Mirrormask - Dave McKean interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
Q. Congratulations on Mirrormask. How did you come to get involved with it?
A. It was a proposition from Lisa Henson. She had the opportunity to develop another fantasy film, like her father’s films The Dark Crystal, but she only only had a very small amount of money to do it with from Columbia TriStar. So she knew she wouldn’t be able to build big animatronic puppets, and that sort of thing, but she’d seen my short films which had been made for no money (just love) and she knew Neil and so everything sort of collided. It was a brief but it was such an open brief that it chimed with a lot of things that Neil and I were talking about doing. So it all seemed to be such a great opportunity.
Q. Would you say it’s become the most ambitious undertaking of your career so far?
A. It’s certainly the biggest commitment of time and energy. The shoot was quite short, 30 days. But the post-production and the animation, we budgeted for about eight months but it turned into 17 months. It just went on and on and one. There were many phone calls home to my wife saying ‘I don’t think this is ever going to end. I don’t think we’re ever going to finish this bloody thing!’
Q. So did you learn a lot about yourself during that time?
A. I did actually. I usually have a very solitary and happy life. I work on my own. I don’t have to talk all the time to anybody. I don’t have to justify everything that I’m doing. I can just get on and do it. With this, obviously, I was working with crew, an animation crew and actors who all ask one hundred questions every day and you have to know the right answers all the time.
Every time you’ve got people saying ‘why’ and ‘I need to know what I’m doing’, so you’ve constantly got to justify it.
I also learned a lot about my own shortcomings. I tend to fall in love with a formal solution to a problem. If it needs to be adjusted or changed it kind of loses that perfect form or quality.
At the beginning of the film that I’d planned to be in split-screen and I knew that’s what was in the script and that’s what I’d storyboarded, that’s what I told everyone we were doing, and that’s the way I filmed it – we didn’t film it any other way. But then we put it all together and I thought we were done, it was exactly what I had in mind.
But then the niggles started. Everybody said ‘I’m not sure about the split-screen thing, maybe it shouldn’t be’. I kept asking people why and they were vague, especially in an American accent.
But then I showed it to a friend of mine and he said, ‘well, the beginning doesn’t work and it’s for four reasons and I’ll tell you what they are’. And he was right. Bang on. And so I think those are the things you learn about the way you work and those are the things that you’re determined not to do next time.
I backed myself into a corner because I loved the idea, so I was actually blind to its effect. So you have to be aware of those things.
Q. So do you have a taste for directing feature films now?
A. I think so. I’d love to do another film and I’d like to do it right next time. I’d like to prove to myself that I can do it. And I’d like to do an adult film, I’d like to do a very different film.
But all of the new bits, like working with actors for the first time, was wonderful. I thought it would be a nightmare but they were all very different. They come from different disciplines. Rob had come from TV, Gena is an iincredibly experienced film actress, Stephanie was not so experienced but had a completely wonderful personality and no pre-conceptions. She actually found the blue-screen stuff, acting to nothing, easier. She could just do it.
So it was wonderful.
Q. And Stephen Fry of course?
A. And Stephen Fry, yes. He was in and out in 20 minutes doing The Librarian. Lenny Henry only slightly longer. He didn’t quite beat the record. They were all great.
The drag was the computer side, the data and all those boring, technical things and having no money to throw at problems to make them go away.
I don’t want to do big budget films but next time it would be nice to just have a little bit more.
Q. The look of the film is very distinctive. You can tell it’s your art, as your art is known for being quite dark. Did you find it hard to strike the right balance between keeping it light enough for children yet dark enough to appeal to fans?
A. Actually, to be honest, it wasn’t. When we knew that’s what we wanted to do. Ian and I are both parents. My kids are nine and 12. Every year we look forward to the next Pixar movie because we all know we’re going to get a great laugh. They are few and far between.
But I’ve never really had a problem with making dark images for kids. I think they enjoy that little fear when they get through to the other side and have survived.
Q. So long as there is a happy ending…
A. Yeah. And they enjoy that slight period of scariness. Something in the dark and all that kind of thing. So we didn’t encounter that kind of problem because we knew where we were going.
Q. What was it like actually working at the Henson house? I understand you were surrounded by puppets and Muppets, etc?
A. Very strange. There are people who like to be surrounded by their own stuff. And there are people who like to be surrounded by other people’s work. I’m the latter. I like other people’s work on the walls but Jim obviously loves to be surrounded by his own creations.
So you had Miss Piggy in a tutu on the mantlepiece, Kermit on a swing and in a painting. So very strange but it was a great place and we had a very interesting two weeks.
Again, I think Neil and I learned a lot about each other because we worked together for about 18 years but we’re actually completely incompatible with each other.
Q. I read about that. Can you elaborate…
A. We’ve never really worked out a project together. We’ve had strict demarkated territory before. I did the pictures, he does the words. But this one was messy and we trod on each other’s toes.
We worked out the story together but then some of the things that I’d made up, it just became easier for me to write them. And I was trying to explain to Neil about things like the floating giants and he’d say ‘oh just go and write it, show me what you mean in the script’.
Q. You didn’t fall out though?
A. No. But certainly in those two weeks we became the closest ever to falling out with each other. We only really made progress when we decided to work three floors apart. Neil would be on the ground floor listening to Radio 4 and writing at the same time. And I was on the top floor. And we convened in the middle to get some dinner together and discuss what we’d done. I think now we realise that this was the process and we were both only trying to make it better.
Q. I guess it also makes it raise your game all the time.
A. It does. And to be honest I think we should have been more hard on each other and what we were doing. I think the film would have benefited from a more critical eye. We spent four hours once arguing about whether the word ‘goblin’ should be in the script. I was really adamant that it shouldn’t be because I felt as soon as you put it in, audiences would expect to see elves.
We argued and argued about this for ages and in the end we flipped a coin for it. I won but I felt so bad that I won under such flaky circumstances that I then spent another two hours trying to convince him of why it was the right thing to do.
Q. The film seems to be going down really well on the festival circuit, especially since its debut at Sundance (2005)?
A. Yes, we got it accepted at Sundance and that was a bit of a shock for Columbia. We moved offices at that point. We started as the lowest of the low, direct to video. And then we got pushed over to Sony and were in the theatrical release department.
Q. Were you pleased with the reaction at Sundance?
A. I’ve seen some good reviews and I’ve seen some bad reviews but to be honest I think the reviews have been fair. It’s obviously a first film, there’s obviously things wrong with it, obviously the story isn’t particularly interesting although some of the scenes in it are nice. It has its fair share of problems and I think most of the reviews have reflected that.
Having said that most of the bad reviews have said nice things about the way it looks and most of the good reviews have said bad things about the dozy story. So I think that’s fair.
Q. But the story has classic elements, drawing on previous Henson work like Labyrinth and also going as far back as The Wizard of Oz…
A. Oh definitely. At the time we felt that was the right thing and that was the intention. We liked the idea that this girl was in her particular circumstances, at that particular age, was given a dose of reality to deal with, where she has to grow up quickly and become the mother of the family. But she regresses and tries to get back to a simpler time and state, a more child-like state, and relate to dark and light.
One of the key things that I really did like at the end was when you finally get to meet the Dark Queen and she represents this possessive and manipulative side of her mother. One of the first things she says is ‘what time do you call this’? It’s just a typical mother’s line.
But I think on reflection, if we were going to do it again, I’d like to come up with something more surprising or original.
Q. You used animators straight from university…
A. All but two were straight from art school and almost all from Bournemouth. We took half the class. They all knew each other already. But there’s something going on in that school that really inspires them and trains them really well. So they were fantastic.
Q. But it was a gutsy move on your part?
A. It was the only option really. But because they were the most current students they knew the most current software and the most current codes. Yet they hadn’t been ground down by the industry about the proper way of doing it. They were still full of themselves and arrogant and students. But that was great because they brought all that energy to it. They wanted to make their own film within my film. And they were wonderful. They expanded everything. I had a bassline level of what I wanted to get in the film but in every scene they elaborated on it, they got more complicated and they tried this or that, which was a pleasure.
I went in with a very basic knowledge of what we could do for this money, so that’s why I want to make another film because my knowledge is so much more now. I’d be starting from a much higher place.
Q. What are you working on at the minute?
A. Well I still love doing books and all that kind of stuff, so I’ll continue to do that. And I’ve been designing and making films for a Broadway musical called Lestat, based on Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. That’s on Broadway in April. It’s Warner Bros’ first musical.
And then I’ve been writing the next film, which is not a fantasy particularly although it has strange sequences in it.