first see some of these characters walk around…Doing the motion capture and 5 minutes later our characters are walking around. And seeing the shots finished for the first time, and laying music against things for the first time - all of those are wonderful.
PLUME: Where did the miserableness… miserablosity?… come from? Was it a matter of how long it was taking?
McKEAN: It was how long it was taking… It was the fact that I was constantly doing 16-18 hour days to composite everything and work with the animators. I’d work with the animators during the day from 11 to 6, then I’d have something to eat, then I’d go back in the studio and work till 4 and 5 in the morning composting it. I’m happy doing that for 3 or 4 weeks, maybe, but not 17 months. It just went on and on…
PLUME: So just the sheer exhaustion…
McKEAN: It was just that, and at times I just completely believed we would never finish it, and I lost track with really being able to see it properly, what we were doing. The computers gave us every single technical problem you can imagine - and just living with not knowing if I would get in this morning and the computers had just crashed, utterly, and the whole film had been gashed. You just never knew. I think that was the most wearing thing - not knowing tomorrow whether it would all end with a complete shutdown and failure.
PLUME: So how many mornings did you curse Neil and his easy end of the deal?
McKEAN: Well, I never completely cursed Neil, although I did have a little Action Man doll of him - with a leather jacket and sunglasses on - that I poked with a stick occasionally. But no, he would call in to see how I was and I could barely raise a syllable. “Is it really that bad?” “Yes. It’s really that bad.”
PLUME: Is there anything in the process that you look back on and see a way you could have streamlined it? Or was it just such a process of discovery that it had to go the way it did?
McKEAN: Well, no, it did have to go the way it did. There was no way of doing 4 years of film school quickly before making it - there was no way of gaining that experience without going through it. We didn’t have money to throw at problems to make them go away - we just had to deal with the circumstances we had. Now, if we did exactly the same film for exactly the same budget, it would go a lot smoother because I know all the stuff that we could cut out of it. I would know what the implications of all my decisions would be. You know, we had to decide about things every day - you have to make 20 to 30 decisions about the film every day, and I had no idea whether I was making the right decision because I’d never done it before, whereas now it would be easier. Of course, a whole bunch of new technical problems and mistakes would come up, but the old ones hopefully would not be there.
PLUME: But at least you would have the boilerplate to work off of…
McKEAN: Yes, and the final knowledge that it does end. I mean, there really were times when I was ringing my wife at home in complete despair saying, “I think we should just admit it to ourselves that we’re never going to finish it, and we should just pack up our few remaining marbles and go home.”
PLUME: Who was your cheerleader throughout the process? Was there anyone pushing you on, or was it a matter of pulling yourself up?
McKEAN: No, certainly Neil was always a cheerleader, because it was much easier for him - being completely away from all this process and not seeing the pain - to call up sort of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and be a cheerleader. Lisa Henson was a cheerleader, and the folks at Henson. So that was great. And my wife was a great cheerleader. To be honest, everybody at the studio was great, because they didn’t have the responsibility of it, and so the young guys and girls in the studio, for most of the time, were wonderful, and I sort of drew strength from them.
PLUME: So the film has screened and you know the process…
PLUME: Do you feel more comfortable moving on to another project, and do you know at this point what that will be?
McKEAN: No, I’m happy to move on to the next project. I’m very much looking forward to going back to my studio on my own and doing some drawings on my own, without 50 people sitting around me watching what I’m doing every day. So I’m doing some more books. I’m doing some books based on the MirrorMask film - there will be 3 books based on the film - and then I’m doing another children’s book with Neil, and then a book on my own. So I’m looking forward to doing that. We’re planning at least two more films, and I want to sort of get on and start planning those out, and we’ll try to do Signal to Noise, which is the next one, probably towards the end of the year. And I’m designing a Broadway musical for Elton John, so that’s in the works. So there’s a bunch of things to be getting on with, and I’m happy doing a diversity.
PLUME: And the response sop far to MirrorMask has been positive…
McKEAN: Yeah… I’m very surprised. I went to Sundance absolutely in dread, mortal fear, of being booed out of town. Fortunately, some people seemed to have liked it. I really, honestly don’t expect a majority of people to click with it, but we’ve been lucky, I think, that we’ve got some nice people to see it.
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