A Dream Gig
Audible’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman just started last week, 15 July, and here’s its executive producer Dirk Maggs talking about it to Tripwire’s editor-in-chief Joel Meadows…
TRIPWIRE: What was the genesis of The Sandman audio adaptation?
DIRK MAGGS: It goes back to the late eighties when I was applying for a job in BBC Radio Light Entertainment, the comedy department which also made lighter drama productions. As part of my application I had to submit a couple of programme ideas. I was working for BBC Radio 2 trails at the time and we were running a crime awareness campaign in which we thought Batman could feature, so I needed to ask permission from DC Comics to use the character. They were asking for programme ideas and it just so happened I’d worked on a thing which involved Batman so I asked permission from DC. I phoned New York in 1987 which felt like phoning China for permission to use Batman and they said “Yes and we’ve got somebody coming over for the Frankfurt Book Fair so they can drop in and check it alright before it’s broadcast.” I was a trails producer on Radio 2 at the time.
So we did this silly Batman and Robin thing which was pretty much an Adam West and Burt Ward spoof and this lady called Chantal D’Aulnis came in and listened to it. And she said “Yeah that’s fine. It’s silly but it’s fine.” And she said “You know it’s Superman’s birthday next year?” and I said “Oooh, no”. So I thought:” there’s an idea for a documentary.” So I put it in as documentary idea to the comedy/light drama department. And I got a job.
So next thing I knew we had that commission, Superman on Trial, and I wrote it but didn’t direct it. But I’d established a relationship with DC comics and I very quickly got friendly with a lovely lady called Phyllis Hume. She’s sadly no longer with us and by the time we were doing another docudrama about Batman’s fiftieth birthday, Phyllis and I just started to talk regularly. So she said ‘Do you know a guy called Neil Gaiman? “ So I said: “ I know it’s a small island but we don’t know everybody.” And she said “No, no he’s really good” and so she sent me stuff. I knew that people like Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore were doing Watchmen. So I had heard of Neil but I hadn’t read his stuff and then she sent me some early Sandmans and I was just blown away by this. So from then on we were doing Superman and Batman but in the back of my mind I thought “Actually this Sandman thing is even more BBC than this American idiom stuff because it’s got folklore, mythology and even digs into DC mythology. Fast forward to about 1992 when I was slightly at a loose end. That was because Douglas Adams, having heard the Superman drama and liked my production style so he had asked me to bring Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy back to its radio home and dramatise his later books. But that actually fell apart because the contracts didn’t work. So I was at a loose end and there were two options: either suggest another superhero thing or try for Sandman. So I tried to get them interested in Sandman but everybody thought it was a little bit too ambitious at the time. So nothing happened and over the next 20 years I was forever telling BBC Radio 4, who were telling me how they wanted younger listeners and they wanted to attract a great audience, that they should be doing Neil Gaiman. and the irony was that eventually a lovely producer from Northern Ireland, BBC Northern Ireland called Heather Larmour managed to persuade them to do Neverwhere. Neil, who by then had become a mate, asked if I would do the dramatization and Heather offered me the job and to co-direct. And so finally we started working together. But even then having pitched Sandman over and over at the BBC, the BBC just did not want to know. Enter a guy called Steve Carsey from Audible who came and asked me if I was interested in doing stuff with them. And I said: ‘Yeah but I don’t want to do single voice readings, I want to do stuff in the audio movies style that I make.” So he said: “Do you fancy doing an Alien story for us?” And I said: “God, yeah. That’s a real challenge because if your villain isn’t even a human being and doesn’t have language, then how do you do that in audio?”
And lo and behold I forged a relationship with Audible which has worked pretty well. And so when we’d done a few BBC jobs, Neil and myself with Heather, a guy called Sandy Resnick at DC Comics emailed me Christmas 2017 and said: “I see you’re working with Neil. Do you think he’d be interested in if we granted the rights for an audio series of Sandman ?” And I thought ‘Yes!’ but I didn’t say anything and I emailed Neil and said “DC are talking about us doing Sandman”. Neil, who’s obviously a man of words and great literary worth and a master of the English language came back with a two word reply which ended in yeah which was wonderfully pithy and also pretty much my reaction. So I suggested that us two and DC should take it to Audible because I knew that Audible had a good relationship. I also knew that Audible respected working, so when you started the job, they got out of your way and let you do it. So here we are, it just got released on 15 July, the first three collected graphic novels, and I don’t think Neil or I could be happier.
TW: So as you say it’s a very ambitious thing to adapt. Was that quite daunting to begin with?
DM: I get totally what you are saying. The thing about it is I’d learnt back in the 1990s that these comic books need to be made in a cinematic style. I need to use cinematic grammar to tell this story both in script and in technical terms and writing the script cinematically meant adopting the best of the cinema script idiom, which was to write short, pithy scenes but also blend that with the comic book idiom. Traditionally if you saw a comic book on a shelf in the old days, when we had comic books on shelves and I’m talking about the American comic books, you had a big splashy front cover and that attracted you. You opened it up and there’s another second splashy front cover. And you opened that up and then you’ve got pages full of panels and every page of panels ends with a cliffhanger of some kind. That’s something that makes you want to turn the page. So by blending cinematic scriptwriting with comic book sensibility of keeping the listener going and keeping them turning the page, I developed that style for myself in the early 1990s which worked quite well and it turned audio into a visual clue. Instead of the pictures coming in through the optic nerve, they snuck round through the side door, through the ear and fed the screen of the imagination. I know this is a terrible old cliché that I trotted out. It worked then and so when it came to Sandman stylistically I knew I wanted to make it as an audio movie. I wanted to write the film. What changed how I approached it is that I would have been more free and easy with the adaptation if we were the only version going. But shortly after we were underway, Netflix announced they were going to do a TV series and Neil is involved in both. One thing I really try to avoid is ever overlapping with television or films because they always have bigger budgets than we do and they are media which tend to take material and then play with it. Immediately I realised I couldn’t play with anything. I thought that if I and the telly series were to really reinvent Sandman, then where would people who would love to get into the Sandman but for whatever reason they couldn’t access it via comics do this? So it would be good for me to actually stick very closely to Sandman in the period it was written, late eighties to mid nineties, to adhere to what Neil had done, but occasionally massage the story slightly so that the logical order of things worked in sound only. So make it visual but keep it very much as it was written. And having made that decision I had lost the unique selling point of audio which is to take you on journeys and the imagination. And so that was when I said to Neil: “Do you by any chance have the original scripts you wrote for the artists ? “ So he said “yeah I do.” So I asked him: “Can you dig em out?” So he went into some dusty cupboard of his mind and dug out all these old scripts which were in WordPerfect, this defunct programme, in sanskrit or hieroglyphics, which we translated into word. As soon as I opened them, I think the first episode I had from him was episode three, the first one he had found and immediately I was reading his notes to the artist before he starts the story, Dream A Little Dream Of Me. Then I’m reading his directions as he was writing the story to the artist and suddenly the clouds lifted because this was a way into it which hadn’t been done before. The artists on Sandman have always been utterly brilliant but Neil’s description of what he sees in his mind’s eye blended with what the artists finally drew and with the language he uses which is poetic. It’s like Dylan Thomas in Under Milk Wood, with a beautiful flowing poetic quality and so I’m thinking “This is it. What we do is the audio movie but we’re inside Neil’s head as he writes it.” At this point Neil already asked: “Do you mind if I narrate it?” to which I replied after a nanosecond and said “No”. This meant that we had something that would be uniquely ours, completely adhering to the original and yet in its own way completely original. So it worked really well.
Q: So obviously you’ve got a very impressive voice cast. So how did that come together?
DM: I’ve got to offer a tribute to Mariel Runacre Temple who was actually handling the casting at Audible and basically I don’t know how that woman’s got a hair left in her head from all the time she must have been tempted to tear it out. She and her team Nicola Wall, Rachel Naughton and Alys Hewer did a fantastic job. They did an amazing job of finding people. The real problem was that it’s never a problem attracting a good cast for Neil Gaiman stuff. I remember when we did Neverwhere back in 2012, when I walked into the table read, there was Benedict Cumberbatch, James McAvoy, Natalie Dormer, Christopher Lee, Bernard Cribbins, Andrew Sachs, David Harewood and I’m thinking “Holy shit.” So getting a good cast wasn’t a problem, getting the right cast was the thing. Because casting Morpheus was the real trick here. After thirty years in the public consciousness, just who’s going to play this part? It was sort of invidious. The other thing was that we had a supporting cast to die for. The supporting cast we had included people like Joanna Lumley and Ray Porter who’s Darkseid in next year’s Suicide Squad movie. He flew himself over on his own dime to be in Sandman. There’s also Kerry Shale who should be a lead actor in any thing he does but he’s not a lead because he plays so many parts well. He plays Etrigan and Abel. So we had a way over-qualified cast for this. But if you want me to talk about just James McAvoy and Kat Dennings then I can. The thing about Morpheus was: okay what am I trying to do? I don’t have the pictures, I don’t have James actually there in white faced make up and a fright wig. I’ve got to get that presence in there and what I needed most of all is that Morpheus can be quite a passive character but James [McAvoy] is a ball of energy. If you ever see James he never keeps still. He’s like Tigger. Because we had lots of possibilities but the one thing I knew I could get from James was energy even in a passive state and that was the trick. Morpheus is our leading man, even if he’s not in it, he is the Sandman. So if James is in the studio with you, he’s on the balls of his feet and he’s punching on my shoulder and he just brings it. With Kat, Death was tricky because we had actresses of all ethnicities. I can’t say all genders because we know Death is specifically female. But there wasn’t any human being, any biped that we didn’t consider as possibly playing Death. But Neil said “You know I keep coming back in my mind to Kat Dennings.” I actually knew Kat from the Thor movies. She plays Natalie Portman’s hapless sidekick in those Thor movies. But I didn’t know her other TV work so I actually went and watched her in a few clips of Two Broke Girls which is a sitcom she did in the States. She’s got this fizzy quality to her and she’s got a very individual voice. So I immediately thought: “Yes this is the kind of person we want for Death.” You know when they’ve entered the room because they have a presence and it’s unique and they’ve got a freshness. So that was how we cast Kat. Then for Desire, it’s a non binary character. We found Justin Vivian Bond who is amazing and I went to Atlanta to record Kat. This was back in January. I flew to New York City to record Viv and Bebe Neuwirth who’s also in it and is amazing as the Siamese cat. Viv and Bebe were my best single day of recording more than one person because both of them had it from the off. It was just fantastic. I think I’d finished with Viv in about half an hour. I was a little embarrassed as I felt that I’d wasted their time a bit. But Viv’s such good company and such a laugh that we actually had a good chat. Then Bebe came in and we had a similar experience. But Viv absolutely got Desire from the off. Despair, which is the only other one of the Endless we really meet in this first series, was another hard one and there were various names in the mix. But at the back of my mind, I thought that Miriam Margolyes would be perfect even though there’s no physical resemblance. But actually Miriam is so damned good with voices and I’ve known her for 30 odd years since the days of light entertainment where she was great mates with the head of department. So we know each other well and I just knew she could nail it. So she came in and she said: “How do you want to do this?” and I said “Do you know what, I don’t honestly know.” Then I read her Neil’s description of the voice and it’s something like wind in the rustling of dried leaves. And she said ‘That’s terribly quiet.” So I said “why don’t we try it terribly quiet and work our way up to moderately loud?” And in the end we did three reads and I think I took the middle read which is just slightly drawly, like she’s clawing at her cheek with the hooks. So that was the one which worked for me and so I said “Miriam, let’s go for that.” And then I did the Viv section and cut them together because there’s a conversation between Despair and Desire and it just works. The thing just oozes the character. And that happened so much on it. Many of the actors just brought their A game. It was wonderful.
TW: But it’s such a huge cast. Did it feel unwieldy at times that you had to wrangle all these actors?
DM: Good question. Put it this way and this is no reflection on any organisation or individual. We were recording up to 15 people at a time in a studio built for one or five max. When we did the final story arc in this run, the Midsummer Night’s Dream, and we’re effectively doing about a half of Shakespeare’s actual play in order to cover action happening, it was the beginning of November but the air conditioning in the studio couldn’t actually take it. So by the end everybody was dripping with sweat. But they still did the job. But I had a fan of six mikes and I developed this tactic with the Alien dramas we did which was I lined up actors in order of speaking on mikes. So it was like a job centre. In Alien, it was a job centre where you walked up to the mike to then get killed.
TW: So it’s a big and very ambitious series, and the comic series is very ambitious too so did you see the breaks falling quite naturally once you sat down and you said: ‘This needs to be broken up into chapters’?
DM: What happened was because basically generally speaking the Sandman falls into units of either one 22 page comic or one double comic of 46 pages or so. If you time it out, that runs to about 18 minutes if it was just dialogue but add Neil’s narration then it goes to 28 minutes. It’s a no brainer and in fact for an ex BBC producer the half hour chunks are pretty much standard. So it was convenient. So episodically Sleep of The Just and Collectors run double issue length, Sleep of The Just is just over an hour whereas Collectors is about 48 minutes. Then there are a couple of ones that you don’t think run long that do. Façade which has Samantha Morton playing Element Girl who is just utterly brilliant. With Sam we worked in the dark basically and it blew me away. I was in tears in the bloody studio. Façade comes in at about 38 minutes but then you see it’s Sam’s pace and we don’t have a time constriction. It’s not like 27 mins/ 30 mins so I could just let her run with it, walk with it or even crawl with it and if Sam wants to drop a three second pause in her speech I’m good with that. That’s an actress who deserves that time.
Q: I was going to ask about the images you’ve been commissioning from the various comic artists. How did that come about?
DM: I make the stuff but I admit I don’t know how marketing works. There’s a team that has Steph McLernon Davies and Bryony Cullen in London and there’s Reid Armbruster, Doug Polisin and Kerry Dizney . I’m naming these people because they have done the most amazing job and the artwork that they’ve managed to get made which has been a hybrid of lots of artists work and the promotional trails that they’ve made have been astonishing and I’ve got to say some of it is worthy of inclusion in a future DC publication. Having spoken to Sandy Resnick at DC who’s really the midwife for all of this from the off I would hope that DC would probably be making some kind of special edition available.
The Sandman is available to listen to now on Audible via Amazon UK
Hailed by the Los Angeles Times Magazine as “the greatest epic in the history of comic books”, The Sandman changed the game with its dark, literary world of fantasy and horror – creating a global, cultural phenomenon in the process. At long last, Audible and DC present the first-ever audio production of the New York Times best-selling series written by acclaimed storyteller Neil Gaiman (who also serves as co-executive producer). Adapted and directed by multi-award-winner (and frequent Gaiman collaborator) Dirk Maggs, and performed by an ensemble cast with James McAvoy (It, Parts One and Two, X-Men: First Class, Split) in the title role, this first installment of a multi-part original audio series will transport you to a world that re-writes the rules of audio entertainment the way that The Sandman originally re-defined the graphic novel.
When The Sandman, also known as Lord Morpheus – the immortal king of dreams, stories and the imagination – is pulled from his realm and imprisoned on Earth by a nefarious cult, he languishes for decades before finally escaping. Once free, he must retrieve the three “tools” that will restore his power and help him to rebuild his dominion, which has deteriorated in his absence. As the multi-threaded story unspools, The Sandman descends into Hell to confront Lucifer (Michael Sheen), chases rogue nightmares who have escaped his realm, and crosses paths with an array of characters from DC comic books, ancient myths, and real-world history, including: Inmates of Gotham City’s Arkham Asylum, Doctor Destiny, the muse Calliope, the three Fates, William Shakespeare (Arthur Darvill), and many more.
A powerhouse supporting cast helps translate this masterwork into a sonic experience worthy of its legacy, including Riz Ahmed, Kat Dennings, Taron Egerton, Samantha Morton, Bebe Neuwirth, Andy Serkis, and more. Setting the stage for their performance is an unprecedented cinematic soundscape featuring an original musical score by British Academy Award winner James Hannigan. Fans will especially revel in a new twist for the audio adaptation: Neil Gaiman himself serves as the narrator. Follow him as he leads listeners along a winding path of myths, imagination and, often, terror. Even in your wildest dreams, you’ve never heard anything like this.
The Sandman is available to listen to from Audible now via Amazon in the UK