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All of a sudden, his fantasies are turning to reality

Special to The Times

In the world of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, the storied comic-book series he wrote from 1988 to 1996, there lies a library filled with books their authors only dreamed of writing. If Gaiman were crafting the dream king’s domain today, he might well add a multiplex to show all the movies he’s never made.

In the last 16 years, Gaiman has watched more than a dozen of his comics, stories and novels languish in Hollywood’s often dark maze of development without a single one making its way to the screen. The list of unrealized projects includes “Chivalry,” a short-story adaptation that Harvey Weinstein once hoped to direct; an animated version of the ancient Sanskrit epic “The Ramayana” for DreamWorks; and “Good Omens,” based on Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s comic novel, which Terry Gilliam has been trying to make since the turn of the century.

Lately, though, the tide has turned in Gaiman’s favor. “Stardust,” adapted from Gaiman’s illustrated novel, hits theaters on Friday. Robert Zemeckis’ motion-capture “Beowulf,” drawn from a 10-year-old script by Gaiman and Roger Avary, arrives in November. And the fall of 2008 will bring “Coraline,” a stop-motion version of Gaiman’s eerie children’s book, directed by “The Nightmare Before Christmas’ ” Henry Selick.

After years of waiting, the arrival of three long-simmering projects within months of one another marks a noticeable change. Neil Gaiman’s dreams are beginning to come true.

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Perched sideways in an armchair at Manhattan’s Waldorf Towers, the black-clad Gaiman is philosophical about the sudden spate of films actually coming to fruition. “It seems like everything’s happening at the same time, but you’ve got all sorts of gestation periods,” he says. “In 15 years of mucking around on the edges of Hollywood, and sometimes right in the middle of Hollywood, the only thing I’ve now learned is that nothing ever happens in the way you expected it to.”

Gaiman’s knack for rewriting myths in modern terms has made him perennially appealing to the movie industry, but his subversive approach to genre films has often gotten lost in translation. Avary, Gaiman’s “Beowulf” collaborator, worked on a Sandman adaptation for Warner Bros. in the mid-'90s, where, Avary says, the assumption was that since Sandman “looked like Batman, it must be Batman. The basic argument was like, ‘We want Sandman to be fighting so-and-so.’ I was like, ‘The Sandman doesn’t fight.’ ”

“His work can be dark and complex,” says Claire Danes, who plays one of “Stardust’s” leads and penned the introduction to a Sandman collection when she was 18. “It’s not obvious in a way that excites a lot of studio executives. It’s subversive and ironic, and it’s got a bit of a cocked eyebrow to it.”

Gaiman’s novel unfolds in a style he calls “wry, slightly knowing and supremely antiquated,” so much so that its archaic cadences had to be written with a fountain pen specially purchased for the task.

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Tweaking conventions

The story of a star who falls to earth in human form and is pursued by evil witches, dueling princes and a love-struck small-town boy, the novel tweaks the conventions of fantasy without poking the reader in the ribs.

Matthew Vaughn, who directed and co-wrote the screen adaptation with novelist Jane Goldman, ably navigates the novel’s shifts from romance to slapstick to the outright macabre, and Ian McKellen’s narration is the next best thing to an antique nib. Michelle Pfeiffer’s imperious sorceress is deliciously nasty, and as the short-tempered star, Danes hurls insults with the lethal accuracy of a screwball heroine.

But in its broader stretches, the movie is less reminiscent of Gaiman’s dry wit than it is the nudging self-consciousness of “The Princess Bride,” an influence Vaughn acknowledges. Ricky Gervais makes a garrulous cameo, and an ill-fated interlude features Robert De Niro as a pirate, a character who appears nowhere in Gaiman’s text.

Vaughn, who turned to direction with the glossy gangster movie “Layer Cake” after producing several of Guy Ritchie’s steroidal shoot-'em-ups, would seem an odd fit for this droll fairy tale. But the director had championed the movie for years as a producer, and in May 2005, when he walked off the “X-Men 3" project two months before shooting began, he had a flash of insight. “I suddenly realized ‘Stardust’ was the movie I wanted to make next,” he says. “Neil had been told it was unfilmable. I love hearing things like that.”

Biding his time

Past experience had soured Gaiman on the art of the deal. He first sold the rights to “Stardust” in 1999, but after a two-year option with Dimension Films went nowhere, he spent years declining offers. “I decided I wasn’t going to sell it again,” he says. “I was done with ‘Here, give me the check and it’s out of my control.’ ”

Instead, Gaiman did the reverse. He gave Vaughn “Stardust” for free, asking only a producer’s credit and a promise to consider his input. When Vaughn was looking for a writer to help rewrite his script, Gaiman suggested a longtime friend, Goldman, to help with the novel’s “girlie bits.” Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, a veteran of several unrealized Gaiman projects, helped line up financing. Within a year of Vaughn’s decision to go with the project, the cameras were rolling.

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Gaiman has won recognition not by struggling for it but by biding his time. In the 1990s, he says, “the executives had no clue who I was. They didn’t read comics. They didn’t read fantasy or didn’t understand it. They liked movies like ‘Beaches.’ But the guys who brought you the bottle of still water and stayed over at the edge of the meeting, they knew who I was. They were the ones who in the corridor afterward would get me to sign their Sandmans. And they’re now the ones running the studios.”

If studios are more open to the otherworlds Gaiman creates, it’s also because the price of creating them has dropped dramatically. “The technology has made fantasy shootable,” Vaughn says. “A lot of the fantasy movies in the ‘70s, and the ‘60s and even the ‘80s, there were some very good ideas, but the special effects are so bad it was hard to take them seriously.”

“Stardust’s” $70 million is still a hefty sum. But Gaiman ventures that “had ‘Stardust’ been a historical film with no fantasy elements made on the same scale, it would’ve been about the same budget.”

On the computer-animated “Beowulf,” the restrictions of budget simply don’t apply. Gaiman balked at writing what he assumed would be a costly underwater battle until Zemeckis told him that nothing he could write would cost more than $1 million a minute to film. Gaiman used to say that writing comics was like making a movie with an unlimited budget. Movies, it seems, are catching up.

Gaiman is now turning his attentions to directing a movie version of the Sandman offshoot, “Death: The High Cost of Living.” The movie, has been in the works since 1996, but Gaiman has a new ally in director Guillermo del Toro, who signed on as executive producer and gave Gaiman a master class during the making of “Hellboy 2.”

Now ensconced at Picturehouse, the “Death” movie seems to be moving closer to reality. But Gaiman has been here before. “There’s an old country saying where I come from,” he says. “ ‘I’ve lived near the woods too long to be frightened by an owl.’ I’ve seen the green light blinking too many times on ‘Death.’ ”

Still, he is optimistic. “It looks like it will probably get made earlyish next year in the U.K.,” he says. “Unless it doesn’t.”


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