DVDTalk Interview - Author Neil Gaiman
by Phillip Duncan
Writer Neil Gaiman’s 20-year plus career has spanned every form of media imaginable, from radio to comic to film. DVD Talk writer Phillip Duncan had a chance to chat with the charming and polite Gaiman about the upcoming DVD release of his BBC series Neverwhere and other upcoming projects. Having already conquered the literary world—he won a Hugo award in 2003 for best novella “Coraline” and best novel in 2002 with “American Gods” and authored the only comic to win the World Fantasy Award (Sandman #19 in 1991)—Gaiman is once again focusing on the world of film and television. He currently has projects in the development with Robert Zemeckis, Dave McKean, and Henry Selick (A Nightmare Before Christmas) and recently directed his first short film in order to prepare for directing the big screen adaptation of his graphic novel “Death: The High Cost of Living.”
First off, it was nice to finally watch an official release of the show.
Yes, I feel almost guilty, having destroyed the living of so many bootleggers. Initially Neverwhere videos and then pirated Neverwhere DVDs have become one of the mainstays of eBay. It felt like I was destroying somebody’s livelihood here. Hear the response...(99.4k)
You mentioned in the commentary that this was the first time you had watched the show in several years. Was there anything that surprised you or anything you wished you could change?
Oh, there are loads of things that I wish I could go back and change, but I was pleasantly surprised…I think I was surprised by, I had forgotten how good some of the performances were, particularly Croup and Vandemaar and the Marquis, Paterson Joseph as the Marquis.
I had forgotten how you really get pulled into that story and how the story winds up dragging you in. You may not be there by episode 1, but the joy of that thing (the DVD), when it gets broadcast on TV, it gets broadcast in half-hour chunks and that never quite works. Whereas if you turn on the DVD, you can watch at least an hour and a half before you stop and probably watch the whole thing. You really do get sucked into Richard’s story and what happens. This strange and wonderful underground world.
The weirdest thing was just how much it brought back of the filming experience. It seemed like we were in almost every deserted, underground station and every secret tunnel in London. We actually got to film inside of it. Hear the response...(492k)
Before it became poplar and everyone talked about it.
It became partly just because it wasn’t available. It got this wonderful reputation, also because the novel has become a perennial best seller. In America alone it has sold over 1 million copies now. The idea that you can see admittedly not the biggest budget version of the story, I think that’s an incredibly popular thing. Hear the response...(187k)
Low budget isn’t necessarily a hindrance.
No. I think that again it’s a part of if you’re watching the story long enough, you wind up in the story on it’s own term. And it was weird, all the little things, to do this commentary, the odd things that came back.
The actor that we hired, because he looked like a homeless person with his scraggly beard—the day before shooting he’d had a minor part in “The Fifth Element” and they told him to shave off his beard. So he turns up and it’s like. “We don’t even have a scraggly beard for you over in makeup. OK, now you’re a well shaved homeless person.”
So that was a bit odd and all of that stuff came back. Feeding the genuine homeless people in London so we could film a sequence with people pretending to be homeless. Hear the response...(360k)
You spoke of a sequel to Neverwhere in your commentary. What’s the chance you’ll revisit London Below in a novel or another form?
I’ll definitely do another novel. That’s just waiting for me to get the time. The last few years between “Coraline” and “American Gods” on one hand and the new Sandman book and “1602” on the other hand, there’s just been so little time. There’s at least one more novel I want to write before I go back to Neverwhere. Yes, I definitely want to do another Neverwhere novel.
We’d always hoped to do another TV series and it didn’t happen, mostly because the BBC were very happy to do it if we could do it cheaper and we were very happy to do it if they gave us a bit more money, if we could shoot it on film and do it in 45-minute chunks as opposed to 28-minute chunks. So, there wasn’t really any room for negotiation when it came to that. On the other hand, let’s see how it does on DVD. Hear the response...(342k)
It could revive the interest in it for television.
The BBC are gradually getting aware that it’s this hugely poplar thing in America. It’s always been huge and successful in England, but that doesn’t necessarily mean much to the B. It’s one of the things that convinced A&E to do it. I like to think that one of the things that convinced A&E was on the one had, the popularity of the novel and on the other hand, it’s a really cool, wonderful 3-hours of fantasy television. On the last hand, that it was this incredibly successful bootleg.
I wasn’t kidding when I said people were making their living from Neverwhere,
which I always felt a little bit off. You couldn’t really fault them,
because there wasn’t a legitimate way of getting Neverwhere in America,
short of buying it from England and transferring it yourself. On the other hand,
people were buying things as a DVD that were 3rd or 4th generation copies. Somebody
at some point would have bought the English video and then they did a PAL to
NTSC transfer, so you’ve already lost a bunch of definition. Then it’s
been copied a couple of times. Then, finally, somebody gets their hands on those
tapes and sticks them onto a DVD, which added, I suppose, an interesting level
of fogginess to the image. It made everything seem like it was filmed through
some mad, David Lynchian haze.
Hear the response...(580k)
I don’t know. The next thing I really want to direct is my “Death” film.
That’s the reason you did the short film?
I wanted to get the practice for “Death.” But one of the things about “Death” is there are no special effects. It’s very much filmed straight in the here and now. I’m currently watching my friend Dave McKean, who filmed the title sequence. Hear the response...(144k)
I didn’t know that until I watched the commentary. Looking at it now, it’s obvious to me, because it’s his style.
It’s Dave McKean.
But I had never figured that out before.
What it weird, is now, literally right now, Dave is making our first feature film, “Mirror Mask,” and it’s wonderful. Again, it just looks like Dave McKean. Hear the response...(67.6k)
The one shot that Entertainment Weekly had was gorgeous looking. I’ve loved his work since I first saw it on Sandman years ago.
He’s absolutely amazing. He took the world of special effects and just started running with it, and incredibly cool, low-budget special effects at that. I am merely waiting to see what cool things he does.
The last director that was actually attached to doing a Neverwhere movie was Vincenzo Natali, who did “Cube.” To be honest with you, I don’t know if Vincenzo is still attached to it or not. As the writer, you get rather out of the loop. Hear the response...(218k)
Do you like seeing others adapt your work for screen, or would you rather do it yourself?
When the do cool stuff I could never do, absolutely. The joy of watching Dave McKean making “Mirror Mask” is wonderful. Hear the response...(46k)
You two have a working relationship, as compared to someone who would just come in and say, “I’m going to change this.”
Yeah. That was what was weird about doing Neverwhere. I would say, “in the script, it’s like this” and they would say, “yes, but we’re the BBC and we know what we’re doing.” After all, when they said, “we’re the BBC, we know what we’re doing,” they didn’t. On the other hand, what I think is really interesting is they way the story survived. The fact that Neverwhere was popular as a PAL to NTSC 3rd generation bootleg—and god knows what people were actually seeing on their screen—I think it’s a testament to the fact that people like stories. People care about stories. I think from that point of view, the stories will survive practically anything you throw at them. Hear the response...(330k)
There is also an adaptation of Coraline that you’re working on with Henry Selick (A Nightmare Before Christmas).
With the wonderful Henry Selick. Yes. He’s written a marvelous script. I think they’re just waiting now. It’s with Bill Mechanic’s Pandemonium company. I think they’re just waiting for the last of Pandemonium’s financing to come together. Hear the response...(57.9k)
As I was reading the book, that was the exact image I had in my head of the story. It was a mix between Selicks’ “Nightmare Before Christmas” and Tim Burton’s book, Oyster Boy, if you’re familiar with that? When I saw that announcement, I thought it was a perfect match.
I think all of us; we are the bastard children of Edward Gory and Charles Adams. I really think that Henry is the perfect person to do this. People think of “Nightmare Before Christmas” as a Tim Burton film, and it is to some extent, but it was Henry’s film. Hear the response...(118k)
Did you approach him about Coraline?
He read the book pre-publication, I think. If I remember it correctly, when I gave the book to my agent, my film agent, I said, “here you go, I think we should send one to Henry Selcik and one to Tim Burton.” So we sent one to Tim Burton and one to Henry. I don’t Tim ever got it or read it and Henry read it within two days and phoned back and said “I want to make this.” So, finger’s crossed, he will. Hear the response...(202k)
You work in a many formats (comic, radio, film, novel), is there one that’s a favorite?
My favorite format of all is probably radio plays, audio dramas, but the problem with that is if I tried to do that as a career I would starve. I would have to send my children out onto the street to bed for pennies. I do love the way that you can make live action drama fast with an infinite special effects budget, if you’re doing it in people’s heads. A couple of my audio plays came out last years as 2-CDs called “Two Plays for Voices” and I was very proud of that. Hear the response...(212k)
In shifting back and forth from the different mediums and genres, does that make the work more interesting and keep you from hitting a wall creatively?
Yeah, actually it is. It staves off boredom. I know that the way to be a really successful writer is to write the same kind of book over and over again. Find the kind of thing that people like and just write one of those over and over again. I don’t do that. I just keep doing different things. There is no novel that is anything like the other novels. None of the things for the screen are like any of the others. The two scripts that I did recently—one was “Mirror Mask” for Dave—sort of a Henson-esque children’s thing. Hear the response...(260k)
Wasn’t that originally conceived as a sequel to “Labyrinth?”
It wasn’t actually a sequel, but as that kind of thing. The idea was, they wanted something that was one of those kinds of fantasies, starring a teenage girl, going into a strange land.
I’m doing that on one hand and doing “The Fermata,” a script for Robert Zemeckis, on the other, which is a pornographic fantasia about a man who can stop time. Those two things are about as far as you can get from each other and it really keeps me interested. I don’t worry that I’m repeating myself. I don’t worry that I’m being pigeonholed. I’m just getting to tell a story, which is the most important thing. Hear the response...(318k)
Having said that, on top of the collaborations you having going, is there anyone in the entertainment field you’d like to work with?
I would love to work with Terry Gilliam directly. I’ve had many a nice lunch with Terry over the years. Hear the response...(38.2k)
There was talk of adapting the book you and Terry Pratchett authored, “Good Omens” with him?
Terry went off and did an amazing script for good omens. There was an amazing script, but they simply couldn’t get the financing. Nobody in America, they did find the European part of the money, but in America, none of the big studios were convinced that a funny film about Armageddon would get anybody to go and pay for the popcorn to watch it. Which I think is rather actually shortsighted about them. Hear the response...(162k)
And with that, my time was cut short with Mr. Gaiman. I wished we could have talked for another 20-minutes, as his soft-spoken manner makes you instantly comfortable.