Neil Gaiman is many things to many people. He bridges the gap between the high-minded literary and niche-fantasy communities, has written novels, best-selling comic books, children’s stories like The Graveyard Book, and even authored an odd essay collection. Just describing Gaiman and his work is a daunting task – let alone capturing his essence – but documentary filmmaker Patrick Meaney has risen to the challenge.
It helped that Meaney had experience in the documentary-about-authors sub-genre, having made films about subjects like comic book writers Grant Morrison (Grant Morrison: Talking With Gods) and Warren Ellis (Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts). In Neil Gaiman: Dream Dangerously, he turned his laser-focus on the author’s childhood, work, and life on the road, and recently spoke with Inverse about the experience.
Where did the idea for this project begin?
There’s something about that generation of comics that came out of the ‘80s and early ‘90s out of the UK. They had sort of larger-than-life personas: Warren [Ellis] or Grant [Morrison] or Alan Moore or Neil. He’s somebody whose work I always loved; Sandman is the one that got me into comics. When he was getting ready to do his final signing tour, I thought that would be a cool structure or something unique to include in the film. I think for him, we had the track record for doing the movie about Grant and other people he knew, so he was like, “Okay, these guys can make a good movie.”
What was the most surprising thing you learned over the course of working with him?
How relentless his schedule is. Most of the time when you think of a writer, you think of somebody who is relaxing or taking a walk imagining things. Not somebody who is so in the public eye all the time. Neil — especially during the period where we were doing the movie — was doing an insane amount of events and press, and he’s always on Twitter and Tumblr. It feels like he has about the busiest schedule you can imagine, and he’s still able to find time to dream up all these stories.
Your other documentary subjects have been a little bit more focused – at least in terms of their careers. Because Neil’s is all over the place, was that challenging for you to figure out which parts of him to emphasize?
Neil has so much work; you could easily say, “Oh why didn’t you include Stardust or Anansi Boys?” Whenever you make a documentary or any kind of movie, you kind of find the story as you go. And it became apparent that this story was about the art of writing. To me, the works were interesting in terms of where the inspiration for them came from and what they say about his approach to fantasy or writing in general. So we ultimately decided to just focus on the works that could illuminate some aspect of his creative process. It’s also a cool opportunity, because he does so many events, we were able to film a lot of interesting stuff all over the world.
Would you say this documentary has the largest scope, out of all the films you’ve made?
Yes. It’s a whole different beast. All of the other movies we did are, to some degree, retrospective. They’re the person looking back on their life and illuminating the things that inspired the work they were doing at the time. But there wasn’t as much as a present day component because that’s something that’s hard to do in a documentary. It’s very time consuming and raises the budget to have to go out there. With Grant we followed him around Comic Con, we went to his house in LA, we went to his house in Scotland. We did a lot, but with Neil he’s just doing so many things that it give you the opportunity to tell a story that was happening in the present. You’re not just talking about him saying “it’s hard to balance doing all these events and writing,” you’re getting to see him actually struggling with it in the present day.
What was the most enjoyable part of the process?
It was fun to see a master at work and learn about the way that Neil treated his fans. It’s kind of how, if you go to a concert, you want to imagine that they really care about each event, and this concert is something special to them. Sometimes you don’t know if it’s just another stop on the bus. For Neil each event and each fan he met really meant something to him. Even though it can be frustrating to have to deal with the challenges of signing for so many hours and traveling to all these locations and not being able to write, I think he always appreciated each person who supported his work. You never want to hear that the writer or director or creator that you love doesn’t really care if you like his stuff or is just kind of over it. Neil is not over it and as a fan, that was cool to see.
Since you are a fan, did you learn or see anything that was particularly meaningful to you?
For me the most interesting, insightful and relatable stuff was when he was talking about his younger years when he hadn’t quite made it yet and the drive he had to succeed and the sense that this was kind of his destiny. It was something that you usually hear interviews with people and writers and creators when they’re at a certain level of success, so it was interesting to delve into this period when it was more uncertain. You could tell that it was so important to him and he had such drive. I don’t think he ever imagined he would find the success he’s found, but he had to try. That was interesting to hear him talk about that moment and how vividly he remembers wondering, “is this going to happen or not?”
Neil Gaiman: Dream Dangerously is available on Vimeo on demand.