NEIL Gaiman lives in a large wooden house with a wraparound porch in the wilds of Minneapolis. It is, he says, his Addams Family home and at the bottom of the garden there is a little glass gazebo in which he writes. Comic books, novels, children's stories and now film scripts have all scrolled across his computer screen as he finds new literary forms to conquer.
First there was The Sandman, a fantasy series for DC Comics that counted Norman Mailer among its acolytes. Then there was American Gods, a New York Times best-selling novel, praised by Stephen King. For children there was the successful novel, Coraline, followed by picture book The Wolves in the Walls, now scheduled to be the second production by the new National Theatre of Scotland.
And suddenly, coming to a cinema screen near you, is a slew of projects either inspired or scripted by the man who, like the late Johnny Cash, forever wears black.
In the past couple of years Gaiman has operated at both ends of the film spectrum. Next month sees the release of MirrorMask, a beguiling, beautiful, though frequently maddening and persistently surreal British film made for just over 2 million. It was a sum not quite enough to bring the artistic vision of illustrator turned director, Dave McKean, to life as he leads viewers through a mesmeric world in which fish swim through the air in schools and insulted books return to the library in a huff. The actors, including Gina McKee and Rob Brydon, were shot against blue screens; the fairy-tale world of evil queens and a missing princess was added later, via computer animation.
Next year a more complex form of computer animation will transform Angelina Jolie and Anthony Hopkins into the mythical heroes of the Nordic saga Beowulf, under the direction of Robert Zemeckis, the director of the Back to the Future trilogy and, most recently, The Polar Express. While toiling on the script in his garden cell Gaiman discovered the luxury of playing with Hollywood's big boys.
"I was writing this fantastic, over-the-top battle between dragons and I started to worry," he recalls. "I just couldn't help thinking that what I was coming up with was going to cost a fortune. So I put in a call to Robert and told him so. And you know what he said? 'Relax: there is nothing you can dream up that I can't shoot for $1 million a minute.' The budget was going to be roughly $100 million so I didn't have to worry."
The script had originally been written for Roger Avary, co-writer of Pulp Fiction and director of Killing Zoe and The Rules of Attraction, to make as a low-budget, live-action movie. Yet Zemeckis and his production partner Steve Bing - made them an offer they couldn't refuse. "They offered us a shedload of money and Roger said no. Then they offered us two shedloads of money and still Roger said no. When they offered us three shedloads of money, Roger said yes. So he got two shedloads of money and I got one."
Gaiman has recently returned from Los Angeles, where he got to operate the camera during casting sessions for Matthew (Layer Cake) Vaughan's film adaptation of his graphic novel, Stardust.
Then, last week, a package arrived in the post containing pictures of Henry Selick, the director of Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, at work on a stop-motion adaptation of Coraline. Oh, and let's not forget his own directorial debut, an adaptation of his graphic novel, Death: The High Cost of Living, a Sandman spin-off which is - after being on and off - looking to be back on again. "I'd rather not talk about that one," he says. "I'm superstitious. If I talk about it, it might not happen, and I really want it to happen."
So we talk about MirrorMask instead. Gaiman is wedged on the battered leather sofa of his office in the house he shares with his wife Mary T McGrath, his two daughters, Holly and Maddy, and son, Michael. Snow has blanketed the surrounding countryside and more is scheduled to fall later today.
It's just after 10am, an hour Gaiman rarely witnessed in the past, as he regularly wrote through the night. However, his encroaching age - he's 46 - and his decision to give up cigarettes makes pulling an all-nighter a lot more difficult. "In the past if I felt tired I'd just have another cup of coffee and a fresh cigarette. Now if I feel tired I'm liable to wake up five hours later with my face on the keyboard and 400 pages of the letter 'M'."
Gaiman and McKean, whose professional partnership and friendship stretches back more than 20 years to the graphic novel Violent Cases, were approached by the Jim Henson Company with a tantalising proposition. The company wanted to re-capture the magic of films such as Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal and were prepared to give both men their creative heads if, that is, they worked for union minimum and kept to the agreed budget.
McKean already had the idea of a circus family, a critically ill mother and a teenage girl who travels to another world conjured up from the drawings on her wall. As director, he was the driving force but, as Gaiman explains, "I figured, why should he have all the fun?" Fun was perhaps not the most appropriate word, however. The project was wildly ambitious for such a tight budget. "I've discovered that in movies the way to solve problems is to throw money at them, but when you don't have any money to throw you have to be more creative."
He describes the finished film as "sushi rather than chocolate", adding: "Some people will really like it and other people will just be left cold, but what we didn't want was a film that everyone would quite like." In America it took just $866,999 at the box office, a figure about which Gaiman is defensive - it was always scheduled for a direct-to-DVD release, he says, and a big-screen release was a bonus. "That's pretty respectable for a few screens in key cities."
Something he is not at all defensive about is his forthcoming visit to Scotland to sit in on the final week of rehearsals for The Wolves in the Walls, which has been adapted for the stage by Vicky Featherstone, artistic director of the NTS, along with Julian Crouch and Nick Powell. Gaiman's book, also illustrated by Dave McKean, tells the story of Lucy, a little girl who hears creaking, crumpling noises in the walls and is convinced it is wolves. She is reassured by her parents that it is only rats or bats - until the wolves to break through and evict the family. Lucy must then lead the charge to recapture the family home.
In what promises to be a visual treat for all ages, the production team have assembled puppets, actors and musicians to help create Lucy's distinctive world. Gaiman says that when he heard that his work - not that of, say, Robert Burns or Liz Lochhead - would be the new National Theatre's first major production after its opening show, Home, he felt honoured.
"I just assumed that the theatre would at first have to do worthy kitchen-sink dramas about drug abuse in Glasgow. I love the fact, putting aside that it's my work, that the theatre's first drama is for all the family and that anyone between the ages of seven and 70 should be able to come and enjoy themselves at the theatre. I think that is an incredibly powerful statement."
The production has also embedded a hook into Gaiman which is slowly reeling him back to Britain, and Scotland in particular. Like most writers, Gaiman is always on the lookout for a quiet perch, conducive to the muse. As well as his garden gazebo and the second office in the main house, he has a small cabin which overlooks a river, a 20-minute drive away. "It's great for when the deadlines are really bearing down," he says. "There is no phone line, no mobile phone signal and a small bed in the back."
But he is now looking for a new rural retreat, and Scotland is his destination. "Property supplements and magazines have become my new pornography," he says. "I've been salivating over them. It's rural here, in Minneapolis, but I miss the sea and I've wonderful memories of family holidays in Scotland. I spent a couple of hours checking out a house on Bute, but it was just easy to get to. I left Glasgow at lunchtime and was back in the city by dinner time. I want someplace that will take at least a day to reach."
Once Gaiman has found the perfect property he may just hole up there to plot the return that comic fans have long awaited. When Gaiman completed the cycle of stories of The Sandman, DC Comics laid the character to rest, instead of, as is usually the case with comics, passing it on to a new writer. It was a tribute to his achievement. He has promised to return to the character for the 20th anniversary of the first publication. "I can't imagine a world where I wouldn't go back to Sandman for its 20th anniversary. The question is, when is it? The first issue appeared on the comic stands in November 1988 but was dated January 1989, so I've got a choice." As book editors, film directors and now theatrical impresarios demand larger slices of his time, I'll bet on the later deadline.
MirrorMask is released on 3 March. The Wolves in the Walls is at the Tramway, Glasgow, from 25 March until 8 April.
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