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You are here: Home » About Neil » Interviews » Neil Gaiman: 'All the rules are turned upside down.' by Gina McIntyre, The Hollywood Reporter (September 2005)

Neil Gaiman: 'All the rules are turned upside down.' by Gina McIntyre, The Hollywood Reporter (September 2005)

Gina McIntyre at The Hollywood Reporter (www.hollywoodreporter.com) chats with Neil about the silver screen.
Neil Gaiman has been creating worlds beyond the imagination for decades now, and even he admits that he probably is the most-optioned author in Hollywood who has yet to have any of his work translated to the big screen. Gaiman has had a somewhat easier time authoring original scripts, penning, among other things, the English-language release of the 1999 anime classic Princess Mononoke and partnering with Roger Avary on the screenplay for Robert Zemeckis' upcoming performance-capture adaptation of the ancient epic Beowulf. British-born Gaiman's current cinematic venture — the $4 million production MirrorMask, which Sony plans to release Sept. 30, designed and directed by longtime collaborator Dave McKean — introduces audiences to a visually breathtaking alternate universe navigated by plucky heroine Helena (Stephanie Leonidas) and rendered almost entirely on McKean's computer. Gaiman spoke recently with The Hollywood Reporter's Gina McIntyre about the genesis of the groundbreaking project, his rapport with McKean and how special effects might impact the future of cinematic storytelling.

The Hollywood Reporter: I understand you and Dave McKean conceived the story for MirrorMask in a rather interesting locale?

Neil Gaiman: We did. We were in Jim Henson's house in London. When we were there, it hadn't been touched since Jim died -- to the point where we couldn't really do e-mail and things because there were still dial telephones on the walls. But it was a good place to surround ourselves with the idea of making a film. The brief was very straightforward: Make a film for children in the tradition of (1986's) Labyrinth and (1982's) The Dark Crystal, which is to say that you're trying to make a film that is intelligent enough for kids with enough action and cool bits to keep adults interested.

THR: Did you approach writing this screenplay differently than any of your other projects?

Gaiman: Normally, I would write something, and I'd give it to Dave. The problem was that I couldn't do that this time because only Dave knew how he could make something like MirrorMask for $4 million. I would say to Dave, "I want a scene with Helena at school," and he'd say, "Well, you can't have a scene with Helena at school because we'd need a school location, we'd need at least 10 kids, we'd need a teacher, and we can't afford it." Then he'd see the expression on my face and say, "I tell you what, we could have the world crumpling up like a piece of paper, and I could do that for nothing." It was turning the whole idea about special effects upside down. In fact, Dave did the assemblage of the first version of MirrorMask with an awful lot of bluescreen, and he showed it to the animators he'd brought in. They said, "How many special effects shots are there in this?" Dave said, "Well, only one, but it lasts 80 minutes." Without that, it couldn't have been done for the money.

THR: It's probably the first film where special effects cost less than the practical locations.

Gaiman: Actually, yes. (Laughs) In terms of the future of filmmaking, I've (been working on the screenplay for) Beowulf with Zemeckis recently. It was a script that we originally wrote as a live-action film, and suddenly we're doing it as a motion-capture film. Again, all the rules are turned upside down. There was one scene that I started writing, and I phoned Bob Zemeckis and said, "We're working on this scene, and we're worried it might be too expensive, this whole dragon battle." Bob just said, "There's nothing you and Roger Avary could possibly write that will cost me more than $1 million a minute to shoot." It's suddenly indicating a universe in which everything costs the same, whether it's a man battling a dragon or a bunch of people having a party.

THR: To date, a majority of your work has seemed a bit unadaptable -- projects based on the Sandman graphic novels have been in development for years. Do you think the advances in computer technology are more likely to help bring those stories and others like them to the screen?

Gaiman: I think I have probably the privilege of being the only person in the history of The Hollywood Reporter to have had a cover story (about being the only person) with the most stuff sold to Hollywood that hasn't happened. It's not necessarily a bad thing. You get to cash the checks anyway, and you don't have people coming up to you saying, "Why did you let them do that?" As if as a writer you have this power to say, "No, don't do that," and they'd all go, "Oh, right then." I was about to say that I don't think technology has changed things, but it probably has. I remember my first trip to Hollywood in 1990, the hushed reverence with which the words CGI would be uttered -- "Oh, no, that's going to be CGI." Now, we live in a world in which any kid can do on his desktop with (off-the-shelf) software in half an hour what in 1991 definitely would have been $1 million worth of stuff.

THR: Where do you think things are heading for filmmakers in the next few years and beyond?

Gaiman: I think we're heading soon to the point where a lot of things are going to be up for grabs. We're moving into a world in which the actual recording process is cheap and free. I would love to see a deep democratization of film, and I think that is actually on the border of happening. I think the Web will level the playing field, is already leveling the playing field, as broadband starts to become more of an international reality. If I wanted to make a film now and I wanted people to see it, I'd just put it up on the Web. There's not really a way to make money off that, which is one of the places where things sort of break down. I'm fascinated by people, like (filmmaker) Steven Soderbergh, who are saying they'll release (movies simultaneously) on the Web and on DVD. I don't know that the time for that has quite come yet, but it makes absolute sense that people will do it like that one day or that delivery methods will change. Having said that, I also do not believe that any (changes in) delivery methods will make cinema and films obsolete. I think that things that work will probably remain; cinemas will remain because nothing quite replaces that experience. People have been predicting the death of cinema since probably about 1948. It was known that cinema was doomed because everybody had TV, so why would they want to go out and watch movies? The answer is that even a large-screen TV with quadraphonic (sound) doesn't give you that same experience.

THR: So, you're saying that, much in the same way a novel or a graphic novel allows a writer to tell any story that he can conceive, soon any medium will offer writers that same kind of freedom?

Gaiman: I think that's definitely true. I also think that what we will find when that happens is that it's fundamentally irrelevant -- the fact that we can (have that creative freedom) -- for two reasons. Reason 1, comics and books have always had the amazing advantage of having an unlimited special-effects budget, but nobody buys them because of the unlimited special-effects budget. They buy because it's a good story. The other side of things is, I have two daughters. They love movies, and they love DVDs. I've gone with them to the movies and watched TV with them. The only time that I recall either of them ever gasping at special effects was last May when I got the Criterion DVD of (Jean Cocteau's 1947 theatrically released) Beauty and the Beast. They were putting up with the fact that it was subtitled and in French because it was cool. Then it got to the point where the father enters the beast's castle, and suddenly, you're dealing with incredibly simple special effects based on people putting their arms through holes in walls and filming things backwards, and the kids are gasping at the magic of it. I thought, That's the important thing. It's the moments of magic that people will always remember.