Another old Film Focus thing, this time an interview with director Dave McKean to go with my review of Mirrormask.
Was thrilled to speak to McKean over the phone, having long been an awed fanboy. I even got on to my Art A-level course (having not done the GCSE) by showing the tutors a sketchbook mostly comprising cut-and-pasted bits of Signal to Noise from my sisters copies of The Face. Excitingly, I've since met and been on a panel with McKean at a convention. He signed a copy of Mr Punch for the Dr (I chose that one 'cos it's about a wife beater.) Anyhoo...
Dave McKean interview
Conducted 27 February 2006
As I understand it from Neil Gaiman’s blog, Henson’s found that they had two million quid stuffed down the back of the sofa and wondered if you could make a film with it. Is that roughly how Mirrormask came about?
It’s almost that, yes. That’s the funny version. The slightly less funny version is that somebody at Columbia/TriStar – who released Labyrinth and the Dark Crystal – just noticed that those films, over the years, had done very well. Actually, when they were released they did not do so well because they were expensive. But over the years they have been around all the time, and people still like them and watch them.
Is that on video and DVD?
Yes, and they’re still showing at science-fiction festivals and fantasy festivals. They are just constants, and new generations of people keep finding them and enjoying them. So they offered Henson’s the chance to make another one, but they only had the aforementioned two million quid down the back of the sofa. So yes, that’s how it came about.
How much was it to be a conscious continuation of Dark Crystal and Labyrinth?
I think those sorts of conversation carried on before Neil and I were involved. I think the very first possibility-type conversations between Lisa Henson and the folks at Columbia/TriStar were, ‘Well, maybe it could be a sequel to Labyrinth or something like that…’ Those conversations had gone by the time we came aboard. At that point it was just a fantasy film, non-specific but for a family audience. So not a blood-and-gutsy adult film. Other than that, anything we liked.
So that gave you a lot of freedom then?
I know you principally as an illustrator, I think as most people will. You used to illustrate for things like The Face, back in the eighties…
Yeah, we did a story called Signal to Noise, which I’m hoping to make as a film next.
I’ve read interviews with people like Terry Gilliam talking about the difference between being an illustrator and making moving images. How much more difficult is it to get the same effect from a moving image?
Um… it’s actually not difficult, I’ve found.
So you don’t feel you’re compromising your vision at all?
It depends. I’ve made some short films, and am continuing to make short films here, literally on my own. In that respect, there’s no compromise at all. When you get to the level of a film like Mirrormask, there are compromises but they tend to be creative ones, meaning that the budget is fixed and that becomes your wall, the box that you’re in. Actually, that’s really liberating in a way, because it forces you to be resourceful. You can’t just continually throw money at problems, you have to use your brains a little bit.
When it gets up to Terry’s $80 million mark, you’re really dealing with a ton of money. You’re dealing with people who are very nervous and twitchy about spending all that money. That’s where it starts to get much more compromised and difficult. Obviously the possibilities are huge because you’ve got all this money to throw at the show, but you’ve also got people looking over your shoulder constantly, people who may not be sympathetic to your whim at that particular moment. Whereas on Mirrormask we could almost make it up as we went along. Obviously we didn’t, but we had a very free and easy, improvisational, ‘let’s make the most of this’ attitude to the making of it.
Is the final version of the film then as you envisaged it from the beginning?
It is, but obviously in the making of it all kinds of things happen that are not necessarily in your control. Actors do things that you weren’t expecting – good and not so good. Things work, things don’t work, actually what we set out to do in the first place maybe wasn’t any good, and then you have to rethink that. All of those sorts of creative things have compromise, but it’s free of people changing it just for changing it’s sake, or in real opposition to what we wanted to do. There’s none of that in it. Its problems are our problems, and down to our inexperience or things not working so well, those sorts of things. But basically, it’s the film we set out to make.
You say about actors. The film is grounded in reality, quite different from the hippy, slightly pantomime feel of Labyrinth. How do you get the actors to understand where you want to go with this, and the tone of it?
A lot of it is just the nature of the script. We wanted, at every turn, to try and keep the actors very naturalistic. Even though you’ve got Gina McKee dressed up in a huge wig, with black eyes and her gold skin, and in this ridiculous throne and everything, we had her dialogue be basically that of a worried mum. That was very important, to always ground it in reality.
So there’s that, and then the whole thing was story-boarded, so I could explain where we were – where they were walking through, what they were talking to. But I think very quickly they realised that it was only going to work if you connected to the human elements. Even though they were surrounded by these ridiculous things, if you don’t connect with Helena – Stephanie – and her worries and feelings about her mum, and where she is in her life at this particular point, then no about of pretty picture-making is going to be worth sitting through for an hour and a half.
It just gives it a point, as far as I’m concerned. I love looking at these baroque fantasy films. They’re enjoyable, but if I’ve got to spend two years making one, I want to know that at the end of the day it is actually about things that are important to me. Just on a basic level, my daughter is now twelve, and I know I’ve got these sort of feelings, battles and whatever coming up with her. Just on a personal level, at that point it really means something to me.
As well as the monsters, a lot of the sense of threat is from Helena just growing up – throwing away her old drawings, snogging the wrong sorts of boys and wearing punky clothes. Is that a reflection of you as a parent?
I think so. It’s probably more, at this point, a reflection of Neil’s experience. He has two grown-up children now, and they’re both great. They’ve grown up wonderfully, but I know that he went through all of these anxieties. And at that age, just because hormones are raging and you’re very confused in life – you’re not a kid any more but you’re not an adult yet – you’re really at a crossroads. You can go either way in about two minutes. One minute you’re wonderful, caring, helping with the cooking and doing all these things, and then something happens, you turn on a dime and become a horrible, spiteful and selfish brat. And you barely have control over it. That’s the state of mind.
So to deal with somebody at that age is interesting in itself, and then you give them a little life-push. Her mother getting ill, the circus off the road and everything falling around her ears: then we’re into some sort of drama that means something.
Did you have a particular audience in mind?
Families. Pretty much anybody. We didn’t have the children in mind – we didn’t want to make what you could call a kids’ film. I’ve sat through enough of those, getting nothing out of them at all and being talked down to because they’re just for five-year-olds. I didn’t want to do that.
I didn’t expect everyone to like it. Far from it, I think it’s always going to have a pretty small audience. But that small audience would, I think, be made up of people of any age, including kids and older people.
Do you have to think differently about illustrating for kids? Is there a difference between drawing for Varjak Paw and for Sandman?
I think it’s fairly obvious. It’s pointless putting in references to some obscure film or piece of literature on a kids’ drawing because you’re just being pretentious. And obviously I wouldn’t put tons of violence or nudity in a kids’ book because it’s just not appropriate. Other than that, I don’t really draw much of a distinction. I don’t like second guessing what kids will like, as much as I don’t like second guessing what adults will like. Doing signings, talks and Q and As for the children’s books, adult books and for this film, it only seems to confirm that. I have no idea who is going to show up. It seems to be any age, any sex, and social group. The statistics don’t mean anything.
I don’t like second guessing all that stuff, I’m just doing what I’m doing. If I hit a run of a few years where people are telling me I’m doing absolutely appalling work that nobody’s buying, maybe that’s the point when I rethink what I’m doing. For the moment we seem to be doing okay. I’m happy just to send these things out there, and whoever likes them likes them. I don’t expect everybody to like them, but maybe a few people will.
Are the responses you get to things surprising? Do people read in things you never knew were there?
Sure. That’s kind of part of it, really. It becomes a conversation. You think you’ve thought about it from every conceivable angle, but there’ll always be something, some connection made, that you have no control over at all. It goes out into the world and it has its own life. That’s the point. Doing the work is only 50 percent. The other half is the connection with the audience.
Where do you go next? You’ve designed a musical for Elton John…
Yes… That wasn’t quite where I planned to go next. But it came up and I’d never done anything like that before so it seemed like a fun thing to try and tackle, and a world I knew nothing about. I love to learn new things, so those were the reasons for doing that. At the time it involved making some film clips to project on the set, and that was fun to do. I was doing that last year, so again that feels like old news now.
Is that physical prop design?
Yes, it was designing all the sets, and then the physical pieces were adapted from the drawings that I did and made by a physical-set designer in New York.
The projections were of my artworks and photographs. The films changed drastically. It’s a very troubled project, actually. It will open on Broadway in late March, but it’s gone through a lot of changes and a lot of different people coming in, so it was a very confused and a difficult way of working.
That’s a project with compromise, is it?
That’s a deeply compromised project. To be honest, it had to be. It was in such a state in San Francisco where we did previews, it really needed somebody else to come in and try and give it some shape and order. But I guess you live and learn. In the meantime I’ve just been writing other films. I’d like to make another film so my plan is to try and get four or five projects up and running so that they’ll hit in the years down the line. It takes so long to set up.
As well as taking a long time to set up, Mirrormask has been waiting for release for months and months.
It’s taken longer to release it than it did to make it, which is really ridiculous. Unfortunately, that’s just a reflection of the fact that Sony really didn’t know what to do with it. It just confused them a little bit. I think they had in mind that it would just be a little, straight-to-DVD nothing, and then it got accepted into Sundance and they had to rethink that. Then we weren’t really with one department. We started with Columbia/TriStar, then that label collapsed or was absorbed and we were put somewhere else. We were up to the theatrical release department, and kept on being bounced around. It just meant that everything’s happened one after another after another, end to end, rather than all of these things happening concurrently. Usually on a film the DVD release is worked out and planned before the film even starts shooting. But all of our little blocks of time in the release of it have been laid end to end. That’s why it’s taken such a ridiculously long time.
So when did you finish the film?
We finished the film in November 2004. Is that right? It’s all a blur now. Yes, that’s right. We finished November 2004, we did Sundance 2005 in January, and then the whole of last year was trying to tease out some sort of campaign or release plan from Sony. So only now is it being released. Strange. Time flies.
And doing interviews now, it feels like old news?
It feels like such old news, I can’t believe it. I feel like I’ve been talking about this film my whole life.
Do you know how long it’s likely to be in cinemas?
It’s getting a limited release through Tartan. To be honest, no I don’t. It depends to a degree how it does. There are some places that have booked it for three weeks, but I don’t know. All of this seems to be a matter of wait and see, play it by ear.
And is the DVD release fixed on how long it’s in cinemas?
It will be influenced by that, but to be honest I think it will be out pretty quickly. The DVD is already out in America, and they’re keen to make sure that people buy the English version. I would much rather people bought the English version.
Is that because it has different things on it?
No. For other reasons that I’m being rather cryptic about, that I can’t really tell you, I’d rather people buy the English version.
Vulgar reasons like money?
No, nothing to do with money.
You talked about setting up films for the future. Will those be of a similar fantasy bent, and working with Neil again?
All of the films I’ve got planned certainly have a strong visual component to them and a surrealistic bent or fantasy element. But some are just human, adult dramas which have strange sequences in them. One or two of them are complete fantasy pieces. Some with Neil, some not. I’m interested just to write something on my own right now, just to see how it goes. The next film I’d like to make is based on a book, Signal To Noise, that Neil and I did together, but I’ve ended up writing the script.
To be honest, the book was always a favourite of mine even though it didn’t work. I always felt that we could do much better. I think the script for the film is much better, it’s a much bigger, wider story and you really understand what’s going through the character’s mind.
According to Neil, when I saw him speaking in London late last year, you and he had “discussions” about how to write Mirrormask from the off. You had cards to lay out the plot, and he wanted to just crack on and write it.
We have very different ways of writing. We found out on Mirrormask – I don’t think we ever realised that before.
So how much did working on the film change your relationship? I have this idea that usually an illustrator starts where a writer finishes.
For the books that we’ve done, that really is the relationship. Neil writes a script. Depending on the book, we talk about it beforehand, and then talk about it again afterwards. But basically Neil’s free – absolutely correctly – to just write what he wants to write. Then I come in and try to see how best to make it work visually. The trouble with the film was that Neil is used to just writing anything, and we couldn’t afford to do just anything. We couldn’t afford to do armies of orcs, the sky full of battleships and things. We just couldn’t do it. So I felt I just needed to be in the room.
I didn’t want to write it particularly, but I just wanted to be around when we were planning it to make sure that what he was writing I understood. It’s very important for me to understand it completely because I’m going to be asked 300 questions every day by different people in the cast and crew, and I’ve got to be able to know the answers, or at least have an opinion. I needed to make sure it was technically feasible, and it was not always obvious what was expensive and what was cheap. That’s why I ended up in the room.
Then, just because I was there, inevitably you start kicking ideas around, so some of the story ideas ended up being mine, and some of the scenes I ended up writing because it was just easier for me to write them because I had a good sense of them.
So does that change the “power relationship” between you?
I think it does, really. The books are much simpler and we have a strict demarcation. The words are Neil’s and the pictures are mine, and I think that’s pretty evenly balanced. Unfortunately it’s the nature of film that it comes down to the guy on the floor talking to the actors at the time, and that’s the director.
I think if you listened to Terry Gilliam talking about Tom Stoppard on Brazil, when they would have arguments about this, that and the other, Terry Gilliam would say, ‘Yeah, I appreciate all that. But at the end of the day I’m the one who’s going to be directing it, so I’m just not going to do it. I don’t understand it, and I need to direct something that I understand.’ Unfortunately, that is the nature of it. I think that is the big difference, and often the big frustration, of writing film scripts.
They are not finished objects, they are blueprints. You’ve got to understand that – Neil does understand that, because he’s written enough of them now. They are just sketches. You may fall in love with the words or this or that, but if an actor can’t say it, or if when he does it sounds completely wrong, or for whatever reason, it goes. And it goes there and then, it’s brutal. When you’re shooting a film, you’ve got a certain amount of time to do each scene. You’ve just got to make those decisions. Unfortunately it’s down to the director to do that.
Was it a quick shoot? Was it hurried?
It was hurried. It was 30 days, so six weeks: two on location and four weeks in a blue-screen studio. It’s funny, some scenes felt like we had time to really make the most of, to look around the locations and find interesting shots and angles and ways of doing it, to play with actors a little bit. But some of it felt awfully rushed, and that’s no fun at all because you end up just throwing anything at the wall, hoping to pick it up in the edit later on. Inevitably you get yourself into problems. So it would be nice to have just a little bit more money and therefore more time, next time to be able to relax and really think properly about everything.
Were the actors playing animated characters – like Lenny Henry and Andy Hamilton – on set with the actors, or recorded later?
No, they were all done later. On the set, it was just me doing an impersonation of a monkeybird, a mask on a stick for the Gryphon, or things like that, with somebody off-camera reading the lines. It was very difficult to bring all these elements together in the actor’s mind. They struggled, but I think Stephanie Leonidas got it immediately. It took her about a day to be able to just stand in the big blue room and imagine this street and the mist, surrounded by cats. She could just do it. It’s a bit of a knack, I think.
Was she cast through an audition process? Did you have people in mind when you were writing it?
I had Gina McKee in mind, but she was the only one.
Is that true of the voices for the animated characters as well?
That’s pretty true of the voices. Maybe we had Stephen Fry in mind – an incredible, wish-list hope that he might do it. But no, I don’t think any of the others we had in mind while we were writing it. Obviously they came to mind pretty quickly once we were into shooting it.
With Stephanie, my producer, Simon, just saw her in a TV film. We were gearing up to do this huge sort of trawl of theatre schools and God knows what to try and find a girl who could do this, and he just taped this film called Daddy’s Girl which she was in, and she was fantastic. So we did one day where our casting director brought in girls, and there were a couple of really good ones. So I thought we were in good shape. And then Stephanie came in at the end of the day, and just blew them all away. She was in a league of her own.
Excellent, well that’s our time up, I think. Dave McKean, thanks very much.
My pleasure. Is that really half an hour?