Neil Gaiman

Stardust

Interviewed by Ann Kelly

“Stardust is filled with murder and adventure and magic and stuff, and I don't think I could have set it in Victorian England. ”

Neil Gaiman is the author of the original novel of Stardust, with illustrator Charles Vess. A master fantasist, Neil is also famous as a comics author, particularly for the Sandman series. Here, he talks about seeing one of his stories adapted, rather freely, for the big screen.

What's Stardust all about?

I describe Stardust as a fairy story for adults, but then people assume it's filled with nipples, so it's probably better to describe it as a fairy story for adults of all ages. I wanted to read a fun fairy story filled with magic, and witches and unicorns and pirates and all that sort of stuff. The last thing I'd read like that was The Princess Bride by William Goldman, and nobody else was writing anything like that, so I thought I would.

So I wrote Stardust, which is about a young man, Tristian, who is in love with the village beauty, the very lovely Victoria Forrester. He is unable to get her to reciprocate his love, what with her being the village beauty and him being a rather spotty young shop-boy. Then one night they see a star falling. "Oh," he says, "for your hand I would bring you back that star." And she says, "Alright then, go on."

His trip after it is rather complicated by the fact that his village is built up against a stone wall, and on the other side of it is Fairyland. But he crosses the wall, which is something you're not meant to do, and does catch up with the star. The problem is, that when he does get to the star, rather than being a large pitted lump of meteoric rock, it's an incredibly peeved, beautiful young lady with a broken leg who has absolutely no desire to be dragged halfway across the world and presented to anybody's girlfriend. And that's where things start.

There are other people who want the star as well. There are some witches, for whom the heart of the star is something that will give them their youth and beauty back. There are some princes after the star as well, because she has something that will enable one prince to inherit the throne. They're all looking for her, and she and Tristian are on the run.

StardustWhat's your idea of fairyland?

What I like most about Faery is realising that names like the Fair Folk, and the Good Folk are the kind of things that you call people you're really scared of. I'm always fascinated by people who do believe in fairies. In Ireland some years ago I saw a rock in the middle of a field, that the [farmer] very carefully had to plough around. I asked the lady who ran the household why they'd left this rock in the field, and she explained that it was a fairy rock, and fifteen years ago the farmer who owned the field had decided that he was sick of the superstitious nonsense about the rock and that he was going to move it. He hooked it up to the tractor, dragged it halfway across the field, and had a stroke. The next morning, his sons hooked it up to the tractor and hauled it all the way back, and it's stayed there ever since. She absolutely believed in the fairies, and was terrified of them.

For me, the idea of a fairyland was the place where absolutely anything magical and unpredictable could happen. It's the place where fairy stories take place. Stardust is filled with murder and adventure and magic and stuff, and I don't think I could have set it in Victorian England and told the same story. I wouldn't have had that wonderful freedom to invent a flying pirate ship that's fishing for lightning, or throw in a unicorn if I want one.

What do you think of the way the book's been adapted for the screen?

The people making the movie love and respect the book, and will use it wherever it works, and are not afraid to break it and change it wherever it doesn't.

I got involved in the biggest of the big decisions. For five years I had lots and lots of very big stars and very big directors calling my agent and trying to get the rights to Stardust and me saying no. But Matthew I liked, and I trusted, so when he phoned me up after walking off X-Men 3 and said I want to make Stardust, we agreed a deal which drove my agent mad. I gave him the rights for nothing, when we had people who would have paid nice six and seven figure sums for it.

I knew that I didn't want to write it. I was up to my eyes in writing Beowulf for Robert Zemeckis at that point, but in addition I was very aware that I'd made the original Stardust. It was going to be very hard for me to change things in the way they probably needed in order to get from point A to point B in the plot. If you made a completely faithful Stardust you'd be thirty minutes into the story before the hero gets born and an hour and a half in before the hero and heroine actually meet. You'd be making a five hour film, and the end wouldn't work. There's things that we've done differently. But it's different in ways that are complementary.

Stardust

Did you have much of a hand in the casting?

The joy of being a writer is that you don't have to worry about casting. I've almost never cast while I've been writing. Robert De Niro was definitely our dream casting for the Captain Shakespeare part. Beyond that, everyone got auditioned. People have grumbled about Claire Danes online, as if we were forced to take her at gunpoint. We auditioned two hundred [people]. If people are saying, "why didn't they get so and so," well, they auditioned. Trust me, Claire aced it.

Ricky Gervais was one of those weird little inspired casting moments. I think it was Jonathan Ross actually phoned Ricky and said, "You've got to do it", and Ricky bless him, did it, if only to meet Robert De Niro and get him into Extras. Then, Mark Strong was a revelation, he's absolutely a Septimus. He plays it like an exocet missile - all he wants it the throne. Michelle Pfeiffer is ******* scary! She really [looks like she was born to play a witch]. It's kind of brave. If you're an actress of a certain age, more or less retired for six or seven years to be a mum, you'd think the last thing you'd want to do would be to play a part where you age to be about 150 by the end of it.

What is is about fantasy that appeals?

I love Tolkien, but there was a point before Tolkein when authors would write fairy tales and fantasy, and there was no fantasy section of the bookshop. They'd simply go on the shelves with everything else. When I wrote Stardust, that was the sort of story I wanted to tell. Every fantasy written after 1950-ish has been written in the shadow of Tolkein. I wanted to write something that'd feel as if it was written before then, almost like the Edwardian stuff that I love.

I think that there's a problem now when you get writers who haven't read any genre trying to write it. When a mainstream novelist announces that they don't read science fiction but they've written a science fiction novel, you know that they've reinvented something that isn't even a very good wheel. "Oh, I went back in time and killed my grandfather!" Yeah, please don't. "And lo! We landed on this planet and I will be Adam, let us call this place, Eden." That kind of stuff. I want to go, "Yes, I've read it all, I know my genre, and I want to write something that could have been written by somebody in 1925". And with the exception of the word f***, which is written very small, and possibly one sex scene, it's completely a book that could have been written in 1925.

What's the chance of a movie based on the Sandman comics?

There's definitely a chance of a Death movie. That's nice and solid, and I think it will happen. Beyond that, more or less every director in Hollywood would kill to do a Sandman film, and Warner Brothers, who own it, know it's one of the jewels in the crown. Beyond that, your guess is as good as mine.

Stardust opens in UK cinemas on Friday 19th October 2007.