Putting on the "MirrorMask": Executive Producer Michael Polis on the Film

When things get bad in life, people sometimes remark it might just be easier if you could run off and join the circus, escaping the realities of every day life and living care-free, touring across the country with a bunch of very colorful people. The overwhelming majority of us don't do that, and for good reason.

There's a totally different side to that circus fantasy that's examined in the upcoming film "MirrorMask," which centers on a 15-year-old girl named Helena who's a member of a family of circus entertainers and wishes she could run off and join real life.

While the film isn't based on original comics material, two men who've made an indelible impression on the comics market, writer Neil Gaiman and director Dave McKean, are behind the making of this film.

In the film, Helena has a fight with her parents about her future when her mother falls ill. Helena is convinced she's to blame for the illness. The night before her mother is to have major surgery, Helena dreams she lives in a strange world inhabited by two opposing queens, amazing creatures and masked inhabitants. Things aren't quite right in this world Helena finds herself in, as the White Queen has fallen ill and can only be restored by the MirrorMask and, sure enough, it's up to Helena to find. From that point forward her adventures continue in a world where the line between reality and her dreams is blurred.

While originally set for a direct-to-DVD release, as learned during the recent Comic-Con International, interest in "MirrorMask" has grown significantly as word's spread about the film and a theatrical release is planned for the film in 2005. CBR News caught up with Executive Producer Michael Polis to learn more about the history of this project and the challenges of making "MirrorMask."

The film is produced by the Jim Henson Company and Sony Pictures. Polis said the beginnings of "MirrorMask" date back to 1999 when the Henson Company was looking at figures on DVD sales for their library. The DVD market was just beginning to catch fire and the company saw brisk and consistent sales on their fantasy films "Labyrinth" and "The Dark Crystal." "They sold extremely well with little to no promotion," Polis told CBR News. "So, we knew there was a decent audience out there for these sorts of titles and we wanted to see if we could try to create new content using either 'The Dark Crystal' or 'Labyrinth.' We looked into doing a prequel to 'Dark Crystal' and sequels for 'Labyrinth' and ultimately decided it made the most sense to try and create something similar or in the spirit of those films and attribute it as a Jim Henson Company fantasy title."

The next step for Polis was to go to Sony and see if they'd be interested in backing a the project and they were. Out of that was born the pitch, "The Curse of the Goblin Kingdom." At the time Polis had preliminary conversations with artist Brian Froud, the conceptual designer of "Labyrinth" and "The Dark Crystal."

"We had had some conversations with Brian and had just started having conversations with Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean," said Polis. "This was at CCI three years ago, I believe. We sat in this very tiny room, kind of sequestered upstairs. So, Dave, myself and Brian Froud got together and started to think about it. Dave would direct, perhaps we could work with Brian on design. But it ended up that there could only be one particular style for the film and since Dave was going to direct it made more sense to continue with Dave. I love Brian's work and I think he's one of the most fantastic artists around, but that's just kind of the way it worked out.

"To step back a moment, [at the same time] Lisa Henson was trying to work on a 'Dark Crystal' feature, a prequel or sequel. So I went in to Lisa and said you're trying to work on 'The Dark Crystal' and I'm trying to do something probably more closely associated with 'Labyrinth' in terms of style and substance. Would you be interested in working together on it? She said yes."

Lisa Henson already had a long standing association with Gaiman because her company owned the film and television rights to Gaiman's novel "Neverwhere." Gaiman sent Henson one of McKean's short films and the company immediately thought they should see whether McKean would be interested in directing a feature film, although Polis noted it's often times difficult to get a first time director a shot at a feature length film.

"Then I suggested that we ask Neil to write it," said Polis. "Lisa thought no way that Neil would be able to commit to it because Neil's one of the busiest writers period. We debated for a long time and we finally decided to ask. You can't get a hit without swinging the bat! So, basically Neil said, 'If Dave is directing this movie, then I will write this movie.' We also found out that 'Labyrinth' was one of Neil's favorite films, which was very helpful. They make a great team."

Once Gaiman and McKean were in place, Lisa Henson and Polis pitched Sony on "Mirrormask" and the film was officially green lit.

This of course isn't the first time Gaiman and McKean have worked together. Comic fans know them best from their work on DC/Vertigo's "Sandman," written and created by Gaiman with covers by McKean.

McKean and Gaiman have been given a lot of freedom by Sony on "MirrorMask," the main financiers of the film, which has a reported budget of around four million dollars. Now, while it's a smaller budget film with less risk than larger budgeted films, it's still unusual for a studio to give this amount of freedom, especially a first time director.

"Sony's been great about it because their perception is it's a smaller budget film and the risk that's involved, while still a risk, it's not as significant as 'Spider-Man' or 'Hellboy' by any stretch of the imagination," said Polis. "They felt that they could take a chance based on the package. The thing that we had tried to instill with Sony was that this is all about the rich heritage of the Henson company in fantasy, an award winning author in Neil Gaiman and our secret weapon in Dave McKean in translating this concept to the screen because of his beautiful and visionary knowledge of translating story to screen."

This wasn't an easy task for the producing team. "MirrorMask" is a film with a great deal of computer generated imagery and was filmed primarily using blue screen, a process which puts an actor in front of a blue field where effects can be added later. Because of that, when principal photography was finished it simply looked like a lot of people standing around and talking to one another since no effects were completed yet.

"We had to allow for faith in the concept and ultimately faith in Dave," continued Polis. "Based on a lot of what he had done previously we were able to convince Sony that we'll be able to at least get the kind of look he had created in his previous work, but as a result of having a larger budget, more time to devote to pulling it off. Needelss to say, our faith in Dave is really paying off."

Polis said Sony was very up front about what the budget limitations would be for "MirrorMask." A few million dollars may sound like a lot to you and me, but in the world of Hollywood which sees budgets rising above the $200 million dollar for some films these days, the budget for "MirrorMask" was really quite small.

"We would have wanted a greater budget, but the only commitment that we were going to get, especially considering this was originally designed as a direct-to-video feature, was this one so we had to stick within the confines of this budget in order to make it economically viable. Now there's talk of seriously considering releasing this at minimum to film festivals, and there is also talk of doing it as a limited theatrical release. To me it's much more exciting that we have this film that has a relatively low budget and is over delivering on what we had originally planned.

"I just saw a screening two weeks ago, the first time we've seen the entire film with probably 80% of the effects in and it's just beautiful," added Polis. "It looks wonderful on the big screen and the story is great. It's a testament to the talents of Neil and Dave."

When Gaiman agreed to write the story, he met with McKean, Polis and Henson and a handful of others involved on the Sony side. "For the most part we talked loosely about what it is we wanted to do, but really we left it up to both Neil and Dave. They both get story credit on this. The two of them went to the Henson home in London and spent about ten days working together on crafting a general story outline and then script. The majority of the feedback, or rather direction, came pretty much from Lisa and I, but there really wasn't that much. Neil and Dave concocted the full story."

The duo was sent to the Henson home in London since Gaiman lives in the States and McKean makes his home in London. The Henson home seemed like a nice, relaxing environment for them to work in together, versus say a sterile hotel room in any major city. Clearly the decision was a good one as the fruits of their labor show on the screen in "MirrorMask."

Marketing a film like "MirrorMask" provides a host of challenges for the studio as the release nears. "Every film has its challenges, even some of those that are perceived to be easy to market," said Polis. "As far as the appeal of this film, clearly we're going to focus on the fans of the individual contributors to the work whether that be Henson, Neil or Dave. I think our objective is to really broaden the audience from people who love that type of content.

"One of the unique things about this project is this story is very versatile, even though it's set in part in a fantasy world. It's about a relationship between a mother and a daughter and the relationship between a father and a daughter. The experience the daughter has in growing up, and in this dream sequence that she has which represents a lot of things happening in her life, can parallel what a lot of people go through during those awkward years of being a teenager. Those are some of the elements we need to hit upon to make sure it hits home and is as broadly appealing as possible.

"The easy way to do it is to say look at the great digital effects and it's from Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean and the Henson company, etc., etc…. absolutely, we have to hit upon all those points, but I think in order to make it as widely appealing as possible, we need to focus on the human elements of this story.

"One person [who was at the screening two weeks back] was completely blow away. Their expectations were that they were going to see a really artsy film and not be able to relate to the characters - yet they were completely captivated by the relationships in the film. That's the thing I think we need to focus on in the marketing. There's a very strong human element to the story even though there are fantastic creature and character effects."

Polis said there are already discussions on the publishing side of things to produce an art book and a movie book, something that would contain portions of the script and other elements. They already have a deal with Dark Horse to produce figures, statues and other product in support of the film and Mighty Fine has signed up to do apparel.

"We have pretty significant interest from a couple of people I can't mention yet, but in categories I think we'll be able to close on such as trading cards, soundtracks and others. For a film of this size, we're very pleased there is such interest. Part of it is because of the names involved, but also the imagery lends itself to this sort of product."

And if "MirrorMask" performs well, is there a chance for a sequel? Polis says possibly. "There is an opportunity for additional films, a lot of it dependent upon the response that we get, so between now and the release, show your support by going to www.mirrormask.com and sign up for information on the film!"

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