Coraline director Henry Selick on how not to mess up Neil Gaiman

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

The upcoming stop-motion-animated movie Coraline marks a collaboration that should have happened a long time ago: director Henry Selick and writer Neil Gaiman.

Selick is the director of the wildly inventive films The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach (and, er, yeah, Monkeybone).

Gaiman is the prodigiously talented British author-screenwriter-comic-book-writer probably best known for the Sandman comic-book series. And now Selick, with Gaiman's blessing, has written, produced and directed Coraline, a 3-D film based on Gaiman's children's novella of the same name.

Set for release on Feb. 6, Coraline tracks smart and feisty pre-teen Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning), who lives a boring, ho-hum existence: She's moved to a new home, and her parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) are too distracted to pay her any attention or to stock the fridge. Given the chance, she eagerly trades that life for another: a colorful, fun-filled, treat-laden alternate-universe version of her life, parents and surroundings. But the Other World, and especially the Other Mother (Hatcher), soon reveal their true, fearsome colors, forcing Coraline to find a way back home.

SCI FI Wire recently spoke to Selick about Coraline. Following are edited excerpts of that exclusive interview.

You wrote and directed Coraline. What from the story did you feel you had to capture, what did you feel needed to go, and what did you feel compelled to add in order to make it more filmic?

Selick: I started out being overly faithful, and my first draft was like I'd stuck the book into a machine and had it turn out a screenplay. It didn't work. Neil wasn't happy. Bill Mechanic, the producer, wasn't happy. I wasn't pleased. I just had to go off by myself for quite a while to re-imagine it. I added a character, this neighbor kid Wybie. I set it in the U.S., because I wasn't as comfortable with British dialogue. And then, over the years that it took to get this thing off the ground, other elements of the story took on a life of their own.

I guess the main thing is there's a delicacy, a subtlety, that Neil can really exploit with his beautiful writing that can't all get on the screen. You can go and describe the Other Mother and say that her teeth were just a tiny bit longer, her nails a tiny bit more red, but I had to go bigger and broader at times. I also had to dial back the darkness. I didn't want to go to the darkest tones of the novel quite so soon. I wanted to go lighter and then descend into it. They're different mediums. It took a while, and I had to become pretty bold, all the while knowing that Neil's fans would come after me and kill me if I ruined the novel.

Many of Gaiman's stories involve that mirror-world concept, with alternate versions of people and places. Did you worry at all about that, insofar as Coraline's resembling Neverwhere, MirrorMask or Stardust?

Selick: Well, sure. The Wizard of Oz, the film, certainly captures that kind of thing, too, with the actors playing two characters in the world of The Wizard of Oz. I think that there's no new story, that there's no new formula fantasy stories. There's only inventiveness in the characters and the details, and that's where you go to make something old new again.

The voices are vital to making Coraline work. Take us through the casting.

Selick: Let's start with Dakota. There were a couple of years where it was thought of as a live-action film, and the first person I met—I don't know how we got her the script—was Dakota. She was only 9 years old. She'd read the script herself. I met her and her mom and her reps, but they sat at another table, and just Dakota and I talked. We talked about the script and how she wanted to play this character. Anyway, a few years went before ... we could do animation, and then I reconnected with Dakota.

Once you had Dakota as the anchor, you built the rest of the voice cast around her, right?

Selick: Yes. I needed the Mother, and from clips of other films I probably put 75 or 80 different voices around her. Teri Hatcher just happened to be one of the top three finalists, in terms of the timbre of her voice, how it fit, almost musically, against Dakota's. It was like this cello with this violin. Then I met with Teri, and she's better than people know. She's great. And then with those females in place, I filled in the rest. John Hodgman hadn't been in those PC vs. Apple commercials yet, but I'd seen him on Jon Stewart and had a good feeling about him. Who knew if he could act? But I think he acted brilliantly. You just keep building from the center out, and it's really like orchestrating music. And you hope people connect.

What was Neil Gaiman's reaction to the finished film?

Selick: I showed the film to him and his family and his friends. His two daughters both inspired the book. His wife and his friends and his doctor were all there. I think he was very touched. I think he loves the film very much. And the whole group there was very happy with it.

How much do you worry about this quirky, 3-D animated feature, which is not being released by Disney, finding an audience and making money?

Selick: I could spend all my time worrying about that. There are a lot of things competing for people's attention, and it's challenging to get anyone to go into a theater. Neil is a well-known writer, but he's not Stephen King. My name will sell a couple of tickets. We hope that we can get some folks in. We're worried that we're not going to get enough people to experience it in the best possible way, which is on the big screen. But we hope that being different—being stop-motion, being scary, being in 3-D, the unique look and design of it—is the thing that attracts people.