In Neil Gaimain and Charles Vess‘ “Stardust,” young Tristan Thorn, who lives in the village of Wall located on the borders of Faerie, promises the girl of his dreams that he’ll retrieve a star that fell in to Faerie – but he’s not the only one looking for the star.
“Stardust” is, for many, their first introduction to the work of Neil Gaiman. The story book with pictures was first released in 1997 by DC Comics as a four-part mini-series that was ultimately collected into a gorgeous hardcover edition 1998 in an oversized format that complemented Vess’ illustrations. While the book was a huge success within the comics world, it still remained mostly unknown to the mainstream public until 1999 when the book was released as a conventional novel without illustrations. While the prose publication found a much larger audience amongst the mainstream, those who’ve seen the illustrated edition know that without Vess’ illustrations, “Stardust” is only half complete.
Fast forward to 2007 and everyone will get a chance to see Gaiman and Vess’ fantasy story come to life on the silver screen. Starring an all-star cast that includes the likes of Claire Danes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert DeNiro, Ricky Gervais and others, the feature film adaptation of “Stardust” is directed by Matthew Vaughn (“Layer Cake”) and early feedback has been entirely positive.
Earlier this year, CBR News sat down with Gaiman and Vess to see how things are progressing on the production and the story behind the making of “Stardust.”
Neil, talk to us about how exciting this must be for you to finally see “Stardust” come to the big screen.
Neil Gaiman: Well, it’s incredibly thrillingly exciting and that’s only because it’s good! [laughs] I worked with Matthew Vaughn and Jane Little on the script. I’ve been there through casting. I was there through pre-production. And then the day they started production, I flew back to America and then was off to Australia and bounced around the world and was just sort of very nervous, frankly, about what was going on back at Sky, in Iceland, and in Pinewood. A couple of months ago I got down to Pinewood and walked into the screening theatre there and they showed me half an hour of footage and I wound up with a grin on my face that you couldn’t have removed with an axe. I was like, “OK, it’s my thing and its working and they’ve made it into a film and it’s good and it’s funny!” The scary bits are scary! Michelle Pfeiffer is absolutely fucking terrifying! Robert DeNiro is terrific! Ricky Gervais is hilarious!
The challenge now is we have a film that’s very different from anything else. I keep trying to think of things to compare it to. I’ll say, “It’s a little bit like ‘Shakespeare in Love’ meets the Richard Lester ‘Three Musketeers’ meets ‘The Princess Bride’ with a little sort of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ undertow” and then you go, “Oh fuck, I might as well be spouting random movies here.” It’s its own thing. I like it. I really do.
You mentioned how you worked on the script with these guys. Can you talk about what your contributions were to the creative process?
Gaiman: Honestly, my biggest contribution was just going and getting Jane. Matthew Vaughn phoned me up last April and said, “I want to do it. I want to move ahead on ‘Stardust.'” He started mentioning writers he was seeing and I thought, hang on, all of the writers Matthew’s talking to are boys writers and Matthew is a boys director and if the balance here isn’t right, then it’s going to be “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Fairies.” What happened then is I phoned Jonathan Ross. I was doing some work, had to finish copy editing my last novel, and I got off to Jonathan and Jane’s house in Florida. I asked Jonathan what was happening with Jane’s current novel and he said she really wanted to do some screenplay stuff. Suddenly, a little electric light went on above my head and I said, “Has she ever read ‘Stardust?'” He asked her and he said, “No, that’s the only thing of yours she’s not read.” So I said, “Tell her to read it by Monday and we’ll talk then.” [laughs]
I spoke with her a few days later and asked what she thought and she said, “It’s brilliant! Why did you want me to read it.” And I said, “Well, would you like to do the script?” She said yes and I phoned up Matthew and asked him to go meet Jane and see if you like her. That, honestly, was my big thing. I thought that combination where she’ll bring the humanity to it and get the romance, which I think Matthew on his own – and self-admittedly – struggled with. That was a big part.
Then, last November, I went over to England, stayed with Matthew and Jane at Matthew’s absolutely terrifying country estate and Jane and I acted it through and read the entire script. At that point I had a fair amount of input into saying no to certain things and suggestions changes. They already had a script, so all I was really doing was filing off a few rough edges and encouraging them.
Charles, how much does this film capture the grace of your illustrations?
Charles Vess: It will have all the grace and terror, but it will look different. The designers have gone into their own space and though they’ve developed the same world, it’s with slightly different view points. It’s still walking into an entirely different world than what you live in and it’s really nice.
Did they refer to your original illustrations?
Vess: They started with that and Matthew had certain things he wanted to go after. Everyone seems very personally involved with what they were developing and that’s the best thing because they really did a terrific job. Some scenes that I couldn’t do deadline wise, such as the coronation scene, is in the movie and it’s incredible and I thought to myself, “Wow, that would have been cool to draw.”
Do you think Matthew Vaughn will bring an interesting pace to the film?
Gaiman: Yes, he does. I think there’s a sense of pace and urgency to it and also sort of a very filmic quality to it. It doesn’t look like a fantasy movie, which I love. It looks like something perhaps slightly cock-eyed historically. If you were changing channels and you caught this, you wouldn’t say, “Oh yes, a fantasy movie.” You’d go, “I don’t know what this is. I think I’ll watch it for a few seconds and figure it out.”
Neil, can you talk a bit about the original development and inspiration for “Stardust?”
It mostly started with, in 1991, Charles and I won the World Fantasy Award for “Sandman” #19, “A Midsummer’s Night Dream.” We were out in Tuscon, Arizona, and astonished ourselves and everybody else by winning the award. We astonished everyone else to the point where the secret committee behind the judging got together the following morning to change the rules so that it could never happen again! [laughs] That night I went to a party out in the Tucson, Arizona desert and I got to watch a falling star. In England, they’re just sort of a streak of light across the sky. I discovered if you’re in the Tucson desert, it’s like this little diamond crossing the sky. And I thought, “What if you went to get that falling star?” Then I thought, “What if it wasn’t a falling star, it was a girl and what if she had a broken leg and had no desire to be dragged half way across the world and presented to anybody’s would be fiancée.” Suddenly I had a story and went back to the Hotel and found Charlie, who was at a different party, pulled him out of the party …
Vess: Holding champagne!
Gaiman: Yes, holding a bottle of champagne. Celebrating! And I told him the story, everything that was in my head and at the end he smiled and said, “I can’t wait to draw it.” That really was where it began.
Vess: And then there were years and years of development!
Gaiman: Yes. I started writing it in 1994 and 1995. I was staying at Tori Amos’ house in London. I bought a fountain pen for the occasion because I wanted to write it in long hand. I could not quite have told you why I thought it was a good idea because Charles then cursed me when I photocopied the first chapter and sent it to him, he phoned me up and said, “Well, there were three words on page three I could read!” [laughs] After that, it was just a matter of writing it. A lot of the story was pushed into existence by me going, “Wouldn’t it be fun to see Charles drawing so-and-so.” Occasionally he’d draw something and I’d say, “That’s good, I’m going to bring that back.”
Vess: The piece of paper I’d like to discover, and maybe you have it somewhere in your archives, is I remember you writing a page or page and a half of what could be in a fairie market. I’ve never been able to find that again. There was no story at that point, but I used that for inspiration. You had a big long list of things, like a dancing bear and what have you. Then I thought of various things I wanted in the fairie market and did this big drawing because there was no text yet.
Gaiman: We did the art as a sort of presentation to publishers first. So in 1993, Charles did a bunch of the paintings.
It took a while to wend its way into the world. It was published in 1998, I think, and then in 1999 without the pictures. We had looked at the contract and discovered that DC had given us those rights without really noticing they had. The rest is history.
Do you think the huge amount of large scale, fantasy projects like the “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter” films produced in the last five years kind of blazed the trail for this project to get off the ground?
Gaiman: To be honest, I don’t think the general viewing public would ever have had a problem with it. I think there’s less of a problem with studios now. Even a couple of years ago I remember having a conversation with a studio head who said, “Now, Neil, you have to understand that people don’t want fantasy.” I mentioned the “Lord of the Rings” and the “Harry Potters” and got to the end of the list and he said, “Yeah, yeah, but people don’t like fantasy.” [Laughs] I don’t think honestly there’s any difference in the viewing public. The viewing public like good stories and are perfectly happy to be given good fantasy or good science fiction or good horror or good comedies, what have you, as long as what they’re getting is a good story, well told. Studios, though, are much more nervous. I think that’s the biggest thing that’s changed.
Finishing up, Neil, what can you tell us about your work on the film adaptation of “Beowulf” that you wrote?
Well, it’ll be out in November of 2007 and Angelina Jolie plays Grendel’s mother. The stuff I’ve seen thus far is really cool. It’s one of those things I can’t wait for because either it’s going to be the first cool and successful adult cartoon that’s ever been made in the west, or it’s going to be a really cool and magnificent and failure of such stupendous proportions it’s going to have been an honor to be involved in it! [laughs] And I’m perfectly happy to be involved either way.
Thanks, Neil and Charles.
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