Signing your name in a book is usually not a health hazard, unless you are Neil Gaiman, one of the world’s best-known fantasy authors, who did it at least 150,000 times, plus dedications, without a break over 90 days in the U.S. and U.K. True to his rock star persona, Neil Gaiman does not merely fade into the night before retiring as a public figure
. Instead, he embarked on a whirlwind farewell book-signing tour, as poignantly documented in "Neil Gaiman: Dream Dangerously. "
Emily Haines of Metric once sang about why we shouldn't meet our heroes but clearly, she has yet to encounter Neil Gaiman. The charismatic and wildly popular creator of “The Sandman” graphic novels and writer of “Coraline” and “American Gods" is dedicated to his legions of devoted and passionate fans. With his tousled hair, all-black ensemble and sunglasses, the fantasy overlord might appear as aloof but the truth could not be further off. Gaiman is not one to turn down passionate fans nerding-out over autographs or above giving hugs and posing for photographs.
Hence it was no big surprise that the grueling schedule and physical demands of book signing tours were taking their toll and keeping him away from writing. Eventually, Gaiman decided enough was enough but not before going on his swansong book signing tour for his fans in true rock-and-roll fashion - which we are all invited to follow in a heartwarming and insightful documentary by Patrick Meaney. Somewhere in Seattle, there was a superhero massage therapist whose sagely advice probably saved Neil Gaiman's writing career from impending doom, as evident in the extreme measure the writer took to dunk his hand into an ice water bucket after every autograph sessions.
For a fan, following your favourite author on his final book tour and chronicling his career seemed like the ultimate dream gig. But Patrick Meaney is a professional with a job to do and that was to weave in the present day story of Neil on the tour with a look back at his career as a whole.
For underneath the rockstar persona and rabid cult following is a man who had inspired many with his work and approach to creativity. Meaney found that his biggest challenge was to edit down all the material and got to the core of that story. And he had to walk the tightrope in finding the right balance between the fly-on-the-wall observations and contemplative sit-down interviews with Gaiman herself, together with his dream team of fans, collaborators, and writers, including Bill Hader, Wil Wheaton, Karen Berger, Amanda Palmer, George R.R. Martin and the late Terry Pratchett.
Neil Gaiman: Dream Dangerously is available on Vimeo. We caught up with Patrick Meaney recently to find out more bout Neil Gaiman himself and the process behind the making of this documentary.
TT: Why do you want to make a documentary on Neil Gaiman and his last signing tour?
Neil has been one of my favorite writers since I got into comics, and I’ve followed him from Sandman through all the different turns his career has taken. Most writers generally stick to one medium, so it’s fascinating to watch how Neil is able to excel in comics, prose, young adult novels, movies, music and more. It’s very unique and a testament to Neil’s creativity. But, someone could have all that and still be a boring documentary subject.
For me, what makes someone a good documentary subject is when they have a mystique about them, a desire for you to know more beyond just what they write, but to dig into their personality, and I think Neil has that. He came up a time in comics when writers were rock stars, and like Grant Morrison, he has a very specific look and uses his real life to mimic and enhance the work he’s done. Neil is a guy who writes books, but thousands of people will show up to see him speak. What is it that makes people so eager to see and spend time with him? That’s the question that became fundamental to the doc, and centering on this final signing tour gave us a great narrative backbone to structure around.
TT: One of my favourite parts of the documentary was when you covered his short-lived punk career. That was so amazing and hilarious at the same time. Was following Neil Gaiman around like following a literary version of a rock star?
I think it definitely is. One of our interviewees said that Neil was like the literary equivalent of a boy band, with fans who just lose it over him, and I think that’s kind of true. He can captivate a room with his words, but follow him around comic-con and you’ll see just how excited people are to get a moment with him. And, I think that becomes the tension for him now, he could go around entertaining his fans and getting adoration from them, but what happens when that starts to take over his schedule and make it hard to actually create the works that people love?
TT: What is the process behind making: Neil Gaiman: Dream Dangerously?
Most of the other films we did were largely interview-based, but because Neil is doing so much cool stuff all the time, I came up with the idea of doing a year in the life of Neil Gaiman, where we’d get to see the projects he’s developing, events he’s doing, etc. But, when I heard about this last book tour, I felt like that would be a stronger spine for the film, and approached Neil with the idea. He liked it and we were off and running.
The intention was always to weave in the present day story of Neil on the tour with a look back at his career as a whole, with a particular focus on his writing process. So, the shooting was a mix of spending almost a month on the road with Neil, then going back and doing sit down interviews when he was in a more contemplative place to fill out the film.
TT: I like the mix of the fly-by-wall and sit down interviews in the Neil Gaiman: Dream Dangerously. What stays with me the most was the shots of him dunking his hands in an ice bucket after every signing which to me illustrates his commitment and devotion to his fans and job more than any other scenes in the documentary. You have obviously shot a lot of footage in the process, so how did you edit it down and decide on the final structure of the documentary? Was it all in your head when you start or do you decide on the story as you are shooting and editing it?
We shot between 50 and 60 hours of material, so there was a lot to choose from, and it definitely evolved in the editing. The biggest challenge was figuring out how to balance the on the fly stuff in the field, and the interviews. I never wanted it to feel like we were away from the tour for too long, but I also wanted to make the evolution of Neil’s career feel coherent, and it took a lot of cuts and different editing options to get that balance right.
TT: Have your impression of Neil Gaiman change from the beginning of making the documentary and now? What is like to follow and work with Neil Gaiman or any subject so intensely over a few months?
Before doing the film, I had read almost all of Neil’s work, so I was pretty familiar with that, but I was surprised by what I learned about his younger years. I never knew he had been in a punk band, and hearing him talk about his drive when he was starting out was fascinating. We all know Neil as someone who’s incredibly successful, so it was surprising to hear him talk about his fear of not making it and the intense focus he had on pursuing his dream.
It was also surprising to me to see just how grueling his schedule is. We usually imagine writers are solitary and spend a lot of time thinking and reflecting, so it’s hard to believe that he’s able to be so prolific as a writer while also doing so much out in the world.
TT: What is the most memorable part about making this documentary? Any funny moments?
There were a lot of fun moments along the way. Near the end of the tour, Neil made me stick my hand in the ice bucket so I could feel what it was like, and it was not pleasant. In general, the time spent in the UK was the most exciting, it was like being on a band tour, going to different places every day and getting to see Neil do his thing over that time.
TT: Has Neil Gaiman watched the documentary? What are his thoughts?
He watched it as we were in the final stages of editing and really enjoyed it. He had one note for us, which I think made the film stronger. I think he always saw it as our project, so he wasn’t very possessive about the film, but he was definitely happy with the way it all turned out.
TT: What do you hope your audience, especially Neil Gaiman fans will take away with them after watching this documentary?
I wanted to make a film that reflected Neil’s approach to creativity. Neil gave the famous “make good art” speech, where he advocates that people stop worrying and just start creating, and I think the film in some ways is a feature length version of that. I’d hope that people watch the movie and are inspired by Neil’s story to chase their own dream, and not be afraid to give it a shot.
TT: How was the reception to the documentary so far? Are you bringing it to the big screen or movie festivals in the near future?
The reaction has been great so far. I’ve seen a lot of tweets and messages from people who enjoyed the movie. We did a screening of the movie with George RR Martin at his movie theater in Santa Fe, NM which was amazing. There’re screenings coming up in Leeds, Tucson, LA and other places. And, the movie is available worldwide on Vimeo on Demand, so everyone can check it out: https://vimeo.com/
TT: What are you working on now?
Right now, I’m putting the finishing touches on my first narrative film, Trip House. It’s a trippy drama thriller inspired by the work of people like Neil and Grant Morrison and features a lot of familiar actors from the world of comics/fandom, including Buffy’s Amber Benson, Chloe Dykstra, Tiffany Smith and more. Follow me on Twitter at @patrickmeaney for all the latest.
We previously interviewed Patrick Meaney about She Makes Comics, the first documentary to bring together the most influential women of the comics world and features interviews from Ramona Fradon, Trina Robbins, Joyce Farmer, Karen Berger, Kelly Sue DeConnick, G. Willow Wilson and Gail Simone. Listen to our Tirade interview now to find out more.