Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Speaking Dangerously: Patrick Meaney on his career and Dream Dangerously, his masterpiece on Neil Gaiman

I have been trying to write an introduction to this interview with Patrick Meaney for several days now and I’ve been failing miserably. It’s not that I have nothing to say — rather, it all sounds bogus and as if I’m trying to hype a man who needs no hype. Trust me: if you’ve seen Meaney’s earlier films (in particular GRANT MORRISON: TALKING WITH GODS and WARREN ELLIS: CAPTURED GHOSTS) you know he’s a man who makes films that are wonderful portraits of the people he chooses profile. His films reflect the artists in ways that most other documentaries would never consider.

And then he made NEIL GAIMAN: DREAM DANGEROUSLY and the universe changed.

With DREAM DANGEROUSLY, Meaney has made a film that transcends its subject to be about something greater. While specifically about Neil Gaiman and his final large scale book tour, the film is actually a film that explores why we need to create. Yes, the film is about the tour and Neil’s work, but it’s also about why he creates, and how and by extension how we all do. That's what’s really special about the film. Meaney frames it so that the specifics of how Neil creates echoes into the lives of everyone who has ever been driven to do anything.

Now, I came to this interview ass-backwards. It was not something that I really was planning on doing, nor was it something I wanted to do (I was a bit too busy). However an interview was suggested by Unseen’s chief researcher and social media director Randi Mason (who was interviewed for the film) and one thing lead to another.

To be honest, my plan was to simply ask couple of quick questions and be done with it… but then I saw DREAM DANGEROUSLY and my universe changed. I had to talk to him. (Actually, I wanted to give him a big hug, but that wasn’t possible since he was on the opposite side of the country)

I had the chance to do the interview with Meaney via telephone, but I opted to do it via email. I loved the film so much that I wanted to make sure that everything was right. I wanted to make sure all the questions and all of the answers were exactly as we both wanted them. I wanted to make sure that I asked everything I wanted to get answers to.

And I wanted to make sure that the interview stayed on point. Had I spoken with Patrick on the phone, I know I would have been very tempted to ask a number of questions that would have revealed too much about the film or been so specific that no one really would have cared except me. I wanted this to be an interview that would work before you see the film and not just after.

First, I want to thank Randi for getting me involved in all of this. Second and most important, I want to thank Patrick Meaney for not only doing the interview (and doing all the typing) but letting me be the first to see the wondrous treasure that he is shortly going to unleash on the world. NEIL GAIMAN: DREAM DANGEROUSLY rocks, and it's something that he should be thanked for repeatedly.

(All images in this interview are courtesy and copyright of Patrick Meaney)

Patrick Meaney (left) and friend take a break after a long shoot
STEVE: Thank you again for letting me see the DREAM DANGEROUSLY. I hope I didn't make too big a fool of myself gushing over it (note: the Unseen review is here). Trust me, my feelings for the film are genuine. I love the film, which was something the people I spoke after seeing the film are well aware of. (I'm going to take another pass or two at the film and do another piece.)

PATRICK: That’s awesome to hear. As I mentioned, you were literally the first person to see the film outside of the team, so it was great to hear some positive feedback. And it’s really nice to know that you got so much of what we were trying to convey with the movie.

STEVE: You’ve made a career out of profiling comic creators and comic related subjects. Where other filmmakers have profiled one writer or artist and were done, you’ve created almost a cottage industry. How did you come to do so many comic related films?

PATRICK: There’s a couple of reasons. On one level, I think it was a trust from the comics community, and other people felt like, well, if Grant Morrison trusted him to do a movie, I guess I will too. As we’ve gone on, it’s become easier to get interviewees, since we have a track record of projects to point to that give people confidence that this is going to be something professional and real, and not a take down or puff piece.

But, I think it’s also just a rich untapped field to tell stories about. It’s hard to make a new statement about The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, or Alfred Hitchcock or Scorsese, but in comics we have these people who are absolute masters of the medium whose stories have never been told. I had barely seen any video of Grant before we did the movie. Neil is out there a bit more, but there’s never been a feature length piece about him, and that’s kind of crazy.

And, the other biggest reason for doing these particular biographical subjects, is that they all developed public personas that are just as fascinating as the work, and in many ways integral to it. Reading The Invisibles almost requires knowledge of Grant’s own experiences at the time. And with Neil, his rapport with the fans has been key to his success since day one. You see as much fan art of Neil himself as you see of any of the characters. I think there was something about that era of comics in particular, in the late 80s and early 90s, when creators were rock stars, and it’s fun to explore that.

STEVE: Were you someone who was going to conventions and readings during the comic writer as rock star days?

PATRICK: No, I was a bit young during that time, and didn’t get into comics until the tail end of that. So, I wound up reading basically all the big Vertigo series quickly in succession, jumping from Watchmen to Sandman to Preacher to The Invisibles and then reading the end of Transmetropolitan was it was coming out. I read a bunch of interviews and got a sense of the personas of these creators, but I didn’t go to too many cons until later, and didn’t go to big cons like San Diego or New York until the mid 2000s, when it was a bit of a different scene. But, I definitely got a sense of it via the Warren Ellis Forum and other online places like that.

STEVE: Your most well-known films are on comic giants Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis and now Neil Gaiman. What brought you to them and what made them trust you?

PATRICK: Grant was the first project we did. I had written a whole series of blogs going through The Invisibles, issue by issue, just for fun. And I got approached to turn those into a book. So, I think it was checking that out that made Grant feel like I got his work, and saw where he was coming from. I had never done a documentary before, or a film project on that scale, so I’m really happy that he took a chance and entrusted us with his story. From there, I think knowing that Grant was cool with us made it easier for Neil and Warren to trust.

With Neil in particular, it was a bit of a different experience, since we filmed him on the road and out and about a lot more. So, I think being around us so much, and being filmed so much, made him let his guard down a bit and start to make jokes to the camera and get into it more.

STEVE: You came to Grant through your love of The Invisibles. What brought you to Warren?

PATRICK: I read Transmet early on when I was getting into comics. I actually got into comics seriously a bit later than some people, when I was around 14 or 15. I started reading Claremont X-Men, then jumped into Vertigo stuff. I always liked superhero stuff, but was even more into Phillip K. Dick style weird and mind bending sci-fi stories, and found those in comics.

At that time, I also started going on the Warren Ellis Forum. So, for me, Warren’s work was inseparable from his personality. I remember how cool it was to read the forum and see the culture that existed there. Now, lots of the regulars have gone on to be huge comics personalities, like Kelly Sue, Fraction, Kieron Gillen, Antony Johnston, etc. But, back then they were the ‘inner circle’ of the forum. I wasn’t a big poster, but I loved reading it, always found Warren very funny and cool, and got into comics through what they were doing there, and picked up a lot of books as a result of tips from people there.

So, for me, getting to do the film on Warren was exciting because of the work he had done, but even more so because it was a chance to be in a room with this legendary guy who had shaped my approach to comics and interest in creativity back then.

STEVE: I’ve heard you say that your films are structured around your subject's personality. How do you determine what that is, and how do you translate that to the screen?

PATRICK: With Grant and Warren, both films are centered around contrasting the ‘persona’ or ‘legend/mythology’ that they’ve built up around themselves. So, you might think of Grant Morrison as a drug tripping fifth dimensional shaman, but who is he really? Or Warren is a crank, whiskey drinking, foul mouthed cyber guru, but how much of that is a construction? So, I tried to start by introducing the public perception of them, then proceed to dig deep and discover what lies behind that, and how they were able to build that image. I’m basically taking the standpoint of the casual fan and the knowledge that they have of the person as the jumping off point to dig in deeper.

Neil is the same to some extent, in that you start on the outside, knowing his work, maybe having been to an event or heard him read, but then we go behind that and see how everything he does for the public both enhances and hinders his desire to be a writer.

STEVE: Do you go into a film and start shooting with the assumption its going to be one thing, or do you simply go in and just see what happens?

PATRICK: I always start with an outline, that goes over the major beats of what I have in mind for the story and arc. But, it usually changes quite a bit. Usually we’ll shoot with the main subject a few times, so I’ll go off and edit what we have in between those shoots and start to get a sense of what the story of the film is going to be, then we can ask the next round of questions to clarify.

With Grant at first, we interviewed him for three days with about 15 hours of footage, so I asked about all his works, all kinds of stuff that was fascinating. And I was thinking, we have to have some Seven Soldiers in the film or we have to have some New X-Men in the film, since I loved those works and wanted to feature them. But, ultimately we realized that the story was about Grant and the way his life and work mirror each other. So, it became less about the works themselves than how they reflected Grant’s experiences at the time of writing them.

Ultimately, the movie finds itself in the process of creating it, and the more you get to know the subjects, the more you understand what the story needs to be.

That’s the other big reason that you can’t stick to an outline. We’ll usually shoot around 40 hours for a project. With Neil, it was probably closer to 60. The biggest thing I realized early on was how to distinguish between a moment that is great on its own terms, and one that serves the story. I’ll sometimes allow a comedy bit that’s not super relevant to get into the movie, just because it helps keep people engaged with the movie and gives them a little breather. But generally, I try to be pretty ruthless about only putting in what enhances the story and is entertaining or insightful on its own merits.

So, with Neil, I love Miracleman. I would have really wanted to include it, but it’s not a key part of his overall story, so it didn’t make it into the cut.

STEVE: How do you prep for your films? Do you go in and reacquaint yourself with everything the subjects have done, or are you less concerned since your films aren’t literary retrospectives, but more portraits of the artists as human beings?

PATRICK: I try to read everything they’ve done, as best I can. With all three of these subjects, they’re so prolific, it’s hard to read absolutely everything, but I don’t want to be interviewing Warren and not know what Transmetropolitan is for example. And I like all their work a lot, so if there’s something I haven’t read, it’s a good opportunity to go out there and do it.

STEVE: Is there anything that you wanted to read but couldn't get your hands on? Did you read Neil's Penthouse pieces?

PATRICK: No, I didn’t read a lot of his journalism era stuff, like the Duran Duran book or the Penthouse pieces. I’d be curious to check it out, but I don’t think the subject matter was really essential to what we were doing. I know with Grant I’ve still never read ‘New Adventures of Hitler,’ and hadn’t read Zenith at the time we did the movie, so there was stuff that was hard to find. But with Neil, most of his work is in print and accessible, so it’s easier.

STEVE: When you shoot a film what is your target audience? Are you looking for a fan of the subject, of comics? Or are you hoping to cast a wider net? Or in your heart of heart you don’t care and you’re making the film for yourself because you wanted to do a film on Neil or Grant or Warren?

PATRICK: I always want to strike a balance of creating a film that will be accessible to someone who has no idea who these people are, but still feels totally fresh to people already familiar with the subject. So, if I’m talking about one of their works, I’ll try to reference it primarily through the lens of how it reflects the person or the ideas it presents, rather than the story.

So, with the Neil doc, we decided to talk about the origins and inspirations of the works, more than the content of the works themselves, since I think that’s more relatable to a wide audience than going into nitty-gritty plot details. I love to listen to Grant or Neil talk specifically about their works, but that can make the film’s appeal a bit too narrow, since it’s not that thrilling to hear someone talk about a comic book you’ve never heard of. But, you don’t want to shortchange the works either and not give anything substantive about them. That’s the challenge.

But my hope is always to reach people who can think about the ideas we’re talking about and enjoy those, even if they’ve never heard of the people before. And with Neil in particular, we were trying to create something that people who like to write or create could watch and enjoy, even if they’re not Gaiman fans.
Neil reads

STEVE: Do you think that you had an easier time going for the general audience with Neil because he has been a best selling novelist as opposed to being primarily a comics writer?

PATRICK: To some degree, particularly with Coraline having become a movie and an American Gods TV show coming down the line, people will be more familiar with that stuff. But, in some ways it’s actually harder. The cool thing about comics is you can show stuff on screen. So, even if you don’t know what Sandman is, you can see freaky pale godlike guy and get the idea. But depicting Neverwhere or The Graveyard Book is a little trickier.

But, I do think Neil’s higher profile does make it a bit easier to target a general audience, as well as the fact that, at least when we were filming him, he was mostly out in the world doing stuff. So, we can observe him more in action rather than just through his words and anecdotes.

STEVE: How did the Neil Gaiman film come about?

PATRICK: We actually first got in touch with Neil around the time we were wrapping up the Grant doc. We were already deep into Ellis at that point, and were talking about other potential subjects to tackle, and Neil was certainly one of the most iconic and fascinating writers of all time in comics, as well as one of my personal favorites. So, we got in touch and he said he was interested, but scheduling wasn’t quite right then. It took a little bit, but finally came together in earnest when his last tour was coming up. I pitched the idea of following him on that tour, he liked it and that was where the movie really kicked off. You’ll notice that some of the interviews in this movie, like Wil Wheaton and Lenny Henry, were the same sessions as what was in the Ellis documentary.

STEVE: Did you shoot the Neil questions knowing the material was going to be used, or as something to have in case the project came together?

PATRICK: We were already planning the movie at that point, but it was very early stages, so only some of what we filmed ultimately fit in the final film. But there’s some good additional stuff that will probably turn up on the DVD.

STEVE: I know the film was been a long time in the works. I heard it was promised for last year, but I know you were still shooting last year. What prompted the delay? I believe you had said at New York Comic Con that the focus was going to be on the relationship between Neil and his fans, and while that's in the film, the film is now firmly on Neil and his race to get back to creating. Was there a change in focus? How did you pick the focus?

PATRICK: It did take a long time, for a few reasons. We had some ups and downs working with a potential distributor, that delayed things a while, but ultimately definitely worked out for the best.

It took a while to figure out the best focus for the film. As I mentioned, the original idea was to do a year in the life, but after we went on the tour, it felt like that was such an in depth and cool thing, we should try to focus more around that, since the rest of the year is going to pale in comparison. But, there was a lot of back and forth with the producing team about how much should the movie be strictly tour centric or more biographical or some hybrid of the two.

We had a pretty solid cut of the movie, and went to interview him one more time. And that’s where we talked more in depth about the writing process and his life as a writer, and once we had that material it became clear that was the other spine of the movie. The story was about the conflict between Neil was a writer and Neil enjoying the opportunities created by his writing. It’s about Neil as public figure versus Neil as private creator. And that conflict sort of knit together everything we had and was a great spine for the movie, that I think is pretty relatable whether you’re as successful as him or not: the conflict between observing life and processing it into stories, or just living it.

STEVE: When you sat down with Neil did you do an extensive interview on all his life and work or did you pick and choose?

PATRICK: We sat down with Neil several times for interviews, we started with a more extensive look at everything, but as time went on, it became clearer what the film was about, and we decided to focus on the elements that were thematically or narratively relevant. We already had so much material from shooting about 15 events on the tour that we had a great base of stories to work from and could hone in on whatever was missing.

STEVE: How long did you actually shoot with Neil? Was it the entire tour? You seem to be with him the entire time in England. Forgive me, but wasn't the stuff you shot at the Brooklyn Synagogue after the tour? And why did you go back?

PATRICK: We filmed with Neil at a couple of US stops, through all of Comic-Con and through all of the UK stops. So, it was about three weeks worth of events total. Ultimately, the UK became the core of the movie, since that’s where we spent the most time with him. That said, the American fans are generally much more enthusiastic than the UK crowd.

And we had just shot with Neil a few days before that Brooklyn event. He invited us to come down and shoot it, so we picked up some additional footage there.

STEVE: Was anything off limits?

PATRICK: Not particularly. There’s a lot of stuff we talked with him about that didn’t wind up in the film because it didn’t fit, some of which we’ll release on a DVD or other bonus format.

STEVE: As to the DVD/Blu-Ray super-special edition — what extras can we look forward to?

PATRICK: We’re figuring out the details now, but there’s a whole lot of deleted material to choose from. I’m thinking about potentially putting an entire alternate earlier cut on the DVD, which includes a lengthy section set at San Diego Comic-Con, which includes some really funny moments with Neil, Jonathan Ross and John Barrowman. There’s also lots more interview stuff with Neil, where he gives insight into the writing process, and a look at how he’s working on the new Good Omens TV series.

STEVE: Good Omens TV? I hadn't heard that was so active.

PATRICK: It was just announced that it’s back on, as a six-part TV series that Neil will be writing. I believe it’s being produced by the BBC, but there’s an outlet here in the US who will be picking it up.

STEVE: While we're talking current Neil projects: any thoughts, or did you catch anything on the Black Mirror-esque project, American Gods TV show or How to Talk to Girls at Parties film?

PATRICK: I heard a few things, but am not sure what can be said or not, so I won’t comment on that front. American Gods is shooting now though, with an eye towards a 2017 premiere.

STEVE: You just mentioned a different version of the film to me. How different was the earlier cut of the film?

PATRICK: We had a quite different cut of the film a while back. Originally, we started the movie with some US tour stuff, then went to comic con, and got to the UK about 25 minutes in. With this chronology, we started with Neil’s success with Sandman and other comics related projects, then jumped back to delve into his childhood. The cool thing about this was we got to show a lot of great material that we shot at comic con, the problem was it made it difficult to keep the narrative feeling like a progression. So, I wound up shuffling stuff around and losing a whole bunch of material and basically structuring the whole movie around the UK tour.

In the gaps of stuff that we had cut, we shot another interview with Neil, where we delved in depth into his writing process and views on creativity, and that became the dual threads of the movie: the tour and Neil’s growth as a writer. I had always struggled with finding the right balance of tour/not tour stuff, and how to make it feel like more than just a guy signing books, and I think that honing in on this conflict between Neil’s desire to write and his enjoyment of being a successful writer gave us the internal conflict that we needed to make the movie a bit more substantive.

Some sections were basically the same. The signing in the church and pieces surrounding that, as well as most of the signing parts near the end stayed basically the same, but nearly everything else shuffled around and evolved quite a bit.

STEVE: I have to ask: is there any footage of Neil's punk band playing? Or are there any audio recordings?

PATRICK: There doesn’t seem to be. We worked pretty closely with Neil’s childhood friend Geoff Notkin, who got us a lot of photos and rare stuff, but he said that there were no surviving recordings of the band. Maybe something will turn up one day, but it seems to be lost to the ages.

STEVE: Do you have any footage of Neil actually transporting the audience from England to Moscow and back again, or have you been sworn to secrecy as to how it was done?

PATRICK: Officially, this never happened, so no cameras allowed. It’s like court proceedings, only an artist’s rendering could be used to commemorate the moment.

STEVE: You use comic panels to link up or illustrate some events in Neil's life. Was that simply because film or video doesn't exist, or simply because of Neil's connection to the comics?

PATRICK: It’s a mix of both. There’s some events he’s talking about that wouldn’t have a direct photographic correlation, so we wanted to evoke the feeling of his story, and used a more subjective illustration to do that. And in other cases, it’s just about giving a visual for something that isn’t there. I don’t want to hammer the audience over the head by illustrating everything, but I think that one of the cool things about doing a documentary as opposed to just watching a video of a Neil lecture is that we can bring some of his stories to life in a dynamic way. So, particularly for some of his funnier or more evocative anecdotes, I wanted to find a way to put those visuals on the screen.

STEVE: How did you choose who to talk to in relation to the film? I ask this because there are several collaborators the artists he worked with who aren't mentioned in the film. And while we see Amanda, Neil’s current wife, we only get a sense of his children through old photographs. Was there any plan to try and get them on camera or they just didn’t figure into what you were shooting?

PATRICK: With this movie, particularly compared to the Warren and Grant, there was so much more material shot out in the field and on the fly, that going back to interviews all the time felt a bit less essential. So, rather than try to shoot every single person who had any interaction with the person ever, as we had on previous films to some degree, we focused on a few select people, and only used small portions of their interviews. In some cases, scheduling didn’t work out, and we would have loved to get others in, but it was less interview-centric as a whole.

We shot some material with Neil and his daughter at one of the tour stops, but it ultimately didn’t feel that relevant to the story we were telling. No offense to his children as people, but in the context of the film, they’re mostly relevant to how they inspired his writing. So, we hear a lot about Holly in the context of Coraline, or how having kids early in life pushed him down the path of becoming a writer. It would have been cool to hear more from them about what it’s like having Neil Gaiman as a dad, but I don’t think that was ultimately the story we were telling.

STEVE: We see Neil's mom in the film, but I was curious if you made any effort to interview her? How about Neil's sisters?

PATRICK: We were going to interview her that night in Portsmouth, but she wound up being too tired and leaving the event early, so we didn’t get the chance. I would have loved to talk to her, or Neil’s sisters, and get some insight from them, but I think we got really good insight into Neil’s childhood from Geoff Notkin and from Neil himself. Neil’s memory is pretty remarkable, and as you can tell from the movie or reading Ocean at the End of the Lane, he remembers pretty much everything about how it felt to be a kid.

STEVE: When you're doing interviews with someone as well as Neil, there are conflicting stories about him. How do you sort out what the truth is?

PATRICK: To some degree, I view each of these movies as presenting the viewpoints of different people and letting the viewer make the decision. In editing the Grant movie originally, I had some parts about what his critics or ‘haters’ disliked about the works, and ultimately I realized, let the viewer make those calls. If you think it’s improbable that he had a vision of all time and space after watching the movie and he’s lying about it or was just on drugs, you can decide that, I don’t need to tell you what to think.

So, we had Neil watch the movie and let us know if anything seemed false to him, but ultimately I think it’s up to the viewer to decide what they think of the people and their ideas.

We had one funny experience where we screened the Warren Ellis doc at a festival and a lady raised her hand during the Q&A and said she was worried about Warren and thought he should really stop drinking and smoking. So, she might be thinking that while other people are taking whiskey shots alongside Warren.

STEVE: With someone who's been in the public eye for the last 35 years, and you're doing a film such as this — are you ever afraid that doing a film will unfairly or unjustly fix, say, Neil’s history as one thing?

PATRICK: To some degree, that is the responsibility of the project. We’re creating the most sustained visual legacy of these people as individuals. Their work is one thing, but the movies immortalize the person themselves. And that’s why I always try to let the person’s own words and feelings be the guide and try to force my own stamp on it where it doesn’t belong. I don’t want to editorialize, I want to present their point of view and attitude and life story in their own words.

But, I think there’s enough books about Neil, and his tweets and blogs, as well as his actual work, that people will have plenty of history to choose from.

STEVE: I've had interactions with Grant and Neil, and to my mind, you've gotten things right... but I have to ask, would your films have been different had they not relied on being essentially the artist telling his own story? Would you have even attempted the films without the authors' considerable participation? Since your films are very much about the authors in their own words, have you ever worried that you would be accused of not being as objective as you should be?

PATRICK: Editing together a bunch of documentaries has taught me that objectivity is very, very hard to convey. Even in just presenting someone’s words, you’re choosing what words to present, and what other people say to build that narrative. I have thought about whether or not to include more counterpoints, or, in the case of Grant, have people say, it’s improbable that you would experience perception outside of time, or something like that. But, ultimately, what interests me is not trying to make a comprehensive, objective look at the life and work of any of these subjects, but instead to get their worldview across and find a way to encapsulate it in a film.

So, I wouldn’t want to do a movie that’s just about Grant, without having his participation. It’s great to get additional insight from people talking about him, but that’s supplemental to the main experience, of the person talking about his own experiences. I do obviously play a big part in shaping which sides of the person are presented in the film, but I want to try to let their interests ands passions guide that as much as possible, and convey what really drives them in the film.

STEVE: Was there anything you wanted to cover in the interviews but didn’t? Was there anything that you really wanted to have in the film but couldn't find a way to include it?

PATRICK: I love his run on Miracleman, and think it’s a pretty crazy story of how there was a 25 year struggle to get the rights and return to writing the series. There’s a lot of drama and ups and downs there, but it ultimately didn’t quite fit into this story.

STEVE: Did you consider doing a film on Miracleman?

PATRICK: I would love to! I think it’s a great story with a lot of ups and downs. If there was something like ESPN’s 30 for 30 for comics, I think it would be a great piece. But right now, it’s probably a bit too niche, and inside to do. One day maybe...
Neil shows Patrick how to ice down his hand after a long day answering silly questions

NEIL GAIMAN: DREAM DANGEROUSLY is due for release this July.

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