Interview with Neil Gaiman, September 24, 2005

This interview was conducted following Neil's reading and Q&A session at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC. 2005 marks Neil's second appearance at the Festival, and his second such interview with a Green Man Review staff member at the festival (Liz Milner did the honors last year). Though his day was off to a hectic start (so hectic, he arrived at his reading sans a copy of Anansi Boys and completely forgot to mention the Mirrormask opening) and we couldn't sit down until the brief window between his talk and signing sessions, he was quite gracious and answered all of my self-indulgent questions, some in great detail, for which I must extend a hearty thank you.

I know I said I wouldn't ask much about Mirrormask, but you recently announced that you're going to be doing the prequel in manga form for Tokyopop and I wondered if you could tell us a little bit about why you're interested in doing the prequel in book form, and why manga format.

Mostly because I happened to sit next to the chairman of Tokyopop at a publishers' association meeting. We were at lunch together and we got to talking about how they'd just signed a deal with Henson's to do Labyrinth and the Dark Crystal books in manga form. Dave McKean had vetoed doing a comics adaptation of Mirrormask, because he didn't want to do the art. And he was also worried that if we did a comics adaptation people would think that was the thing that Mirrormask had been adapted from rather than being an original project. Whereas the idea of doing it manga-style meant that you don't have to worry about it looking like Dave McKean.

Is Dave actually going to do the art, or someone else?

No. It'll be somebody else doing the art, and somebody else writing it. I'm merely co-plotting it and overseeing it. There's various sorts of little plotty things in Mirrormask that I always wished I'd been able to set up better, but couldn't because we could only follow one person's point of view through Mirrormask. So it's really sort of the story of the Dark Princess, who has escaped at the beginning of Mirrormask and who has returned at the end.

Will there be multiple volumes, or just a single one?

I think it's just going to be one long book. One book-sized book.

Can we look for that in 2006 or 2007?

One or the other.

And speaking of Mirrormask, now that you've gone through the experience of doing a project like this, small-budgeted in the grand scheme of things (about $4 million, wasn't it?), is it something you'd want to do again?

Make a $4 million movie? Or make a movie?

Make a movie like that, in the sense of being heavy on CG [computer graphics], having a lot of control over it. . . .

No.

Not interested in doing it again?

No, I mean it was really interesting doing it once, but it didn't make me go think: Gosh we have to do this again like this. It made me want to go: Gosh I want to do different things. But then again, my entire career has always been around me going: That was interesting, let's go do something else.

What prompted that particular question was reading that Shia LaBoef had recently said at the Toronto film festival that you and he were working on Death the High Cost of Living.

It's true.

And so I assume it's proceeding in live action.

It is.

Can you give us a little bit of information about it?

Well, the script is called Death and Me and it's currently being budgeted by New Line. And if they say yes to it and we can work out a budget, I think I'll probably then have to do another rewrite, and if everything works according to plan, we'll be looking at going out and starting shooting next May or June.

I understand it's expanded from the original mini-series.

Yes. That's mostly because if you shot the original mini-series shot by shot you would have a 38 minute film. Probably a very good 38 minute film, but it would be a 38 minute film.

In what way did you expand it?

I made it bigger. I en-biggened it. I sort of made up more stuff. It was the fun of it, to be honest, and what drew me to it. Because the problem with trying to do Sandman as a movie is what do you throw out and how much do you leave out, and which characters do you make together. And how do you destroy this, and how you take this huge thing and try and give the impression that it happened in one line or whatever. The joy of Death for me was you get to learn all about the Eremite, and you get a large chunk more of Mad Hettie -- now with more Sexton Furnival! And it was fun. That was the joy. More things happen. It's still exactly the same shape. You're still spending the day with them, but a lot more things happen on the day. The little Buddhist monks turn up at four in the morning. . . .

Doing . . . what, exactly? They don't sleep at 4:00?

They came to say hello. They'd been on their way from Tibet and they set out about a year earlier and they've been walking all the way and they get to New York at four o'clock in the morning on this wet street and it's very quiet and you hear this jingle jingle of bells and the monks come around the corner and they find Didi and they say 'Thank you' and then they go home. Walking back to Tibet.

When you worked on the English adaptation for Mononoke Hime -- Princess Mononoke -- how did that go? I've never heard much about English adaptations of Japanese films. Do they give you a rough translation?

They gave me a literal script, a word for word script. Or as word for word as you can get. I then took that and worked it into my first draft. I was very lucky to have a guy from Studio Ghibli, Steve Elpert, who was able to brief me. I could ask "What is this about?" "What is happening here? "What was Miyazaki's intention?" And I could also ask for overtones. One of the lines that I was criticized about, for example, is the line where Jigo says "This soup tastes like donkey piss." Because in the original Japanese what he says is "This soup tastes like water." What I had to do was then say to Steve, 'Hang on, we have a really rough and uncouth character. On a scale of 1 to 10, how insulting is what he is saying about the soup?' And Steve said: Well, actually it's pretty much a 10. It's as insulting as you can possibly be. And I'm sorry, in English, "this soup tastes like water" is a way of saying "hey, the soup's a bit watery." It's not insulting. There are overtones that fall out, so it was just easier to say: Look, this is who he is. He's a small uncouth character and he's not saying it's watery soup; he's saying it tastes like donkey piss. And that at least gives you the right place, even though it's not word for word.

It's kind of difficult to do word for word -- as long as you get the tone, I think the average fan is going to be happy.

Then I went through about five more scripts, each being negotiated with both Studio Ghibli and Miramax. The notes for draft number three were mutually exclusive. I got a set of notes from Miramax saying Can you make it less Japanese? and a set of notes from Studio Ghibli saying Can you make it more Japanese? And what I wound up doing was gritting my teeth and doing two completely different draft fours -- Studio Ghibli draft four and Miramax draft four -- and sending them both in and saying "You people sort it out and come back to me."

Then I did draft five. And then my draft -- which was approved and signed off on word for word, everything -- got given to a guy whose job it was to make sure the lip movements matched.

I was going to ask about that.

And he didn't like my script. He actually didn't like my script at all. So he threw it out.

Completely?

Completely. And he wrote his own script, which they then recorded. They then screened Princess Mononoke, and it got booed. Harvey Weinstein, who had been in the audience, was going: Fucking Neil Gaiman, what did we pay him that money for? Get me his script. And he got the script and he read it and said: This isn't what we saw on the screen. I'd been excluded from the process for five months, and suddenly I got a call saying come back into it. It was like well, this is what we did and it's not what you wrote and now we have like a few days with each actor to re-record bits, but we can't re-record everything, so. . . .

And finally I got to meet the director, who'd never met me and who really hadn't been allowed to read any of my earlier scripts. And we had to put it all back together in a hurry, doing the best we could with the worst sequences. So it was actually kind of frustrating, in all honesty. And what was really funny was the director read the five scripts I did and said the first was brilliant and had all the life and stuff in, and that is what we did.

I'm going to guess you probably don't want to sign up for that again.

Mmm, no. When it was done I said that definitely I was done. It was very interesting, and I felt like at the end that we'd rescued it. But it was just looking at it and going this was 75-80% of what it could have been if Miramax hadn't been paranoid and decided to cut me out of the process and then hand it over to this other guy and not let me talk to the director and all that kind of stuff. Because then they had to try and make up for it.

And then there were things like the Jigo performance, which I think was fairly justly criticized. The back story on the Jigo performance was that we actually got a very good performance out of him doing these really lousy set of lines. But the day that we had to have him in doing retakes, which was most of his lines, he was actually shooting, All the Pretty Horses (he was directing it) and they had to actually close down the production of his movie for a day so that he could come into the studio and revoice some cartoon lines, and he was not pleased.

And moving on to a different Hollywood movie, Beowulf?. I'm curious, which translation did you work from for the screenplay?

Oh god, I don't remember. I went down to my bookshelf and grabbed whatever translation available I happened to have sitting on the shelf. And I think Roger [Avery] grabbed two or three different ones. And we had a word-for-word and we had one of those translations with the old English on one page. When we were writing the script we had about five different translations around.

I believe this started life as a live-action movie, yet it's going to be motion-capture CG now?

That's true.

Why was that decision made?

Well, the idea was that Roger would be directing it and it would be a live-action movie. Then this January the phone rang and it was Robert Zemeckis and Steve Bing saying basically: We want to do Beowulf. And Roger said: No, no. It's my Beowulf script and it's very important to me. It's my script. I'm going to direct this. And they said: what if we give you money? And Roger said: No, no, no. It's my script. They said: What if we give you a wheelbarrow full of money? And Roger said :No, this is my script. And they said: Three wheelbarrows full of money? And so Roger and I flew out to Santa Barbara and you know, it really was a case of they really, really wanted to do this. Bob Zemeckis, having made Polar Express, which was a kid's film using this technique (which was, as far he was concerned, version 1.0 of the technique) wanted to do version 3.0, and do it for adults. So, that's our film.

What kind of an impact on writing the screenplay is there when you don't have a live action person on screen emoting?

There were scenes when we had two people talking, which all got shorter, and many of them went away. By the same token, the incredibly short and fairly perfunctory fight with the dragon at the end of Beowulf's life is now an oh-my-god five minute long, really serious, great big dragon fight because it's changing according to the medium.

Do you find there's more freedom working in this kind of medium? More restrictions? Or does it depend on what you're trying to convey?

Probably the latter. There was definitely a point there where I phoned Bob Zemeckis and I said: Look we're writing the sequence and I'm afraid it might get too expensive. And he said: Well, Neil there's nothing that you can possibly write that will cost me more than a million dollars a minute to shoot. So write whatever you would like. I said, "Okay."

I had the good fortune earlier this year to get a review copy of Melinda, which I enjoyed very, very much. And I got the sense there's a whole world out there waiting to be written about behind Melinda. Are you thinking about revisiting it?

There is. Oh yes, I really, really am. It's more a sort of time thing. If anything, that was Melinda part one. And it only ever saw print because I wanted it to be my Christmas card, you see. That was how it began. I'd seen Dagmara Matuzak's work when I was in Poland and I loved it; I think she' s a genius. And we were talking about stuff and she said would I write something for her to draw just as an exercise. So I wrote her Melinda, which in my head goes on much, much further and gets much bigger and stranger, about this little girl and this dead city. And I wrote the first sort of three sequences and sent it off to her and she began illustrating it and then I thought: why don't I that as my Christmas card. We'll do it as a book. And the book she put together was incredibly beautiful, but expensive enough that I wound up saying to the guys at Hill House: would you like to come in on this so that I can afford 300 copies to give to people as a Christmas card?

The paper was gorgeous.

It was an amazing production job. They got that special flecked paper in that whole thing.

[The next question references a similar one asked during Neil's public talk prior to the interview, wherein someone asked how he knew which format -- novel, poem, etc. -- each work belonged in. He pointed out he didn't always know ? it was his editor who actually suggested Anansi Boys as a novel.]

You actually touched on this out in the tent, but for the record. . . . Given that you write in so many different genres, when you have an idea -- or when you set out to write -- which dictates which? Do you set out to write a children's story next, and the ideas fit to that? Or is it more often, as with Anansi Boys, that you have story idea and it doesn't actually tell you right away, "I need to be a novel?"

I always start out with a story. The only thing that I have going for me is that I always have more stories than I have time. Which means that the next book I'm going to do is a book of short stories. The book after that, is another adult novel. Actually no, the next book I'm going to assemble is a book of short stories, while I'm writing my next children's novel. The next book after that will be an adult novel. I don't know what that adult novel will be. On the other hand, there's at least five stories floating around in my head which it could be. So it's not so much I have to write an adult novel, I wish I had an idea. It's much more I need to write an adult novel, will it be this, this, this or this?

You've had a very ready accessibility to your fan, dating all the way back to when I first noticed your work you were on Genie --

And before that, Compuserv.

Compuserv, that's right. And then you had the little clearinghouse newsletter, Magian Line.

That wasn't really me. That was a wonderful lady named Sadie McFarlane who put it together. But I loved that it existed, just because it was a way, before the Web, of communicating.

And now you have NeilGaiman.com and the RSS to Livejournal. What do you, as a writer like about this accessibility, the ready feedback? I know some authors stay removed and things get filtered through publicists, etc. You're out there answering your e-mail, and responding.

But I can only respond to a fragment of it.

I like the fact that I am not dependent on a publisher, or on a store, or on anything else. I like that. I told the anecdote recently of the last time I saw Douglas Adams alive was in a bookshop in Minneapolis, where he was doing a lunchtime event and there was me and eight other people. I knew about it because the guys in the bookshop had dropped me a line and said "Hey, this thing's happening," and I'd gone in to see Douglas. It wasn't that Douglas wasn't a huge star, and that a big event, properly publicized, wouldn't draw several hundred people. It was just that you can't rely on that. And I love the fact that I'm no longer at the mercy of whether or not a store can publicize. Because there's 1.2 million people reading the blog and they can let each other know.

Having said that, the other thing that I like about the blog, and have always liked about Genie and Compuserv and everything like that is that I feel like it demystifies the process, which I think is a good thing. Writing's work; it's honest work, and it's good work. Harlan Ellison used to write short stories in shop windows to try and demonstrate how magical it was, but how prosaic it was. It's both. It's a guy sitting there making stuff up and writing it down; you haven't gone off and prepared it beforehand. And in fact, it became sort of a performance art in Harlan's days.

In my case, also, I noticed by about 2000, before the blog existed, I'd do book signing tours, and I started feeling people were getting very disappointed at meeting me. Because what they had in their head was very tall and gloomic and gothic and beautiful and spoke in perfect iambic pentameter. And perhaps wrote in quill . . . at midnight, only in moonlight, on paper held by naked virgins. You have this sort of weird kind of sense of what people thought a Neil Gaiman probably was. And I thought, "actually, what a Neil Gaiman is, is a writer, which is a much more interesting thing than this thing which disappoints them." And I thought it would be interesting to fill the gap. Initially the purpose of the blog began as the American Gods journal. It was a backstage view on step by step how you take a book from having finished the book through to publication and the author tour. And that, I thought, was really interesting. Only when I finished it, there were now 20,000 people reading it, and I thought "this is really cool. I have 20,000 people reading my journal. That's good. I think I'll carry on."

And then I loved the fact that in Anansi Boys, I remember getting really puzzled about the fact that Tiger is mentioned. And I couldn't find why these African stories would have Tiger in them. And why is it Anansi versus Tiger? What's going on here? Lion is mentioned and Tiger. And so -- this is just an example -- I put out the call on NeilGaiman.com. Within two hours I had a dozen replies, including people from all over the world -- people from the Caribbean, people from West Africa -- letting me know, the word Tiger is used to signify any big cat. It came from the Dutch settlers. It's a word that's all over the Caribbean. It even occasionally shows up in West Africa. But it doesn't mean the Indian Tiger. It means it could be a leopard. It could be any large animal.'

At that point, Neil needed to skedaddle for many hours worth of book signing. As I put away the recorder, we chatted briefly about Japan, as I wanted to recommend that he go to Kyoto on his next visit (thinking he would like the Fushimi Inari Taisha). Turns out he's unlikely to go back before World Con 2007, which will be in Yokohama, and he would like to contact Yoshitaka Amano about the possibility of collaborating on a second work to coincide with the con. An enticing prospect indeed for fans of their earlier work, The Sandman: The Dream Hunters!

[April Gutierrez]