‘The Sandman’ Premiere: Neil Gaiman Reveals Secrets of Adaptation

Neil Gaiman didn’t have to do it. He could have left well enough alone. After 30 years of successfully shutting down every “bad” attempt to adapt his best-selling Vertigo graphic novel series “The Sandman,” Gaiman could have decided to let dreams of an adaptation of “The Sandman” die with the nightmare that was the most recent attempt: a feature film starring and directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt for Warner Bros.’ New Line, which fell apart in 2016.

The Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment-produced “The Sandman” live-action TV series, which was ordered to series at Netflix in June 2019, finally launches Friday. So why did Gaiman try again?

“In a lot of ways, it’s the only question that we can ask,” said Gaiman, who is executive producer and writer on the series, alongside David Goyer and showrunner Allan Heinberg (“Grey’s Anatomy”). “And weirdly, when Allan and David Goyer and I sat down to have dinner together, essentially the night before we were going to pitch this to Netflix and the world, that was our question. Why would we do this? And why would we do this now? Especially for me, after three decades of stopping bad ‘Sandman’ adaptations from happening. By hook or by crook, by fair means or foul, I 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 coming 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 lengthy analysis of why he decided to reawaken the idea with Netflix’s 10-episode first season of “The Sandman,” which follows his first two (out of 10) graphic novels about the adventures of Dream (Tom Sturridge), aka Morpheus, aka The Sandman, Gaiman — the author of other beloved titles like “American Gods” and “Good Omens,” which have also been adapted for Starz and Amazon, respectively — gave an in-depth threefold answer, which we’ve included in full here:

For me, partly I was going, it will happen. A “Sandman” adaptation will happen. If you look at the spine of the giant Taschen history of DC Comics book, it weighed about 15 lbs., and on the side there is Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Morpheus, the Sandman, and their faces are staring out at you. And everybody knew that this was the jewel in the crown that had not been adapted. And after 30 years, “Sandman,” at this point, is probably the single best-selling series of graphic novels ever published in the US You know it’s going to happen. So partly, it’s accepting, well OK, if it’s going to happen, why not make it good?

“Sandman” as a graphic novel series, as comics, was me getting to say things to the world that I believed. They were things about inclusivity. They were things about humanity. There were things about shared humanity. There were things about dreams and things about death. There were words of comfort and there were words of warning. And back then when I said them, they were important and I felt that they were true and I felt it was right to say them; including, you have your story and your story is important, and including, you get a lifetime. And those are the things I wanted to say. And I don’t feel that any of those things are less important or less relevant now. And in fact, I feel in this sort of weird world in which sometimes I feel like people are fragmenting and forming into smaller and smaller groups and closing ranks and regarding anybody on the other side as the enemy, that people need to be reminded that standing next to them is somebody who contains a thousand worlds and every world is a door and through every door is somewhere that you’ve never dreamed of. And people are cooler under the surface than you would ever imagine. And I wanted to remind people of that.

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Vivienne Acheampong as Lucienne in “The Sandman”

And then the third thing, which was, having made “Good Omens,” I felt like I knew how to do this. When “American Gods” was being made, I was an executive producer, which meant that I got to give notes — which were ignored. But that was fine. I was part of the thing. Having made “Good Omens,” I suddenly felt like I could no longer be bullshitted. I’ve actually made that, I’ve done this. So when I would say to people, “Can we do this?” and they would go, “No, we cannot do that. It would cost too much money.” I’d be like, “No, no, no. I’ve made it. I really know all we need is a wall for that to happen.” So the knowledge that I have the skill set to actually guide this thing and work with it, and that I wasn’t going to be intimidated, but that I really loved to do, was also the other part of it for me.

Toward the end of Gaiman’s decades-long battle against bad adaptations of “The Sandman,” “Batman Begins” and “Foundation” writer Goyer became interested in attempting what he hoped would be the one not-bad version in Gaiman’s (and fans’) 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 was also adamant that “The Sandman” not be “dumbed-down” and that it be “kept weird,” and any attempts to make it “formulaic” were rejected by Goyer and Gaiman. Finally, in June 2019, Goyer and Gaiman’s dream became a reality and Warner Bros. began looking for a showrunner to handle the day-to-day organization and execution for a TV series adaptation of “The Sandman.” Enter Shondaland alum Heinberg.

“It was a very odd circumstance. Timing was everything with this,” Heinberg said. “My three-year contract with ABC Studios was ending just at the moment when I was meeting with Warner Bros. about possibly doing something with them. And every time I met with them for the last 25 years, I would always ask, ‘When are you guys doing “The Sandman?”’ And at that moment they said, ‘We’re actually taking it out to streamers with Neil and David. Do you know David Goyer?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve known David Goyer for years. Is David writing it?’ And they said, ‘No, David’s executive producing, but he’s doing ‘Foundation.’ We’re actually looking for a writer.’ We all sort of looked at each other and Susan Rovner said, ‘Let me get back to you.’ And by the time I got down to my car, David Goyer was calling me on my cell phone saying, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ And I was like, ‘Listen, if you and Neil already have a plan and you don’t want me doing it…’ And David said, ‘Fuck you, you’re doing this. I’m calling Neil.’ And that’s how it happened.”

But Heinberg wasn’t actually on board right away because as he puts it, he didn’t “want to be the guy who ruined ‘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 to do that. I’ve been working with Shonda Rhimes for 15 years. I write relationship drama. It’s going to require some adapting,’” Heinberg said. “And David said, ‘Yes, and that’s why we need you. And Neil knows that. And you’ll see when you guys talk’. And sure enough, at that first meeting, Neil brought up the big problem, which was, ‘OK, our lead is naked and silent and in a cage for the entire pilot. What are we going to do about having the audience fall in love with him?’ And I was like, ‘OK, he gets it. Here’s the big problem and he’s already wanting to solve it on our first dinner.’ And then 24 hours later, we were pitching it to the streamers.”

Pause, because Gaiman has an interjection here that industry folks will likely find amusing: “Actually, because you are variety, I’m going to put a footnote here: Allan tells people, and I tell people, because it’s much more easy that way to say, ‘And 24 hours later, we were pitching.’ That’s not true. Dinner was on the Friday night. And the pitch was on Monday morning. However, about that Saturday and then Sunday, an impossible thing happened, which was Allan’s contract [with Warner Bros.] was written and agreed and signed. Only because you’re variety, only because you understand that the true art form of Hollywood is the contract, I want to tell you the impossible was done. The contract was signed before Allan came to the meeting on Monday morning.”

After the “power of Neil Gaiman pushing it through,” per Heinberg, it was time to pitch. And the winning bidder in what sources say was a very pricey auction was Netflix — a streamer packed with “The Sandman” fans who were more than willing to take on the challenge of becoming the home of the long-awaited, actually-good “The Sandman” adaptation.

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

“It came in from Warner Brothers and DC several years ago. I was running the genre team at the time,” Peter Friedlander, head of US and Canada scripted series, said. “And Channing Dungey” [now CEO of Warner Bros. TV Studios] was here overseeing the drama team. And I remember quite vividly when we got the call about ‘Sandman’ and I had other folks on my team that were just superfans of the IP and had posters on their wall of characters like Death. So when the call came in, it was real exuberance, people jumped at the opportunity. We actually went over to Warner to hear the presentation from Neil Gaiman and David Goyer and Allan Heinberg and the whole team there. And it was a very special presentation. I think we all knew that this was something that we’d be thrilled to have for Netflix. And you’d heard about different adaptations over the years, ‘Will it get made, will it not?’ And it felt like the timing was finally right. The way they wanted to tell the story, I really think the technology was in the place that they could really used the visual effects to tell the story that they wanted through the medium. The stars had aligned to really finally bring ‘Sandman’ to the fans in this way.”

What came next was three years of writing, casting, filming and editing the large-scale series, which along with Sturridge stars Gwendoline Christie as Lucifer, Boyd Holbrook as The Corinthian, Patton Oswalt as the voice of Matthew the Raven, 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, staying true to the core identity of the comics .

(Pictured above: Tom Sturridge as Dream and Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Death in Netflix’s “The Sandman.”)

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