Mirrormask Feature – San Francisco Chronicle

From the September 25th San Francisco Chronicle:

Writer Neil Gaiman and director David McKean thought the hardest part of making MirrorMask would be finding the lead.

After all, Helena, the rebellious 15-year-old who anchors their “Wizard of Oz”-by-way-of-Salvador Dali CGI-powered fantasy, appears in virtually every scene. But they found their star, Stephanie Leonidas, on the first day of
casting. Two smooth weeks of location shooting in England were followed by four trouble-free weeks on a blue-screen soundstage.

Only after the actors completed their jobs did the headaches began. McKean and his team of animators and model makers spent 17 months huddled over computers cranking out a digitally generated dreamscape populated with troglodyte man servants, carrot-nosed fish monkeys, blobby black birds and eight-legged eyeballs. The film’s $4 million shoestring budget was supposed to fund just eight months of postproduction. How did McKean feel about the

“It was nearly fatal, actually,” he says dryly, sitting in a conference room at Henson Studios, where a stray octopus tentacle is draped over office cubicles decorated with Muppets and dinosaur sculptures. Short, plump, balding and bearded, McKean is a well-respected illustrator and painter, but he’d never directed a movie until Lisa Henson invited him and Gaiman to create a picture in the tradition of her father Jim Henson’s fantasies The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth.

“Having never done a film before, I had nothing to fall back on,” McKean says. “Some days were just horrible, where I thought, this is actually impossible, we should just admit that, pack up our few remaining marbles and go home.”

One low point came when computers crashed and the “edit line” organizing thousands of carefully composed shots appeared to have been deleted.

“The reason it dragged on so long was just the boring technical rubbish,” McKean says, “just trying to get the bloody images out of the box when the computers refused to play with each other.”

Gaiman, lanky, clean-shaven, and, like McKean, dressed entirely in black, springs into the room, quipping, “We’re really glad we did ‘MirrorMask’ except for the fact that McKean was 6 foot 5 and had a full head of hair when we began.”

Gaiman, well known in comic-book circles for writing the award-winning “Sandman” series in the early ’90s, has collaborated frequently with McKean on graphic novels and children’s books. Their long-standing division of labor blurred when they huddled for three days in the basement of the Henson family house in London to hash out their story line on a giant piece of paper they
covered with notes and doodles. The team eventually cooked up an archetypical story centered on Helena, who escapes into an alternate universe called Dark World after her mother becomes ill and the circus her parents once ran is shut down.

“This is that same sort of story as ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ ‘Wizard of Oz,’ ‘Spirited Away,’ ‘Time Bandits,’ ” McKean says. “It’s a known quantity. Once
the spine of the story was there, we were interested in taking something that was immediately familiar and playing with it.”

To create that backdrop to Helena’s quest for the MirrorMask, McKean worked on Dark Land six days a week from 11 in the morning until 6 the next morning, when he’d retire to a flat a few feet from the production’s makeshift London office.

“The thing that kept me going was building that city,” McKean says. “Every morning, when I’d see another sequence come together, I felt like I was exploring the city with Helena.”

McKean’s vision for Dark Land’s gold-burnished, slightly decaying urbanity drew on his fondness for gracefully aging European cities, juxtaposed with bits and pieces of textures both natural and man-made.

“I love walking around places like Venice and Warsaw and Trieste at 3 in the morning,” McKean says. “I’d take photographs of these cities, and they became the buildings in Dark World. You turn a corner and you’re in Trieste, then you look back and you’ve got Warsaw coming. I wanted it to have this strange, fragmentary quality where you never quite settle on one place or one style.

“The sky is made of paper and metal and bits of cloud and bits of type.
It’s like a memory, a color here, a sense there. You build up your impression of the place through collage. I could have happily carried on building my perfect imaginary city forever.”

McKean extended his collage aesthetic to the mythological creatures Helena meets along the way: “The griffin had bony stubs in front but cat legs in the back, and the body was made out of stone but the wings look like they’re made out of thin paper — it’s all over the place.”

And what’s up with the talking human heads he affixed to the felines prowling around town?

“I’ve drawn cats with human faces for a long time,” McKean says. “I’ve
always owned cats, and they always seem to know more about the world than I do. You can look at a cat and there’s a very strange intelligence going on there. I just expect them to start talking to me.”

But it’s Helena’s journey that drives the story, and Gaiman, who lives in Minneapolis with his wife and three children, looked no further than his own daughter for inspiration.

“As a parent of a teenage daughter, it’s funny to watch: You start off
with a little girl; she’s lovely and compliant and helpful. And then there’s this moment where all the hormones hit, madness hits, society hits and suddenly, you’ll say, ‘Do you think it’s possibly about time that you think about tidying your room?’ And you get this: ‘It’s like everybody here just wants me to DIE or something!’ And they storm off. I was trying to create a character who had to figure out her identity as a young woman, who couldn’t stay a girl forever, even though there was the desire to retreat into that safe place.”

Although Gaiman hopes MirrorMask attracts an eclectic audience
encompassing art-house fans and fantasy aficionados, he cheerfully acknowledges that MirrorMask is not for everyone.

“For all the nightmares, the best thing about the tiny budget is that you don’t have to make a movie everybody will like,” he says. “A couple of people are going to hate it. Some will think it’s too weird or too soft. And a few people will love it more than they’ve loved anything in the world.”
MirrorMask (PG) opens Friday at Bay Area theaters.
–Hugh Hart

Mirrormask is also part of the September 20th Hollywood Reporter feature on the Jim Henson Company at 50. From the Coming Attractions:

MirrorMask: The $4 million feature production finally is being released after having been written in 2002 and enduring about 18 months of postproduction. The visually rich film was co-written by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean and directed by McKean. Gaiman says he was paid so little to write the screenplay that his agent and lawyer couldn’t figure out why he wanted to participate. His answer: “Because it’s cool.”