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In 1989, domestic comic books were dominated by superheroes. Little known British scribe Neil Gaiman had only a handful of comics under his belt, but he reiimagined The Sandman -- a silver age series in DC Comics' continuity -- in a whole new way, which would eventually become one of the greatest comics ever created. We are just days away from seeing if The Sandman can be a hit television show too.
With The Sandman dropping on Netflix next week, Gaiman, showrunner Allan Heinberg, and some of the ensemble cast spoke to SYFY WIRE about the show at San Diego Comic-Con to get fans primed for the new dark fantasy obsession.
In the Beginning
The comic features the living embodiment of Dreams, also known as Morpheus, to rule over his realm, the Dreaming, as well as his family of metaphysical entities, the Endless Ones, including Death, Destiny, Despair, Delirium, Desire, and Destruction,
The comics showcased the early art of legends such as Kelley Jones, Jill Thompson, Dave McKean, Marc Hempel, Shawn McManus, and Sam Keith, just to name just a few. Sandman became the comic to draw in non-comics readers, appealing to fans of horror, goth, and fantasy literature. It was the flagship title for the Vertigo imprint at DC Comics for many years.
“What I loved about making the comics was I was doing what nobody had ever done before,” Gaiman recollected. “I felt like I was going through a jungle with a machete. People have been making novels for hundreds and hundreds of years but I’m making a comic book that’s a specific thing. Nobody’s ever done this thing before, succeed or fail, I was out here on my own.”
Finding New Audiences
Recently, The Sandman comics have already been beautifully adapted in the form of an audio drama through Audible. “With the audio drama, it was the joy of having an infinite budget getting all the actors we could ever dream of and bringing Sandman to the partially sighted, people who don’t like or understand comics, the blind or don’t have the brains who can process comics," said Gaiman. "And people who didn’t know they’d like it but it came up on their Audible thing and now they’re driving it and discovering it’s a thing they love.”
Throughout the '90s, Warner Bros. attempted to make a film, but by 2001 it was officially stuck in development hell. This was the age when movie studios looked at the comics as inspiration, but had no desire to truly bring to life what was on the page. It had been so badly volleyed around that Gaiman was satisfied not seeing a Sandman film made, knowing how bad it could be. It took another two decades of failed attempts before realizing that television might be the better vehicle.
That brings us to the new hope in The Sandman on Netflix. In the way that Umbrella Academy found a global audience overnight, this is the adaptation fans have been clamoring for. Produced by Gaiman, David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight trilogy) and Allan Heinberg (Gilmore Girls, The O.C.), the show fields a cast that includes Tom Sturridge (Morpheus), Gwendoline Christie (Lucifer), Boyd Holbrook (Corinthian), Kirby Howell-Baptiste (Death), Jenna Coleman (Johanna Constantine), Mason Alexander Park (Desire), Vivienne Acheampong (Lucienne), Kyo Ra (Rose Walker), Stephen Fry (Gilbert), Patton Oswalt (Matthew the Raven), and Mark Hamill (Mervyn Pumkinhead).
In mapping out Season 1, Gaiman said the choice was easy as far as which Sandman comics to feature. “Mostly we thought Preludes and Nocturnes and The Doll’s House,” Gaiman said. “It was never more complicated than that. It seemed like the perfect introductory place. We borrowed tiny things from Overture in Episode 1, but those two first volumes seemed like they would perfectly fit our first season.”
Changes were inevitable, but mostly to expand the stories that Gaiman only had 24 pages to write each month. “Now we have 50 minutes an episode,” Gaiman said. “Let’s get the Rose Walker plot running, let’s get the Jed plot running, and the serial killer plot running. It’s all things that happen in The Doll’s House, we mostly stay with Rose. With this, we get to move and see more of what’s going on. It feels less like we’re changing for the sake of changing anything. It mostly feels like we’re getting extra fries.”
As far as casting goes, despite Gaiman being in New Zealand and Heinberg in London, both said they often came to the same conclusion as to which audition tapes stood out to them. Even Sturridge was mutually agreed upon early on, even though they saw countless other audition tapes. The most difficult casting was Death, and hundreds and hundreds of auditions were submitted.
“We saw supermodels, we had many famous actresses, and all sorts of people auditioning, but they couldn’t say the lines; not that they weren’t great actresses, but those lines didn’t work coming out of those people’s mouths,” Gaiman clarified. “Or you just didn’t believe that they were Tom Sturridge’s sister who could speak truth to him and he'd listen. That was the key.”
“We also had to find someone who when you meet her, and she says, you should really look both ways before crossing the street, you go, 'Oh I love you, I’m so glad you’re here at this moment with me.' Hundreds and hundreds of auditions in, we found Kirby, we talked and knew we had found our Death.”
It didn’t take long for the cast members to get comfortable with their roles. Most took to the comics, naturally, but gave credit to Heinberg and the writers room. Collectively, they all know how important these works are to fans and aim to channel and embody what Gaiman and all of the artists who worked on the series created.
“The great thing about Neil’s work is that it changes you,” Christie said. “I think the people who read it, find themselves in some way changed, whether it transports us in that magical way and takes us on phantasmagorical journey or it’s really a deep, emotional connection of why we live.”
“I just felt that as soon I read it, I knew who it was. There have been so many tragic global crises that we’ve had to absorb during our time. But I felt that the embodiment of evil was an absence of empathy and disconnection and what a lifetime of disappointment does to someone. Those are what I focused on,” Christie continued. “The writing is really strong in the script, when you pick it up and you’re captivated. They know what they’re doing. It's really honors the comic books but I think it’s a very well structured, experienced narrative. Clearly, Allan (Heinberg) is someone has deep respect and love for Sandman. I loved doing it. I hope there can be more to continue to explore this character.”
Coleman, whose Johanna Constantine is a gender swap from the famed John Constantine, said that the switch was never an issue because she knew who this character was from the first read of the complex script.
“I love the character in this roguishness, everything is about deflection, cynicism, wit and humor to deflect from the fact that inside is quite a tortured, wounded lone warrior who doesn’t want to become close to anyone because she scared of hurting anyone else around her,” Coleman explained. “What’s interesting is putting Johanna in a room with Dream, the one place he can enter is her dreams, which is her at her most vulnerable. I really enjoyed that play. In my first dealings with Tom, he was there with me in the room but it was like he was at 1000 places and I don’t know how he did that. You’re something other, and I can’t place you, but you intrigue me. I don’t know how to operate with you, so the character dynamic between the two of them was really joyous. It was like a battle of egos, but mutual kinship, and admiration but complete stubbornness to admit any kind of fondness towards the other.”
The Corinthian is one of the adversaries in Season 1. He is one of Morpheus’ creations, a rogue dream gone wild, and yet there’s a paternal relationship that exists.
“Morpheus is the stepfather I never asked for,” Holbrook said. “He’s given me life but what a s*** life he’s given me. There’s so much resentment that’s been built up between Corinthian and Morpheus that has to come to a head. He knows that I know that my fate is coming. It almost fuels the fire, in that teen rebellion way.”
“He can feel the ticking clock. So he really enjoys every minute that he’s in the waking world, this second lease on life. He is the fabrication, the creation of your worst nightmare in the dream world,” Holbrook continued. The Corinthian’s escape from the Dreaming must be corrected. He’s becoming the patron saint for serial killers in the waking world. “He’s going to suck every last drop of satisfaction out of life as he can and is (becoming) the cult leader, so having this power, support was this wealth of knowledge. Over time he’s the sharpest knife in the drawer.”
Time will tell if audiences respond to The Sandman in the way readers gravitated to the comics. Everything is on track to be the live action adaptation fans have been waiting for. “The joy honestly is making it breathe and making people cry in a good way,” Gaiman said. “Just trying to fill people’s hearts so huge that it’s going to come out of their eyes. Making them care, making these characters come alive in front of them.”
Gaiman concluded: “Also to acknowledge, that if we didn’t do it, one day somebody’s going to do it. They won’t do it in the way we’ll do it, as right as we can. We love it, we care for it and understand it. (We’re) making a TV series that’s as good as we can, for an audience who we don’t know if they’re out there or not or even if they’ll like it or not. But we know we’ll make something we love, and I’m okay with that.”
The Sandman will awaken Aug. 5 on Netflix.
Click here for SYFY WIRE’s full coverage of San Diego Comic-Con 2022.
Looking for some fantasy content to tide you over for the next two months? Click here for our list of the best fantasy films available on Peacock.