February 4, 2009
Coraline, the first stop-motion feature film to be presented in 3D, is being released in North American theaters on February 6. Neil Gaiman, author of the multiple award-winning novel upon which the film is based, stopped briefly in Montreal on his promotional tour for the film. I had the pleasure of sitting down and talking with him about the development of the project through its various stages.
Arin Murphy: Neil, congratulations on the imminent release of Coraline.
Neil Gaiman: Thank you. Yes, three days to go!
I was lucky enough to see it at the press screening last week.
Did you get it in 3D, or 2D?
I saw it in 3D.
It really is quite the experience, isn’t it?
Yes, it’s not quite like anything else. And you know, it’s a lovely thing when you can actually say, “It’s not like anything else.”
Well, some of that is due to the story.
That’s true. But story aside, the way Henry uses 3D to delineate space is something nobody’s done before. You get that one needle gag five seconds into the movie, almost just so he lets you know that he could do this, if he wanted to. [It’s like saying] we can do this, and now we’re not going to. Now we’re going to use 3D in a way that isn’t about throwing things at the audience. This is the film you’re going to see, and we will simply make it good.
And he does a fabulous job with it.
It is awesome.
Were you thinking cinematically when you wrote Coraline?
No. I was thinking story when I wrote Coraline. When I finished I thought, “You know, somebody’s going to make this into a film, and I would like to see it… and if I had to pick anything, I would like it to be stop-motion.”
I had seen and loved Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, and had liked it enough that I had taken note of who directed it. Which meant that a few years later when James and the Giant Peach came out, I went to see that. And while I had problems with it, I loved it; the genius was there. I just thought there were some missteps. Like the going from live action to stop-motion; that seemed wrong. I wanted it to have been stop-motion all the way through. I wound up asking Henry about [it] many years later, and he said it was the budget; they could not afford to do it entirely stop-motion, and they played the hand they were dealt. So when I handed in the manuscript for Coraline I asked my agent, “Could you get this to Henry Selick?” And about a month later I found myself in an editing suite watching poor Henry as he struggled with the madness of Monkeybone, and very shortly after that he gave [Coraline] to [producer] Bill Mechanic, who bought it for Henry.
And Henry wrote a script, and sent it to me. And I said, “I think it’s too faithful.” And it was. It felt very, very laboriously faithful. You know, it kept turning into a silent little girl walking down corridors.
Which works in a novel –
Well, which works in a novel because you’re inside her head. You know what she’s thinking, you know what she’s feeling. But without benefit of voiceover or turning to the fourth wall and talking, you don’t have that.
So then Henry went away, rather sadly, and came back about a year later with a second draft script, which was essentially the script of the film you saw. But at this point it had to be live action, because Bill Mechanic had some sort of deal with Disney which precluded him from doing animation of any kind. And I believe that Michelle Pfeiffer was meant to be the Other Mother… And I’m sort of watching and thinking, “Well, that’s okay, I suppose, but I really wanted stop-motion.” And then 9/11 happened, and it became slowly apparent that Bill Mechanic’s funding was never going to [come through]. Eventually, the rights lapsed. And I wound up doing something you’re never meant to do, which is giving them – I think they got about nine months to a year of free option. Because I believed in Henry.
That’s such a wonderful statement of faith.
Well, it was a particularly wonderful statement of faith because the book had since come out, been published, been a huge success, and now had lots of large shark-like entities swimming around going, “We will give you real money, we will get a lot of money….” But I like Henry. And I trusted him. And I trusted somehow that things were going to work out. And then Henry wound up at Laika, and he showed the script at some point to [Laika Vice President of Animation and stop-motion animator] Travis Knight, who was a fan of mine anyway. And Travis loved the script.
Bill Mechanic did not like stop-motion. He thought it was antiquated and that nobody was interested, and that [the film] should be done in CGI. And he was pushing Henry incredibly hard to have him make it half CGI and half stop-motion, something like that, so that it would go out of antiquated puppetry animation into cool modern animation. Thank God Henry came up with 3D and said, “What if we did this instead?” There were enough bells and whistles in the 3D concept that they abandoned the CG idea, which made me so happy. And it made me happy because, look, if I’d wanted a CG movie when I finished writing I would have given it to my agent and said, “Could you get it on John Lasseter’s desk.” He’s the best at [CGI]. I didn’t. What I said was, “Can you get it to Henry Selick,” who is non-pareil in what he does. The only stop-motion person I like as much as I like Henry, but who works in a completely different direction, is Jan Švankmajer. And I guess it may say something about why I wanted this to be stop-motion that when my daughter Holly (for whom I originally wrote Coraline) was five years old, her favourite movie was Jan Švankmajer’s Alice.
Jump to part two of the interview.
Previously on fps:
Previously on The Critical Eye:
Neil Gaiman on anime and Miyazaki