Neil Gaiman and ‘The Sandman’ Showrunner on Nightmare Diner and Lucifer’s Season 2 Revenge

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Lost Hearts” the Season 1 finale episode of “The Sandman.”

Netflix’s 10-episode first season of “The Sandman” opened up a world of dreams and nightmares Friday for both viewers familiar with Neil Gaiman’s iconic DC comic book series and those who had never before entered The Dreaming.

Following the journey of Morpheus, The Lord of Dreams (played by Tom Sturridge), as written in the first two installments of Gaiman’s “Sandman” comics, Season 1 of “The Sandman” TV show covered a lot of ground originally laid by Gaiman in the late ’80s and early ’90s. But there are still eight more volumes in the main “Sandman” comics series left to be adapted. And that’s still not even the whole story.

Here, Variety speaks with “The Sandman” showrunner Allan Heinberg and Gaiman, who co-wrote the pilot for Netflix’s “The Sandman” and executive produces the series alongside David S. Goyer and Heinberg, about the future of the long-awaited TV adaptation and how they brought some of the most beloved and frightening moments from the comics into Season 1.

The first season covered “Preludes and Nocturnes” and “The Doll’s House.” Knowing that you’ve done those two installments in the first one, how long do you think and how many seasons do you think it would take to properly tell the entirety of “The Sandman”?

Neil Gaiman: Well, we told the first 400 pages of a 3,000-page arc in the first 10 episodes. So there’s a kind of a “you do the math” on that. But then the other answer is, how long is a piece of string? What we know that we would like to do, in a perfect world, as long as the audience is there and people come out for it and people want it, is we want to tell the whole story of “Sandman” that went through to “The Wake.” And after that we want to tell “Sandman: Overture,” and somewhere in there, possibly, even as a special or whatever, we’d love to do things like “The Dream Hunters.” We quite probably weave the stories that are in “Sandman: Endless Nights” into the body of the whole. What is nice is we have the entirety of “Sandman” to draw on.

We also have the “Death” books. It might be great to go off and do one of those as a sideline, in addition to which, anybody who has seen “Sandman” Episode 3 has sidled over to us at some point or other in the last six months and said, “Do you think there’s any possibility that we could do a Johanna Constantine show with Jenna Coleman?” And, oh my God, she’s a star and you just want to see her going through battling demons and destroying other people’s lives. So that’s in there, too. We can keep going on this for a long time to come.

But this isn’t us going, it’s eight season exactly and then out — or five seasons and out. We want to tell the story. Which feels wonderfully familiar for me, because when I was writing “Sandman,” people go, “So how long does ‘Sandman’ go?” And I’d go, “I don’t know, maybe Issue #50?” And I’d be at Issue #50, and go, “I don’t know, Issue #75, maybe?” But when you get there, there’s still be more story to tell after that.

Allan Heinberg: There’s no formula. We look at each of the stories and we say, this would make a great episode out, and that would make a great episode out. It’s very organic. The one lesson I feel like I’ve learned over and over again is that we never pad the story. We’ve unstitched the seams in the comics and we’ve told what’s happening off-page and off-panel a lot of the time. But we never pad the stories in order to create more television. We learned the hard way.

Gaiman: We did try. And there were some terrible scripts for that.

Heinberg: Not terrible, just un-shootable.

Gaiman: Ungainly?

Heinberg: I like ungainly.

Gaiman: There were some ungainly scripts were we tried. And then we’d update them and go back to the thing, and somewhere, up in the sky, 26-year-old Neil Gaiman would be smirking at us going, “Yeah, see. You experienced writers, you award-winning people; I have nothing and yet I wrote this thing, and you’ve just come back to the thing that I did.”

For how you did “The Oldest Game” scene in the show, what was the decision to make it Lucifer directly battling with Morpheus, rather than the way it was set up in the comics with Lucifer watching as Morpheus and a demon played the game in front of him?

Gaiman: There are economies of each. I kind of feel like every medium has its own economics. If you’re writing comics, you have an economy of page. You only have your 24 or 22 pages, your six panels per page, your 35 words per panel. Those are your economies. So everything is going to have to be folded into things. In making television, you have an economy of actors. You go, OK, I want an actor of this size. And if I’m going to put an actor of this size in this place, I have to give them something to do. And when I was bringing Lucifer on in the comic, I was going, OK, I’m going to have Lucifer there and I will have somebody else playing this game, and just watch Lucifer getting pissed. Because we know that Lucifer is going to be seriously destroyed and I want everybody going, “When is the rematch? When is the rematch?” When you’ve hired Gwendoline Christie because one, she is a “Sandman” fan and she wants to play Lucifer and you are not going to argue with Gwendoline, and two, because you want her to play Lucifer. She’s 6’3″, 6’6″ in heels, and 7’5″ with wings. And you want her on the stage as much as possible. You go, well, we have this fabulous confrontation here.

And we knew from the word go — this was something that was talked about in the initial dinner — that when we were going to be playing The Oldest Game, it was going to be reflected, the stuff that was in the captions was now going to be happening. So you were going to see these things that were being described. If you get the disease, you’re going to be dying of that disease until you come up with your next thing. So why not do it with Lucifer? Why not have Gwendoline be the person who takes that thing — because it’s cooler, because we love her and because she’s on screen. And also because it makes it more personal for her and gets the audience even more invested in “Season of Mists.” I take too much fucking pleasure in saying to people who do not know anything about what’s coming up in “Sandman,” “If we do Season 2, we’re going to be having the rematch and Morpheus is going to be going back to hell. And Lucifer has some surprises in store that Morpheus is not expecting.” And they are all like, “Ahh!” And I’m like, “Yeah, and I know how that’s going to work, and you don’t. And everybody who’s ever read ‘Season of Mists’ knows how that’s going to work and you don’t. But that’s good because not everybody will have read ‘Season of Mists’ and this is going to be so much fun.”

With the diner episode, based “The Sandman” Issue #6, “24 Hours” — how did you even begin? How did you decide how dark to go? How did you decide what we’re going to do to match the comic and the pacing, it was fantastic. How do you even begin to attack the diner?

Heinberg: We talked a lot about this. The diner is a masterwork of “The Sandman” the comic book. It is structurally brilliant. It is authored. It is narrated. But there are very few sort of character-to-character interactions where you get to play a scene straight.

Gaiman: And I’m sitting there as the narrator doing all of the work, again, because of the economies. Because we are shooting in the three panels every hour and saying, “This is what is happening.”

Heinberg: And we had this amazing cast and we decided very early on to change John’s motivation in “The Sandman.” And so once we did that and decided that John was basically on a heroic mission to save the world with the ruby, you go into the diner through his POV, and you sort of meet all of these people in the middle of their lives, interacting with each other. And once that decision was made, it just became about falling in love with each of them and giving them hopes and dreams and longings and frustrations and picking apart the lies in their marriages and the lies that they tell themselves. It was incredibly liberating because it was such a departure from the book, for me, as a writer and for Ameni Rozsa, who wrote the first draft of the script, that I felt like once we figured that out, we could do anything.

Gaiman: I love the fact that because of COVID, you built the diner set and you rehearsed it like a play, which you never get to do on television. You shot it in sequence, which you never get to do.

Heinberg: It was special. It was very special. And Jamie Childs, who directed it, really had the time with the actors and with our DP and with our production designer. Every shot of that is so lovingly crafted and intentional, and you can feel the screws tighten on every level over the course of that episode. And it was just a huge collaborative effort.

Gaiman: One of my favorite moments in the entire 10 episodes of “The Sandman,” which has moments in it that have made me cry, which has moments in it that I am awestruck by, which has moments that I’m proud of, but watching David Thewlis as John Dee wander into the kitchen at the back of the diner, get himself some ice cream, come around and eat it on the counter, while all this stuff is happening around him, is one of my favorite sequences. I need to tell Jamie it’s just one of my favorite sequences. It does so much, and nothing is said. David Thewlis goes and gets ice cream and it’s both horrifying, awful and human.

I know “The Sandman” hasn’t been picked up for Season 2 yet, but have you cast, or are in talks, with actors for Destiny, Delirium and Destruction — Dream’s other siblings we meet in “Season of Mists”?

NG: Right now, what we’re doing is every time I think of or run into or pass or notice an actor who could be either a Destruction or a Delirium, Allan gets an email.

This interview has been edited and condensed.