Neil Gaiman is that rare entity in cinema: a renowned novelist and producer. Few novelists are able to see their work up on the screen, but Gaiman was determined his allegorical fantasy, Stardust, which opens in theatres next month, is given the cinematic treatment it deserves. The novel and film revolve around Tristan (Charlie Cox), who tries to win the heart of Victoria (Sienna Miller), the beautiful but cold object of his desire, by going on a quest to retrieve a fallen star.
His journey takes him to a mysterious and forbidden land beyond the walls of his village. On his odyssey, Tristan finds the star, which has transformed into a striking girl named Yvaine (Claire Danes). However, Tristan is not the only one seeking the star. A king’s (Peter O’Toole) four living sons – not to mention the ghosts of their three dead brothers – all need the star as they vie for the throne.
Tristan must also overcome the evil witch, Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), who needs the star to make her young again. As Tristan battles to survive these threats, encountering a pirate named Captain Shakespeare (Robert De Niro) and a shady trader named Ferdy the Fence (Ricky Gervais) along the way, his quest changes. He must now win the heart of the star for himself as he discovers the meaning of true love. Gaiman talks enthusiastically of the film and its journey to the screen.
Question: This movie looks like it could be an incredibly expensive enterprise but, first of all what was the genesis of it? It’s such an original fantasy? Was it a hard film to get made?
Gaiman: It took a while after I sold the rights initially. At the end of that two years they negotiated a contract with the producers but hadn’t actually done anything about getting the movie made and I took the rights back and then spent about five years saying no to all stars and directors and people who wanted to make the movie.
Question: Why was that?
Gaiman: Because I didn’t feel confident. I didn’t feel like anybody was coming to me saying ‘I love this book. I love it, this is why I want to make it.’ And then I was working with Matthew Vaughn on some other stuff and I’d given him some books of mine to read. And he’d left a copy of Stardust by the bed and his wife, Claudia, at that time was about eight months pregnant and had a broken foot, and she was unable to move and so she’d be reading anything she could find in the home. And she read Stardust and fell in love with it and told Matthew that he had to read it. And he read it and fell in love with it. And at the time he wanted to produce it and we just kept talking about it. He didn’t actually make an offer and nothing happened but he just loved it. And about a year later, a few years later, he was meant to have done X-Men 3, walked off X-Men 3 a couple of weeks before it came out – before he was meant to start. He said ‘I’m not doing this’. He went home and phoned me up and he said ‘I really want to do Stardust. Can I do it?’. And I had complete confidence in Matthew. So I said ‘Sure’. And actually did something that you’re really not meant to do which is I gave him a free option. I trusted him and I trusted his love for the project. I said ‘Go out there and see what you can do’.
Question: Now what kind of changes did you have to make to the screenplay to make it cinematically relatively less complex than the book?
Gaiman: Well I think what you wind up doing is having to translate. If you followed the book exactly, scene for scene, moment for moment you would have a ten and a half hour film on your hands and it probably wouldn’t be a very good one. It might be a great BBC classic serial but it would be a rotten film. The biggest compromise in the changes were the things that were done in order that our hero got born Really the middle is pretty much all the same. We squished the first chapter down to one four minute scene. We did a certain amount of squishing in the next chapter and then there are changes in the third act. And some of them are just changes because we could and we could make it more filmic. I like the idea that there are surprises there if you’ve read the book – you will know a lot more than if you haven’t. But you still aren’t going to – you won’t know everything.
Question: Now when you were casting this movie were you mindful of financing? Is that why there are a lot of Americans in it or did you really go out for the best people that you could find?
Gaiman: It was the best people we could find. I mean you’re always mindful of – we knew that for the Robert de Niro part we needed a star. If memory serves me we had a short list of Robert de Niro, Jack Nicholson types and we thought we’d ask Robert de Niro first and if he didn’t do it we’d ask Jack b de Niro said yes to that one. For the part of the witch we knew that we needed somebody beautiful and cool and a really good actress and Michelle Pfeiffer fit the bill. So for those two parts we would just see what happens when they read the script and said ‘yes’. That’s basically it.
The star of the film is Charlie Cox and we auditioned like buggery. And likewise we did an awful lot of auditioning to find Claire Danes. We must have auditioned every eligible, beautiful potential young woman: English, Australian, American. Everybody got auditioned. And basically Claire aced the audition. She was the one who had the most chemistry with Charlie Cox, which also was I think very definitive. There was lots of really fun casting in there and Ricky Gervais in his little cameo, Peter O’Toole is the King of Stormhold. I think Mark Strong will be a name to be reckoned with after this. Rupert Everett is also great. The casting is one of those lovely things that you cannot grumble with. I don’t think it was ‘Oh we need an American’. Because we seriously weren’t. But in the case of de Niro we knew we needed a star. We needed a star with that kind of coolness and gravitas that he brought to the part.
Question: What do you think sets this movie apart from other fantasies over the decade?
Gaiman: It doesn’t make any compromises with the fact that it’s a fantasy. There’s nothing apologetic about it. It knows it’s a fantasy, which is nice.
And it’s a funny romance, with magic in it. Probably the nearest thing one could point to is The Princess Bride in terms of things that were essentially fairly tales for adults, that were romantic comedies with magic connection. But even that, the great strength of Stardust is that there’s nothing else like it out there. The big weakness is trying to explain to people what it’s like. It’s really hard until they’ve seen it.
Question: So Neil, what’s next for you now having finally put this baby to bed?
Gaiman: Next thing is Beowulf which I wrote which is going to come out in November.
Question: Is it very faithful to the source material?
Gaiman: It’s very faithful to the source material although the source material didn’t have Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother.