Sunday, October 26, 2008

Neil Gaiman Exclusive: 'Coraline' and More

By Jenni Miller

Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman
Photo by Serena Davidson

In 1989, Neil Gaiman created a little comic book called The Sandman, and, along with esteemed colleagues like Watchmen's Alan Moore, slowly and inadvertently created a pop culture phenomenon that still has fans snapping up his graphic novels almost twenty years later. Since then, Gaiman has put his pen to work in an astounding number of media, from more graphic novels, to children's books, fiction, TV, and film. (For a complete list of his work, visit his official website.). Though Neil is currently on tour promoting his new book The Graveyard Book, which he is doing by reading a chapter per location and posting the footage in its entirety on his website here, he squeezed some time into his schedule to talk to about the big-screen adaptation of his novel Coraline. The film, which comes out in February 2009, is a stop-motion, stereoscopic three-dimensional extravaganza adapted and directed by The Nightmare Before Christmas' Henry Selick.

When mischievous Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) goes exploring in her new house and finds a door to another, cooler world that's full of magical toys, yummy food, and doting parents, it seems too good to be true. Of course, it is — her real parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) have disappeared, and her other parents want her to stay forever in their world that's getting creepier by the minute. In a particularly Gaiman-esque twist, Coraline's other parents also have buttons for eyes — and she has sew buttons on hers too, if she wants to stay. But she doesn't seem to have much choice in the matter. Using her wits and help from a black cat and the ghosts of past children who stayed in this other world, Coraline has to find a way to outsmart Other Mother, rescue her real parents, and keep her peepers.

Is it true that it took you ten years to write Coraline?
Yes, it's true, but that is a misleading truth, in that, it absolutely took me ten years to write Coraline, but I wasn't spending that entire ten years writing Coraline. The idea with Coraline is that it was a book I was writing in my own time; in my free time I was Coraline-ing. And I moved to America, and somewhere in there, I just ran out of free time so I was probably... about a third of the way into the book and then I just put it aside until I found the time to work on it, and really, nothing then happened until some years later I picked it up again and sent it to my publisher, to my editor, and she read it and she said, "This is wonderful. What happens next?" and I said, "Send me a contract and we will both find out."

I read that you sent Henry Selick the manuscript eighteen months before it was published.
That's true. I mean, Henry didn't even get the final final draft. But the moment I finished it, I gave it to my agent, the redoubtable Jon Levin at CAA, and I said... "Well, I want it with Henry Selick and I quite like it with Tim Burton, 'cause I love The Nightmare Before Christmas, and they were the two people who did that, and I think, if it's gonna be a film, it should be something like that." And I don't know if it ever made it through the ranks to actually land on Tim Burton's desk and get read, [but] it was really a moot point, because by the end of the week, Henry had read it, said that he wanted to do it, and had put the mechanisms in place. You know, the contract negotiations had already started.

A scene from Coraline
A scene from Coraline
Photo by Galvin Collins
And did he check in with you or talk to you about some of the changes he made or added to the adaptation?
Absolutely. He wrote a first draft that was incredibly faithful, and I think I actually wound up saying to him, "Look, I think it's a bit too faithful," because it didn't feel like a movie, it felt like you were just reading the book. And I sort of encouraged him to expand it into a film a bit more. And the next one he rather nervously added a character and added events, but now the script read like a movie script. And then it was just a matter of him having another six years to find a studio that would give him the money to make the ultimate stop-motion movie.

How much input did you have when it came to the design of the characters or the set?
Absolutely none, which I was perfectly happy with, honestly. It's Henry's movie... It wasn't that I was without input — I had input into things like some casting suggestions — Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders as Miss Spink and Miss Forcible was absolutely my suggestion, and Henry, bless him, just sort of went and acted on it. But Henry being Henry would let me know what he was doing at all stages, and he'd send me photographs and he'd send me models, and I went out to the studio a couple of times.

I think the strength of stop motion is also the frustration of stop motion, and the amazing strength of stop motion from a directorial point of view is nobody gets to watch dailies and then say, "No, maybe can we shoot that again tomorrow and have her do it in red?" Because... it's two or three seconds of footage on a good day. And so it's an astoundingly slow and painstaking process, which is just Henry off in Portland with admittedly, as far as I can tell, the single largest and most ambitious stop-motion set the world have ever seen and three hundred animators and model makers and such filming this thing in 3D.

Neil Gaiman and Henry Selick  at the LAIKA Entertainment production offices during the shooting of Coraline
Neil Gaiman and Henry Selick at the LAIKA Entertainment production offices during the shooting of Coraline
Photo by Galvin Collins

But it also means that, even for me, I'd go about my life and then I'd sit up one day and think, "You know I haven't seen anything for three or four months now, and I'd phone Henry and I'd say, "Have you got anything for me to see?" And he'd say, "Yeah, I'll get you off a DVD." And I'd get a DVD with another ten minutes of footage on it! [laughs] What's actually been fun is, because they're pretty much shooting it exactly in order, the DVDs have been getting scarier and scarier. They started off [and I thought], "Well this is rather sweet and rather friendly," and the last one that I got I could actually say, "No, this is scary, this is really scary."

How about the musical production of Coraline by Stephen Merritt? How involved are you in that?
Not at all, other than being possibly the world's biggest Stephin Merritt fan. I think that I'm such an enormous, ridiculous fan of all of Stephin's work in all of the various incarnations that when the possibility of Stephin getting to do a musical and getting to do it his way came over the transom, I basically just said, "Yes, go do it." I've heard I think about 18 songs so far, many of them very short, and I think that he's done probably twice that many again, and I'm sure that some songs have gone and some have stayed. And the last couple of times he's done readings and such I wanted to get to New York [but] I've been on tour in China and, you know, somewhere equally unlikely, so... I'm probably going to keep my distance until dress rehearsals and things and get to go and see it then. But I love the fact that these things can exist in different media. The main thing that I did, the biggest thing that I did was basically extend Stephin's option on the musical so that it wouldn't, 'cause otherwise you would have actually had to have the musical and the film coming out in the same month, and I just thought that would just confuse everybody... Technically, he was meant to have staged it by February and I just said, "No, move it away from the film so that nobody gets confused."

Can you talk more about the news about Dr. Strange and Guillermo del Toro?
Well, I don't know that it's really news! The wonderful thing about the Internet is that things get mentioned in interviews or whatever and then they come out and suddenly something is news. I mean, this morning my inbox filled up with people letting me know that it's news that Roger Avary and I are no longer writing Black Hole, and I'm going, "But that was news in December of last year!" [laughs] We pretty much knew that going into the writer's strike, and we definitely knew once David Fincher came onboard after the writer's strike. It's astonishingly old news, it's just hit the thing today.

Animator Chris Tootell readies Coraline to cross a snowy forest
Animator Chris Tootell readies Coraline to cross a snowy forest
Photo by Galvin Collins

I would love to write Dr. Strange. It would be absolutely one of my dream jobs [to write] a Dr. Strange movie. Last year I was out in Budapest for three weeks on the set of Hellboy II with Guillermo, and I mentioned to him that I've been, in very very early sort of "I would to do this" talks with Marvel about doing a Dr. Strange movie, and Guillermo's reaction was, "Neil, I want to direct it!" [doing Guillermo del Toro imitation] being wonderfully Guillermo and getting all excited and having all sorts of magical and wonderful ideas about this, and Marvel, I think, were very excited too. But the fact of the matter is, you know, Guillermo has two Hobbit movies now, and then he's probably gonna do another personal movie, I would imagine, after that. Probably Hellboy 3 'cause he'd wanna do it before everybody gets too old to look like the Hellboy characters [laughs]. Although, actually I think he may have thought that one through in different ways. Anyway, the point is we're probably, we may be four years away from Guillermo being free to do it, and I'm not entirely sure I'd want to do it without him. So we'll see.

What's the latest on Death: The High Cost of Living?
Well, I think the latest is that we're all waiting to see what happens to New Line. Death is a very odd thing because, unlike Coraline or Anansi Boys, which I'm doing for Warners, or The Graveyard Book or any of those kinds of things, I don't own and control the rights to Death. I'm attached to it, I've written a script for it, I'm meant to be directing it... but I don't control it, and for reasons having to do with corporate relationships between DC Comics and Warner Brothers, it has to be done by a Warner Brothers company, and then you have to find a Warner Brothers studio within Warner Brothers that will be a good fit for that film, and of course New Line was a really good fit for that film, and it remains to be seen right now what New Line is when the dust is settled and whether there is a New Line or not.

 Assistant Cameraman Mike Gerzevitz between takes with Wybie and Coraline
Assistant Cameraman Mike Gerzevitz between takes with Wybie and Coraline
Photo by Galvin Collins

You're in the middle of The Graveyard Book tour and I'm wondering what has inspired you to connect so much with your fans in person and online with your blog and email, when you have the success and the projects and everything where you could just hole up and write and do whatever you want.
But I like it! I mean, it's fun. It's weird, I had this conversation with somebody this morning, an interviewer... who was asking me the similar question but upside down 'cause he was asking why I hadn't gone for sort of literary respectability and why I, like you were saying the acclaim and all of that kind of stuff and the awards, if I just stopped messing around in movies and doing comics I could be ... I could be taken really seriously like Salman Rushdie or whatever, and I'm thinking, "Why?".... And the truth is I'm saying "Look, Salman Rushdie is a friend of mine, and I got an email from him [saying] how much he and his son liked the Stardust movie." I like high culture and low culture, I like keeping in touch with the world. I think it's all about communication, and I think it's all about the work as well, and getting to do something goofy and magic like go on a reading tour that wasn't actually a signing tour and then read a chapter of a book at a different location every night and have it up on the web by the next morning, that's so cool! Nobody's done that before! And I got to be the first person ever to do that, and it was great! And I got to prove all of the things that I'd been saying about giving stuff away, which made me incredibly happy because I had this theory that you could stuff away and it would work. And you can watch the entirety of The Graveyard Book up on my website, and we still went in at number one on the New York Times children's list, and we've been there ever since. So it makes me happy.

And your fans as well.
My fans are so cool. And they know everything! I mean, you know, which is terribly useful if you've got a blog and you suddenly want to know something, you can put up a question and say, "Does anybody know...?"

And there are tons of pictures of people dressed up like your characters and have tattoos of them and such.
Which is one reason I think why I like the idea that we still haven't had a Sandman movie. I love the idea that it's still for people who've got their Sandman tattoos and their Death tattoos and stuff... It's something that they know and cool people like them know, and it's not something that the entire world knows.

I read a quote of yours where you jokingly compared The Sandman to a sexually transmitted disease because guys would pass it on to their girlfriends trying to get them to read comics. And now comic books are graphic novels and they're so incredibly popular and mainstream that it's really fun, but it's also a little less...
Well, I feel that's true. But I've gotta say, I found it frustrating in the days when comic store owners would come up to me, clasp my hand as if meeting the messiah and say, "You brought women into my store," and that I would have people at signings saying, "Oh my God, my girlfriend reads comics because of you," and stuff. I like the fact that we're now in a universe in which it's taken completely for granted that women are reading are comics — that manga, that graphic novels, human beings read them. It's no longer a gender-based entertainment. And from my perspective, there's a weirdness in that, you know, Sandman is twenty years old. This is its twentieth anniversary year... It's twenty years old, and when I started doing it, the last thing that I imagined was a universe where 20 years later we'd be selling more copies of Sandman with each succeeding year than we had in the one before!

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