EXCLUSIVE: This is the third and final part of our interview with Neil Gaiman on the 20th anniversary of "The Sandman." In this installment, the British native talks about the film future of Morpheus, his disappointments with the "Stardust" movie and his anxieties about the upcoming "Coraline" adaptation.
GB: This seems to be the golden age of comic-book films and your Hollywood profile has risen with "Beowulf," "Stardust" and the upcoming "Coraline." So what can you tell us about the status of "The Sandman" as a Hollywood project?
NG: Back in about 1991 or 1992 I got sent into a meeting with an executive at Warners. He told me, "They’re talking about a ‘Sandman’ movie," and I said. "Please, don’t do it." He said, "What?" I told him I’m still writing this thing, it’s not done yet, and a movie would throw everything off of its course. He said, "You are the first human being ever to come into my office and beg me not to make a movie." [Laughs] Which was incredibly sweet…
My feeling today is that I would so much rather there be no movie than there be a bad movie. We’re getting closer and closer to the point where you could make a Sandman movie just because the world is changing. The thing that has really made it practical for the superhero movies to exist is the simple fact that you can put it on screen now. With trying to make superhero movies over the years, it has always been that you simply couldn’t do it. They would say, "You will believe a man can fly," but you really wouldn’t.
Now, you pretty much can. And now you have an era of cheap special effects and people who have grown up reading and respecting comics. Fifteen years ago, when I would go in for meetings at studios, the people who had the power to greenlight things and make things happen, they didn’t really know who I was. They weren’t sure what Sandman was. Their assistants weren’t sure what Sandman was. But the guy who would bring you the bottle of water, the interns, the assistants to the assistants, the bottom-rung people — they knew who I was. These were the guys who would sidle up to me in the corridors and say, "I love what you do." The interesting thing is now, 15 years on, those guys are running studios.
The people making the decisions now, they know who I am, they know who Alan Moore is, these are the people looking forward to a "Watchmen" movie for 20 years. So a Sandman movie is an inevitability, sooner or later.
GB: And what would be your most important compass point in moving forward with a Sandman film?
NG: The only thing I hope for is that whoever it goes to has the same amount of passion for it that Peter Jackson brought to "Lord of the Rings." I want someone who will make the film because he loved it and he cared about it and if anybody was going to screw it up, it was going to be him. That’s what Jackson did and it seems like the same position Zack Snyder is in with "Watchmen," from the interviews. He was scared somebody else wouldn’t get it right. I hope when "Sandmen" gets made it’s by somebody like that. Guillermo del Toro has his "Hellboy" as his thing that he loves that is important and personal, that’s what "Sandman" needs. There is someone out there. Or there will be someone out there in five or 10 years.
GB: You’ve been traveling quite a bit. How was China?
NG: I have been traveling much too much. China was absolutely fascinating. I spent about five weeks traveling across China and I have to go back there early next year for round two. It’s all for a nonfiction project. The last nonfiction book that I did was just before "The Sandman," I wrote a book about Douglas Adams and "The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy." Since then I’ve been feeling my nonfiction wings atrophying. I’ve turned into some kind of penguin. So I thought it would be really interesting to write about China and I’ve been fascinated about the legend of the Monkey King and that became the sort of starting point for me.
The story is one of the four great Chinese classical stories from the 16th century. And I got to investigate the real-life people that story was based on in the 7th century. I also got to travel across China where I had a variety of strange and wonderful events including bribing an elderly watchman to allow me into a closed-down amusement park filled with dark and dusty monkey statues. The park takes you through a story that ends in hell. This thing was an amusement park inside a warehouse so it was very incredibly dark and it closed down because people simply weren’t coming back. I did this walk where you start out in this fun, lovely, happy monkey story and you walk through that to the end of the warehouse where you are in hell and you watch all these demons crushing people before you stumble out into the daylight. I really can’t imagine any little Chinese kid turning around to their dad and saying, ‘Wow, I can’t wait to come back.’
GB: So, uh, you start out with "Curious George" and end up in "Dante’s Inferno"?
NG: Yes, exactly, that’s it. I also had an old man try to sell me a human elbow by a ruined temple. But I had a wonderful time. Obviously with something as huge and old as China, you can only cover a little bit. I’m looking forward to getting back there and writing more about it.
NG: It was odd. It was so ineptly marketed. It went on to be a huge hit internationally. It made over $150 million internationally but it did that in a world where it made the same amount of money in American and Russia in its first week of release. I don’t know. What still amuses me, looking back on it, people at Paramount would say, "What’s it like," and we’d say, "It’s like ‘The Princess Bride.’" And they’d say, "We can’t mention ‘Princess Bride’ that didn’t make money and it opened third to a Dudley Moore movie." And we’d say, "But people love that movie now and it’s kind of like that." So what they did was more or less re-create the original marketing campaign for "The Princess Bride" and in effect repeating the same mistake and inflicting that on the world. They didn’t have much of a clue. it was a hit in England and Russia and the rest of the world. It was fascinating. Very educational. The interesting thing is I had two movies coming out over a period of two months with "Stardust" and Beowulf." So I’d be sitting there in a marketing presentation for "Stardust" and then everyone would leave and I’d stay there and then the "Beowulf" people would come in. So I’d watch both and it was striking how incredibly comfortable they were with "Beowulf" and how they were promoting it and how completely lost they were with "Stardust." The main thing I learned was how completely dependent you are on trailers, ads and on tone of voice. They had something like "Princess Bride" and they promoted it like it was "Ella Enchanted." The people that would have liked it weren’t finding it. That they are finding it now on DVD is interesting. I am absolutely fascinated to see how "Coraline" does. That’s in theaters the first week in February.
GB: That of course is director Henry Selick’s 3-D stop-motion animated film adapting your novel for youngsters which, by the way, my 10-year-old daughter Addison absolutely adores. So thanks from our household for writing that one.
NG: Well you are so welcome! I loved writing it. It’s going to be interesting to see if your daughter enjoys the movie. It’s going to be really interesting to see if they can handle the very interesting conundrum they have with "Coraline." In many ways its more difficult than "Stardust" was because you have a book that is beloved of children and beloved of adults and you cannot pitch your advertising only to one group, otherwise you will lose the other.
GB: Doesn’t the acclaim and recognition of Selick’s "The Nightmare Before Christmas" set the stage in many ways? And don’t "Corpse Bride" and "Monster House" also help the cause?
NG: I hope so but the most interesting thing about "Nightmare" is it did not do that well when it came out. I suspect you’ll find it probably makes as much now in Halloween releases and 3-D releases as it did when it came out. But the great thing about Disney is that when they realized that it could work in that way they started supporting it. I get the impression that if "Coraline" follows that same sort of path, nobody will be too upset. I’m just incredibly impressed and proud of what Henry Selick has done. The guy is a genius. I was reading an account online of a presentation in New York with about 30 minutes of footage to animation students and one of these students put up his hand and asked why Henry was copying what Tim Burton did in "Nightmare Before Christmas." Oh, it’s terrible. I know the film is called "Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas" but Tim did some drawings and Henry spent two years making that movie, he was the director. It’s one of those moments where your stomach lurches. I want people to know what he’s done. He is a genius.
GB: One last question: Will you ever return to "The Sandman" on the page? Are there more dreams to come?
NG: I don’t know. You never say never again. You especially never say never again because time is vast. I wouldn’t want to go back and do something that would make what I did before into something less. There was a period in the early 1980s where it became fashionable and profitable for very elderly science fiction writers to return to things that they had left 15 or 20 years earlier and do sequels. I don’t remember any of those sequels making what already existed better. Isaac Asimov doing a sequel to "The Foundation" trilogy, it just made it less. So if I ever wanted to do something, it would have to make it more. That being said, there were stories I never got to because, well, there are always stories one doesn’t get to. So it’s not like there aren’t stories I can tell. But they will have to become stories I have to tell.
— Geoff Boucher
READ THE REST OF THE INTERVIEW:
PART ONE: Neil Gaiman on the 20-year anniversary of "The Sandman": "It is has been wonderful and baffling and inspiring."
PART TWO: Neil Gaiman on the "British Invasion" in comics: "Alan Moore got to be the Beatles…I was Gerry and the Pacemakers."
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Sandman artwork courtesy of Vertigo/DC Comics.