Enter Sandman

Why Neil Gaiman is about to become bigger than death

Whether in comics or novels, Neil Gaiman's peculiar gift has been to tell fairy tales to adults, rekindling a childhood acceptance of the fantastic. His 2005 tour de force Anansi Boys was as unconventional in its treatment of evaporating love as it was in its depiction of an African spider god who is helpless before a sweet female mortal. "How to Talk to Girls at Parties," from Gaiman's new book of short stories, Fragile Things, starts with a boyish conceit—what if girls really are from another planet?—and has the imagination to suggest they would have awesome taste in music.

Four films based on Gaiman's work are slated for release over the next two years: Stardust, Books of Magic, Coraline, and Death (based on his cult-making Sandman comic books). In addition, Gaiman has written two scripts with Roger Avary, a "motion capture" adaptation of Beowulf, the oldest epic in English, and a live-action version of the Charles Burns comic Black Hole. Gaiman wrote last year's CG-muppet adventure MirrorMask, and the National Theatre of Scotland has staged a musical of his children's book The Wolves in the Walls. Meanwhile, the author has re-launched Jack Kirby's The Eternals at Marvel Comics—fans need Gaiman's blog at www.neilgaiman.com just to keep up.

In early October, the British-born resident of the St. Croix River Valley agreed to meet for a City Pages interview over tea at Kikugawa, after months of delays due to sheer busyness.

"I have this thing which in retrospect looks like a career": Neil Gaiman
Jayson Wold
"I have this thing which in retrospect looks like a career": Neil Gaiman

City Pages: By my count, you have 27 films coming out next year with your name attached to them.

Neil Gaiman: There was an article in the Hollywood Reporter maybe four years ago, and the story was that I was the human being who had sold the most things to Hollywood that had not been made. The very first thing I ever sold to Hollywood was Good Omens, a novel by me and Terry Pratchett, which 16 years later still looks like it's going to be made. I remember being told in 1990 that Hollywood basically had an 18-to-1 ratio of things that were bought to what actually got made.

When that article came out, I figured I hadn't even reached my first 18 things yet, so I was well ahead of the game. For 13 years, Hollywood had been coming by and buying things without anything getting made, which sometimes was really good, because the Sandman script I saw was one of the single worst things I've ever had to read in my life.

But now it's tipped the other way, and it's all going to look like it's planned. I have this thing which in retrospect looks like a career, and I know it isn't, because nothing is planned. I've got a new short story collection because the stack of short stuff I'd done is finally thick enough for people to read it without feeling cheated.

CP: Are you still excited to see your writing turned into movies?

Gaiman: I don't ever remember being excited. Probably the nearest I got was Good Omens in 1990, the point where I was being flown into Hollywood in a jumbo jet, me and Terry Pratchett being fed smoked salmon while crossing the Atlantic. And then we had one of those standard Hollywood experiences where we're being kept in the Chateau Marmont, writing an outline every morning, which we're having a meeting about every afternoon, and realizing they've never read any of them.

We go back, we hand in one draft, they say it's too much like the book. Terry quits, I do another draft according to their specifications, I hand it in, they phone me up and say it's not much like the book. And the following day they go bankrupt and I'm stiffed for $30,000. Which is all fine. I got a grand proper Los Angeles-style Hollywood fucking over, just like the ones you read about. As a result of which, I guess my point of view on Hollywood now is always partly, "It will never happen," and partly, "Isn't this interesting. I wonder what will happen next?"

I wrote Beowulf with Roger Avary in 1998 as a live-action film. It was bought by Robert Zemeckis's company, with Bob as a producer, and they had a deal with DreamWorks at the time where they were able to green-light their own films—they thought. They green-lighted Beowulf, and then somebody further up in DreamWorks made a phone call and turned that green light off again. It took about five years for Roger to get the rights back and clean everything up, and then suddenly the phone rings, and it's Robert Zemeckis saying, "I haven't been able to get that script you guys did out of my head."

Having done The Polar Express, he wanted to do something else with motion capture, but for adults. [The technology] had come a long way. When they did Polar Express, they could have, I think, at most four people in a set filmed for two minutes at a take. During Beowulf, at one point they had 25 people and four horses in this area, and they could go as long as they wanted to. I went to watch, and it was like watching the cast of Tron doing bad Shakespeare.

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