What’s left for Neil Gaiman to do? He’s the creator of one of the most acclaimed comic book series of all time and his novels and children’s books have won a variety of awards. Now, Gaiman is helping to bring the literary and four-color worlds he created to the silver screen. CBR News sat down with Gaiman and talked about the adaptation of his comic series “Death: The High Cost of Living,” other productions adapted from his work and what’s next for the author.
“Death: The High Cost of Living” follows the character Death and what happens on her day off. The adaptation of “Death” was recently greenlit and is in pre-production at New Line. Gaiman wrote the film’s screenplay and might direct the film. “I do not have to be the director contractually, but the way the deal was built they get a script for very little money if I direct. If I don’t direct they have to pay the full whack and I’m a really expensive screenwriter,” Gaiman told CBR News. “Death” would not be Gaiman’s directorial debut. His first film as a director was “A Short Film About John Bolton”. “After I made the John Bolton film most people were simply comfortable with the idea of me directing stuff because they liked the John Bolton film. It does exactly what it sets out to do.”
When penning the screenplay for “Death,” Gaiman was fairly faithful to the original mini-series he wrote. “It’s very much the story of somebody who is more or less suicidal with teenage angst, but doesn’t have any particular reason to be, meeting someone who may well be crazy. It’s left even more ambiguous in the movie than I left it in the comic. It was pretty ambiguous in the comic. Didi is probably Death on her day off or she’s crazy. But either way he’s gonna have the day of his life.”
For Gaiman, Adapting “Death” was not really about making changes to the comic. “You could probably film the comic ‘Death: The High Cost of Living’ scene-for-scene, panel-for-panel, frame-for frame and have a movie, but the only problem is if you did that you would have a quite good 35-40 minute movie,” said Gaiman. “So the challenge was not in changing things, but it was where and how to expand things, letting things breathe. It currently begins with The Eramite in Alaska on his long journey to New York making life very miserable for some people in a bar and wanting a lift to New York. You get a lot more stuff going on and the day is just longer and more stuff happens.” Gaiman felt the joy of the comic series was one of the essential elements that had to be in his screenplay. “That’s the big thing I tried to get over in the screenplay for a couple of drafts. It was just how much fun she’s having.”
The casting process for “Death” has begun. Gaiman was unable to reveal whom, but did say that the production had begun talking to a specific actress for the film’s lead. “I know who we’re talking to. I love her. I think she’s going to be perfect for it. She loves the script and the idea of the character.”
Gaiman’s latest Vertigo series, “Books of Magic: Life During Wartime,” is co-written with writer Sy Spencer. Gaiman first introduced the lead character Tim Hunter in the original “Books of Magic” mini-series. A film adaptation of the original mini-series has been in development for many years. Gaiman told CBR News that the directors currently attached to “Books of Magic” are Joel Bergvall and Simon Sandquist, directors of a Swedish horror movie called “The Invisible.” Matt Greenberg has written the latest draft of “Books of Magic.” Gaiman said fans hoping for a faithful adaptation of the comic should not get their hopes up.
“I liked what Matt Greenberg was doing, the last ‘Books of Magic’ I saw was a really good script,” said Gaiman. “It just bore no resemblance what so ever to ‘Books of Magic’ to the point where I would feel comfortable if they changed Tim Hunter’s name, changed a couple of characters’ names and put in very small letters somewhere at the end of the movie inspired by ‘Books of Magic.’ That would be that because it was far enough away [from the original concept] that it had gone into some kind of orbit. Far enough away, that any fan who actually went to see it thinking they were going to see a ‘Books of Magic’ movie were going to be disappointed.”
One big difference with the “Books of Magic” feature film is the absence of one of the comics’ main characters, John Constantine. In Gaiman’s mini-series, Constantine, the star of Vertigo’s “Hellblazer” and soon to be portrayed by Keanu Reeves in the feature film “Constantine,” was one of the trench coat clad mystics that guided young Tim Hunter on his first journey through the magical world. “Throughout every version of the script he was always missing,” Gaiman said. “Although, to be honest, he was also called John Ariel through all versions of the script that there’ve been. Constantine was already owned somewhere else and it’s also much more complicated with Constantine because he’s a ‘Swamp Thing’ spin-off character. When DC foolishly sold the rights to ‘Swamp Thing’ in the 1970s, the producers of ‘Swamp Thing’ got all rights to all characters created in ‘Swamp Thing’ in the future. So we created a character, or the screenwriters in fact wrote a character called John Ariel. To be honest, I don’t remember if he was in the last draft of the script.”
Another Gaiman story in development is his comic “Murder Mysteries,” in the able hands of “Blade Trinity” director and “Batman Begins” writer David Goyer. “I believe that David is still attached to direct,” said Gaiman. “He wrote a gorgeous script. I think it’s perfectly fair to say that of all the adaptations I’ve ever read of my stuff, including scripts that I’ve done, his script for ‘Murder Mysteries’ is my favorite. He wanted to direct. As far as I know he’s just been completely up to his ears with ‘Blade,’ with ‘Batman,’ with a bunch of stuff. He originally was meant to do it for Miramax and they didn’t get it. It was one of those peculiar experiences where all of the executives at Miramax loved it except Bob Weinstein, who really didn’t. Bob just didn’t like it. He phoned me up and said, ‘I don’t like it. I don’t get it. I wanted something else.’ And what David was giving him wasn’t what he wanted and I believe that the producer, Don Murphy, got the rights, got it out of Miramax and in turn around and I’m not sure where it’s at now.”
Gaiman’s story “Neverwhere” has been adapted to many mediums. It was originally written as a television mini-series for the BBC. Gaiman then adapted the screenplay into a novel and Vertigo recently announced that it would publish a nine-issue comic adaptation of “Neverwhere” by Mike Carey with art by Glenn Fabry. However, the feature film version of “Neverwhere” is still stuck in development limbo. ” Well the rights are held by Jim Henson company. They’ve now gone through four directors and a lot of scripts.”
Many have tried to adapt Gaiman’s most famous work, “Sandman,” into a feature film, but so far with limited success. Gaiman believes distilling “Sandman,” with it’s large continuing story filled with a multitude of mythological beings and magic, into a feature length film would not do the story justice, but he thinks there is one medium besides comics that could tell the story of Morpheus and the Endless. “I’ve always loved the idea of a ‘Sandman’ radio play,” said Gaiman. “Audio plays have an awful lot of similarity with comics. If nothing else in cheapness. The joy of comics is I can say to Sam Kieth draw me a double-page spread with demons from horizon to horizon and make them all different and he will. If I have that as a CGI thing, I know that’s going to be an $800,000 shot since we pan across Hell and see every single demon wiggling and so on and so forth. Whereas with a small cast of actors doing a bunch of stuff and a mic getting moved that’s just noises. Noises that can go for something up in your head.”
Hollywood’s finally realizing that the best man for the job of adapting a comic property to film might be a man who’s actually written comic properties. Who better than Gaiman, a proven screenwriter, novelist and one of the most acclaimed comic book writers. “You know every now and then people will come to me and say would you like to do X and say would you like to do Y. Sometimes I say yes sometimes I say no. Mostly, there are some projects that I would normally say no on but sometimes they come with a director attached and its somebody I go, ‘Oh that could be really interesting.’ I don’t know if there’s anything I’m actually allowed to say without upsetting people. There definitely have been a few Marvel properties that I’ve been offered and a couple that I’d quite like to do. But we’ll see. In some ways, the Marvel properties are more fun. Also I love the fact you have Avi Arad. I really like Avi. I love the fact that he’s going to absolutely make sure a fan who comes to the cinema to see a Thor movie is going to come away having seen a Thor movie,” Gaiman said.
In bringing Marvel properties to the big screen, Marvel Studios President and CEO Avi Arad has worked with a variety of studios to bring Marvel characters to film. On the other hand, DC Comics properties are all handled by parent company Warner Bros., something Gaiman sees as a potential hurtle in realizing a faithful adaptation of the source material. Gaiman has found that many executives at Warner Bros. don’t quite get the source material that they are adapting. “Warner Bros. generally doesn’t seem to get that which I find very peculiar,” said Gaiman. “They keep starting with two strikes against them. ‘Catwoman’ is a lovely example of where they started with two strikes against them and then they made a crap movie. It’s not the Catwoman from ‘Batman,’ they’re just using the name and it’s crap. With ‘Constantine,’ the guys who made it are nice guys. They’re all good guys. They mean well. One of the conditions for green lighting the movie was Keanu Reeves. He was what made that movie makeable. Nobody seemed to actually understand that Keanu Reeves was not something that would actually put bums in seats and guarantee a good opening and give them a great movie, but it was actually something that would make millions of people around the world go, ‘That’s not John Constantine. John Constantine wears a trench coat, he has blond hair and he’s English.’ They could have cast a hundred people who would have yellow hair, a yellow trench coat, and are English and who would have made people go, ‘Cool, I want to check that out,’ and you would have got them in.”
Gaiman added that some executives at Warner Bros don’t even seem to understand DC’s flagship character. “I remember [DC Comics President] Paul Levitz telling me that the head of Warners was talking to him [about Superman] and the guy eventually sort of sighed at the end of the conversation and said, ‘Well, okay. I’ll take your word for it. If Superman has to come from Krypton and Krypton has to be destroyed at the beginning of the movie, fine. But I still don’t get why. I still don’t get why its important.’ And you want to go. ‘It’s important for the same reason you don’t have Jesus Christ springing down from the cross at the end of ‘The Passion of the Christ,’ picking up his machine gun and saying, ‘Okay guys, now let’s march on Rome!’ Because that’s not how the story went and that’s really it.”
Gaiman is currently hard at work on his latest novel, “Anansi Boys.” Once he finishes that; he’ll begin work on his second comic project for Marvel. Despite speculation by many online journalists, Gaiman has not decided what the project will be. “Marvel project #2, at the end of the day, will be whatever they want it to be and I don’t mind,” said Gaiman. “I have to finish ‘Anansi Boys’ first. It’s a bit weird to hear that you’re definitely doing X or definitely doing Y or definitely Zed. I know some of the things that are happening with Thor spin-offs from conversations that I had six months ago with Joe. Where I said, ‘If I did do Thor I would want to do X, Y and Zed.’ And Joe came back to me and said, ‘Look if you don’t get to do Thor can we do X, Y, and Zed with another person?’ I said, ‘Oh God, yes’ They were just ideas. I’m not territorial about them and they’re fun ideas and they were ways that I probably would have done Thor.”
If Gaiman does choose Thor as his second Marvel project he hopes to work with artist P. Craig Russell. “I love working with Craig Russell,” he said. However, Gaiman is keeping his options open for what Marvel character to tackle next. “I might just say sod it and do the Purple Man mini-series.”