Neil Gaiman’s ‘Anansi Boys’ Gears Up For Big-Screen Adaptation

'Stardust' writer talks about a bevy of upcoming projects and the stars who want to be involved.

Twenty years after first publishing his legendary “Sandman” series, Neil Gaiman is busier and more in-demand than ever. Last year’s movie adaptation of his 1998 novel “Stardust” wasn’t a box-office hit, but “Beowulf,” which he co-wrote, definitely was. And up next is the stop-motion version of his 2002 novella “Coraline” — starring Dakota Fanning and Teri Hatcher — as well as film adaptations of his 2005 best-selling novel, “Anansi Boys,” and his old BBC series, “Neverwhere.” And of course there’s always the possibility of some sort of “Sandman” film to tantalize fans with — “Death,” anyone? — although that doesn’t seem to be high on his list of projects right now. We pressed him for a complete update.

MTV: You’ve already been doing readings for your upcoming novel, “The Graveyard Book” — a sort of “Jungle Book” with dead people raising the boy.

Neil Gaiman: And a lot of people in Hollywood are already trying to buy [the rights to] “The Graveyard Book.”

MTV: But it hasn’t even come out yet!

Gaiman: I don’t know how they do it, but they got copies. I was going to hold off on sending it out until at least we had reading copies, because they’re more impressive, but a week after the manuscript went in to my publishers, my agent was getting phone calls from people who had it on their desk.

MTV: So by the end of this year, you’ll have “The Graveyard Book”; your new movie, “Coraline”; and then there’s the 20th anniversary of “Sandman.”

Gaiman: That’s always been the way of my life — things I’ve done years and years apart always seem to come out more or less at the same time. Last year, I was at the “Stardust” premiere in the U.K., and then two weeks later, I was at the “Beowulf” premiere, two things that were done years apart. I would never have expected “Beowulf” to be made. It was a script I wrote in 1987 that I thought was dead in 1988. But it clawed its way out of the grave, pulled itself up and coughed, and then you’re watching Angelina Jolie in it. That’s what happens. Right now, I’m writing an “Anansi Boys” movie.

MTV: That’s actually happening? What else is happening?

Gaiman That’s actually happening. It suddenly came to life when a film producer was stuck at an airport with a star on a tour, and they picked up the book, just as something to read on the plane. Halfway through, they were reading it to each other. When they landed, I got a call saying, “Can we make this into a movie?” And the lovely thing about “Anansi Boys” is that it’s more or less movie-shaped — it just needs a little trimming so it won’t be a five-hour movie. So I have to write that. And “Neverwhere,” which I walked off of in 1999, I was asked to come back and polish the script that I did then and bring that back to life, so I’m doing that.

“Death” was with New Line, and now that New Line has sort of expunged itself from existence, we are figuring out right now where in the Warner [Bros.] family it will be and what is happening with it. It’s not back to the drawing board — we do have a script and a lot of stuff, we have people like Shia LaBeouf who have said, “I want to be in this thing” — but we’re figuring out where and when.

MTV: Do you ever play the casting game and think about who you’d want in each role? Like who would be a good Spider for “Anansi Boys,” or Richard Mayhew for “Neverwhere”? Rachel McAdams, for instance, just came to us recently and said she’d want to be Black Orchid, if that series is ever made into a film.

Gaiman: I love that. I hope she is. I hope they make it. Make “Black Orchid,” people out there! And make Rachel McAdams Black Orchid.

You always start thinking about casting, because it’s fun. But the problem with talking about casting is the moment that something is about to be made, it becomes problematic. You might say, “I would love Ellen Page to be Death. I’ve loved her since ‘Hard Candy’; she’d make an amazing Death.” And then suddenly you’re negotiating for Ellen Page, and you say to her agent, “We can take her or leave her,” and then they say, “No, we’ve seen the interviews. You really want her.” You’re in a slightly different world out there. If you start saying who you want, if it’s going to be real, you want to shut up.

For something like “Anansi Boys,” I get kind of torn. Half of me would love to just cast one actor as Fat Charlie and one as Spider and see what you get with one person playing both of them. Will Smith playing both of them, what are you going to get? But then what would you get if you have Will Smith playing one, and Chris Tucker the other? Beyond that, more than anything I would just want Morgan Freeman to play Mr. Nancy. Wouldn’t that be fun? But I can only say that because I’m not negotiating for any of those people.

MTV: You’re not going to take on a producer role, as you did with “Stardust” ?

Gaiman: I probably will produce, but not quite as seriously as I did with “Stardust.” With “Stardust,” I was signing off on casting, I was watching auditions on the Web, and I don’t know if I’d want to do that again. It’s a strange and thankless thing to do.

MTV: Do you ever look back at “Stardust” and wonder what you could have done differently?

Gaiman: I loved the movie. I think the marketing should have been done better. The film company had no idea how to sell anything like this. If you could compare it to anything, it would be “The Princess Bride.” But they said, “We can’t mention ‘Princess Bride,’ that didn’t make box office.” But you’re the only people in the world who know that in 1987, “The Princess Bride” was #3 at the box office. It was beaten by “Fatal Attraction” and a Dudley Moore movie. No one knows. No one remembers. It’s just a movie that people love. And “Stardust” is set to be that, too.

MTV: Which Dudley Moore movie? “Like Father Like Son”? I was an extra in that.

Gaiman: You were? You beat “The Princess Bride,” personally? I hope you’re ashamed of yourself. Now I have to watch it.

MTV: No, now you have to do a cameo in one of your own movies.

Gaiman: The only thing they ever persuaded me to do a cameo in was the BBC adaptation of “Neverwhere.” You see a running figure in a black coat in the title credits, and that was me. And that was just because everyone else was busy.

MTV: Can you please make sure they get the lighting right for the new movie? It’s so cheesy in the BBC version.

Gaiman: They lit it for film and shot it for video. But it used to be that the only way you could see it was a fifth-generation copy, which would be blurred and moody, and people would think, “How cool.” It wasn’t until it was professionally released that people could see how cheesy it was. I definitely also want a great beast that’s not a cow — more than anything, I want a great beast that’s scary and terrifying. Beyond that, it’s just a matter of doing it justice and doing it well, and doing it with a budget. The BBC had the best intentions, and these days, they come and apologize and they wish they could do it now. Too late. Harvey Weinstein owns it.