Mirrormask Feature – Los Angeles Times

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

As averse as the studios are to relinquishing control, when the vision is big and the budget is small, as it was on MirrorMask, giving the filmmakers creative authority was the only way to get things done.

Motivated by the success on DVD of the late Jim Henson’s fantasy films The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, Sony Pictures in 2002 approached the Jim Henson Co. to produce something similar. The only catch was the budget, which was $4 million – in an age when the cost of producing a Hollywood movie averages more than $60 million.

When Lisa Henson, co-chief executive of the company (along with her brother, Brian), tried to think of how she could make it work, Neil Gaiman and his frequent collaborator Dave McKean immediately came to mind.

“Neil is the most interesting person working in fantasy today,” she says. “He’d shared with me some of Dave’s short films, and I was a fan, in particular, of one called ‘The Week Before.’ ” With two actors in simple masks, the film tells how God and Satan spent their time in the days before the creation of the universe.

According to Lisa Henson, McKean “was basically making these films by himself or with a few friends. But as independent as they are, they create a grand vision.” She offered Gaiman and McKean complete creative control if they could find a way to do the project with the low budget, a prospect that was both irresistible and scary for McKean.

“I’d been warned by my lawyer that this was a dangerous situation and I was going to get completely trampled on,” McKean says. “It was all very strange and serious. But the studio executives were as good as their word.”

“I didn’t think he’d be able to make it for the small money unless he was able to do things the way he’d always done them before, which was all by himself,” Henson says. McKean’s solution was to create the world entirely by computer, with only 15 animators, many of them recent college graduates, working feverishly for 17 months of postproduction.

Neither knew what to expect when they took MirrorMask, which opens Friday, to the Sundance Film Festival in January.

Although Gaiman is one of the most well-known fantasy authors in the world and McKean’s illustrations and commercial designs have earned him countless awards and an international fan base, they were unsure if the industry-heavy audiences would know who they were, let alone enjoy the movie. Their first clue came not at the first screening but at the second.

“I went by the theater and these same people from the first screening had been in line for four hours for tickets in order to get in and see it again,” Gaiman explains over dinner with McKean. “There were things happening on screen they’d never seen before, and they were missing parts of the story. So they were going back again, to watch it two, three, four times.”

Co-created by Gaiman, who wrote the script, and McKean, who directed, MirrorMask is an attempt to create a literate family fantasy for the DVD generation, in which repeated viewings will, the filmmakers hope, reveal something new each time.

“I wanted to get across that feeling I had as a kid,” says McKean. “I’d start watching a film and images would come up on the screen and I didn’t know where I was going to go or what I would be seeing.” The story line is a classic fantasy standby: A young girl (Stephanie Leonidas) rebels against her parents and finds herself lost, like Dorothy in Oz or Alice in Wonderland, trying to get back home.

But in the details, Gaiman and McKean strive to set their story apart. The girl’s parents aren’t the typical out-of-touch clods; they’re circus performers. And the fantasy world the girl finds herself in is of her own design, inspired by drawings she created and hung on her bedroom wall.

The drawings are McKean’s, who designed the film’s look, from the odd masks of the human characters to the mysterious floating giants, talking hedgehogs, monkeybirds and scurrying eyeball spiders.

“I like things that are made by hand,” says McKean, and MirrorMask looks every bit like one of his multimedia illustrations come to life. The long postproduction window after seven weeks of filming in Brighton, England, during the summer of 2003 was a relief; although McKean worried every day that he would be fired. “I had to design everything, and it was so arcane, no one could come in to debate it. It was the only thing that made me feel a little bit better in the morning.” Though the production went relatively smoothly, the initial creation caused the most headaches.

Henson offered Gaiman and McKean the use of her family’s home in London to come up with the story, neutral ground for McKean, who lives in the English countryside, and Gaiman, who moved to the United States from England 13 years ago.

Friends since 1986, they met as aspiring comic-book creators on an anthology designed to showcase England’s undiscovered comics talent. It turned out the publication was a sham, the publisher having lied about almost everything, including his name and the magazine’s offices, but the work the new friends produced got them noticed by legitimate publications, and they made names for themselves with the comic series Sandman. Gaiman was the writer and McKean provided the covers for all 75 issues, which lasted from 1988 to 1996 and gained them an international following.

Additionally, they’ve collaborated on children’s books: The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish and The Wolves in the Walls. But collaborating on a book and collaborating on a movie are wildly different things, and their working relationship, which according to both men had always run smoothly, suffered some strains.

“We didn’t disagree up until working on MirrorMask, ” says McKean. “It was such a shock. We just really butted heads.” Some of the strain came from their restrictions. Gaiman, who’d previously written larger budgeted scripts for directors such as Robert Zemeckis and Terry Gilliam, had trouble reining in his creative impulses.

“I would come up with an idea and Dave would say, ‘No you can’t do that.’ And I’d say, ‘Why not?’ and he’d say, ‘Because we can’t afford it.’ There are shapeless black birds in the film because that’s really cheap to produce. I quite happily would have written eagles or something.” The arguments don’t seem to have fazed either man.

As Gaiman describes it, “We’re like two intersecting Venn diagrams. There’s this gray area in the middle where we meet. After 20 years together, we’re like this bizarre old married couple.”
–Patrick Day