“It’s an original project, and the way that it came about was like this,” starts writer Neil Gaiman, addressing an audience of devoted fans, in the Italian city of Bologna, eager to hear about his new film collaboration MirrorMask. “In the summer of 2001, I got a phone call from Lisa Henson, Jim Henson’s daughter, and she said ‘would you be interested in writing, and Dave McKean directing, a family fantasy film in the tradition of Labyrinth‘.” The audience is hooked, hanging on his every word.
“She said that Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, the Henson family’s fantasy pictures from the ’80s had cost about forty million dollars to make, but that they didn’t have forty million dollars, and she wondered whether we could make one for four million dollars, – the English fantasy writer continues, deadpan. – She said she knew that she couldn’t afford to pay that much for me to write it, and so maybe I could come up with a story and she would get someone else to write the script. I said, if Dave McKean was going to direct it, I would write the script and we would talk no further about money. Then Dave said he would direct it, so we began to email ideas back and forwards, about things we wanted to do in a children’s film. Dave had an idea about a girl going to a city with a dark world and a light world. I had the idea of a girl who was sort of split in two, two girls replacing each other, and then, – he finishes with a dramatic pause, – Dave went off and made the movie on four million dollars.”
MirrorMask tells the story of Helena (Stephanie Leonidas), a fifteen-year-old girl working for her family circus, who wishes that she could run away from the circus and join real life. But such is not to be the case, as she finds herself on a strange journey into the Dark Lands, a fantastic landscape filled with giants, monkeybirds and dangerous sphinxes. On her quest to return home, Helena searches for the Mirrormask, an object of enormous power, which is her only hope of escaping the Dark Lands.
Ostensibly, MirrorMask is a kids’ movie. Ostensibly, because any pairing of Gaiman and McKean, who have collaborated astonishingly in numerous graphic novel and book projects previously (including the award winning Sandman series), is unlikely to produce something simple to categorise. James Greenberg of the Hollywood Reporter commented that “if The Wizard of Oz were reborn in the 21st century, it might look a lot like MirrorMask“. The comparison with The Wizard of Oz is interesting, as MirrorMask tells the tale of a young girl transported into a strange fantasy world, filled with possibility, danger, and mystery. “I think Alice and Dorothy are both valid comparisons,” Gaiman concurrs when Three Monkeys suggest that there are parallels between the film’s central character Helena, and the heroines of Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz. What’s the attraction in creating a central character that’s a young girl, entering into a fantasy world? “There’s a really interesting thing which is very girl-based, and that is the movement from girl to young womanhood. It’s a harder thing to get a handle on in males because it’s a much more gradual process. The joy with something like MirrorMask is that that was one of the big things we wanted to talk about. That transformation. How do you stop being a girl and become a young woman? Can you stop being a young girl? Can you stop that transformation from happening? What does it mean?”
The film is a visual treat, with various motifs familiar to fans of both Gaiman and McKean’s work creaping in. “Cats with human faces have been in Dave McKean’s work for up to fifteen years”, Gaiman points out while showing us a press trailer of the movie, with one such cat. “Masks are another Dave McKean obsession. Some of the different themes that crop up are from my work. In fact, when we were making the film, Dave and I argued about using the dream theme, because people know me because of Sandman, and that was one of the reasons why we wound up doing some very strange games with the nature of dreams in the film”.
But let’s get back to the actual technicalities of making the film. The sumptuous visual effects of the film might lead you to believe that it had a huge budget. Not so, as Gaiman has already mentioned. So how do you go about making a $40 million film for $4 million? “First of all you have two weeks of live shooting. All the stuff that is set in ‘our’ world. Then you go to a blue screen studio, where all the walls are painted blue, and you have actors who act for six weeks against the blue screen. Then, Dave McKean goes off to a large room with fifteen young animators who had just come out of college – this wasn’t even their first film, it was their first job. They spend the next 18 months making the film. Slowly as they start running out of money, they let first one animator go, then another, until there are only four people working in the room. Then there’s two, and then there’s just Dave McKean. I would phone Dave up during these 18 months, and Dave was convinced all along that at some point something so terrible would go wrong that they would shut the film down the next day. So whenever I phoned him I’d ask ‘hello Dave, how’s it going?’, and he would make the sound that Lurch makes in The Addams Family, ‘uuurgh’. Somehow we survived and finished the film”.
There’s a very real sense that this film is the unique product of combining McKean, Gaiman, a shrinking budget (“because the economy is very low on George Bush’s list of priorities, – Gaiman jokes, – four million dollars was two-and-a-half million English pounds when we started and two million English pounds when we finished, so roughly 20% of our budget disappeared while we were making the film”), and technology. To reduce it simply to technical effects, would be mistaken: “The thing that made me happiest was watching Dave create a world of his own, – Gaiman continues, – He does it as much with the live action stuff as with the animated work. The opening sequence in this little family circus looks exactly like a little family circus as imagined by Dave McKean. It’s nothing like anything I’ve seen before outside of his work. And he did this all with virtually no money. While writing it I kept coming up against the idea that only Dave really knew what he could do on his budget and what he couldn’t. I wouldn’t understand it, because I came from the school of film writing where if you’re doing anything normal, it’s cheap, and the moment you move into special effects it gets expensive. I would say to Dave, ‘let’s do a scene in a classroom’, and he’d say ‘it’s too expensive’. Why? Well, because you have to rent out a schoolroom, get children, chaperones, teacher, and a day’s shooting and all of that. He’d then see my face fall, and say ‘I’ll tell you what, you can have the world crumple up and turn into a flower, and that won’t cost you anything!’”
The film was a technical challenge for all involved.”When Dave finished the blue screen shooting, he showed the footage to the animation team, and at the end of it they went away and grouped in a huddle. After a while, one of them came back and asked how many special effects shots there are in the film, and Dave responded that there’s only one, but it lasts eighty minutes”.
McKean, talking about the film-making sounds like a man who has passed through the eye of the storm, and survived. “I would say I have l
earned most about my own strengths and weaknesses. I have a tendency to fall in love with the purity of a formal solution to a problem, and then I just become blind to its possible flaws, and any little changes made feel like they are watering down the idea. I think this caused several difficulties on the film, and I think I’ll be conscious of that tunnel vision from now on”. Arguably without that tunnel vision, though, the film would not have been made. At least not in the distinctive form in which it has emerged. “We took the film to the Sundance Film Festival, where they were perfectly happy to see it as an independent film, even though it was financed by Sony, because it was basically made by Dave,” says McKean’s partner Gaiman, almost defensively in favour of the intense Director. “There was no committee, no group meetings around a table with people suggesting, ‘I think you should cast…’ It never happened. We never had the money for that. It’s really an independent, almost hand-made film.”
After working so intensely on the film, for so long, one could forgive McKean for sounding weathered. Perhaps more so than with a ‘normal’ film, where there’s an extensive crew working on both production and post-production. McKean was initially self-conscious about the work, not sure whether he had managed to realise the film that he, Gaiman, and the producers had hoped for. Audience reaction is the ultimate reassurance, for any film-maker. “Once Dave heard the first live audience watch it, – smiles Gaiman, – an audience of fifteen year olds who clapped and laughed at the jokes, right at the very end he came in and heard them clapping and cheering, and in front of me a girl turned around to her friend and said ‘Like, that was just the cooooooolest thing I’ve ever seen in my life!’, and at that point Dave started to cheer up [Laughs]“.