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Journey Back to Neverwhere: A Conversation with Neil Gaiman

by Joel Cunningham

Neil Gaiman attracted a cult following with his Sandman comics, but his talent is impressive enough that the mainstream has taken notice—his novels Good Omens (which he co-wrote) and American Gods were award-winning best sellers, and attracted a shiver of circling film executives hungry for a bit of the writer's magic blood. Before he was offered the chance to direct a film based on his series of comics about a beautiful, feminine Death, however, he wrote a miniseries called Neverwhere for the BBC, which is now coming to DVD from A&E.

Gaiman is a great interview, enthusiastic and polite, and mindful not to get too annoyed with stupid questions. He chats with dOc about low-budget TV, touring London on the tube, and the curse of Terry Gilliam.

dOc: I've read on message boards and fan sites that upon completion of the Neverwhere series on the BBC, you weren't very happy with how the story turned out, and so you wrote the novel. How much truth is there to that?

Neil Gaiman: It was more about doing, I suppose, the director's cut. When making the TV series, we were up against problems of budget, because this is the BBC—it was all being done for tuppence apenny—and it was being done... There were things that were... Well, the things that I talk about on the DVD. The problems with Albert the cow playing the Great Beast of London. The scariest thing you're leading up to, and you go, "No, it's a cow, isn't it?" I wanted it to be a 12-foot high, giant mutated white boar with weapons sticking out of its hide. So I got to do all that, which was enormous fun.

dOc: Do you think the issues with the series could have been fixed with more money, or was it more of an issue of translating a personal vision that might not work on film as well as in your imagination?

NG: I don't know. I think a lot of the DVD actually does work. I mean, that was one of the interesting things for me, doing the commentary. When you're sat in front of something I've not actually seen for six, seven years... I was surprised at how much of the story does work. I think the first half-hour was very problematic, but that was much more the director and myself having different points of view as to how things should be edited.

The BBC attitude was very much that you needed to start the adventure immediately, to feel that everything was exciting right away. And my theory was, no no no, this thing is a giant rollercoaster ride. Episode One, you're just being cranked up the rollercoaster, very slowly, to let you go. There were definitely differences of opinion there. But beyond that, I was actually... I found myself a lot of the time being pleasantly surprised. There are some gorgeous performances. Paterson Joseph as the marquis particularly is just wonderful.

dOc: I agree, he's very charismatic in the role. Do you think writing the book maybe helped you, after seeing it again, make peace with all the things that had bothered you about it before?

NG: I think that's probably true as well. Because the book is out there, because I can point to anybody who wants to know about the story, I can point them there. There is also the knowledge to start off with that, for most of the people watching the DVD are in this nice position... That the book has been a bestseller since 1997, so million of copies have been sold, people have read it. A lot of those people are going to be the first audience for the TV series anyway.

dOc: That's actually the situation I'm in. I read the book a few years ago and I didn't even know that the series came first.

NG: Certainly. So a lot of people are already going to know the book, and when they look at the TV series, they will make allowances for it. Also, some of the places, particularly in the very beginning and the very end, some of the places where they just didn't have the time—some of which was my fault, because I'd written these scenes, and they'd say, "We have 29 minutes, and the way you filmed it and have written it, it would be 35 minutes, and we don't have that." So for those sequences, I like the idea that people know how it's supposed to work.

dOc: I was surprised, listening to the commentary, hearing how involved you were, being on-set a lot and helping to choose the locations and props. Is that unusual for the BBC, or did that happen because it was "Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere"?

NG: I think it is much more the regular thing that happens in British television, and it can be a regular thing that happens with a lot of movie-making projects. Writers tend to be much more important in television. The same is true of American television. Directors will be coming and going from project to project, and the writers know what they're doing, whether you're pointing to someone like Aaron Sorkin... In television, people can actually name writers. They can name the Joss Whedons and the Chris Carters and the Aaron Sorkins, in a way that they probably can't for film writers.

dOc: In some of those cases, a lot of that control and recognition has to do with the fact that people like Joss Whedon are also executive producers. I guess I'm just used to hearing writers complain, "I wrote this, and the director just ran with it and did it all wrong." But it seems like it worked out better for you, and it often works out better in television rather than movies.

NG: Well, the tradition in movies is that you write the script and you hand it over. But then again, I just made this lovely thing called Mirror-Mask with Dave McKean, which is very much Dave's vision, but it's my script, and I was involved every step of the way, which was, again, enormous fun.

dOc: The miniseries, like you said, hasn't been seen a lot, especially in the US, where people have probably read the book first. How much do you think the atmosphere of it—with the puns about the subway system and the geography of London—how well do you think those subtleties translate to a US audience? Do you think it still works as well?

NG: I genuinely don't know, but I don't think that people, that an audience... On the one hand, you may lose a few jokes, lose a few lines. The fact that the Islington tube stop is called Angel, for example, is something that is neither here nor there. What is nice about that is I kind of figure that Neverwhere serves as sort of a strange, lop-sided London tourist board. What I keep hearing now from people is, "We went to London and we used Neverwhere as a guidebook." Or, "I've seen Neverwhere, I read Neverwhere, I went to London, and, oh my god, I'd sit on the tube, and I'd look up, and there would be Oxford Circus!"

dOc: Since you spent a lot of time with it, from 1991 until you published the novel in 1997, does the Neverwhere story hold as large a place in your mind as something like Sandman, which has a larger cult following?

NG: The thing about Sandman is that Sandman was 2000 pages long, and the body of it took eight, going on nine years of my life to do. It's ten volumes long, and I've just gone back to it with Endless Nights, so we've got the first new Sandman book. So it's this enormous, huge part of my life. Neverwhere is one novel and one DVD. So comparing it to Sandman is difficult. There are definitely several more Neverwhere novels I'd like to do. It's quite possible that when I get to the end of my life, Neverwhere will occupy a bigger and more important place.

dOc: You did mention on the commentary something about Henson maybe making a movie of Neverwhere. Has there actually been some movement on that?

NG: They bought the thing, they've commissioned some scripts from me, they've got a guy called Vincenzo Natali who directed Cube, he was the last director attached to it; I'm not sure if he's attached to it now, I've been out of the loop working on other things. I need to go back and check. But as far as I know, it's moving slowly down the getting made pipeline.

dOc: That's good to hear. And yeah, you've certainly been involved in enough to keep you busy. I wanted to ask you about Coraline. I understand Henry Selick is adapting it. Will it be stop-motion like The Nightmare Before Christmas?

NG: Yes, there will be some stop-motion, and Mirror-Mask will feature CGI.

dOc: How are things coming with your directorial debut, Death: The High Cost of Living?

NG: Well, it's chugging along. We've got a script that everybody likes, the financing is in place, and as far as I can tell we're just figuring out a number of issues as to which of the various Warner Bros. entities will actually be bringing the thing out.

dOc: Have you started with casting at all?

NG: No, we need to be sure which studio it's coming out through first. But I have to say, the experience of going out there and having lunch with potential "Deaths" is something that I'm very much looking forward to.

dOc: With the new Sandman book out, is there a chance for more Death comics after the movie is finished?

NG: There is a possibility, but when we get into the Death movie, that's a year of my life. And with Sandman: Endless Nights, that was 18 months of writing to bring it about for all the amazing artists. So I don't know where I'd find the time while directing a movie... But I would love to do another Death comic; she's a wonderful character.

dOc: Is the movie based on Good Omens still a possibility? It seems like that movie is cursed. Terry Gilliam must have run into a string of bad luck lately.

NG: I don't know if it's the film or Terry who's cursed, but he's off now making a film called The Brother's Grimm, which he, at least, had everything set up for. And as far as I know he still wants to come back to Good Omens, so fingers crossed that he can.