It’s taken 34 years since The Sandman first appeared in print for a filmed adaptation to materialize that creator Neil Gaiman was happy with. He’s previously said that he’s spent 32 years blocking bad adaptations from being made. In the past, it’s been considered unfilmable by many, but now The Sandman is being presented by Gaiman and showrunner Allan Heinberg, alongside the cast, a new trailer, and news of the imminent release, at San Diego Comic-Con as they showcase a series of which they’re extremely proud.
We’re chatting with Gaiman, Heinberg, and a handful of cast members – including Tom Sturridge who plays main protagonist Dream — in our SDCC studio about the production, which has fans of the cult work in a bit of a tizzy in anticipation of seeing its memorable stories and imagery unfold on screen.
The first season of The Sandman primarily adapts the first two volumes of comics – “Preludes and Nocturnes” and “The Doll’s House”. The 30th anniversary edition of Volume 1 includes an Afterword, penned by Gaiman in 1991, in which he refers to many of the stories he’s written as “awkward and ungainly” on re-reading them. He adds, though, that “even the clumsiest of them has something.”
“We’ve gone back to where the comic was, because that works better than anything else we’ve been able to come up with.” — Neil Gaiman
Did Gaiman relish the opportunity to redress those moments he found problematic making the series?
“Actually, what I think I experienced making [this series] was slightly different to that, because instead of fixing things that were ungainly, awkward or clumsy, which was where I began, there were an awful lot of times when I went, ‘Oh, actually, 27-year-old Neil Gaiman knew what he was doing, even if he didn’t know why he knew that this was what he was doing,” says Gaiman. “And that thing that I thought was clumsy — some of the best brains in television have just been doing all of this stuff. And now we’ve gone in a giant loop, and we’ve gone back to where the comic was, because that works better than anything else we’ve been able to come up with. So I’m actually a lot more forgiving of young Neil, I think he was much smarter than I thought he was.”
We can all be our own worst critic – and if you love The Sandman it was those early issues of the comic that first drew you in. Fans are certainly not critical of them in the way that Gaiman has been of his supremely influential work.
Desire as Protagonist
If you don’t know, allow us to fill you in on the bones of the tale. The Sandman follows the story of Dream – aka Morpheus – an ‘Endless’ being, alongside siblings Desire, Death, Despair, Delirium, Destiny, and Destruction who are among the most powerful beings in the DC Comics universe. Dream is the personification of and lord over the Dreaming – the plane or realm in which dreams and stories and nightmares exist.
When he escapes 70 years (upped to 100 for the series in order to set it in the present day) after being imprisoned, he must set about rectifying all that went wrong in his absence. It’s a narrative that’s told from the perspective of Dream – but as Desire actor Mason Alexander Park tells us, Gaiman has also looked at it from another angle and talking to him about this helped them nail the character.
“He’s like, ‘I always envisioned that Sandman definitely is a story that could be told entirely from Desire’s perspective, and that version of the story was probably a lot more fun and has a lot more sex in it.'” — Desire actor Mason Alexander Park quotes Neil Gaiman
“One thing that [Neil and I] talked about a lot was Desire being perceived as an antagonist,” says Park. “The fun about playing anyone that’s antagonistic or villainous in any way is that they are the hero of their own stories. That is incredibly true of Desire, especially. And one thing that Neil said that I always latched onto … was that he’s like, ‘I always envisioned that Sandman definitely is a story that could be told entirely from Desire’s perspective, and that version of the story was probably a lot more fun and has a lot more sex in it’”.
Park adds, “But we are entering this world in this universe through Dream, and experiencing everything from his perspective. So that shifts the way that each character is perceived. That was really helpful to keep going back to it and being like, ‘Yeah, I should just been having a lot of fun with this.’”
Death Warmed Up
Desire, as one of Dream’s six siblings, has a dysfunctional relationship with their brother. But one sibling that Dream is particularly close to is Death, his maternal elder sister. Played in the series by Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Death is a more sympathetic version of the character than we might be used to seeing in pop culture. Howell-Baptiste says she found most of the inspiration for her portrayal of her character on the page and through independent research rather than from consulting with Gaiman.
“I read the comics a very long time ago, and Death was one of the characters that stuck with me the longest,” says Howell-Baptiste. “There are other specific lines and moments that stayed but Death was a role that was particularly impactful. So many of the questions that I may have had were answered by revisiting the comic and reacquainting myself with this character that is so divergent from any other iteration of death that we’ve ever seen, or at least what we see on TV and film. We don’t really get to see this.”
She continues, “But this idea of Death, if you do your digging, does exist in folklore and in mythology. This idea of essentially a psychopomp, who is someone — or an entity; a being — that transfers people from this life to whatever is next. And they are a caring, nurturing figure. So for me, I think so many of the questions that I may have had, or perhaps questions that maybe other actors approaching this role would have had, were answered both in going back to the comic, and then also just looking outside of the traditional idea of death, or at least maybe like the Western idea of death, and finding stories and mythologies outside of that.”
For Jenna Coleman, who plays Johanna Constantine, the costume was the key to getting into her character and what she had most conversations about with both Gaiman and Heinberg.
“I think for me the biggest [talking point] was probably costume, actually,” says Coleman. “I feel like we went through various iterations of Johanna Constantine’s costume. There was a version which was very much like the trench coat [that was] more like the comic book character, and then moving into this iteration of Johanna Constantine as the upgraded exorcist to the royal family that we have. So I’d say those were a lot of the shifts and changes that we had.”
A Rose by Any Other Name
Another of the story’s key characters is Rose, played in the series by Vanesu Samunyai. Rather than approach Gaiman about her character, Samunyai says she had insightful conversations with showrunner Allan Heinberg, who reveals that Rose’s origins differ from those of the comics. In Gaiman’s original work, Rose is the granddaughter of Unity Kincaid – a character who fell into a sleep state for decades, and who was raped during her unconscious state, conceiving a daughter who went on to give birth to Rose. Rose becomes what is known as a ‘Vortex’ in the comics – a dangerous phenomenon that threatens the very existence of the Dreaming.
“A lot of what we talked about is Rose’s backstory for the show, which is slightly different from her backstory in the comic.” — showrunner, Allan Heinberg
“The Vortex as a concept is not an easy one to explain and I think a lot of what we talked about is Rose’s backstory for the show, which is slightly different from her backstory in the comic, and setting up this character who has lost both her parents, has lost her brother, her only friend is Lyta Hall…,” says Heinberg. “This is a young woman who has only taken care of other people her entire life. Her background — her parents fought a lot, her mum was a single mom trying to make a living, so she’s never had the room in her life to dream her own dreams, to dream for herself. She was always dreaming about and for others; the irony being that she is the most powerful dreamer in all of the universes.
“There was a lot of talk about that and really digging into that in a way that I think Neil hadn’t done in the comic. Just sort of fleshing this out. And because we had more time, we could develop Rose’s relationship with her brother — we flashback to their history — so I think it was mostly fleshing that out [that was important] so it felt like an experience that also Vanesu could relate to.”
Ah, changes to the source material! Anathema to many a comic book fan’s ears. But if that’s you, you should feel reassured to know that changes were made with Gaiman’s blessing – encouragement even.
“We painted my skin as white as an A4 piece of paper.” — Tom Sturridge on Dream’s original look
“As an enormous fan, the first thing I wanted to do was completely literally recreate the Morpheus that’s on the page,” says Dream actor Tom Sturridge. He says they did just that originally – before crucially pivoting. “We did loads of camera tests. We painted my skin as white as an A4 piece of paper. I have black contacts with stars in them, I had huge wild hair. And it was amazing, and it really did look exactly like the Sandman that we know. But what Neil said was so important — that was that if Morpheus walks amongst the world, walks down the streets of New York, no one should bat an eyelid. He should have a presence, but no one should think that this Endless being is amongst them. And if I walked down the corridor of Shepperton Studios dressed as I was then, people would be like, ‘Whoa, dude, where are you going today?’
“It just didn’t work, and I know that one of the things the fans will question is some of the changes in the way he looks — and that really all came from Neil and his advice. We slowly whittled it down to: ‘Wait a second, Tom — you’re sickly pale, anyway, and your hair is always a mess. And when I look into your eyes, I can see the cosmos, so…’ We were fine.”
Handling the Horror
Gaiman explains that most of the changes they made for the series were made because they were making television.
“I was incredibly happy with them because we were making television. What Allan and his collaborators did is astonishing. It is incredibly dark. It takes you into the absolute Heart of Darkness.”
Fans of the horror element in the comics will either be delighted or disappointed to learn about their approach to graphically violent and gory sequences, depending on your favourite aspects of the genre.
“We filmed a lot of stuff that we wound up not using because it felt like it was going too far,” says Gaiman. “We wound up, I think, at the end, doing much more horror inside your head than we expected to and letting [go of] some of the terrible things that we shot, and that we’ve all experienced — at least that Allan and I have experienced in various edits and cuts.”
They decided eventually, says Gaiman, that it “works better if that thing just happened and we come back in here and it’s already happened.”
Eyeballing The Corinthian
We’ll have to wait to see to make our own minds up on how that turned out. One aspect of the story’s horror that fans are particularly keen to see is Boyd Holbrook’s portrayal of The Corinthian, an escaped nightmare who has a penchant for killing and scooping out eyes, and eating them in his eye sockets which have teeth where his own eyeballs should be.
“I really love the role, I love the comic, I was fascinated with the world,” says Holbrook. “But I was hung up on how am I going to portray this character? So much of your acting is done with your eyes. And Allan reassured me, and so did Neil, that it’s going to be okay; it’s all there. It’s all within the action, and how everything plays out. And really, what’s in the final product is really fantastic in terms of how shocking and surreal and just terrifying all that really is.”
If the action he’s talking about is the mastication of eyeballs in eye sockets lined with teeth, it really will be all there – and as shocking and surreal and terrifying as Boyd Holbrook suggests.
The Sandman premieres on Netflix on August 5, 2022.
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