Interview with Neil Gaiman for Coraline

The cult author talks about his stop-motion animated movie

Introducing ‘Coraline’ to a sold-out Irish preview screening at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival author Neil Gaiman set expectations very high telling the bespectacled crowd “The only thing that I want you to know going into this, apart from the fact that you wear your 3D glasses over your regular glasses, is everything you are going to see tonight exists. It wasn’t made by computer; it was made by someone making it. If it moves on the screen it’s because someone reached down a tiny little bit and they moved it. Computers were used to do what they’ve been doing on films like this going back to King Kong and before, which is to paint out lines, to paint out things holding things up. This is the stuff that people used to do with paintbrushes that has been done on computer. Other than that, everything you see tonight in ‘Coraline’ was made by hand. I hope you enjoy it.”

The cult author obviously is very proud of the ‘Coraline’ adaptation, answering 100s of fan questions after the screening in Dundrum and the following day in Chapters bookstore on Parnell Street. Below are some of the question highlights from the two events…

Q: What do you make of the handmade feel given by director Henry Selick

NG: As wonderful as CGI is, and it’s a wonderful thing, there is nothing that actually replaces the knowledge that you could actually touch something, the idea that everything you see her wearing was made. There is a lady who is a micro-knitter. Her name is Althea Crome, and they found her on the internet, and she’s a micro-knitter! And she knits with surgical steel needles and it takes her three or four weeks to make a jumper. All those little jumpers and gloves… they got knitted! A computer couldn’t do that!

Q:Is that why there are yoga teachers credited in the film?

NG: I think the yoga teachers were for the poor animators! This was the most ambitious stop-motion film ever made. It had, at one point, over 40 active sets. On a good day of shooting, we’d get seven seconds. That adds up, if you think about it, to about a minute a week and its 100 minutes long, and it took about 100 weeks. That’s two years of shooting. That’s leaving aside the time before we started shooting, of making and designing the film. They had to solve problems that no-one had ever had to solve before, like the cat. And the rat. So the yoga instructors were for the poor animators who were likely to go mad.

Q: Is it true that you gave director, Henry Selick a copy of Coraline when it was still in manuscript form?

NG: I did! I was one of the few people, when I went to see Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, to notice that it was directed by Henry Selick. I thought ‘I really like his sensibilities; I like what he’s doing, I like his willingness to scare!’ I went and saw James and the Giant Peach, because Henry directed it. Now I thought there were problems with the film – chiefly the going in and out of live action, which I thought didn’t do it any favours. In fact, when I met Henry the first time I said ‘What was that with the live action…?’ and he said ‘budget’. The week that I finished Coraline, the first draft, I gave it to my agent and said ‘Get this on Henry Selick’s desk’. Within a week I got a call from my agent saying ‘Henry loved it, he wants to meet with you’ so I went up to Los Angeles and met him. The book wasn’t published until 2002 and I actually signed the contract on the 7th of February 2001. Strangely, and utterly coincidentally, the film was released in America on the 7th of February 2009 which is how long it took to get from talking about it to the screen. Some people come to me and say ‘Why didn’t Henry make the film look like the Dave McKean illustrations?’ and the reason is that the Dave McKean illustrations wouldn’t exist for another 18 months after Henry started work on the film.

Q:You watched the film tonight, how many times have you seen it?

NG: I missed it at the premiere in order to enjoy it tonight. There will come a point where if I watch it every time it will turn into aversion therapy. I am watching it every two or three weeks right now and I am loving it.

Q:How do you feel about 3D?

NG: You can download a pirated film from the internet tomorrow but it’s not going to give you what everyone here got tonight. I think this is the first time 3D has been used in a kind of grown up way. It’s sort of like when the talkies came in and the actors used to suddenly shout at you! 3D used to be used to throw things at the audience. The way that Henry uses 3D it’s about shapes and it’s about depth. Also for Henry and me it solves the question of how you separate the two worlds and that’s created with depth. I actually got to see, a few nights ago, the original of the kitchen set in our world and the kitchen set in the ‘other’ world. The kitchen set in our world is actually about 4 inches deep. It’s all those optical illusion-y raked ceilings and raked floors and things that look like they have depth but they don’t. Whereas the other kitchen has even more depth than it should have. All the 3D that you’re seeing is not actually computer-y. The 3D was done in a very brilliant way. They have a camera and it takes a photograph and then it moves the distance of a pair of eyes of the dolls. So it moves left about half a centimetre and it takes another photo. Those are what they used to create the 3D.

Q:Is Coraline aimed towards children or adults?

NG: I think it’s mostly aimed at people! I’m not really that concerned about the size! The impression I get is that it’s a lot scarier for adults and a bit less scary for children. I hope it’s scary enough for everybody. My favourite memory of film was being five years old and being taken to The Wizard of Oz in the cinema and actually getting to hide behind the seats every time the Witch came on. People say to me ‘What about the monkeys?’ but I didn’t have a problem with the monkeys! I am trying to give a little of that back to the world. I think that Henry and I thought that children’s films… But it’s not even children’s films… Have become a little bit content less. The kind of thing that you can put a seven year old down in front of a DVD and walk away and not have to worry about them getting ideas from it or having to think or even having to talk to you about it. We liked the idea of a making a film that had content.

Q:Your collaborations on film have all been very successful. Would you agree?

NG: I think so, and I think I am learning as I go.

Q:But it was not always the case?

NG: I think what was good was that I got really hurt really early. Terry Pratchett and I… they bought Good Omens and we thought we were so clever! We’d read about Hollywood experiences but we didn’t think that kind of thing would happen. And we were too clever anyway! So we went to Hollywood. I remember actually before we walked into the first meeting Terry Pratchett looked at me and said ‘We should have some kind of code word that Americans would never say which we use to get out when we know it’s not working’ and I said ‘What about “Biggles”?’. There as this woman who walked in and said ‘OK Neil, Terry, lovely to meet you. Now what we think is interesting about this book is the triangle of the young witch finder guy who we think is kind of like Tom Cruise and the girl Athaneema or whatever her name is and the kid who wants to be like the witch finder but has a crush on the witch…’. I look at Terry and he’s just going . And we probably should have done aBiggles at that point but we stayed and we tried. It kind of got to the point where every afternoon we would write a completely new treatment and the next morning we would go in and listen to people talking and demonstrating that they had not read the thing that we had sent them the night before. And we did one script after another then Terry quit and I said I would hang in for one more draft and then I quit… No, I would have quit but the company went bankrupt. That was about 1991/1992 and I was done. I was done with Hollywood. And I decided not to back until I was going to be with people I liked and people I trusted. That became the idea that you sort of build your clan.

Q:So it has been much easier since then?

NG: There have been some places where I have said no. Bob and Harvey (Weinstein) offered me an amount of money that was ridiculous. $3 million for the rights to all my short stories. But I wouldn’t have had any say or control in what happened to them. They could have done anything they wanted. They could have done that new Hollywood thing there they just make a film and call it Neil Gaiman’sversion of… and I thought about it and I said no.

Q: Your work on Stardust and Beowulf, was that a case of finding likeminded collaborators?

NG: Beowulf began as Roger Avery coming to me in 1997 and asking would I like to collaborate with him on a Beowulf that he was going to be directing. I wrote, with him, the Beowulf script and what we were writing was basically this low budget film. Our models were Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Jabberwocky. The film was about to be made on a budget of $25 million and it was going to be shot in Canada. It was going to be executive produced by Robert Zemeckis’s company and it had a green light which means it’s all systems go. Roger was a week away from going and scouting locations when there was a phone call from someone every very high up at DreamWorks to Robert Zemeckis who I am not going to name… Who was actually Steven Speilberg! And he said he was going to pull the plug on it and suddenly I discovered that green lights can get turned off. We thought the project was completely dead; Roger was trying to get the script back from DreamWorks. Then one day in 2004 the phone rang and Bob Zemeckis asked to buy the script from me and I said ‘It’s really not my call, it’s Roger’s’. Poor Roger had an agonising month during which I think they kept coming back with more and more wheelbarrows full of money. And at the end of Roger’s agonising month he came out from the money pile and he said ‘Yes OK’. Suddenly our little film was being made with animated, sprayed gold Angelina Jolie. I feel strange that of the four films of mine that have been made, two of them have been 3D. Beowulf was OK, the 3D was computer generated and I think Coraline is better because it was real, everything you see was there. Like the first time you see the tunnel extending away from you, and it looks like it really moves back away from you.

Q:How did Stardust come about?

NG: Stardust is one of those things where I said ‘I need to know who the director is going to be’ because Julie Taymor’s Stardust would not be Terry Gilliam’s Stardust, would not be Tim Burton’sStardust, would not be Quentin Tarantino’s Stardust. The point being that there is a lot of sense in finding out what people would pick out from the story. It’s an awful lot more to do with the sensibilities of the director than to do with what’s in the book. Matthew (Vaughn) is an action director, that was what he wanted, that was what he took from the book. And he told me about all these people who he was going to get to work on the dialogue and they were all people who you would get in if you wanted a film with London gangsters and dialogue like “Here you muppet! Shurrup!”. So I said ‘What about Jane Goldman who knew would be able to do the love stuff’. And it’s a lovely film, it’s sweet and it’s funny. I keep hearing from people across America who are going to Valentine’s double bills of The Princess Bride and Stardust. It did badly in America and it did well in the rest of the world. The point where I knew it had done amazingly badly in America was the point where it’s first weekend opening was the exact same as the Russian weekend opening and I thought ‘One of you isn’t trying!’. Not the Russians!

Q:There was a rumour that Terry Gilliam was going to direct Good Omens.

NG: That would be lovely, and maybe one day somebody will find $65 million behind the cushion on the sofa and they won’t know what to do with it and they will give it to Terry Gilliam to make the film. Terry put together a really good filming script, and he signed Johnny Depp as Crowley, Robin Williams was going to be a bunch of parts in the film including Madam Tracey. It was going to be really good! He had $50 million from people around the world, and all he had to do was go to a studio and get $15 million. Unfortunately then 9/11 happened and he was basically told that there was no such thing as a comedy about the end of the world. Furthermore, Johnny Depp, everybody knew, was washed up and nobody would approve a film with Johnny Depp. They took to hiding under their desks when they heard that Terry Gilliam was coming and nobody would give him $15 million. The film company he was working with went off into bankruptcy, taking the script with. So I still hope it will happen, I have strange hopes that one day somebody will find $65 million underneath the cushions and give it to Terry Gilliam. Terry Pratchett and I actually did this thing where we told him we would sell him the rights for a groat. Which, as all of you know, is an antiquated unit of currency which has not been used in England since the 1720s. Then I had to work out what the value of a groat would be. In the end I went onto eBay and bought several farthings. I thought farthings would be fun!

Q:There have been rumours that you were going to direct the Sandman series?

NG: The problem is that these are owned by Warner Brothers and none of them are ever allowed outside the Warner Brothers stable. The problem is not finding someone to put up money or to make the film, lots of people would put up money and lots of people would make it, but it needs to be in the Warner Brothers stable. Originally the script was written for Warner Brothers and when I handed it in to them they said ‘This is a $15 million movie!’ and I said ‘Well yes!’ and they said ‘We’re Warner Brothers! We don’t make $15 million movies!’ and I said ‘Well what do we do then?’ and they said ‘We’re going to have to find one of our sub-companies to do it’. So then they make you wait while lawyers at Warner Brothers talk to lawyers at sub companies and then we went off to New Line and they said ‘Yes, we’re all on, we’re all up for it’. Then it got bounced from New Line to Warner Independent Pictures. From there we were suddenly told that Warner Brothers wanted to do it again. So they did a budget on it and said ‘Hang on! This is a $20 million movie!’ – time had gone by – and I said ‘Yes’ and they said ‘But we’re Warner Brothers! We don’t make $20 million movies!’ and I said ‘We had this conversation four years ago’. So then we went back to New Line. This time it looked like we really were good to go. Everything was in place, we had a casting team lined up and then by the method of the way these things happen, New Line, pretty much over night, stopped being a film company with offices and staff and the power to say yes or no to their own movies and, in essence, became a filing cabinet in Warner Brothers. I directed a short film a few years ago, purely because I wanted to find out whether directing a film is like making stuff up which I enjoy. Or if it is something that I don’t, like putting up shelves. If you have shelves you don’t want me putting them up, they’ll fall down! Or things will slide off before they fall down! And I don’t enjoy doing it! And I have to say I loved every little bit of the process, I loved the casting, I loved talking to the technical people, I loved saying ‘…because I said so’ which is a wonderful power. I had been frustrated because you write a line of dialogue and then you watch it on the screen and you go ‘That was a really good line of dialogue. I know it was a good line of dialogue, I know how it works. I know how I would have made them say it and how the beat works and you didn’t do any of that and now that line of dialogue is just lying there like a herring or something else that just lies there’. So I had much too much fun doing that.

Words : Brogen Hayes


Coraline previews this weekend and opens at Irish Cinemas everywhere from May 8th