We Chat to Dave Mckean about Neil Gaiman, Jim Henson and Exploding Heads ahead of his new film Luna
Dave McKean has been illustrating books and comics for over 25 years but that’s not all he’s been up to. We have a chat ahead of his new film ‘Luna’, showing at Duke’s at Komedia on Wednesday 15th October, about film making, drawing and working with everyone from Heston Blumenthal to Jim Henson and everyone in between!
How did you get into illustration? and start ‘working’ as an illustrator? Who inspires/inspired you?
Ok have you got a few hours? Well I started about 25 years ago, I went to art school and I’d always loved illustration in books and record covers and comics. I didn’t have a specific target, or single thing I wanted to do but I preferred applying drawing to stories and ideas rather than fine arts or gallery work so I thought i’d try and head along those lines.
You’ve worked a lot with the author Neil Gaiman on many books and graphic novels. How did you first meet Neil Gaiman and how did you come to work together?
I met Neil when I was still in art school and he was working as a journalist. At the time we were both working on a magazine that never really happened! Neil was writing a couple of stories for it and I was writing and drawing two stories for it, a little gang of us used to meet in London and a lot of those people have gone on to professional careers in comics and illustration. Neil and I just got on, we were both very ambitious I think. Even though the magazine crashed and burned around us, we went off and did our own thing. We kind of headed out together, our first book in print was together and from there the dominos have fallen.
Back in the 90’s you produced the image to launch the Playstation, how did that happen?
It was just one of those commissions through an advertising agency that was releasing the Playstation in England and they needed an image. They said we need an exploding head so I just did that, an easy brief really. To be honest at the time I had no Idea was a Playstation was and i’m still really not much of a game player.
You’ve illustrated everything from album covers to graphic novels, was there any one project so far that has been a highlight?
I’ve enjoyed them all. It’s been lovely working with some really interesting people. I loved working with Heston Blumenthal on his cookbook and I loved working with John Cale and Richard Dawkins and Stephen King and all sorts of people. Some highlights for me are the books that i’ve done for myself, my own stories, because I don’t really write very often, but when I do it’s because i’ve found something that I think is really important or compelling to me, and even thought they aren’t the most successful or have the biggest print runs, those are the ones that are the most important to me.
You started making films back in 1998, what started that off? Was it something you had always wanted to do?
It was my other big love really, I’ve loved comics from childhood but I really loved films as well and even though I used to have a funny little super 8 camera and I used to make funny little films at home, the world of film seemed to be a much bigger mountain to climb. I was happy heading off doing comics on my own and just loving films as a viewer but having done illustration for while I really missed the music of movies. I play music all of the time and compose and work with music and I really missed the sound component in comics and books. I didn’t really want a ‘career’ as a film director and I didn’t want to try and pack my bag and go to Hollywood and become a commercial film Director but I did fancy trying to make the kind of film that reflected my illustrative style and the kinds of stories that I like which I didn’t really see around much. I made a couple of short films with some friends and absolutely loved the process and did pretty well with them, I won some awards and they got seen by a few people including Lisa Henson, Jim Henson’s daughter. Lisa was trying to make a fantasy film and she liked my short films which led on to us making Mirrormask [based on a Neil Gaiman book back in 2005] , which was my first feature film and it went on from there really. The more you do it the more you get to collaborate with actors and wonderful, very professional crews and people who can do 3d animation beyond my skills and that’s all fantastic. It’s always the money though that’s an issue, films are just too damn expensive! I also have to ask for permission to make a film whereas with a comic I can just wake up in the morning and think of something and do it.
So what was it like working with the Jim Henson company?
It was wonderful because Lisa Henson is lovely and although we really didn’t do any Muppet work at all we did all of the 3d animation through the place they used to have in London so we were around the Muppet people. It would have been nice to have done some Muppet work in Mirrormask. Also Jim’s spirit is in the company and although I never met Jim, I would’ve loved to. I think he must’ve been a really wonderful person.
You recently started a record label ‘Feral Records’ with Iain Ballamy the saxophonist, who also helped with the music for Luna, how did that come about? Are you a musical person?
Yes i’ve always played music, I play piano and write songs. That was one of my big life choices, at 18 I had to decide whether to pursue the music or art and I decided to pursue art in my formal education and hopefully just carry on in bands in the evenings but I just got very busy in making books and things so music became my private thing. I’ve got back to it a lot more in the last decade and I was doing some soundtracks for BBC radio plays and one of them was ‘Signal to Noise’ based on a book that I did with Neil Gaiman. I needed a particular voice, I needed a very human musical instrument sound and I thought Saxophone would be good for that so I knew of a really great player called Iain Ballamy, I got to know him and we hit it off really quickly. We noticed that the music industry was falling apart and lots of musicians who used to be able to make a good living were really struggling to find a place and a home and so I talked to Iain and said we should start a home, we should start a record label. It’s mostly for Iain’s music and bands and projects but it would be nice to expand it a bit and i’ve done some music now that i’d like to release.
Can you tell us about the inspiration behind your new film Luna?
It was based on a real event that happened to a friend of mine and it just stayed in my head. It changed quite a lot over the years and moved away from being their story specifically to a fictional story that I could explore. I wanted to explore the theme of dealing with grief, obviously everybody has to deal with at some point, hopefully not the death of a child as in Luna but we all have to deal with the death of a loved one at some point and the process is very interesting and affects different people in different ways and lasts for a different amount of time but there are common patterns and so all of those thoughts and ideas went into the film.
In Luna you mix live action with animation, what do you think this adds to the film? Did it just happen because you are an illustrator or did you specifically do it for a reason?
I made three of the characters in the story old friends from art school, one of them is still a working artist, one of them is an art teacher but they are still working in that realm. Art is in their imaginations and they use it to find a place for their thoughts and worries and ideas so the illustration and animation made it easier to show on the screen what those people were thinking. I got two of the characters to sit down, quite near the beginning of the film, to do this little exercise called an ‘exquisite corpse’ which is an old surrealist game where each person does a drawing and you swap drawings and carry on the drawing and then you swap back again. The idea is that you keep on provoking the other person and unusual trains of thought and subconscious ideas come out. That created a series of images laid out on a table and this became the source for some of the dreams, hallucinations and the more fantastical images in the film. It was a way to explain that process a little bit to the audience rather than it being entirely inside somebody’s head.
Was it always going to be a film?
At script stage it can go anywhere but I wrote the script listening to a very particular kind of music, it was an instrument called an Oud which is quite an old fashioned Middle Eastern guitar which has a very particular sound and a very particular way of playing has grown up around it, like Flamenco guitar has a very particular technique. It’s quite hard to place but it has quite a thoughtful, almost melancholic sound, it’s hard to pin down really but I just know it’s not from here. I liked that feeling that this music drifts in and out and it’s just from some other place. I got to the end of the script and I couldn’t really divorce the two, I couldn’t imagine telling the story without this atmosphere around it so I was really was keen to do it as a film if we could. If i’d got to this point now ten years on and I still hadn’t got the money to make it as a film then maybe i’d think about doing it as a book. The music was bound in with it though, the atmosphere of the music coloured the script and created the atmosphere and it made me think it’d be nice if it was set in some remote house on a cliff on a coast somewhere where you can feel the rhythm of the sea.
Did you have a hand in casting the film, how did you choose the actors? Also what was it like working with Stephanie Leonidas again almost 10 years on from when she was in Mirrormask in 2005?
Stephanie has become a friend over the years so it wasn’t a shock that she was suddenly 10 year older! I wrote the part in Luna with her in mind, my first draft of the script just had four friends from 28 years ago and the second draft bought in the idea that one of the couples had split up and now the man had a young girlfriend as an extra source of tension within the group. I found Michael Maloney because my Producer was unsure if Stephanie would be the right person so he suggested another actress and I watched a film that she was in called ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’. Michael Maloney is the star of that and it reminded how great he was and rather than looking at the actress I kept on looking at Michael so he came out of that. Dervla Kerwan was recommended by the Producer, I didn’t know her at all but I watched some of her stuff in Balleykissangel and I thought she was really good. Ben Daniels was the only one that came from our Casting Director, I didn’t really know him but when I met him I just thought he was lovely. I wanted four actors that I warmed to because I hope that by the end of the film you like them. I didn’t want the audience to take sides, to think, these are the nice people and these are the horrible people coming to visit them. I hope that you see everybody’s point of view and like them all so I wanted to like the actors personally too.
What’s after Luna and in the future for you?
To get some sleep would be nice! I’ll be doing what I usually do, I usually make books, so i’ve got lots of books either just out now or coming out just before the end of the year or the beginning of next year and more books planned for next year. Then I am planning more performances as i’ve got back into performing and i’m hoping to do some live performance at the British Library. I’ve designed the poster for the new exhibition there called ‘Gothic’ so i’m involved in that. Then i’d very much like to make another film, I made a film 2 years ago called ‘The Gospel of Us’ with Michael Sheen in it, that was with a theatre company called WildWorks and we’re starting to plan out another project for next Easter, i’m very much hoping to be able to make that into a film. I’d actually like to have Stephanie Leonidas back for it so you never know we might be making another film next year!