The time Joss Whedon and Neil Gaiman chatted on the phone for Time Magazine

Joss Whedon and Neil Gaiman

Sunday, Sept. 25, 2005

TIME: Joss, this is Lev from Time magazine. You’re also in the virtual presence of Neil Gaiman.

Neil Gaiman: I’m not virtual. I’m here.

TIME: Sorry. You’re virtual, Joss. Neil’s real.

Joss Wedon: Okay. I wondered.

TIME: I’m glad we settled that.

JW: Nice to meet you.

NG: You, too. Lev was just asking whether we’d met, and I was explaining that once you get to a certain sort of level, there are 80,000 people who want to meet you, and you’re being moved from place to place by people who want to make sure who we meet.

JW: Yes. I’ve been sixteen steps behind Kevin Smith for four years. I’ve never seen him.

NG: Exactly.

TIME: I think there’s actually a law that you guys can’t be in the same room at the same time. It’s like the President and the Vice President, or something.

JW: Like the two Ron Silvers in Timecop.

TIME: That’s exactly the simile I was looking for. So you guys both have movies coming out on September 30th.

NG: It will be National Geek Day.

TIME: Serenity has a bit of an unconventional story behind it. Joss, do you want to run it down for us real quick?

JW: Real quick, I did the show Firefly, which had a gloriously short career. I just loved the show and the people and the world too much to walk away when they cancelled it, so I hunted about for someone to agree with me and then, rather shockingly, found Universal Studios agreed with me to the tune of a great deal more money than I had ever expected to have to work with. What everybody said was dead in the water suddenly became—maybe not for them, but for me—a rather major motion picture.

TIME: Are you nervous? You’ve got 11 days before it opens.

JW: Something like that. I don’t count. I’m not aware of the opening day. I’m not going to be hiding in the bathtub.

TIME: What do you do?

JW: I stockpile canned goods and hide in the basement.

NG: Lucky bastard. I’m going to be signing books out in public.

JW: That gives you great legitimacy. You can say, ‘well, I write books. I’m above all this.’

TIME: You could write a book, Joss.

JW: Yes, but not in the next eleven days. I could write a blog.

TIME: Neil, you’re a big blogger these days, right?

NG: I’ve been blogging since February of 2001. When I started blogging, it was dinosaur blog. It was me and a handful of tyrannosaurs. We’d be writing blog entries like, ‘the tyrannosaurus is getting grumpy.’

These days there are 1.2 million people reading it. It’s very, very weird. We have this enormous readership, as a result of which now I feel absolutely far too terrified and guilty to stop. I’d love to stop my blog at this point, but there’s this idea that there will be 1.2 million people’s worth of pissed-off-ness that I hadn’t written anything today.

JW: That’s the problem with doing anything. Everybody expects you to keep doing it, no matter what.

NG: For me, it’s always that Mary Poppins thing. I’ll do it until the wind changes. The joy of doing Sandman was doing a comic and telling people, no, it has an end, at a time when nobody thought you could actually get to the end and stop doing a comic that people were still buying just because you’d finished. Probably of all the things I did in Sandman, that was the most unusual and the oddest. That I stopped while we were outselling everybody, because it was done. What everybody wants is more of what they had last time that they liked.

JW: Every other question I get is about the Buffy-verse.

NG: Except the trouble is, as a creator…I saw a lovely analogy recently. Somebody said that writers are like otters. And otters are really hard to train. Dolphins are easy to train. They do a trick, you give them a fish, they do the trick again, you give them a fish. They will keep doing that trick until the end of time. Otters, if they do a trick and you give them a fish, the next time they’ll do a better trick or a different trick because they’d already done that one. And writers tend to be otters. Most of us get pretty bored doing the same trick. We’ve done it, so let’s do something different.

TIME: Joss, you’re someone who insisted on doing the same thing again. Was that a tough decision? I’m sure you had a zillion offers on the table once Buffy ended.

JW: Well, it wasn’t a question of doing the same thing again as finally finishing the thing that I’d started. There are definitely times when you go through every permutation of an idea and then you go, well, that’s over. And that was lovely, thank you. I’ll have my fish. With Serenity, I felt like we had just gotten started. The story hadn’t been told yet. That’s what put the fire in me. When I actually had the whole thing filmed and cast and ready to go, and then it wasn’t finished, it made me a little bit insane.

TIME: Let’s talk about your respective fan bases. A lot of them self-identify as kind of on the geeky side.

NG: I think the fan base is literate. You need to be reasonably bright to get the jokes and to really follow what’s going on. That, by definition, is going to exclude a lot of people who will then get rather irritated at us for being pretentious and silly and putting in things they didn’t quite get. But it’s also going to mean that some of the people who do get the stuff will probably be fairly bright.

JW: Especially, I think, living in any fantasy or science fiction world means really understanding what you’re seeing and reading really densely on a level that a lot of people don’t bother to read. So yes, I think it’s kind of the same thing.

But I also think there’s a bit of misconception with that. Everybody who labels themselves a nerd isn’t some giant person locked in a cubbyhole who’s never seen the opposite sex. Especially with the way the Internet is now, I think that definition is getting a little more diffuse.

NG: I know that our fan bases overlap enough to be able to say fairly confidently that the joy of signing for me, and the joy of signing for Joss, is you can’t tell who’s your fan any more. When I started doing Sandman, I could look at a line of people lined up to get my autograph, and I knew who was my fan and who was somebody’s mum there to get a signature. It doesn’t work that way anymore. People say, well, there’s the Goths or whatever, and you always do get a few beautiful Goths and people always remember them, but they may be one of a hundred in a line. Mostly they’re people. They’re us. That’s what they look like.

JW: They’re a lot more attractive than I am, actually, which kind of disturbs and upsets me.

TIME: When I was growing up, only the geeky and socially marginal people were into stuff like Spiderman and JRR Tolkien. But in the last five years they’ve become the biggest entertainment phenomena around. How did it get so nerds are suddenly driving popular culture?

JW: I do think you can definitely see indications that Hollywood has woken up to the market, to the idea of this community as a way to put out their product. But fantasy movies have always been huge. It’s not like Star Wars —which came out when I was eleven—was a tiny art house flick. So I’m always sort of curious at the marginalization of the people who adore them.

NG: I think also, the thing that’s odd is that we’re now living in a second-stage media world anyway. One of the reasons that both Joss and I can do some of the stuff that we’ve done over the years is because you’re working in a medium in which enough stuff has simply entered popular culture that it becomes part of the vocabulary that we can deal with. The materials of fantasy, of all different kinds of fantasy, the materials of SF, the materials of horror…it’s pop culture. It’s tattooed on the insides of our retinas. As a result, it’s something that’s very easy just to use as metaphor. You don’t have to explain to anybody what a vampire is. You don’t have to explain the rules. Everybody knows that. They know that by the time they’re five.

JW: We’re getting to a point where you don’t have to excuse them, either. Where popular culture as a concept is itself popular, so it isn’t as marginal if you say, oh, this has a fantastical element to it. People are okay with that. Part of that is the post-modern sort of we’re-in-the-know, everything-is-referencing-everything. Which can actually be annoying after a while. But part of it is also an understanding that what’s going on in society that is popular is maybe worth looking into.

NG: We’re also in a world right now in which mainstream fiction borrows from fantasy. A world in which Michael Chabon wins a Pulitzer with a book with a load of comics characters in it. I no longer know where the demarcation lines are. My stuff gets published in some countries as fiction and in some countries as fantasy. It’s just where they think it will do best in the bookshops.

TIME: One of the best novels I read this year was Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. They don’t come much more highbrow than Ishiguro, but this was set in an alternate universe where humans are being cloned and having their organs harvested. Not only can Ishiguro do that, he can do that and hardly anyone even remarks on it.

JW: It’s Remains of the Clone! It’s absolutely just his sensibility, with that one little twist that you have to call it science fiction or fantasy to an extent. Nobody would not consider it a serious classical novel.

TIME: I almost miss the stigma that used to attach to these things. Now everybody’s into Tolkien. And I feel a little like, hey, I’ve been into that stuff my whole life. And in fact, you used to beat me up for it.

JW: I miss a little of that element, the danger of, oh, I’m holding this science fiction magazine that’s got this great cover. There a little bit of something just on the edge that I’m doing this. That’s pretty much gone. Although when I walk into a restaurant with a stack of comic books, I still do get stared at a little bit.

NG: I always loved, most of all with doing comics, the fact that I knew I was in the gutter. I kind of miss that, even these days, whenever people come up and inform me, oh, you do graphic novels. No. I wrote comic books, for heaven’s sake. They’re creepy and I was down in the gutter and you despised me. ‘No, no, we love you! We want to give you awards! You write graphic novels!’ We like it here in the gutter!

JW: We’ve been co-opted by the man.

NG: We’re in this weird world. Anansi Boys is coming out, and it’s a funny fantasy novel, and it’s being published as a mainstream thing. It should have been 10,000 copies just to people who love them, who would have had to go to a science fiction specialty shop with a cat in it just to find it.

JW: But ultimately I prefer this, just because . . . well, it’s not as though I’m only trying to reach one tiny segment of people when I write. It’s not like I want to have the clubhouse with the No Girls sign. I appreciate the people who are stepping into genre a little bit because they realize there’s more there. For me, ultimately, even though I miss my twenty minutes of actually being cool and marginalized, I think it’s more gratifying ultimately to be in this world.

TIME: Have either of you guys considered going straight, doing a non-genre project?

NG: My mind tends to work in this way. Every now and then I’ll do little things, a short story or something, that doesn’t have any fantastical elements, but mostly I like the power of playing God and I like to imagine things. You can imagine. It’s the power of concretizing a metaphor. Taking something and making it real and making it happen and seeing where it goes. It’s a special kind of magic.

TIME: Joss, I realize when I said that that you’ve actually done plenty of non-genre stuff.

JW: But it’s funny, I keep having to remember that. I always say, I will never do anything that’s not genre. People go, well, what about Roseanne? I’m like, yeah, okay, but . . . That to me was genre because it was a sitcom with real people in it which, to me, was at that point a fantasy. I always tend to think just left of center, to remove myself from the world by one step. It is very freeing, and it’s a particular way of coming at stories and looking at them that I find the most beautiful stuff that I know comes from, ultimately.

It’s all stories about people. I mean, that’s all anybody’s writing, with very few exceptions. I can’t imagine doing anything just straight up, unless it was a period piece, because so much of science fiction is basically creating history. A fascination with any time that’s not ours is inevitable, so I love period stuff. That’s the only thing I could imagine myself doing right now that wasn’t straight-up fantasy.

TIME: Let’s talk about Mirrormask. Is that fantasy?

NG: Sure, Mirrormask is fantasy. Dave McKean—who directed it and who co-came up with the story—I suspect thinks it’s not fantasy because it’s a dream, and because of various other things, and because Dave is not terribly comfortable with the idea of fantasy. I’m perfectly comfortable with fantasy, so I think it’s definitely fantasy. But the brief with Mirrormask was Henson coming to us and saying, in the Eighties, Henson’s did The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. They were family fantasy films. They cost $40 million each. We’d like to do another one. We have $4 million. If we gave you that $4 million, could you come back with a movie, and we won’t tell you what to do? As deals go, it’s that bit at the end that said, we won’t tell you what to do that was, okay, yes, I will happily take not enough money to make a huge fantasy movie and try and make a huge fantasy movie with it.

But then, I get fascinated because, in America, it almost seems like family has become a code word for something that you can put a five-year-old in front of, go out for two hours, and come back secure in the knowledge that your child will not have been exposed to any ideas. I didn’t want to do that. I like the idea of family as something where a seven-year-old would see a film and get stuff out of it, and a fifteen-year-old would get something else out of it, and a 25-year-old would get a different thing out of it.

JW: That’s a difficult thing to explain in this country, particularly to a ratings board. If you’re doing something that’s layered at all, that anybody who’s old enough to understand it can and should, and anybody else won’t, they’ll connect to it on a different level. Things get very codified, very black and white. It’s tough.

NG: I got to see the poster for Mirrormask yesterday. I was delighted at the bottom where it says, PG, Parental Guidance Suggested, and then underneath they had to give a reason. It says, ‘for some mild thematic elements and scary images’. I thought, that’s cool. It’s PG for thematic elements.

TIME: Mild ones.

NG: Mild ones, but they’re thematic. I thought, who comes up with that?

JW: I’ve got some violence and I think I have sexual innuendo. In one sentence, somebody says something vaguely naughty. I was excited to see how I was going to be pegged, too.

TIME: You’ve both written for comic books, on top of all your other projects. What interests you about that medium?

JW: This is a mythos I grew up with. I never tire of the heroes that I knew growing up. The fun is not that much different from doing a television show: You’re stuck with a certain set of rules and then, rather than trying to break them, it’s just trying to peel away and see what’s underneath them. That to me is really fun.

Ultimately, there’s no better way to create a fantasy world than with a great artist. And animation takes a wicked long time.

TIME: I don’t even remember who’s in the X-men anymore. Is Colossus still in it?

JW: Which of the 19,000 books are you talking about? In mine was the Beast, Kitty Pryde, Cyclops, Emma Frost, Colossus…and the unpopular one. Wolverine.

TIME: Emma Frost is in the X-men now?

JW: She’s been an X-man for some time.

TIME: They do know she used to be a villain, right?

JW: Yes they do. It’s all about forgiveness.

NG: There is a tradition in these things.

TIME: Kitty was sort of a proto-Buffy, right?

JW: Kitty was a huge proto-Buffy. I mean, there was no other you could point to as strongly. And they weren’t really doing anything with her, which, you know, made me happy to no end. And when they asked me to bring Colossus back, there I had Kitty and her first love. It was actually terribly romantic, to me anyway. I think I care way too much about these characters.

NG: That’s also the trouble with comics characters. If you read them at a certain age, they worm their way into your psyche. They live in your head. They are as real as anybody else in there, and you care about them.

JW: I think there’s a possibility that comic book movies are getting a tiny bit better on the one hand because they’re no longer made by executives, who are, you know, ninety-year-old bald tailors with cigars, going, the kids love this! But even executives and producers and people who aren’t necessarily creative who are involved in it did actually grow up with these characters, so there is some measure of respect. Although we still occasionally get League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and you really can’t explain that.

NG: Or Cat Woman.

JW: Oh my God.

TIME: You’re working on Wonder Woman now, right?

JW: I am.

TIME: How’s that going?

JW: In my head, it’s the finest film ever not typed yet. It’s incredible fun, partially because I was never actually a huge fan. I never really felt there was . . . there’s been some great work, but never one definitive run on the book for her, and I’m not a fan of the show. I feel like I’m taking an icon I already know and creating it for the first time.

NG: She’s such a character without a definitive story. Or even without a definitive version.

JW: That’s how I feel. I hope to change that because I really feel her. Let’s face it: She’s an Amazon, and she will not be denied.

TIME: I’m really hoping her bustier will slip down a little bit further than it did in the show.

JW: You’re just after a porno, aren’t you?

TIME: Yes.

JW: It’s all about priorities. Yes, it’s very empowering for her to be naked all the time.

TIME: I don’t think anybody has filmed your comic books, Neil.

NG: I think I’ve actually dodged several bullets, though, having read scripts of unutterable badness. And even utterable badness. They did a cover article on me once in the Hollywood Reporter about two years ago, the entire thrust of which was that I was the person who sold the most things to Hollywood without anything getting made, which at the time I suspect was a completely specious argument anyway.

Since then, a few things have actually gotten green-lighted. Coraline is being made by Henry Sellick as a stop-motion thing. Robert Zemeckis will start shooting the Beowulf script that Roger Avary and I did next week. It’s one of his weird motion-capture things.

I just get to see, mostly from a distance, things going through awful adaptations. Books of Magic —Warner has done seven scripts on that, and it’s now got to the point where my only response is, why don’t you just change the lead character’s name and not call it Books of Magic? You’ve now created something that that will do nothing but irritate anyone who thinks they’re going to see a Books of Magic movie. But it’s probably a perfectly decent movie, so just take the name off it.

JW: Have they ever asked you to write your own?

NG: I did Death: the High Cost of Living, which New Line are meant to be doing next year. They’re going to call it Death and Me. I did that mostly because it was one of the things I’d done that was small enough and short enough and actually had a story shape and I could expand it into a movie rather than looking gloomily at something huge and trying to work at what to throw away. I liked that.

But that’s barely even a fantasy movie. I mean, it’s a story about a depressed sixteen-year-old who runs into a girl who claims to be Death, having her one day off every hundred years, and who may or may not be. It’s kind of fun.

But Sandman movies, they just got increasingly appalling. It was really strange. They started out hiring some really good people and you got Elliot and Rossieau and Roger Avary came in and did a draft. They were all solid scripts. And then John Peters fired all of them and got in some people who take orders, and who wanted fistfights and all this stuff. It had no sensibility and it was just…they were horrible.

TIME: They probably tried to make it into one of those pornos. Bastards.

JW: I find that when you read a script, or rewrite something, or look at something that’s been gone over, you can tell, like rings on a tree, by how bad it is, how long it’s been in development.

NG: Yes. It really is this thing of executives loving the smell of their own urine and urinating on things. And then more execs come in, and they urinate. And then the next round. By the end, they have this thing which just smells like pee, and nobody likes it.

JW: There’s really no better way to put it.

TIME: Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride is out this month as well, making it effectively national Goth month.

NG: We are Goth icons. Joss and I. We don’t have to be Goths, because we are Goth icons.

JW: I’m low on mascara. It’s weird. I’ve made my bones with vampires, but I’ve never really associated anything I did with Goth that much, except that I’ve kind of made fun of them. I don’t really see that as much at the conventions and stuff in the fan base. It might be somebody in Goth make-up coming up and saying, oh, this is for my mom.

The great thing for me about the convention is almost the little microcosm of every society of hardcores. The Jedis really represented this year. Actually a lot of Siths as well. And the anime kids and the indie-comic guys. You can always sort of tell what everybody is into, and there they all are. There is something both universal and totally marginal about the crowd. That’s what I love.

NG: Last time I was at Comicom, there were like 5,000 people there, and the audience was going to try and cut me off with stuff to sign. They had to figure out how to get me off the stage. All of a sudden, I’m getting to the end of the conversation. Dave McKean and I were doing a Mirrormask thing and we’re ready to leave the stage. I look up and they have a bodyguard line of 30 Klingons. They’re six-foot six and four-feet wide and they have the foreheads and they had linked arms. We were being lead off behind a human wall —a Klingon wall—of Klingon warriors. And I thought, how good does it get?
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