Last Friday at Comic-Con International, Henson Pictures presentedfans with an early look at the new fantasy film "MirrorMask." Comicgreats Dave McKean, who is directing the movie and Neil Gaiman who co-wrote thescript were on hand. Producer and Henson chief Lisa Henson, executive producerMichael Polis and story editor Kevin Kelly also participated.
Polis and McKean told fans that they had their first conversation about themovie at Comic-Con 2001.
"That was a great first meeting,"Polis said. "It started things off putting together this project whichwrapped on Friday."
After getting the ball rolling, Henson consulted withGaiman, who she was acquainted with from other projects.
"For me thewhole thing started with a phone call from Lisa. She said that TriStar hadnoticed that, 'The Dark Crystal' and 'Labyrinth,' far from being the financialfailures that they were commonly perceived to be, actually had become theserock-solid perennial sellers that people bought on video and bought onDVD," Gaiman recalled.
"She said it was sort of good news and bad news. They've noticed this,which is really good, and they like the idea of making something else like thatwith Henson. The bad news was they were offering $4 million to make itwith."
"I think ['Labyrinth' and 'Dark Crystal'] both cost more than$4 million, twenty years ago," Henson said, putting it in perspective."That would maybe be a $80 million dollar movie today, so now could we doit for one twentieth of the budget?"
"So...it's five minuteslong," Gaiman offered.
Henson had seen McKean's short movie "N[eon]"and talked to Gaiman about it. "It's a very wonderful short film that Davemade, for nothing, in his mom's barn and on her pond," Gaiman told fans."It looks absolutely amazing and she said, 'Do you think we could get DaveMcKean to direct the film, for no money, if we promise him that, basically, it'sbeing made on so little money that you can actually do something really cool andcreative.'
"Then Lisa said, 'Obviously we couldn't afford you to write it, butmaybe you could come up with a story and we'd go and find a writer.'
"AndI said that if Dave was going to direct it then I was going to be writing it andwe weren't going to talk about that bit any more."
Gaiman said he wasperfectly happy with the arrangement of "complete creative freedom"paired with "complete lack of budget."
"I can say that smiling,because I haven't just had to make a $100 million movie for $4 million, but Davewas about three foot taller than he is now, and had hair," Gaiman added.
Fromthere Gaiman and McKean were off to begin writing the script.
"In February,eighteen months ago, when it was really, really nasty and wet and cold inEngland, I went to England to write the film with Dave," Gaiman said.
Hensonput the men up at the Henson family home. "It was in the spirit of savingmoney right from the beginning," she joked. "No hotel rooms!"
In spite of having collaborated on various projects since 1986, the two foundthat they were not prepared to be holed up together, working closely on writing.
Dave McKean fidgets with his Mac
"Weglowered a lot," Gaiman revealed. Where McKean preferred laying things outvisually with paper and charts, Gaiman was eager to get into the writing.
After four days of tug-of-war the pair had one piece of paper with notes andcharts written on it. At that point filmmaker Terry Gilliam stopped in for avisit.
"He took one look at our piece of paper and said, 'Oh, that looks like amovie,'" Gaiman told the crowd. "That gave us more confidence, thatTerry Gilliam thought our piece of paper looked like a movie."
In spite of the playful bickering by the pair, Gaiman said that workingdirectly with McKean was invaluable, especially in keeping the story on budget.When Gaiman would write scenes that seemed inexpensive, like one in a classroomfull of school children, McKean would point out the expense prepping a locationor building a set and hiring all the children to act in the scene.
Conversely, Gaiman might describe a scene which seemed ridiculously huge,like crumpling an entire city like a piece of paper, and McKean would deem itinexpensive as it would be completely done as a CGI effect.
A first draft soon followed. Some notes (which Gaiman called"sensible") led to a second draft. Gaiman told the crowed that thedevelopment went as smoothly as promised.
Behind-the-scenes footage of the film was shown to the crowd. Unlike manymovies, which are filmed on fully decorated sets and locations, "MirrorMask"was, for the most part, shot on a blue-screen set. The director would add setsand supporting effects digitally later. The only exception was two weeks worthof location shooting.
McKean also projected costume, set and creature designs from his laptopcomputer onto the big screen in the convention room.
"There's a girl called Helena. Helena is played by a wonderful actressnamed Stephanie Leonidas," Gaiman said, beginning his description of themovie. "She's fifteen going on sixteen. She's part of a circus family, theCampbell family circus. She sells popcorn and she really does not want to be inthe circus. She doesn't really want to be part of the family circus. She wouldmore like to run away and join real life.
Helena's mother (one of three parts played by Gina McKee of "NottingHill") takes ill and the circus is shut down. Helena's guilt over thesituation and stress begin to mount.
"That night, Helena has a dream," Gaiman continued, "orsomething that may quite be a dream, in which she gets to try and sorteverything out for herself in her own way."
She ends up in a strange land, divide into the light kingdom and the darkkingdom. The light queen has fallen asleep and can't be woken and her kingdom isfalling into disrepair. Helena embarks on a mission, aided by the unreliablejester named Valentine (played by Jason Barry). They venture to the dark kingdomand find the Mirror Mask, which will awaken the white queen.
Along the way they encounter a number of Dave McKean creations, like agriffin, monkey-birds (which look like tiny silverback gorillas with sandpiperheads), a pair of magnetic giants, and a pride of small, man-eating sphinxes,which live with a strange lady named Mrs. Bagwell.
"She seems to be a cat lady," Gaiman said. "She took in acouple, except in her case they're little sphinxes, with incredibly sharp teethand humans faces...and they destroy things. As Mrs. Bagwell explains, 'Mr.Bagwell didn't like them very much, but they loved him and after he disappearedmysteriously they wouldn't eat anything for a week.'"
In addition to Helena's mother, McKee plays both the white queen and the darkqueen. Similarly Leonidas plays a dual role as Helena and the Anti-Helena, whomay be the key to the mystery of the film. Rob Brydon ("Lock, Stock and TwoSmoking Barrels") appears as both Helena's father and the prime minister ofthe white city.
If McKean can craft a motion picture that looks as cool as the designs shownto the Comic-Con crowed, "MirrorMask" will be a revolution infilmmaking: turning in a gorgeous, imaginative fantasy film for a ridiculouslymodest budget.
"MirrorMask" is due out next summer. Initial plans call for it tobe direct to video, but post Comic-Con buzz indicates there's a strong chancefor a theatrical release.