Neil Gaiman - Sandman / Death / Princess Mononoke / Neverwhere
San Diego Comic Con - San Diego, CA - August 13, 1999

The San Diego Comic Book Convention International celebrated it's 30th anniversary this past August and was visited by many frequent and popular personalities in the field of writing and the arts. Amongst the most popular professionals to attend the Comic Con International is world-revered writer and master tale-spinner, Neil Gaiman. Nail is best known for his work on the award-winning "Sandman" comic book series. This also lead to spin-offs such as the very popular "Death" mini-series. Another well known comic endeavor of Neil's was the "Books Of Magic".

Aside from his many comic book contributions, Neil is also known as a novelist, short story writer and poet of sorts. He co-authored a book with Terry Pratchett entitled "Good Omens: The True And Accurate Prophecies Of Anges Nutter - Witch." His works alone include such titles as "Neverwhere" (which was a British TV mini-series as well), "Stardust," "Angels & Visitations" and recently Smoke & Mirrors" - the last two being collected short works of his. Neil wrote his first children's book two years ago entitled "The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish," an amusing tale of a boy who trades his boring dad for a goldfish and then is sent upon a mission by his mother to bring father home.

Most recently, Neil provided a critically acclaimed English narration to the Japanese animated feature film "Princess Mononoke." This movie (made several years ago) is touted as being one of the finest examples of animated film-making ever. It turns out that Neil's English language voice-overs fit better with the animated mouth movements of the characters than the original Japanese version. It has made "Princess Mononoke" a much sought-after film whose fans can't wait for it's release.

At the Comic Con International, Neil was swamped with requests for interviews and meetings and finally succumed to the idea of just doing a press meeting with everyone at once. The literary king and master of story-telling sat at the end of the table and fielded the questions as they came. Following is our hour-long talk with Neil about his current work on "Princess Mononoke," past literary thoughts and future plans. Neil's ability to handle interviews is as humorous (in his dry British sense) as his written nuances and his answers sometimes come in the same tale-telling style as his writings.

K2K: How did the studio approach you for Princess Mononoke?
NG: They didn't approach me. Harvey Weinstein approached me. The phone rang one day and it was Harvey. The voice says, "Hold for Harvey Weinstein." I said, "What?" He came on and said, "'Princess Mononoke.' I just rang Quentin Tarantino and asked him to write it, the English translation, and he said that you were the best person to do it." So that was really how it began. Miramax and Harvey wouldn't send me a go. So I said, "Just have them send me a video and I'll have a look at it and see if I want to do it." They said absolutely no. "You have to see it in the cinema. You have to see it on the big screen." They flew me into L.A. and I went down to the screening room and sat down and watched the subtitled version. At the end of it, I was utterly impressed. This was the finest anime film that I had ever seen and the finest animation that I had ever seen. And I was fascinated. I was completely intrigued by the story and by the material. So that really was were it all began and I said yes.

K2K: How different is it from the original script?
NG: It's in English. (laughs) I think there really aren't many changes. There are little places were we snuck more information in. There are small changes in places where there would be, for example, a joke in Japanese that was untranslatable.

Occasionally we would make little changes when things (thinks for a moment)... for example, there's a line in the original where the monk is as insulting as he can possibly be about the soup he's been given. He's being completely insulting. In the literal Japanese translation of what he says, he says, "This soup tastes like water." I'm thinking, "How insulting is it going to be?" They said, "Oh, that's pretty much about as insulting as he can get." So, I said, "OK. Well, it's not very insulting in English." To try and get the same effect, the line is, "This soup tastes like donkey piss." Yes, it's changed, but it's changed to get the same semantic content across that the original one did.

There are occasional little places where you would sneak more information in. I was trying to give people a little more information about the cultural background that's coming from this world. But really, as far as I was concerned, my job was to deliver dialogue that didn't sound like Saturday morning dialogue and more importantly, didn't sound like a translated dub dialogue. Jack Fletcher, the AVR director, who is a genius, did an astonishing job on that.

One of the things that I got a huge kick out of was that there were a few people last night [at the pre-screening] who didn't know what "Princess Mononoke" was and had no idea until the end that this was a translated film. That I was thrilled by at the question and answer period at the end of the film. I told the story of how when I went to see the very first verison back in November [1998]. It was just me and the projectionist showing the reel. At the end of it, the projectionist came up to me and said, "You know, they have the Japanese soundtrack and the English soundtrack on the same reel." So we were going backwards and forwards playing it. He said, "Do you know that the English words match up with the mouth movements better than the Japanese do?" I said, "Yes, I know that." It's not something that the Japanese are concerned with. They're perfectly happy with approximation, which Western audiences would not be.

K2K: Have you been approached to do any other different films?
NG: I didn't actually give them that option. My first meeting with the Dimension people after having done the first draft of the script and having worked my bottom off on it, and having sat there in my little gazebo at the bottom of my garden. I lugged down the video and lugged down a little television set. I sat there saying lines over and over and over examing the thing and learning the Japanese, coming up with a really good line that need four mouth flaps and realizing that there's only two and a bit there - trying to figure out a good two and half bit mouth flap line. I went in to those guys and they asked, "Well, how was it?" I said, "It was thrilling, educational, a wonderful thing to have done and if ever you have another job like this, don't phone me. I'm never doing anything like this again." I don't think I will. I will never do another translated movie. It was a wonderful thing to have done once. Twice and I might go mad. I might drive the AVR directors mad too.

K2K: You said that something was happening with the "Death" and the Sandman" movies. Could you extemporize on that?
NG: Nothing is, to the best of my knowledge, happening on the "Sandman" movie other than the strange, sad, developmental hell morass that John Peters has thrown it into and which it has remained there for six years now. With any luck it will remain there forever. I would much rather a "Sandman" movie were never made than a bad one was. With "Death," things seem to be happening. There are some new people at Warner Brothers who are very keen on the project. I think things are happening. Other than that I cannot say. But, things are happening.

K2K: To follow story, shouldn't a Sandman movie come out before a Death movie?
NG: Well, it would be "Death: The High Cost Of Living." Part of the joy of doing the "Death" movie is that it's about a teenage boy who doesn't want to live anymore who meets a girl who claims to be death on her one day alive. You don't really have to have read "Sandman" to appreciate the story. That's part of the fun of it. It's, in many ways, just as interesting if you know that she is Death or she's just a kooky, crazy girl with a wonderful attitude.

K2K: What's the status on "Stardust" [the film project]?
NG: The status on "Stardust" is that I'm working on the outline. It's been held up a little bit until there is a contract. Has anyone ever tried to negotiate a movie contract or watch one? It's like trying to persuade two elephants to make love. You just sort of stand there shouting encouraging things while two teams of lawyers very slowly try to fuck each other. So that was going on very very slowly and eventually it got to the point where I started sort of coughing and saying, "I'm not going to work on it until we get the contracts done." and all of the sudden things happened very quickly. "Stardust" is in outline stage right now. The thing that's moving faster is Neverwhere [the remake of the British TV show - ed.] at Miramax. Much closer to reality. The script was finished a year ago and then it took a year for Jim Henson Productions to close the studio on it. They were contractually bound to offer it to Sony and stuff there, but it also is at Dimension Films. We've got a number of directors who are very keen on it. It will be a matter of picking our director over the next month or so and then things will happen very fast.

K2K: What did you think about the original "Neverwhere"?
NG: I was very frustrated by it. There were lots of things that I liked, but there were things that I didn't like. Obvious ones are the way that they shot it on video. When they shot it on video, on High-Def video, digitally. It was the first thing that the BBC had ever shot digitally. They were under the impression that they could simply run that through a filter and it would look exactly like film. They lit it for film. So they're shooting on video that's lit for film. They then discover that the film simulation software doesn't actually work. So they wind up putting it out as video. The effect of having shot it on video and lighting it for film meant that, despite the fact that the entire thing was shot on location, the sets looked cheap and unrealistic - including Trafalgar Square. We were out there and there were guys standing out there in front of a lion. Things like that were frustrating.

Things like, the big key sequence toward the end is the encounter with the Great Beast of London which I had written in my script as this 15-foot giant boar with old weapons and things sticking out of the side of it. The director went off to a rare breeds farm to inspect boars and they came back and said, "Well, bad news, the only boars we could find have been cross-bred with pigs and they really do look like fuzzy things that would do anything for a cream bun. But, we have an even better solution." and they showed me a picture of a cow. I said, "You're showing me a picture of a cow." They said, "No we're not. That's Albert and he's a Highland Bull and he's terrifying." I told them, "He looks pretty cuddly." They said, "No, no, no. And he won't be recognizable as a bull once he's in a mask with giant fangs and thingys sticking out of him."

So I went off to Australia for a convention. I came back a week or so later and saw the dailys that were in. You could see a bull. "Oh no! It's the Great Beast of London! Here it comes!", and a bull pops around the corner. I said, "I thought he was going to be wearing a mask and stuff." They said, "Well, he may not look very impressive on the television, but close up, he was quite intimidating."
The make-up lady said that it really wasn't her job to put giant fangs and stuff on an irritated-looking bull and the prop people said they weren't going to do it and the animal wrangler said neither was he. So you see this bull with a ring in his nose pop around the corner. So there were a lot of things that were really frustrating about it.

On the other hand, there were some really good performances, especially if you've been watching it for a while. You, very rapidly, forget the film styles and lapses in imagination. I'm hoping that we can get some really good real imagination this time.

K2K: What elements does a story have to have, such as mythology or what, in order for you to do it?
NG: I think it just has to feel right. I'm not sure that I can put it any better than that. The thing about "[Princess] Mononoke" was that most of the mythology, as I discovered, when I went off and researched mythology, is imaginary - it's invented. The way that it all fits together says something very real about people and our relationship with the universe and the environment and with all the things that are important. Last year I wound up off the coast of Patagonia, watching whales. Seeing these tails the size of VW Beetles cresting and splashing and stuff, it felt really important. I thought, "That's why we need to save the whales." Because without them, we would be less. That was the feeling that I got the first time I watched "Mononoke", was that the world needs to be protected because without it we would be less.

K2K: Did you have voices in mind when you were writing the adaptation for Princess Mononoke?
NG: Very much so, yes. You had to. I had to pick characters and write them so they would have individual voices as I went. Billy Bob Thornton, his character, I had actually imagined Bob Hoskins - someone small and shifty. I had actually written it in this sort of slightly Cockney-ish way, which meant that when we cast Billy Bob, we had to go and fiddle with the lines and give it this sort of strange Southern lunatic evil monk twang. Whereas Lady Oboshi, I had known and pictured and imagined her as being - I think I imagined Minnie Driver or Helena Bonham Carter from the start. It was going to be one of those two. They looked right, they sound right, I want her to be English and aristrocratic. Minnie Driver's performance on that, I think is faultless.

I decided that I wanted a slightly more poetic voice for the animal gods than the people have. So the animals talk in high speech a lot of the time - slightly archaic, slightly perkier. The Japanese, I was told, talk sort of rougher than the people do. I thought it seemed right to go with the high speech, a level of formality.

K2K: How did you get so literate?
NG: I was a "bookie" kid. I was one of those kids who had books on them. Before weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, funerals and anything else where you're actually meant to not be reading, my family would frisk me and take the book away. If they didn't find it by this point in the procedure, I would be sitting over in that corner completely unnoticed just reading my book. I was the kind of kid who would, during summer holidays I would get my parents to drop me off at the local library. Sometimes I would remember to bring sandwiches and sometimes I would forget, which just meant that sometimes I would be reading late in the afternoon hungrier than when I would remember sandwiches. I was probably the only kid, in one school that I was at, when I was about 9, 10, 11, who particularly hung out in the school library. The school library at that time, in this old English school, was abandoned by everybody and was filled with all these amazing books. There was almost nothing, in the library, later than 1945. Those are the books that had obviously gone in there between about 1890 and 1920. As a result of which, I would up with a remarkable knowledge of pre-war British fiction. Not knowing that I had already a remarkable knowledge of pre-war British fiction until you start talking academics - "My God, you've read HIM?" That was really it. It was what I liked doing.

I remember when I was about nine. I was daydreaming. I had this sort of fantasy, because I really wanted to be the person who had written "The Lord Of The Rings." I thought that would be so cool. So, my fantasy was that I had a copy of "The Lord Of The Rings" with me and I'd accidentally slip into a parallel universe exactly the same as the one I was in except that nobody had ever written "The Lord Of The Rings." But I had a copy and then I would get a grownup to take it out for me, because I figured that my typing wasn't good enough as I was only nine. Then I'd assassinate the grownup so they wouldn't know and I wouldn't tell anybody. Then I would send it off to a publisher and I would get to be the person who wrote "The Lord Of The Rings." After a while you just figure that's never going to happen so I may as well sit down and start writing.

K2K: When you were growing up, what did you like to read? Who is your favorite author now?
NG: When I was growing up, I liked to read anything that I could possibly get my hands on. I was definitely skewed toward SF and Fantasy. As a young kid, as around six, my favorite author was probably C. S. Lewis. When I was nine, my favorite author was Michael Moorcock. When I was twelve, my favorite authors were R. A. Lafferty, Roger Zelazny and Chip Delaney. Somewhere in there, I must have discovered Harlan Ellison who remains one of my favorite authors and since has become one of my most infuriating and interesting friends.

My favorite author right now? Probably Johnny Olmoch Earl Of Rochester, who is an almost completely forgotten restoration poet and Drake who actually was removed from literary history by Victorians because he would write these poems about stuff like premature ejaculation and the Victorians just decided that he was being removed from the literary canons and the Victorians took him out and he was really rediscovered until the 1960s. Even in the 1960s they considered three or four of his most important works to be too obscene to be publishable. I don't like him because he's obscene, although I enjoy some of it, I like him because he has this amazingly skewed and satirical and amazingly beautiful and cynical way of writing. Then if you ask me tomorrow who my favorite writer is, I might give you a completely different answer.

K2K: Is there anything on the novel that you're working on right now?
NG: The novel that I am working on now, which is driving me slowly mad, is called "American Gods." It's not really a horror novel, but it's got some really weird moments in it. "Stardust" is coming out in January. January 14th [2000] in paperback in the Avon edition. Avon discovered, when they bought out the hardback, that it was being read by three completely distinct and different groups of people. There were the fantasy fans, obviously. There were mainstream readers who had read great reviews of it and read reviews that said it was a fable or a fairy-tale for adults, so they went out and read it and loved it. Then there was a third group of people of people, the romance fans - the bodice-ripper ladies. They have an amazing sort of jungle grapevine and they have websites and newsletters. The word went out, "Read this. It's a wonderful love story." So we had to figure out what to do for a cover that would appeal to all three groups. We thought about it and thought that we cannot come up with a cover that the fantasy people and the mainstream people and the romance people are all going to like, but we could do three covers. The Stardust, when it comes out in paperback, actually has three different covers - one with a castle on, the guy on the black horse and the one with the couple that's just about to go into a clench. They have one uniform background. The reason I mention all of this is because I really do worry about what the ladies - all the ones who buy the 'clench' one at the supermarket and take it home and think "Oh what a beautiful love story" - are going to make of "American Gods" which also about decent blow jobs and strange things like that. But yes, it's being written right now.

Also being written right now, other things that are coming out, "Wolves In Walls" I've delivered which is a book that Dave McKeon is going to be illustrating. It's not exactly a sequel to "The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish" although the Queen of Melanesia appears in it as well. It's a strange little tale about a this girl who is convinced that there are wolves living in her walls of her house and what happens the night that the wolves come out of the walls and how the people get their house back.

I've got a book called "Coraline" which is a really spooky, rather strange book about a little girl which is three-quarters finished. I was going to do a midnight reading of it last night to find out what people thought about it but, although they scheduled a midnight reading, they forgot to tell me about the midnight reading. So that's kind of problamatic. It's a very very scary disturbing story of a little girl which I started when my daughter Holly was seven and she is now fourteen. I had this sudden realization that unless I got down and finished it, that my smallest daughter Maggie, who is five, will be too old for it by the time it's printed.

K2K: Your spoken word story-reading CD was captured very well.
NG: Thank you. We're thinking of doing a live one for the Comic Legal Defense Fund. We've got so many tapes from readings around the country.

K2K: What can you tell us about the "Books Of Magic" film project?
NG: Matt Greenberg is off writing a script. I believe he will deliver in late September. We've had hour after hour after hour of long conversation. He comes up very often to pick my brains and we both love it. It's definitely rolling slowly down the pipeline. More than that, I have no idea. But I am officially an executive producer, which doesn't mean anything really in real terms. It means the call me up to ask me questions.

K2K: How would you describe your relationship with Hollywood up to this point and did Mononoke change anything?
NG: My relationship with Hollywood is interested but distant and wary. I cash their checks and drink the fizzy water and say, "Thank you very much. I'm very grateful for that thing." I will never ever in any way consider myself real important, I suppose. "Mononoke" I don't think of as Hollywood. Studio Gibley is certainly not in Hollywood and, bless them, neither are Harvey or Bob. It's more of a New York / Tokyo sort of thing.

K2K: How well did the actors and actresses accept their roles when you decided to cast them in "Mononoke"? How did they accept it?
NG: Most of them were very very cool. We pretty much got our A-list. Minnie Driver was our A-list for Lady Oboshi and we got her. Claire Danes was our A-list and we got her. I think they were playing around with the idea of Leonardo DiCaprio but we were all very relieved when he said that he wasn't going to be doing anything else that year, or whatever. We went off and got Billy Critter. His performance is so good that you miss it. It is so good that it becomes invisible. I think Gillian Anderson was the very first person to be recorded. I thought that was a lovely, weird, inspired piece of casting.

K2K: How do you like writing children's books?
NG: I love writing children's books. I think I will always write children's books. I love warping young minds. Warping impressionable young minds. People say to me, "How do you feel about being Neil 'Sandman' Gaiman?" I say, "No, you get it. I've written 'The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish'." Scholastic Books now had that book on the list of those things in schools where you check what book you want. That's on there. In fifty year's time, people will be going, "Did you know that guy who wrote that book about the kid who traded his dad for two goldfish, he wrote other stuff?" "No. Is it any good?" These books go on forever. I'm joking, but I'm also being deadly serious. A. A. Milne was, at one time, the most successful playwrite in England. He had five plays in the West End simultaneously. He was considered a major essayist. His books of essays were considered incredibly popular. If you had told him in 1926 that he would be remembered for two books of children's poems and two books of children's stories, he would have laughed at you and told you that it was nonsense. That's all he's remembered for.

K2K: A Mononoke question. The major theme seems to be city vs. nature. Is that a theme that you could easily able to identify with?
NG: Oh yeah. I've always lived in the country, whenever I can. The only time I ever really had to live in London was when I was a young journalist and I had to have an "01" in front of my phone number back then in order to convince people that I was for real. "01" was a long time ago. I've always been a country person. I like living in the country. I like lots of trees around. What I love about Mononoke is that it's not a clear cut "either or" story. It's not 'the forest is good, the ironworks is bad'. It's made clear in the beginning. They let me add a few lines to clarify a bit, right in the very beginning. You have Minnie Driver's lines as they're coming over the hill, "We have to get this rice home. If we don't get this rice back, we don't eat." They've gone to the neighboring towns, they've sold their ingots, they've exchanged it for rice which they're bringing back. This is what feeds the people in iron town. The existance of iron is a good thing. On the other hand, the existance of the forest is also a good thing. It's fundementally a work about harmony.

K2K: How did you come up with the idea for the poem "Nicholas Was..."?
NG: It was based on a movie that I had once seen with Dudley Moore. It was a terrible movie. He was playing Santa and was getting mobbed. I thought, what if Santa Claus really didn't want his job? What if he was truly miserable and the elves were really holding him hostage?

And with that, the public chat was over and we were all to indulge ourselves at the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund party that was going on next door. The CBLDF is something that Neil promotes avidly and is something that most readers of any sort should look into joining to protect their rights of being allowed to read whatever they wish.

Written by Philip Anderson

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