Hollywood is game for Gaiman

Fantasy writer finds bigscreen magic

Hollywood has been trying to capture Neil Gaiman for ages.

The Renaissance writer of fantasy and mythology has built an enormous fan base off his distinctive voice, which rings across a range of media: comics (DC/Vertigo’s 2,000-page “Sandman” series), graphic novels (“Stardust”), BBC miniseries (“Neverwhere”), children’s books (2002’s “Coraline”) and adult fantasy fiction, from short stories (his latest is the upcoming “Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders”) to novels like “American Gods” and “Anansi Boys.”

Finally, after a long, painful gestation, 2007-08 is poised to be Gaiman’s year at the movies.

Comic-Con 2007, the sprawling annual San Diego confab (July 26-29), showcases three of the British author’s latest match-ups with the studios.

Paramount will screen Matthew Vaughn’s $70 million romantic fantasy adventure “Stardust,” starring Claire Danes, Robert DeNiro, Michelle Pfeiffer and Sienna Miller, which opens Aug. 10. It will also screen 20 minutes of Bob Zemeckis’ latest 3-D performance-capture epic, “Beowulf,” due Nov. 16, which Gaiman wrote with Roger Avary.

Coming up for Halloween 2008 is another 3-D animated feature, “Coraline,” from the stop-motion director of “James and the Giant Peach,” Henry Selick. Dakota Fanning stars. Focus Features will debut five minutes of footage in San Diego.

Transferring one’s perfervid imagination from the small page to the bigscreen can be tricky, as comics writer-turned-director Frank Miller can attest. Only after Robert Rodriguez agreed to co-direct 2005’s “Sin City” did Miller’s cinematic visuals reach the screen intact, followed by Zack Snyder’s “300.”

It’s a question of hanging onto your voice. “If you do something long enough, eventually people come to you,” Gaiman says. “There’s a point where you don’t have to change yourself. Like ‘Sin City.’ They said, ‘If you liked the comics, you’ll like this.’ ”

But while Miller’s graphic novels are streamlined and almost austerely cinematic, Gaiman writes first, then collaborates with various artists to realize his fantasies on the printed page.

Comics like “Sandman” and “1602” are dense, complex narratives with multiple characters — and they’ve spawned legions of fans.

Gaiman’s blog — launched in 2002 following the completion of his novel “American Gods” — now nets 1.4 million unique visitors a month. “I like being all over the place,” he says. “I’m not a novelist. When the world encroaches, it’s nice to leave for a while and write a novel. I like to collaborate with real people on comics and movies, too. I like all media.”

He’s been building his following for 20 years. The 20-year-old Goth girls who liked Gaiman’s comics are now 40-year-old moms with discreet Sandman tattoos, says Gaiman.

Even at age 46, the tall, shaggy-haired writer has the wide-eyed sweetness of someone who is happily in touch with his inner muse.

Gaiman was the sort of young Brit who got a full boxed set of C.S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia” for his seventh birthday, and spent the entire day reading them. (He refuses to see the films.) When he was 14, he signed up for the Book of the Month club to get the gigantic Oxford English Dictionary, complete with magnifying glass, so he could look up the arcane words in the William Morris fantasy “The Well at the World’s End.”

During the filming of Gaiman’s BBC miniseries “Neverwhere,” a journalist admitted to being creeped out by the elaboratedly designed floating market set. “It was huge and full of weird people and weird objects,” says Gaiman. “I said to him, ‘This is what the inside of my head looks like!’ I got a look of pure horror. Isn’t this what it’s like for everybody? This is my world!”

Besides such celeb fans as Tori Amos, Norman Mailer and Clive Barker, hip studio execs and producers have long chased after Gaiman. He wrote the English-language script for “Princess Mononoke,” and the Henson Co.’s Lisa Henson gave Gaiman and his longtime collaborator Dave McKean the chance to make the $4 million “MirrorMask,” which barely got released.

“It wasn’t an adaptation,” says Gaiman. “It was a budget. It was a strange way to make art. But it was not fun. Every other thing I ever did with Dave was fun: I made it up and he gave me pictures.”

When he was running production at Warner Bros., Lorenzo di Bonaventura tried to make the Sandman spinoff “Death and the High Cost of Living,” the comicbook mini-series “Books of Magic,” and “Sandman.”

“I’ve had a lot of failure with Neil,” Di Bonaventura admits. “Neil’s tricky to fit in a box. That’s why he has a global following. They love his idiosyncracies. He has this eccentricity and love of unbounded creativity. But his work doesnt follow a common structure and characterization. It’s really hard. It makes the marketing harder.”

Knowing that di Bonaventura had worked with Gaiman, Paramount asked the now-inhouse producer to help Vaughn on “Stardust.”

Gaiman had bought the project back in turnaround from Miramax and was fussy about who would direct it. He trusted Vaughn, who had produced a short that Gaiman had written, and raised some outside financing to boot.

While he admits that it would have been nice to adapt his free-flowing fantasy as a $50-million, 10-hour BBC mini-series, Gaiman says, “That would never happen.” So Gaiman accepted the film challenge, helping to choose writer Jane Goldman to adapt his work for the big screen and a two-hour running time.

Still, “Stardust” was a logistical nightmare, filming on such far-flung locations as the Isle of Skye and laden with ambitious visual f/x. “Complex multiple story strands is a big task to do on a large scale,” says Di Bonaventura. “It’s ‘Princess Bride’ on steroids.”

But even following such blockbuster franchises as “The Lord of the Rings,” “Harry Potter” and “Pirates of the Caribbean,” a whimsical, romantic period fantasy crammed with swashbuckling pirates, evil princes, a falling star that turns into a lovely blonde and a trio of cackling evil witches is not an easy sell.

It remains to be seen if Paramount can reach out to Gaiman’s followers and show them that his world is on the screen the way they want it. Even Gaiman remains unconvinced that the studio’s “bizarre” “Stardust” marketing materials are capturing the look and feel effectively.

It may prove that stylized animation like “Beowulf” and “Coraline” will best translate Gaiman’s fantastic imagination to the silver screen.

Gaiman had been developing a screen version of”Beowulf” since 1997 as a live-action movie with writer-director Avary, who insisted on directing the project, until Paramount made him a financial offer he couldn’t refuse, including the promise to direct another film for the studio.

Unlike “Mirror Mask,” with the studio tentpole “Beowulf” Gaiman was able to go wild with amazing underwater battles between his hero and the monster Grendel. “$4 million was two minutes of “Beowulf,” he says.

Zemeckis told him to write whatever he wanted: “The sky’s the limit. There’s nothing you can come up with that will cost more than $1 million a minute to film.” Gamin was knocked out by seeing the initial 20 minutes in 3-D.

The next logical step: he wants to direct the “Sandman” spinoff “Death” himself. To that end, he’s been learning at the knee of fellow fantasist Guillermo del Toro on the set of “Hellboy 2.”

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