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Neil Gaiman:

Stardust

Neil Gaiman was in conversation with Paul Gravett before and after the first UK public preview of the nearly complete movie adaptation of Stardust, on Monday June 4th, 2007. Be warned, there are a couple of minor ‘spoilers’ here, though Robert De Niro’s role is not entirely a ‘secret’ anymore. A funny, unpredictable fairytale-romantic-adventure, Stardust opens in the USA on August 10th and in the UK on October 19th.

Paul Gravett:
So were we the first audience of the general public to see this advance, almost finished cut of Stardust?

Neil Gaiman:
Yes. That’s right. This is the first audience seeing it in anywhere near this state. Last night there was a private screening for family and friends, like Hayley Campbell and Kim Newman, and people who are loud and funny like Lenny Henry and Mitch Benn. Every audience should have them in it,  one of them was sat at the back over there and the other at the front and they just laughed. If I could afford it, I would send them to every single performance. Last night was the first time I had seen it in its current state. I last saw it in January in Pasadena with a test audience, with no finished music at all and lots of place-holder effects. This version you’ve seen, I think about half of the music is there, the other half was bits of Edward Scissorhands and other place-holder stuff. Most of the effects are there but sometimes you were watching place-holder effects, not always necessarily finished effects. And I’m not sure how completely 101 per cent locked down what you saw is the final film. There may be a shot of two that may go back in. I personally want to lobby, I noticed a shot that had vanished which is when the three witches are young again after they had eaten the first star’s heart and that’s no longer in the film. I somehow missed that.

Stardust began for you as a story in 1991 which you wrote in longhand by pen.

That’s right, I went and bought my first fountain pen since I left school and up until that point I’d done nothing but type initially on a typewriter and then on a computer. And I just loved the idea of trying to write something that felt like it had been written in the 1920s. Ink on paper was a lot of that. The way I treated sentences changed a little. You’d think about them a little more before you started them, because you couldn’t fix them in the middle, otherwise the ink got everywhere!

So was there much correction and messy ink or did it come in a flow?

Actually, it really did. One of the reasons that I have stuck with pen is that it gives me a difference between a first draft and a second draft. If I type something on a computer, if I’ve done five pages, even if they’re rubbish, they’re on there and I’m going to do whatever I can to save them. I’ll keep working into them, by the time I’ve finished they’ll be ten pages and they’ll still be rubbish but I will be emotionally invested in them. Whereas if I’ve handwritten five pages and I have to sit now and type them all in, when I get to that five-page sequence I’ll say, ‘Oh, this is rubbish’ and skip five pages and start the next thing.

Where did the germ of the idea for Stardust, the falling star, come from?

Charles Vess and I had gone to a convention in Tucson, Arizona in 1991, much to our surprise to win a World Fantasy Award for Sandman #19, Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was the first time that a comic had ever been nominated for a literary award, though it’s happened a lot since.

Were some people surprised that a comic book got nominated for Best Short Fiction?

Well, they changed the rules the following day to make sure it never happened again! I was at party and Charlie Vess was at a different party out in the Arizona desert, and I got to watch a meteorite come down. In England, if you see a falling star, it’s just a white streak of light and it goes ‘Zooom!’ and you go ‘Oh, that was a falling star’.

Blink and you miss it, really.

Absolutely. Arizona desert, meteorite coming down probably about five miles away and it was like a diamond burning through the sky. And I thought that was amazing, I could get into a car and drive across the desert and go and find a falling star. And then I thought, in the way you do, what if it was a diamond, not a lump of pitted rock, and then I thought what if it’s girl and she has a broken leg  and is really pissed off! Then it was a story. I went back to the  convention, asked around and found the party Charlie Vess was in, very drunk, very happy, holding onto his award in one hand and a bottle of champagne in the other, and I said, ‘Charlie, I have to tell you a plot’. And he said, ‘Only if I can bring my champagne.’ I drag him outside, and I tell him the story of Stardust. ‘There’s going to be this boy, a village called Wall, a girl called Victorian Forester who says bring me back a falling star, and he gets there and it’s a girl and she doesn’t want to be dragged halfway across the world and be presented to anybody’s girlfriend! And there’s going to be these people after her, these princes, and evil witches who want to cut out her heart and live forever from it, and stuff. Do you want to draw it?” And he said, ‘Okay’. Which is very Charlie Vess. I think we were going to do it as a comic for about a month, then one day the phone rang and it was Charles and he said, ‘I’ve been thinking and I don’t want to do it as a comic. Because when you do a comic, you always have to do the next panel. Could we do just as prose, you could write it and I’ll illustrate it.’

Which allows your prose to expand and allows Charles to do fewer pictures and invest an amazing amount of imagination and care into them. You’ve written in all kinds ways, from the screenplays you’re doing now to hugely successful novels, and that  strange alchemy of comics. They all have their strengths and weaknesses, pleasures and  challenges. Which do you prefer?

I’ve decided I prefer radio plays. I think it’s partly the sound of the language, and partly the fact that it occurs in real time and partly they kind of ‘do comics’ but inside people’s heads. They are very, very close. But then if I did nothing but radio plays, then I’d have to send my children out on the streets to beg for money!

There was a radio play done of Signal To Noise?

Yes, we did that and we did Mr Punch. And later this year Lenny Henry and Matt Lucas are going to star on the BBC World Service in a version of Anansi Boys. That should be fun, though I’m not writing
that, I’m just watching it proudly.

We were talking earlier and you said how you have to ‘let go of the baby’, when your works are being adapted for other media, for example when Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn came on board. Were you happy about that? Did you want to have any input on the script?

I did have input on the script and at one point when they had done their first big draft and were kind of satisfied with what they’d got last November, I flew over to England, went up to Matthew’s house and Jane and I read the script aloud, trying mostly so that I would get the male parts and Jane would get female parts, but occasionally you’d get Ditchwater Sal talking to the witch, or men talking to men, so we gave up on that and we’d just go backwards and forwards. And it was fun. And I had lots of notes, things were changed, mostly it was trying to keep it emotionally true to the book, not necessarily factually true to the book. Because things had to be squished. I read the book aloud earlier this year for the audio book and it’s about ten and half hours. To do a completely faithful film version of it, it would be about ten hours long, Tristan would not be born until about 35 minutes in, and he wouldn’t meet Yvaine until roughly halfway through the movie. So in order to get Tristan born pre-credits, and to get Tristan and Yvaine together in the space by about 25 mintues in, there was an awful lot of squishing and pushing but always, I hoped, in a way that would stay true to the spirit of the book if not the letter. And also in a way that would occasionally surprise people. It was nice when they’d do things that would work and would emotionally do exactly what the book did. People say to me that the pirate ship sequence is so different. I say, ‘No, actually, in the book, they escape the inn, they wind up on the cloud, they go up on the pirate ship and they basically have a holiday during which her leg gets better, they relax into things, he does a little growing up, she does a little, and they’re not quite the same people, having had their break, as they were, when they get put down by the ship and they go back on their way to get picked up by Ditchwater Sal.

And there’s the feeling that they’re moving towards falling in love…

Yes, and with Captain Shakespeare’s sequence, it’s the same, only this is what happens in the film version rather than the book version. If you did the book version in the film, it would last about a minute and a half and you wouldn’t come away from it with the feeling that they had had a wonderful holiday and they’d needed it. Whereas this way, you get the pressure, you get the swish…

And you get Robert de Niro in a frock!

Which frankly I think is reason alone to see this film. Please do not tell anybody about Robert de Niro in a frock, we have very few surprises but I think it is a better film if you do not know! They may have always known that their captain was a woopsie, but… (laughter) I love that final wink of Robert de Niro’s to Humphrey!

It’s a very funny film along the way and with a very British sense of humour.

It’s an astonishingly British film. One of the things which fascinates me is they cut the ghosts, who used to have amazing amounts of dialogue. On the DVD there will be lots of ghost scenes with really funny dialogue. We wrote an amazing number of really funny things for the ghosts, you should watch them playing I-Spy. But what they’ve done now is trim the ghosts down to the point where practically it’s all body language. It’s Mark Heap who keeps rolling his eyes, it’s Adam Buxton looking awkward, it’s David Walliams sighing and looking pissed off, and it’s even funnier, It’s quite bizarre. I don’t know what they’re going to say when they come to and see it. They were in a studio for two weeks, improvising and being hilarious in front of a green screen and it’s all down to body language now but it’s wonderful.

I suppose those can be part of the DVD extras.

Yes, there’s an awful lot of them that got filmed.

Let me open up the conversation to the audience. Any questions for Neil?

Actually, let me ask you, did you like it?

Audience (unanimously):
Yes!

Good!

Audience:
I was just wondering how much influence you had with deciding who as going to be cast?

I had much more input than writers normally get. Back in about 1999 I sold Stardust to Miramax and they had the option on it for 2 years and they spent the entire time, rather than developing Stardust into a film, trying to put a deal together with Cruise/Wagner, where they would co-produce it, and they spent their entire two years negotiating a deal they never quite got together and then the book reverted to me. And I thought, I’m not doing that again. (laughter)

And so for the following five or six years people would come to me, many stars and many directors, and say ‘We love Stardust, we want it’ and I’d say ‘No, go away!’. And they’d offer real money and still say ‘No, go away!’. And then Matthew Vaughn came and initially talked about producing Stardust and then when he walked off X-Men 3, he phoned me up and said ‘I want to do Stardust and I want to direct it’. And he talked about what he wanted to do and I really liked it. He demonstrated that he’d understood it. He kept talking about it and how he wanted to do the ghosts, the idea of them standing around, and how it was a love story, an adventure, and how he loved it. I loved the idea of Matthew Vaughn doing because I really liked and trusted him.

What had he directed before?

He’d done Layer Cake, but he produced Lock, Stock [& Two Smoking Barrels], and Snatch. I’d had previous experiences with Matthew, because he had produced a half-hour film I’d directed called A Short Film About John Bolton, which was how we’d met. Because I’d wanted to do a short film and he’d wanted the rights to a short story of mine called Snow, Glass, Apples. So we did this deal where you have Snow, Glass, Apples and produce this film for me. So bless him, he did. I liked him and trusted him, I’d noticed something really weird which was if he made a promise, he would keep it. His word was good. Which was not always the case during roughly fifteen years dealing with people in Hollywood.

I did this strange deal with him on Stardust, which is the kind of deal I would tell any young writer not to do, which was basically giving him a completely free option for as long as he wanted on Stardust, in exchange for - and it wasn’t even discussed. So I went and found Jane Goldman as the writer.

You didn’t want to write the screenplay yourself?

No, I’d written at least one treatment back when Miramax had the option and if I’d learned anything from that experience, it was that in order to turn Stardust into a movie, stuff would have to be done to it. And I didn’t want to be the one to do the stuff. I was going to have to give my baby to somebody and they were going to dress it up in strange clothes and paint its face and I was just going to have to trust them.

Well you knew the body of your baby would still be underneath all this?

Yes, I knew they weren’t actually going to cut up the baby and marinade him, serve him to be barbecued. That was part of finding the right people. It all goes back, to me, to the stage adaptation of Violent Cases. You are the only other human being, as far as I know, in the world who will know what I am talking about. Because you saw it too. And it was awful. And it was a direct and exact, word-for-word, completely faithful adaptation and yet by being so faithful it took sequences which in the book were violent and took pages which became a sentence that went by, sequences on the stage were huge and meaningful that were tiny little glancing notes in the book. And the whole thing changed, what was a book that was a hard-edged, weird thing about memory that was actually quite violent and uncompromising and took the idea of childhood and contrasted it with gangsters and all this stuff, suddenly, when put on stage, because it was done completely faithfully, Eric Jarvis the director and the actor, I’ve forgotten his name, did a beautiful, faithful job and in doing so they buggered the whole thing up! And I learned such an amazing lesson, a great lesson to learn right at the beginning of your career, that faithfulness to the text you’re adapting does not take to the same emotional place. A graphic novel is not a stage play, a book is not a film.

How do you feel about movies like Sin City and 300 that are modeled so closely on the comics, using panels as storyboards?

I have enormous problems with the Sin City movie. I can’t see the point of it, I love the things Frank Miller did, I have tried to watch the film several times, and every time I last about 3 or 4 minutes before I start thinking ‘You know, I really have to go down and pull out my copies of Sin City’. I wind up thinking, well I guess it looks a lot like Frank’s art, but Frank’s art looks more like Frank’s art and I’d rather see that…

Than some ersatz moving version of it…

Yes. It’s very odd. Whereas Ghost World is completely different from the book, but emotionally closer to the book. Or Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor, where it’s not any particular American Splendor book, and because of that it’s actually closer to American Splendor than anything would have been if it had been exactly faithful.

How is your own screenplay writing going?

The next one is going to be Beowulf for Robert Zemeckis, which is somebody else’s story, so I don’t mind doing damage to it. Then there’s Coraline for next year. The weird thing between Stardust and Coraline is that Stardust is all about compression, squishing a 10-hour story down to a 2-hour film and have the same emotional effect. With Coraline, even though it takes me three hours to read, so much of that is just her walking around and what’s going on in her head, that when you squish it down to what happens, you’re down to maybe a 50 minute movie. So Henry Selick and his team had to add stuff and make a little bigger.

How did they deal with all the internal stuff?

One way is that it’s stop-motion, so it’s an animated movie.

Like Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas?

Well Henry made Nightmare Before Christmas. Of course people think because it was called Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas, perhaps Tim Burton had something to do with it. But actually it’s based on a Tim Burton outline that he left Disney when he left. and it was Henry Selick in accompaniment with Caroline Thompson screenwriter and Danny Elfman doing the music who made that into a movie, which Tim Burton came back in on two weeks before it was released and put his name back on. Henry also did James & The Giant Peach. Coraline has that atmosphere but it’s its own thing. It’s going to be very cool.

Posted: August 12, 2007

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