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Book Review: MirrorMask: The Illustrated Film Script Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean

I've never been one for reading scripts for pleasure, they just don't seem to be designed to read inside your head. All that dialogue rattling around unspoken starts to get really noisy after a while and I can't even hear myself think. Even when I was acting I would never read a script for fun. If I were going to be appearing in or auditioning for a role in a play it was another matter, but that was work and completely different from picking up a book to read for the story.

What's true for stage scripts is even more true for film scripts as they are not only filled with dialogue but usually include camera instructions and other details that detract from whatever literary pleasure might have been extracted from it. However, since I was looking to find as many and varied works of Neil Gaiman as possible, and I had enjoyed the movie so much, I obtained a copy of MirrorMask: The Illustrated Film Script which he had co-authored with Dave McKean.

It was the promise of illustrations that intrigued me, McKean's work is amazing, and the fact that whatever Mr. Gaiman writes seems to be able to transcend whichever media he is working in. There was also the promise of it containing information about the process of making the film and relationship between the two writers. Although the MirrorMaskDVD had contained some of those details, I was hoping that the book of the script would elaborate on what had been talked about earlier.
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The book starts off with an introductory/historical note from Neil Gaiman about how the movie came to be, and how he and Dave came to work on it together. Someone from the late Jim Henson's company phoned and asked if they thought they could do a fantasy movie, something like Labyrinth, but with only a tenth of the budget. (The Henson company was so obsessed with their earlier movie that they kept asking for goblins to be put into the new one – they had even pre-sold it to Sony based on the title The Goblin King I wonder how they reacted to a story of a young girl who runs away from the circus).

Mr. Gaiman also explains what they've done with the layout of the script. Since they didn't have a final edit of the film when they went to press with the book Dave and he had decided to print the entire script a la story boards and indicate if possible whenever a scene had made the final cut or not.

Due to the story boarding, and the fact that it was Dave McKean who drew the illustrations, it's like reading a black and white comic. At the beginning of each scene they indicate the location of the shot and what the actor's are supposed to be doing. What I found especially pleasant was their willingness in letting a great many "frames" pass where there is no dialogue, only illustrations.

Especially for those familiar with the film the lack of dialogue and the use of comic "box" illustrations to convey the action is not a detriment to the telling of the story. Just as in the film itself, there is no narration of events in scenes only the action as it unfolds. On occasion Mr. Gaiman will insert an explanatory note where needed, but that's just to set the stage for the action to follow or to describe something that would otherwise be confusing. They have also included scenes that a some point they had deleted from the final project. What's surprising is how little of the movie actually ended up on the cutting room floor.

It's a sign of how well these two work together that so little extraneous material made it into the final script, or how little needed to be added on after the fact. But by the time they started working on this film together they had already been collaborating for sixteen years so it should come as no surprise that their work complimented each other so well.

Something that was mentioned in the special features of the DVD of MirrorMask was that although they had worked together in the past, they had never actually been in the same room together while doing so or written together. Either Neil had supplied words and phrases for illustrations or Dave had illustrated Neil's words but they had never sat down together with the intent of creating something from scratch together.

It's testament to the respect they must have for each other that they were able to survive the process with their friendship intact as it sounds like they have creative approaches that are diametrically apposed. According to Mr. Gaiman he needs to talk an idea until he gets to a point where he is able to start writing. Then he still doesn't know exactly where it's going to end up until he's finished.

Dave McKean on the other hand has to have everything planned out before he can even begin to put words down on paper. He would compose little notes to himself about dialogue, scenes, and characters and then proceed to incorporate them into the whole that he had created. Perhaps it's because of their contrasts that they are so well suited to each other; and produce such wonderful work.

Of course no book of the movie MirrorMask would be complete without stills from the film. The visuals in this movie range from the opulent and spectacular to the stark minimalist of a black and white sketch depending on what is needed to best reflect the mood of the characters or the atmosphere of the scene.

It's a good thing too, because of the nature of their budget, miniscule, they could afford very few location shots and the majority of the film was done against a blue screen where McKean's art was pasted in after the fact. When Neil wanted to do a scene in the character Helena's classroom, he was told that it would be too expensive, but if he wanted he could have the world crumple up into a ball of paper. That made him happy.

MirrorMask: The Illustrated Film Script is not a book that you are going to pick up and read over and over again like you will one of Neil and Dave's other collaborations. It is really a companion book to the film that would not make any sense if you haven't seen the movie already. But you could also call this book a fine collection of Dave McKean reproductions and you wouldn't be too far off the mark.

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