I’ve been reading Neil Gaiman for two decades now (how is it that I have gotten older and he stays the same?), starting with his work on Sandman, a series that reminds me of Seinfeld in that the farther you get from it the more you realize how impressive and influential it as a whole, even though you knew it was great at the time. Gaiman has moved on to mostly writing novels, but he’s also branching out into the world of film, having directed a superior short called A Short Film About John Bolton, and is preparing to adapt his own comic, Death: The High Cost of Living.
He wrote Stardust over a decade ago, and the novel (which was illustrated by the great Charles Vess), has been turned into a film directed by Matthew Vaughn, the guy behind Layer Cake and who was going to direct X-Men 3. I must confess to not having read the original book, but the movie version is an often delightful fairy tale that avoids most of the post-Tolkein clichés and trappings to tell a very sweet love story.
I got on the phone with Gaiman last week, and my ten minutes were not even close to enough. Having seen his spoken word performance that is included on the John Bolton DVD (it’s touted as a special feature, but it’s exponentially longer than the film), I knew that Gaiman was comfortable talking at length and that I could probably ask one question and let him go for the full ten minutes. I fought to get a couple of other questions in there, even though interrupting his eloquent flow feels so wrong.
CHUD – is that related to Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers?
That’s where the inspiration for the name came from. The site is actually Cinematic Happenings Under Developments.
I had a strange vision of being interviewed by a cannibalistic humanoid underground dweller.
Sorry to rob you of that, but I’m just a normal humanoid overground dweller.
What would you like to know?
You are good friends with Alan Moore, and you’ve seen what’s happened to so many of his works when they’ve been turned into movies – do you carry a fear of that happening to you?
I do. But having said that, I’m in the position of somebody who got to see a number of my friends walk across a field strewn with landmines in front of me. I still don’t know where all of the landmines are, but it definitely puts me into a place where I can say, ‘OK, if I do that, I probably will get blown up.’ Alan’s point of view on movies has always been – or not always been, since it isn’t that now – but in the beginning it was, ‘Well, if they give me a check, they can go off to make their movie, it’s not my comic book, I have nothing to do with it, maybe I’ll go to the premiere, good luck to them.’ The problem with that is he then wound up getting hurt very badly as From Hell starring Johnny Depp is nothing like From Hell. League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is so manifestly inferior to the comic that I think it actually hurt Alan. I’ve tried watching it now because it keeps turning it up on HBOs and things, and I can manage about eight minutes of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen before I have to turn it off. It’s not fair. Now, I haven’t seen V [for Vendetta], which some people say is good and some people say isn’t, but again I think Alan by that point was just so hurt by the process. So my attitude, having seen that, is that Alan’s way of going, ‘It has nothing to do with me,’ the trouble is that by the end of the day it does have something to do with you, if it’s something you control, if it’s something that has your name on it. You may as well do everything you possibly can to make it a good movie, including in some cases, not selling it.
Stardust was originally sold to Miramax in 1998, and they spent their two year option negotiating contracts with other people and not actually developing it or doing a script or anything. At the end of that period I got the rights back and then I spent years not selling it to people. Lots of beautiful blonde starlets wanted it as a vehicle for themselves and lots of directors wanted to make it but there was nobody who I felt confident enough in to give it to them. I like Matthew Vaughn, and Matthew was interested in producing it and the only person he was interested in directing it was Terry Gilliam. Matthew and I had lunch with Terry, who had just done Brothers Grimm and didn’t want to do it, but I really liked Matthew’s vision for Stardust. He seemed to really want to make my book. One day I got a phone call from him, saying, ‘I just walked off X-Men 3 and I would like to produce and direct Stardust. What would you say?’ And I said, ‘Hmmm… alright.’
We made a deal of the kind you should never, ever make, in that I gave him the rights for nothing. You don’t do that. Kids, don’t try this at home. Anybody who is reading this who has written a novel, don’t do that. And the only reason I did it was because I worked with Matthew, and I liked Matthew, and most important I trusted him. I wrote today querying a writer friend about a producer he had worked with, and I said, ‘He wants to do some work with me, is he trustworthy?’ and I got this puzzled reply back from this writer saying, ‘Isn’t that rather like saying is this lion vegetarian?’ But the truth is that Matthew is very trustworthy and his word is his bond.
I found Matthew a writer in Jane Goldman, because he had wanted to write it but he knew what his strengths and weaknesses were as a writer. There was stuff he had very, very clear visions for and there was stuff he wasn’t sure how to do.
Why didn’t you write it?
I was already doing Beowulf, and Beowulf was already something that I was committed to and working on, and I thought I can’t give it what it deserves. Also there was a level where Matthew really had a vision and there was stuff I don’t think I could have done and been happy with, stuff that he wanted to do. I would have fought for doing it my way and it was just a thing of going, no, I think I probably will do more good reading what they have done and saying, ‘You shouldn’t do that, you should do this,’ rather than sitting in a room with Matthew and saying, ‘For God’s sake, it took me hours to come up with that, I don’t want to change it!’
I like the fact that I wrote the novel and I’m really happy with the novel, and I know the material better than anybody. I saw the film this past Sunday in London, with about fifty of my friends, and I was terrified. And I loved it. And they loved it. And it made me so happy. I felt vindicated because the truth is that I don’t actually care how the film does in the box office, and I don’t care what the critics think, but what I care about is whether I like it. You don’t want a film made of your thing that you don’t want to watch. Charles Vess saw a rough cut a few weeks ago at the Tribeca Festival – DeNiro hosted a screening and he went up and saw it – and he loved it, and again it made me so happy.
Finding the trust you found with Matthew is so difficult. Are you looking to take on the Frank Miller business plan, where you produce and direct your own things, or are you looking for people you trust in the way you trust Matthew?
Both. I’m very, very happy, for example, that I’ve got Henry Selick doing Coraline as a stop motion film. The parts that I have seen are beautiful, and Henry will be working on that for the next year and a bit. I think they’ve got about eight minutes of footage so far, because doing stop motion right takes a long time. I’m hoping to direct the Death movie myself. Guillermo del Toro is executive producing it, and I’m trying to go off and spend a few weeks with Guillermo in Prague essentially shadowing him and learning everything I can learn in a few weeks.
What did you learn from doing A Short Film About John Bolton?
I learned that I really like directing. I learned that I really enjoyed that weird process where you actually get to take something from your head all the way to the screen. I loved the process, which is fascinating. The main reason I made John Bolton is that I thought if I don’t like directing then the last thing I want to do is commit to directing a large movie; it’ll make me miserable and I might as well go off and do a book and be happier. But I really loved it. I loved auditioning, I loved casting, I loved with the designers, I loved working with the location guys and figuring out where things were going to be. I really loved sitting there for day after day with the editor and editing it, looking at his rough cut and saying, ‘That’s exactly how I didn’t want it to be, now let’s make it into the thing I want it to be.’
Do you think that having worked in comics, where you work with an artist and an editor and have this collaborative relationship, makes it easier to work in film?
I think comics to film can be easier just because one of the places where novelists tend to have their disasters is… everything that happens has to be seeable, has to be showable. If you’re a scriptwriter for comics, you’re not just writing the movie, you’re editing the movie as you go. You’re picking the shots and you’re editing. I think those techniques are what makes it if not easy at least less difficult to move from medium to medium, as opposed to writers who try to move into film and recreate novelistic effects with don’t really translate, since what’s going on in somebody’s head is going on in the inside. What you get to see in a comic, or what you get to see in a film, is what’s going on on the outside.
With the Death film do plan on hinting at the larger mythology of Sandman, or will it be very standalone?
It’s going to be Death: The High Cost of Living… only longer. If you shot Death: The High Cost of Living frame by frame, you’d have about a 40 minute film. This will be like that, only twice as many things will happen.