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Dave McKean Q&A

Chris Tilly catches up with the cult artist to discuss the making of his first movie, 'MirrorMask'.

Feb 28 2006

Dave McKean is an illustrator, photographer and director who found fame through his graphic novel collaborations with writer Neil Gaiman. The pair recently worked with Jim Henson Productions on 'MirrorMask', a wondrous blend of live action and CGI that follows a young girl's journey through a dark and mysterious fantasy world.

How did 'MirrorMask' come about?

A few years ago Neil and I had lunch and asked each other what we wanted to be doing in five years. We both loved doing books and comics, but I think both of us started to feel a little bit safe and comfortable and wanted a challenge. Neil wanted to go the Hollywood route and write screenplays and get some clout, and I was developing my own films, with Film Four and The Film Council. Then this one came just out of the blue – Lisa Henson called with a proposition for us to make our own film, and it seemed like such a wonderful opportunity. So, we jumped at it.

When did work actually start on the film?

We shot in the summer of 2003. An eight month period before that was working from scratch, trying to decide what to do, writing the script, doing the rewrite, visualising it, storyboarding it. It felt like it took a long time but in film terms I think the pre-film moved pretty quickly. The post-film just dragged on though – we were supposed to do about eight months of animation and it turned into 17 months. But we were still on budget at the end, which is a minor miracle.

Was it harder to collaborate on film than on a book?

It is much harder because the roles are not demarcated. In all the work we have done, I have always been the one making the pictures and Neil always has been the one writing the words. We crossed the line a little bit on projects like 'Signal to Noise', but we pretty much have our own areas and never argue. If we even slightly disagreed about something, we always had a rule that if it was about the words, Neil would have the final cut and if it was about the design then I would. But with 'MirrorMask' I just couldn't let Neil go off and write anything he wanted to because I had to make sure we could do it.

Was he writing stuff that you couldn't do then?

He was heading that way. He has been writing 'Beowulf' for Bob Zemeckis, and Zemeckis said: 'There is nothing that you can write that I can't do at a million dollars a minute.' And that is great, but this is a completely different situation – we had $4 million to do the whole film. Just setting a scene at the beginning in a school, which you would think would be nothing at all, became this huge headache involving a location and child actors and chaperones and only being able to film for part of the day – it just becomes a nightmare. Very early on I had an idea for a scene where we would build this city and then crumple it up like a piece of paper. And Neil said: 'that is going to cost a fortune', but it doesn't – it's a simple procedure that takes an animator about half a day. At that point Neil realised that it was just not obvious where the expense was, so he was happy to collaborate

How did you find your lead actress, Stephanie Leonidas?

We were getting ready to do a huge trawl of drama schools when one of my producers saw her on TV in a programme called 'Daddy's Girl' and thought she was fantastic. We took it to the casting director, then one day he brought a group of girls in, some of whom were very good, but Stephanie came in at the end and was in a different league. She was just perfect, and she looks younger than she is, which was good because she had experience and it was quite a technical job. There was two weeks of actual acting with sets and actors to look at, and then four weeks with blue screens and nothing – acting with a mask on a stick and a cross on the wall.

How did you help Stephanie and her fellow actors to visualize your designs?

I took them through the scene shot by shot on the storyboards. We walked around and I explained the space – where the doors were, where the windows were, where the lights were coming from. Then I tried my best to do impersonations of monkey-birds and giants and things like that, to give them and idea of how they would move and talk in the film, but it's very difficult. I think there is a knack to it – some actors can do it and some actors can't. Those that can't, you can see the fear on their faces, but Stephanie and the rest of the cast were fantastic.

I thought the three-foot high porcupine delivered the best performance.

Thank you, that's me.

How was that experience?

That was one of those days when my kids ask me what I did at work that day and I say I got to walk around as a porcupine with trousers and braces. It was great fun. The whole film is like my personal film school, I got to experience all of these different things – they were a small group of actors, but they were all from different disciplines, they were very different people, so that was very interesting. And I learnt so much on the effects side of things.

Were you worried about making it too frightening for children?

No, not really. We didn't write anything in the script that we thought would be a problem. Neil and I are both parents, we both like family films, not kid's films, but family films. We all look forward to the Pixar movie of the year, because they don't talk down to you, and Jim Henson never did either. So there were no worries about having darker images and darker ideas. I think kids love those doses of reality. I think they love the feeling of being a bit scared and then getting to the other end safe and sound.

How much input did the Henson Company have in the design of the film?

Well there have been a few things incorrectly reported. The budget was four million dollars, not four million pounds or six million pounds or whatever else has been said. And the Henson Company had nothing to do with the making of it. They didn't make any of the characters or creatures – we couldn't afford them. Obviously Lisa [Henson] was executive producing and was very supportive, but I put together a little unit in London – a one room studio with 15 animators – and we made it.

What are you up to next?

I would love to make another film, but I have spent three years doing kid's books and a kid's film so now I'd like to do something for grown-ups. I love films that are just human dramas, but there are lots of other amazing people making those films like Mike Leigh and Michael Winterbottom, so I don't really feel the world needs me to do one. I think I should make something that looks like mine, so the next film will have strange, extravagant, bizarre and surreal sequences, but will basically be a more adult drama.

Have you written it yet?

Yes. It is an expansion of a book that Neil and I did a while ago called 'Signal to Noise'. I always liked the book but I never felt we really tackled the subject, so now the film is much, much broader and bigger than that. And I am really happy with the script.

'MirrorMask' is released on Friday.

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