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— by Jennifer Vineyard

Strange as it might sound, for storytellers it's sometimes just easier to formulate flights of fancy than to dramatize "real" life. That sort of inside-out logic holds especially true when the storyteller in question is modern mythmaker Neil Gaiman, best-known for his seminal graphic novel, "The Sandman," as well as acclaimed fantasy books like "Neverwhere" and "American Gods."

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Gaiman's most recent fanciful offering takes the form of a feature film, "MirrorMask," directed by "Sandman" artist Dave McKean. Relating the tale of a 15-year-old girl, Helena, caught between two utterly distinct worlds — life in her family's circus and, alternately, in a city that comes to life after she draws it — "MirrorMask" is as visually bizarre as it is philosophically rich.

Getting the weirdness of Helena's "other" world down, Gaiman says, was relatively simple. Portraying this world — the real world — on the other hand, proved to be a bother.

In the movies, Gaiman explains, "the rules are all upside down."

"I wanted a school scene, and Dave said no," Gaiman says. "When he saw my face fall, he said, 'But if you want the world to crumple up into a ball and be folded into a tulip, I can do that for nothing.' "

Shooting something more prosaic, McKean explained to his screenwriter, would be quite a bit pricier.

That's because shooting a school scene for a movie would require getting an exterior shot of the school building, and then shots of the interior. Then there would be the hiring of young actors to play school kids — and they could only work for a limited number of hours per day because of child-labor laws. They would also require chaperones and tutors. The whole thing would get expensive very quickly.

"MirrorMask," which combines digital animation with live action, looks expensive, but it actually cost a relatively miniscule $4 million.

 "MirrorMask" Photos

"You can make the sky out of rusted metal," Gaiman says of the imaginative ways one can create illusions on film. "You can make a palace out of dragonfly wings, and it's much, much cheaper."

The visual effects in "MirrorMask" — shadows swallowing people whole; books fluttering like butterflies; spider-spies with secret eyes — are astonishing, as if the covers to Gaiman's "Sandman" books have come to life. But the real focus of the film is on the story being told, Helena's tale, which is why Gaiman and McKean collaborated so closely: whatever Gaiman dreamed up, he knew McKean could create. The two Brits holed up at an old house in London — "We couldn't even e-mail there, it was all rotary phones" — and worked out a way of doing the story that would look, according to Gaiman, "like nothing you've seen before."

Half of the narrative was Gaiman's, and half was McKean's. Gaiman wanted it to be about the girl, whose mother has somehow traded places with another version of herself, in another world, thus forcing her daughter to find her own real self in order to rectify things. McKean, meanwhile — basing his story line on a dream he'd had — wanted to add the element of a dangerous dream world ruled by a dark queen and a light queen. One of the queens is in a coma, knocking the entire world out of balance. Helena's "other" mother becomes both the Queen of Light and the Queen of Shadows in this scenario, while Helena's other self becomes the Shadow Princess. (The mothers are played by Gina McKee; the daughters by newcomer Stephanie Leonidas).

Gaiman admits that there are parts of the "MirrorMask" story which might remind fans of his novella, "Coraline," in which a girl enters an alternate reality and finds another pair of "parents" — funhouse-mirror replicas of her real mom and dad who become creepier and creepier as she gets to know them and discovers their motives.

"There are definitely some 'Coraline' things," Gaiman allows. "Dave would even say, 'We can't do that, that's too much like Coraline.' "

But the beauty of Gaiman's work is how adroitly he borrows — from ancient legends, fairy tales, myths, history and from his own huge body of work — as if all stories coexisted in an alternate universe in which he alone occasionally travels. It sometimes feels as if he is creating a new myth about myths. Some of his stories are so complex, so big — like the 10-volume "Sandman" series, or the elaborate "American Gods," in which the gods of the old world and the modern world are on the verge of going to war — that they could never be shoehorned into a single film.

"I get phone calls all the time from studios saying, 'We want to make "American Gods" into a movie,' " he says. "I say, 'That's great.' And then they say, 'How do we make it into a movie?' And I say, 'I have no idea.' And that's the end of the phone call."

Gaiman's smaller-scale stories, on the other hand — like "MirrorMask" (which was written as a movie script), "Coraline" (soon to be turned into a stop-action film, with music by They Might Be Giants) and the "Sandman" offshoot, "Death: The High Cost of Living" — can work quite nicely as films. They're simple stories that don't really offer so much a fantasist's escape from the real world as a means of illuminating the everyday.

For his next movie project, a version of "Death" that he'll direct himself, starting next spring, Gaiman wants to cut back on pure fantasy and try a more concretely, overtly real-world approach. Well, there is one scene in which he'd like to use a "MirrorMask"-style visual jolt to let the viewer see into the mind of a character as he talks about his life. But he wants the rest of "Death" to be recognizably real. (He also wants his friend Tori Amos to score it.)

"It's going to be a nice, friendly film," he says. "Like 'Annie Hall' or 'Roman Holiday.' It's a story about a 16-year-old boy in New York who meets a girl who may be crazy, or may be Death, because she takes human form once every 100 years. Part of the fun of 'Death' is that it's just a boy and a girl in New York City, and I want them to be fairly realistic. Otherwise, the story doesn't matter."

On the other hand, he says, "The joy of 'MirrorMask' is that the real world gets pretty weird, too."

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