The "MirrorMask" Interviews: Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean

The works of Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman have inspired children and adults alike for years and will continue to do so for generations to come. As I said in my review, "MirrorMask" absolutely lives up to the promise of Gaiman & McKean's formidable print empire as well as Jim Henson's deified celluloid legacy. When the opportunity to speak with both Gaiman and McKean in person (albeit in the company of a handful of other reporters) finally presented itself, I used every resource at my disposal to prepare for CBR readers the most comprehensive and fiercely penetrating interview yet given by these most honored artists.

Unfortunately, I was really hungry and the Henson Company's complimentary, pre-prepared turkey sandwiches were all doused in mayonnaise -- a condiment for which there is no excuse. My game was thrown off irreparably.


Why does most children's literature have a dark side?

I think because children respond so well to that stuff. I think children have very, very clear ideas about good and evil. The [dark] stuff that you hand to children, which if you hand to an adult... adults are much more morally equivocal than kids. It would be very hard to give an adult a story like the original version of "Snow White," where you wind up with the Queen being invited to the wedding and then forced to dance in red-hot iron shoes until she burned and her heart exploded and she dies in agony. You tell this kind of things to kids and they sit there nodding and, "Yup, that's fair, absolutely! Wicked people should be punished!" And adults are sort of going, "Yes, well, nobody's entirely...um, can sort of see her point of view and that's really rather cruel." Kids have no problems with "Hansel & Gretel's" Witch being pushed into the oven, nor with the idea that the Witch has been fattening Hansel up to eat him. These are stories which, if there were a kids' equivalent of the Federal Communication Commission who had the power to take these stories out of circulation, had they not been Grandfathered-in, they wouldn't allow you tell the original Grimm's fairy tales to kids.

I've never met any kids who particularly responded to stories with no dark side. They like good, they like evil, they like problems. There is a reason why most people can absolutely remember and love the great Warner Brothers cartoons in which some character is trying to eat and kill another character and is normally painfully hurt continually through the performance of this, while they can barely remember even having watched those sort of "PBSy" cartoons in which everybody loves everybody and then somebody thinks maybe someone doesn't love them properly, but in the end they all have a hug.

With "MirrorMask," people have said to me, "Well how do you feel about the fact that kids may be scared of the Dark Queen's head when it's appearing and it's huge and its writhing hair tentacles and whatever?" My most vivid, coolest memories of being a kid at the movies are actually ducking behind the seats when the Witch came on in "Wizard Of Oz," and watching and peaking up and going down and peaking up and going down.

And you find that pleasurable?

Absolutely. It made it a real movie for me. It made the "Wizard of Oz" something as an adult, I can still remember as having real substance. I think things like "Snow White"-- the original Disney one-- had some wonderfully cool scary [moments.] There's nothing we do in "MirrorMask" which is even a hair as scary as anything in "Snow White," where there are places in there where Disney set out to terrify. And succeeded brilliantly.

Do you feel that Hollywood, in general, has had a harder time coming to grips with adapting graphic novel material, as opposed to superheroes, which you know they already have a hard time doing with any real loyalty?

I honestly don't think there's much difference. At least in my opinion. You've got as many, you know, "American Splendors" and "Ghost Worlds" as you have anything else. You don't have many and you don't really have that many superhero movies, at least in terms of proportion. What I do think you tend to get with comics and graphic novels going onto the screen, which is something I have no particular explanation for, is that the success or failure of the movie seems to be absolutely dependent-- with one exception, which was "Men In Black"-- on how close the thing actually is to the original source material. Which fascinates me. I knew that the "Constantine" movie was doomed the moment... I remember being in this room in San Diego with eight thousand people. It was the Vertigo panel and this was the big announcement. Karen Berger gets up there and says there is going to be a John Constantine movie, and everyone goes GASP. And she says it's going to star Keanu Reeves and everyone goes "eh." It wasn't a boo, but it was an eh from eight-thousand people going "No, he's blonde and he's English." That's not our film. It's like saying okay it's going to be a Batman movie, but he's going to be in a fuzzy pink costume, and you get the same kind of eh. I don't know why that is but it's definitely true.

Things that really work, things like "Spider-Man"-- it's like the comics, it feels like the comics, in some ways it's better than the comics, but it's very, very faithful. Or "Ghost World." Again, it feels like the comics. I think one reason why Hollywood likes buying comics and sometimes making them is because most execs don't have imaginations and the lovely thing about a comic is they can look at it and they can see the pictures. They don't have to read a whole novel, or even read a treatment.

If it is simpler visually, like here's the story already mapped out, why do they have such a hard time with something like "Sandman?" Why has that been in development hell forever?

There's two reasons, both of which are true. One of which is, in the case of "Sandman," it's a two-thousand page story. And the first question is, what do you throw away? How do you shape this into something? Do you do a Harry Potter? It's only now, with the success of the "Matrix" and "Harry Potter" movies they're actually starting to go, "Well, maybe we can make a series of Sandman movies and not The Sandman Film."

-- Neil Gaiman

And the other thing is Hollywood executives really love the smell of their own urine and what they really like doing is urinating on things. And then going, "Hmm, now this smells really good" and being really puzzled when the rest of the world goes "No, actually it smells like pee." A gorgeous example of that, Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, who wrote "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Shrek" and some lovely movies, were brought in by Jon Peters to write the first draft of the Sandman movie. He hadn't actually read any "Sandman" because he had people to do that kind of stuff for him, but he had figured out that what the movie needed to be successful was a giant mechanical spider. He wanted a giant mechanical spider because that would make any film a hit. Elliot and Rossio, who had read "Sandman," who went in with their pitch and looking forward to it and going, "But there's no room for a giant mechanical spider."

"I know it, I'm Jon Peters, and I want my giant mechanical spider!"

I was thrilled on going to see "Wild Wild West" to see that he had finally put this giant mechanical spider that I'd been hearing about from Elliot and Rossio for five years into a film with no ideas of any kind. I really think a lot of it is [executives] are wedded to their giant mechanical spiders and they're also convinced they know best, because obviously they're Hollywood executives.

That was the joy of "MirrorMask." I wrote it for Writer's Guild TV basic, which was technically I think one one-thirtieth of my quote in Hollywood at the point I wrote it. But the Henson Company was able to offer us an incredibly simple deal which was very straightforward, which is: "you get four million dollars to make a fantasy movie with. We can pay you absolutely nothing, you'll be working for basic, but nobody is going to tell you what to do. If we like the script, we sign off on it, and you make your movie. We want a film like 'Labyrinth,' like 'The Dark Crystal,' like the Henson films we made back in the '80s. We think it would be a good thing to make a family fantasy movie now. Those films cost forty million dollars back in the '80s. We have four million dollars now. All we can offer you is you will never have to sit there at a table while a bunch of people in suits tell you how you're going to change your script. Write us a script, we'll sign off on it, and we'll be in business."

Those films ["Labyrinth" and "The Dark Crystal"], which were not perceived as being successes when they came out, have gone on first on video and then on DVD to just become films that generation after generation discovers and rediscovers. They've become essentially classics. Henson hasn't done anything like that since Jim died. "We have four million dollars, that's all we've got. We'd like to make one." [Lisa Henson] phoned me up. I said it was impossible. She said I've seen McKean's films that he made in his mother's barn. "Do you think he could do it?" I don't know, but I think I can ask him. "I know we couldn't afford you to write it, but do you think you could come up with a story?" I said if Dave says yes to directing it, I'm going to write it. Why should I lose the fun?

What was the final cost?

Four million! That was all we had! In fact, what was horrible about that was it dropped. 4 million dollars when we got the green light was two and a half million pounds, and that was what we budgeted it as. But thanks to George Bush's handling of the economy, by the time we actually needed the money, it was actually two million pounds, because the dollar had dropped. So in essence we had lost a million dollars. It had gone from a 5 mil budget to a 4 million budget because of the drop in the dollar. Dave brought it in for that.

Where did the ideas come from? Was it several ideas?

We wound up going to the Henson family house in Hamsted. We had, like, two weeks and we both brought a bundle of ideas along. I had a sort of idea that I'd love to do a sort of Prince and the Pauper idea. Something with a girl who was somehow split into two girls who became one at the end. I had an idea of a girl who was part of a traveling theatre and her mother getting sick and having to go off the road. Dave preferred the idea of a circus because it was more interesting visually. He had the idea of the masks and the two mothers.

What about Helena, specifically? She has a lot of Sarah's DNA, from "Labyrinth," but she also has a really unique attitude that I haven't seen in a kids' movie like this.

The Sarah DNA I think is because we both talked about what we liked about "Labyrinth," and one of the things we both really responded to as parents of daughters was the fact that it's about a girl who's at that point in life where you have girlhood on one side and young womanhood on the other, and you're making a bunch of decisions and sort of internally processing a bunch of stuff about who you are, what you are, and whether that's what you want to be. For me, the key to Helena's identity was just that line right at the beginning where her mom says all these kids would love to run off and join the circus and Helena says, "Great! I want to run away and join real life." I thought, okay, I can hold onto that. That's an attitude. What was fun was when we handed in the script, the immediate response from the Sony people was, "We don't quite get Helena because sometimes in the script she's reacting like a kid and sometimes she's reacting as a young woman." That's the whole point when you've got a 14-15 year old, even a 10-11 year old, there are points where they're 25 and points when they're 6! There are points when they're young women and there are points when they need a hug. I loved the idea of concretizing that metaphor; making this all happen at that cusp moment where she's really under the gun and under an incredible amount of pressure.

I love the fact that she's an artist and is genuinely creative, which is helped of course by the fact that Dave McKean did all her drawings. One goes, okay, she's a phenomenally talented artist! But it came down for me to the joy of creating our Helena and the joy of creating the anti-Helena and giving her this wonderfully sketchy sidekick who wasn't really a boyfriend but was just wonderfully flaky.

Tragically, a marketing person appeared and removed Gaiman just before I could ask him about what his next comics project would be; his old "Secret Origins" book for DC; who would win in a fight between the Legion of Super-Heroes and the Green Lantern Corps; his biography on Duran Duran; and if he'd mind filling out a meme for my livejournal.

After a considerable amount of time (in which I failed to inspire the other reporters to rise up and demand free Jim Henson Company memorabilia as reparations for the mayonnaise-polluted sandwiches), Dave McKean was escorted into the remarkably comfortable interview space that had been prepared for us, and we proceeded with his portion of the interview.


What's your favorite part of the movie?

The fact that it's over now and I don't have to do it anymore! [Laughs] I quite like the giant sequence. And I quite like the "Close To You" song, when the robots sing "Close To You."

Whose idea was that? Where did that come from?

I picked Neil up from the railway station to drive him to Jim Henson's house so we could start writing, and I had brought a CD of John Zorn, who's a New York avant garde sax composer. He'd put together a CD of Burt Bacherach songs. They were all pretty strange arrangements, and we just loved "Close To You" and started kicking ideas around about it sounding like a robot singing inside your head, and then it became a roomful. Almost all the scenes in the film came from odd places.

The giants, where did they come from?

The giants came from a software demonstration. I went to a demo of a program called Maya, which is a program you use to build 3D (characters). It was a pretty dry demo, I had a sketchbook and was just doodling to myself. But at one point the person who was demonstrating picked up gravity, which is a property, and applied it to something which suddenly fell and hit things and I just thought, this is magic. So, I imagined these sort of two things or something, gravitationally attracted against each other so they would hover and fall apart. It came from that. That seemed to suggest a married couple who lived in harmony together all the time, but were forced apart, and that's what happened in the script. Strange places.

At no time did someone say, "That's too much, change that?"

No. Nobody said that. And it's to Lisa [Henson's] credit, really. I mean, it's got the Henson logo on the front of it. It's not a Henson film, it's got no Muppets or puppets and the Henson company didn't do any of the effects or things like that, but I think she realizes that it's got a bit of Jim's spirit in it. He never talked down to anybody. He always had kind of a wit and wisdom in his writing and in the Muppet Show and all those sort of things. Just a joy in communicating with people. I was unsure at first, it seemed like a strange partnership, but I think it's actually a very good partnership. I'm very happy to have the Henson name in front of it now.

The music in the film is really interesting.

[McKean laugh's out loud]

It's sort of jazzy at first, trip-hop at times, with Helena's name incorporated into the score. Was that your idea? The composer's? Tell us about the composer.

The composer is a mate of mine named Iain Ballamy. He's one of Europe's best sax players. He's a terrific composer. He's obviously never done anything like this before, but I wanted a musical landscape that never quite settled on anywhere geographically or time-wise as well. I wanted that feeling. The [Dark Lands] has bits of European cities like Warsaw and Venice and all sorts of places. It's a sort of strange, "collagy" dream place. I just thought Iain could do it, I just completely trusted that he could do it. Plus, he's done a lot of circus music before; played in circuses. He just seemed to be perfect for it. I really like it-- it's a very strange, electric bunch of cues. I can understand when people think it's a bit odd, but I like it. It's my taste.

How was the music recorded?

We had a strange way of going about it, really. Again, we had such a tight budget, we couldn't get an orchestra; we couldn't do it the usual way so we had to think of a way of doing it. So what happened was I involved Iain right at the very start of the process, and obviously it was a long process. It was about seventeen months. It was very frustrating for Iain because the edit [of the film] kept changing and shots would go in and come out and pieces of music that worked perfectly well in 4/4 all of a suddenly had to work in 15/8. So we had to think of a way of actually recording this for the budget and for the time and for the practicalities. Iain got together with a programmer, Ashley Slater, so that everything could be quite fluid on the digital line. But most of the instruments are real, and Iain just knows everybody. Anytime there was a great cimbalom player coming through London, we'd grab him in his dressing room and point the microphone at him and get him to record some things. [We would] describe some scenes and he would imagine a street with mist or a skimpy spider. We got a fantastic singer from Norway, Josephine Cronholm, to come sing the songs. We got Steve Carsenson, who's a virtuoso accordion player. It's just because these guys happened to be passing through London with their various bands and other things that Iain was in touch with them all the time, and we could sort of snag them and get a bit of work out of them.

How many images that we saw were in the script? Did it say "fish swim by" or "we see words written in front of her?"

Some of that stuff was in the script. What I also did was I ended up doing twenty or so very broad images to accompany the script so people could get a fee for how it was going to look. I didn't want it to look completely realistic. I wanted it to have a painterly, illustrative feel to it because it's a wall full of drawings, it's a dream, it's in her head. There's no point in being slavishly realistic all the time. Plus a lot of that stuff, to be honest, was just improvised on the day. I had a very loose working relationship with the animators. We get in in the morning and start working on a scene and play with it. You know, push and pull the buildings around. If we needed a tree, well, we've got a model of a fly, let's stick it in the ground and pull it up and we've got a tree. It was that sort of loose and playful [situation]. If you're working on something for seventeen months, it can just get painfully laborious doing CG stuff. It's nice to have a bit of fun and bit of playing with it. So a lot of the stuff that's hanging in the air, I just made it up. It's all my world, it's all my stuff. There was never a worry that it wouldn't fit or wouldn't mix.

What do you dream? Is it this world or the world that we saw in the film? Is it your creations that inhabit your dreams?

My dreams are a mixture, but very often they are... I suppose that's why I like these sorts of images that have this strange "collagy," fragmentary nature to them. Maybe I'm visualizing in a particular way, in an interpretive sort of way. But very often if I'm talking to you in my dream and I turn around, I'm in Venice. It's that sort of dream logic that makes perfect sense in a dream, and then you have to find a way to interpret that for a story, or for a film.

How are they merchandising this film?

There are some toys, which I won't go into. But there are some books! There's a script and storyboard book that's been out for a while. There's a children's picture book all written from Helena's point of view. She's right at the center of this. It's her story, written by her. And then the book that I'm really very happy with is an art book with all of my paintings and drawings and then the models and development stuff. Stuff that inspired the film. My photographs of European cities that I like.

Neil mentioned that the budget was tight and got tighter.

It was a little tight.

Do you feel that in a way that was good? That it taught you discipline that you wouldn't have had that will help you in future projects when you'll have more money, or was it just... you couldn't wait to have more money?

I thought it was great! I love having a ceiling. I love having bars to push against. There were three parts to the brief. It had to be made for this amount of money. It had to be a family film. So, not a gory sort of thing. And it had to have a fantasy element to it. And that was non-specific. They didn't want a sequel to "Labyrinth," it just had to have a fantasy element and if we could think of something we could do it. We felt that was a wonderful brief. We knew our territory. It played straight into things that Neil and I were talking about anyway, particularly Neil's fascination with a kind of story. Rite of passage stories. It played right into my fascination with a particular atmosphere and a particular kind of feeling where you start and you don't know where you're going to go, where you have no idea what's going to be on screen in ten minutes time. I love it when that happens and it's quite rare. We talked for about a minute and decided it was such a great opportunity, we had to try this.

If you had more money would it have been different? Because it looks pretty good.

Money buys you a degree of stress relief, I suppose. It was actually pretty miserable a lot of the time, making it, because it was just so difficult to get the computers to like each other and play nicely with each other... just getting the data around, all the technical side was always a crush. But I don't think the look of the film would have been any different. That's my look. I'm not interested in making that look photo-real. That's where the money goes because it's very time-consuming and very technical and it's a great achievement if you can do it, but a very narrow achievement because digital can go anywhere. I think even if we had ten times the money it still would have had that "collagy," painterly, hand-made look. I was interested in having it look like an individual made it.

There are children who grew up watching the Jim Henson movies, "Labyrinth" and "The Dark Crystal," and they grew up to become teenagers who read yours and Neil's comic books. Now perhaps their children are going to watch yours and Neil's movie and become comic book readers themselves. How does that make you feel?

It's wonderful. It's great. And that's the interesting thing about Jim's two films. I think when they first came out they weren't huge hits, but they were made by an individual, and they've gathered a generation upon generation of people discovering them and realizing that. There are a lot of astonishing, well-made films around, but they're made by sort of committees and computers and corporations. I think Jim's stuff was always great because he was the hand in the puppet. And that went through all of his work I think. That sort of direct human communication.

For more on "MirroMask," check out our review of the film and our interview with "MirrorMask" Producer Michael Polis.

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