Tomorrow in the A.V. Club: edited versions of my interviews with Neil Gaiman
and Dave McKean
Today in my Livejournal: Cutting-room-floor segments from the Gaiman interview, which at 10,000 words was too bulky even for the website.
Today in my life: Slap this out, write a review, wrap up normal work, run downtown for a critics' screening of Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit
, run to the office, run home and write an overdue freelance review for Terry Pratchett's THUD!
Busy, busy day. Let Neil entertain you during my absence. He has many things to talk about. Such as:The A.V. Club: You and Dave McKean have been working together for nearly two decades. How has your partnership changed over that time? Neil Gaiman:
That’s a pretty good question. When we got together and started working together, I would have been a 25-year-old journalist, and Dave would’ve been a 22, 23-year-old art student in his last year at Oxford. We both had this idea that we could do comics that would be art and would be really good as well. And that was really how we began. We liked each other’s work, we liked each other, I was just really impressed by the way he thought through things. That was 20 years ago. We’ve been sort of very odd constants in each other’s lives for 20 years. I don’t think there’s ever been a time when we weren’t doing something together, or planning to do something together, except when I was off doing American Gods
. Dave told me years ago that he wanted to do movies, so I said, “Okay, we’ll make that happen,” with naïve optimism. Then we got to wander around and start making money in the fields of Hollywood for about a decade. A lot of the time, my function on Mirrormask
was almost to reassure Dave that what was happening was not particularly strange, and wasn’t even particularly bad compared to what normally goes on out there.AVC: How did Mirrormask come about? NG: Mirrormask
began when I got a phone call from Lisa Henson. I first met Lisa in 1991 when she was at Warner Brothers, and I went to see her about a Sandman
movie. I went to her and said, “For God’s sake, please don’t do it. I’m still working on the comic, and it would make a mess of it.” She said, “Really? Nobody’s ever come into my office asking not to make a movie.” I said “Please don’t.” And she said “Okay.” Ever since then, I’ve had high esteem for Lisa.
So she phoned me up—by now, she was actually back at Henson and the family business. She said Sony had noticed that Labyrinth
and The Dark Crystal
—which were both considered huge flops back when they were made—have had this absolute indefinite shelf life on video and DVD. And you get generation after generation growing up with them. She said, “We’d like to make something like that. They’ve actually come to us and offered us some money to do a fantasy movie.” I said, “That’s cool.” She said, “The downside is that those movies were made for about $40 million back in the ’80s, and we’ve been offered $4 million now.” And I said, “Oh, that’s not very much money.” But she said she’d been a fan of Dave McKean’s short films N[eon]
and The Week Before
, and she knew he’d literally made them in his mum’s barn. So she wanted to know if I thought Dave would be willing to direct. I said, “I don’t know, but I could certainly ask him.” And she said, “Well, obviously, with that kind of budget, we couldn’t afford to have you write it.” And I said, “No, but if Dave says yes to directing it, I’ll be writing it, and we’ll leave it at that.”
So I found Dave and he said yes to directing it, which meant that I said yes to writing it, and then I had all these great big arguments with my lawyers and agents and people. They’d say “You can’t write for Writer’s Guild basic [pay],” and I’d say “Watch me.” So Dave had a bunch of ideas and I had a bunch of ideas, and we knew it had to be something in whatever genre Labyrinth
was in, because that’s what we’re being asked to do. That’s what they put down the $4 million for.
In February 2002, we got together in the Henson home, which hadn’t been redecorated or touched since Jim died. He’d died a decade earlier, so it hadn’t actually been decorated since 20 years before that. It’s this strange house which looks like it’s come out of a time machine, with rotary-dial phones on the walls.
It took an enormous toll out of Dave and out of everything, especially because when we began, $4 million was 2.5 million pounds, and by the time we ended, it was only 2 million pounds. We’d lost half a million pounds—we’d essentially lost a million dollars out of the budget due to currency fluctuations. And Dave was in there every day for 18 months, shooting the film, then making it, supervising it, compositing it. Everything is like that because he wanted it to be. I occasionally felt useful. There was one point where I solved a problem—we moved a scene around because it didn’t work—it sort of almost worked, and they sent me the DVD and I looked at it and phoned Dave up and said, “Do this, this and this.” And he did, and suddenly it worked, and I felt very proud of myself. But mostly, it was so Dave, and it was so cool.AVC: Have you found scripting for film and scripting for comics to be similar disciplines? NG:
No. They’re very different.AVC: How so? NG:
With comics, you can just wear more hats. You can be a lot more… If I’m writing a comic script, the odds are that it’s a letter from me to the artist, and it’s only really about the two of us, although it may be read by an editor and a letterer. And in movie terms, I’m going to be the scriptwriter, the director, and the editor. And in movie terms, the artist is going to be the cameraman and probably all of the actors. So it’s filmmaking made very, very small. In film-script writing, you write something that’s much, much faster. It’s all action and dialogue.
It was really, really weird recently for me and Roger Avary, working on Beowulf
for Bob Zemeckis. It’s one of these CGI films, but all of a sudden, Bob started encouraging us to put camera movements in. Nobody ever tells you that—normally, you’re specifically forbidden from suggesting something like, “This could be all one long shot, and it might be really cool to start over here and pull up through the chimney and back to the cave.” Or to begin with the close-up of an eye, and pull back into the firelight. And that was great, I loved that Bob encouraged us to do that, and I loved the fact that we could.AVC: Do you keep up on DC’s Vertigo imprint at all? In a way, the whole imprint came out of Sandman, and there are still ongoing Sandman spin-offs. Do you maintain an interest in them, or feel a responsibility for them? NG:
I don’t feel any responsibility. I maintain an interest in Vertigo just as I remain an interest in most comics. It’s great if I’m finally home for a few months at a time, and I start getting caught up on everything. But the problem is, when I’m away, they send me comics. Everybody’s lovely. Dark Horse, DC, and Marvel all send me stuff, which is wonderful. One day, they’ll notice that I’m still on their comp list and take me off, but until then… The trouble is, I get back and they’ll be boxes and boxes of comics, and suddenly it feels like work. At that point in time, I get terribly behind.AVC: What do you do with all the books you don’t read? NG:
Mostly these days, it goes into the basement and sits down there. Sometimes I drop them off with friends. I used to be pretty good about giving them to hospitals. There was a time when we had these cleaning ladies who were huge into Marvel and DC—they didn’t like the Vertigo stuff, or anything complicated, they liked books about people hitting each other in funny costumes. So they used to take them. But mostly what they do is stack up. Then I get people who say, “Do you have anything approaching a summer job?” I say, “Yes, go through these boxes, put the comics in these long boxes.” I think we have huge quantities of comics down in the basement. It can be very useful at times when I’m doing something like 1602
. It’s not just reading material, it’s very much for reference; I can go and check stuff.AVC: You’re about to head out for another book tour now. How do you deal with so many marathon signings? NG:
I’m at the point where I hired a physical trainer two weeks ago. I used to laugh at people who hired physical trainers. I would snicker at them behind their backs. And I’ve now hired an incredibly nice guy named Mitch, who sort of looks like a Golden Age superhero, and he comes over three times a week with a variety of strange medieval instruments of torture, solely because I know that if I’m not in physical shape by the 20th of September, this thing’s going to kill me.AVC: Is there a training regimen for getting ready to sign a thousand books? NG:
No, it’s more, there’s ways to survive the signing of 3,000 things a night. Mostly, by the end of week two, you’re going to be icing your hand. Mostly, I’m just trying to get in general physical shape. Because the last tour I did of Singapore, the Philippines, and Australia, by the end of it, I was completely trashed. I need to be in better shape if I’m going to survive this thing. So, I’ll do the tour, and then I get two weeks off, which I’m going to spend on the set of Beowulf
in Los Angeles. And then I go to England and do it all again. Although England will probably be much easier than America, because you can get places by train. And normally you don’t get more than about 300 people outside of London, so it’s all doable. AVC: Your short story “The Problem Of Susan,” about C.S. Lewis’ Narnian character, has finally been published, though for years you said it could never see print because of the copyright issues. Did that turn out to be a problem in the end? NG:
Nobody’s sued me. Some of it was trying to figure out how to craft the story so that C.S. Lewis’ estate lawyer would say “I probably couldn’t get an injunction against this. This is borderline, but you could probably get away with it.” And I think that I probably did. I hope. It’s a problem story. Every now and then, someone comes up to me and says “That was an enormously wonderful story,” and other people get really offended by it. One woman described it as “blasphemous,” which I loved, that a potshot at a fictional lion from a series of children’s books could be seriously described as blasphemous. It’s just one of those moments where you look at a children’s book and there’s a thing that sticks in your head and irritates you. I was amused to see an interview with J.K. Rowling in Time where she started going off about the problem of Susan again. It’s the thing that sort of Philip Pullman hates about the books, though he hates the books and I love them. But that’s the thing he focuses on most of all. So I was trying to write a story that would address that issue, and also the wider issue of how people relate to children’s books and death. It is an intensely problematic story, and I don’t actually know if it’s any good.AVC: It’s a difficult story to interpret, because the original characters had such defined symbolic values, and it’s hard to tell whether you’re creating your own symbolism, or subverting C.S. Lewis’. NG:
And also the fact that when you start getting into it, is what part of the text actually belongs to which of the characters in it. And for that matter, quite literally, whether the Professor is meant to be seen as what Susan grew up to be, or is merely an interpretation. Mostly, it just seems to be a story that people either love, or it pisses them off. American Gods
did that, which took me rather by surprise. I was so used to doing stuff that people either really liked, or didn’t read. So for the first time with American Gods
, I found I’d written something that people liked or hated. And the people who hated American Gods
are absolutely articulate about why it never should’ve been published in the first place, why it’s a book of astounding terribleness. And people who love it can similarly tell you why it’s one the best books they’ve read in their whole life. Both points of view left me rather puzzled.AVC: Because of the hyperbole? NG:
Partly the hyperbole factor, and partly because I didn’t think I was writing the best book anyone would have read in their whole life. Nor did I think I was writing an incompetent heap of drivel. One sort of assumes one is writing something in between. I think the thing that got most interesting in regards to American Gods
was that the people who hated it tended to have their own idea of how it should’ve gone. They’d start explaining that it was wrong, and then they’d explain the book that I should’ve written. Which again I thought was fascinating; it never occurred to me that someone would want to fix it. But that’s one of the odd things about Anansi Boys
. While I suspect people were hoping it would be another American Gods
, big and serious and weird and deep, I just wanted to write something that would be funny—by definition light and enjoyable. While American Gods
does an awful lot of things, it doesn’t put a smile on people’s faces all the way through, or leave them feeling better about themselves and the world at the end than they were at the beginning. It wasn’t designed to do that, and it doesn’t. And I hope that Anansi Boys
does. That was definitely what I wanted it to do.AVC: It’s interesting that you’ve taken so much inspiration from other people’s characters, and from folklore, myth, and tradition, and now your writings are inspiring other people to create their own versions of how your stories should go. NG:
Oh, I love that. I love the fact that I’ve now been doing this long enough that people come up and scare me by telling me that I was one of their inspirations, or they’ve been reading me since they were kids. I think that is both wonderful and terrifying, probably in more or less equal measure. I don’t actually think of myself as having done this very long, And I don’t think of myself as doing it long enough to be any good at it. I’m sort of figuring it all out And then suddenly you turn around and there’s a new generation who is grateful for what you did. That, or they’re rebelling against you. Which I hope we’ll get a little bit more.
I'm-a feelin': rushed