Commentary – Guardian

From the 3rd March Guardian (and the 25th March Irish Times:

I can still remember how excited everyone was, 17 years ago, by the arrival of the Batman film. Frank Miller’s story of an ageing Batman coming out of retirement, The Dark Knight Returns, had, along with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen and Art Spiegelman’s Maus, spearheaded the first, abortive, graphic novel explosion, and I believed that a good, serious Batman film was all that was needed to put it over the top, legitimise comics and change the world. Two decades later, we live in a world in which comics have spawned a generation of summer blockbusters. This summer it’s a Marvel v DC face-off, X-Men v. Superman, with Spider-Man waiting in the wings for 2007.

Comics and movies have always been a two-way street. Will Eisner’s seminal The Spirit, back in the 1940s, took from Orson Welles and the films noirs as much as it borrowed from radio or Broadway, and there have been movies made from comics pretty much as long as either medium has existed. Last week an interviewer asked me whether I thought that the recent success of superhero movies meant that we might see a world in which comics that don’t include the capes-and- tights brigade might also have a chance at making it onto the silver screen. “You mean comics like Road to Perdition, Ghost World, Men in Black, A History of Violence, Sin City, From Hell, American Splendor…?”

I started to suspect that there might be a cultural sea change occurring a few years ago, when The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was released. It was not the first time that a bad film had been made from a good comic, not by a long shot, but it was the first time that the world at large seemed aware of this. Review after review pointed out that the film had none of the wit or brilliance, or even coherence, of the comic it was taken from.

Like many of my co-workers in the world of comics, I’m also involved in making films these days. This is seen, I realise from talking to acquaintances and journalists, as a step up, signalling that I’ve finally left the gutter. (Still, filmic legitimacy only goes so far. Opera seems to be the cultural front-runner, while books, with or without pictures, trail some way behind.)

I like film. I am not very good at writing for film yet, which is what keeps me interested in it. Most of all I like the astonishing process – it’s hard to get near a film set without remembering Orson Welles’ description of a film studio as “the biggest electric train set any boy could ever have”.

When I first went to Hollywood, the only people who read comics were the most junior assistants, the kind who weren’t allowed to speak, who just went and fetched the bottled water. But that was a while ago. Now those people are running studios.

There was a time when those of us who made comics would try and explain what advantages comics had over film. “Comics have an infinite special-effects budget,” we’d say. But we missed the point, now that movies have, for all intents, an infinite special-effects budget. (I was writing a script for Beowulf last year, and, worried that a climactic airborne dragon battle was going a little over the top, I called the director, Robert Zemeckis, to warn him. “Don’t worry,” he said. “There is nothing you could write that will cost me more than a million dollars a minute to film.”)

Still, the “unlimited special effects” nonsense hides a truth or two. Ink is cheaper than film. Film, especially big budget film, often needs to compromise in order to be liked by the biggest possible number of people around the world. A comic tends to be a small enough, personal enough, medium that a creator can just make art, tell stories, and see if anyone wants to read them. Not having to be liked is enormously liberating. The comic is, joyfully, a bastard medium that has borrowed its vocabulary and ideas from literature, science fiction, poetry, fine art, diaries, film and illustration. It would be nice to think that comics, and those of us who come from a comics background, bring something special to film. An insouciance, perhaps, or a willingness to do our learning and experimenting in public.

That was certainly how it was making MirrorMask, a film I wrote and which artist and director Dave McKean designed and directed recently for the Jim Henson Company. As long as we gave Sony something “in the tradition of Labyrinth“, Dave could make his film (it’s my script, but in service of Dave’s story and vision). It didn’t have an unlimited special effects budget, or any kind of unlimited budget at all, but Dave still managed to put things on screen that hadn’t been seen before – huge stone giants floating in the sky, a librarian made of books and voiced by Stephen Fry, a horde of monkeybirds all called Bob (except for one, called Malcolm). We made MirrorMask on location in Brighton, and in a blue screen studio in London, then Dave took 15 animators to an office in north London and worked for 18 months telling the story of Helena and her peculiar dream.

Whether you’re making comics or film, much of what you’re doing is done for dollars and for US-based multinational corporations who sell back what you’ve done to the UK and to the world. MirrorMask was a very English film, albeit made with money from Sony. Alan Moore, tired of bad films made from good comics he had written, and of the accompanying Hollywood associated irritants (including a legal suit over The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), recently removed his name from the upcoming adaptation of his graphic novel V For Vendetta, disassociated himself from his previous films and, in the kind of definitive grand gesture that indicates that you really mean business, also declined his share of the money that came with them.

Even knowing that Alan’s renounced it, I want to see V For Vendetta. V and I go back almost 25 years, to the first time I picked up a copy of Warrior magazine and saw those wonderful black-and-white David Lloyd-drawn people staring hopelessly back at me. (I find it hard enough to adjust to a world in which the V graphic novel is coloured; a colour V for Vendetta seems as pointless as colourising Citizen Kane.) Moore’s story of one lone anarchist up against a fascist British state – in a world poised halfway between Tony Blair’s dream and Eric Blair’s warning – meant something important to me and to a handful of other comics readers, when it was first published, and the film trailer, composed primarily of images taken from Warrior covers, hooks into that.

Alan Moore himself is resigned, amused and wryly bitter about the process of turning comics into film. “Comics are one step in the digestive process of Hollywood eating itself,” he told me. “Are there any films made from the comics that are better than the original comics? Hollywood needs material to make into films as part of an economic process. It could be a Broadway play or a book, or a French film, or a good TV series from the 1960s that people want to see on the big screen, or a bad TV series from the 1960s that nobody cares about but still has a name, or a computer game, or a theme park ride. I expect that the next subject of films will be breakfast-cereal mascots – a film that chronicles how Snap, Crackle and Pop met and explores their relationship. Or the Tony the Tiger movie.”

“Films are no friend to comics,” he concluded. “I think they actually impoverish the comic landscape. Turning it into a sort of pumpkin patch for movie studios to come picking.”

At my most cynical I also wonder whether the world of comics might simply become a cheap R&D lab for Hollywood. The San Diego
co
mics convention, once a summer gathering of a few thousand comics readers and creators, has in recent years become a Sundance-style event with over 100,000 people in attendance and where the year’s major SF, fantasy and horror movies are announced and previewed. I confess that I am always relieved when another year passes without anybody making a bad film based on Sandman, the comic on which most of my reputation within the medium rest.

But I remain optimistic. While Frank Miller’s film of Sin City isn’t as powerful as his comics, it was still his vision up there on the screen in the film he made with Robert Rodriguez, uncompromised by the change from one medium to another. MirrorMask is Dave McKean’s film from first frame to last, visually and musically. Nearly 20 years after the first Batman film, I realise that film doesn’t confer legitimacy on comics. But it’s still an awful lot of fun.
–Neil Gaiman


Interview – Scotsman

From the 25thrd February Scotsman:

Neil Gaiman lives in a large wooden house with a wraparound porch in the wilds of Minneapolis. It is, he says, his Addams Family home and at the bottom of the garden there is a little glass gazebo in which he writes. Comic books, novels, children’s stories and now film scripts have all scrolled across his computer screen as he finds new literary forms to conquer.

First there was The Sandman, a fantasy series for DC Comics that counted Norman Mailer among its acolytes. Then there was American Gods, a New York Times best-selling novel, praised by Stephen King. For children there was the successful novel, Coraline, followed by picture book The Wolves in the Walls, now scheduled to be the second production by the new National Theatre of Scotland.

And suddenly, coming to a cinema screen near you, is a slew of projects either inspired or scripted by the man who, like the late Johnny Cash, forever wears black.

In the past couple of years Gaiman has operated at both ends of the film spectrum. Next month sees the release of MirrorMask, a beguiling, beautiful, though frequently maddening and persistently surreal British film made for just over £2 million. It was a sum not quite enough to bring the artistic vision of illustrator turned director, Dave McKean, to life as he leads viewers through a mesmeric world in which fish swim through the air in schools and insulted books return to the library in a huff. The actors, including Gina McKee and Rob Brydon, were shot against blue screens; the fairy-tale world of evil queens and a missing princess was added later, via computer animation.

Next year a more complex form of computer animation will transform Angelina Jolie and Anthony Hopkins into the mythical heroes of the Nordic saga Beowulf, under the direction of Robert Zemeckis, the director of the Back to the Future trilogy and, most recently, The Polar Express. While toiling on the script in his garden cell Gaiman discovered the luxury of playing with Hollywood’s big boys.

“I was writing this fantastic, over-the-top battle between dragons and I started to worry,” he recalls. “I just couldn’t help thinking that what I was coming up with was going to cost a fortune. So I put in a call to Robert and told him so. And you know what he said? ‘Relax: there is nothing you can dream up that I can’t shoot for $1 million a minute.’ The budget was going to be roughly $100 million so I didn’t have to worry.”

The script had originally been written for Roger Avary, co-writer of Pulp Fiction and director of Killing Zoe and The Rules of Attraction, to make as a low-budget, live-action movie. Yet Zemeckis and his production partner Steve Bing – made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. “They offered us a shedload of money and Roger said no. Then they offered us two shedloads of money and still Roger said no. When they offered us three shedloads of money, Roger said yes. So he got two shedloads of money and I got one.”

Gaiman has recently returned from Los Angeles, where he got to operate the camera during casting sessions for Matthew (Layer Cake) Vaughan’s film adaptation of his graphic novel, Stardust.

Then, last week, a package arrived in the post containing pictures of Henry Selick, the director of Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, at work on a stop-motion adaptation of Coraline. Oh, and let’s not forget his own directorial debut, an adaptation of his graphic novel, Death: The High Cost of Living, a Sandman spin-off which is – after being on and off – looking to be back on again. “I’d rather not talk about that one,” he says. “I’m superstitious. If I talk about it, it might not happen, and I really want it to happen.”

So we talk about MirrorMask instead. Gaiman is wedged on the battered leather sofa of his office in the house he shares with his wife Mary T McGrath, his two daughters, Holly and Maddy, and son, Michael. Snow has blanketed the surrounding countryside and more is scheduled to fall later today.

It’s just after 10am, an hour Gaiman rarely witnessed in the past, as he regularly wrote through the night. However, his encroaching age – he’s 46 [Ed. Note: No, he’s 45. Get used to it, though – judging from last year we’ll have this right up to November] – and his decision to give up cigarettes makes pulling an all-nighter a lot more difficult. “In the past if I felt tired I’d just have another cup of coffee and a fresh cigarette. Now if I feel tired I’m liable to wake up five hours later with my face on the keyboard and 400 pages of the letter ‘M’.”

Gaiman and McKean, whose professional partnership and friendship stretches back more than 20 years to the graphic novel Violent Cases, were approached by the Jim Henson Company with a tantalising proposition. The company wanted to re-capture the magic of films such as Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal and were prepared to give both men their creative heads if, that is, they worked for union minimum and kept to the agreed budget.

McKean already had the idea of a circus family, a critically ill mother and a teenage girl who travels to another world conjured up from the drawings on her wall. As director, he was the driving force but, as Gaiman explains, “I figured, why should he have all the fun?” Fun was perhaps not the most appropriate word, however. The project was wildly ambitious for such a tight budget. “I’ve discovered that in movies the way to solve problems is to throw money at them, but when you don’t have any money to throw you have to be more creative.”

He describes the finished film as “sushi rather than chocolate”, adding: “Some people will really like it and other people will just be left cold, but what we didn’t want was a film that everyone would quite like.” In America it took just $866,999 at the box office, a figure about which Gaiman is defensive – it was always scheduled for a direct-to-DVD release, he says, and a big-screen release was a bonus. “That’s pretty respectable for a few screens in key cities.”

Something he is not at all defensive about is his forthcoming visit to Scotland to sit in on the final week of rehearsals for The Wolves in the Walls, which has been adapted for the stage by Vicky Featherstone, artistic director of the NTS, along with Julian Crouch and Nick Powell. Gaiman’s book, also illustrated by Dave McKean, tells the story of Lucy, a little girl who hears creaking, crumpling noises in the walls and is convinced it is wolves. She is reassured by her parents that it is only rats or bats – until the wolves to break through and evict the family. Lucy must then lead the charge to recapture the family home.

In what promises to be a visual treat for all ages, the productio
n
team have assembled puppets, actors and musicians to help create Lucy’s distinctive world. Gaiman says that when he heard that his work – not that of, say, Robert Burns or Liz Lochhead – would be the new National Theatre’s first major production after its opening show, Home, he felt honoured.

“I just assumed that the theatre would at first have to do worthy kitchen-sink dramas about drug abuse in Glasgow. I love the fact, putting aside that it’s my work, that the theatre’s first drama is for all the family and that anyone between the ages of seven and 70 should be able to come and enjoy themselves at the theatre. I think that is an incredibly powerful statement.”

The production has also embedded a hook into Gaiman which is slowly reeling him back to Britain, and Scotland in particular. Like most writers, Gaiman is always on the lookout for a quiet perch, conducive to the muse. As well as his garden gazebo and the second office in the main house, he has a small cabin which overlooks a river, a 20-minute drive away. “It’s great for when the deadlines are really bearing down,” he says. “There is no phone line, no mobile phone signal and a small bed in the back.”

But he is now looking for a new rural retreat, and Scotland is his destination. “Property supplements and magazines have become my new pornography,” he says. “I’ve been salivating over them. It’s rural here, in Minneapolis, but I miss the sea and I’ve wonderful memories of family holidays in Scotland. I spent a couple of hours checking out a house on Bute, but it was just easy to get to. I left Glasgow at lunchtime and was back in the city by dinner time. I want someplace that will take at least a day to reach.”

Once Gaiman has found the perfect property he may just hole up there to plot the return that comic fans have long awaited. When Gaiman completed the cycle of stories of The Sandman, DC Comics laid the character to rest, instead of, as is usually the case with comics, passing it on to a new writer. It was a tribute to his achievement. He has promised to return to the character for the 20th anniversary of the first publication. “I can’t imagine a world where I wouldn’t go back to Sandman for its 20th anniversary. The question is, when is it? The first issue appeared on the comic stands in November 1988 but was dated January 1989, so I’ve got a choice.”

As book editors, film directors and now theatrical impresarios demand larger slices of his time, I’ll bet on the later deadline.
–Stephen McGinty


Mirrormask (Film) – Feature, Interview with Dave McKean

From the February 25th Daily Telegraph:

For a first-time filmmaker, Dave McKean already has quite a following. He’s not the average debut director, fresh out of film school. He’s an acclaimed, award-winning, multimedia artist, who has created some of the most distinctive photography, graphic design, comics and illustrations of recent years.

His first feature film, MirrorMask, is released next week. It’s the most original British film of the year, hands down, and, given that he’s still only 42, it might just be the start of a great cinematic career. All the qualities that make his art rewarding are present in this movie: fabulous, dreamlike imagery; complex, subtle textures; wonderful leaps of humour and imagination. More than anything, it’s work that feels open and alive.

“I always try to find an image that isn’t just descriptive, but gets down to feelings and emotions,” he says. “It allows the viewer room to think. It doesn’t just sit you down and tell you everything; it’s a conversation.”

McKean is best known to many for the comics and graphic novels he did with Neil Gaiman (Sandman, Signal to Noise, Mr. Punch) as well as on his own (Cages). But a growing number of collaborators have found his approach irresistible. He has worked with writers such as Iain Sinclair and Stephen King, filmmakers such as Alfonso Cuarón and Lars Von Trier, musicians from John Cale to the Rolling Stones.

This list, I must admit – with a deep sense of surprise at finding myself in such company – also includes me. When my publisher asked which artist I wanted to illustrate Varjak Paw and The Outlaw Varjak Paw – my books about a cat who does martial arts – I immediately chose McKean. His work, I felt, was utterly unique, and yet totally accessible.

The same can be said for MirrorMask, which McKean co-wrote with Gaiman. It’s a fantasy film for audiences of all ages. It was commissioned and produced by Lisa Henson, daughter of Jim Henson, who made his fortune with the Muppets, but who also made two of the finest fantasy movies of the 1980s: Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal. MirrorMask shares certain qualities with them, above all, an intelligence that has been all too rare in family films of recent years.

“There have been quite a few kids’ fantasy films since then,” says McKean, “but they’re full of these postmodern references to hip culture and ironic jokes. I hate all that, I really hate it. And the kids are always smarmy and American! But there was a little period when you had films with the odd kid, the awkward kid, the intelligent kid – the kid who would see life a bit differently.”

In MirrorMask, that character is called Helena. She’s a teenage girl who wants to run away from the circus run by her parents, and join real life. Instead, after a blazing row with her mother, she finds herself in a strange parallel dimension where everyone wears masks, and creatures of the imagination run riot: sphinxes, gryphons, orbiting giants.

We talked a lot about classic fantasies, from Alice In Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, to Labyrinth, Time Bandits and Spirited Away,” says McKean. “All those films have the same spine. It’s somebody at that awkward, transitional age between childhood and adulthood, starting to realise how the real world works, and getting a shock. And those films don’t talk down to kids at all; they key into children’s anxieties brilliantly. So they became touchstones.”

The pleasure of MirrorMask lies not so much in the story that it tells, as in the way McKean tells it, and the world he builds around it. It is beautifully designed, with a lush colour scheme of glinting gold on black, and it boasts terrific animated sequences. It also has plenty of wry humour; at one point Helena is helped by strange beings called monkeybirds, whose vocabulary seems to consist of the words “Bob” and “nicely”.

There’s some very fine acting, too, by a distinguished British cast that includes man-of-the-moment Rob Brydon (currently to be seen in A Cock and Bull Story) and the dependably wonderful Gina McKee. Rising young star Stephanie Leonidas (who was outstanding in Sally Potter’s Yes) turns in another terrific performance as Helena.

However, McKean is nothing if not self-deprecating. It’s rare to come across a director prepared to be so honest about the experience of watching his work with an audience. “It’s hell,” he says. “It’s like some purgatorial torture, because I’m just so aware of my own shortcomings, and the fact that the audience is so bright and so far ahead of you. All you want to do is jump up and say, ‘In 10 minutes’ time, something really good happens – just hang on for 10 minutes! I’m really sorry about this – really sorry!’ It’s awful. I’ve never encountered this with my work before, and I’ve done gallery shows, I’ve played music, you name it.”

Over the past few years, McKean has been building up to making this movie, with some fascinating but rarely seen short films (The Week Before, N[eon]). Meanwhile, Gaiman has carved out a career as a top Hollywood screenwriter. His latest script is for Robert Z
eme
ckis’s new movie, Beowulf. He has also written bestselling novels such as American Gods and Anansi Boys, and children’s books including Coraline and The Wolves in the Walls (illustrated by McKean).

We had a sort of five-year plan,” says McKean. “Neil wanted to go off and do Hollywood, while I wanted to make little films in my barn, on my own, and not show them to anybody, and see how it went. And the idea was, I’d get a point of view, and he’d get some clout, and then we’d meet up in a few years and make a feature film. Which is pretty much how it worked.”

It would be easy for someone in his position to coast on past successes and stick to the familiar. Yet he has continued to push himself to meet new challenges. He’s about to design a Broadway musical for Elton John, based on Anne Rice’s novels, titled Lestat. “It should be unusual – I’ve never done anything like it,” he says. “But I love learning new things. When you’re working, you live for those little eureka moments when ideas happen. Those moments when you realise something about the way people work, or the world works, or you work.”

The curious thing about McKean is that once you’re familiar with his sensibility, you can spot his work instantly. Whatever he does, in whichever field, it’s not like anything else. So what is it that unites all his projects?

“I did a big exhibition recently,” he reflects. “It had all this stuff in it – 400-odd artworks, the films, some music – and I had to find a title for it. I ended up calling it Narcolepsy, because I think it’s all a look at the world through the prism of a dreamscape.

I think everybody has a dreamscape. And I like the idea of people dreaming my dream for a short while.”
–SF Said


Wolves in the Walls (Theater) – Feature, Interview with Julian Crouch

From the February 25th Daily Telegraph:

“Neil Gaiman calls the show a musical pandemonium,” says Julian Crouch, talking about The Wolves in the Walls, a stage adaptation of the book by Gaiman and illustrator Dave McKean. Crouch is a theatre designer who also co-directs this new musical version of the creepy graphic novel about Lucy, a child who hears a pack of wolves inside the walls of her house.

The Wolves in the Walls was chosen by Vicky Featherstone, artistic director of the new National Theatre of Scotland, for her debut production. She’s put it together in collaboration with Crouch, whose work with Improbable Theatre includes the award-winning Shockheaded Peter, and who also designed the controversial Jerry Springer: The Opera, which is now touring Britain.

“Since doing Shockheaded Peter, I’d developed an interest in dark children’s stories,” says Crouch. He is currently receiving a National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) fellowship, and is using his time to look at children’s picture books and graphic novels, including those by Gaiman and McKean.

“When Vicky Featherstone asked me to collaborate on the play,” he says, “I said yes because I’d already browsed through the book in a bookshop. Then we both went on the internet and found out about Neil Gaiman. I hadn’t realised that he was so mega, a sort of pop star – if you just type Neil into Google you get Gaiman. He’s more famous than Neil Armstrong and Neil Young.”

What attracted Crouch to the book is the fact that it has few words and the story is simple. “It’s very atmospheric,” he says, “but also open to lots of different interpretations, which allows you to have a lot of fun.” In particular, he has enjoyed creating the wolves, which he makes with his collaborator Rob Thirtle.

“We had a lovely Christmas,” says Crouch, who lives in Highgate, north London, with his four children aged two to 16. “We turned the back yard into a studio, covered it with tarpaulin, and we made the wolves there.” He aims to mimic the look of the book, where the wolves have a sketchy, rough appearance, by making them very quickly using hessian and latex.

But are they scary enough? “Well, to begin with, the wolves don’t appear on stage: only their shadows, so that fear develops in the audience. Then, when the wolves explode out of the walls, things happen so quickly that the audience isn’t sure what they’ve seen. Later, the more you see of the wolves, the more you realise that they are naughty, funny and vulnerable – they become more human than the humans.”

Crouch tried the book out on his three-year-old, “and he quite liked it because he likes scary stuff, and besides, he’s used to daddy’s weird creations”. The show is for children over seven who aren’t easily scared. Crouch feels that “if a show is good, the kids will like it. If it’s not good, and they get bored, their attention wanders. The worst crime is to disappoint them.”

The Wolves in the Walls has been created by Crouch, Featherstone, choreographer Steven Hoggett and musician Nick Powell in a series of workshops, with Gaiman contributing some lines for the songs. “When we started, we didn’t even have a script,” says Crouch. “We felt we could create the story together with the cast. It’s been a journey of discovery.”

Featherstone, who also directs, adds, “I was pleased that the first show for the National Theatre of Scotland is an international collaboration on a piece of great family theatre. Its shameless aim is to entertain the audience.” She first discovered the book when she read it to her own two children.

Crouch also has a Scottish connection, having lived there from the age of two until his early twenties. His father was a drama lecturer in Ayrshire; Julian’s theatre career started when he made masks for him. “When I was 14, I won a collage competition – I’d cut up my old school uniform and did a picture of kids hanging around the playground.”

He studied history of art at Edinburgh University, but, never having gone to art school, is largely self-taught. Since 1996, he has been a core member of Improbable Theatre, which specialises in vividly visual performances. Last year, their version of Theatre of Blood won plaudits at the National Theatre.

One of the reasons why Crouch is enjoying his NESTA fellowship is that it gives him time “to think with my fingers”. Recently, a lot of his theatre work had become detached from practical art.

“I’m a very nervous director and a very nervous designer, but I am a very relaxed maker,” he says. “Making models and masks is good for my heart – I just go with the flow.”–Aleks Sierz


Mirrormask Film Reviews

From the 2nd March Birmingham Post:

Working from a screenplay by regular graphic novel collaborator Neil Gaiman, multimedia artist Dave McKean’s directorial debut for the Jim Henson company is an inventive children’s fantasy adventure dressed up in dazzlingly imaginative visuals.

Bearing the influences of Lewis Carroll, The Wizard of Oz, the Narnia saga, Jung, Dali, Freud and Czech marionette animator Jan Svankmajer, it’s set in Brighton where, fed up with life in her parents’ circus, 15 year old Helena (Stephanie Leonidas resembling a young Helena Bonham Carter) wishes for a life more ordinary.

So, when mom (Gina McKee) suddenly falls mysteriously ill, she blames herself.

At which point fantasy takes over as Helena crosses into the imaginary Bosch-like world of her drawings. A drab land where everyone wears a mask, it’s under the thrall of the Queen of Shadows while the Queen of Light lies comatose.

Joining forces with Valentine, an enigmatic jester (Jason Barry), she searches for the magical mask that will awaken the sleeping Queen and restore order to the land.

With both Queens played by McKee, Rob Brydon as both Helena’s father and the dream world’s Prime Minister, and even an anti-Helena, the Queen of Shadows’ own dissatisfied daughter, the psychological theme
s ma
y be obvious but are no less effective for that.

Quite simply astonishing to look at with its blend of CGI, costume and dreamlike imagery, it may be somewhat lumpen when the action’s grounded in the real world but its flights of fantasy truly soar.
–Mike Davies


From the 2nd March Times of London:

A chorus of fawning automatons croons the Bacharach and David classic Close to You; an army of eyeballs masses, insistent and unblinking on spindly spider’s legs; a gryphon with a cruel human face ineptly sets riddles -the endlessly inventive Mirrormask is rich with such deliciously creepy moments.

This macabre family fantasy comes courtesy of the Jim Henson company. It was written by Neil Gaiman, author of the cult Sandman comic book series, and is directed by the first-time feature film- maker Dave McKean.

It’s a little treasure of a movie, all about Alice’s return to Wonderland as an obstreperous teen with a doodling obsession. But this young girl’s Wonderland is a murky place of her own creation, shaded by a guilty conscience and as bewildering as adolescence. The deranged flights of fancy and some of the more monstrous creations might not be to everyone’s taste – young children might find this onslaught of overheated imagination rather too much to take – but I hope that this distinctive and original British film finds the audience it deserves.
–Wendy Ide


Also from the Times of London, 4th March:

Mirrormask was commissioned by Jim Henson Productions after some spark realised that its 1980s fantasy “flops”, Labyrinth and Dark Crystal, actually ended up taking a fortune on video. Though made for a tenth of the budget, this very European film easily surpasses both.

Sure, there are rough edges and awkward moments, and you’re never quite sure if it’s aimed at particularly imaginative children or particularly young-at-heart adults. But the fantasy Mirrorland, in which most of the film takes place, is the most inventively imagined this side of Miyazaki, while the performances are far better than could be expected given that the lead characters are a teenage girl (Leonidas) and a man whose face is obscured throughout by a mask (Barry).
–Dominic Wells


And from the March 15th Guardian, an aerialist on the film:

Mirrormask is an extended dream sequence about a girl on the cusp of adolescence and rebellion – a bit like The Wizard of Oz. She goes on this quest in an alternate world for the thing that will save her world from destruction. The film was visually stunning, and there were some images of such beauty they made me want to cry.

The circus sequences were a bit throwaway, though – the director could have made more out of them. I’m not sure why the makers chose a circus environment, except for the fact that it’s cinematic and colourful. The family could have been running a seaside chip shop and the film would have worked just as well. I suppose it worked in the sense that the girl is in something that everyone on the outside thinks is fantastical and magical, but she doesn’t. Her drawings are so much more spectacular than the circus.

They’ve chosen a very traditional circus setting. In a way, it was quite positive because they showed that going to an old-style circus is an enjoyable experience for kids. But it was a bit twee. People in the circus don’t stay in character 24/7, like the clown who makes strange noises and pretends to be a mute. Clowns will have a laugh with each other, but they don’t act like that.

It’s slightly irritating when people make circus seem sugary. The circus isn’t magical backstage – it’s grimy and it’s really hard work. You live in caravans, put the tent up first thing in the morning, do a show and take the tent down. It’s unglamorous, and you’ve got keep your sequins away from the mud.

It’s easy to get hooked on the circus because of the adrenaline and the hungry crowd. The film captured the atmosphere: crowds screaming, laughing, clapping, enjoying, gasping. But the acts were pretty poor – a girl spinning on a rope and people doing very basic juggling – so we didn’t get a chance to feel the euphoria you experience on stage.
–John-Paul Zaccarini, co-artistic director of Company FZ


Anansi Boys Review – Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction

[Ed Note: You might wonder why I’m adding an Anansi Boys review to the site this long after its September release. After all, there have been more than enough reviews posted to assist readers and others in choosing whether or not they want to read the book. Many have been well written, insightful, entertaining, and worth reading.

But this review is different. It’s speaks to something larger than the single book, and puts something to words that I do not recall being voiced prior. And whether you agree with it or not, it is probably something to think about. -la]

From the March 2006 “Books to Look For” column:

I’ve finally figured out what it is that makes me enjoy Neil Gaiman’s books as much as I do – and oddly enough, it’s something that usually annoys me in the writing of other authors.

Gaiman writes from an omnipresent point of view.

While it seems like we’re inside the characters’ heads, we’re not really. In Gaiman’s books we’re being told what they’re thinking and feeling by this friendly authorial voice, rather than learning about it from the characters’ points of view. It doesn’t matter how dark the material might be, there’s always this half-smile in that narrator’s voice of his.

In a lesser writer’s hands, this might make you think that he’s amused by the characters and their actions, or perhaps by us readers, for involving ourselves as thoroughly as we do in their lives. But with Gaiman, I’ve come to realize, it’s a genuine affection – for both his characters and his readers. No matter how awful the situations are that he puts his characters into, it’s still obvious that he cares for them. And as for his readers, if there’s a joke involved, it’s usually a long and complicated one – more often silly, or simply odd, rather than funny – and he’s letting us in on it.

This voice is a part of all of his writing – fiction and nonfiction – and how much you care for his work depends, I suppose, on whether or not you like that voice.

But having figured this out, now I finally understand why some of my friends won’t read him after trying a book or two. They don’t like that voice. But I like it just fine and it’s in particularly good form in this new novel, with its catchy tag-line: “God is dead. Meet the kids.”

Mind you, that tag-line is a bit of a fudge, because while there is a dead god, it’s not the one you immediately think of when you read that line – or at least the one you would think of if you’ve been brought up in Western society.

The god in question is the African trickster Anansi, whom we previously met in American Gods, and he dies the way he’d have wanted to: after a night of drinking and dancing and karaoke, collapsing across a beautiful blonde with his face pressed into her cleavage.

This is terribly embarrassing for Fat Charlie Nancy. But then everything about his father has always been embarrassing for Fat Charlie, starting with the nickname his father gave him that he can’t seem to shake even years after he lost the weight.

Then he discovers that he has a brother he never knew he had, and that brother proves to be even more troublesome than his trickster father- mostly because he inherited all of their father’s magical abilities and amoral tendencies.

Things get even more complicated, of course, but there’s really no point in my outlining the plot for you, although there is a plot, and a good one. Gaiman’s not a lazy writer; all the good stuff’s here: plot, character
s, good, somet
imes inspired, prose. It’s just that one doesn’t really read Gaiman for things like plot and characters and prose.

You see, we’re back to that voice. That charming voice that allows us to accept the implausible, smile at the funny bits, or shiver when the villains seem to get the upper hand. And in the end, when we lift our gazes from the book, we feel uplifted and more ready to face reality because Gaiman has shown us how to find all the interesting bits in the world around us that otherwise we might simply continue to take for granted.

If you haven’t tried his work yet, this might be a good place to start. If you already appreciate what he does.. .well, enjoy this new novel. It might be the best one yet.
–Charles de Lint


Clippings

From the March 13, 2006 Business Wire:

The Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame (SFM) announces today its inductees for 2006’s Hall of Fame celebration. George Lucas, Frank Herbert, Anne McCaffrey, and Frank Kelly Freas will be honored during SFM’s annual induction ceremony at the museum this June 17th, 2006. Best-selling author and filmmaker Neil Gaiman will host the evening’s events.

The induction ceremony is part of a weekend program of related events at SFM including the Locus Magazine Awards, emceed by superstar science fiction author Connie Willis. A new display featuring personal artifacts and video footage from each inductee will be added to the existing Hall of Fame exhibit.

Founded in 1996, the Science Fiction Hall of Fame honors the lives, work and ongoing legacies of science fiction’s greatest creators. Nominations for induction are submitted by Science Fiction Museum members. The final inductees are chosen by a panel of award- winning science fiction creators.

Tickets for the induction ceremony and other programs will be available for purchase on March 30 for members and April 5 for the general public. The evening includes a seated dessert reception and ceremony. For information, please visit the Hall of Fame section of the SFM Web site, www.sfhomeworld.org


From the March 7th PR Newswire:

Robert De Niro (Goodfella’s, Meet the Parents) Michelle Pfeiffer (I Am Sam, White Oldeaner) Claire Danes (Shopgirl, The Family Stone) Charlie Cox (Merchant of Venice, Casanova) and Sienna Miller (Layer Cake, Casanova) have joined the cast of Stardust for director Matthew Vaughn.

Vaughn, who made his directorial debut on the acclaimed thriller Layer Cake, will direct and produce the film, which will be co-produced and co-financed by Paramount, Vaughn’s UK based MARV Films and Ingenious Film Partners. Paramount Pictures will handle worldwide distribution. Filming begins in the UK and Iceland this April.

Lorenzo di Bonaventura will produce the film through his company di Bonaventura Pictures which has a first-look deal at Paramount. Michael Dreyer and Gaiman are also attached as producers. Stephen Marks and Peter Morton as Executive Producers.

Stardust was written by Vaughn and his writing partner Jane Goldman and is adapted from the 1997 award-winning novel written by Neil Gaiman (Princess Mononoke, Beowulf).

“I am delighted to be able to work with such a stellar cast in bringing the magic of Stardust to the screen. I look forward to once again shooting in the UK,” said Vaughn.

Stardust, is a fantasy, adventure love story. In the sleepy English village of Wall a young man named Tristian (Charlie Cox) goes on a quest to win the heart of his beloved, Vicotria (Sienna Miller). His journey in search of a falling star Yvaine (Clarie Danes) takes him into a magical world where he faces the witch, Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) and a pirate, Capitan Shakespeare (Robert De Niro).

MARV Films was founded by Matthew Vaughn in 2003. The company’s first production was Vaughn’s directorial debut, the successful Layer Cake which starred Daniel Craig and Michael Gambon. Previously Vaughn produced the smash hits, Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000).

Brad Weston, co-president of production for Paramount Pictures, will oversee the film for the studio along with SVP, production Dan Levine. Vaughn is repped by Endeavor in the US and ICM in London and manager Cynthia-Pett Dante at Brillstein Grey and attorney Skip Brittenham and Matthew Johnson. De Niro, Pfeiffer and Cox are repped by CAA. Danes is repped by ICM.


From the March 8th VNU Entertainment Newswire:

Roger Avery and Neil Gaiman are writing Black Hole, a horror romance that Alexandre Aja will direct for Paramount Pictures.

Black Hole is a 12-issue comic book painstakingly written and illustrated by Charles Burns over a 10-year period that deals with fear of adulthood, sex and ostracism. When the work was finally completed last year, it was collected into a graphic novel, which garnered great acclaim and was in Entertainment Weekly`s top 10 works of fiction for the year.

The story follows a group of high school students whose lives are altered drastically when they come in contact with a sexually transmitted disease called the ‘teen plague’ or ‘the bug.’ While some exhibit only a rash or a few bumps, others turn into horribly disfigured monsters or grow hideous new body parts. The disease upends the teens` already turbulent adolescent emotions and brings them to the boiling point.

French native Aja burst onto the horror scene with High Tension. His remake of Wes Craven`s classic The Hills Have Eyes opens today. He will direct Black Hole after he wraps The Waiting for Rogue Pictures.

Avery`s writing credits include Pulp Fiction and TriStar`s upcoming Silent Hill. Gaiman, an award-winning author and comic book writer, wrote the English adaptation of Princess Mononoke. His fantasy novel Stardust is being adapted by Matthew Vaughn for Paramount.


From the March 6th Publishers Weekly:

In a world filled with cat gangsters, vicious dogs and evil, mysterious beings called the Vanishings lives Varjak Paw, a martial arts-trained Mesopotamian Blue feline and the hero of SF Said’s children’s novel of the same name (Random/David Fickling, 2003). Mystical landscapes and talking animals? No wonder the Jim Henson Company was interested; the workshop behind the Muppets has just optioned the rights to Said’s book, the first of a planned trilogy. As part of the deal, Said will co-write the script with the book’s illustrator, David McKean (MirrorMask), who will also direct. Said is repped by Celia Catchpole for lit, and Valerie Hoskins, of Valerie Hoskins Associates Ltd., for TV and film.