Chances are you are either obsessed with Neil Gammon or have never heard of him before. You may know him from his graphic novel Coraline which was turned into a film by Henry Selick and will hit theaters this week, or you may know him as the man who recently finished the final book in the Batman graphic novel series. Not too shabby. You will have to read to the end to find out more about that one.
The best way to describe Coraline is to say that it’s a horror film for children that has depths that will frighten parents and make children laugh. Gaiman is known for his dark and dreamy style of writing, which captures readers of all ages. He has the ability to transport you into another world and take you along for the ride. Perfect for a film, no?
He was by far one of the interesting and well spoken people I have ever had the pleasure of interviewing. ScreenCrave was lucky enough to talk with Gaiman about Coraline, winning the Newberry Medal, and of course, Batman’s death…
Coraline was such an amazing mixture of brilliant, beautiful and scary.
Neil: Thank you! Yeah, I hope so. It’s so much fun to have made something with content. We did an industry screening and afterwards, at the end of the thing, I suddenly got a glimpse of what it must be to be the Jonas Brothers, as I was surrounded by 11-year-old girls, wanting autographs, with their eyes shining. They were all fans of the book, and now fans of the movie. And, there was definitely this really cool feeling of having given them something with a heroine — somebody who doesn’t get saved by boys and doesn’t tag along. She’s kick-ass. That, in itself, was a joy.
Do you think that entertainment for kids should be a little bit scary?
Neil: Not all entertainment for kids should be a little bit scary. I remember the sheer joy, as a kid, of watching things like Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, for example. That had moments in it that are still engraved on the back of my head. The witch becoming the old cackling hag, and getting struck by lightening and stuff. I was hiding behind the chairs in the cinema, watching The Wizard of Oz on re-release in the U.K., as a boy, at the age of 5. The witch would come on and I would be underneath the chair, listening. For some reason, the monkeys didn’t do it. It was just the witch that I was terrified of. For most people, it’s the monkeys. [Laughs]
I think that a little bit of fear is a wonderful thing, but it’s what you’re using it for. In Coraline, what you’re telling them is, “Here’s something big and it’s something scary, and it’s something that’s worth being in a story.” She’s a smart kid and she doesn’t have magic powers. She’s not the chosen one. There’s nothing cool and magical going on. She’s just like you, and she’s going to fight this thing and she’s going to win. That, for me, is the important thing. And, for most kids, but not necessarily most parents, they read “Coraline” as an adventure. It’s somebody their height, who goes up against something nasty, and you read it kind of like James Bond. Of course, you need somebody evil to go up against, otherwise you don’t have a story.
For adults, it tends to be much scarier. You’ve got a number of things going on, one of which is that you have a completely different genre of story. Adults are experiencing a story about a child in danger. We are hard-wired to worry about that. For an adult, a story about a child in danger is big and scary and dangerous. That grabs your heart and worries you, whether you want to or not. And, also, adults get to watch it, and all sorts of long forgotten and long buried, repressed and abandoned childhood memories start coming to the fore and worrying them. And, children don’t have that. They don’t have repressed childhood memories ‘cause that’s where they live and that’s what they’re doing.
It seems like Other Mother would have had Coraline, if she just hadn’t insisted on sewing buttons on her eyes. Why didn’t she just let that one go?
Neil: You would have to ask her. [Laughs] That’s definitely part of it. Coraline has to say yes. When I was writing it, I liked the idea that Coraline was going to have to give into this thing. There’s a point where you give in. Either you give in because you are attracted by all of the beauty, or you give in because you’re terrified. In neither case does Coraline give in. She’s smart and she keeps fighting.
You sent Henry Selick your manuscript before the novel was published. Why him and why this book? And, how did you see them working together?
Neil: In 1993, when only a portion of Coraline existed and I still hadn’t written the rest, I went and saw Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Being the kind of person who sticks around and sees credits, I noticed that it was actually directed by a man named Henry Selick. And, I really liked it and I really liked the sensibility, and I was fascinated by what he did with stop-motion. Back in England, my favorite filmmaker had been Jan Švankmajer, the Czech stop-motion guy, who I just think is amazing. With Henry, you have that kind of sensibility, but much, much more mainstream, and he had a willingness to go dark when dark was necessary and knew that this stuff was fun and cool. It’s that joy of a ghost train. You plunge into the dark and you know you’re going to come out okay, and it’s going to be fun and maybe funny and cool. I just loved that sensibility, which mean that when I saw that he directed James and the Giant Peach, which was not a film I would have gone to, I went to see it, just because I really liked Henry Selick stuff. When I finished Coraline, I gave it to my agent, Jon Levin, and I said, “Get it to Henry Selick.”
How do you decide to do a graphic novel or an illustrated novel?
Neil: The truth is, that’s a much bigger question because it’s, “How do you decide if something’s going to be a graphic novel, a short story, a poem, a radio play, a novel, a film, a TV episode?” And, the answer is that I don’t really know. Normally, it’s what I see it as in my head, when I start. If it feels like it should be prose, then I try it in prose. If it feels like it’s probably a film, I’ll try writing a film script. It’s whatever feels right, but sometimes I’m wrong. I originally thought Anansi Boys, which was my last adult novel, was going to be a movie, and I tried writing the movie for years and it never really went anywhere. And, one day, I was sitting over lunch with my book editor at William Morrow (a division of Harper Collins) in New York, and she said, “What kind of stuff have you got going on?,” and I started telling her about Anansi Boys. She picked up her fork and started waving it me, saying, “It’s a novel. That’s a novel. You’re telling me a novel.” I said, “Really?,” and she said, “Yes!” And, she was the one holding the fork, so I went and wrote the book. That one was forked.
How do you feel about Neil Jordan taking on The Graveyard Book, and why was he the right person?
Neil: The Graveyard Book was snatched up before it was published. We had a lot of film companies circling it like sharks, all offering very different things. And, the one that I went with, in the end, was Framestore, who were an English animation and special effects house that just started getting into production, but I really liked what they were saying and I liked what they seemed to be responding to, in The Graveyard Book.
The first lunch that I had with the guys from Framestore was in London. We settled down for a lunch, and it was really just to talk. We weren’t having the lunch to pick a director. We were just having the lunch to chat. And, we got to the point where we realized that we’d spent the last 25 or 30 minutes just trying to have the kind of conversation that establishes that we do all have the same kind of film in our heads. There is nothing worse, in any kind of collaboration or partnership, when one person thinks you’re making a wacky action movie, and another person thinks it’s a buddy movie. I’ve been in those situations, where everybody’s hearing what they want to hear and then somebody hands in a treatment or a script, and you’re going, “Oh, my God, it’s now off the rails.”
What was interesting was that the three of us at the table kept going back to The Company of Wolves, in terms of what we were talking about. It really was that that wound up jerking us over into, “Well, let’s talk about Neil Jordan. He’s a writer and director. He’s a really good writer. He’s a novelist as well.” He is one of those people who just makes movies, and sometimes they’re hits and sometimes they aren’t, but they are a tremendous body of work, when you look at it. He’s comfortable with special effects, he’s really good with actors, and all of his films have a wonderful texture and look to them. If you want somebody to direct a film that is all set in a little graveyard on a hill, and that covers 16 years, how are you going to do it? So, we sent the book to Neil and, the next thing I knew, I was having lunch with Neil Jordan, and he was saying, “Okay, I want to do it. I’ve read it and I want to make this film.” And, I said, “Oh, okay.” So, that was incredibly easy.
Henry spoke about how he tried to stay very true to the book with his first draft of the screenplay, but that it didn’t work and it wasn’t what he wanted, and that you were the one that told him he had to let it go and use his imagination to set it free. How were you able to have that freedom with your work?
Neil: I was really, really lucky, when I was a very young man. My first graphic novel was a thing called “Violent Cases.” It had no sooner come out as a graphic novel than I was approached by a theater company who said, “We want to put this on stage,” and I said, “Great!” They said, “We’re going to be completely faithful to the graphic novel. Not a word is going to change. Nothing is going to change. It’s going to be completely faithful.” And, I said, “Great!” And, I sat there in the audience, on the first night, able to talk along with the actors because they hadn’t moved a comma, and it was terrible. It was really awful. Moments that were huge and powerful in the book became nothing on the stage. Moments that were meant to be tiny little nothings in the book, by virtue of now being on stage, became huge and important moments of stage magic. And, it was the biggest lesson I could ever have learned.
You don’t transliterate from one medium to another, you translate. Simply by virtue of being in a different medium, everything has changed anyway. So, when I read Henry’s first draft script, which was incredibly faithful, I was the one on the phone to Henry saying, “It doesn’t work. It’s really, really faithful Henry. Now, go make a movie. Go open it up and put yourself in.” The thing in my head is not intrinsically a film. It’s a book. It’s meant to be a book. What it exists as is a book.
For example, Coraline has no conversations in the book, in the real world, with any adult who actually listens to her and answers anything that she has said. None of the adults actually pay enough attention to what she’s saying to actually hear her. Mostly, they get her name wrong. That’s great in a book because you are down there, at her point of view, and you’re going along with her. In a film, you’re kinda screwed because you’re now in a world in which you just want her to be able to talk to somebody. So, Henry created Wybie, the kid next door. People got very upset. They were saying, “Why did you let Henry put a boy in it? Does he come in and save her?” No, he really doesn’t. Don’t worry. He’s the irritating kid next door, but he’s there and she can talk to him, and it’s great.
Where did the idea for Coraline and this Other World come from?
Neil: A lot of it was putting different things together. For example, the door was just something I stole from my childhood. My family had a house that was divided neatly into two. We lived in the servants quarters, but we had one good room that had been the family room. Another family had the posh half of the house, but we had the good front room. But, the good front room had two doors, one of which had gone to the good half of the house and one of which went to the servants’ quarters. The good half of the house door was bricked up, and I would walk over to it sometimes and open it, and it would always be bricked up. And, I was always sure that, if I just crept up on it right, and opened it in the right way, it wouldn’t be a brick wall, it would be something else.
Most of the rest of it just came from things in my life. I set it in the house that we lived in, at the time. It was written for my daughter. I wanted a story that was about bravery. I wanted a story that said, “Look, there are monsters out there, but you can beat them.” When I was a kid, I had not understood bravery. When I was a kid, I thought being brave meant not being scared. Whenever I was scared, I’d think, “I’m such a coward.” When I was in my late 20′s, early 30′s, I thought, “Being brave doesn’t mean you’re not scared. Being not scared is something that anybody can do. It’s something that most people do, most of the time. Being brave is when you’re scared and you do it anyway. You do the right thing, even though you’re scared. That’s being brave.”
What was your reaction to the finished film?
Neil: I think it’s awesome. It’s the most advanced, ambitious, exciting stop-motion film that anybody’s ever made. The use of 3-D is astounding. I’m very used to 3-D films in which people use the 3-D to throw things at you. You’re in the audience and things are coming towards you. What I love about what Henry does is that he uses 3-D to proceed things from you. Suddenly, things have depth. It’s using 3-D to define space, in a way that I think is completely original and actually makes me feel like this really isn’t a novelty thing. It really is something that people can use, in the years to come.
Is it at all how you envisioned it?
Neil: No, it’s Henry’s vision, and that’s fine. If I’d wanted it to be mine, I would have made the film. It’s much more fun for me to find somebody whose work I love and who I trust.
With as long and successful a career as you’ve had now, how does it feel to still receive recognition, like with the Newberry Medal (for The Graveyard Book)?
Neil: The Newberry Medal is, as my daughter Maddy would say, “made of awesome.” Some years ago, I got an inquiry from the Pulitzer committee, and I had to explain that, “No, I was not American,” and they went away. And, when “Coraline” came out, we got an inquiry from the National Book Award people, and I had to explain that, “No, I was not American,” and they went away. The Newberry is the only major award which is open to Americans and residents. I can’t get a Pulitzer, and I can’t get a National Book Award, but I can get a Newberry. [Laughs]
In addition to which, this is the 88th Newberry ever to go out, and most of the people who have gotten them are dead. So, I’m part of this incredibly cool, incredibly small group of people who’ve got Newberrys. When I was a kid, I remember picking up “A Wrinkle in Time,” by Madeleine L’Engle, and it had the words “Newberry Medal” on the back, and I had no idea what that meant. All I knew was that I had just read one of the coolest books I had ever read, at the age of 8, and I was going to keep looking for this thing. When I saw Mrs. Frisby and the “Rats of Nimh”, and when I saw “From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,” or Susan Cooper’s books, or Lloyd Alexander’s High King books, they had “Newberry Medal winner” on them, and I bought them. The idea that my book has gotten to join that elite, it’s awesome. It’s magic. It’s wonderful.
How is Batman going?
Neil: Batman is going very well. My work is done, which is a wonderful feeling. And, it’s now up to the amazing Andy Kubert, who is drawing as fast as he can. It was an honor. The point where somebody can say to you, “Would you like to write the last Batman story, that will be the last issue of Batman and the last issue of Detective?,” it’s like, “Yeah!” You don’t get to do that very often. In fact, it’s probably the only time that it’s ever going to happen. So, I was thrilled that I got to do it. And, killing Batman, of course, is always fun. [Laughs] Everybody should do it.
It never takes, though, does it?
Neil: It might, this time. [Laughs]
Do you have any plans to revisit Sandman, at any point?
Neil: I wanted to do it for Sandman’s 20th anniversary, and DC Comics were of the opinion that, I should do it under the same royalty and financial terms of which I wrote Sandman in 1987. And, my opinion, honestly, was that I thought things should be a bit better, so I never did it. I would have loved to have done it.
Thank you for your time!
Coraline is out in theaters this Friday, February 6th, 2009.