‘Stardust’ Author Neil Gaiman Tells Why He Turns Down Most Adaptations — But Not This One

Writer also explains how Alan Moore, Guillermo del Toro and Claudia Schiffer's foot have affected his work.

Neil Gaiman is ready to sprinkle some “Stardust” in theaters this weekend, as the first movie adaptation of the famed sci-fi/fantasy author’s work arrives on the big screen. And this is just the beginning, he says. Although other adaptations of his work are coming soon (like the creepy, stop-motion “Coraline,” due in 2008), Gaiman wants to do more than just hand over his stories to Hollywood — he wants to direct them too. So while he’s a master in one realm, he’s an intern of sorts in another, as the would-be director prepares to take on “Death,” the much-anticipated offshoot of his acclaimed “Sandman” series. MTV News’ Jennifer Vineyard talked with Gaiman about how Claudia Schiffer, Shia LaBeouf, Alan Moore and Tori Amos have all had an unlikely hand in his current fall to earth — and much more.

(Watch “Stardust” author Neil Gaiman talk about hanging out on the “Hellboy 2″ set, feeling guilty about a flying pirate ship and more.)

MTV: When you’re writing a book, you can write anything your imagination comes up with, without worrying about how much anything costs. But with film …

Neil Gaiman: I think the biggest example of that for me is the the flying pirate ship [in "Stardust"]. The flying pirate ship existed because I love pirate ships. Everybody loves pirate ships.

MTV: Everybody loves pirates.

Gaiman: Everybody loves pirates. And I like the idea of a flying ship. I thought it would be a wonderful thing for Charles Vess to draw, so I had Tristan and Yvaine in the clouds and rescued by the flying ship. It was the work of a few seconds. Ten years later, I’m at Pinewood Studios [in England], and I’m walking around a life-sized flying ship! I felt so guilty. I wasn’t saying how great it was; I was going, “I am so sorry I made it up!” Because it didn’t cost me anything, just the price of whatever tea I was drinking and some ink. And now 70 people have spent two months working to build this thing and you can dance on the deck. It was very, very strange.

The whole thing changes when you go into big budget. This was a $70 million movie, as opposed to “MirrorMask,” which was a $4 million movie (see “Weird World: Neil Gaiman Reflects On ‘MirrorMask.’ “). It got even weirder when I was writing “Beowulf,” and I phoned Robert Zemeckis, and I said, “I think I’m going overboard on one scene near the end,” and he said, “Neil, there is nothing you could write that would take me over a million dollars a minute to film.” And I went, “Oh, OK,” and I went back to the next scene.

MTV: So many people wanted to make “Stardust” before — why let them do it now?

Gaiman: I said no to people who wanted to make “Stardust” for four years. Miramax had it for a while, and they hadn’t gotten it together. We had a lot of directors ask for it. We had a lot of beautiful young lady actresses who asked to buy the rights for it to be a vehicle for them. But I wasn’t comfortable with “Stardust” being a vehicle for anyone. I wanted it to be about the story. So I was very lucky that Claudia Schiffer was both pregnant and had a broken foot — though she wouldn’t say she was lucky — so she couldn’t do much and was doing a lot of reading. And she read “Stardust.” And she said, “This is just like fairy-tale stories I read as a kid, except for adults,” and she had [her husband and "Layer Cake" director] Matthew [Vaughn] read it, and he said, “I want to make it. I love fairy tales, and I love this, and I want to do this” (see “Neil Gaiman’s ‘Stardust’ Finally Comes To Big Screen, Thanks To ‘Layer Cake’ Director” ). At first, he meant just as a producer, and we met with Terry Gilliam to see if he would direct it, but he had just come off “Brothers Grimm” and he wasn’t going to make another fairy tale for love or money. So Matthew became the director almost by accident.

MTV: And you became a producer.

Gaiman: Also by accident. What I did with Matthew was this thing you must never do. Don’t do this; it is very, very wrong: I gave him the option for nothing. I phoned him up and said, “OK, ‘Stardust’ is yours.” I really trusted him, and you don’t run into that very often. He offered me the script, but I said, “No, I wrote the novel, but this is your film, your vision. But I will help you.” The first thing I did was find him a writer, Jane Goldman, who hadn’t written a script before but I loved her novels, I loved her journalism, and she got the book. I was involved with the casting and set locations too.

MTV: So many novelists and graphic novelists are horrified at what happens when Hollywood adapts their work. Your friend Alan Moore is a big example of that …

Gaiman: To be honest, watching what happened with Alan was why I decided to get so involved. Alan has been my friend for 25 years and his philosophy has always been, they give you a check and it’s nothing to do with you and now they can make a film. And the problem is, by the time they did ["Constantine"], the third film of his work that he wasn’t happy with, he distanced himself completely. I think I could have gone that route. But I saw how miserable Alan was (see “Alan Moore: The Last Angry Man”). It didn’t work to say, “Go make a film that has nothing to do with me.” Not when every review says, ” ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’ is a really bad film made from a really good comic.” Why would you want that to happen? I don’t want to live in a world where every review of “Stardust” says, “This is a really bad film made from a really wonderful illustrated novel.” Because honestly, otherwise you become one of the Raymond Chandlers of the world, who say the only way to survive Hollywood is to shove your money in the trunk and drive off and don’t look back. But money can’t prevent you from being miserable.

MTV: Which is probably why you’ve held off on a “Sandman” movie, or an “American Gods” movie …

Gaiman: Oh, absolutely. There have been people who want to make an “American Gods” movie, and people who have wanted to make an “Anansi Boys” movie, and I have said no. The things I have said yes to are people I trust. Like Henry Selick ["The Nightmare Before Christmas"], who is doing the stop-motion version of “Coraline.” It’s beautiful, it’s spooky, it’s odd, and he’s doing it because I love his work. When I finished writing “Coraline,” I even had my agent send Henry the book before anyone read it.

MTV: Michelle Pfeiffer, who’s now the wicked witch in “Stardust,” was originally going to be the Other Mother in “Coraline” …

Gaiman: You have the best memory! It’s a strange world, how things turn around. Right before it was announced that Michelle was going to do “Coraline,” she decided to take some time off from acting. And now she’s returning with “Hairspray” and “Stardust,” while Teri Hatcher is taking that part. Teri is great, and Dakota Fanning as Coraline is great. I just watch in awe how on a good day of shooting, you get 20 seconds in the can.

MTV: You’ve got songs by They Might Be Giants for “Coraline,” and you were talking about getting Tori Amos to do songs for “Death.” Have you asked her yet? Could “Death” come back to life?

Gaiman: There is a specific song I want her to do on the soundtrack, I know exactly what it is, I asked her about it and she said yes. So we will wait and see. “Death” is looking more likely than it has in years. We have Guillermo del Toro executive-producing it. I just got back from two weeks in Budapest where I was on the set of “Hell Boy 2,” shadowing him. It was the best offer ever. [He imitates del Toro's voice.] “Neil, you come out to Budapest, I will teach you everything I know about directing. You will be on my set. You will ask me questions. You can ask me why I use this lens. You ask me what I do. You can talk to everybody. You just be there. Follow me around.” So I said OK and I did. It was great and I learned so much. So now we are, at least in theory, putting together the pre-production side of “Death,” so it could be shooting as early as next year. Or possibly not. This is a movie and sometimes they don’t happen.

MTV: Such as how you originally wanted Shia LaBeouf to play Sexton in “Death” …

Gaiman: Shia’s a great actor and now a star, and has wanted to do “Death” for three years. The trouble is now that he has sufficient clout to get it made by saying he wants to be in it, he’s too old for the part we would have cast him as. He needs to become a leading man and not play a grumpy 17-year-old at this point.

MTV: So while you were on set for “Hellboy 2,” did you get to do a cameo (see ” ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ Duo Use Oscar Clout To Make ‘Hellboy 2′ Their Way” )?

Gaiman: If I wanted to, I would have had to spend a day and a half essentially doing the same thing over and over and I wouldn’t have gotten to follow Guillermo around, asking him why he did that shot. I did actually think about it, because I didn’t get to do a cameo in “Stardust” because I wasn’t there during any crowd scenes.

MTV: You were almost in the witch’s inn scene, right?

Gaiman: Yeah, they would have noticed me, even if I was just in the corner reading a newspaper. People would have gone, “There’s a bloke reading the newspaper.” Sore thumb. It would have been bad. But with “Hellboy,” I actually did think about it, but decided it would have been better spending the day learning than sitting in an auction room getting killed by evil fairies.

Check out everything we’ve got on “Stardust.”

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