The Sandman Premiere: Neil Gaiman Reveals Secrets of Customization

Neil Gaiman didn’t have to do it. He could well have left it alone. After 30 years of successfully ending every “bad” attempt to adapt his best-selling Vertigo graphic novel series, The Sandman, Gaiman could have decided to continue dreams of adapting The Sandman with the nightmare To Die, The Most Recent Attempt: a Feature Film starring and directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt for Warner Bros.’ New Line, which fell apart in 2016.

Produced by Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment, the live-action TV series The Sandman, which was serially ordered on Netflix in June 2019, finally premieres on Friday. So why did Gaiman try again?

“In a lot of ways that’s the only question we can ask,” said Gaiman, executive producer and writer for the series, alongside David Goyer and showrunner Allan Heinberg (“Grey’s Anatomy”). “And oddly enough, when Allan and David Goyer and I sat down to dinner together, essentially the night before we pitched this to Netflix and the world, that was our question. Why should we do this? And why should we do this now? Especially for me after three decades of preventing bad “Sandman” adaptations. By hook or by crook, by fair means or by foul, I’ve blocked and stopped so many bad Sandman movies. Go and Google the Ain’t It Cool News description of the script for the Jon Peters version of ‘Sandman’ [developed in 1996], in which, on page five, Morpheus says to the police who come to arrest him, “As if your puny weapons could hurt me, the mighty lord of dreams, the Sandman.” And it gets worse from there.”

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Tom Sturridge as Dream in The Sandman

In his detailed analysis of why he decided to revive the idea with Netflix’s 10-episode first season, The Sandman, which is his first two (of 10) graphic novels about the adventures of Dream (Tom Sturridge), aka Morpheus, follows, aka The Sandman, Gaiman — the author of other popular titles like American Gods and Good Omens, which have also been adapted for Starz and Amazon, respectively — gave a lengthy three-pronged answer, which we include in full here:

For me I was part of it, it’s going to happen. There will be a “Sandman” adaptation. If you look at the back of the giant pocket history book from DC Comics, it weighed about 15 pounds and on the side are Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Morpheus the Sandman and their faces stare at you. And everyone knew this was the jewel in the crown that hadn’t been adjusted. And after 30 years
“Sandman” is probably the best-selling graphic novel series ever published in the United States at this point. You know it’s gonna happen. So partly it’s accepting, well, if it’s going to happen, why not make it good?

“Sandman” as a graphic novel series, as comics, made me say things to the world that I believed in. It was about inclusion. They were things about humanity. There were things about divided humanity. There were things about dreams and things about death. There were words of comfort and words of warning. And then, when I said them, they mattered, and I felt they were true, and I felt it was right to say them; including, you have your story and your story matters, and including, you get a lifetime. And those are the things I wanted to say. And I don’t feel like any of those things are less important or less relevant now. And actually, in this weird world where I feel like sometimes people split up and form into smaller and smaller groups and close ranks and see everyone on the other side as an enemy, I feel like people need to be reminded that they stand beside you is someone who contains a thousand worlds and each world is a door and through each door is something you never dreamed of. And people are cooler beneath the surface than you’d ever imagine. And I wanted to remind people of that.

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Vivienne Acheampong as Lucienne in The Sandman

And the third thing was, after doing Good Omens, I felt like I knew how to do it. When American Gods was filmed, I was executive producer, which meant I had to take notes – which were ignored. But that was fine. I was part of it. After doing Good Omens, I suddenly felt like I couldn’t be screwed any longer. I actually did that, I did this. So if I said to people, ‘Can we do that?’ and they said, ‘No, we can’t. That would cost too much money.” I would say, “No, no, no. I made it I really know all we need is a wall for that.” Knowing that I have the skills to actually direct and work with this thing and that I wouldn’t be intimidated but that I really loved it was for me the other part of it too.

Toward the end of Gaiman’s decade-long struggle against bad adaptations of The Sandman, Batman Begins, and Foundation, writer Goyer expressed interest in trying what he hoped would be the only non-bad version in Gaiman’s (and fans ) would be. Eyes. To minimize the risk, Goyer insisted to Warner Bros. that Gaiman be an active producer and co-writer on the pilot.

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Gwendoline Christie as Lucifer Morningstar in The Sandman

Sources say Goyer also insisted that The Sandman not be “dumbed down” and “kept weird,” and any attempts to make it “formulaic” were dismissed by Goyer and Gaiman. In June 2019, Goyer and Gaiman’s dream finally became a reality and Warner Bros. began searching for a showrunner to handle the day-to-day organization and execution of a television series adaptation of The Sandman. Enter Shondaland alum Heinberg.

“It was a very strange circumstance. The timing was everything,” said Heinberg. “My three-year contract with ABC Studios ended just as I was meeting with Warner Bros. to maybe do something with them. And every time I’ve met with them for the past 25 years, I’ve always been like, ‘When are you guys doing The Sandman?’ And at that moment they were like, ‘We’re actually bringing it to Neil and to streamers David. Do you know David Goyer?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I’ve known David Goyer for years. Does David write it?’ And they said, ‘No, David is an executive producer, but he’s doing Foundation. We’re actually looking for a writer.” We all kind of looked at each other, and Susan Rovner said, ‘Let me get back to you.’ And when I got to my car, David Goyer called me on my cell phone and said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ And I said, ‘Look, if you and Neil already have a plan and you don’t want me to do it…’ And David said, ‘Fuck you, you’re doing this. I’ll call Neil.’ And that’s how it happened.”

But Heinberg didn’t jump on board because, as he says, “he didn’t want to be the guy who ruins ‘Sandman’.”

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Boyd Holbrook as The Corinthian in The Sandman

“[I told Goyer,] “If Neil wants to do a panel-by-panel version of this, I don’t know how. I’ve worked with Shonda Rhimes for 15 years. I write relationship dramas. It will require some adjustments,'” Heinberg said. “And David said, ‘Yes, and that’s why we need she. And Neil knows that. And you’ll see when you talk to each other. And indeed, in that first meeting, Neil brought up the big issue, which was, “Okay, our lead is nude and still and in a cage for the entire pilot. What are we going to do to make the audience fall in love with him?’ And I was like, ‘Okay, he gets it. Here’s the big problem and he wants to solve it at our first dinner.” And then, 24 hours later, we presented it to the streamers.”

Pause, as Gaiman interjects here that the industry folks will probably find amusing: “Actually, because it’s you diversity, I’m going to put a footnote here: Allan tells people, and I tell people because it’s so much easier to say, ‘And 24 hours later we advertised.’ That is not true. Dinner was on Friday evening. And the pitch was on Monday morning. However, that Saturday and then Sunday something impossible happened, namely Allan’s contract [with Warner Bros.] was written and agreed and signed. Just because it’s you diversity, just because you understand that the true art form of Hollywood is the contract, let me tell you that the impossible has been done. The contract was signed before Allan came to the meeting on Monday morning.”

After the “force of Neil Gaiman prevailed,” according to Heinberg, it was time to pitch. And the winner in what sources say is a very expensive auction was Netflix — a streamer full of The Sandman fans more than willing to take up the challenge of finding the home of the long-awaited, seriously good The Sandman adaptation.

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Jenna Coleman as Johanna Constantine and Tom Sturridge as Dream in The Sandman

“It came from Warner Brothers and DC a few years ago. I was leading the genre team at the time,” said Peter Friedlander, head of script series in the US and Canada. “And Channing Dungey [now CEO of Warner Bros. TV Studios] was here to oversee the acting crew. And I remember quite vividly when we got the call about Sandman and I had other people on my team who were just super fans of the IP and had posters of characters like Death on the wall. So when the call came in it was a real rush, people jumped at the opportunity. We actually went to Warner to hear the presentation from Neil Gaiman and David Goyer and Allan Heinberg and all the team there. And it was a very special presentation. I think we all knew that we would be very happy to have Netflix for something like this. And you’ve heard about various adjustments over the years: “Will it be done, won’t it?” And it felt like the timing was finally right. The way they wanted to tell the story, I really think the technology was at the point where they could really use the visual effects to tell the story they wanted through the medium. The stars were ready to finally bring ‘Sandman’ to the fans in this way.”

Next came three years of writing, casting, filming and editing the full-scale series, which also stars Sturridge as Gwendoline Christie as Lucifer, Boyd Holbrook as The Corinthian, Patton Oswalt as the voice of Matthew the Raven, and Vivienne Acheampong as Lucienne , Jenna Coleman as Johanna Constantine, David Thewlis as John Dee, Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Dream’s sister Death, and Mason Alexander Park as Death’s sibling Desire, and Mark Hamill as Mervyn Pumpkinhead. If you know you know – and if you don’t, don’t worry because The Sandman team is very excited to introduce you to these characters and this world as built by Gaiman, while staying true to the core identity true to the comics .

(Pictured above: Tom Sturridge as Dream and Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Death in Netflix’s The Sandman.) The Sandman Premiere: Neil Gaiman Reveals Secrets of Customization

Charles Jones

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