Feature interview by Kevin Holmes
Dave McKean is a renowned artist, best known for his work on the Sandman comic book covers. But he’s done far more; his fantastical and intricate work encompasses everything from comics to CD covers (for Tori Amos, Alice Cooper) to photography and children’s books and he’s also an accomplished Jazz pianist. Mmmm, nice. He usually works with partner in crime and Sandman cohort, Neil Gaiman and his first feature Mirrormask, a fantasy, is set in a gorgeous CG world of his own design and exhibits his usual flair for the preternatural and peculiar. It’s an allegorical tale centring on a young girl and her awakening journey into adolescence. Here’s what he had to say.
First up, congrats on the film, a great first feature.
So how did you come to make the film for The Jim Henson Company? Is it something you wanted to do after your work illustrating children’s books with Neil and VF Said?
No, no, not at all, it came about through Lisa [Henson], she was friends with Neil and they were planning a film version of Neil’s TV series Neverwhere - which is still not getting made - and he introduced us and the idea came from there. Lisa wanted to make something to go with Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, but she wanted to work with CGI. Labyrinth was the seed; she wanted a sort of sequel, a fantasy film, a third part in the trilogy if you like. Neil and I wanted to write a fantasy film, that’s my preferred way of approaching things, through fantasy, but I wanted real characters. I’d seen the The Dark Crystal and films like that and we wanted to make a fantasy, but not like those, I wanted it to be a human story with a human experience at its centre, but set in a fantastical world, that’s the direction me and Neil wanted to go in. I'm interested in the interaction between the real and the fantastic, because that’s how we all live, part in fantasy, part in the real world and that’s what I wanted to reflect.
Was Labyrinth something you used as a guide for the story?
No, not really. I like the human element of that film, but no, it was an idea me and Neil just came up with.
Your images are often violent and sometimes disturbing. How do you equate these types of images with making, essentially, a film aimed at children? Do you think this led to some compromising on your part or Neil’s?
I didn’t see the film as being aimed specifically at children, but more as a family film. I get bored by films that are solely aimed at children, we wanted a film that could be seen and enjoyed by the whole family. We wanted everyone to come and watch it and enjoy it, take something from it. That meant we didn’t tone things down, we sat down and got out what we wanted to do and that’s what got made. There were no restrictions, I told Sony, if you start imposing restrictions it won’t get made, not on this budget. So they left us alone and I got pretty much creative control, otherwise the film wouldn’t have worked. Lisa was great for that. She was sensitive to my needs and allowed me to get on with it, she imposed no restrictions, we were left alone to create what we wanted, to take the film in the direction we wanted to go. Like the cat’s with faces, that was something I wanted to include in the film, I wanted to see them on screen.
Yes, the cat’s with the human faces. I notice that the same creature crops up on the cover of your graphic novel Cages. Was this a conscious decision - to include pieces from your work or did it creep in subconsciously?
No, it was a conscious decision; this is what defines my work. It’s always in there; you might, for instance, see that cat strolling across in the background in one of my comics.
A sort of signature?
Kind of - I use these images - you can see them throughout my work, so it was just a question of transferring it and animating it. I’d made a few short films, using collage and it was a case of transferring that onto this project.
So, did you enjoy working in film as much as in comics?
I enjoy working with comics, they’re what I’ve done and what I do, but film is exciting. It’s nice to see my work animated, to have all these people working together to bring about your vision, that’s a great feeling. Comics are a great medium, but on film you see the full impact and it was great seeing my work brought to life, the movements, but what I really enjoyed was seeing them set to music, that was the main difference. In comics, you can convey movement and create the illusion, but there’s no substitute for the sounds and it was great seeing the characters animated and put to the music, and Iain Ballamy, who composed the score, he was great and he did really well with that. That was something I really enjoyed. It was really something, to see that, and great fun.
Both have similarities as well. Both are visual forms, they share ideas and styles…
Sure, early comic books used a film vocabulary to build their own language. Their history goes way back.
Way back to artists like Will Eisner and Jack Kirby?
Yeah, but it goes even further back, to Winsor McCay. He worked in both mediums, a long time ago, both in comic strips and film animation, he was one of the first, one of the founding fathers. So they’ve always had this history, this crossover, but I think comics have lived in the shadow of film for a long time. There’s stuff coming out now, in comics, which owes nothing to film, it’s completely different and original. Comics will always be there, they always have been and I love the freedom they give you. What we’re seeing now, in Hollywood, is a fad for comics, some of the films are good, some of them are bad, but once Hollywood has had it’s time with them, comics will still be there, following their own path. Like this new stuff that’s coming out, it’s great, the ideas are there, they don’t need film; they’ve developed and grown on their own.
The parts of the film set in the real world are set in Brighton, specifically one apartment building. I know the exact building you used, it’s a very unique building, lots of character, very distinctive, and it stands out. What made you choose it?
Well, for those reasons really. The script was originally set in London when Neil wrote it, but our producer, Simon Moorhead, lives in Brighton, and he suggested we film it there. It’s more bohemian, so that fits with the whole circus thing, with Helena’s family; it’s the sort of place they may live. And I liked the building, it’s very distinctive, imposing, it does have this character, but it also represents Helena’s collapse and her disintegration into this other world and it’s a potent symbol for her mother. The building has this cancerous quality, it’s decaying and that reflected what was going on with the mother, battling this disease, the building externalised this cancer, so it worked in those ways as well.
Visually the film is fantastic. I know Dave Barnard, who was Post-Production Technical Advisor on the film, and I know the film was made to a tight budget, considering you were using CGI. How did you go about this with the budgetary constraints you had?
The main thing was to know what we could do. I’d made a few short films and these had been ways in which I could test out some ideas, get to know my limitations. When Neil and I sat down, we made sure everything we wanted was going to be possible from the start. So when it came to making the film we knew it could happen, we had a solution for everything. If I didn’t think we could do it weeks down the road, then we wouldn’t use it. When I was designing creatures, I’d make them very simple, so it left a lot of room for the animators to work with. Everything was built up from very simple foundations, so the animators could go where they wanted, I allowed them that freedom, they would go away and create their models, then I’d take a look.
Yes, I heard you worked in the same room.
Yes, we did, it made it a lot easier, so we didn’t have to go back and forth all the time. It wasn’t like I was in another country; I could look over at their work and I was there, for them, to show me updates and for me to guide them. With some films the levels of approval are ridiculous, it can be quite painful, but here we had no real levels of approval, I had complete creative freedom and got the final word. So there was very little wastage, which was crucial with the budget we had. It was seen as a research and development project from the start, so we knew that’s how it would be.
It didn’t get a general release in the states, yet I’ve seen the film twice, once at the LFF and the Q&A at the NFT a few weeks back. Both instances were sold out. At the LFF it was a weekday afternoon in November. Why didn’t it get a proper release in America?
Aha, yes it was packed at the LFF. But like I said, this was seen, by Sony and Lisa, as a research and development project, it was never intended for a general release. Lisa had this idea that she wanted to work in CGI rather than with the traditional Henson puppets and we were happy to do that, but no-one knew, with the budgetary constraints, what was possible, so that was something we’d learn, it was a learning curve. There’s an audience out there and I knew it would reach them. We never intended it to get a mass release, DVD sales is where the money would be generated, so Sony were happy to let us experiment. But it was all great fun, especially working with Lisa, she made it all possible.
You’ve probably heard it a million times but are you and Neil ever going to collaborate and make a film of The Sandman?
Various people at various times have approached DC [comics] about Sandman, but nothing’s ever come from it. If it’s going to get made, Neil wants it to have a huge budget, which it needs, but there’s just not the interest, so Neil’s hoping it’ll just go away quietly and get left alone. Look at Alan Moore, another film [V for Vendetta] of his work has been made and, again, he’s not happy with it. This is what Neil’s afraid of, but DC owns the rights so…
Do you think you’ll make it?
I can’t see me being involved, but who’s to say?
Going back to Alan Moore, they adapted From Hell and The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, both nothing like the graphic novels. And look at the troubled production history of Moore’s Watchmen…
Well that’s it, the Watchmen has been troubled. Neil doesn’t want the same thing to happen to Sandman…
Watchmen is an incredibly complicated work.
Oh yeah, people think it would be easy, because it’s very cinematic, but it’s not easy, there’s a lot going on, it’s not as simple as people think.
So what’s next for you?
I’d definitely like to do a more adult film, something more surreal, not with Sony, but another CG film, working with Lisa again. She’s expressed an interest in wanting to work together again, so that would be nice. While I think this film will find its audience, and I enjoyed making it, I’d like to do something more adult orientated next time. It would be great to work with Lisa again; she was so refreshing to work with. I got complete creative control which was what I wanted and was what I needed to be able to do it like we did. That’s what was so much fun about working on the film and about working with Lisa. She was quite happy to be over in the states while we were over here; she was a perfect bridge and she just let us get on with it. For someone, like her, who is used to Hollywood, it’s refreshing for her to be like that. What’s also great about her is that she’s used to using these pioneering techniques, but also, she has good taste, she shies away from the more crass stuff. She’s very sympathetic to the artist and their needs and that helped me a lot. She used to be President of Columbia Pictures, so she knows her stuff; she has that inside knowledge, but is also happy to take a risk. I would love to work with her again.
Well, it’s been a pleasure talking with you and good luck with the new film.