Unbuttoning Coraline — Neil Gaiman interview

Neil Gaiman has been responsible for some of the most remarkable works of fantasy in the last 20 years. Along with Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Gaiman’s Sandman series essentially defined what modern comic books are capable of — it remains the only comic to win The World Fantasy Award. His print novels American Gods and Neverwhere remain remarkably popular, and The American Library Association is set to give the 2009 Newbery Medal for children’s literature to The Graveyard Book, his ghastly take on Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.

The formerly British author (he moved to America after finding a perfect Addams Family-style mansion) is even responsible for Coraline, a wonderfully dark children’s novel about a girl who discovers a parallel world on the other side of a door in her house. Like Gaiman’s best work, Coraline benefits from the author’s eye for the uncanny, finding a rich fantasy world at the edges of the mundane. It’s the kind of story that gives goosebumps to kids and parents alike, and has both returning for more.

On February 7, the novel will reach theatres as a 3-D stop-motion marvel. Written and directed for the screen by animator Henry Selick, the film takes Gaiman’s book and blows it up into a fully realized world stuffed with painted-popcorn cherry blossoms, bat-winged Scottie terriers and button-eyed villains who hope to replace Coraline’s eyes with fabric fasteners. It manages to be bigger and flashier, yet still true to the author’s original story — and for this, Gaiman pushes responsibility aside.

“While I’m very happy to get out on the road and plug it, I’m also making sure everybody knows that this is Henry’s film, and that I’m honoured to get to work with Henry,” he says. “I think it would be a bad thing if people went ‘Did you see Neil Gaiman’s Coraline movie?’ and assumed that it was my movie. I want Henry to get the glory, and I want the 400 people who handmade Coraline to get the glory.”

It wouldn’t be the first time that Selick was denied his due. Thanks to a last-minute marketing decision that added “Tim Burton’s” to the title of The Nightmare Before Christmas, Selick’s name is seldom associated with the Gothic holiday classic he helmed in 1993. Gaiman was astute enough to notice the director’s credit, though, and even before his novel was published, he knew Selick was the man to bring Coraline to the screen.

The transition has taken almost half a decade — the stop-motion process is so painstaking that an animator can expect to produce five seconds of footage in a good week – but Gaiman is pleased as Punch with the results.

“We’re talking about a handmade film in which every single object that you see is made by Henry or by one of his team,” he says. “You’re talking about a film that he art directed. A film that, if something moves on the screen, it’s because one of 40 animators moved it just a tiny bit and took a picture. You’re talking about the single most ambitious — in terms of number of animators, number of sets, number of things going on — stop-motion film that’s ever been made, possibly that ever will be made.”

It may be Selick’s film, but Gaiman’s stories seem to demand adaptation. Coraline is set to become not just a movie, but a musical by The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt, as well as an Eastern European puppet show. The Graveyard Book has already been snapped up by Hollywood, with The Company of Wolves director Neil Jordan slated to direct. Gaiman’s young adult novel Stardust hit screens in 2007 to mixed reviews, but despite the differences in tone between the film and book of the same name, he still holds a soft spot for the film. Neverwhere was originally written as a BBC series, and a film version of Sandman has been the subject of rumours since the comics first hit the stands in the late ’80s.

While some authors are reluctant to place their stories in others’ hands, Gaiman finds that it’s simply a matter of choosing the right artists and leaving them to their own devices.

“It’s more like babysitting, honestly,” he says. “There are people with whom I’m happy to leave my children. I do not want to stay there while they look after my children, going ‘No, don’t do that. Don’t dress him like that. No, he doesn’t eat that, he doesn’t like that.’ What I would much rather do is find people I trust, and people I like, and people who I feel like I can trust my baby with, and then I can come back at the end and I’m not going to wind up saying, ‘Really, I didn’t expect him to have a tattoo on his cheek.’”

Just as Gaiman didn’t worry about leaving his child in Selick’s care, he hopes other parents will trust the filmmaker, too. There has been some concern that Coraline’s dark subject matter could be too much for some children — the film contains ghosts, monsters and a surprisingly frightening button-eyed villain, after all. The writer is quick to recall his own childhood, though, hiding behind the sofa while watching Doctor Who or crouching behind his chair at a screening of The Wizard of Oz, experiencing what he calls “the terrific, wonderful, magical, delightful thrill of being scared.”

The novel is creepy enough that adults have been known to turn on all the lights after finishing it, but in his experience, children tend to view it as an adventure, and the film will likely be the same. He may be responsible for some nightmares in grown-ups, but that comes from a difference in perception.

“Kids are reading a story about somebody like them going up against something bad that they will defeat,” Gaiman explains. “Adults are reading a story about a child in danger. Just the simple genre of a child in danger is something that immediately disturbs adults in weird, vulnerable places that we didn’t even know we had. We worry. And furthermore, kids don’t get repressed childhood memories coming bubbling up from nowhere to worry them, because they’re living them. Whereas adults sometimes read Coraline and really do — weird, creepy stuff comes out of their past.”

There’s one other difference, too. Somehow, the most haunting image for adults doesn’t seem to phase most kids. “Kids tend to find button-eyed people kind of cool,” he says. “It’s just buttons. It’s a goofy, silly thing. Adults tend to find button-eyed people really, really disturbing.”

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