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Beowulf - Neil Gaiman, Roger Avary and Steve Starkey interview

Beowulf

Interview by Rob Carnevale

WRITERS Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman and producer Steve Starkey talk about the challenges of adapting Beowulf for the big screen and their astonishment and delight with the finished movie in all its performance capture glory…

First of all can Steve tell us why it was felt that performance capture was the only way to go with this film?
Steve Starkey: Well, really it was the only way that Robert Zemeckis thought he could realise the movie of his dreams. He saw characters in the film that were bigger than life – such as Beowulf and Grendel – and felt that he could create the perfect character for the film and at the same time find the greatest actors to bring these characters to life. In addition to that he brought an image and a style to the movie that you couldn’t see through the lens of a motion picture camera. It was a style that was unique to the story of Beowulf and so performance capture allowed him to create this perfect film.

I’ve worked with Bob now for almost 20 years and it seems like every film we make demands some new technique, or something that needs to be invented. But it occurred to me on Beowulf that we’ve really revolutionised a new form of cinema. It was the only way to tell this story and it’s like we’ve put our foot on the moon and we have this whole new universe to explore. So, I’m looking forward to seeing this new style of movie-making advance in the coming years and see what the other possibilities are.

You’ve been writing this for some time, so what was your own impression of the finished product?
Roger Avary: It’s been 25 years since I first read the material and it’s been 10 years since Neil [Gaiman] and I got together to start work on it. I really thought I’d be jaded by this point, but when I saw the movie in 3D it was like being able to see pure imagination being put on-screen in a virtual form. It was so beyond what we could have imagined when we first put pen to paper. The technology simply wasn’t possible back then… I feel that Robert Zemeckis is grabbing cinema by the horns and steering it into the future.

Neil Gaiman: I’ve been asked by a lot of journalists whether this was the film that we imagined when we sat down in May 1997 and started writing. I have to explain that not only was this beyond what was technically possible or beyond what we could imagine, but Angelina Jolie was still in school! But it was astonishing and it feels like the start of something new – a whole new way of telling stories, a whole new critical vocabulary.

The character of Grendel provides one of the greatest monsters in the history of cinema, so how did you go about creating him?
Neil Gaiman: What Roger and I loved about Grendel was the idea of something that’s not only the first and the nastiest monster in the English language but also someone that you kind of feel for. For starters, he’s got a mother and most monsters don’t have mothers, and secondly anybody that’s had a noisy party going on upstairs into the small hours of the morning can identify with Grendel’s urge to go in there and tear a few people in half or bite a couple of heads off [laughs]. So, it was the pain and the fact that it was a monster that was doing the most awful things but you could somehow sympathise with was what pulled Roger and I into it.

Having said that, we didn’t imagine him looking like he does [in the film]. We just wrote “25ft high monster”. It was Robert Zemeckis who then turned to his design guys and said: “Everything is about pain. Everything that you can see, everything about the design of the monster – I want to put his insides on the outside, I want his eardrums to be sensitive, it’s all about the pain.” And that’s how he got this astonishing and rather nightmarish design.

How far did you go with the photo-realism because it struck me in some characters that the eyes still appeared quite dead [as they did in The Polar Express]…
Steve Starkey: Well, any time you embark on a new art form there’s going to be growing pains. For sure, this is a new invention in cinema and we’re learning things as we go. The types of projects are unlimited in this art form – we’re actually seeing something with a bigger scope, a unique style and different kinds of cameras, so when people learn that like Peter Jackson, Jim Cameron and Spielberg – who have all started to circle around the art form – they’re going to start propelling it along faster and faster. I think we’re seeing something here that’s as exciting as the birth of sound in cinema. We have a long way to go but we’ve come a long way already.

Where do you think cinema goes from here?
Neil Gaiman: I think that what we’re doing here is just another tool in the filmmakers’ armoury. I don’t think it displaces anything any more than it displaces black and white. It’s something that we can use. But what I think is interesting in the two years leading up to this, between the performances being done and people knowing that Beowulf was coming out, I would have people coming up to me and asking: “Why are you doing it like this? Why doesn’t Bob just put the actors in front of a camera and just shoot them and then put a CGI dragon in?” But nobody comes up to us once they’ve actually seen it and says: “Why did you do it like that?” Because it’s obvious, he couldn’t have done it any other way. It’s not a traditional live action film and it’s not an animated film – it’s the first of a new kind of film.

b>Read our review of Beowulf