From Coraline and American Gods to Good Omens and Stardust, prolific author Neil Gaiman has already seen several of his signature literary works brought to life on the big and small screen. But one of his landmark stories hasn’t made the leap... until now. After decades of false starts and creative dead ends, Gaiman is finally experiencing the dream of seeing his landmark comic book series, The Sandman, come to live action life. Last summer, Netflix announced a massively-budgeted 11-episode adaptation of the comic, which ran for 75 issues in its initial run between 1989 and 1996 and told the story of Morpheus the Lord of Dreams, an immortal entity of great power and a myriad of personal problems.
Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment about his recently released career-spanning anthology, The Neil Gaiman Reader, Gaiman expresses amazement that a Sandman series is finally happening. “We started shooting about 10 days ago,” he says, indicating that the first episode will adapt the first issue of the comic, in which Morpheus is captured by a magician and spends decades locked in a glass cage. “I've been watching dailies, but nothing produced the profound, emotional reaction on me that watching a camera test of our Morpheus in his glass prison did. I saw him and said, ‘Oh, this is Sandman.” (Watch our video interview above.)
That’s not a feeling that past attempts to adapt his comic have inspired. “I have seen bad Sandman TV series proposals,” Gaiman says with a wry chuckle. “Some of them are from incredibly talented people who said, ‘You can’t make this into TV!’ About 10 years ago, there was a fantastic showrunner who pitched a Sandman TV show that didn’t introduce Morpheus until the fourth episode!” Gaiman’s choice to wait paid off, as he was able to assemble a creative team — including David Goyer and Allan Heinberg — who were committed to adapting the comic book, not reinventing it. “It feels so amazingly Sandman,” Gaiman raves. “You won’t believe how Sandman it is.”
For those who don’t know what Sandman feels like, the comic book series possesses the wild blend of high fantasy, intense family drama and unnerving horror that distinguishes so much of Gaiman’s work. Funnily enough, the author doesn’t consider himself a horror writer. “I've always been somebody who has sidled over to my horror while looking the other way,” he jokes. That said, the author acknowledges that he’s written some genuinely horrific things over the course of his career, as he discovered while assembling The Neil Gaiman Reader. “Having to do a complete read for copy editing purposes, I would find myself disturbed by something I had written. I once wrote a short story called ‘Click-Clack the Rattle Bag,’ about a guy waiting in a house for his girlfriend to get home, and her little brother wants to be told a story. It’s not terribly scary, except that it is!” (That story is included in the anthology.)
Some of the scariest stories that Gaiman has written lurk in the pages of Sandman, most notably the issue “24 Hours” — a gruesome ticking-clock tale set in a diner where a mystical madman has hijacked the minds of innocent customers, sending them down a dark path to a bloody end. “People still come up to me and say, ‘“24 Hours” is really disturbing!’ And I say, ‘Yes, it is. And you know what? You got to read it in 25 minutes, but it took me three weeks of living there to write it. That story tells you you’re really not in safe territory, and that for me was everything.”
Gaiman confirms that “24 Hours” will be part of Sandman TV show’s first season, and all the grim details — including eye-gouging, throat-tearing and beheadings — will remain intact, just as they were in Audible’s recent audiobook adaptation. “I suspect that nothing that we do in that episode when it’s shot will be as disturbing as listening to it on Audible, because when you’re listening to it, you can't look away from a screen. So you are utterly complicit in every death, every moment of pain, and every awful thing that happens in that episode.”
Besides “24 Hours,” the first season of the Netflix series will adapt key storylines from the first two volumes of the comic book series, including “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” featuring an extended appearance by the popular DC character, John Constantine; “A Hope in Hell,” which sends Morpheus to Hell in search of a precious object; and “Collectors,” which takes place at a serial killers’ convention. “It will be scary,” Gaiman promises. “But it will be lots of other things, too, because the joy of Sandman is that it’s a lot of different things in the soup, and you can taste all the flavors.”
The one thing that Gaiman isn’t ready to reveal yet are the identities of the actors who were cast as Morpheus and his Endless sibling, Death. (Yes... that Death.) “I can say we had 200-odd auditions for Morpheus before we found someone that we really liked,” he says. “And then we watched another 300 or 400 auditions, but it was clear that we’d found the one person capable of saying those lines and making them actually work. So we hired him!”
Finding the right Death proved equally challenging because of her enduring popularity with fans, who have imagined everyone from Winona Ryder to Krysten Ritter in the role over the decades that a live-action version of Sandman has been in development. (At one point, Gaiman was even attached to write and direct a film adaptation of his spinoff graphic novel, Death: The High Cost of Living, only to watch that project wither away in development hell.) Death will make her Netflix debut in the pivotal chapter, “The Sound of Her Wings,” widely regarded as one of the all-time best Sandman issues.
“I think the actress we have playing Death is astonishing,” teases Gaiman, who won’t be directing “The Sound of Her Wings” or any other Sandman episode. “I feel incredibly lucky and privileged that we got her. The key to me with Death is that, more than any of the other characters in Sandman, they have to be filled with love and sensibleness. That sensibleness and love is manifest in this actress. I don’t think anybody is going to have any complaints.”
Almost as soon as he says that, though, Gaiman quickly corrects himself based on his firsthand experience with the sometimes irrational passion of fans. “Why would I say that? It’s fandom, of course they’re going to have complaints! That’s what they do. I remember the millions of words expended by people who were furious at me because we cast Michael Sheen and David Tennent in Good Omens. So obviously people will grumble, but just as obviously when they watch Death’s first appearance in ‘The Sound of Her Wings,’ it’ll all be OK.”
— Video produced by Jonathan San and edited by John Santo
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