Behind The MirrorMask

The creative team behind MirrorMask talk about how they overcame a tight budget to deliver a unique, special effects, fantasy film.

by Amber Wilkinson

"I had made a couple of short films before, which didnt really prepare me for the trauma of going into this," says MirrorMask director Dave McKean. Top: Stephanie Leonidas, the heroine of MirrorMask.

"I had made a couple of short films before, which didnt really prepare me for the trauma of going into this," says MirrorMask director Dave McKean. Top: Stephanie Leonidas, the heroine of MirrorMask.

It's been a long journey for the quest adventure MirrorMask, which premiered at last year's Sundance Film Festival, but it has finally made it to general release in the UK.

Shot on a tight budget of slightly more than two million, it has a style all of its own, thanks to director Dave McKean, who has turned his masterful eye from graphic novels to film.

I caught up with him, along with writer Neil Gaiman and producer Lisa Henson, in Park City, and asked whether the switch from paper to celluloid was tough.

"In some respects it was very simple because it all just feels like the same work to me," Dave said. "I was clear on the sort of imagery I wanted from the beginning. I storyboarded everything, so that was pretty simple.

"In fact, it wasn't the material that was tricky, but the working environment.

"I had to work with a team of people, which was completely alien to me. It was a difficult thing to do quite so much work for the budget. We were always hitting our heads against that. We couldn't throw money at problems to make them go away.

"I had made a couple of short films before, which didn't really prepare me for the trauma of going into this, but I had developed a few ideas and ways of transferring things to 3D that are deceptively simple techniques. It's all TV trickery."

Neil, too, is much better known for graphic novels than fantasy films. His Sandman series has been continuously in print for more than 10 years. His previous screen outing, Neverwhere, received a mixed reception, at best, when it was aired on BBC, but that doesn't seem to have put him off.

The 46-year-old writer said: "Neverwhere was done on a shoestring with the BBC, who have a knack of making everything look like it's done on a shoestring. And even when we were shooting in expensive and dangerous locations, they made it look like a wobbly set.

"The joy of this was that the very first thing we had, before a title or anything, we had a budget. It began with Lisa phoning me and saying Sony are willing to put up four million dollars if you guys can make an all-ages fantasy movie for that amount. She said, 'I've seen Dave's shorts and I know they were made for pennies and I think he could probably pull it off. If Dave directed it, we obviously couldn't afford you as a screenwriter, but would you come up with a story?'

"I said, 'I'll pitch it to Dave. If he directs it, I will be writing it and we'll say no more about the money'. And that was the deal. So, I said to Dave that the offer is we get four million dollars. The down side is they want a great big fantasy movie. The upside is that Lisa has promised we will never have to deal with Hollywood, never have to sit around a table while people tell us they need things to be more anything. That was the trade off."

The end result belies the pauper's budget and tells the tale of Helena, the daughter of a circus family who, after her mother falls ill, journeys into a fantasy world where darkness threatens to engulf the Kingdom of Light. Given the glut of coming-of-age quest movies involving boys, the central casting of a girl, Stephanie Leonidas, who looks for all the world like a young Helena Bonham Carter, is an interesting choice.

"Dave and I knew at the beginning that we wanted to tell a rites-of-passage story," Neil said. "About a girl on that childhood to young womanhood cusp. We had the idea of the mother getting ill and the queens of light and darkness. But what we learned was that it really was just the story of the relationship between a girl and her mother and I remember the sheer joy when we were writing the dark queen, we knew that the first time she had a conversation with her daughter, instead of writing a Cruella De Vil kind of character that we had thought we were going to do, all of a sudden her first line was, 'I don't know what kind of time you call this.' It was the equivalent of 'I've been waiting up all night for you.'"

Helena's journey across a partially animated, otherworldly landscape is just the sort of thing that the Henson company are known for, with previous outings, such as The Dark Crystal, achieving cult status.

Jim Henson's daughter Lisa says that the company has an ongoing commitment to this type of film.

"We've always been interested in doing these things. Something like The Dark Crystal was incredibly expensive, even though it was a huge, crazy art film experiment," he said.

"What we are more interested in is the creation of beautiful, imaginative worlds and characters. It doesn't matter so much about the budget as it does about the talent of the people who are doing it and the originality of their vision. We love making movies in England - we've had a long-term presence in Camden. I'm sorry to say that I don't think very much great fantasy comes out of America, so in this genre it's great to be working out of England as much as possible."

Perhaps the most surprising piece of casting is that of Rob Brydon, ditching his comedic on-screen persona to turn in a surprisingly gentle straight performance as Helena's dad.

"We didn't have any funny lines for him," Neil said. "He was just really genuine. I love his work. Marion And Geoff is one of the best TV series of the past 10 years. But he doesn't usually get to work quite seriously with somebody. I think he was quite shocked at times. When Helena burst into tears on the roof, we didn't know that was going to happen and he was stunned."

Despite only making modest box office returns in the US, it seems that Hollywood is beckoning. Neil co-wrote the adaptation of Beowulf, currently in post-production and an adaptation of his Books of Magic - another magical coming of age story, involving a bespectacled boy - has been announced. What's clear is that his unique brand of fantasy is here to stay. And he would be happy to repeat the exercise, even without much cash.

"We had complete artistic freedom and no money. I'd take that again."

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