THE SANDMAN: director Dirk Maggs talks challenge of adapting Neil Gaiman to Audible original drama

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THE SANDMAN, Neil Gaiman’s seminal comic book series published by DC/Vertigo from 1993, inarguably pushed comic books and their writings to new heights. Lauded as a revolutionary series upon release, it was one of the first graphic novels to appear on the New York Times bestsellers list. It has been hugely influential in all entertainment mediums since release but it has never made its way to the big or small screen – not for the want of trying though.

Adaptations have come and gone over the years, fallen by the wayside. Attempts to put THE SANDMAN on the big screen have been announced, only to falter and fall, often because those tasking with the effort don’t want to fail the source material themselves – Gaiman himself has been quoted in saying, “I’d rather them not make a SANDMAN film at all than make a bad SANDMAN movie.”

Fans seemed to be denied any translation of the books into another medium – that is until Audible stepped in and put the money up for an original audio drama featuring a truly astonishing cast, marshalled by a man who has form in taking on Gaiman in the past. Having previously audio adapted work such as THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY and ALIEN III, Dirk Maggs has a huge background in big audio productions for audio play maestros Big Finish and had previously worked with Gaiman on adaptations of NEVERWHERE, AMERICAN GODS and ANANSI BOYS.

Safe to say, however, with Morpheus, Death, Matthew The Raven, John Constantine et al holding such affection in the hearts and minds of millions around the world, the expectations of bringing this world to life via the power of sound holds its own unique challenges. In this exclusive interview, I spoke to Maggs about his work on THE SANDMAN

Dirk Maggs

MARK SEARBY: THE SANDMAN is one of the most beloved comics of all time. It has tried to be adapted for the big and little screen many times and many times it has failed to materialise. So how did you set about adapting it for an audiobook/play?

DIRK MAGGS: Let’s call it an audio movie.

MS: I like that that description.

DM: Only because the grammar I try to use is more cinematic than anything else. I’m not trying to tread on anyone else’s creative territory. But that is how I go at things. When people say to me, “How do I write for audio?”, I always say, “Write the movie”, because I don’t think there is much you can’t do. That’s how I approach anything.

I started doing this back in the early ’90s with SUPERMAN and BATMAN. So, I kind of started this idea of ‘do we need the pictures if we make the right noises’ sort of attitude. So then, it would divide into two ways: a) how do we do that artistically and in terms of writing the script?, and b) technically, how do we do that? Because in those days BBC equipment was positively stone age.

I’m going to go back to my experiences doing SUPERMAN and BATMAN. There is a reason for that because the whole comic book format is predicated on keeping you turning the pages and keeping you buying the comic books – it is a commercial operation. But we love them because the stories are great. One of the reasons the stories are so great is because they are designed to be addictive.

Historically speaking, comic books are attractive on the newsstands… ahh, back when we had newsstands! The cover art grabs you. You open it up and there is a ‘splash page’, a second cover, if you will, on the inside. That grabs you with some very, very thrilling artwork. Then you start reading the story and no matter how the panels are laid out, the last panel on every page makes you want to turn the page to get to the next page. That’s how comic books work. They feed that little demon inside you that says, “Entertain me! Entertain me!”

When I first started doing this stuff, I realised it really lent itself to visual story-telling style because it is a visual medium. Yet uniquely, at the same time, audio is wonderfully complementary to comic books because we don’t occupy the same worlds at all. We are totally separate and yet we can feed each other. When we got to BATMAN KNIGHTFALL the meeting for that is memorable for me [was] when the controller of Radio 1, Matthew Bannister, had just taken over and wanted to tell the world he was changing everything, sacking the old DJs and getting in new ones. He wanted a daily drama, so he came around all the BBC departments – Radio Light Entertainment, where I worked, which was mainly comedy but occasionally light drama too. He came in and asked if anyone had any ideas.

We were in the room with real hard-hitters like Armando Iannucci, David Tyler; people who were real heavyweights compared to my pathetically shallow creative existence [laughs]. I just thought that somebody would come up with a one-off worthy cause. Bannister went around the room and nobody seemed to be pleasing him. He said, “What about you Dirk?”, and I just said, “What about Batman?” I thought that would get laughed out of the room. But no, he said, “Yep, that’s what I want!”

My immediate thought was, ‘Okaaaaaay. Now I have to ring DC to see if there is any chance!’, and the next thing Matthew said, which really floored me, was, “Can you do it in three-minute bursts? Three-minute episodes?” And I looked and just went “YES!” I walked out of the room and buried my face in my P.A.’s shoulder and said: “What have I just done??” [laughs].

That was the best gig I could have got because I had to write Batman in three-minute episodes, which is pretty much how comic books work. At the beginning of each three-minute episode, you had to tell backstory while moving forward with your present story and at the end of every three minutes you had to end on some kind of cliffhanger. It didn’t have to be a huge deal, but it needed to be something that made you come back tomorrow and catch the next instalment. That was the best education in how to write compelling, cinematic scripting without any spare flesh on it at all that I could have got.

At the same time, I was reading THE SANDMAN and Neil’s work had come to my attention and I felt there was definitely something we could do with SANDMAN. It was so different to anything else I had ever read, it invented a new mythology, it went into arcane DC folklore and arcane folklore full stop – it was the most astonishing piece of work. I thought, ‘If this doesn’t make a radio piece then I don’t know what can’.

I first pitched it to my bosses in 1992. My then boss said, “I don’t think that’s for us. Not enough jokes!” [laughs]. I kept pitching it: I pitched it again in ’97, I pitched it again in 2005, I pitched it again in 2010. Two years later, a lovely, lovely producer called Heather Larmour managed to sell them [the BBC] the idea of doing NEVERWHERE as a radio production. Suddenly, Neil and I were in business.

Twenty years after we first started talking about doing something, It was Sandy A Resnick at DC Comics who approached me in late 2017 with the idea that Neil and I try again to make Sandman. I could have taken the idea anywhere, but I took it to Audible first and they saw the potential when the BBC hadn’t. Audible came along and made THE SANDMAN happen. They’ve been utterly brilliant – we finally made it! But actually approaching it, I approached it the same way I did BATMAN which was: I’m going to write the movie.

What slightly modified my course was the fact that Netflix had done a deal for a TV show. The thing about television and audio is that we can co-exist perfectly well but I don’t like to do what TV or movie people are doing because I feel that is diminishing our role – we are an equally valid currency. So that was a little bit of a poser. If I’m going to try and get too creative with this and the TV version is going to get creative with it, then where would a fan who doesn’t know SANDMAN, and would love to get into it via audio first, go to get the original stories.

I had to put the brakes on myself and think ‘Okay, why not keep it set in the ’80s, as it was? Why not keep it without the existence of the internet? Why not do the things that Neil did at that time that was so remarkable like have non-binary characters, talking about issues like abusive relationships? Why not keep all of that? Not try and modify anything, not try and update anything.’ Just really try to get into Neil’s head as he was writing it.

Neil Gaiman and Dirk Maggs

And the key to that was to get Neil’s original scripts – that turned the key in the lock. I had put the key in the lock by thinking that I should stick to the original ideas. But getting the original scripts was from Neil was… it’s strange working with Neil, it’s like working with our mutual mentor Douglas Adams [laughs]. They have hard drives buried in places you wouldn’t imagine! Neil dug out the old scripts which were in Word Perfect. So I had to find a programme that would open Word Perfect. We did it, we got there! [laughs]

Immediately, you read Neil’s descriptions to the artists and you realise there is a whole side of SANDMAN that you had no idea exists., which are the pictures in Neil’s head. Not that the artists utterly f%$in’ brilliant and some of the artwork is to die for – all of my favourite artwork is in Sandman. But Neil’s descriptions are sometimes poetic. They are beautiful. They create the picture in words that is as good as anything Dylan Thomas wrote. So that was when the key did turn in the lock. Neil had already asked me if he can be the narrator. He asked, “Am I good enough?” I said, I’d have to get back to him on that one [laughs].

MS: How do you direct the man who wrote THE SANDMAN?

DM: With great difficulty! He is incredibly difficult to work with [laughs]. He’s argumentative, stroppy, grumpy, tired, he always needs something. It’s a bloody nightmare frankly – he is a nightmare! [laughs].

MS: Clearly he is a massive diva!

DM: [Laughs] I’ve worked with massive divas and Neil couldn’t be further from them. I’m just joking about him being difficult, of course. [laughs].

MS: How on earth do you assemble a cast like you have?

DM: If you have the project and the right author, you will get the right people. Because on NEVERWHERE, we had James [McAvoy], Benedict Cumberbatch, Natalie Dormer, Christopher Lee, David Harewood, Bernard Cribbins…it was the right project with the right author. I said to James when we were doing the table read-through, that this was like an Oscar party! Then we broke halfway through for coffee and I said to him: “This is just so good of you to do this. You could be earning telephone numbers in L.A. This is really good of you.” [James] replied: “Ahhh, I fucking love it.” [Laughs].

And that’s what it is – everybody fucking loves it. Even Christopher Lee. He said: “This is excellent stuff, Dirk.” And it is excellent stuff, and [that’s down to] Neil. Neil is a national treasure and he tells a damn good story. So, coming to SANDMAN, interestingly, we weren’t beating people off with a stick but there was a lot of interest. There were challenges in casting people who weren’t so well-known that they would tip the boat. James is as big a star as you would get. But James is a bit of a chameleon. There are other actors that would have had a stronger flavour, shall we say, but could not have been the Morpheus it needed to be. Sometimes it was inspired guesswork.

For example, with Death, we had a list as long as your arm – female actors from all around the world. They are embodying a drawing, yes, but also embody the virtues and vices of that character. We needed someone who had a very fresh feel and Neil said, “I keep coming back to Kat Dennings.” I didn’t know Kat’s work, so I went away and found a bit of footage of TWO BROKE GIRLS and THOR, where she plays Natalie Portman’s sort of sidekick/kind of knockabout pal. I thought, ‘I totally get it. I totally get it with Kat and it is this thing that isn’t immediately apparent, it is the thing they bring to the room and Kat has this spirit and this bounce and there is a fizz in her, which really helps sell the character.’

James McAvoy voicing Morpheus

Similarly, with James for Morpheus. James has got a bundled-up bunch of energy inside him. When I was in the studio with James doing NEVERWHERE, he was forever coming up to me and punching me on the shoulder and saying, “What’s next? What is next? C’mon, let’s do it!” That sort of energy, even though Morpheus is kind of a passive character at times, Morpheus needs to have a sort of power, a sense of power. James brings that in even the passive lines.

That is kind of how we went with the casting. Then, we had this amazing support cast – ‘support!’ – which is a ridiculous word for a cast that includes Joanna Lumley, Reginald D. Hunter, Kerry Shale… Ray Porter, who came over [to the UK] for a bit of fun and ended up playing Gilbert and Wesley Dodds! He flew over on his own dime to be in THE SANDMAN, he loves it that much. Everybody is keen, that’s what I love about it, everybody wants to fucking do it. They are not there for the money, they are there for the fun which is the best tribute to Neil, THE SANDMAN and to audio, as a medium.

MS: I read that when you were about to record James that lockdown in the UK happened, so you couldn’t go to a professional studio. How did you end up recording him?

DM: James was performing in CYRANO DE BERGERAC in the West End; I went to see it, it was a very challenging version of Rostand’s play. It was unique, it was fascinating, it was very shout-y! So James was shouting eight or nine performances a week and his voice was completely strained. So, he asked us to put off his recording, which I was totally cool about because the last thing I want is James sounding like a worn-out gramophone!

In the end, [the COVID-19] lockdown happened before we could record him. So, then it was a case of ‘What do we do?’ We worked out we could do remote-recording – James doesn’t have a home studio, he had just moved house, so the solution was to ship him all the gear he needed to build a single voice studio – and he built it! It took him a day and half with a screwdriver, a set of plans and swearing a lot! James is Glaswegian, you know – that’s the thing about James, he cracks on [laughs].

So he built this studio, put it all together, got the technical sorted out, did a little rehearsal and then we recorded Morpheus. He did an amazing job. He is one of the top blokes. I cannot tell you how much regard I have for him and what a good guy he is.

James McAvoy in his home studio

MS: For the nerdy tech people out there, what software were you using?

DM: I record on Sennheiser 416 shotgun mics because they replicate the sound of a film set best of all, they give me a nice clear response. We recorded into Pro Tools at Audible – Pro Tools is my friend, we have a love/hate relationship, working on about sixty-four tracks usually, but it can go up to the eighties or nineties, depending [on the project], working in stereo mainly. Mastering, I work at 48.24k – Audible likes mastering at 44.41k, because this is also going out on CD

I try to use plugins as sparingly as I can. I try to do it manually because, if you just use plugins to control your levels, your audience is going to get very tired and we have a ten-hour and fifty-four minute listen. I mix mainly for headphones because that’s generally how people are going to listen to it, although I also do test listens on speakers and in the car.

MS: End of the day, is this your most ambitious project?

DM: Yes, it has everything I know how to do in it. I said to Neil that this is my ‘Sgt. Pepper’ and he said: “No no no! This is ‘Rubber Soul’! We’ve got ‘Revolver’ and ‘Sgt. Pepper’ to go yet with the next books…”

The Sandman, an Audible Original Drama, is available to download now from Audible.co.uk, HERE.

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