A slave turns into a bird (though she's really a princess). A goat turns into a girl (though she's really an enchanted boy). And a boy turns into a man (though he has a fallen star to thank for it).
Such are the transformations you can expect to see in "Stardust," due August 10 and starring Claire Danes, Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer. The most magical transformation of all, however, might be that the story got turned into a film in the first place, becoming the first adapted work by acclaimed fantasy author/ graphic novelist Neil Gaiman to hit the big screen. For his part, Gaiman is finally exhaling. "It's a tremendous relief," he laughed. "I've sort of been holding my breath."
Gaiman first sold the film rights to "Stardust" to Miramax almost 10 years ago, but he ended up getting the rights back after two years were wasted on development — a not-uncommon experience considering that many of his books, stories and graphic novels had been picked up but lingered on people's desks. (At one point, The Hollywood Reporter called him "the most-optioned author in Hollywood who has yet to have any of his work translated to the big screen.")
Undeterred, Gaiman moved on by writing scripts — for the 1999 English-language version of "Princess Mononoke," for the upcoming "Beowulf" and for 2005's "MirrorMask," which was directed by his longtime collaborator Dave McKean (see "Weird World: Neil Gaiman Reflects On MirrorMask.") But a strange thing happened while Gaiman assumed the film projects based on his works were either dusty or dead: They got new life. One by one, they started to "stir in their graves and yawn and blink and sit up and ask for coffee," the author wrote on his blog.
"Stardust" got its caffeine kick thanks to Claudia Schiffer, who read the book while pregnant with her first child in 2002. She loved the fairy tale so much she convinced her husband, director Matthew Vaughn, to read it, too. The "Layer Cake" director came aboard as a producer, and when he couldn't find a director, Vaughn decided to direct "Stardust" as well. Gaiman got some creative control as an executive producer — giving input on script changes, casting and locations — but said he went into it knowing the movie could never be exactly like the book, nor should it be.
"I read 'Stardust' aloud for the audio book, and I loved doing it, but it took 10 and a half hours," he said. "So I'm well aware that cuts had to be made. You have to translate it — you can't just transfer it" (see "Michelle Pfeiffer Turns Witchy, Claire Danes Is A True Heavenly Body In 'Stardust' ").
Vaughn and screenwriter Jane Goldman went over the screenplay with Gaiman in November 2005. The author read the script out loud with them to see if it met his approval. "I sat in Matthew's study, and we read out the parts, like we were acting them out," Gaiman said. "And I would be like, 'No, no, we have to change this' or 'This works.' "
Their biggest disagreement was over the guard at the wall, a divide between the Faerie world of Stormhold and reality. In the book, there's a series of guards on 24-hour watch, two at a time on eight-hour shifts. Vaughn and Goldman had turned the guards into one guard, a cantankerous old man who is also surprisingly spry for his age.
"That was one change where I was like, 'I'm going to have to trust you on this,' " Gaiman recalled. "In my mind, the questions started coming: If he's on guard all the time, when does he sleep? Where does he live? Matthew said, 'Trust me, it'll be fine,' and it is."
The only scene Gaiman regrets losing is a fight between a lion and a unicorn, which was cut for cost. "To do it convincingly would have cost us $1.5 million for 90 seconds of footage," he said. "We just decided to spend the money better in another way."
Gaiman was also initially reticent about expanding the role of the sky-pirate ship captain, called Captain Alberic in the book and Captain Shakespeare in the film; he's played by Robert De Niro.
"It was one of the only things I was really nervous about," Gaiman said. "Not that I was nervous about him — he's marvelous. But I was nervous about what they did to him." Gaiman refers to the decision to make the character comic relief by turning him into a cross-dresser who teaches the story's hero, Tristan, how to fight with a sword. "I was like, 'Is this going to be funny?' But look at De Niro's role in 'Brazil,' where he was a guerrilla plumber, and I thought, 'OK, yes, it's very similar. It could work.' "
One added character Gaiman didn't mind at all is Ferdy the Fence, played by Ricky Gervais. "It's a new thing that exists to push people together faster," Gaiman said. "It's a character who knows more and can help the story lines intersect."
That was the main concern: getting the plot moving faster. "The hero isn't born until after the first chapter, so if they did it faithfully, that wouldn't be till a half-hour into the movie," Gaiman explained. "And you're rather desperate to get to him, so he's born before the credits. In the book, Tristan crosses the wall, meets a strange creature, goes through the wood of vampire trees and, as his reward, gets the Babylon candle. Now we skip that. He gets the candle and just lights it and gets to Yvaine earlier. Otherwise, that would take an hour.
"It's the same story," Gaiman continued. "We still have three witches and seven lords, though the number of how many are dead or alive has changed. They're still in a world where if you're tired of looking over your shoulder, you're tired of life."
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