visions of a dark dreamer:
Interview with Neil Gaiman
Neverwhere was an attempt to do something for people who normally don’t have any television for them, which is basically people who like fantasy . . . People who are grown-ups who are willing to play let’s pretend.
For some reason that I do not really understand, the BBC has always fought very shy over the years – as has ITV – of making fantasy for grown-ups. So really that was all Neverwhere was – just a deep desire to try and do something which was fairly good, had some good gags, some intellectual content, that wasn’t a Sunday afternoon kid’s drama, but was still a fantasy.
Do you think that Neverwhere will herald the long awaited renaissance of fantasy and science fiction programmes made by the BBC?
NG: Not particularly. I think if this does terribly well the BBC will roll on regardless, and if it’s a huge and appalling and embarrassing failure all round the BBC will roll on regardless – that’s what the BBC does!
There was also an element when we were putting the show together – and over the last eight months having recorded it – where we’d talk to people and they would say ‘what kind of thing is it like?‘ One would have to say very, very honestly, that it’s not like anything else. Whether good or bad, it’s not like anything else – this is the first time we’ve tried one of these.
I think if it is seen as being a huge success it’s quite possible that in a year or 18 months time there might be a lot of things on. You might hear about something and say: ‘Well what’s it like?’ – ‘Well, it’s a bit like Neverwhere, really. But not.’ I think that’s the most you’ll get.
How challenging did you find television scripting in comparison to your usual medium?
NG: Actually I found writing for television an awful lot easier than writing comics. Because writing comics, you have these terrifying economies of how many panels you can get onto a page, how many words you can get onto a panel, how many pages you have. Everything has to be done in still pictures. I loved writing for actors who could actually talk and move about, and in many cases make things better than you’d written them.
I think Patterson Joseph as the Marquis de Carabas was just one of these characters who on paper I thought ‘Yeah, he’s going to be fun’ – but give Patterson the part and he just goes to town, the same with Hywel Bennett as Mr. Croup. It was just wonderful watching these things come alive.
How involved were you with the production process?
NG: Oh, I was very, very involved really up until the point where they started filming. Then I hung around a bit. There was one point, a couple of weeks in, when it was very, very cold – we were filming in February, in some vaults beneath some street, and the arts department had brought in 40 or 50 sacks of mud which they then squirted with water to make properly squishy. At this point the actors and actresses – who weren’t wearing an enormous number of clothes in this scene – were standing there trying not to go blue, and there was this fight going on where some people get knocked down in the mud – and not just once, because it’s television they get knocked down over and over again, take after take – and I looked around and I realised everybody else there was freezing and had a job to do. Because I was the writer and had done my job, I just sat in front of this gas heater – it was the only heater in the entire place – and felt very guilty, and continued to feel guilty until Laura Fraser who plays Door walked up to me with her eyes shining and said ‘I can’t believe we get paid for doing this!’ and walked off. And I thought, oh well, not that guilty then.
Did you find the whole process a learning experience?
NG: Enormously, yes. And a fascinating learning experience . . . realising what you can do, what you can’t do, and also learning a lot about what happens once you’ve written a script. Normally in a comic I’ll write a script, then I’ll give it to an artist, and he will draw what he’s told. In a novel I don’t even have to worry about that, I just write the words and they print them.
With TV, you are handing stuff over to an enormous team. You have four people designing and making costumes, and over here you have ten people in the arts department, and you’ve locations, and you have this and you have that, and whatever it was that you originally put in is going to depend upon ‘Well, can we find one of those? Can we dress one of those? Is it too expensive? Tell you what, we’ll lose that scene and then do both those things here . . . ‘ There came a point where the only way I felt like I was actually keeping my sanity was by writing the novel at the same time.
That way, whenever Clive Brill – our producer – would walk up to me looking faintly apologetic and say ‘Neil, we’ve had to lose this scene’, or ‘We’ve had to lose this dialogue’, or ‘This actor just broke his leg in an underground tunnel and we’re going to have to give all his scenes to somebody else’ or any of that stuff, I would just say ‘That’s okay Clive, I’ll put it back in the novel.’ to the point where three or four weeks into shooting he’d come up to me and say ‘Neil, we’ve just lost a scene – if you say ‘that’s okay Clive, I’ll put it in the novel’ – I will kill you.’
How close is the end result to what you originally envisaged?
NG: I think it’s probably about 70% of the way there. I don’t like episode one very much, I don’t like the last half of episode six terribly much, I love episodes four and five, and quite like episodes two and three. So, for what that’s worth . . .
Did you watch the rushes at every stage of the production?
NG: Yes. I had to watch and re-watch them because you get them in rough cut, and then you get them in a closer sort of edit, and then you get to be one of the many people commenting on the stuff.
Homelessness was one of the key features in Neverwhere – is this something that you feel strongly about?
NG: Yes, but it wasn’t something that I wanted to tackle head on as a fantasy, and I didn’t want to tackle it head on as reality, doing a Cathy Come Home for the 90s. I didn’t want to tackle it as fantasy because I thought if I do a story about cool fantasy stuff happening amongst the homeless, the next thing you know is that some 15 year old girl in Manchester is going to be running away to London, because she’s seen how cool it is to be homeless on the streets of London. I’ve had too many friends who were homeless, and it’s not glamorous, its not cool – it’s horrible and it’s demeaning and it’s soul grinding and it’s physically destroying and occasionally it’s lethal. But what I wanted to try and talk about was the marginalised, was the people who fall through the cracks, was the experience of losing things – of losing everything – and look at it from a place that hasn’t seen it before . . . And maybe make them think. If Neverwhere makes somebody look at the next homeless person they pass instead of looking away as soon as they’ve registered it’s a homeless person, you know, I’ll feel good about that if it makes them buy a Big Issue or if it makes them just think a little. I’ll feel fine about that.
Can you tell me about the involvement of Brian Eno and Lenny Henry?
NG: Well, Lenny actually started Neverwhere all off. It was 1991 in March, and I was one of the judges at the Arthur C. Clarke Science Fiction awards, and we’d had one of those long judging meetings in the Groucho Club. It had gone on all day, and at the end I saw Lenny at the bar – we’d worked together on a Comic Relief comic – so I walked over and said ‘Hello’, and he said ‘Ah, I’ve just starting this thing called Crucial Films, my own film company, and I’d like to make a fantasy series for the 1990s. For TV. How would you like to write it?’ And I said ‘Yeah, I’d love to.’ So that was how Lenny got involved – it was his thing. Eno got involved because I’m an enormous Eno fan, Lenny’s an enormous Eno fan, and we talked together about who we’d like to do the music for this. We were both saying ‘Well, we’d love Brian Eno to do it, but he’ll never do it.’ Finally Lenny ‘phoned Brian, and we went out and had lunch with him. He was great. We told him about it and he said ‘Sure.’ It was that simple and that easy.
He produced about twelve hours of music altogether, which for a three hour programme was quite impressive. You can actually get to hear larger chunks of the music on the audio CD of the novel – they’ve done a CD of the novel – and every now and then it’ll have two or three minutes of Eno music – which is great.
Are they both comics fans? Have they read any of your previous work?
NG: Yes. Lenny’s an enormous comics fan. He’s a bigger comics fan than I am. He’s got piles and piles of stuff, and he was a huge fan of mine. When I met Brian I gave him a copy of a graphic novel that I’d done called Signal to Noise, which I thought he’d like. He looked at it and said ‘I’ve got this.’ and pointed to a copy in his bookshelf!
Do you think Neverwhere will be consigned to the status of a cult classic, or will it reach a wider audience?
NG: I have no idea. What we seem to be getting is all the people who will make it a cult classic turning on and loving it – so we don’t have to worry about them. What I hope is that a few people’s mums kept watching because they liked it, and a few people who wouldn’t watch that sort of thing – or didn’t think of themselves as people who’d like that sort of thing – would watch it. We’ll have to wait and see.
Overall, how happy are you with the end result?
NG: I like 70% I think. I told some film writing friends of mine in Hollywood and they said ‘Well, what do you think?’ and I said ‘It’s 70% of the way there.’ Their jaws dropped and they looked so envious it was like ’70%? Wow!’
I would have loved it to be on film, and another thing I’d love to get away from is these 30 minute episodes. I’d love to be able to do 50 minute episodes. The problem with 30 minute slots is that just as you’re really getting into it, it stops. I mean, both the video format and the thirty minutes were things imposed upon us from above before I ever put pen to paper. It was ‘No, it will be on video. It will be in 30 minute episodes.’ For the very first episode, I even ended with a cliff-hanger, and after that I didn’t bother with cliff-hangers.
You made your name and picked up a few awards along the way with the Sandman comic. Will this ever see the light of the silver screen, or the television screen for that matter?
NG: I would love Sandman as a television series, I think it would be a wonderful television series, but I don’t think that it will ever happen. Roger Avary, who wrote and directed Killing Zoe and who co-wrote Pulp Fiction has been signed up to direct a Sandman film. I think they’re currently on the fourth draft of the script, and they send them to me, and it’s very hard to dislike them because there’ll be these 110 page long scripts, and I wrote 95 of those pages in one form or another at one time or another! Not necessarily in that order, but they sort of plastered them all together. I don’t know what’s going to happen with that, I just desperately hope that it’s a good movie. I don’t have any control over it, so I’d much rather keep it at a distance and keep my fingers crossed. I hope that I get one of the good movies from comics, rather than Howard the Duck.
Have they got any ideas for the cast yet?
NG: Oh yes, but they always have ideas for casting. It’s one of the immutable laws of the universe now – if you get two Sandman fans together in an enclosed space for more than 15 minutes, one starts saying ‘So, if you were doing a Sandman movie, who would you have play him?’ and the other would say ‘Oh, Daniel Day-Lewis.’ and the first one says ‘Well, I don’t know.’ and they go off from there. The world is currently split into those factions who believe that Winona Ryder should play Death, and those who believe that Natalie Portman should play Death.
Who would your personal choice be?
NG: I simply watch all this, completely fascinated . . . I’m negotiating currently with Warners – well I’m not, my agents are – to write and direct a film of a Sandman graphic novel I wrote called Death: The High Cost of Living . . . which is about Death in the form of a very attractive young lady, a very nice young lady . . . it’s much more about life than it is about death. I’ve been asked about casting, and what I’ve said is ‘I think I’m really going to have to have lunch with anybody who could possibly play it . . . ‘ you know, go out to Hollywood, spend two or three weeks having lunch with Winona Ryder, Natalie Portman and all these people, and make my decision at the end of that! I think it’ll be hard to do, and it’ll be . . . it’s just one of those crosses that you have to bear!
The introduction to the most recent Sandman graphic novel, The Kindly Ones, compares the unfolding of the story over six or so years to Charles Dickens. Is this an accurate comparison?
NG: Well, it’s an accurate comparison insofar as we were both writing serially. By the time that you get up to chapter eight, everybody out there has read chapter one, and you can’t go back. The great thing about writing a novel or whatever is that if you’re halfway through a novel and you realise you need a gun on that mantelpiece, you can go back and put a gun on that mantelpiece. You can’t do that if you’re publishing serial fiction. I also think you also get a different level of involvement from the readers with serial fiction that you could never get from just sitting down and reading a novel.
Did you know where the narrative was going when you started this one?
NG: Yes, but in big terms. It’s sort of like beginning in Brighton, and going ‘Okay, I’m going to go to Scotland, and I’ll probably go through Liverpool on the way, and I’ve got some people I know I want to see in Hull, and . . . ‘ So you know the shape of the journey, but you don’t know how long it’s going to take, and you don’t really know everything that’s going to happen on the way.
Why do the majority of the best comic writers these days tend to come from the British Isles?
NG: I think it’s something in the water. No I don’t really! I think it’s because in America, the generation that grew up and wrote comics were comics fans. In England, the generation that grew up to write comics – Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, me, Jamie Delano, Pete Milligan, Garth Ellis – saw American comics as these strange, weird cultural postcards from another dimension. I mean you’d read these comics, but then you’d read everything else too. Our comics would sort of go into some bizarre stew which included all the films that were coming out, all the books and . . . We were a bunch of people who just happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right sensibilities.
There is also a very noticeable British sensibility to your comics. How do you think this is interpreted by your American audience?
NG: Firstly, yes there is. It also has a level of irony and of pessimism, I suppose that you don’t get in America, where it’s still a sort of land of plenty where they really do believe that might makes right. The ideology in these mainstream comics really hasn’t changed in 25 years – they’re still about people in tights knocking each other through walls, and getting up and saying ‘Now you’ve made me really angry!’ The English . . . I don’t think we believe that. It’s not a land of plenty, and I think there’s a relishing gloom and an enjoyment in irony and weirdness for the sake of weirdness, and just sort of cheerfully subverting all the clichés and all the rules of American comics.
But it has all gone down exceptionally well in the States. Why do you think the Americans respond to this, if it’s so different from their sensibilities?
NG: I think they respond the same way people in deserts respond to glasses of water – because it’s all that’s out there and it’s good. I also think it’s because before Alan Moore, before Grant Morrison, before me – nobody was writing comics for people older than 15. Usually boys no older than 15. Nobody was writing any form of comic for girls in America either. With Sandman, our readers start at 16-17, and go on until they’re old and whiskery, and at least 50% of them lack penises, genetically.
In America I often get people who actually own comic shops coming up to me and going ‘You’re Neil Gaiman. God! I’ve just got to thank you man. You bring women into my store! That is so cool.’
A third medium that you have tried your hand at is the novel. In addition to this, television and comics, what stones are left to be turned over in the Gaiman mind?
NG: Actually, the next thing that came up was a radio play of Signal to Noise, an adaptation of the graphic novel, which had Dave McKean doing the music and Warren Mitchell playing the director. That was originally broadcast on Radio 3 last October. I was desperately excited about that. Really wonderful to do.
After that, some film stuff. I’ve started writing a Modesty Blaise film because I was asked to, and because I was a fan of Modesty Blaise as a kid. I’m enjoying writing that no end, what with Quentin Tarantino as executive producer . . . which is fascinating. I’m enjoying the freedom to do anything I want to right now, which is a lovely sort of freedom to have. I’ve always wanted to do a Broadway musical. In fact, I had a Broadway theatre director visit me a while back, just to talk about me writing musical. I’m like a kid in a candy shop right now.