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.
After interviewing Dave, I then had a sit-down (by phone, anyway) with Neil. 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).
KEN PLUME: So, from what I hear, Dave thinks you’re a bit of an a**…
GAIMAN: (laughing) Well, you know, it’s true! He won’t work with me! And I say, “Dave, work with me. I’ll give you money.” But no…
PLUME: So, from your perspective, going into these 10 intense days of writing the MirrorMask script at Jim Henson’s home, did you know it was going to be as rocky between you and Dave, initially, as it turned out?
GAIMAN: Well, the nice thing about it is it was never really rocky personally. We’d been friends too long and we’d worked too well together for it to have ever been personal. But it was odd. Because we’d worked together so incredibly well for so long, neither of us had ever noticed that we’d never actually come up with something in the same place… Or known that we had completely disparate ways of working.
PLUME: Was there a sense of disappointment that there was that kind of gulf…
GAIMAN: No… In fact, we were talking about this the other day, that now that we know that’s part of the process - what it really was, was a sense of shock. You have to understand, you’re talking about two people who had worked together for 17 years at that point, and never had an argument.
PLUME: Must have been quite a wake-up call…
GAIMAN: After 17 years, you’re finally having your first arguments about something because you have completely different ways of working. And now, we were talking about the fact that probably what will happen is the next time we go off to do a big fantasy movie or whatever - whether it be to the Henson’s house or a Caribbean island - we now know that we do argue. And neither of us ever really argued… We had a very, very simple rule, which was whoever cared most about something, won. In fact, when it got to one point - there was one argument that we had where we really couldn’t figure out who cared most, so we tossed a coin.
PLUME: Who won?
GAIMAN: Dave won. And then having said, “Okay, fine. You got it Let’s carry on…” Dave then decided he needed now to spend 5 hours convincing me that he had been right - and then at the end, he decided to do it my way.
PLUME: So, in other words, the coin toss is out next time…
GAIMAN: I don’t think we’ll do the coin toss next time. But the point is that now that we know that this happens, neither of us is afraid of it. Neither of us would think twice about the fact that we’ll probably wind up, next time, arguing. And that’s fine, because we both argue because we care.
PLUME: Was there any point that you didn’t think the process was going to work and you’d resolve the differences, or did you always believe you’d be able to work through it?
GAIMAN: I don’t know… It’s very hard, because you’re talking about the events of 3 years ago - literally 3 years ago. We sat down on the 2nd of February, and we finished on the 12th of February 2002.
PLUME: But as Dave said, there were certainly times that he would go upstairs and play the piano, you’d go downstairs to write, and you’d just not talk to each other for a bit.
GAIMAN: Well, it really wasn’t not talking to each other in the sense that “I don’t want to talk to you” - it was very much two different working methods. Part of it also had to do with the fact that Dave was not a writer - in the same way that I am not an artist. When Dave would do a cover painting for Hellblazer, when he did the first Hellblazer paintings, the first thing he would do was draw the entire cover and the color it in, and he would do the whole thing in colored pencils, and then when he was completely satisfied with it, he’d paint it. So Dave’s rough would be the thing. These days, 17 years later, you’ll say, “Dave, do a book cover. What’s it gonna look like?” And he’ll squiggle in the bottom corner and go, “This is going to be a cat, and then I’m going to have a load of stuff floating around here. It’ll be really cool.” And you go, “Oh, okay.” And then he goes of and sort of makes it all up while he does it, and that’s how Dave does covers now. That’s pretty much the way - when I started as a writer, I would outline everything, and I’d knew I had the entire story and everything worked out before I began to write. But over the years, now I find that incredibly dull. I’d much rather know some of the high points, but discover all the rest of it on the way…
PLUME: Doing it much more intuitively…
GAIMAN: Yeah, and make it up as I go along. Just figure out enough so you know who the characters are, you know what’s happening, and you know where it’s going, and then go write it. Find out the cool stuff. And Dave just thought this was ridiculous. He thought that we should actually outline everything that happens first, and then start writing it. Eventually I just said, “Look - you can stay upstairs if you’d like and you can outline stuff, but I want to get these characters out and find out how they talk. I want to know what they sound like. I want to know who they are - and the only way I’m going to do that is by writing them.” So that was the point where Dave stayed upstairs and played his piano, and I went downstairs and just started writing. And then we went out to dinner and I showed Dave what I’d written, and he quite liked it. And that was actually when everything started to fix.
PLUME: In any way do you think that the approach Dave was championing was a way for him to feel he was actively participating in the script process?
GAIMAN: I don’t think so, because Dave was an active participant all the way through…
PLUME: But do you think he had the perception that, by stepping away while you wrote downstairs, he was no longer actively participating? It seems like wanting to outline it and have everything down was a way to be more concretely there…
GAIMAN: No, I don’t think so - I think that was just how Dave had always written things. Dave is visual. I’m about words, and Dave is about what he can see, and Dave wasn’t comfortable with feeling he had a story until he had a hundred 3×5 file cards filled in - each with a drawing or an event or a little thing on it, and it went in exactly the right order and they were all there, and he could look down and see them and move them around.
PLUME: I asked Dave the same question, but what do you feel was the turning point when everything clicked and started to come together?
GAIMAN: There was maybe only 3 bad days at the beginning when things were tough, and then I started writing. Once I started writing, and Dave started actually sort of enjoying what was being written - even though he thought I was mad for not having 3×5 index cards - things started improving. And then we were probably a week in, and Terry Gilliam came over for lunch. He was standing there with his back to the gas fire down in the basement just warming up - because it was *really* cold - and he looked and he saw this big piece of paper. Dave and I had gone out and we’d bought this giant pad, and I’d drawn a line down the middle, and we just sort of covered the pad with each of the events and each of the people, and everything that happened. And it was really Gilliam just looking down at our giant sheet of paper with this line and saying, “That looks like a movie.” And it was wonderful… It was magic. It was like Jesus popping into your Sunday School and going, “All right, you’ve definitely got the 10 Commandments down, now.” It was great - that feeling that, if Terry Gilliam says that it’s a movie, then it’s a movie, and we’re dong all right. And suddenly the incredible sort of lack of confidence that was plaguing us up to that point just went away, and we carried on and had fun.
PLUME: There certainly was a restrictive budget to consider when actually writing the script. How much of what you conceived actually made it to the screen?
GAIMAN: I’d say *exactly* 73% - possibly 74%. I don’t know!
PLUME: You kept a running figure… That’s good…
GAIMAN: (laughing) It’s very weird, because you’re not looking at something… Because we built it knowing what the budget was, there wasn’t ever a place where we had to compromise because we didn’t have the money. I’d decide to do a scene in a school or whatever, and Dave would just say, “No, you can’t do that. We won’t be able to afford it.” And he’d come back with a counter-offer. So I could have a school scene or a hospital scene - well, I’ll take the hospital scene, then. So that was right back then and there in the plotting and original first draft of the script stage.
PLUME: Having seen the film now, how much of what Dave was able to bring to the screen differed from what was in your mind on the page?
GAIMAN: In 17 years I’ve been writing things that Dave has drawn - I’ve done comics and I’ve done children’s books - all I’ve ever learned from this is that it doesn’t matter what I have in my head when I begin… What Dave will give me will be stranger and more magical, and sort of beyond what I’d ever expected. So there’s a level on which I’m cheerfully writing monkey birds and giant floating stone giants and feral sphinxes with human faces, and griffins and things - and what Dave delivered was not just stranger than I’d imagined, but I think stranger than I could have imagined. But that, for me, is the joy of it. It’s the joy of sitting there at a kitchen table and writing a scene where our heroine gets pushed into a room filled with a bunch of music boxes which then open to reveal dolls who transform her, bit by bit, into a sort of evil, dark princess version of herself, whilst singing The Carpenters’ “Close to You.” And suddenly you’re looking at it on stage, and it’s stranger than I could ever have imagined. So there’s never any feeling in there of disappointment, of going, “Gosh, I imagined this as looking so cool, and what Dave gave me is so much less than that.” It’s always, “Oh my god. This is so much weirder than I’d ever dreamed of.”
PLUME: Have you been surprised by the reactions it’s gotten so far in the screenings you’ve attended?
GAIMAN: There’s one moment in the thing where the audience applauds, and that took us completely by surprise. One line of dialogue in a scene that we wound up having to fight for a number of times. It was the one scene that didn’t work in the script as far as everyone was concerned, but we knew that it could work, but it just was odd. It was a scene that after it was shot and then cut together, it didn’t quite work. It was the one scene we had to move it around a little bit in the plot. I saw a video of it in October and it still didn’t work, and then I figured out some lines of dialogue that would get us from the scene before into that scene. We had, in many ways, the coolest scene in the thing - but in other ways just the best thing about it is it’s the scene that the entire end of the movie hinges on. If we cut it out like everybody wanted, it wouldn’t have worked - and we also wouldn’t have gotten our one great moment where people don’t just laugh, they actually applaud… Which none of us expected, and we only learned during the Sundance screening.
PLUME: In what ways would you approach working on another project with Dave differently? What knowledge would you apply from this experience to the next?
GAIMAN: I think the thing that I got, and I don’t know about Dave, but I think the thing that I got from this was just not worrying about the arguments. It wasn’t that either of us were scared of arguing, and it wasn’t that either of us hadn’t been through creative relationships where you do butt heads and fight over stuff, but it was simply the fact that in 17 years we’d never had any sort of disagreements. So it was, “Oh! This is strange. I didn’t know we did this.” So I probably expect that more, actually, going into it now, and not worry about it and not be scared of it, and just go, “Okay, well, it’s just part of the process.” The main thing is we both care intensely… So caring is good.
PLUME: Have you had any initial discussions as to what the form of a follow-up might take?
GAIMAN: Nope. The only thing we’ve discussed is that we’d like more money.
PLUME: And a little time to sleep…
GAIMAN: Oh, it’s the same thing, frankly. Dave, bless him, made a film that looks like it was made with $40 million for $4 million. But where it came out of is Dave sleeping and Dave getting to see his family, and all of those kind of things. So if we did it again… There is nowhere, making this film, where we had enough money to throw money at a problem to make it go away.
PLUME: So you just threw Dave…
GAIMAN: (laughing) Yeah, we just threw Dave at the problem! And Dave threw himself at the problem, and he would make things go away. But it was really frustrating for me, knowing that if something went wrong with the computers… Something went wrong at one point and it turned out the electrics in the building they were in just were not in good enough shape to handle the amount of computing and air-conditioning load they were putting on them. And there was nothing that could be done about that. In a normal Hollywood situation, you’d take a few thousand dollars and you’d throw it at that problem, and you’d either get new offices or new electrics, but Dave couldn’t do it. What I’d love to do, having made a film that looks like it was made for $40 million with $4 million, what would be really cool is getting to make something that looks like it was made for $200 million with $20 million. That would be really fun. Just enough to make Dave happy.
PLUME: I have to ask, being impressed with your film about John Bolton…
GAIMAN: Oh, thank you!
PLUME: What is your next directing gig shaping up to be…
GAIMAN: I hope Death: The High Cost of Living…
PLUME: Is that finally looking like it will happen?
GAIMAN: Well, it certainly looks like it. I just handed in the third draft of the script to New Line… except that I just realized - Coming in on the plane yesterday, I just realized something that I need to fix and change. The problem with adapting your own stuff is that it’s much, much harder to… You’re really attached to the way you did it the first time, and then slowly you realize, “No, that’s actually wrong. I need to make this character the same as that character, and throw out that scene, and do a new thing,” and “Oh damn, I’m going to lose that….” And then there’s sometimes even a small feeling of disappointment going, “Oh, the fans would have been looking forward to seeing that scene happen, and now I’m not going to make that scene happen.” So it’s just trying to figure it out for myself…
PLUME: Do you think you’ve found the middle-ground?
GAIMAN: I think I certainly have, but I think I may want to do one more draft before we actually get down to shooting. But certainly everything looks fairly like it’s happening, and so that’s happening from a directing point of view. Then on a film point of view, the next thing that’s happening is I have to fly out to Hollywood in a couple of weeks for meetings with Robert Zemeckis and Roger Avary about the Beowulf film. That’s the motion capture movie that we’re making.
PLUME: You’re sure he’s not just going to do an Old English Polar Express 2…
GAIMAN: No, no… And what’s fun about Beowulf is, having made Polar Express, Bob is now going, “Okay, we have this technology. We made it look like this in Polar Express, but now we’ve learned” - kind of like MirrorMask, they’ve learned all the things they did wrong, and he also wants to try and do it as an adult film, using that technology.
PLUME: How comprehensive an adaptation is this going to be?
GAIMAN: It’s pretty comprehensive. I mean, we go all the way from the beginning of Beowulf through to the final act with him as a 75 year-old king battling this dragon. So it’s the whole thing. We wrote it as a live action script, which Zemeckis fell in love with, and of course now we’re going to have to go back and figure out how we turn it into a motion capture script, because things that would have been difficult, and expensive - like the dragon - are now going to be very cheap. But things that would have been cheap and easy - like two people standing around, talking to each other - are now going to be an awful lot harder to pull off convincingly, so we’re going to have to figure that one out.
PLUME: And when are audiences going to finally see your inevitable collaboration with Terry Gilliam?
GAIMAN: I don’t know. I read an interview with Gilliam recently where he mentioned that he’d pretty much given up on Good Omens, but he mentioned that he and Johnny Depp might be interested in giving it one last try. But I haven’t heard that from him - I just read it in an online interview, so god knows if it’s actually true. You know, I love Gilliam. I think Terry is a genius, and I would work with him like a shot on anything he wanted to work on.
PLUME: It seems like there’s almost too much momentum on something happening between you two that something eventually has to happen…
GAIMAN: I very much hope it does. Really, I just love getting to work with geniuses, because they make you look good.
PLUME: It’s interesting how similar Dave’s experiences bringing MirrorMask to fruition are to the process behind Terry’s early films, like Jabberwocky and Time Bandits…
GAIMAN: Absolutely. And Time Bandits was always the thing that we held on to when we were making this film. You had to have something in mind as the kind of thing that you’d like this to be kind of like. We knew that we were doing something in a particular genre - it’s the genre that Wizard of Oz is in, and the genre that Labyrinth is in, and it’s also the genre of Time Bandits… Although Time Bandits stars a boy rather than a girl.
PLUME: Do you think there’s a hesitancy, or fear, from Hollywood to actually do a dark fairy tale in the vein of pictures like Oz and Time Bandits - the sort of Grimm route of showing the darkness and the light?
GAIMAN: I don’t think it’s Hollywood, but I think there is a sort of idea of what a family film should be and what middle America likes - and to be honest, I have no idea if it’s true or not. I do know that there are definitely mothers out there who feel that it is their job to protect their children from anything that might make their children think - or scare them, or stir them, or make them happy or sad, or whatever. And then there are definitely people out there who feel that children happen to be people, and people really like art that makes them think and makes them work, and makes them feel. And I do fall into the latter category.
PLUME: I was speaking with John Lloyd the other day, the creator of a wonderful UK program called QI that we’re going to be doing a feature about - have you heard of the show?
GAIMAN: With Stephen Fry…
PLUME: Yeah. A really great show, that manages to be both educational and truly funny in the same breath. But we were talking about the natural inquisitiveness of children and how they learn, but we got to talking about when babies begin to walk, the natural instinct for a parent is to reach out and keep them from falling if they begin to see their child go over. Come to find out, this is actually not a terribly good thing to do, since children naturally have what is called the “Parachute Reflex”, which is that, if they begin to fall, they will automatically fall to their hands and knees, cushioning the fall. If, however, the parent lunges for the child to protect it, it distracts the child and they don’t go into the reflex and instead just fall. So it’s a matter of…
GAIMAN: Letting them fall. Letting them learn. Absolutely! It’s like people say to me, “How do you make sure the right children don’t read Sandman,” or whatever. And I think that kids are really, really good at figuring out for themselves what their limits are. Kids self-censor. You’ll never find a kid - until they sort of hit mid-teens and there’s peer pressure and weirdness - you won’t find a kid going and turning on something they don’t want to see, or that they think will be too scary for them or too weird. Kids are very, very good at self-censoring.
PLUME: Or, if they have a question, asking the question…
GAIMAN: Yeah, exactly. They ask. And it’s lovely.
PLUME: What one project currently on the periphery would you love to see come to fruition?
GAIMAN: On the periphery… God, there are so many of them floating around. There are things I’m looking forward to. I’m looking forward to seeing what Henry Selick’s Coraline actually looks like when he’s finished it. I think that will be enormously fun. I’m so looking forward to actually getting Death rolling, because I think it will be fun. Most of all, I guess I’m looking forward to… I think the next thing Dave and I are going to do is an adult project, and we know what that is and it will be fun doing it - if there aren’t a lot of surprises. But I’m really looking forward to heading off with Dave when, again, all we have is a budget and the idea that whatever we want to do is going to be better and cooler than MirrorMask was, and to see what we come up with.
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