MORE FROM SAN DIEGO: 'MirrorMask': McKean and Gaiman's high-fantasy on a low budget

Fri, July 25th, 2003 at 12:00am PDT

TV Film
Rob Worley, Columnist

Last Friday at Comic-Con International, Henson Pictures presented

fans with an early look at the new fantasy film "MirrorMask." Comic

greats Dave McKean, who is directing the movie and Neil Gaiman who co-wrote the

script were on hand. Producer and Henson chief Lisa Henson, executive producer

Michael Polis and story editor Kevin Kelly also participated.

CBR Exclusive Image: MirrorMask Poster Art

Polis and McKean told fans that they had their first conversation about the

movie at Comic-Con 2001.

"That was a great first meeting,"

Polis said. "It started things off putting together this project which

wrapped on Friday."

After getting the ball rolling, Henson consulted with

Gaiman, who she was acquainted with from other projects.

"For me the

whole thing started with a phone call from Lisa. She said that TriStar had

noticed that, 'The Dark Crystal' and 'Labyrinth,' far from being the financial

failures that they were commonly perceived to be, actually had become these

rock-solid perennial sellers that people bought on video and bought on

DVD," Gaiman recalled.

"She said it was sort of good news and bad news. They've noticed this,

which is really good, and they like the idea of making something else like that

with Henson. The bad news was they were offering $4 million to make it


"I think ['Labyrinth' and 'Dark Crystal'] both cost more than

$4 million, twenty years ago," Henson said, putting it in perspective.

"That would maybe be a $80 million dollar movie today, so now could we do

it for one twentieth of the budget?"

"'s five minutes

long," Gaiman offered.

CBR Exclusive Image: Stephanie Leonidas as "Princess"


Henson had seen McKean's short movie "N[eon]"

and talked to Gaiman about it. "It's a very wonderful short film that Dave

made, for nothing, in his mom's barn and on her pond," Gaiman told fans.

"It looks absolutely amazing and she said, 'Do you think we could get Dave

McKean to direct the film, for no money, if we promise him that, basically, it's

being made on so little money that you can actually do something really cool and


"Then Lisa said, 'Obviously we couldn't afford you to write it, but

maybe you could come up with a story and we'd go and find a writer.'


I said that if Dave was going to direct it then I was going to be writing it and

we weren't going to talk about that bit any more."

Gaiman said he was

perfectly happy with the arrangement of "complete creative freedom"

paired with "complete lack of budget."

"I can say that smiling,

because I haven't just had to make a $100 million movie for $4 million, but Dave

was about three foot taller than he is now, and had hair," Gaiman added.


there Gaiman and McKean were off to begin writing the script.

"In February,

eighteen months ago, when it was really, really nasty and wet and cold in

England, I went to England to write the film with Dave," Gaiman said.


put the men up at the Henson family home. "It was in the spirit of saving

money right from the beginning," she joked. "No hotel rooms!"

In spite of having collaborated on various projects since 1986, the two found

that they were not prepared to be holed up together, working closely on writing.

Dave McKean fidgets with his Mac


glowered a lot," Gaiman revealed. Where McKean preferred laying things out

visually with paper and charts, Gaiman was eager to get into the writing.

After four days of tug-of-war the pair had one piece of paper with notes and

charts written on it. At that point filmmaker Terry Gilliam stopped in for a


"He took one look at our piece of paper and said, 'Oh, that looks like a

movie,'" Gaiman told the crowd. "That gave us more confidence, that

Terry Gilliam thought our piece of paper looked like a movie."

In spite of the playful bickering by the pair, Gaiman said that working

directly with McKean was invaluable, especially in keeping the story on budget.

When Gaiman would write scenes that seemed inexpensive, like one in a classroom

full of school children, McKean would point out the expense prepping a location

or building a set and hiring all the children to act in the scene.

Story continues below

Neil Gaiman

Conversely, Gaiman might describe a scene which seemed ridiculously huge,

like crumpling an entire city like a piece of paper, and McKean would deem it

inexpensive as it would be completely done as a CGI effect.

A first draft soon followed. Some notes (which Gaiman called

"sensible") led to a second draft. Gaiman told the crowed that the

development went as smoothly as promised.

Behind-the-scenes footage of the film was shown to the crowd. Unlike many

movies, which are filmed on fully decorated sets and locations, "MirrorMask"

was, for the most part, shot on a blue-screen set. The director would add sets

and supporting effects digitally later. The only exception was two weeks worth

of location shooting.

McKean also projected costume, set and creature designs from his laptop

computer onto the big screen in the convention room.

"There's a girl called Helena. Helena is played by a wonderful actress

named Stephanie Leonidas," Gaiman said, beginning his description of the

movie. "She's fifteen going on sixteen. She's part of a circus family, the

Campbell family circus. She sells popcorn and she really does not want to be in

the circus. She doesn't really want to be part of the family circus. She would

more like to run away and join real life.

Helena's mother (one of three parts played by Gina McKee of "Notting

Hill") takes ill and the circus is shut down. Helena's guilt over the

situation and stress begin to mount.

"That night, Helena has a dream," Gaiman continued, "or

something that may quite be a dream, in which she gets to try and sort

everything out for herself in her own way."

Lisa Henson

She ends up in a strange land, divide into the light kingdom and the dark

kingdom. The light queen has fallen asleep and can't be woken and her kingdom is

falling into disrepair. Helena embarks on a mission, aided by the unreliable

jester named Valentine (played by Jason Barry). They venture to the dark kingdom

and find the Mirror Mask, which will awaken the white queen.

Along the way they encounter a number of Dave McKean creations, like a

griffin, monkey-birds (which look like tiny silverback gorillas with sandpiper

heads), a pair of magnetic giants, and a pride of small, man-eating sphinxes,

which live with a strange lady named Mrs. Bagwell.

"She seems to be a cat lady," Gaiman said. "She took in a

couple, except in her case they're little sphinxes, with incredibly sharp teeth

and humans faces...and they destroy things. As Mrs. Bagwell explains, 'Mr.

Bagwell didn't like them very much, but they loved him and after he disappeared

mysteriously they wouldn't eat anything for a week.'"

Gina McKee as the Dark Queen

In addition to Helena's mother, McKee plays both the white queen and the dark

queen. Similarly Leonidas plays a dual role as Helena and the Anti-Helena, who

may be the key to the mystery of the film. Rob Brydon ("Lock, Stock and Two

Smoking Barrels") appears as both Helena's father and the prime minister of

the white city.

If McKean can craft a motion picture that looks as cool as the designs shown

to the Comic-Con crowed, "MirrorMask" will be a revolution in

filmmaking: turning in a gorgeous, imaginative fantasy film for a ridiculously

modest budget.

"MirrorMask" is due out next summer. Initial plans call for it to

be direct to video, but post Comic-Con buzz indicates there's a strong chance

for a theatrical release.

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