Neil Gaiman has built an empire of words over the last two decades. He has not only become one of the top writers in modern comics with series like Sandman becoming modern classics and his Hitchhiker's Guide guide Don't Panic becoming somewhat of a de facto Douglas Adams reference, but he has also penned best-selling novels like Stardust (1998) and American Gods (2001). 2004 saw the comics (and eventual graphic novel) release of the high-concept but very clever 1602, in which Gaiman transplanted Marvel Comics' staple heroes to Elizabethan England. He wrote the teleplay (with Lenny Henry) for the 1996 BBC miniseries Neverwhere, had the daunting task of writing the English language screenplay for Hayao Miyazaki's mega-anime feature, Princess Mononoke in 1999.
His unconventional children's book, Coraline (2002) is being made into a $70 million film by James and the Giant Peach animator, Henry Selick, and he and Roger Avary have been deputized to adapt the monster poem, Beowulf, which will also be released in animated form (in 2007).
Presently, he is on tour promoting his latest book, a just-published follow-up to American Gods called Anansi Boys, and getting fans and non-fans alike excited about the fantastical yarn that he and Sandman conspirator Dave McKean wrote for the Jim Henson Company called MirrorMask, which opens in theaters beginning September 30. He currently lives outside of Minneapolis, and was generous enough to take time out of his sleep schedule to talk to Cinematical.
Cinematical: What standard did you and Dave McKean hold yourselves to for 'MirrorMask'?
Neil Gaiman: We wanted to try to measure up to what Jim Henson had done in the mid 80's, but we knew we couldn't make Labyrinth 2. We knew there would be a lot we couldn't do with puppets, considering our budget [of $4 million], so we went with human characters interacting with an animated world.
C: What was the biggest challenge in bringing it from page to screen?
NG: I have no idea, and that's the beauty of being the writer. The only one who knew exactly how was Dave. I could make stuff up, but I didn't know how Dave was going to achieve it, and that's why I had to have Dave with me for the imagining.
C: What do you think worked best?
NG: My favorite was the "Close To You" music box scene. It was strong and weird and it really worked for me. I was most disappointed by the bit with Mrs. Bagwell and her cats. Writing the dialogue was a lot of fun, but it didn't work on-screen. That's why they don’t let writers in the editing room -- because all we want to do is try to save our dialogue.
C: Was [Helena Bonham Carter ringer] Stephanie Leonidis's character in MirrorMask named after Helena Bonham Carter?
NG: No, actually -- the character had that name two years before we found Stephanie. In the early drafts, she was called Lenore. I was looking for something that translated into "light", and Lenore did. At that time, she aspired to being an actress, but when she became a circus performer, the name sounded too posh. Helena seemed a better choice. If she'd been blonde and mousy-looking, she still would have been named Helena.
C: Any idea where fans can get a legitimate copy of 'Life, The Universe and Douglas Adams' [which Gaiman narrated]?
I know that DouglasAdams.com used to have them for sale on VHS, and I heard a rumor that it's coming out on DVD.
C: What question do you get asked the most at book signings and Q&A's?
NG: "When will a movie version of Good Omens/Sandman come out?" tied in a dead heat with "Can I have a hug?" Normally, I oblige, unless there's an enormous table in the way.
C: How many of [very good friend] Tori Amos's songs have you been in?
NG: Four sounds about right.
C: How did you find it writing for television?
NG: Babylon 5 was very pleasant, and Neverwhere was very interesting. I learned a lot watching what they did with my script, and I had mixed feelings about it [which can be heard on the extensive DVD commentary track].
C: Will Henry Selick's version 'Coraline' look more your book or his 'James and the Giant Peach'?
NG: You'll have to ask him that.
C: How are you feeling about the movie adaptation of 'Books Of Magic'?
NG: I haven't seen the latest version of the script, but if it's like the last draft I read, I'm hoping they change the name and the name of the main character.
C: Did you approach the adaptation of 'Beowulf' the same way you took on 'Princess Mononoke'?
NG: With Mononoke, the big problem was that the film already existed, and I had to come up with an English language script that not only conveyed all the necessary information, but also still matched the mouth movements of the original work -- all for an audience that was not familiar with the culture. Beowulf was much easier, as I was writing mostly from scratch.
C: What are you writing right now?
NG: I was asked to write and introduction to an upcoming [comics über-god] Will Eisner collection. After I finish the tour for MirrorMask and Anansi Boys, I'll get to work writing the next novel.
Keep up on what Neil is up to at NeilGaiman.com, and check out our review of MirrorMask here.