Even before his groundbreaking comics series The Sandman made him a cult superstar, writer Neil Gaiman had made a name in comics, working alongside artist Dave McKean to create books like Violent Cases, Signal To Noise, and Black Orchid. Over the past two decades, Gaiman and McKean have been frequent partners, collaborating on children's books and graphic novels, though Gaiman has also had a lively career on his own, writing books and short stories, directing the aptly named A Short Film About John Bolton, and screenwriting for television (the Neverwhere miniseries) and film (the English adaptation of Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke and the upcoming Robert Zemeckis film Beowulf).
Gaiman and McKean's latest collaboration, the sumptuous fantasy film Mirrormask (Gaiman scripted, McKean directed) hits theaters on Sept. 30. Simultaneously, Gaiman's latest book, Anansi Boys—a comic novel set in the same world as his award-winning 2000 novel American Gods—is coming to bookstores. Just before embarking on a massive American book tour for Anansi Boys, Gaiman spoke to The A.V. Club about Mirrormask, Sandman, his Death: The High Cost Of Living movie, cynicism, optimism, and being cool enough to impress his own kids.
The A.V. Club: You and Dave McKean have been working together for nearly two decades, but this is the first time you've done a film together. What your collaborative process on Mirrormask like?
NG: Oh, it was horrible. It was absolutely dreadful. It wasn't as much fun as everything else has been, partly because we'd worked together very happily for about 17 years, and suddenly we were actually having to collaborate. Normally, the way we'd worked on most of our things is that I would do the story and then Dave would do the imagery. With Mirrormask, we both came into it with stories—bits and ideas. And when we sat down to plot our movie, we discovered that we had two completely different points of view on absolutely everything, which probably wouldn't have come as a surprise if we hadn't worked together happily for so long. But suddenly we were actually sort of facing each other and discovering we had different points of view on fantasy, and story, and creating movies.
AVC: Was there any particular point of contention?
NG: The main thing is, having been a writer now for 25 years, I don't like outlines. I find them irritating. I like to know enough about my characters and my story to start writing, and then I like to start writing and find out the rest, because that's the bit I enjoy. And Dave, being an artist who writes very occasionally, likes to do outlines. Having every single thing that happens in the movie, scene by scene, absolutely set before a word of script is written—I didn't want to do that. That takes all the fun out of it. You don't surprise yourself. What I like in writing a script are those moments that are as much of a surprise to you as to anyone else. There were arguments about that, there were arguments on the nature of fantasy. Once I started writing, we'd get into a load of arguments, and Dave was in the right, but I still didn't quite get it in terms of… He figured out how he could use his $4 million budget to make a movie, whereas I came from the school from which I have written my Hollywood scripts in the past, which is that realistic stuff is cheap and special-effects-y stuff is expensive.
AVC: And the entire movie is essentially a special effect.
NG: Right. I wanted to do a school scene, and Dave said, "We can't afford it. We'd have to have at least 10 kids, we'd have to have chaperones, a teacher, locations, this, that, and the other, and it will cost." And he'd see my expression and he'd say, "But look, if you wanted the world crumpling up like a piece of paper and turning into a flower, I can do that for nothing." So we had this very, very strange and testy series of days on the thing. And I think a lot of it was just a shock of discovering that this wasn't as easy and pleasant as everything else in our collaboration had ever been.
AVC: Did your previous experience in Hollywood, and the fact that Henson Studios approached you rather than Dave about the project, ever unbalance the partnership?
NG: No, not at all. It's really Dave's movie. I felt very happy recently when Time Out described it as "Dave McKean's Mirrormask," "Dave McKean's movie." I always feel very odd when I see it as "Neil Gaiman's Mirrormask" or even "Jim Henson's Mirrormask." This is Dave's movie. Dave came in knowing the movie he wanted to make, and I felt like at the end of the day, really, I was hands, I was dialogue, I wrote some scenes, but Dave knew a lot of the big scenes he wanted to do. The stuff I brought to the table was things like the anti-Helena storyline, and the stuff that sort of complicated things and roughed them up. If you look at the Mirrormask script book, where you can see us writing backward and forward, I think of this very much as Dave's movie. I was just helping.
The place where having experience in Hollywood before was incredibly useful was during the making of the film, where Dave would send me an e-mail or phone me up and say, "They're doing this, that, and the other. How can they do this? This is the worst anyone has ever been treated, ever!" And I'd say, "Oh no, that's actually very nice. No, that's really polite of them, and generous, and they're being sweet. Normally, it's worse."
AVC: When you argued about the nature of fantasy, what was the disagreement over?
NG: Well, I think Dave can only deal with fantasy if it's allegory, or at least simile. I'm perfectly happy with it being as real as anything, so Dave was only comfortable with the story of Mirrormask in a world in which everything is divided really neatly: Okay, you've got a protagonist, and this is the real-life story, and I can tell the fantasy is a metaphor for the struggle through powerlessness and pain of what she's going through on the other side, and so on. Whereas I figure, that stuff always takes care of itself anyway. So I was very happy to go in and make things messier, including things like adding the anti-Helena to the equation.
AVC: Mirrormask has a strong allegorical, psychological element. At the same time, it's full of overwhelming spectacle. Were you concentrating on any particular level of the story?
NG: No. Mostly as a writer, what I was most worried about was having the dialogue be interesting, cheerful, hopefully funny, and getting me from scene to scene. All the other stuff, if you're doing it right, takes care of itself. And of course when you're writing about that, you're not thinking about the visual. In working with Dave, the only rules that've served me well are, I trust him implicitly, and I have no idea what his final product is going to look like. I wrote The Wolves In The Walls and gave it to Dave and got The Wolves In The Walls back. People say, "Is it what you expected it to look like?" and I say "No, of course not, I'm not Dave McKean. He's the only person I know who sees things looking like that." I might have decided to write a scene with a mad old cat-lady in a house filled with feral sphinxes, but until I saw it onscreen in Mirrormask, I had no idea what it was going to look like. I had no idea what it was going to look like back when it was shot, and it was people in a blue-screen world dealing with blue cushions. It's very bizarre. None of us had a sense, I think, except for Dave, of what it was going to be until it was almost done.
AVC: You've said Mirrormask was meant to be a film in the mode of Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, which were theatrical flops but have been perennial hits with home viewers. Would you be content with a movie that only succeeded in that mode?
NG: Given the budget that we had, at the point where we started making it, the only thing we knew was that it was going to be out on DVD. I feel like we're already ahead of the game. We're getting a release in the theatres, and they'll see how it does. Nobody's expecting it to be a summer blockbuster; they wouldn't be releasing it in September if they were. So far, it's sort of been this Little Film That Could. Just getting it to where it is, despite the complete puzzlement over what it is, and what kind of film it is, and the fact that it has no stars, an English cast you've never heard of… I already feel like we've done more than anyone expected us to do. Do I expect it to go out and net hundreds of millions? It's very unlikely for a number of reasons, notably the advertising budget and how many prints are going to be struck. But we weren't setting out to make something that everybody in the world was going to go and see. We set out to make a kids' film—in Terry Gilliam's words, "intelligent enough for kids, but with enough action for adults"—and trying to create something would be odd and cool and take people's minds to other places.
AVC: Your new novel Anansi Boys is going to be out about the same time Mirrormask hits theatres.
NG: It seems to be the number-one rule of my life: Whatever I do, and whatever the time span over which it happens, things always happen at the same time, and it always looks like I did it on purpose. I love the fact that we had one novel and one film both made in completely different time frames, coming out within a week of each other.
AVC: Is it a huge distraction, trying to budget your time?
NG: Normally it's good, because the things reinforce each other. It gives journalists the ability to write about two things, which often means they can sell the story to an editor who might have said no if it was just one thing. But on this one, it's frustrating, because I've got a movie coming out. Part of the fun of having movies coming out is, you get to be there at the première. You get to walk down the red carpet. It's fun. But I'm going to be doing a book signing in San Francisco on the day of the première. And I've got a movie shooting at the same time, for Beowulf, which I will be missing most of as well because I'll be on my book-signing tour. It's one of those things that really makes you wish that either they would invent a really good time machine, so you could go through everything three times, or else cloning.
AVC: If you didn't have any other commitments or strictures right now, what would you be working on?
NG: If there was nothing that anyone was waiting for, I think I'd probably be writing my new children's novel, which, with the way things are looking, I probably won't really start till December. I would so much like to be doing that.
AVC: Has having children affected your interest in children's books, or changed your writing?
NG: Possibly, but I think having been a child, and having been a certain sort of child, is probably the thing that made me the most interested. But it's certainly been incredibly useful for my credibility at home, doing children's books. Especially from my youngest, Maddy—it's been fun doing things like Coraline, and having a daughter to try them out on. It's simply lovely having somebody who thinks this stuff is fun. From Maddy's point of view, really, the cool thing is the fact that I know Lemony Snicket, that she got to have dinner with Daniel Handler, the fact that R.L. Stine says hello. I am now cool.
Whereas for the older ones… I remember when my son Mike was 12 or 13, he looked at me very sadly one day and said, "Why don't you ever do anything cool?" I said, "Well, what do you mean?" "You never write anything cool." "Well, what would be cool?" "Well, if you wrote Spider-Man, that would be cool. But you don't. You just write these comics that nobody ever reads." And I said, "If you'll wait about three years…" And he just looked at me rather gloomily and said, "Well, why, what are you going to write then?" And by the time he was 17, I was able to impress him.
AVC: Because he grew up enough to appreciate your work, or because you got the recognition he felt you lacked?
NG: He got older. It was the difference between going, "Oh my God, my dad writes Sandman and does incredibly cool things," and being 12 or 13, where you say to your friends, "My dad writes comics," and they say, "Cor! Does he do Spider-Man?" "No." "Does he do Superman?" "No." "Well, what does he do?" "It's called Sandman." And they say, "Never heard of it. What's it about?" And you say, "I dunno. It's really boring." But when he turned 17 or 18, he went downstairs to the basement, collected all the copies of Sandman, took them up to his room, and came down two days later.
AVC: You've gotten to write about several of those core DC and Marvel superheroes over the years. Do you face a lot of strictures when working with established characters?
NG: I kind of learned my lesson doing things at DC in about 1988. I came in, and it was like, "Oh, what a wonderful playground! I'm going to do all this stuff, and I'm going to keep it in continuity." Then whenever I did anything with those characters, it would always turn into a nightmare, and someone would come in and rewrite the dialogue, or suddenly have a retroactive continuity decision that these characters didn't know each other, or whatever. After three or four of these, I stopped. I didn't like people rewriting my dialogue. I didn't like the fact that we'd start a comic with the Joker, and by the time we inked it, he would have turned into the Scarecrow. It was silly. After that, I decided life mostly was easier if I kept those big-money characters offstage and did my own thing. In 1602 [Gaiman's alternate-history comics series, featuring 17th-century versions of some Marvel characters], that was part of the delight—I could do anything to these characters. While they were the Marvel characters on one level, they weren't on another. Nobody knew what was going to happen to them except me, so I loved that. That was really cool.
AVC: Anansi Boys follows the same idea—you're adding your own spin to characters who have been around for a very long time. Is there any way to explain what interests you about existing mythologies?
NG: God, no. It's like trying to explain one of those basic hungers, like food or sex or whatever. "Why do you feel this daily urge to place these comestibles in your mouth and chew and swallow?" "I just have to do it." Mythology is one of those things… "I can not do it," he said, sounding rather like a heroin addict explaining that he can go a week without if necessary. I could do stuff that isn't mythic, but I love mythic stuff. I love playing with gods, I love playing with myths. A lot of it has to do with that they're the basic places stories come from. They're the clay that you make the bricks out of. I just like digging around in the clay. I think the thing I was happiest about with Anansi Boys was, I got to do a story that was about stories, about storytelling, about the power of myths, and about how we create our own stories. I felt like I'd managed to do it in such a way where someone could read the entire book and never notice what it had been about—just enjoyed spending time with Fat Charlie and all these characters.
AVC: At the same time, on a macro level, it's an Anansi trickster story, a form of traditional tale, albeit in a more modern format. Do you consider the structures of fables when you're writing?
NG: It's more unconscious. Especially in Anansi Boys, it was incredibly frustrating to write, in a good way. I always say that if you're a novelist, the challenge is not writing what you think ought to happen, but trying in some way to write what did happen in a world that doesn't necessarily exist. Everything should feel right; nothing should ever feel strained or forced. In Anansi Boys, I was chugging along writing my book. Then I got to this point in the middle where suddenly I'm looking at one character who's in a lift, and I'm thinking, "If you go up, if you keep doing what I think you're going to do, then in two pages' time, you will get killed. And I'm not sure what that does to the book that I plotted." The thing that I thought I was writing certainly didn't have a murder in the middle. I wrote the next two pages, the murder happened, and I stopped writing the book for four months. I wanted to compost it. I tried to figure out what I was doing, and eventually I decided that I could still keep it a comedy. It was sort of figuring out that weird line between horror and comedy. I came to the conclusion that in comedy, everybody gets what they need, whereas in horror, everybody gets what they deserve. I decided that at the end of the day, I was going to give everybody what they needed.
AVC: You said earlier that you don't like working with outlines. Do your stories often go off in unexpected directions as a result?
NG: Sometimes. The process of writing Sandman was very interesting. I wound up having to do that weird Charles Dickens-y thing that nobody gets to do these days, except for people writing comics. Which is write a 2,000-page story in public. And writing it with no room for change—I couldn't go back to change things that had already come out. In a novel, you can always go back and make it look like you knew what you were doing all along before the thing goes out and gets published. If you need a gun in a desk drawer, and you realize that in Chapter 11, you can go back and put it in that desk drawer when you opened it in Chapter 2. So if I'm going to need the gun, I'm going to have to do it in some other way that's satisfying, or I don't have a gun.
AVC: So you didn't work very far ahead on Sandman?
NG: I knew the shape, but the shape was always… It's like hitchhiking from New York to Los Angeles. You know more or less where you're going to be when, and you have a fair idea of where you're going to hit on the way, but you don't know everything that's going to happen. You don't know that the car may break down at some point and leave you stranded in St. Louis for a week, or whatever.
AVC: Do you have future plans for Sandman at the moment?
NG: I'm thinking about doing something for the 20th anniversary, which will come up in three or four years. The nice thing about Sandman was that it was a story and it got told, and it's weird… At the time that I was writing it, the idea that 20 years later, it would all still be in print, and be available, and be more popular than it ever was before, would've been completely incomprehensible. Now I'm in this sort of a strange world where they sell more and more every year. We're now in this lovely world in which graphic novels are hip and trendy, and cool libraries and bookstores make sure they have their graphic-novel sections. And if they do, they have Sandman books.
AVC: What's the current status of your film version of Death: The High Cost Of Living?
NG: I should be having a long budget phone call with New Line on Monday. It got to the point where we were looking at going into production this year, and then it became apparent—once we got to the point where everyone was willing for us to go into production this year, we would be busting out against my book-signing tour, which was kind of immovable. The idea of starting shooting, and not having the days to overrun, and having to try to finish the movie, then go on a book tour, and then go into post-production, seemed faintly lunatic. Everything's been put off to early this year, but we have a budget meeting next week. So with luck, it'll keep chugging along.
AVC: Do you have an actress in mind for Death?
NG: Yes. [Chuckles.]
AVC: And you don't want to talk about it?
NG: [Cheerfully.] Absolutely not.
AVC: In spite of all your projects and travel, you maintain a very active, audience-participatory online journal. What do you get out of that?
NG: I started my blog in February of 2001, which is a very long time ago in blog terms. It was basically just me and a handful of dinosaurs blogging at the time. You'd go on people's blogs and it would all be, "You wouldn't believe what Pteranodon did this week," or "I think Allosaurus is headed for extinction." My plan was to chronicle the process from handing in the finished manuscript of American Gods all the way through the publication and the tour, and finish in September 2001. By the time I finished the American Gods tour, two things happened, one of which was September 11. The blog became incredibly useful for staying in touch during that period. Also, I had 20,000 readers, and I thought, "This is so cool—there are 20,000 people reading this thing! I think I'm just going to keep it going for a bit." And I started really enjoying the immediacy of having a blog, particularly from a practical viewpoint.
If you talk to any author, even the best-known authors, they will tell you about going to signings: You go to one town and do a signing for 200 people, and you go to the next signing, maybe just up the road later that evening, and no one comes up to you but the lady who wants to know where the toilets are. I loved the fact that I was suddenly no longer dependent on whether a store took out an ad in the right place, or on the word on the street. Suddenly, if I had a signing, or something coming up, people would come, because they would know about it. I could do things for good, for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and the First Amendment project and such.
Then I looked around one day and realized the blog had 600,000 monthly regular readers. At that point, I sort of went faintly into shock. Currently, we seem to be around the 1.2 to 1.3 million mark for unique visitors. Now I'm not sure why I'm doing it, but it's become this huge thing that I wind up posting to even if I'd rather go to bed. Because if I have 1.1 million people saying "The bastard hasn't written anything today…"
AVC: In our last interview with you, back in 1999, you discussed how you once thought book tours would be romantic and adventurous. You ended up saying, "It's like everything—once you actually get what you want, you don't really want it any more." That's a very cynical thought, and yet you seem like an overtly optimistic person.
NG: Oh I am. I say "Once you get what you want…" but I don't learn anything from it. But then again, I'm—I'm sounding like a greeting card—I'm somebody who considers happiness a journey, not a destination. Getting the Hugo Award was a wonderful, magical, gorgeous moment, and then it's just something to dust. And when I was young, you know, the first foreign editions that would come in of anything of mine, I'd sit there and look at them as these strange and wonderful artifacts, and marvel that something I'd done was being printed in Bucharest, in this language I didn't know. And these days, the stuff comes in and it goes down to the box full of foreign books in the basement.
But I do still like the fact that if I get on a signing tour, people stop being abstract numbers and turn into people. And I love the fact that people get to say thank you. It seems to me that's mostly why people come to signings: They want to say "Thank you for the stories." But you can't really have a thank-you line, so you have a signing line, and that gives everybody an excuse. And that's nice, but. Doing a signing for 150 people is fun. Doing a signing for 200 people is fun. Doing a signing for 500, 600, 700, 800 people is a horrible physical nightmare.
AVC: So has there ever been anything that hasn't fit into that "once you have it, you don't want it" rubric? Has there ever been anything for you that was all it was cracked up to be, and you still want more?
NG: Kids. Though there's a lot of stuff—I don't want to sound deeply pessimistic. The problems with success, frankly, are infinitely preferable to the problems of failure. And the joy of making stuff never goes away. Which is completely contradictory to everything I'm happy to say about being the kind of writer who loves being about to write, and loves having written, but hates the process of writing. That is also true to some extent. But I love making things. I love building things. I love the idea that something's in the world that wasn't there before. And I love learning. I tend to stop doing things once I get good at them, and to try something else I'm not as good at, leaving a bunch of fans going, "But he was really good at that. Why isn't he still doing it?" I try to stop before I get bored. I try to keep doing stuff I don't know how to do, and I'm still willing to make a fool out of myself in public. I'm also willing to make those mistakes that you're going to make the first time you go out, so hopefully the next time it will be better.
AVC: Speaking of fans waiting around, after Anansi Boys, do you have any intention of writing more books in the American Gods world?
NG: Yes, but I want to do something else first. There's always that terror for me of not wanting to be pigeonholed. Because the moment you're pigeonholed, it becomes really difficult to do something outside of that pigeonhole, which is something I've been very aware of as long as I've been writing. As a journalist, I would talk to writers, directors, creative people, and discover that for an awful lot of them, the moment they became successful, that was all they were allowed to do. So you end up talking to the bestselling science-fiction author who wrote a historical-fiction novel that everybody loved, but no one would publish.
AVC: Is there any particular method that you use to escape that?
NG: Being aware of it as a trap does help. The thing that gets frustrating is when you really think you're trying to do something different every time, and then people point out all of the similarities, and say "This is obviously Gaiman, because all these things are going on that were going on in Neverwhere, in Stardust, in Sandman." But there's definitely a level on which I keep trying to do new things.
AVC: Does the urge to direct the Death film yourself come more from a desire to escape pigeonholing, a desire to try something new, or a desire to handle that particular project yourself?
NG: It's mostly a desire—that story is one that I love, something close to my heart. And I don't want someone else screwing it up. If someone gets to screw it up, it should be me. But there's definitely—I loved doing A Short Film About John Bolton. though I'm not entirely sure how I feel about it now being commercially available. From a point of view of learning new skills, I'd love to do it again. I've discovered that I love the auditioning process. I love working with the technical guys. I absolutely love the editing room. That was completely fascinating to me, working with an editor in crafting the thing into something you had in your head. I really like being able to laugh at my own jokes. And so it was absolutely fascinating seeing it all, being involved. And I loved the fact that I didn't quite know what I was doing. There was a desperate terror going on. I'm pretty much better when I'm not cocky.