In front of a packed crowd during his panel titled “My Two Years with Dawkins, Christ and a Small Crab Called Eric” at Comic-Con International in San Diego, artist, writer and indie filmmaker Dave McKean recounted two recent life events on radically opposite ends of the philosophical spectrum: an all-ages book he illustrated with scientist and Atheism proponent Richard Dawkins called “The Magic of Reality,” and a film he shot starring Michael Sheen in Port Talbot, Wales called “The Gospel of Us,” a modern day interpretation of “The Passion” story chronicling Jesus Christ’s final days of life on Earth.
McKean is a man who is all about the experience. “I’m not cut out for this [business], I don’t have skin thick enough,” McKean said in his British accent. “I make hopelessly uncommercial decisions, I’m terrible at that. But my thought is — if there’s something personal for me to get out of the experience, I can do it.
“Usually my projects are outside the realm of this fine establishment [he gestured about the room]. They’re much more about reality — the real world. It’s a strange thing to talk about here [at Comic-Con], but I thought I’d give it a go.”
McKean’s abstract art and photography are unlike any other as his work truly pulls the viewer into his world. He’s best known amongst comic book fans for his cover art, specifically for “Sandman,” Neil Gaiman’s timeless story of the Endless entity named Dream.
“Neil was a struggling journo and I was in art school, so we thought why not tackle things together,” McKean said of his early exchanges with Gaiman. “The Graveyard Book,” about a boy who’s raised and educated by ghosts in a graveyard, is McKean’s personal favorite of Gaiman’s work.
After the brief introduction, McKean spent time on his working relationship with Richard Dawkins and what it was like putting together “The Magic of Reality,” currently available from Free Press in over 20 countries worldwide, with the scientist and Atheism advocator.
“I’m a big fan of Dawkins. He’s a great controversial guy, but also a great scientist. I’m not a scientist but I’m a big science fan,” McKean said. “Dawkins would often say he wanted to do a kids book to encourage them to think, and think skeptically about the world around them. I thought this was great — my children would have the tools around them to ask questions.”
“Reality” took time to gain traction as publishers didn’t liked Dawkins’ suggestions for content. He wanted to frame the piece with 12 questions to be answered with the best scientific explanations through his own words and McKean’s illustrations.
Pressed for panel time and the feeling he couldn’t say it better than Dawkins himself, McKean proceeded to read directly from “Reality,” citing Dawkins’ thoughts on what reality truly is and how we can all detect it — how emotions didn’t exist before brains and why the term “magic” is present in the title, as it seems contradictory to the overall point of the piece.
Each of the 12 chapters is about one specific corner of reality and how it’s tied to one form of magic: Supernatural Magic which includes myths and fairy tales like Aladdin’s lamp or the worlds of J.K. Rowling; Stage Magic which really does happen, or something happens although it’s typically what the audience thinks it is — deception; Poetic Magic refers to something moving us to tears like a performance or a gorgeous sunset taking our breath away. It’s deeply moving, exhilarating and makes us feel fully alive. This magic, Poetic Magic, is what is meant by the book’s title.
McKean believes the real world is magical and poetic — we don’t need fantasy to find it. “The supernatural must be beyond the reach of a natural explanation. Science thrives on its inability to prove everything,” McKean said, quoting Dawkins.
At this point, a handful of people walked out on the panel, no doubt feeling their beliefs were being threatened by McKean’s words and readings.
Unphased, McKean mentioned the challenge of illustrating the “science” of “Reality.” It’s easy interpreting the myth, but how does one go about drawing the real magic of a rainbow or make the periodic table of elements look interesting? For his purposes, the artist drew on a previous experience for inspiration. “I did a cookbook with a molecular chef. I illustrated some of his recipes to create new combinations and new food. Most of it looks like liquid, but when people eat it, they love it, call it a ‘miracle’ — how did the cook do that?” It’s McKean’s unique style, passion for research and open minded insight which allowed him to pull it off.
On interpreting the myth, McKean used the biblical myth of Jericho and the origin of earthquakes as an example. He’d focus on the science behind the myths — when Joshua’s horns were blown it was so loud it shattered the walls of his enemies, allowing his armies to march in and win the day. We know today it likely wasn’t the horns, but one of the larger earthquakes Jericho has come to be known for which caused the damage. “But it grew into legend at the time, all that horn blowing,” McKean said. He went on to point out how myths for the same “magical” earthly functions are different throughout various cultures, but ultimately explain the same thing — including sneezing giants and flea ridden dogs who rock the Earth when scratching off bugs.
McKean had to re-educate himself on the most basic scientific principles when working on “Reality,” saying, “I had a great time with this book — I went back to school, literally. I talked with professionals and relearned what I had forgotten. The good thing about working with Dawkins is he knows everybody.” In order to accurately depict science, McKean met with thinking men from all different corners including experts on Jupiter and immunology. “It was a great science experiment for me,” he said.
The panel’s focus shifted to the polar opposite of Richard Dawkins — McKean’s documentation of a modern day, live in-time performance of “The Passion” play, performed in Port Talbot, Wales during Easter 2011 which McKean later turned into a film called “The Gospel of Us.”
McKean, known mostly for is artwork, is no rookie to film.
“I’d done various bits of work on the ‘Harry Potter’ films designing things for them,” McKean said. “I directed some short films — one about how God created the world. It’s the week before He created everything, when He showed up the Monday morning before to create everything but couldn’t think of anything, so he went fishing and was off.”
Michael Sheen is the star of “Gospel,” portraying a modern day Jesus Christ, who in this production is dubbed simply “The Teacher.” “Sheen was planning a live, three-day Passion play in his hometown, where he would play a contemporary Christ-like figure in Wales,” McKean explained. “It took 1000 people in the town to work on it as three solid days of action took place across the whole town.
“I asked why isn’t anyone shooting this? I got together with a film agency with a tiny budget and 10 cameras — A man and a camera to just shoot whatever happened. Whatever moved.” McKean animated some spots of the story in post production — mainly of a bird character he created which appears next to Sheen at times, looking creepy and sparse.
“Gospel” took six weeks to write from scratch and decipher how it would be seen and played out in Port Talbot, while the live play would take course over three days, in real time, as Sheen would never break character throughout its duration. The other actors would pop in and out as needed and the entire production was performed in front of a live audience who could come to watch at any time.
Sheen’s modern portrayal of Christ was of a local teacher who had gone missing. To set the scene, McKean explained how his team had spray painted “missing” posters of Sheen throughout Port Talbot, stating he had not been seen for 40 days and nights. There were faux-militarized posters with the images of “The Teacher” spray painted over them. This was their ad campaign and it really helped drive the press and get people into the spirit of the production. Another contemporary twist included the Last Supper taking place at a social club.
The live event kicked off at dawn on Good Friday with a man Sheen met days before at a care home. He was 97 years old and sang a song in Welsh, causing the actor to burst into tears. At 6 am, as the sun began to rise and with McKean’s small camera crew rolling, “The Passion” began to the song of this elderly man. There were other organic moments that made their way into the piece, including a dance performed by the local women’s shelter. Sheen saw the story behind the dance and turned it into the Mary Magdalene scene.
During the opening, other actors were on the sandy shore as Sheen appeared from the dunes out of nowhere. 300 people showed up that Good Friday to watch.
“We would be invisible,” McKean said of his ten man handycam crew. “We had no cranes. No anything — we blended in with the crowd. We did not want to distract from the actors and the audience.”
600 people gathered for Sheen’s main arrival into town. Sticking to the modern day theme, the leading actor donned plaid shorts, a gray hoodie and red robe.
When it came time for Sheen to take on the cross and make his journey towards a figurative Mount Calvary, he walked four miles through Port Talbot, lugging the heavy religious symbol. 25,000 people showed up — roughly 10,000 short of the Port’s entire population — for what McKean called a “strange wake-like celebration.”
At the end of the crucifixion, the crowd’s “iPhone-isms” changed, where before the phones were very “in your face,” but at that moment they became more like candles serenely illuminating the climax of the play.
Given the performance was done live in front of an audience, it included the element of crowd interaction and even a few uncomfortable surprises.
“At one point there was a pack of vicious paparazzi,” McKean said. “They pushed everyone out of the way. They wanted pictures of Michael, the star. Michael didn’t know what to do because he stayed in character the whole 72 hours. He only answered people as ‘The Teacher.'”
Coming to the rescue, one of McKean’s camera men joined the paparazzi huddle to give Michael a control to play to. “Michael acted in character, saying, ‘Why is this [camera] in my face? Aren’t I interesting? Put the lens down and be here with me. If not, keep it up and look at me through a lens.’ People got the message.”
Another instance involved a man near the river whose dogs kept barking during the performance. It became clear to McKean the man wasn’t going to leave any time soon. “He starts talking to me so I shot the dogs and was like, they now need to be in the film.”
McKean told of another instance where Sheen slept on a mountain overnight and was interrupted by some “nutter” who got past security screaming at Sheen, “This is my mountain! Get off my mountain!” Then at 5am a man showed up with his son stating they had to see Sheen. The father truly believed Sheen would take his son with him back to Los Angeles to mentor him in the performing arts.
Actress Toni Trucks of “Twilight” fame made a surprise appearance at the panel. She’s a good friend of Sheen’s, whom she co-starred with in “Twilight,” and gave a brief account on her moving experience performing in the play.
“I would not miss it [the play]. The production was a big ‘fuck you’ from this town in that nobody had any clue what Port Talbot was like. It was a stinky town, but now with Michael [Sheen], this is where ‘The Passion’ happened,” Trucks said. “This is where the ‘Gospel of Us’ was. I played an angel. There was so much going on my scenes weren’t even captured by the ten cameras Dave [McKean] had. My character danced through the town, finding a dead protester whom she escorted into the afterlife. It was an overwhelming thing to be a part of and I hope you enjoy the film.”
The fact that a “Twilight” star’s scenes didn’t make it into McKean’s film’s final cut is a testament to just how huge this whole production was. Things were happening simultaneously throughout the town, so while person “A” may be watching Sheen interact with civilians, person “B” could be on the other side watching Trucks’ angel piece.
According to McKean, the roots of the play stem from 1663 when the small Germanic town was infected by the plague. The townspeople made a promise to God — if they were cured of the plague, every 10 years the “Passion Play” would be re-enacted in Talbot. The plague went away and over 350 years later, the townspeople are still keeping their promise.
“The film is my version,” McKean said. “I was there. I saw it. And then I interpreted it through the eyes of a child. It’s a mythologized version of reality — there was a teacher who went missing. But the details are sketchy.
“We were all in sympatico with this in some way.”
The film premiere of McKean’s “The Gospel of Us” was the first ever in Port Talbot, selling out on six screens in the multiplex theatre.
At this point a Comic-Con employee notified McKean of his time restraints, “Only 15 minutes left? Bloody Hell.”
He briefly touched on his latest project, a new film called “Luna.”
McKean started “Luna” three years ago and now has the money to keep it going. “Like many indie films in England the money went away,” he said.
The story takes place in an isolated house over a weekend with two couples, one of which recently lost a child. The other male has a new young girlfriend. There’s tension in the air, skeletons in the closet, and it gets emotional. “Luna” goes on to tell the story of the life of the child who died. McKean hopes to “put this thing to bed next year.”
He recently released an erotic graphic novel through Fantagraphics called “Celluloid.” “I did a strange erotic graphic novel because sex is fun and oddly treated in the media, I feel,” he said.
To close, McKean announced his gradual gravitation away from comics, saying, “I’m going more into gallery work, exhibitions and stuff. Stuff.”
He left the panel with this thought: “It was dramatic irony going from the Dawkins project to shoot ‘The Gospel of Us.’ I’m not a believer of anything, but I am fascinated by belief and I use those ideas in the projects I create.”