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eil Gaiman and Dave McKean have worked together since 1986, and are probably best known to brooding loners everywhere as the creator and illustrator (respectively) of the mystical, frequently disturbing Sandman comic series. Separately, Gaiman is the author of Neverwhere and American Gods while McKean has designed album covers, ad campaigns and the disturbing, deeply psychological Batman graphic novel Arkham Asylum.
The pair has also collaborated on Violent Cases, The Wolves in the Walls and Coraline. Staying in the family vein, they've created MirrorMask, a fantasy film about a girl who runs away from the circus and stumbles into a magical realm filled with imaginary creatures. Her drawings come to life; reality and her imagination merge. After premiering at Sundance in January, the movie hits theaters September 30th.
To realize the film, the pair employed recent art-school grads ("They have less to unlearn," says McKean) and occasionally got into tense face-offs with their Macs and with each other. Nerve spoke with the pair, who — like a cute longtime couple — constantly finish each other's sentences. — Lily Oei
Do your separate projects make you appreciate your reunions more?
Neil: It's a nice position to be in. Very few enjoy it. We're like Simon and Garfunkel.
Dave: We're not like Simon and Garfunkel.
Neil: What I meant is Ike and Tina.
Dave: Tom and Jerry.
People have compared MirrorMask to The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland. You've cited Labyrinth and Time Bandits as references.
Neil: It's part of a genre, in the same way that in a cowboy film, you're part of a genre. There are some things that will probably happen. You're going to have to sober up the old gunfighter and get him to shoot straight again and come out of retirement one last time. The bad guy is going to have to ride through town. The cavalry is going to have to ride over the hill. With this film, we wanted a specific kind of story in which somebody from our world, especially in the cusp between childhood and young womanhood, gets to go into a place were she has control. She gets to go into her head, take over events that in her life she cannot control, and comes back from the journey changed.
In creating the story, did you come up with the words or pictures first?
Neil: It evolved. We stayed at the Jim Henson house in London since the budget didn't allow for exotic, luxurious things like hotels. I had a bunch of ideas and Dave had a bunch of ideas, and neither bunch of ideas alone really quite made a movie. But when you put them together, they sort of did. Except there were things that both of us were married to that didn't quite fit into the movie when we started filming. There was three days of stomping around and saying, "You do not appreciate my genius!"
|Neil Gaiman (top) and Dave McKean|
You would think that after nearly twenty years of working together, there would be full appreciation of each other's genius.
Neil: You really would! The thing that was actually a surprise, to me at least, was the fact that we had never argued over anything in seventeen years. We never even had a minor creative disagreement. Suddenly we're putting together a film and we are butting heads, glaring. Dave would go upstairs in a huff and play the piano and I would go downstairs in a huff and write something on my computer.
Was this because the medium was different?
Neil: It reflected that we had never done it before and didn't know it would happen. Normally I'll come up with a story and give it to Dave and he will make it visual. This time, to make the film for this amount of money, I couldn't go off and write a film and give it to Dave, because I would have handed in a $60 million movie without thinking about it.
So why go with something so technically detailed as a first film?
Dave: In some ways it was a wise choice, because there's a small section of live-action sequences, the first twenty minutes or so. The bulk of it was done on computers, which can be quite forgiving. If you miss a shot, you can go and recreate it, or make your own cutaway shot, or change shots. You can improvise with it. It's a nice way to learn how to make films, actually.
Did using CGI mean you could do anything at all? Or were ideas abandoned?
Dave: It was the little throwaway ideas that turned out to be a complete pain in the neck. We hadn't budgeted a lot of time for them because they were little, and so they ended up going.
Neil: There was a lovely sequence I wrote that was probably my favorite scene in the movie when I finished writing it: Valentine takes off his mask and he's holding his face and takes off another one and he's sitting in the little white place with the keys having a conversation with himself, with these three masks, each offering different point of views. It was really funny and sharp and a lovely little conversation. We figured that would be easy and cheap and Dave finally rang me up and said that we couldn't do it technically.
Is it a family film?
Neil: It's a family film in the sense that people of lots of ages can enjoy it. "Family" in a way tends to be code for films you can put a three-year-old in front of and not be worried that they'll be upset or have any ideas. In the same way, an "adult" film doesn't mean a film that adults will enjoy. It actually means a film that a sixteen-year-old boy will enjoy five minutes of, until he's done. Words get a bit weasely. So when we say "family film" this is absolutely not something you would want to stick a three-year-old in front of instead of going off and doing something interesting. On the other hand, it is something to which you can take your eight-year-old, your fifteen-year-old and your sixty-year-old mum, and they would all get something different out of it.
You have such a large fan base. Did you make the film with your audience in mind?
Neil: You don't think about audience at all. You think about pleasing yourself when you begin. What we're learning is that there's a very distinct part of our fan base, not huge, a pie slice, that's going, "Hang on. I was expecting something scary and edge-of-my-seatish, and not a fuzzy thing kids would like." On the other hand, we're getting sixteen-year-old girls seeing it. At Sundance, we only had a few shows and they all sold out before they started. Then we were getting girls who've seen it the night before, back in line five hours before the next show. Dave and I knew something worked when the girl — the one with the arms . . .
Dave: The girl with the arms? Most of them had arms. Ah, but at the end of public showing, as we usually get, people who hang out with books for signing. Our first screening was for a bunch of high school students. A girl wanted us to sign her arms. She had no idea who we were. "Your name's Dave, right? Who are you?"
Neil: I've signed body parts over the years, but always of people who knew my work. This girl had no idea, but we had made this thing that she had loved. That was the moment at which Dave and I knew we had made something that people liked.
The early reviews have been enthusiastic. Are you pleased?
Do you think the recent craze for fantasy has helped with your movie?
Neil: It meant that I sold half a million copies of Coraline probably instead of the forty or fifty that I would have expected to sell in a pre-Harry Potter, pre-Phillip Pullman world. Labyrinth and Dark Crystal were never regarded as huge successes.
I certainly remember watching those.
Neil: What I'm hoping that the you of today, the eleven- and twelve-year-old girls, the fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds, maybe they'll fantasize about strange beardy men with rubber masks in the same way that your generation fantasized about the incredible, peculiar bulge in David Bowie's trousers.
Neil: We once saw the unedited rough cut of Labyrinth, which included a ten-minute cut of "Dance the Magic Dance," which was the single most embarrassing thing—
Dave: That David Bowie has ever committed to film.
Neil: We were amazed it was so tightly edited to the two-and-a-half not-embarrassing minute routine that you see.
Are you surprised at how graphic novels have come into their own?
Neil: When I started, "graphic novel" wasn't even a term used yet. You could show them "Maus and they would say "Oh, little mice." Or show them Love and Rockets and they would say, "Oh, like Betty and Veronica."
Having completed this film now, what are your impressions of Hollywood, especially you, Neil, since you've seen so many stories stuck in development hell?
Neil: There's been development hell and development heck. Some are moving pretty well, some are moving slowly. In 1990, with first iteration of Good Omens I was absolutely burned. It was the most horrible experience you could have had. You could have more fun in prison with enormous bald gentlemen and . . .
And soap. It was really no fun. So I came away from that saying, I'm not doing this Hollywood thing until I know that I'm doing and I'm in a position of making it work for me. I didn't go back until 1997, and since then, I've been doing the equivalent of walking through the minefield, tapping my finger, occasionally prodding things with sticks. Things have been going boom but I've continued to walk through it fairly successfully. That meant when it came to do this, there would be times when Dave would go, "Oh my God, this is terrible." And it didn't really cheer him up, but I was able to say, "This isn't terrible, this is actually really pretty good. We have the cast we want, we have our script, we're making our movie." We didn't have to put Ashlee Simpson in the film anywhere.
Or Hillary Duff.
Neil: No, just the most peculiar version of the Carpenters' "Close to You" ever recorded. n°