TV viewers looking for something a bit different might want to check out Sky1’s 10-Minute Tales, a series of silent short films running over the holidays. Written and directed by some of the industry’s top talent, they feature something for everybody, from an epic snowball fight to a wartime view of the Nativity. And Christmas Night at 10pm marks the debut of Statuesque, written and directed by award-winning fantasist Neil Gaiman. Starring Bill Nighy and musician Amanda Palmer (former lead singer of the Dresden Dolls), it’s a magical love story about a middle-aged ‘statue spotter’ and a unique pair of living statues. In this exclusive conversation, Gaiman talks to SciFiNow about the challenges of writing and directing his latest project, as well as drops a hint about his possible involvement with a certain well known genre series.
How did your idea for Statuesque become one of the 10-Minute Films?
I’ve known [producer] Hilary Bevan Jones for a decade, and we’ve always wanted to work together on something, so that was really where it all began. I didn’t know what it would be, but we like each other and have various things that we’re sort of doing together very slowly in the background. But back in May, I got a phone call from Hilary saying: “I think I’m going to do a series of ten-minute-long silent films and I would love it if you would write and direct one.” I didn’t have any kind of idea for a silent film – I was completely, utterly, irrevocably blank, but then I was at the bookstore Housing Works in New York, who had asked me and Amanda Palmer to do an event together. They had been doing a series of events where they combine authors and rock stars, so I think they had one with Augusten Burroughs and Tegan of Tegan and Sara, and they’d just had one with Salman Rushdie and somebody else and then me and Amanda.
So we were in the middle of our event – she had been playing songs and I had been reading and in the middle we did a Q&A with the audience. People had handed in some questions and I had just read a short story that I had written and we were talking about some of the coincidences in knowing each other, in that Amanda had been a human statue and I had written a very creepy short story about a human statue. It’s a story that got picked up in Best Horror and stuff like that so it was definitely not heart-warming, about a human statue that essentially begins stalking somebody. We were just talking about things and there was one of those weird moments when words come out of your mouth and you’re barely even listening to the words that come out of your mouth. You’re just talking and I found myself saying: “I wonder if statues have bird watchers? People who go and look at them and people who tick them off and have statue fanciers?” And there was a certain moment when I realised that I had a movie in my head and I had this short film, so I said: “Excuse me,” and I pulled out my notebook and wrote it down, because I knew it wouldn’t necessarily be there if I didn’t. So that was really where it all began.
What I loved about the idea was this whole little triangle of a man in love with a human statue, and another human statue in love with him and I thought, it’s a silent movie, because nobody has to talk. For me, the driving thing in all of these things is, why is this a whatever-it is? I’ve occasionally had fallings-out with film producers who want to do an animated movie and I’ll say, ‘Why does it have to be animated, and why does it have to be the thing that it actually is?’ In this case, the thing for me was, why does it have to be silent, and just the idea of a story in which nobody ever actually talks to anybody, that they’re all silent suddenly made me incredibly happy.
You’ve been talking about directing again ever since you did A Short Film About John Bolton. This project was suddenly green-lit – was this a way of jumping back in the pool to see if you could swim?
Not really. There is stuff that you never hear about, so since I did the John Bolton film, I probably get offered movies to direct a couple of times a year. I’ve said no to an awful lot of things and one of the reasons why I normally say no is because I know how tight my time is and how tight my life is. And sometimes I’ve said no because there were things that I wanted to do instead and a lot of the time with film, it’s such a huge commitment and when somebody says: “Would you like to direct this low-budget film?” I’ve never wanted to direct just to direct, any more than I’ve wanted to write a novel just to write a novel. There has to be something there that goes: “Okay, this is something that’s going to be worth giving up 18 months of my life for.” When you’re writing a script like this, do you specifically see Bill Nighy playing Mr Jellaby in your head, for instance, or does a character remain more or less unformed until the actor is cast?
For Mr Jellaby, I had no idea who they were going to cast. I think I said in the script “he’s somewhere between the ages of 35 and 60,” because I didn’t want him much older than 60 and younger than 35 seemed wrong. I wanted you to feel that he was definitely living this strange, sad little bachelor existence alone. But no, I just wrote a script. I was very fortunate to get Bill Nighy. My understanding is that he was offered two of the other silent movies, one of which apparently was written with him in mind and said no to them. Hilary had just mentioned the story of Statuesque and Mr Jellaby to him and he said: “That’s the one I want to do!” He just loved the story, and I didn’t rewrite it at all once he said yes; I was just honoured to have him. I also knew that I wanted Amanda in it and was thrilled when I was told that I could cast her. But I wanted her mostly because I knew she could pull it off. Back in March, Amanda had done this wonderfully weird thing after her last rock tour. She had finished her last world tour, and instead of doing whatever it is that rock stars normally do when they finish world tours, which I suspect involves swimming pools and things like that, she went back to Lexington High School where she grew up, and worked with them on one of their school plays. She wrote the music and took a small part in it, and I got to watch it on the internet. And I was absolutely fascinated by this weird Buster Keaton-esque quality to the way that she moved and I thought I could really use that.
How did you end up using Dave McKean’s son, Liam, in the film?
I’ve known Liam since his birth and love him. He’s an amazing kid, so bright and funny and whenever I go and see him, he performs for me just as he performs for everybody. Liam has been a working actor now for three or four years; he’s been in Les Miserables and now in Oliver [in the West End], and I’ve seen him do stuff in films that Dave was doing. And one of the things that he does really well is this hip-hop dancing kind of stuff, body popping, which looks really cool when it happens with an 11-year-old boy doing it. I wanted one of my statues to be somebody who would do things like that, so I thought it would be really cool to have a boy and then just knowing that I could have Liam, I wrote that scene with him interacting with all of them and he was absolutely amazing.
Next: More on Statuedque, Death: The High Cost Of Living and possibly working on Doctor Who.