Beowulf: Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary interview

With Beowulf hitting cinemas next week, Sarah sat down with Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary for a quick natter about it...

8th November 2007 – Dorchester Hotel, London

You started writing this movie 10 years ago now…

Gaiman: 10 and a half! May 1997.So what made you think: hmmm, Beowulf, that’d make a good movie…

Gaiman: I can’t remember running into the story and not thinking it would make a good movie. I first ran into Beowulf in a comic called Look and Learn, and I was a 7-year-old, and I remember thinking “that looks cool.” And later I found a copy of the Penguin translation and read it and – it was monster-fighting! It was dragon-baiting! It was absolutely Tolkien-esque and amazing!

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Avary: I was taught Beowulf in high school. I was given the book and I slogged through the text, and as difficult as it was, the first thing I noticed was – guys with swords, monsters, dragons, demons… and as a guy who grew up playing Dungeons and DragonsExcalibur was one of my favourite films – I couldn’t believe that a movie at that time hadn’t been made from the material.

We had study aids, like the Peter Brook movie of Lord of the Flies, and that was being shown to us when we were studying the Golding novel, but why was there no Beowulf? I couldn’t understand it. So I kept sticking with it – you know, this was 25 years ago – and sitting and reading it but there were certain suspicious deficiencies in the text that were really bothering me. Questions about the motivations of the characters; questions about Grendel’s motivations in particular. Why does Beowulf emerge from the cave after the fight with the mother with the head of Grendel and not the head of the mother, after battling her for eight days? – which is an awful long time to be battling…

These things were plaguing me, so cut to about 10 years ago in May, I had just walked off the Sandman movie because I had had a disagreement with John Peters, the producer of the film, on whether Dream should be throwing punches and beating up the Corinthian, and I didn’t want to be the guy to ruin Sandman, I didn’t want to be vilified for the rest of my life. So I walked off the movie after working on it for a year and a half and so I’m sitting at home thinking, “what am I going to do next?” and I started going over my Beowulf notes, and then the phone rang.

Gaiman: And it was me.

As if by magic.

Avary: He was glad that I wasn’t going to ruin his baby and he asked me what I was up to and I started explaining to him these theories that I had about Beowulf, all these, what I felt were, some radical ideas that I hadn’t seen addressed in academia, in all the books that I had read on the subject, and Neil said, “well, Roger, if what you say is true, if this, this and this are true, then so too must this be true…” and he came up with a revelation that was not insignificant at all. It was something that cohesively unified the fractured two halves of the Beowulf epic in a way that made it possible to utilise a traditional three-act structure for a movie. And so with that, I jumped up and I said, “when are you available?”

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Gaiman: And I was available in May, so we went off and wrote it.

Avary: We flew down to Mexico…

Gaiman: And did two weeks of mad writing.When you originally wrote the movie, how were you envisioning it? As an animated feature, or live-action…

Gaiman: We were thinking live action, something along the lines of Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky. Very, very low budget with a lot of shit thrown everywhere.

Avary: A very dirty film. That’s one thing Gilliam does so well, he shows the medieval times as they likely were.Gaiman: And that was really the plan.

Avary: But for one reason or another, the movie never actually came together. I mean, I had only done a small movie, Killing Zoe, that cost like $1.4 million to make and we were looking – even for a small Gilliam-esque type live action film – we were looking for $20-30 million and it was just not possible, so the project eventually kind of died on the vine. The option reverted back to us at a certain point, and I just figured I would do it in the future. And I went off and did Rules of Attraction and Neil went off and wrote several books, and one day the phone rang and it was Zemeckis and Company calling and he was impressed with our script and our specific take on it and these ideas that we had come up with, and simply had to make the movie himself.

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He wanted to direct it himself, and he started to explain to us what he was going to be able to do, and how far digitally enhanced live-action, the process, had come, and how he was going to be able to make the movie in 3D, and in IMAX, and how it was going to be able to reach the entire world, and, you know, it would be seen in schools by people. And so we made the movie.

That must have given you a licence to add in all sorts of things that you couldn’t previously have done…

Avary: Sure! Because originally when I was going to direct it, it was a much more talky ending, I think. We had all sorts of dialogue.

Gaiman: Also, we had all sorts of long conversations between the dragon and Beowulf…

[Neil Gaiman’s phone rings – with the theme from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly as his ringtone – he apologises, and the PR wraps things up. Bah!]

For more on Beowulf, check out our interview with producer Steve Starkey.And there’s also our review of the film here.

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